Beyond hostility and hypermasculinity: why we need to think differently about the vikings
The words we use are important. When it comes to the vikings, the ones that dominate are all along a similar theme: raider, plunderer, barbarian. These tropes are entrenched in pop culture, but they belie the depth and diversity of viking life. Dr Christian Cooijmans, an expert on viking and early medieval history, argues why we need to think differently
With Robert Eggers' highly-anticipated film The Northman set to hit cinemas this week, it's difficult to overstate how deeply the vikings and their legacy continue to resonate in the collective consciousness, making their mark on everything from fashion to furniture, and from death metal to dating simulators.
As well as being in vogue in popular culture, the academic field of viking studies has made tremendous strides over the years, as researchers continue to reveal viking groups as being marked by a great diversity in appearance, ability, attitude, and action.
But despite these eye-opening findings, one facet of how vikings are perceived continues to be resistant to change: the words we use to refer to them.
To this day, many public educators, producers, journalists, and academics still casually rely on a vocabulary that almost exclusively characterises viking groups as 'warbands', 'raiders', 'pirates', or 'marauders', directing their 'warships' to 'pillage' and 'plunder' their way through unsuspecting overseas populations.
Used deliberately or not, terms like these conjure up an all too familiar imagery of a mostly male, malevolent band of mariners, whose bearded bellowing and clanging filled the air as they set village after village aflame in a wild, wayward bloodlust.
Male, stale, and a tall tale
As much as this image of the rash, rampaging viking warrior reverberates across the public sphere, it seems to have been less of a reality of the Viking Age itself.
In fact, decades of dedicated research have demonstrated vikings to have engaged in a multifaceted and vibrant array of activities, fulfilling roles as merchants, diplomats, settlers, and political adherents.
Often travelling as entire family units – including women and children – many viking groups would have spent months or even years overseas, as they established durable, versatile encampments, which themselves seem to have doubled as regional centres of commerce and communication.
Even when taking up the sword, vikings seem to have done so in a calculated and controlled fashion – a far cry from the rampant carnage often ascribed to them
Accordingly, viking communities like these would have been heavily reliant on their social and economic environments, whose destruction or debilitation would diminish these groups' own long-term success, and ultimately leave them hungry and hamstrung. Because of this, vikings are known to have commonly chosen prudence over passion, restraint over rage, and diplomacy over demolition.
More like this
That's not to say that vikings were handing out hugs and flowers to the places they visited. Violence was certainly a part of the viking toolkit, with many a home, harbour, and church put to the torch, and their occupants and possessions carried off.
But even when taking up the sword, vikings seem to have done so in a calculated and controlled fashion – a far cry from the rampant carnage often ascribed to them. It's now well-understood that even early medieval authors themselves deliberately exaggerated these violent episodes so as to make the incoming vikings look all the more barbarous.
Viking masculinity in the modern worldview
Against this backdrop, the continued use of restrictive and typecasting terms like 'raiders' and 'plunderers' seems a mostly counterproductive exercise, one that risks reinforcing the very misconception that many scholars are now actively trying to dispel.
As an unfortunate by-product, equating these groups with their supposed hostility and hypermasculinity also furnishes present-day ethno-nationalist and white supremacist movements with the misguided notion that vikings would have somehow shared their attitudes about race, gender, and culture (they didn't).
All in all, by clinging to this vocabulary of violence, we are actively selling short a much more diverse, human history of viking endeavour, whose story is still being told by both new and established voices across the disciplines.
By clinging to this vocabulary of violence, we are actively selling short a much more diverse, human history of viking endeavour
This is not a plea for a complete paradigm shift in how we perceive and portray the viking phenomenon, nor is it an attempt to sanitise the image of the vikings. It is, however, an appeal to be candid and consistent in characterising these wide-ranging and multifaceted groups of travellers, and not to privilege their violence at the risk of reducing them to angry caricatures.
After all, the words chosen to communicate these concepts can have a profound influence on the way those same concepts are perceived across the wider public arena. As such, a suitable place to start might be to adopt a less aggressive and more inclusive nomenclature, and to refer to vikings collectively simply as 'groups' or 'hosts', rather than 'warbands' or 'raiding parties', for example.
This may be the less sensational road to travel, and some will actively resist seeing vikings in this light, perhaps even accuse this 'woke' author of somehow trying to 'cancel' their history. But to advance the field and further expand our knowledge about the viking world and its plethora of peoples, places, and perceptions, it's high time we finally left these stubborn stereotypes behind.
Dr Christian Cooijmans is an expert on viking and early medieval history, and a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of Monarchs and Hydrarchs (Routledge, 2020), which discusses the development of viking activity across the Frankish realm
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99