What the Hel is Up with All of the Vikings?
Pop-culture has ebbs and flows of historical interest (semi-interest is likely more accurate). While it’s good that it piques our curiosity, I worry about the long term effects of how people and groups are remembered. As per usual, take all of this with an entire salt box worth of pinches, because my expertise on the matter consists of an undergrad history degree and casually cribbing the research of serious historians.
So here is my question, why do we want the vikings to be so cool?
In the past decade we have seen a rise in vikinger (because being a viking is an occupation, not a people) Danes of the Dark Ages become elevated to the usual protagonists of any work of historical fiction or fantasy they are in. The only exception might be Netflix’s (and the BBC) The Last Kingdom where there is a little more nuance to the politics that more correctly portrays the actual 9th century, but even that show falls prey to making the Danes seem “cooler” than their Saxon counterparts.
You might ask, why do you care so much, Colter? The truth is vikings have reaped the same benefit pirates, mafiosos, new world explorers, and other “honorable” baddies have received. Our imaginations have inflated the romantically adventurous aspects of them and often created villains out of their victims. The reality of history is far more complex.
What prompted this thought train is the next installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Valhalla. The reveal trailer looks sweet, but I see the same old tropes popping up. It’s just another manifestation of the modern viking myth that the Danes were way more fun loving, freer, and held more progressive beliefs regarding gender and sexuality than the stodgy Christian Saxons. Especially the lords like “sickly and boring” King Alfred of Wessex.
But, that does a great disservice to my boy Alfie. Alfred the Great was truly an interesting historical figure, and while I have some pretty big issues with great man theory historiography (A topic one of us here at The Colloquial will tackle in our how-to history series), his reforms to the Anglo-Saxon educational system, rotating standing army, and defense structures are genuinely impressive. He wasn’t actually the first king of England, but the point is Alfred is just as cool and worthy of your time as Ragnar Lothbrok, regardless of what TV producers have green-lit for a series.
Is liking vikings lame? Of course not, but it is lame to instinctively think of their opponents as less cool, or worse, villainous. Vikings were just people, and many ninth century Danes participated in a lot of activities today that would be seen as colonization, rape, theft, murder, slavery, and a whole host of other terrible things. But so did the Anglo-Saxons, and the Romans before them, and the Britons before them, and your ancestors from wherever… you see where I’m going. They also farmed, developed cities like York, Dublin, and Kiev, and traded goods from all over the known world. So let’s raise a horn of mead and a tankard of ale to the good parts of medieval Danish and British cultures, but keep in mind the bad too.