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Goodbye to the Vikings

A researcher for a film company has called me about the Vikings. The company want to make a series of drama-documentaries and the genial researcher had come across my book, Goodbye to the Vikings (2006). He owned up to not reading it before quizzing me! At once one was a little on guard. Sure enough, the telephone conversation revolved around the same ‘platter of simplistic culture history that has passed as common table fare in much popular archaeological prose’ (to quote my friend, Jack Davis).

Simplistic and common table fare

Millions of euros have been spent upon state-of-the art archaeology in Denmark and Sweden as well as the British Isles demonstrating clearly that the textual history of the Vikings is leavened with ‘fake news’ to support the Church and Christian royal families in the face of conquest by the Vikings.

Take the Anglo-Scandinavian story, for example. The 9th-century invaders of England (‘the Great Army’) were not only militarily successful, but hell-bent on creating a new administrative order based upon market towns, industrialisation and increased agrarian production. Many of their ideas were taken from the lexicon of contemporary Continental (Carolingian) political management. Needless to say, start-ups in towns like Derby, Lincoln, Stamford and York challenged the supremacy of England’s West Saxons who raised their economic game and, in addition, set about imitating the Vikings by conquering in turn East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. This brought about the unification of England and the creation of the English state.

Great archaeological projects at Hedeby (now Germany), Kaupang (Norway) and Ribe (Denmark) show beyond doubt the early 9th-century Viking drive towards urbanisation and commerce based upon North Sea and Baltic sea connections. Contemporary Italy, by contrast, whatever its popes and their painters liked to portray was mired in economic primitivism.

So why the platter of simplistic history? The story is surely why have we championed the Christian story, the triumph of the popes and the brutality of the Vikings? Sadly I can only conclude that, notwithstanding the EU’s investment in research and development, early modern stories of bad and good, pagan versus Christian, and so on resonate better with contemporary television audiences. This disturbing conclusion borders on a contempt for any new history and surely is nourishing a popular nationalism based upon anachronistic ideas in the face of globalisation. For all their faults, the Vikings were default champions of a new internationalism and its conceptual underpinning. They made a huge contribution to the making of medieval and thus modern Europe.

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