World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

Vikings in World History


Hornless Northmen: Teaching Vikings as People in the World History Context

Elizabeth M. Swedo


Figure 1
  Figure 1: Detail of Carving on the Oseburg Cart. August 2014. The Viking Ship Museum. Oslo, Norway. Photograph by Elizabeth M. Swedo. Used with Author Permission.  


     Terrorizing the locals on four continents (Europe, western Asia, North America, and north Africa), the Vikings acquired a savage reputation in the accounts of their victims, mostly written by inhabitants of medieval Christian Europe. Popular culture's simplistic tension between terrifying barbarians and sanitized, Disney-like villains remains a problem for the history teacher to unpack. The enduring influence of the Vikings—both in the medieval world and in the modern imagination—is far more complex and human. Not only successful raiders, Vikings were also builders of towns and astute merchants; brilliant seafarers and hardworking farmers; skilled craftsmen and savvy political players. This "rebranding" of Vikings has occurred in historical, literary, and archaeological scholarship, and this complexity can also be effectively integrated into world history curricula. For students of world history, the Vikings offer an accessible and engaging opportunity to explore and interpret a globally and temporally interconnected past. Offering a brief overview of current scholarship and available online resources and source translations, this article shares two lesson plans—designed for college students but easily adapted to high school or even junior high school classrooms—that engage students in two Norse primary sources: "Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale" (Auðunar þáttr vestfirska) and "The Sayings of the High One" (Hávamál) from the Poetic Edda. The article concludes with lesson plans, in which students will practice doing the work of historians to gain an understanding of how our knowledge of the Vikings—and the past—is compiled. History teachers will gain models for considering how the Vikings have been (mis)understood, (mis)represented, and appropriated throughout the centuries.

Introducing the Hornless Norsemen

     Terrorizing the locals on four continents (Europe, western Asia, North America, and north Africa), the Vikings acquired a savage reputation in the stories of their victims, mostly written by inhabitants of medieval Christian Europe. For 21st-century history students, Vikings might take on a mythological, comedic, or even pejorative aura: What about those horned helmets? Did they really train dragons?1 How true is the History Channel's series Vikings?2 Why do white supremacists love them?3 Popular culture's simplistic dichotomy of terrifying barbarians and sanitized, Disney-like villains remains a problem for the history teacher to unpack. The enduring influence of the Vikings—both in the pre-modern world and in the modern imagination—is far more complex and human. Since the 1960s, a "rebranding" of Vikings has occurred in medieval historical, literary, and archaeological scholarship. Now seen not only as successful raiders, Vikings are also recognized as builders of towns and astute merchants; brilliant seafarers and diligent farmers; skilled craftsmen and savvy political players. This complexity can be effectively integrated into world history curricula. For students of high school and college-level history, the Vikings offer an accessible and engaging opportunity to explore and interpret a globally and temporally interconnected past.

     Limited attention can typically be devoted to Vikings in a world history survey course. Teaching at an institution with ten-week terms, I face the concern that by including my specialty—medieval Scandinavia—I necessarily exclude or reduce coverage of other cultures or societies. However, the benefit of teaching the Vikings in the world history context is that they interacted with so many different cultures; depending on one's specific curricular approach, the Vikings can be understood and integrated in so many different ways and through many different perspectives.

     This essay considers how to embrace student enthusiasm for Vikings while providing critical tools for analyzing intercultural encounters in the pre-modern world history context. This article consists of two parts. First, this essay considers the significance of the study of the Vikings within world history. I provide a summary of current archeological and textual evidence and an overview of scholarly debates. The goal is to develop a comparative framework that enables students both to consider the authorial biases within primary sources and to begin to recognize how the different types of sources available have influenced modern interpretations. The second part of the essay suggests approaches for teaching the Vikings within a world history course. I offer context and insights for teaching the Viking Age through two of primary sources produced by the Norse themselves: "Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale" (Auðunar þáttr vestfirska) and "The Sayings of the High One" (Hávamál) in the Poetic Edda. Generally emphasizing the Vikings as humans rather than as mythic heroes or as monstrous killing machines, the primary sources illuminate, complicate, and undermine the common misconceptions that students have about Viking life while sharpening their critical thinking skills. Designed for college students but easily adapted to high school or even junior high school classrooms, in these sample lessons, students will practice "doing history" to gain an understanding of how our knowledge of the Vikings—and the past, in general—is constructed. Finally, three appendices share additional resources (Appendix C ) and lesson plans (Appendix B and Appendix A).

What was the Viking Age?

     For roughly 300 years, from the end of the eighth century to the middle of the eleventh, Scandinavians from the modern-day countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark ventured from their homelands and interacted with the peoples and polities of eastern and western Europe through constructive, profitable, and violent encounters. In this era, contemporary Christian clergy (churchmen) authored the medieval chronicles and annals, letters, treaties, and poems that created the classical view of Vikings as plundering monasteries and towns, abducting people for ransom or for sale as slaves, extorting payments from kings and churchmen, and generally performing barbaric and bloody deeds with axe and sword. Viking raiders—first targeting isolated churches and monasteries and then increasingly sailing inland along the main rivers systems to plunder villages, towns, and cities—began in western Europe with the first confirmed records of attacks in England (789), Ireland (794), Wales (852), the Low Countries (810), France (799), Spain (844), Portugal (844). By the mid-ninth century, a Viking had also sacked the Moroccan state of Nekor (859) on North African coast and sailed into the Mediterranean Sea, pillaging Nîmes and Arles southern France, and Lucca in Italy (860). In the same year, Constantinople was menaced by a fleet from the north sailing down the Dniepr River. By the mid-ninth century, armies of Scandinavians roamed the river systems and countrysides of the Netherlands, Belgium, England, and France, laying siege to cities, extracting ransoms from the captured elite and extorting payments of tribute from Anglo-Saxon and Frankish kings, defeating regional lords and kings, and settling in the conquered territories.

     However, the activities of the Viking Age were considerably more varied than the marauding just outlined. Danish archaeologist and historian Else Roesdahl described the Viking activities as "almost kaleidoscopic," noting that the same individuals often appear in different roles in different places.4 Some among the current generation of archaeologists point to an increase in material culture and mercantile exchange among Scandinavians—rather than western raids—as the requisite beginning of the Viking period.5 Many newly formed proto-urban emporia emerged in the English Channel, the Baltic and North Seas as early as the seventh century. Emporia, often occupied only part of the year, served as local craft manufacturing centers and seasonal markets as well as entrepots for long-distance trade. Throughout the eighth and ninth centuries, Scandinavian traders participated with merchants of other ethnicities in long-distance trade, at flourishing sites, including Kaupang in Norway, Birka in Sweden, Hedeby in southern Denmark, Dorestad in the Netherlands, Quentovic in France, Hamwic in England, Ribe in Denmark, Grobiņa in Latvia, Wiskiautan and Staraja Ladoga in Russia.6 In the ninth and tenth centuries, Scandinavians were employed as mercenaries and sometimes granted land by kings and emperors at the mouths of rivers in exchange for protecting the region from incursions of other Vikings. In the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, they were utilized as imperial troops: the Varangian guard. By the late ninth century, these intrepid Scandinavians, venturing far out of sight of land, had colonized islands in the North Atlantic: the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands, and Iceland. And by the end of the first millennium CE, they had established a colony in North America in Greenland that would survive into the fifteenth century, with a less successful encampment at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada.7

     By the end of the Viking Age, Scandinavians had settled abroad in the regions that they had once terrorized: in England, Ireland, the Orkney Islands, France, the Netherlands, and parts of Russia and Ukraine. They ruled new territories such as Normandy in France and the Danelaw in central and northern England; constructed new urban sites across Ireland, including Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick; and integrated themselves into the new Slavic kingdom coalescing at Kiev. Adapting to local cultural customs, adopting local languages, participating in the local economies and international trade, and inserting themselves into the local military and political milieu, these Scandinavians now contributed—to varying degrees—to the development of the societies and states that they had once harassed.8 By the end of the Viking Age, Scandinavians who ventured abroad in eastern and western Europe had largely assimilated into the local societies, while those who had settled the North Atlantic islands preserved their Scandinavian culture for centuries, some such as the Faroes and Iceland, to the present-day.

How Do We Know about the Viking Age?

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Viking-Age Coin Hoard. August 2014. The National Museum of Denmark. Copenhagen, Denmark. Photograph by Elizabeth M. Swedo. Used with Author Permission.  

Primary Sources

     The primary sources for the Viking Age highlight the tremendous linguistic, geographic, and historical diversity of the peoples who interacted with the Viking diaspora. Students can engage in a variety of genres, including sagas, poetry, law codes, carved images, runestones, treaties, hagiographies (primarily saints' lives), chronicles, place-name and personal name evidence, archaeological evidence, numismatic analysis (study of coins), as well as evidence from studies of climate, geology, botany, and zoology (See Appendix C). Ultimately, piecing together a narrative of the Viking World requires evidence from a spectrum of disciplines outside of history. Indeed, scientific and archaeological studies rather than historical texts have yielded the most recent discoveries about the Viking Age: in 2015 satellite-imaging of Point Rosee initially stirred both scholarly and public excitement over the possibility of a new Norse site in Newfoundland, Canada,9 and in 2016, research on the mitochondrial DNA of cats at a Norse site in northern Germany (ca. 8th–11th centuries) provided preliminary evidence that Vikings travelled with cats aboard their ships.10 Teaching the Viking Age, therefore, has the potential to engage students whose primary interests and talents lay outside the field of history.

     The types of primary sources available also present a fundamental challenge of studying the Vikings. Apart from the often pithy and sometimes formidably obscure runic inscriptions, almost all Norse texts were written after the Viking Age.11 Among Arabic texts, Ibn Fadlan's Risāla, discovered in 1921, preserves the most detailed account of the appearance, customs, and religious rituals of the Rus, whom he encountered in AH 310/AD 922 at a trade settlement on the Bulghar-controlled Volga River.12 Numerous other Arabic texts from Iberia to the Caspian Sea that attest to Viking raiding and trading activities—although well-known to scholars—lack of English translations, making them inaccessible to most students.13 First recorded in the eighteenth-century by Danish missionaries, Inuit oral histories also preserve encounters between Inuit and the Norse, whom they called kavdlunait ("foreigners").14 Available in a dated English translation, these stories present a complicated genre but nevertheless suggest direct intercultural contact, exchange, and violence occurred between the Inuit and the Norse. For accounts of the eighth- through tenth-century Viking raids that define the Age, students and scholars must predominantly rely on texts written by Christian victims and survivors in the British Isles and on the European continent.

The Medieval Christian Press

     Most clerical and monastic authors supplied disappointingly few specific details about their foes. For instance, the famous description in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of the first Viking attack in 793 is more attentive to the apocalyptic omens than to the Northmen themselves:

In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria, and wretchedly terrified the people.  There were excessive whirlwinds, lightning storms, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky.  These signs were followed by great famine, and shortly after in the same year, on January 8th, the ravaging heathen men destroyed God's Church at Lindisfarne through brutal robbery and slaughter…15

Since monks and clerics across Europe essentially monopolized medieval literary culture, such sentiments were not confined to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.16 In his surviving letter to King Athelred of Northumbria, Alcuin of York (d. 804), one of the leadings scholars at Charlemagne's court at Aachen, emphasized that the Vikings seemingly appeared out of nowhere, declaring that "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made."17 Alcuin 's words convey his entire generation's sense of shock. Fifty years later the terror had not diminished. The Frankish scribes who composed The Annals of St-Bertin express dismay over an attack on the city of Rouen in Normandy: in 841 the Northmen "plundered the town with pillage, fire, and sword or took captive the monks and the rest of the population and laid waste all the monasteries and other places along the banks of the Seine, or else took large payments and left them thoroughly terrified."18 Medieval chronicles, structured as annual entries, convey year after year of compounding horror in response to Viking atrocities. (See Appendix C for a list of English translations of many of these texts).

     Although they seem to present "just the facts," medieval annals and chronicles were commissioned and produced for different purposes, patrons, and readers.19 The unpredictable, unrelenting, and seemingly unwarranted attacks were viewed through the lens of medieval Christianity.20 Unsurprisingly, the hapless victims of raids, abductions, and sieges seldom inquired after the attackers. However, they recognized their foes as religious outsiders, describing them as "pagans," "heathens," "wicked men," and "servants of the devil."21 Most clerical and monastic authors interpreted the Vikings as an instrument of divine retribution for Christians' sins and as a call to defend God's Church and to mend their ways.22 Once they become aware of the prejudice within these sources, many students react negatively to these texts, associating the very term "bias" with "untrustworthy" or "untrue." Teaching with these sources, my goal is for students to recognize that sources with such blatant biases do not have to be shunned or eliminated. Rather, a bias (once identified) serves as an invaluable source of potential information about the worldviews of the chroniclers, their patrons, and their audiences.23

Archaeological Evidence

     Despite their biases, the chronicles convey what the archaeological records confirm: Vikings targeted portable wealth in the forms of both precious metals (found in ecclesiastical objects) and of human captives, subsequently sold as slaves. Numerous hoards and excavations across Scandinavia uncover looted fragments of ecclesiastical artwork and liturgical objects, while iron fetters, collars, and chains found at various Viking sites from Birka to Dublin, have been used as evidence of otherwise difficult to trace slave trafficking. Attesting to the importance of trade, weights and measures, as well as folding scales and balances have been found at Viking sites from Ellesmere Island, Canada, to Staraja Ladoga, Russia.24 In the last quarter of the twentieth century, excavations of new settlements and graves, advancing scientific techniques of analysis and dating, as well as new approaches to interpretation of material culture revealed mercantile rather than barbaric Vikings.25

     In particular, archaeological analysis has completely revised modern understanding of Vikings ships: the "prerequisite for the Viking Age."26 Few ships survive wholly intact; the 2015–2017 travelling "The Vikings" museum exhibition in the US displays an outline of excavated rivets, forming the shape of a hull but no timber has survived.27 Original conclusions about Vikings ships rested on famous burial ships—including the Gokstad (found in 1879) and the Oseberg (found in 1903), which are preserved and housed at the Viking Ship Museum (Vikingskipshuset) in Oslo, Norway.28 In 1962, the five Skuldelev ships, scuttled in Roskilde harbour in the eleventh century, were excavated; in 1997, nine additional ships were excavated, including Roskilde 6, the largest warship found to date. Preservation, analysis, and intensive reconstructive archaeology in the shipyard at Denmark's Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (Roskilde Vikingeskibs Museet) have demonstrated the diverse functions and purposes of Viking ships.29 The varied utility, sea-worthiness, and especially cargo-capacity of the ships confirm that not all ships were designed for raiding, bolstering the interpretation of Vikings as merchants, albeit aggressive ones. (See list of online Museum Exhibits in Appendix C).

Figure 3
  Figure 3: Reconstructed Viking Age ships in the harbor of the Viking Ship Musuem in Roskilde. August 2014. Roskilde, Denmark. Photograph by Elizabeth M. Swedo. Used with author permission.  

     Scholars and students of history repeatedly confront the reality that depending on the genre or language, the sources for the Viking Age may present radically different impressions of Viking activities.30 Sometimes the differences between the sources are so great that one wonders if they actually describe the same Vikings.31 Indeed, when discussing the archaeological excavations (1976–1981) at Viking York (Jorvík), students boggle at the discovery of several musical instruments (including panpipes and whistles) and the dozens of bone ice skates but also marvel at the minimal evidence of weaponry in this Viking occupied city.32 These findings have not only disrupted some of the persistent stereotypes about Vikings but also expand our understanding of the diverse interactions—trading, raiding, colonizing, networking, integrating, conquering, losing—between the Vikings and a wide array of societies.

Historiography: Raiders or Traders?

     In the final essay before his death, Magnús Fjalldal observed that for the past 400 years, scholars have fought the final battle of the Viking Age over the question of the Vikings' essential identity: "mindless barbarians or reasonably civilized people?"33 Early twentieth-century medievalists promoted interpretations of Vikings that scarcely differed from the medieval Christian chroniclers on whom they relied. Renowned founder of the Annales School, Marc Bloch acknowledged that it was "monks busy in their scriptoria recording the acts of pillage" who supplied modern historians with contemporary accounts. He nevertheless accepted these records at face-value, describing the "warriors of the North" as "men of strong and brutal sensual appetites, with a taste for bloodshed and destruction, which manifested itself at times in great outbreaks partaking of madness, when violence no longer knew any restraint."34 Other early interpretations suggested that the raids on monasteries might actually present a pagan political agenda—an aggressive reaction to Christian missionary efforts. As a result of these chroniclers' various agendas, the Vikings, "as foils for English virtue, or pointers to French failings…have continued to be regarded as fundamentally other—more violent, more barbaric, more 'primitive'—than those with whom they came into contact on both sides of the Channel."35

     In the mid-to-late twentieth century, the rehabilitation of the Viking image began largely with renewed critique of the medieval texts just discussed. Historian Peter Sawyer notably called out the prejudices, omissions, and exaggerations embedded in these primary sources. In the following decades, Sawyer established the view that

the Vikings undoubtedly destroyed much and caused widespread disruption, but there is no reason to believe that they were any more brutal and ruthless than the peoples of Western Europe.  The Franks, the English, Irish, and others behaved in much the same way against their neighbors or in their internal conflicts.36

Only two important differences distinguished the Vikings from their victims:  they came by sea and they were pagans.37 The large body of new archaeological evidence indelibly altered our modern image of the Vikings. By the mid-1980s, the revisionist pendulum had swung fully from "from carnage to culture."38

     The rehabilitated Vikings, however, have been criticized for resembling "businessmen just a shade on the assertive side."39 J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, venerable scholar of the early Middle Ages, offered an early challenge to this trend: "Should we view the Vikings as little more than groups of long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the natives?"40 Simon Keynes protested that

if there was once a tendency to romanticize the exploits of the Vikings overseas, it is now fashionable to regard them as the maligned and misunderstood victims of a Christian press, or as creatures of their time whose behavior was merely an extension of the normal Dark Age activities, or indeed as cultivated men with elevated thoughts and honorable intensions.41

Expert on the Kievan Rus, Thomas S. Noonan acknowledged that it would be inaccurate to depict them as bourgeois merchants and artisans—law-abiding, peaceable, and self-enlightened.42

     For the current generation of scholars, the historical truth lies somewhere between these extremes. Most recently, Anders Winroth emphasized that

[t]he Vikings were violent, even ferociously so. They hunted slaves, killed, maimed, and plundered over much of Europe, including in Scandinavia itself, and it would serve no reasonable purpose to deny their thirst for blood. We need, however, to understand the context of and the reasons for what they did. They were not simple mindless killing machines.43

Ultimately, we have arrived at picture of the Vikings that accommodates the archaeological evidence and tempers the dramatic interpretations of the medieval chroniclers. However, scholars are not the only producers of history: in popular culture, the "barbaric" Viking image continues to pervade everything from cartoons to documentaries.

Did the Vikings Have Horned Helmets?


     Medieval images of Viking warriors—found both in the Scandinavian homelands and abroad in the areas they raided and traded—depict them wearing rounded or slightly peaked helmets. But archaeologists have only discovered a few fragments of metal helmets. The sole, complete helmet found in Scandinavia and dated to the Viking Age is a tenth-century artifact, discovered in 1943 on Gjermundbu farm in Norway.44 It features a rounded iron cap and eye and nose guards—and no horns whatsoever.

     The enduring stereotype of Viking horned helmets actually dates to the nineteenth century. As new, modern nation-states came into being, surging nationalism and Romantic sentiment stirred artists like Johan August Malmström and Mårten Eskil Winge to depict the distant Nordic past.45 They looked to recent Bronze and Iron Age discoveries for inspiration, including the depictions of two horned men on the shorter Gallehus horn (found in Møgeltønder, Denmark, in 1734, and dating to ca. 300–400 CE); the twin horn-helmeted Grevensvænge figurines (found in Zealand, ca. 1799 and dating ca. 800–900 BCE); and a horned dancer on a Torslunda helmet-plate patrix (found in Öland, Sweden, in 1870, and dating to ca. 600 CE).46 (See Museum Exhibits in Appendix C). Sealing their popularity, Carl Emil Doepler also borrowed these prehistoric images in his costume designs for Richard Wagner's four-part opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which opened in 1876, and included horned and winged helmets for the Norse-myth inspired gods, heroes, and Valkyries.47 Tracing how this iconographic image was first created reminds students that each generation interprets and re-interprets the past, utilizing it for its own purposes.48

From Icon to Northmen: Teaching Vikings as People

     In this section, I share teaching approaches for considering how the Vikings have been (mis)understood, (mis)represented, and appropriated throughout the centuries. By proposing to teach Vikings "as people," I do not intend to whitewash the very real terror and destruction that Viking raiders and invaders rained down on their opponents, captives, and victims. For me, the goal of teaching this content is to form a composite picture of Vikings, complicating a topic with which many students already have some familiarity.

     Before they step foot in my classroom, most students have latched onto the tenacious stereotypes about Vikings, which have to be repeatedly unlearned. For over a century, the Viking image has been appropriated and repurposed for a bewildering assortment of mascots, brand names, and political parties and special interest groups.49 Rather than ignoring these popular constructions, we explore them at the beginning of each class period. For instance, if we are discussing Norse nautical technology, these objects might include current advertisements for the Viking River Cruises or NASA's Viking 1 and 2, which were the first US spacecrafts to land on Mars in 1976. Students try to identify who created the icon or product, when and where it was created, for what purpose, and for what audience or consumer demographic; questions that will easily transfer to critical assessment of primary sources. We try to unpack the associations between these icons and products and the presumed Viking characteristics.

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Viking 1 launched aboard a Titan IIIE rocket August 20, 1975 and arrived at Mars on June 19, 1976. The first month was spent in orbit around the martian planet and on July 20, 1976, Viking Lander 1 separated from the Orbiter and touched down at Chryse Planitia. Photograph by NASA. 1975. Public Domain.  

     Emphasizing the Vikings as humans rather than as mythic heroes or as monstrous killing machines requires sifting through competing and sometimes contradictory sources and perspectives. Because they tend to provoke student curiosity, the Vikings also provide an ideal subject for teaching a variety of concepts relating to historical method and critical analysis, particularly the construction, genre, and biases of primary sources.

Lesson One: Exploring the Boundaries of the Viking World

Vikings and Intercultural Contact in the Pre-Modern World

     Given their origins on the periphery of northern Europe, the Vikings interacted with a surprising variety of cultures: from Muslims in Iberia (Spain, Portugal), and in western Asia perhaps as far south as Baghdad; to Jewish Khazars around the mid-Volga River in Russia; to polytheists in the Baltic, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia (including the Finno-Ugric Sami, the Turkic Pechenegs, and Slavs, among others); to Christians in Western and Eastern Europe, and finally, to encounters with North American Paleo-Dorset, Thule Inuit, Newfoundland Beothuk and Labrador Innu peoples.50 Some of this contact was indirect—for instance, the 10 cm bronze Buddha statue created in the sixth century in northwest Pakistan/India and found in the ninth-century excavation layers in Helgö, Sweden, in 1954 should not lead us to assume the existence of practicing Buddhists in Sweden or even direct contact with India.51 Some of the evidence for intercultural contact is tantalizingly slim, such as the passing reference in the Fragment of Irish Annals to North Africans who found themselves sold by Vikings in Irish slave markets, described in Old Irish as fir ghorma ("blue men") and in Old Norse as blámenn (literally "blue-black" men).52

     Investigating all such contacts in-depth is not possible in a in a world history survey, but possibilities abound for ways to incorporate them into a world history curriculum. The first lesson offered here concentrates on voyages described in "Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale" (Auðunar þáttr vestfirska), as a way to illuminate the cultural and geographic boundaries of the Viking World.53 As a thirteenth-century short saga (þáttr) about an eleventh-century Icelander, this primary source requires student to practice critical source analysis, particularly questions of genre and authorial bias.

Using Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale

     Prior to class, students read "Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale" (eleven pages) and ensure a basic comprehension of the primary source by jotting down their answers to familiar and standard questions for primary source analysis (see Appendix A). Students are encouraged to make note of details and concepts that need clarification.

     In this tale, a poor farmer named Auðunn (pronounced 'Oy-thoon in modern Icelandic) from the Westfjords of Iceland journeys to Greenland and captures a baby polar bear. Auðunn, desiring to present the bear as a gift to the king of Denmark, Sveinn Úlfsson (r. 1047–76), must first negotiate passage from the Danish king's rival, King Harald "Hardrada" of Norway (r. 1047–66). Earning the esteem of both kings for his generosity, humility, and persistence, Auðunn, a Christian, subsequently completes a pilgrimage to Rome before returning to his waiting mother and humble farm, laden with royal favor and gifts.

     The voyages in this tale familiarize students with the geographic boundaries of the Viking world. In class, students take turns tracing on a map each of the travel routes taken by Auðunn, on his various journeys to destinations including Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Denmark, and continental Europe.54 Expanding on this map exercise, we point out the homelands of the Vikings (areas of modern Denmark, Sweden, and Norway); locate their trading, settling, and military activities in the eastern Baltic, Russia, the Byzantine Empire, and around the Caspian Sea; follow the routes described in medieval chronicles of their raids in Iberia, the Mediterranean, and North Africa; locate the principal regions of trading, raiding, conquest, and settlement in England, Ireland, the Low Countries and France; and identify the extent of North Atlantic westward expansion in their colonies and expeditions in the Faroes, Orkneys, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and the Canadian Artic. Gaining an appreciation for the distances travelled by Norse enables students to recognize the seafaring achievements of the Vikings, despite their lack of modern technologies. One thing that should become apparent in any unit on the Vikings is that they were a truly international phenomenon.

Figure 5
  Figure 5: Map of the North Atlantic: Greenland, Iceland, and Western Europe. Created by Barbara L. Swedo. Used with Permission.  

     Typically, students also start to question what the possible motivations for such long and difficult voyages could have been.55 To gain a sense of scale, we compare the areas for the modern-day Scandinavian countries and US states, and I also take time to offer a sense of the local topography of the various regions. We contrast the rapid-filled rivers systems of eastern Russia and the Ukraine, which required extensive portages, and the broad estuaries and navigable inland waterways of France and the Low Countries. We also view and compare aerial images of the relatively flat, lake-filled terrain of southern Sweden and the mountainous, fjord-lined coast of Norway. In group discussion, students are challenged to consider how environmental pressures and resources encouraged varying strategies of raiding, trading, and settling in these different regions within the Viking Age (see Appendix C).

     As a representative member of Norse society, Auðunn also tends to upend some of students' assumptions about Vikings themselves. The tale portrays the common occupations and activities of Vikings (farmers and merchants) rather than their more famous raiding activities. Instead of a vicious pirate, Auðunn is a poor farmer, who makes provisions for his aged and widowed mother before departing for several years of trading expeditions. The travel expenses of the journey to present the king of Denmark with a polar bear leaves him begging and starving, although Auðunn eventually curries royal favor from both a Danish king and a Norwegian king. This shortened saga is set in the period near the end of the Viking Age, in the reign of Sveinn II of Denmark and Harald III of Norway (1047–1066), during a period when royal kingdoms were still coalescing and centralizing in Scandinavia. Competition for regional supremacy spilled across the modern boundaries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the islands of the North Atlantic, North and Baltic Seas. The tale illustrates the various networking behaviors central to the political and social interactions of the Viking Age, including importance of gift-exchange, hospitality, and mutual obligations between leaders and their followers and retainers in Norse culture.56 Auðunn's Christian faith and his pilgrimage to Rome reflect the Scandinavian kingdoms' gradual integration into Western European culture. It is worth pointing out to students that the conversion to Christianity did not prevent Vikings from pillaging and raiding.57 The tale includes themes that both affirm and disrupt what students think they know about the Viking Age.

     Finally, "Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale" advances students' understanding of the primary sources of the Viking Age and enables us to unfold students' expectations of saga literature. A þáttr (pronounced ʹthow-tur) consists of a short tale (literally "thread") written in the very conversational and straightforward style of typical saga prose. When asked, many students define the word saga in modern English as a very long, sometimes heavily-detailed story or a legendary epic, replete with heroes and tremendous drama. In the Old Norse and some of the modern Scandinavian languages, the word saga simply comes from the verb segja "to say or to tell." The förnaldar sögur (Sagas of Antiquity or Legendary Sagas) indeed preserve—and reinterpret—myths about gods and legendary heroes, but this subgenre presents just one of many genres of sagas. The other major categories include sagas about historic kings (konungasögur), chivalric sagas that borrowed from continental romances (riddarasögur), saints' sagas (heilagra manna sögur), sagas about historic and contemporary bishops (biskupa sögur), ancestral and genealogical sagas about the deeds and feuds of Icelandic settlers (Íslendinga sögur), and contemporary sagas preserving the events of thirteenth-century Icelandic society (samtíðarsögur or samtímasögur). In their own way, the Icelandic sagas present as complicated a bias as the Christian chronicles. (See Appendix C for lists of these sagas in English translation).

     Written down after the Viking Age (ca. 1275 CE), "Auðunn's Tale" must ultimately be treated as a work of historical fiction, rather than narrative history or recorded oral history. Although rooted in strong oral traditions, the sagas are no longer recognized by scholars as unaltered oral history. Between the late eleventh and thirteen centuries, Christian Icelanders preserved, modified, and invented these stories about the historic events and notable families of the Viking Age.58 But the sagas have increasingly been used to understand the social structures, political dynamics, cultural mentalities, and historical memories of thirteenth-century Icelanders.59 "Auðunn's Tale" therefore serves to define geographical boundaries, to challenge assumptions about "Vikings," and to understand the complexities and inherent limitations of Nordic primary source materials.

Lesson Two: Monsters or Men?

Who were the Vikings?

     David N. Dumville asserts that "it cannot be said too often that Vikings were not respecters of boundaries, whether mental or geographical or political, and certainly not of modern categories."60 In modern usage, the term Viking continues to be associated with the brutal men from Scandinavia who engaged in piracy and raids. Confusingly, Viking has also become the ubiquitous shorthand for referring to all medieval Scandinavians.61

What's in a Name?

     What does the word "Viking" mean? No consensus on the origins and meaning (etymology) of the word Viking exists.62 The actual word viking or wicing occurs rarely in the corpus of medieval texts. Instead, when students engage with medieval sources produced by authors from different cultures, in different locations, at different periods, they will encounter a dizzying array of different names for the Vikings. Frankish chroniclers referred to them interchangeably in Latin terms as pirates (pirati), Northmen (Nordmanni), and Danish (Dani), without regard for their actual ethnic identity. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the terms include the heathens (hæðene), the Northmen (Nordmanni and Norðmann), Danes (Old English Dene and Latin Dani), and the army or force (here). In the Slavic, Greek, and Arabic accounts from the East, they were known as Varangians and also called Rhos, Rus' or Rūs by Byzantines, Slavs, and Arabs, respectively.63 Arabic texts sometimes refer to Vikings as majus ("fire-worshippers"), a term previously used by the Umayyads for the Zoroastrians of Persia.64

     Whatever the medieval etymology, the "viking" never designated an ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages; at best, it described a part-time occupation.65 Viking raids were undertaken seasonally by Scandinavians, whose ranks included warriors but also merchants, farmers, craftsmen, poets, and explorers. Furthermore, medieval Scandinavia was far more permeable than its modern geo-political borders. Opportunity led inhabitants of one region to pursue their fortunes in another—there were Danes in Norway and Sweden, Norwegians in Sweden and Denmark, Swedes in Norway and Denmark—ruling, serving, fighting, buying and selling, toiling, marrying and having children. Who, then, were the Vikings?

Using "The Sayings of the High One" (Hávamál)

     To discuss the social identities and cultural boundaries of the Viking world, I use Hávamál or "The Sayings of the High One" (ca. 1270), found in the larger work known as the Poetic Edda.66 Looking at Hávamál acquaints students with Vikings' own cultural values, encapsulated in pithy maxims (see Appendix B).

     Hávamál (pronounced 'How-va-mowl in modern Icelandic) consists of 164 strophes (verses) of varying meter (rhythm). It presents a collection of wisdom of all types—from common sense, to socially acceptable behaviors, to runic spells, to mystic and arcane truths.67 I assign students to read all or a portion of the first ninety-five strophes before class. Before analyzing the source, students should recognize that Hávamál most likely combines several different medieval poems: it represents a thirteenth-century editor's compilation of didactic poetry rather than a single author's coherent composition.68 Each of the first ninety-five strophes are easily read as independent adages, but the remaining strophes of the poem then shift into obscure narrative, prophecy, and myth, with an increasing number of allusions.

     In class, I ask each student to select their favorite verse. They are also asked to pick one verse and identify or create their own a modern equivalent. To begin this exercise, I point out that some of these sayings have uncanny similarity to the humorous and clever truisms found in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack (first published in 1732):


•      35. "A man must go, he must not remain a guest always in the same place; the loved man is loathed if he sits too long in someone else's hall."

Poor Richard's Almanack70

•      "Fish and visitors smell after three days."

•      63. "Asking questions and answering, this every wise man should do, he who wants to be reputed intelligent; one may know, a second should not, the whole world knows if three know."

•      "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

Past students have suggested some of the following updated adages:


•      58. "He should get up early, the man who means to take another's life or property; the slumbering wolf does not get the ham, nor a sleeping man victory."

Student Response

•      "The early bird gets the worm."

•      27. "The foolish man in company does best if he stays silent; no one will know that he knows nothing, unless he talks too much; but the man who knows nothing does not know when he is talking too much."

•      "Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue." (Proverbs 17:28) or its modernized and variously attributed equivalent: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt."

•      24. "The foolish man thinks that everyone is his friend who laughs with him; he doesn't notice even if they say cruel things about him when he sits among the wise."

•      "We're not laughing with you; we're laughing at you."

•      "Know who your real friends are."

•      23. "The foolish man lies awake all night and worries about things; he's tired when the morning comes and everything's just as bad as it was."

•      "Why lie awake in bed and worry?"

•      "Worrying will do you no good."

With a clearer understanding of the basic content, students then work in small groups to connect these adages to social context through specific discussion questions (See Appendix B).

     Hávamál's accessible verses capture utterly human—if not universal—values. Furthermore, its adages capture many of the ideas students had absorbed about Vikings before entering the college classroom.

  • 38. "From his weapons on the open road, no man should step one pace away; you don't know for certain when you're out on the road when you might have need of your spear."

  • 76. "Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self must also die; but glory never dies for the man who is able to achieve it."

  • 41. "With weapons and gifts friends should gladden one another, that is most obvious; mutual givers and receivers are friends for longest, if the friendship is going to work well at all."

  • 16. "The foolish man thinks he will live forever, if he keeps away from fighting; but old age won't grant him a truce even if the spears do."

These axioms complement the ethos of Viking warriors so often depicted in film, video games, and television.

     Other stanzas, however, complicate these stereotypes; they instead advocate sensible, moderate, and sober behavior from the supposedly barbaric and drunken Vikings. "A man shouldn't hold onto the cup but drink mead in moderation, it's necessary to speak or be silent; no man will blame you for impoliteness if you go to bed early" (19). These verses warn of the dangers of loose speech, of reckless inebriation, of incautious networking. Students also locate less tangible rewards for travel than plunder: gaining experience, social judgement, and wisdom: "Only a man who travels widely and has journeyed a great deal knows what sort mind each man has in his control; he who's sharp in his wits" (18). Other verses place value on landownership and agricultural endeavors that were central to the foundation of Nordic society: "A farm of your own is better, even if small, everyone's someone at home; though he has two goats and a coarsely roofed house, that is better than begging" (36). The Sayings of the High One reminds students that majority of early medieval Scandinavians never engaged in raiding activities and ventured abroad more often for economic exchange and immigration rather than adventure and glory. Finally, the obscure advice and mythic allusions in strophes 96–164 remind students that our window into the Norse society—particularly into their religious rituals—offers only a partial view; our understanding of the past remains incomplete.

     Like much of the Nordic literary and legal texts, the Poetic Edda was preserved in writing well after the Viking Age. It survives in the principal manuscript of Eddic poetry, the Icelandic Codex Regius (composed ca. 1270 CE). By including Hávamál in a unit on Vikings, students can contrast these slightly later cultural values with the hostile and derogatory perspectives preserved in contemporary Old English, Latin, Greek, Gaelic, and Arabic texts. They can pick out specific axioms that might have undergirded particular Viking Age activities. In short, embedded in these pithy aphorisms are many of the underlying economic, cultural, political, religious, and social causes of the Viking Age.

Conclusion: Why Study the Vikings in World History?

The Past Matters to the Present

     World history introduces students to fraught historical legacies, highly relevant to today's global societies. Conquest, colonialism, and exploitation necessitate discussions of the origins of modern racism, religious extremism, and repeated acts of genocide. A few, rejecting the revised interpretations of the Vikings, actually equate Viking savagery with 20th- and 21st-century genocide, atrocities, and terrorism.71 For most, however, the notoriety of the Vikings' medieval exploits has faded; the medieval victims of the Vikings are long deceased; the crimes committed by Vikings seem safely distant in the folds of time and removed from contemporary legacies.72

     Yet, Viking misdeeds are still cause for modern diplomatic overtures. In 2007, the Sea Stallion (Havhingsten), a reconstruction of the Skuldelev 2 longship, completed its 1000-mile voyage from Roskilde to Dublin. On this occasion, the Danish culture minister, Brian Mikkelson, offered an apology: "'In Denmark we are certainly proud of this ship, but we are not proud of the damages to the people of Ireland that followed in the footsteps of the Vikings.'"73

Figure 6
  Figure 6: The reconstructed Viking-Age ship, The Sea Stallion from Glendalough, based on the Skuldelev 2 longship. August 2014. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. Photograph by Elizabeth M. Swedo. Used with author permission.  

     The Viking legacy has been and will continue to be exploited for political purposes. In the world history context, the Vikings can be used to demonstrate the potential for the past to be re-interpreted and re-purposed in every generation. After all, the fascinating adventures and dauntless Viking spirit that captivate modern TV audiences also inspired late nineteenth-century nationalists and early twentieth-century eugenicists, who co-opted Nordic myths and culture in the development of the Aryan ideology that later underpinned the Nazi party doctrine.74 The fact that Vikings have been—and continue to be—used to promote racist ideologies might give pause to well-intended educators, leading some to suggest "it is now about time to forget the Vikings altogether, since they do not seem to be entirely compatible with progressive, liberal and multicultural ideals."75 But on the contrary, by continuing to teach the Vikings, we can introduce students to the challenging reality of our discipline: history is never just about the past. From medieval chroniclers and saga writers to white supremacists and modern media companies, "[G]roups have always tried to assert control over their story, seeking to mold legend, myth and reality into a useful narrative about identity and destiny."76 The familiar Vikings demonstrate a crucial lesson about the continued relevance of the past and the utility of history for contemporary purposes.


LESSON ONE: Vikings and Intercultural Contact in the Pre-Modern World

Primary Source: Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale (Auðunar þáttr vestfirska)

Homework: Read the complete tale and develop answers to the following questions.

Reading Questions

  1. Who wrote it and what—if anything—do we know about the author(s)? What was the original language of this primary source?

  2. What is the title of the primary source? Is it original or has it been titled by posterity (later scholars, perhaps the editor of the textbook)? Do we know what it was called at the time it was first written?

  3. What is the time and place of composition or creation of this primary source? What timeframe is covered within this source?

  4. What kind of source is it? Define this genre carefully.

  5. What is it about? Be able to summarize the content in your own words in about 3 to 4 sentences.

  6. Who was the original audience? (Who did the author(s) intend or expect would read or hear this primary source?)

  7. What can we infer about the historical context or worldview of the audience and author(s)? (Did the primary source author(s) make any assumptions about what the audience could be expected to know already?)

  8. Why might this source have been written? What was the original aim or purpose of this primary source? What does this source purport to be?

  9. How was this source it written? (Consider how is it organized, its style, and the kinds of language it uses.)

  10. Why is this primary source important for or how might this source be useful to the study of the Viking Age? What specific trends or patterns can we understand through study of this source? Provide specific details or examples.

Class Discussion Questions:

  1. Make a list of the locations discussed in the tale. Ask students to take turns identifying these locations on a projected map.

    Sites include: Vaðil in the Westfjörds, Iceland; Møre, Norway (just south of Trondheim); Eiriksfjord, Greenland (Eastern Settlement); Western Settlement, Greenland; Hordaland, Norway—near Bergen (note that Scandinavian kings generally travelled at this point; they did not have fixed capitals); southern coast of Norway; Oslofjord; Rome; Denmark "to the king's residence"; through the Øresund, north along coast to Norway to the "port where king Harald was in residence"; Westfjörds, Iceland.
  1. Which of the details in this tale fit your expectations of the Viking Age? What did you expect to find in a story about a Viking Age Northman but didn't?
  2. How did this tale fit your expectations of sagas, in general?
  3. What do we know about the different regions of the world where Auðunn travelled? How might different regions of the world have affected the opportunities available or the behaviors of Auðunn or other Northmen?
  4. Other thoughts and observations…


LESSON TWO: Monsters or Men: Who were the Vikings?

Primary Source: "Sayings of the High One" (Hávamál) from the Prose Edda

Homework: Read the first 95 verses of "The Sayings of the High One" (Hávamál). Develop answers to the following Reading Questions.

Reading Questions (see Appendix A)

Class Discussion Questions

Individually: Pick your favorite verse. Is there a modern equivalent? Share your answer with your group and be prepared to share your answers with the class.

In Small Group: Discuss the following questions. Be prepared to share your answers with the class.

  1. Northman Behaving Badly: What are the top three ways Norsemen could misbehave, according to the Poetic Edda's "Hávamál" or "The Sayings of the High One"?
  2. What are the top five qualities of the "Ideal Northman"?
  3. What attitudes towards women, slaves, or foreigners do you see in Hávamál? Which verses might apply to them?
  4. To what extent do the values captured in Hávamál mesh with other aspects of and sources from the Viking Age that we've discussed?
  5. Other thoughts and observations…



Primary Sources in English Translation

Alfred the Great: Asser's "Life of Alfred" and Other Contemporary Sources, edited by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated by Anne Savage. Godalming, Surrey: CLB International, 1984.

The Annals of St-Bertin: Ninth-Century Histories, Vol. 1, translated by Janet L. Nelson. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.

Frye, Richard, ed. Ibn Fadlan's Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River. Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005.

Pálsson, Hermann, ed. Hrafnkel's Saga and other Icelandic Stories. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1971.

The Poetic Edda, translated by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Rink, Henry. Tales and traditions of the Eskimo: with a sketch of their habits, religion, language and other peculiarities, edited by Robert Brown. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1875.

The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text, translated by Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Cambridge, Mass., Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953.

Smiley, Jane, ed. The Sagas of Icelanders. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda, translated and edited by Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla, translated by Lee M. Hollander. Austin: American-Scandinavian Foundation and University of Texas Press, 1991.

Somerville, Angus A., and R. Andrew McDonald, eds. The Viking Age: A Reader, 2nd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.

General Surveys

Brink, Stefan, and Neil Price, eds. The Viking World. London: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzhugh, William W., and Elisabeth I. Ward, eds. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Helle, Knut, ed. The Cambridge History of Scandinavia. Vol. I: Prehistory to 1520. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Roesdahl, Else. The Vikings. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Sawyer, Peter, ed. Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Winroth, Anders. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Museum Exhibitions

"Exhibitions at the Viking Ship Museum." The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (Vikingskipsmuseet i Roskilde).

"Exhibitions." The Swedish History Museum (Historiska Museet).

"Exhibitions." University of Oslo (UiO) Museum of Cultural History (Universitetet i Oslo [UiO] Kulturhistorisk museum).

"Films from the Viking Ship Museum." The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde (Vikingskipsmuseet i Roskilde).

"Prehistoric period (until 1050 AD)." The National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet).

"The Viking Ship Museum." University of Oslo (UiO) The Viking Ship Museum (Universitetet i Oslo [UiO] Vikingskipshuset).

Elizabeth M. Swedo is an historian of late medieval Europe, specializing in the cultural and religious history of Iceland. An associate professor at Western Oregon University, she teaches the World History survey courses, as well as graduate and undergraduate courses on medieval and early modern European history, including the Viking World and Norse Greenland. She can be reached at


1 How to Train your Dragon, directed by Chris Sanders Dean DeBlois (2010; Glendale, CA: DreamWorks Animation, 2010).

2 "Vikings Historian's View," The History Channel,

3 David Perry, "White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong," Washington Post (May 31, 2017),

4 Else Roesdahl, The Vikings (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 4. Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

5 Bjørn Myhre, "The archaeology of the early viking age in Norway," in Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age, eds. Howard B Clarke, Maire Ni Mhaonaigh, and Raghnall Ó Floinn (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), 4–8.

6 Helen Clarke and Björn Ambrosiani, Towns in the Viking Age (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1991); The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 83–149.

7 Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, eds. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 189–339.

8 Fjodor Androshchuk, "The Vikings in the East," in The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 529–535. The Normanist Controversy debates the extent of Viking influence and involvement in the formation of the Kievan Rus state and the development of the Russian state's language, law, government, religion, and networks of economic exchange.

9 Mark Strauss, "Discovery Could Rewrite History of Vikings in New World," National Geographic (March 31, 2016), Subsequent analysis of the Point Rosee excavations has not suggested any Norse occupation of the site. The Canadian Press, "Thor loser: Vikings likely didn't live on south coast of Newfoundland, study finds," The Star (Toronto), May 31, 2018,

10 Ewen Callway, "How Cats Conquered the World (and a Few Viking Ships)," Nature magazine (September 20, 2016) cited in Scientific American, The study of mitochondrial DNA in cats was conducted by Eva-Maria Geigl, Claudio Ottoni and Thierry Grange and presented at the 7th International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK, in September 2016.

11 Henrik Williams, "Runes," The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 281–290; Else Roesdahl, The Vikings, 46–51.

12 Ibn Fadlan's Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River, ed. Richard Frye, 256. For an excellent discussion of the Rus identity and alternate translation of the account, see James E. Montgomery, "Ibn Fadlan and the Rūsiyyah," Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Vol.3 (2000), 1–25.

13 J.E. Montgomery, "Arabic sources on the Vikings," in The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 552–553.

14Henry Rink, Tales and traditions of the Eskimo: with a sketch of their habits, religion, language and other peculiarities, ed. Robert Brown (Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1875).

15 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, trans. Anne Savage (Godalming, Surrey: CLB International, 1984), 73.

16 Winroth, The Age of the Vikings, 12.

17 "Alcuin's Letter to King Athelred, 793," in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A Somerville and R. Andrew MacDonald, 2nd Ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 186. Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: An Annotated List and Bibliography Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks 8 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1968), no. 134. His statement is contradicted by other textual evidence, including a series of diploma issued by the king of Mercia between 792 and 820 that reveal intense Viking activity in Kent that was otherwise unreported. See nos.160, 168, 177, 186, 1264. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, 73. The notations from 787 CE also belie Alcuin's claims.

18 Janet L. Nelson, The Annals of St-Bertin: Ninth-Century Histories, vol. 1 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), 54.

19 For further discussion see: R.I. Page, "A Most Vile People": Early English Historians on the Vikings (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1987); David M. Dumville, "Vikings in Insular chronicling," in The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 358–9.

20 Simon Coupland, "The rod of God's wrath or the people of God's wrath: The Carolingian theology of the Viking invasions," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 42 (1991):535–54. Coupland's article traces the rhetorical trends and points to the scriptural origins of the inter-related portrayals of the Vikings among different Frankish chronicles.

21 "The Martyrdom of Blathmac," in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A Somerville and R. Andrew MacDonald, 2nd Ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 194, 195.

22 "Alcuin's Letter to King Athelred, 793," in The Viking Age: A Reader, 186–7.

23 John Arnold, What is Medieval History? (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2008), 39.

24 Patricia Sutherland, "Norse and Natives in the Eastern Arctic," The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 615; Simon Franklin and Jonathan Shepard, The Emergence of the Rus, 7501200 (London: Longman, 1996), 66, 125.

25 Bjørn Myhre, "The archaeology of the early viking age in Norway," in Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age, eds. Howard B Clarke, Maire Ni Mhaonaigh, and Raghnall Ó Floinn (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), 3–36.

26 Else Roesdahl and Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, "Viking Culture," in Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Vol. I Prehistory to 1520, edited by Knut Helle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 123.

27 The travelling "Vikings" exhibition was organized by the Swedish History Museum in Sweden, in partnership with MuseumsPartner in Austria. See

28 "Exhibitions," UiO Museum of Cultural History, See Museum Exhibits in Appendix C.

29 "Exhibitions at the Viking Ship Museum," Vikingeskibs Museet,  and "Films from the Viking Ship Museum," Vikingeskibs Museet The museum provides excellent information about the Skuldelev and the reconstructed ships, including online videos that demonstrate the different construction techniques, marine archaeology, and reconstruction testing. Not all of these videos provide English captions, however. See Museum Exhibits in Appendix C.

30 Dumville, "Vikings in Insular chronicling," 357.

31 Magnús Fjalldal, "The Last Viking Battle," Scandinavian Studies Vol.87, 3 (2015), 329.

32 Richard Hall, The Excavation at York: The Viking Dig (London: The Bodley Head, 1984), 113–115, 115–116, 106–109.

33 Fjalldal, "The Last Viking Battle," 317.

34 Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (London: Routledge, 1962), 18–19.

35 Simon Coupland and Janet Nelson, "Vikings on the Continent," History Today Vol. 38, 12 (December 1988), 12.

36 Peter Sawyer, "The Viking Legacy," in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. Peter Sawyer (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1997), 251.

37 Ibid.

38 Fjalldal, "The Last Viking Battle," 318. Magnús references the 2014 interview conducted by Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of The Independent, with Professor Jan Bill, Oslo University's Professor of Viking Age Archaeology and Curator of the Viking Ship Museum on Bygdøy.

39 Coupland and Nelson, "Vikings on the Continent," 19.

40 J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, "Vikings in Francia," in Early Medieval History, ed. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford: 1975), 220.

41 Simon Keynes, "The Vikings in England, c.790–1016," in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. Peter Sawyer, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1997), 49.

42 Thomas S. Noonan, "Scandinavians in European Russia," in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. Peter Sawyer, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1997), 151.

43 Winroth, The Age of the Vikings, 9.

44 It is currently on display at the University of Oslo's Museum of Cultural History. "Norwegian Antiquity," UiO Museum of Cultural History,

45 Carin Orrling, "The Old Norse Dream," in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 35464, 360.

46 Roberta Frank, "The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet," in International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ed. Michael Dallapiazza (Trieste: Parnaso, 2000), 205. Frank asserts that these three finds sparked the Romantic invention of the Viking horned helmet. The bronze Torslunda helmet plate patrix is on display at Statens Historiska Museum i Stockholm,; the bronze Grevensvænge figurines are on display at the National Museum in Copenhagen, The Golden Gallehus Horns have a storied history. The originals were stolen and destroyed; and even the reconstructed replicas have been repeatedly stolen. However, the recovered replicas are on display at National Museum in Copenhagen,

47 Frank, "The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet," 199–208.

48 Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: inventing the old north in nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2000); Orrling, "The Old Norse Dream," 354–364; Elisabeth I. Ward, "Reflections on an Icon: Vikings in American Culture," in Vikings: North Atlantic Saga, ed. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 365–373; Lars Lönnroth, "The Vikings in History and Legend," in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. Peter Sawyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 225–249.

49 Ward, "Reflections on an Icon," 365–373.

50 In Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, see Daniel Odess, Stephen Loring, and William Fitzhugh, "Skræling: First Peoples of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland,"193–205; Hans Christian Gulløva "Natives and Norse in Greenland," 318–326; Patricia D. Sutherland, "The Norse and Native North Americans," 238–248; and Peter Schledermann, "Ellesmere: Vikings in the Far North," 248–256. Also see Robert W Park, "Contact between Norse Vikings and the Dorset Culture in Arctic Canada," Antiquity vol. 81, 1 (2008): 189–198; Annette Kolodny, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012); and several of the essays in The Northern world, AD 9001400, eds. Herbert D. G. Maschner, Owen K. Mason, and Robert McGhee (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press; 2009).

51 Torsten Edgren, "The Eastern Route: Finland in the Viking Age," in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), 108.

52 Matthieu Boyd, "Celts Seen as Muslims and Muslims Seen by Celts in Medieval Literature," in Contextualizing the Muslim Other in Medieval Christian Discourse, ed. Jerold C. Frakes (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 23.

53"Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale," in Hrafnkel's Saga and other Stories, ed. and trans. Hermann Pálsson (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1971), 121–128.

54 "Map Index," Medieval Mapping Project, University of Victoria, The Medieval Studies program at University of Victoria provides mapped coordinates in ESRI ArcGIS Online for "The Story of Audun and the Bear" as well as Ibn Fadlan's and Eirik the Red's journeys.

55 Peter Sawyer, "Viking Expansion," in the Cambridge History of Scandinavia, Vol. I Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 105–120. See Sawyer's essay for a synopsis of the causes for the advent of the Viking Age.

56 William Ian Miller, Audun and the Polar Bear: Luck, Law, and Largesse in a Medieval Tale of Risky Business (Leiden: Brill, 2008). Miller's recent book offers a thorough analysis of the essential social and political conventions within the tale.

57 Snorri Sturluson, "The Saga of Óláf Tryggvason Óláfs saga Tryggvsonar," in Heimskringla, trans. Lee M. Hollander (Austin: American-Scandinavian Foundation and University of Texas Press, 1991), 166–170. Chapters 27–29 in this saga recount King Óláf Tryggvason's baptism and continued raiding activities.

58 See Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, Saga and society: an introduction to old Norse literature (Odense: Odense University Press, 1993).

59 See Jesse Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland: An Anthropological Analysis of structure and change (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985); William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and peacemaking: feud, law, and society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

60 Dumville, "Vikings in Insular chronicling," in The Viking World, 357.

61 Stefan Brink, "Introduction," in The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 3.

62 Stefan Brink, "Who Were the Vikings?" in The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 6. It has been explained in a variety of ways, but the origins of the first element in the word—"vik-"—presents an unresolved linguistic challenge. Brink summarizes five well-established hypotheses.

63 Jones, History of the Vikings, 246–248, n.3. The terms "Rus" and "Varangian" have linguistic and ethnic explanations almost as complicated as the etymology of vikings.

64 Neil Price, "The Vikings in Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean," in The Viking World, eds. Stefan Brink and Neil Price (London: Routledge, 2008), 464.

65 Roesdahl, The Vikings,10. Although infrequently used, the West Norse noun víkingr (m.) certainly referred to a pirate or robber while noun víking (f.) was used for warfare at sea and harrying.

66 The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996),14–38.

67 D.A.H. Evans, "Hávamál," in Medieval Scandinavia: An Encyclopedia, ed. Phillip Pulsiano and Kirsten Wolf (New York: Garland, 1993), 272. Also see Roesdahl, The Vikings, 177–184. "Poetry in the Viking Age" provides a brief synthesis of Viking Age poetry.

68 Evans, "Hávamál," 272.

69 The verse numbers correspond with Larrington's edition of the Poetic Edda. See n. 65 above.

70 Benjamin Franklin, The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's almanac and other papers, ed. Henry Ketcham (New York: The Perkins Book Company,1902), 215–231.

71 Peter Cockburn, "The Vikings were feared for a reason: World View: Ignore recent revisionism. The Norsemen carried out atrocities to equal those of the German SS," The Independent, 5 April 2014, Magnús Fjalldal summarizes the debate over the 2014 exhibit "Vikings: Life and Legend" at the British Museum. Fjalldal, "The Vikings Last Battle," 317–331.

72 Stefan Lovgren, "Vikings' Barbaric Bad Rap Beginning to Fade," National Geographic News, February 17, 2004,

73 Owen Bowcott, "Danes say sorry for Viking raids on Ireland," The Guardian, Wednesday 15 August 2007 19.03 EDT,

74 Lönnroth, "The Vikings in History and Legend," 245–247.

75 Ibid., 249.

76 David Perry, "White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong. Why the accused Portland killer and others see Vinland as an inspiration," The Washington Post, May 31, 2017,

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2020 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use