Introduction: Forum on Vikings in World History
Elizabeth M. Swedo, Guest
Beware the Northmen
Infamous for ravaging the rivers and coastlines of Western Europe for nearly three hundred years and for plunging across the North Atlantic by the end of the first millennium of the common era, the Vikings have remained a subject of popular and scholarly fascination for over the last four hundred years. The Vikings are broadly understood as Old Norse-speaking, medieval Scandinavians from the modern-day countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. They ventured from their homelands from the late eighth through the mid-eleventh centuries and interacted with the peoples and polities of the medieval world through varyingly collaborative, profitable, and violent encounters. The Vikings terrorized the inhabitants of four continents in the medieval world; captivated antiquarians, linguists, artists, and writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; intrigued the creative minds and the entertainment industry in the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries; and (unfortunately) have inspired racist ideology and white supremacist rhetoric from the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first century.
The enduring of influence of the Vikings in the modern imagination offers both challenges and opportunities in the World History classroom. On the one hand, students' familiarity with these pop-culture generated conceptions of the Vikings fuels further exploration of the globally and temporally interconnected premodern world. The Vikings offer an accessible and engaging opportunity to delve into historical method and to deepen students' critical thinking and analysis skills. On the other hand, the multi-layered stereotypes, misconceptions, and fantasies of Vikings introduce a challenging but an appealingly complexity into the world history classroom, prompting discussion about how our knowledge of the past is constructed.
Popular Culture and Medievalism
Untethered from and often unburdened by historical context, the Vikings depicted in contemporary popular culture in the form of television series, films, fantasy and graphic novels, video and role-playing games, are rendered both familiar and fantastical. This "reimagining" of medieval culture is not a new trend in twenty-first society but a continuation of the medievalism1 that developed first in the eighteenth century. Medievalism, according to Michael Alexander, "is the offspring of two impulses: the recovery by antiquarians2 and historians of materials for the study of the Middle Ages; and the imaginative adoption of medieval ideals and forms."3 The Vikings, Andrew Wawn proclaims, were the invention of the Victorians, emerging from popular enthusiasm and scholarly fascination.4
White Supremacy and Medieval Diversity
Unfortunately, the same fascinating adventures and dauntless Viking spirit that captivate modern television 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 Nazi party doctrine.5 In his new textbook, World History Through Case Studies, David Eaton commences his chapter on Vikings with the recent past: the 2017 attacks on a MAX train in Portland, Oregon, and the 2011 massacre of 77 people in Oslo and on the island of Utøya, Norway.6 The white supremacists responsible for each incident invoked the Vikings before committing their acts of senseless violence. As Eaton explains, white supremacists "have a long-standing fascination with Vikings," frequently asserting that "they represent a white, non-Christian warrior race that they believe aligns" with their racist rhetoric and reinforces their group identity.7 (Interested readers should also explore John Maunu's Digital Resources for Vikings in World History in this volume of World History Connected, for further discussion of "Appropriation of Viking History by White Supremacists to promote their agenda.") The appropriation of Nordic myths and culture by white supremacists and the alt-right to construct their groups' identities and ideologies appears to present the most appalling kind of unimpeded presentism8 and uncritiqued medievalism imaginable. For historians—particularly medievalists—such distortions of the past should be a call to action.9
Efforts to combat racist attitudes and practices in contemporary society are familiar concerns, frequently conveyed to the public through mainstream social and news media. Less likely to be familiar to general audiences are recent labors by medieval scholars to contest implicit institutional and disciplinary discrimination within Medieval Studies, which encompasses various academic fields, including history, literature, and linguistics as well as archaeology, art history, and architecture.10 In the past few years, individual scholars as well professional associations and collaborative working groups11 within the interdisciplinary fields of Medieval Studies have been rallying for increased recognition of the diversity of the Middle Ages, an objective well-aligned with the aims of most World Historians.12 They continue to challenge teachers of the Middle Ages to develop "diverse, anti-racist, and inclusive pedagogy."13 They encourage medieval scholars to pursue research agendas that highlight the diversity—typically marginalized and downplayed—of the Middle Ages, including multiple ethnicities, people of color, religious beliefs, genders, and sexualities, etc. within medieval societies. They advocate broadening, if not relocating, the Middle Ages within the interconnected geographic and cultural spaces of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East that created medieval Europe.14 Incrementally, the contributions of TEAMS (Teaching Association for Medieval Studies), the Material Collective, the BABEL Working Group, Medievalists of Color (MoC), and other individuals and organizations serve to complicate, problematize, and undermine modern political and racist medievalisms by debunking the myth of medieval Europe as a homogenous, white space.
At this juncture, it might seem a misplaced venture to promote Viking Studies or to advocate for the inclusion of the Vikings within the context of World History. The fact that Vikings have been—and continue to be—used to promote racist ideologies may lead some to suggest "it is now time to forget the Vikings altogether, since they do not seem to be entirely compatible with progressive, liberal, and multicultural ideals."15
Counter-intuitively, the study of the Vikings presents opportunities for emphasizing the diversity within Europe. Because of the nature of the available primary sources, the Vikings almost necessarily share the historic frame with other inhabitants of the medieval world. Moreover, they interacted with a wide array of peoples in regions often considered "peripheral" within the study of medieval Europe, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and even the Americas. Studying the Viking Age effectively widens the world of medieval Europe, recognizing "heterogeneous borderlands with multiple centers."16 Within the context of World History, the Vikings have the potential, therefore, to decenter Europe and to recognize the inhabitants of these regions "as full participants in a world simultaneously larger and more fragmented—a world of intersecting, mutating, and incommensurable times and places."17
Furthermore, the Viking legacy has been and will continue to be exploited for political purposes. To counter the misappropriated and invented Nordic past necessitates first engaging students in the challenging reality of our discipline: that each generation re-interprets and re-purposes the past. The phenomena of invoking a (re)imagined past to reinforce group identities is hardly new in human history. Antiquarianism and early medievalism in the eighteenth century were not innocently rooted in nostalgia, curiosity, or imaginative revivalism but driven by agendas to locate "native historical precedent[s] for their religious and political redefinitions of national identity."18 Nineteenth-century British medievalism—and specifically its fascination with the Scandinavian and Germanic "Old North"—addressed multi-layered questions of regional identity and nationalism.19 Andrew Wawn recognized that "ancient and modern, Viking and Victorian, linked arms; famous names and deeds from the past could be made to resonate powerfully in contemporary controversies about national identity."20 In his introduction to the edited volume The Postcolonial Middle Ages, Jeffrey Cohen suggests that the study of the past "must stress not difference (the past as past) or sameness (the past as present) but temporal interlacement."21
Although presentism is sometimes considered "a dirty word" among historians of the pre-modern world, the past is never simply about the past.22 Medieval Cultural Studies and Old English specialist Eileen Joy understands and acknowledges that "trying to understand the past on its own historical ground" is for many medievalists—and historians generally—"the only authentic work that can be done."23 Yet, as renowned medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum notes, "the past is seldom usefully examined by assuming that its specific questions or their settings are the same as those of the present. What may, however, be the same is the away in which a question, understood in its context, struggles with a perduring issues such as, for example, group affiliation."24 Within this Forum, Hayden Eric Godfrey's article exposes how the thirteenth-century Icelanders reconciled their pagan heritage with their contemporary Nordic Christian identity, through the late tenth- and eleventh-century encounters between their Viking ancestors and indigenous North American populations in the Vínland sagas. By including the Vikings in a World History curriculum, this pre-modern case study of intercultural contact can be contrasted with later trans-Atlantic world interactions, power dynamics and violence, and collective identity formation that typifies the early modern era.
Vikings in World History
With its rich complexities and varied, interdisciplinary sources, the Viking Age provides plentiful examples for World History themes and concepts, including "humans and the environment, cultural developments and interactions, governance, economic systems, social interactions and organization, and technology and innovation."25 Our knowledge and perspective of the Vikings has been built primarily on chronicles, annals, and letters of early medieval Christian clergy who wrote in reaction to the violent raids that targeted and plundered monasteries and churches. In the twentieth through the early twenty-first centuries, mounting archaeological evidence has disrupted traditional narratives of the Viking Age; new archaeological site analyses and chronologies have challenged their assumed causal role in the decline of the ninth-century economy and the collapse of the Carolingian Empire.26 Designing a variety of ships for coastal, riverine, and fjord excursions, the Vikings capitalized on their extant nautical technology, engaging in the raids and invasions that typified the Viking Age but also developing ships for long, open-water voyages carrying greater cargo, ideal for immigration and settlement. Their legacy in the political development of Europe is well-established: from the foundation of Normandy, to the establishment of urban centers in Ireland, to their contested role in the rise of the Kievan state in Russia, and to the creation of a Danish dynasty in England (1016–1042), the Vikings' legacy in the shaping of the political landscape of medieval Europe is secure. An environmental approach to World History that considers how societies and cultures utilize natural resources and shape and react to their natural environments would benefit from consideration of the Norse Greenland colony. Enduring for over four hundred years, the Norse Greenland settlements provide an excellent example of how human agency—rather than environmental determinism—impacts the evolution of societies facing climatic and environmental change. Whereas the agrarian and pastoralist Norse society ultimately collapsed with the onset of the Little Ice Age, the Thule Inuit society thrived, expanding their hunting and fishing grounds into southern Greenland.
As outlined, the experiences of Vikings in the medieval world intersect with many of the themes, continuities, processes, and encounters that inform both case-study and thematic approaches to world history. Despite these contributions, the Vikings are likely candidates for omission from many world history courses. Reacting to the volume of material and the time constraints of the academic year, the new AP World History: Modern courses have shifted to begin "in 1200 CE rather than in the Paleolithic Era" in the 2019–2020 school year.27 World History courses that endeavour to cover the entirety of prehistoric and ancient through the modern era generally endure compressed curricula. This trend seems to reflect and reinforce the presentist attitudes of the contemporary media, students, administrators, and even colleagues studying modern eras, who have a habit of separating the recent, "relevant" past from the more distant—and seemingly stale and static—past. Emphasizing the early modern and modern eras, however, risks the loss of perspective and reduces appreciation for the complexity of our human experiences. At worst, it reinforces the worst tendencies within presentism, advancing the assumption that people of the past were simple-minded, that their problems were trite, and that their solutions were inevitable. In the second Forum essay, Ellen A. Ahlness considers how the political institutions and legal traditions of the "distant" early medieval past continue to resonate in modern Scandinavian. Without an appreciation for the Nordic medieval traditional of regional assemblies, as Ahlness notes, the contemporary resurgence of regional representation appears to demonstrate an innovation rather than a confluence of an enduring "regional heritage and political identity."
By gaining an understanding of the medieval sources that construct our modern scholarly interpretations of the Vikings, and by recognizing the legacy of the Vikings—real and imagined—in our current society, students can be challenged to develop a deeper understanding of how history is produced. Michael J. Salevouris and Conal Furay remind us that "history is not the lifeless study of a dead past…History is a living and evolving dialog about the most important subject of all—the human experience."28 For many world history students, the Vikings that emerge from these exercises are "alluringly strange" and "at the same time discomfortingly familiar" ambassadors of the pre-modern world.29 As Hayden Eric Godfrey concludes in the final Forum article, the Vikings present such rich opportunities for discussion and analysis that they are "well worth a detour during a world history course."
The Vikings in World History Forum Essays
In this Forum, the authors share some of their knowledge as well as their questions about the Vikings, consider the ways in which the study of Vikings can contribute to likely history themes and topics, and explore the ways in which the study of the Vikings in world history enables students to gain an appreciation for the interrelations and interactions between the past and the present.
In "Hornless Northmen: Teaching Vikings as People in the World History Context," Elizabeth M. Swedo encourages world history teachers "to embrace student enthusiasm for Vikings" in order to build students' awareness of what it means to "do history." Any attempt to comprehend the Vikings "as humans rather than as mythic heroes or as monstrous killing machines requires sifting through competing and sometimes contradictory sources and perspectives." Two sample lesson plans concentrate on Scandinavian sources—"Auðunn of the Westfjords' Tale" and "The Sayings of the High One" in Poetic Edda—that complicate stereotypical views of the Vikings themselves. Providing an accessible introduction to the Viking world for both teachers and students, Swedo offers a summary of archaeological and textual evidence, a brief overview of current scholarly debates, and a select list of resources, including texts in translation, museum websites, and scholarly sources.
Building on Swedo's article, Ellen A. Ahlness further humanizes the Vikings, focusing on the evolution of regional assemblies and the development of Scandinavia's earliest legal codes in the Viking Age in the second Forum essay, "Legacy of the Ting: Viking Justice, Egalitarianism, and Modern Scandinavian Regional Governance." Drawing on her specialization in Political Science, Ahlness demonstrates the factors that gave rise to these institutions in Scandinavia, providing examples from Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. She asserts that Viking Age political developments—particularly the emphasis on the regional assembly or þing (thing) as the predominant form of Scandinavian governance—continue to exert an influence on modern Scandinavian socio-political values as well as patterns of governance. Her essay highlights the regional diversity of medieval Europe, too often homogenized within textbooks that traditionally emphasize the political development of centralized, hierarchical kingdoms in western Europe. It reminds us that this level of complexity exists within all of the regions, cultures, and societies that we choose to include or regretfully exclude from our World History curriculum.
In the Forum's third article, Hayden Eric Godfrey's "Vikings, Vínland, and the Indigenous 'Other'" analyses an ephemeral but profound moment of intercultural contact in the pre-modern world history context. The best documented and most widely accepted instance of pre-Columbian contact between Europeans and North Americans, the interactions between the Vikings and the indigenous inhabitants of Vínland have been preserved one-sided, in two thirteenth-century Icelandic sagas—Eirikr saga rauða (Eirik the Red's Saga) and Grœnlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders). Juxtaposing Norse characterization of other Europeans (notably Irish and German), supernatural beings, and the indigenous inhabitants of Greenland and Canada, who the Vikings called skrælingar, Godfrey explores the concept of alterity or "Otherness." He traces how generations of Norse "societies defined themselves by enumerating their differences from newly encountered peoples." The Norse created an "us" and a "them" that was defined by their own cultural values and perceived differences and that reinforced their own identity as natives of the Baltic and North Sea world, as victors and conquerors of Western Europe, and as newly Christianized Europeans. The Vínland sagas allows readers to "explore identity at the moment it was constructed." However, the questions of alterity continue to haunt modern analyses and "contemporary debates over the vexed histories of nationalism, race, and the rise of the state" that sculpt the later eras of World History.
1 "What is Medievalism?" Medievally Speaking: An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages (April 18, 2010), http://medievallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/04/what-is-medievalism.html. Medievalism, broadly, refers to "the reception of medieval culture in postmedieval times." Leslie J. Workman, "Editorial," Studies in Medievalism III/1 (1987), 1. For Workman, medievalism engulfs "the study of the Middle Ages, the application of medieval models to contemporary needs, and the inspiration of the Middle Ages in all forms of art and thought." For a collection of definitions of medievalism, drawn from recent scholarship, see "What is Medievalism?"
2 Roey Sweet, "Antiquarianism and history," Making History, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study University of London. Last updated 2008. https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/antiquarianism.html Traditionally known as the "'hand-maid' to history," antiquarianism provided "the raw materials from which a historical narrative might be constructed, and verifying the events of history with corroborative material derived from the evidence of, for example, coins and inscriptions."
3 Michael Alexander, Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), xxii.
4 Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 5.
5 Lars Lönnroth, "The Vikings in History and Legend," in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, ed. Peter Sawyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 245–247.
6 David Eaton, World History Through Case Studies (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 103.
7 Ibid., 103.
8 Lynn Hunt, "From the President: Against Presentism," Perspectives on History Volume 40, no. 5 (May 1, 2002) https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2002-x43482. As Hunt notes, "presentism besets us in two different ways: (1) the tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms; and (2) the shift of general historical interest toward the contemporary period and away from the more distant past."
9 Eaton, World History, 103.
10 Matthew Harrison, "Where's The On-Ramp: Teaching the Diversity of the Past," Thrumpledom Thrum (blog), August 24, 2018, http://www.thrumpledumthrum.com/?p=299. "Scholarly organizations such as the Medievalists of Color, the Society for Feminist Medieval Scholarship, and In The Middle have focused diversity and inclusivity aims at the center of scholarship and institutional goals, exposing inequities of representation and access, and a number of online resources and bibliographies offer valuable material for theoretical practical consideration."
11 TEAMS (Teaching Association for Medieval Studies) https://teams-medieval.org/; the Material Collective http://thematerialcollective.org/; BABEL Working Group https://babel-meeting.org/; Medievalists of Color (MoC) https://medievalistsofcolor.com/, among other organizations.
12 "Teaching a Diverse and Inclusive Middle Ages," (Panel Discussion, 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2017) https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1054&context=medieval_cong_archive and "Teaching a Diverse and Inclusive Middle Ages," (Panel Discussion, 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 2018) https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1056&context=medieval_cong_archive. See also JJ Cohen, "#RaceB4Race: The Beginnings," In The Middle (December 9, 2019) http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/
13 Harrison, "Where's The On-Ramp."
14 See Carol L. Robinson "Featured Lesson Resource: Race, Racism and the Middle Ages," TEAMS, last updated: July 29, 2018, https://teams-medieval.org/?page_id=76; Boyda Johnstone and Matthew Harrison, "Tactics for Teaching a Diverse Past," Teaching the Middle Ages in Higher Ed https://medievalhighered.omeka.net/collections/show/14; Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski, "Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography," postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 8 (2017): 500–531, https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1057%2Fs41280-017-0072-0.pdf
15 Lönnroth, "The Vikings in History and Legend," 249.
16 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, "Introduction," in The Postcolonial Middle Ages (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), 7.
17 Ibid. 7.
18 Alexander, Medievalism, xxiii.
19 Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians, 30-33.
20 Ibid., 13.
21 Cohen, "Introduction," 5.
22 Eileen Joy and Myra J. Seaman, "Introduction: Through a Glass, Darkly: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History," in Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, edited by Eileen A. Joy, Myra J. Seaman, Kimberly K. Bell, and Mary K. Ramsey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2007), 8. See also n.8: Hunt, "Contrasting Presentism."
23 Ibid., 8.
24 Caroline Walker Bynum, "Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalists Perspective," Critical Inquiry 22 (1995): 29.
25 "Important Updates: AP World History: Modern Updates and New Resources for 2019–20," AP Central, https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/courses/ap-world-history/course
26 Richard Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London: Duckworth, 2006),157–162.
27 "Important Updates: AP World History" https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/courses/ap-world-history/course
28 Michael J. Salevouris and Conal Furay, The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 4th ed. (Chicester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015), 19.
29 Cohen, "Introduction," 5.
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