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The Vikings invented soap operas and pioneered globalisation - so why do we depict them as brutes?

A new exhibition at the British Museum shows how closely the world of the Vikings mirrors our own.

Vikings: Life and Legend
British Museum, London WC1

The Vikings are returning to the nation’s public attention with the opening of a major exhibition at the British Museum, “Vikings: Life and Legend”, and the simultaneous publication of Philip Parker’s history of the Viking world, The Northmen’s Fury. These are the latest developments in a relationship that has long been ambivalent – and especially so since the Victorian era.

On the one hand, the Vikings are part of us, because they settled in areas of Britain so densely and so permanently. Anyone who lives somewhere with a name ending in “-by” (or a headland with one ending in “-ness”, or calls their valley a “dale”, or the nearest hillside a “fell”) is living in a landscape that Vikings named, while our language is peppered with their words: “niggardly”, for example, is derived from the Old Norse for “miser”.

To the 19th-century British, the Vikings could seem like kindred spirits. These early-medieval Scandinavians were, like the Victorians, the greatest sailors, traders and explorers of their day. They embodied courage, enterprise and that most prized of public school virtues: manliness.

Their achievements were extraordinary. Between the 8th and 12th centuries (“the Viking age”), they became the first people to operate simultaneously in four continents and so tie much of the world together. They were the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic and reach North America (which they called “Vinland”); they settled in Iceland (permanently), Greenland (for centuries) and Newfoundland (briefly).

In the other direction, they founded the first Russian state, based in Kiev, while a body of them made up the personal guard of the Byzantine emperors at Constantinople. Becoming the paramount power in the British Isles, they gave Ireland its first towns, including Dublin, while their fleets penetrated as far south as the Mediterranean and the coasts of North Africa. Occupying a slice of France, they founded the Duchy of Normandy and, reinvented as Normans, proceeded to conquer England, Sicily and parts of Italy, Wales, Ireland and Syria. It is this tremendous story that Philip Parker’s book retells.

On the other hand, the Vikings were also the people against whom the British nations initially defined themselves. The early English had developed a sense of themselves as a people, with a language and as followers of a branch of the Church, but they were divided into different kingdoms. It took the prospect of conquest by Viking warlords to forge them into a single kingdom – one of the most intensely governed in the world – and this achievement became part of the country’s epic story. King Alfred became “the Great” by organising the national resistance to the Vikings. Though they came back a century later under Cnut and triumphed, by that time England was too strongly wrought to break: the Danish conquerors took it over intact and handed it, peacefully, back to native rule when Cnut’s dynasty died out.

Scotland was also a product of the Viking menace, as Picts and Scots joined forces against the invaders. The battle of Largs in 1263, an episode in the last attempt by a Norwegian king to assert control over the western Scottish seaboard, later became one of the milestones on the road to Scotland’s development as a nation. Followed as it was by the addition of the Hebrides to the Scottish realm, it eventually became the nautical equivalent of Bannockburn in Scotland’s historical imagination.

Above all, Vikings were not just viewed by the early-medieval British as enemies but as enemies of an especially dreadful kind: the epitome of barbarism and heathendom. All of historians’ source material for their early impact on Britain was written by the victims, who emphasised the wanton lack of restraint with which the Vikings plundered Christian churches and killed their clergy and the cruelty with which they ravaged settlements and farms. They flouted every rule of conduct that the European Christendom of the time had developed, precariously, to limit human savagery.

After a relatively short time, the Vikings adopted the culture of Christian Europe en bloc, with kingdoms, coinage, literacy and, above all, the full Christian panoply of churches, clergy and home-grown saints. At this point, however, the British historical memory just redefined them as no longer Vikings – linguistically, this is correct, because the term “Viking” originally meant a roving raider, not a Norwegian, Dane or Swede engaged in any other activity.

Victorian admirers of the Vikings pointed out in vain that they were wonderful crafts­people, especially in metalwork, and terrific poets and storytellers, inventing, in the form of the family saga, one of the world’s most enduring and popular genres of entertainment: the soap opera. A cursory glance at world history reveals that people are capable of making beautiful things while doing horrible things to their fellow humans. Some authors have pointed out that the Vikings’ settlements in foreign lands gave rise to important and dynamic new peoples such as the Normans but, on the whole, the 19th-century British settled for the view that they had been barbaric, even adding impractical and historically inaccurate horns to their helmets to underline their bestiality.

In this respect, the Victorian era in Britain lasted until the 1960s. Hollywood, as usual, reinforced older stereotypes, with actors such as Kirk Douglas and Michael York playing Danish warlords as savages who might ultimately be susceptible to redemption. A notorious television advert in the early 1970s for Super Soft shampoos showed the doe-eyed actress Madeline Smith being carried off as a sex slave, quivering with delight, by a flaxen-haired Viking warrior.

By this time, however, scholars led by Peter Sawyer were reacting against the dominant tradition. They condemned Viking atrocity stories as propaganda produced by monks who had been determined to blacken the reputation of their opponents, who happened to have the wrong religion. Such revisionists pointed out that early-medieval Christian Europeans were just as brutal in warfare, while the Vikings operated more frequently as merchants, settlers and explorers than pirates. They argued that the Vikings had brought clear benefits to the lands in which they stopped or settled, by founding towns, extending farmland, releasing accumulated capital and establishing enormous trading systems. When the last exhibition on the Vikings was held at the British Museum, in 1980, it joyously embraced this new, benevolent image.

Since then, the scholarly pendulum has swung again but only halfway back. It is recognised now that the Vikings were generally not much more badly behaved than their contemporaries; yet they still evoked a peculiar horror because they broke all the usual rules. Unlike other aggressors, they came from the sea and struck before resistance could be mobilised properly. Until their arrival, offshore islands had been natural sanctuaries, perfect for monasteries; in the Viking age, any settlement on one was like a goat tethered for a tiger. Although Christian Europeans sometimes attacked churches, they were aware that it was particularly wrong to do so, whereas the pagan Vikings made no distinction between religious and secular buildings, looting and burning both with an equal lack of inhibition.

Having conquered a region, the Vikings rebuilt its economy, society and political structures and adopted its religion and much of its culture – yet they generally did so after destroying all those things as they had existed previously. Sympathy today must depend on whether you prefer the before or after models.

They were raiders and traders by turns. An invading Viking army, having spent a summer looting and fighting, would settle down for the winter and establish a market in which they would sell off booty to local people and newcomers. In one commodity, the two aspects blended inseparably: they were avid slave traders. When scales for weighing goods are found in Viking settlements in the Hebrides, is this proof that they came as peaceful merchants? Or were they used for reckoning the value of chopped-up, looted bullion? Or did the scales have both uses?


The exhibition at the British Museum was conceived in very high places. Most such events are proposed by curators, who then persuade their directors to authorise them. This one was produced by the museum’s charismatic director, Neil MacGregor, with his opposite number at the National Museum of Denmark. It is a joint venture between the two museums and one in Berlin and its complexion will vary slightly between the three institutions. Much of its form in London is the work of Gareth Williams, a lifelong Viking enthusiast who visited the 1980 exhibition as a boy and remembers its impact on him.

A number of factors have changed significantly since 1980. The first is that there is less money for anything; as a result, objects have to be selected with more care. The second is that the perceived centre of the Viking world has moved eastwards. Until recently, the Anglo-American view placed that centre in the Atlantic, which was the focus of the last major museum exhibition about the Vikings (at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in 1999).

This is, however, historically skewed. In Viking times, North America was still in the Stone Age and the Atlantic was seen purely as a source of raw materials, while Arab states were the most highly developed civilisations. The entire population of early medieval Scandinavia could probably have fitted comfortably inside Baghdad.

On this, the new exhibition has benefited from the opening-up of Russian collections to the west. In the Soviet era, the Iron Curtain stood in the way of collaboration; meanwhile, where Russian nationalism was based on a Slavonic identity, western scholars portrayed the Viking contribution to the foundation of Russia as pivotal. (Both views are correct.) Since the end of communism, the two sides have been able to work together, resulting in a substantial and valuable Russian component in the exhibits.

The displays as a whole, which mostly consist of grave goods (an inevitable bias of the surviving evidence), illustrate every aspect of early medieval Scandinavian life, at home and abroad, with two emphases. One is on the central role of ships in life and in the imagination. They made the Vikings’ achievements possible – they were the best vessels in the world, equally able to cross oceans and penetrate far up rivers. As such, they feature as children’s toys and in graffiti. The exhibition’s pièce de résistance is the display of the longest Viking warship ever found (one of the largest that could have been built), discovered at the Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1996. Measuring more than 37 metres in length, it was almost certainly a royal vessel – it is several feet longer than the ship portrayed in one saga as the biggest ever known – and forms a terrific climax to the displays.

The other emphasis is on the multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan nature of Viking culture and its geographical sweep, from what is now New England in the US to the Silk Road of central Asia (here, the themes converge with those of Philip Parker). Arab wealth poured into Scandinavia along the trade and raid routes in the form of coins, more than 150,000 of which have been found at former Viking settlements. As a result, the most common inscription found in the Viking world was not one in the native runes but “There is no God but Allah”, engraved in Arabic on the currency that jingled in pouches and chests.

Some displays emphasise the reality of multiculturalism. In the tenth-century hoard of coins and ornaments found in the Vale of York, there are references to places as far apart as Ireland and Uzbekistan. The Hunterston brooch, found in Ayrshire, is a glorious Celtic confection of gold, silver and amber made in pre-Viking times and owned subsequently by a noble with the impeccably Gaelic name of Melbrigda; but he wrote his name on it in Old Norse, using Viking runes. The objects with religious or magical significance reference the familiar northern gods, known from Wagner’s libretti as much as from books of mythology, but are also now connected in the exhibition with shamanic practices that echo tribal customs found from Greenland to Siberia.

The exhibition implicitly proclaims the importance of globalisation, the value of technology (in this case ships) in bringing peoples together, the power of fashion in forming identities and self-expression, the ability of consumer goods to unite people regardless of language or ethnicity, the benefits of keeping good relations with the new Russia and the need to respect Islam. It is a snapshot of the preoccupations of the intellectual British psyche in 2014.

The show strikes the current scholarly balance, acknowledging that Vikings could be greedy, violent and brutal – but also creative, adventurous, generous and accepting of new ideas and cultures. This is the view taken by Philip Parker’s book, which combines texts long familiar to historians with the latest scholarship. Parker has a traveller’s eye for landscape and a storyteller’s sense of events and character; The Northmen’s Fury is probably the most lively and well-informed introduction to the subject available today.

Both sides of the Victorian equation remain. The Vikings were noble savages: at times more noble; at others more savage. More important, however, is that their culture is currently appreciated more than ever before as not only rich and complex but as an ever-developing meeting point of styles, concepts, artefacts and stories from most of the northern hemisphere. As such, the Vikings have become message-bearers and mirrors for the concerns of a new century, remaining as adaptable and expressive long after their time as they were in life.

“Vikings” runs from 6 March to 22 June
“The Northmen’s Fury” by Philip Parker is out on 6 March (Jonathan Cape, £25)
Ronald Hutton is the author of “Pagan Britain” (Yale University Press, £25)

Image: a scene from Wagner’s Norse Ring Cycle, illustrated by Arthur Rackham Bridgeman Art Library

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State