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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

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
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1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue