Sarah Baccianti is Junior Lecturer at the English Department of the Faculty of Arts. She has a particular interest in medieval historiography, old Norse literature, and Icelandic sagas. She is a specialist of the Vikings.
Important figures of the European Middle Ages, the Vikings are also a part of popular culture. However, there are numerous misconceptions circulating about them. A researcher straightens out a few facts.
In our imaginations, the word “Viking” evokes blond brutes brandishing axes and leaping onto a beach from longships before setting off to ransack a village. Many films and comic strips have portrayed them in this way. Now, however, the Irish-Canadian series, Vikings, presents a more balanced picture. This Nordic civilisation was far richer than people believe.
A researcher in the English section of the University of Lausanne, Sarah Baccianti, has started a seminar on the culture of the Vikings, with a particular focus on Iceland. She considers their many sagas (prose narratives) to be “jewels of medieval literature”. Here, she responds to some of the misconceptions.
The golden age of the Vikings lasted from the VIIIth to the XIth century
True, but To be precise, there were two distinct ages, one after the other. From the end of the VIIIth century until the middle of the IXth century, the Scandinavians explored and pillaged in almost every part of Europe, but they did not stay in those places. This troubled period lives on in our imaginations. But afterwards, they established colonies. This was the case in the east of England, where the Vikings created the Danelaw, in Ireland where they founded Dublin and Cork, and in Normandy. Over the course of the centuries, they mixed with the local populations, which led to their disappearance from the landscape. Their civilisation continued however in the Faeroe Islands until the XVth century.
The Vikings were one unified population
False. This generic term refers to different Scandinavian populations hailing from Norway, Denmark and part of Sweden, and then Iceland. At the time, they were sometimes called “Normans” (for “men from the North”) or pagans by the populations who lived alongside them.
They attacked monasteries because they hated Christianity
False. They simply knew that religious buildings contained valuable objects and gold. These polytheists did not hold any grudges against the Christians or the Muslims, with whom they came into contact around the Mediterranean. Many Scandinavians actually converted.
The Vikings were traders and travellers as much as they were warriors
True. Sarah Baccianti even uses the term “businessmen” to describe them because they were always looking to do business. The generic word “Viking” describes their summertime activity, pillaging. This is quite well documented in the first episodes of the series, Vikings. They were great travellers: two sagas tell the story of the expedition of Erik the Red and his son to Greenland and Newfoundland in about the year 1000. Some conquered Kiev and were called “Rus’“ by the Arabs, the Byzantines and the Slavs. At the beginning of the XIIth century, an expedition by King Sigurd the Crusader visited Sicily, Byzance and Jerusalem before returning to Norway.
These travellers brought nothing but trouble to Europe
False.They brought their judicial culture (the word “law” comes from Old Norse) and their fairly democratic approach to public administration. Under their influence, commerce developed in their colonies.
Of course, but they were illiterate brutes
False. Sarah Baccianti considers that the Icelandic sagas written in Old Norse are jewels of medieval literature. Stories about Thor, Odin and Loki, heroes and heroines, dragons and monsters, family quarrels, dead people who speak and the exploits of ancestors. Texts that are serious and irreverent by turns, passed down orally until around the year 1000, then written down using the Latin alphabet (with the addition of some particular signs for sounds that do not exist in our languages), far more practical than the runes carved into wood or stone. Hundreds of manuscripts have been preserved. It is worth noting that it was the poets’ mission to take part in battles in order to tell of the feats of the warriors.
They left their mark on the English language
True. Old Norse influenced Old English. This is demonstrated by the fact that there are many words starting with “sk” like “sky”, “skin” and “skirt”. But also words like “egg”, “dirt”, “skittle” and the verbs “to glitter”, “to kindle” and “to ransack”. The word “law” comes from “lög”. Curiously, the origins of the pronouns “their” (eirra) and “they” (eir) come from the North.
Old Norse can be studied, spoken and written
True. Sarah Baccianti is currently translating a saga from Old Norse into English. This language, which is not too different from modern Icelandic, can be read out loud and has its own grammar. But it is a difficult exercise all the same!
Viking society was democratic
Fairly true: In the Xth century, the Icelanders creating the Althing, a kind of parliament, as a forum to settle conflicts and discuss laws − although in some cases the debates became so heated that some people lost their lives. A judiciary system was established: for example, if someone killed a member of another family, that family could demand compensation.
Women were well regarded
True For example, wives could demand a divorce orally. Whilst they were not directly involved in assemblies such as the Althing, they did give advice and played a mediatory role during conflicts between families (or start them!). They were in charge of the farms. Although women did not take part in the fighting or the ransacking, they did travel to the colonies. What is more, sagas featured some heroines. All of this changed as soon as Christianity took hold.
The Vikings series is a good source of information
Fairly true. Sarah Baccianti remarks that the Vikings presented in this story are “not too far” from reality. Compared with older films or comics – which portray helmets with horns that never even existed – it represents considerable progress!