The Age that Never Existed. How Museum Bureaucrats Created the Viking Age.

As Robert Egger’s epic The Northman hits the movie screens today, the eternally intriguing Viking Age is once again in the spotlight. Based on a story from Gesta Danorum by Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1160–1220), The Northman follows a man named Amleth on his journey for vengeance after his uncle murdered his father and married his mother.

Dubbed by its publicity campaign as the most accurate Viking movie ever made, The Northman shows the Viking North in all its cold, damp, dark, and messy glory. It taps into the strong sense of honor and vengeance-based vendettas that make stories like Njal’s Saga such a compelling read.

Scandinavia of the Viking Age was a fascinating world and a vibrant high culture. A sophisticated oral-based legal system, technically-advanced poetry made up on the spot, beautiful craftsmanship, state-of-the-art ship building, worldwide travels, rune stones where art and literacy (or perhaps better said, runacy) meet, and a religion that straddled the natural and supernatural and bent gender roles out of shape.

The Vikings attract such attention because we can project onto them our own anxieties and beliefs. Apart from the brief messages left behind on the runestones that litter the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish countrysides, the Vikings left no writings behind. Everything we know comes from people who met them, or people who wrote about them centuries after they were gone. Because the Vikings do not have a historical voice of their own, we can make them say and do whatever we want them to.

The most striking example of molding the Vikings into an image in which we can reflect ourselves are the Vikings themselves. Why? Because the Vikings never existed. And the Viking Age never happened.

Historical time periods are at the foundation of all history writing. Historical time periods are the sine qua non of history. The historical time periods of western history are based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, invented in Rome and medieval Europe, respectively. Based on how these calendars divide up time, intellectuals and historians across the centuries have identified what they believed were important historical events, and from these events, they organized the past into historical time periods. For example, the Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because during the Renaissance they were in the middle of the time of the Renaissance writers and Antiquity, and by Antiquity these writers meant Rome. The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because the one thousand years they lasted were considered to be of lesser value and interest than what came before and after.

A time period begins and ends with turning points. Scholars decide what those turning points are. This is not to say that all time periods are made up out of the blue and have no connection to events in the past, but a time period begins and ends depending on what scholars deem to be important.

In traditional history writing, the turning points were precise. The Roman Empire in the west ended in 476 CE when chieftain Odoacer deposed the western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus and declared himself king instead of emperor. The Middle Ages ended in 1492 when Christopher Columbus reached present-day Bahamas. Or in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittemberg. Or in the fourteenth-century when Petrarc discovered the letters of Roman consul Cicero. Wait… I’m confused…

Today, scholars have mostly abandoned the idea that time periods begin and end on a dime. Instead, we acknowledge that there are transition periods when one type of society morphs into another. This is why different scholars can study Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and still talk about the same time period. It all depends on what questions the scholars want answered.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

History is considered to have begun in a region of Europe when Latin literacy is introduced. For Scandinavia this happened around the eleventh century. The combination of the introduction of Latin literacy, the introduction of Christianity, and the early formation of kingdoms rather than chieftancies is enough of a convergence of turning points to say that the eleventh century is when Scandinavian history, and also the Middle Ages began.

Before the Middle Ages in Scandinavia was the Iron Age. The Iron Age is not a historical time period; it belongs to archaeology. The Iron Age is the final stage of the prehistoric time periods known as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Iron Age in Scandinavia lasted between 500 BCE and 1050 CE. The Scandinavian Iron Age can be divided into subperiods: the Early Iron Age, which consists of the pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age, and the Later Iron Age, which consists of the Vendel Age and the Viking Age.

In the nineteenth century, when archaeology and history became professionalized and museums were invented, bureaucrats needed to label and categorize all the artifacts that became part of the collections housed in these new museums. At the same time, during the course of the nineteenth century, a change in the masculine ideal took place in Scandinavia.

As demonstrated by Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom in their book Vikingen. En historia om 1800-talets manlighet (Historiska Media, 2021), in moving away from the emotionally oriented masculinity of the eighteenth century with its wigs, powdered faces, and high heels, a new type of masculinity was found in the Icelandic and Norse sagas, one of physical strength, honor, and endurance. This new type of ideal man was given the name “Viking,” after the part-time job of raiding and trading that some men participated in during the later years of the Iron Age. In the 1870s, when museums began cataloguing the archaeological finds dated to the late Iron Age, what they saw were artifacts from a high culture that stood out. They named this time period after the new type of ideal man. Thus, the Viking Age was born with a life span from 800 to 1050 CE.

Helmet excavated at Vendel, Sweden. Source: Wikipedia.

The Viking Age as a distinct time period ran into problems pretty quickly. In 1881, elaborate and rich graves were discovered in the village of Vendel, near Uppsala north of Stockholm in Sweden. What the archaeologists found at Vendel were massive ships graves with swords, helmets, shields, horses, drinking vessels, and board games, to name a few of the many fantastic artifacts.

However, the graves at Vendel were dated to between 550 and 800 CE, that is to say, they predated the Viking Age. But since the Viking Age already existed and instead of extending the Viking Age further into the past, yet another time period was invented: the Vendel Age.

Because of the similarities between the two, there is reason to argue that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age could have been consolidated into one and the same time period.

Here you might say that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age should be different time periods because the Vikings had ships with sails and they used those ships to go abroad and loot, trade, and be hired as mercenaries. Just look at what happened in England!

Yes, but, there is evidence in Scandinavia of close connections with the European continent and the British Isles well before either the Vendel Age or the Viking Age. Artifacts have shown that men from Scandinavia enlisted with the Roman army as early as the 4th century CE. Archaeological similarities show connections between early medieval England and Vendel Age Sweden. And then there is the eternal puzzle of Beowulf, considered the quintessential Old English poem but which takes place in Sweden and Denmark of the Vendel Age (also known as the Late Germanic Iron Age in Danish archaeology). Excavations at Uppåkra, today in southern Sweden but during the Vendel and Viking Ages part of the Danish realm, further reinforce the Vendel Age as a high culture with extensive international contacts.

If the beginning of the Viking Age is in flux, so is the end. In their teaching materials for grade schools, the Swedish National Museum dates the end of the Viking Age to c. 1100, thus pushing the transition to the Middle Ages another 50 years into the future. What we see here is how definitive dates have been replaced by transition periods. There is even a case to be made that the Viking Age ended in the thirteenth century when Iceland became part of the kingdom of Norway and the Icelandic Free State came to an end.

To further demonstrate how the Viking Age never existed, in European and North American history writing the Viking Age is considered part of the Middle Ages. This makes sense from the European point of view because the Vikings appear in the historical sources of medieval Byzantium, England, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. Interpreting the Vikings within a medieval context makes sense when you study how these societies reacted to the Scandinavian presence. But to say that the Viking Age in Scandinavia was medieval and that it lasted between 793 (the raid on Lindisfarne in England) and 1066 (the battle of Hastings, also in England) is to apply an interpretation and periodization to a region where none of this has any relevance.

So what about the Vikings themselves? What time period would they say they lived in? Well, they wouldn’t have said that they lived during the Viking Age, that is for sure. They didn’t live during the Middle Ages, either. And they wouldn’t have called themselves Vikings. To be a “viking” is to travel abroad to raid and trade and come back with riches and a reputation that precedes you. For the people who lived in Iron Age Scandinavia, the word “viking” was a job description, and not the name of a people nor the name of an ideal type of masculinity.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Additional sources:
Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm. A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020).
Cat Jarman, River Kings. A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavian to the Silk Roads (Pegasus Books, 2022).

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