I have news for you. The Vikings were nothing like those sword wielding warriors you see on tv. They did not dress in blood stained leather and ragged tunics if they could avoid it – they preferred silk and colored linnen. They didn’t sport those fancy hairstyles that the tv show with the same name has made popular – both men and women took pride in their long, well tended hair. And the name «Viking» wouldn’t have made much sense among the Norsemen themselves – their sense of nationality was much more regional. By the way, even at the height of the Viking Age, the British didn’t talk about them as Vikings, but as Danes.
So, who were the Vikings? Or, more correctly, who were the Norse? Only a small portion of the Norsemen were Vikings, after all. I have used the name «Viking» in this blog when I write about the Norse ethnic groups, as it has another meaning now than it used to have. I even like to think of myself as a Viking. For me, a Viking is a Norseman who lives in a fjord, hence the name. But let’s be honest, it used to be a synonym for a pirate. Piracy was a preferred method of aquiring capital, which could then be used to buy loyalty from rivalling chieftains, hire mercenaries etc. Most Norse kings started out as pirates out of both habit and necessity. Their armies were usually small, but consisted of very skilled warriors – whom we might call true Vikings. But they were a minority. Looking at the Norse society, it doesn’t make much sense to think about it as a society dominated by warriors. In fact, there were more Norsemen and – women living as slaves than warriors. The Norwegian population around the year 1000 consisted of 25-30% slaves, and we didn’t have nearly as many warriors / Vikings. The rest of the population were occupied with the task of putting food on the table – they were farmers, fishermen, hunters and craftsmen. They raised children, brewed ale and amused themselves with parties and sports. They were just normal people.
Let me add a couple of words about the slaves – as they were very present in the Norse society. I know that even today, some Norwegians hate to think about the fact that they might have a «thrall» ancestor. I have seen some ugly and inhuman statements coming from people who should know better. I mean, nobody chose to be a slave. A slave was someone who was either caught and enslaved, or someone who’s parents were both slaves. They were often looked down upon and were considered to have no honor. Some chieftains offered them freedom, and especially the mighty Erling Skjalgsson methodically gave his slaves land that they could cultivate (in the evening), which they could use to buy themselves free from slavery. Erling is said to use the «ransom money» from his slaves to buy more slaves who were offered the same deal.
Recent development in DNA tracking has destroyed most of the old myths and it is said that Scandinavian DNA is a mix of mostly northern European ethnic groups, dominantly Norse but with traces from all the peoples the Norsemen visited, there is even a native American woman in that mix. The Norsemen were said to be popular among the ladies and could offer both wealth and protection back in Scandinavia – quite a good deal for a young woman a thousand years ago. And yes, some poor women were brought to Scandinavia as slaves and raped and we need to accept the fact that the resulting children are also a part of our DNA.
Interestingly enough, the only two isolated Viking settlements we know of, Greenland and the North American east coast, are also the only two settlements where the settlers either died out or left. Was the genetical pool to small? I believe it was.
So while it might be correct to think of the Vikings as warriors, most Norsemen and -women were not. Most sea voyages weren’t done with the intention of piracy. To put it simple – the North Sea was the motor highway of that time and it really doesn’t make much sense to think about the longship as mainly a vessel for war. The Norsemen were mostly peaceful. But don’t get me wrong. They weren’t pacifists.
-Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen
Read more: Becoming a Viking