The Vikings’ Bad Boy Reputation Is Back With a Vengeance

A major new exhibition is reviving the Norse seafarers’ iconic image as rampagers and pillagers

This double-edged iron sword was found in Denmark’s Tisso Lake. (Carsten Snejbjerg)
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He argues the first brigands were communities in their own right. In time, the small parties of a few men and a couple of ships expanded into massive fleets of several hundred vessels and thousands of Vikings. “We do not really understand how this escalation took place,” says Price, “nor where these men actually came from in organizational or social terms.” In those days before nation states, Vikings lived in small regional clusters under petty kings and chieftains. “There is no sense that these were ‘national’ armies, so what were they?” Price asks. “And how did they operate for decades at a time in hostile territory?”

For more than a millennium, these adventurers were largely dismissed as bloodthirsty barbarians. This caricature was perpetuated by Christian monks who never forgot the savage sacking, in 793, of the Lindisfarne monastery on a tidal island off the northeast coast of England. Monks were tossed into the sea to drown, murdered in the abbey and carried off as slaves along with the church riches. “To judge from the accounts of people who had been looted,” says Jerso, “the Vikings were not nice people.”

Which is understandable. “If your monastery is being burned down, you don’t take time to admire the beautiful jewelry worn by the people burning down your monastery,” British Museum curator Gareth Williams has said.

With the publication of Peter Sawyer’s The Age of the Vikings in 1962, a cuddly makeover began to change the popular perception of the Nordic voyagers. “We Danes call that softening stueren,” says Anne Sorensen, a curator at the Viking Ship Museum. “The expression means ‘to clean something up enough so that it is appropriate to discuss in your living room.’” The reboot coincided with what Pedersen terms “a great investment in settlement excavations.” Suddenly, the Vikings were peaceful farmers, shrewd traders, artists and craftsmen of considerable subtlety and sophistication, early multiculturalists.

Norse poetry—the “waves on the shore of the mind-sea,” as the Vikings described it—was reclaimed as some of the most carefully constructed and beautifully rendered of any ancient civilization. “This attempt to present ‘new’ Vikings to the world was quite successful,” allows Price, “but it also tended to act as a kind of replacement—the old violent Vikings had become instead caring, sharing ones.” What Williams dismisses as a “fluff-bunny” rehabilitation reached its reductio ad absurdum in the Monty Python sketch in which fun-loving Vikings at a café in the London suburbs chorus “Spam, Spammity Spam, wonderful Spam.”

The new exhibition offers a fresh appraisal of Viking society as equal parts of a whole: We encounter them at sea and at war, but also as bearers of spiritual and religious concepts of immense complexity. As Williams puts it, “We are trying to provide a balanced view. The Vikings are raiders and marauders and they are traders and explorers and craftsmen. Fundamentally they are travelers—and travelers with open minds.”

Now Regin made a sword. He told Sigurd to take the sword and said he was no swordsmith if this one broke. Sigurd hewed at the anvil and split it to the base. The blade did not shatter or break.
—The Saga of the Volsungs

Jerso throws himself (literally) into fierce Viking role-playing. When not mock-marauding at festivals, he practices glima, a type of Scandinavian folk wrestling featured in Viking poetry. He loves to field-test bows and swords. “Historical research,” he explains. “I’m not sure if the swords were designed for chopping off a head, but skeletal remains suggest they did.” Jerso has tried out copies on sodden, rolled-up tatami mats, which he says have an equal difficulty of cut. “Really, all that’s required is one easy motion. You don’t have to be powerful.”

A thin smile creases Jerso’s lips. “I’m 48,” he says. “At my age, I’d either be a very, very old Viking or a very, very dead one.”

Jerso’s sword is not unlike the ones that repose like dark punctuation marks at the end of the Copenhagen show’s parade of relics, artifacts and exalted bric-a-brac. The objects were assembled out of old collections and new discoveries in 12 countries—including hoards from Norway, England and Russia—and range from the august to the mundane. Only a few of the pieces have ever been on view together at any one time.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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