Empire Apart by Brian Landers

Winner of THE PEOPLES BOOK PRIZE July 2009
The Vikings

In recent years the history of the Vikings has been rewritten. No longer portrayed as bloodthirsty barbarians butchering helpless monks and looting their treasures, the Vikings have been rehabilitated as intrepid warriors, explorers and traders. Viewed through the prism of modern sensibilities, their sturdy values of hardihood and independence have become the bedrock upon which modern Scandinavian societies are built.


The truth, however, is that the Vikings really were barbarians. Their initial impact on the societies they attacked was wholly negative. Defenceless men, women and children were slaughtered or carried away into slavery. Precious manuscripts were lost for ever. Homes and farmsteads, churches and monasteries were razed to the ground. The English king Edmund was tied to a tree and used for archery practice before having his head cut off. Alphege, Archbishop of Canterbury, was pelted with skulls and bones before being finished off with a battle-axe. If their gods needed propitiating the Vikings turned to human sacrifice. Dozens of infant skeletons excavated in one village well testify that infanticide was an acceptable answer for unwanted children. Rape was a routine part of Viking raids.


And yet there is another side. Among themselves it was a matter of honour for a man not to injure a woman, even accidentally. When attacking another Viking household women and children were allowed to leave before their menfolk were burnt alive. The Vikings created great trading centres from Dublin to Kiev. Their burial sites contain Arab and Asian artifacts as well as intricate jewellery made by Viking craftsmen, and they eventually converted to Christianity – although their commitment to Christian values was not always obvious: King Óláf Tryggvason forced Christianity on Norwegian Vikings by threatening to end the sacrifice of slaves and criminals, and sacrifice unbaptised village elders instead.


The achievements of the Vikings as warriors, traders, craftsmen and sailors are beyond dispute. Whether they were barbarians or heroes is less a question of fact than of opinion. The Vikings’ place in history is determined less by what they did than by who is telling their story. History is less a glimpse of the past than a sideways glance at the present. Nowadays the Vikings are regarded as part of western Europe’s ancestry, and are seen not as they were but as we wish they were.


The outstanding feature of the Vikings is the way they extended their influence beyond their homeland on a remote fringe of the European landmass. To some this is a story of mercantile expansion and settlement; to others it is best described as ‘imperialism’. Through military conquest and colonisation Viking power was felt far beyond the shores of Scandinavia. Their attacks on England are well chronicled, but they also burnt Hamburg and many other German cities, besieged Lisbon, sacked Santiago de Compostella, assaulted Seville and raided Mallorca. They sailed up rivers like the Rhine, Rhone, Loire and Seine – from which they repeatedly attacked Paris. After one attack on Easter Day 845 a Viking band took part of the city gate as a good luck charm; it didn’t work, as most of them died of disease on the way home.


The Vikings were not content with raiding and looting; they wanted territory. Although there was never a single Viking emperor the Vikings wanted an empire. By modern standards their empire was fairly puny. They seized control of the Hebrides and Shetland islands off the British coast, and kept them for centuries after their power had been smashed on the mainland. They created their own kingdom in Ireland, and conquered and held much of northern England. Charles III of France was forced to cede a significant part of his country to Viking warlords in 911, and 155 years later the descendants of these Norsemen conquered England.


But the Vikings’ horizons were much wider than Europe. They sold their slaves in north Africa, provided elite guards for the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople and are known to have reached Jerusalem, Baghdad and perhaps Alexandria in Egypt. Much of our information on the Vikings comes from their own sagas, but one of the principal impartial sources is the Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan who, when travelling up the Volga river to meet the king of the Bulgars, met Viking traders coming the other way. These were Vikings who had originally crossed the Gulf of Finland from Sweden soon after their cousins from Norway and Denmark had started raiding western Europe. The Swedish Vikings had raided and then traded around Lake Ladoga, and then thousands of miles down the Volga and Dnieper rivers to the Black Sea and Constantinople. On the way they took control of a vast swathe of territory centred on their new capital of Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine.


Much better known are the Vikings who travelled in the opposite direction, west across the Atlantic. Voyaging in vessels often smaller than the tourist boats today plying the Thames or Seine, they crossed many miles of storm-wracked ocean, steering their open boats with nothing more sophisticated than a board attached to the right-hand side of the stern (the steer board that gives English mariners the term starboard).


The most famous Viking of them all was Leif Ericson, well known to generations of precocious schoolchildren as the man who really discovered America, half a millennium before Columbus. The story goes that his father, Eric the Red, was banished from the Viking colonies in Iceland after being accused of murder, and sailed west to establish the first European settlement in Greenland. His son Leif first travelled to the ancestral homeland in Norway, where he was converted to Christianity by King Olaf who sent him back to Greenland to convert the settlers there. On the return journey Leif got lost and managed to miss Greenland completely, quite an achievement in itself, and eventually found himself on the shore of a new continent. Amazed by the natural bounty of his new-found land, and particularly the profusion of grapes, he called it Vinland and returned home with news of his discovery. (What Leif thought were grapes were in fact not grapes at all but giant huckleberries.) On the way back he came across a stricken trading vessel and, after rescuing the crew, was presented with the cargo in gratitude. For this, and not for discovering America, he acquired the nickname Leif the Lucky.


Back in Greenland Leif set about converting the settlers to Christianity, starting with his mother, who erected Greenland’s first church, while his brother, Thorvald, returned to Vinland to found the first settlement. Unfortunately Thorvald did not share his brother’s luck and was killed by natives in the winter of 1004.


Until 1963 many historians were deeply sceptical about the Vinland saga, but in that year archaeologists uncovered a Viking settlement at L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. It now appears certain that Vikings did reach the New World and may have lived there for a number of generations.


Leif Ericson is only famous because his name is linked with America. If he had been the first European to land on the Falkland Islands he would not receive even a footnote in the history books. The truth is that his fame is totally unwarranted. He certainly did not discover ‘America’. Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that the Vikings visited anywhere in what is now the United States of America (they explored a small part of the Canadian coastline), it is clear that when the Vikings arrived the land was already full of people whose ancestors had discovered the continent thousands of years before. Leif Ericson was in any case almost certainly not the first Viking to reach the North American continent: that honour probably belonged to a Viking trader named Bjarni Herjolson. Whether Bjarni was the first Viking to touch on the western shores cannot be proved, but it is known with some confidence that he reached the American continent around the turn of the millennium and, on his return to Greenland, sold his boat to Leif Ericson. Not surprisingly, however, American myth-makers have preferred to trace their origins to Leif Ericson, intrepid missionary and explorer, rather than to Barney the travelling salesman.


More importantly, Ericson’s discovery had absolutely no lasting impact on world history. No trace was left in the lives of the native people of North America or on the lives of the Vikings back home, and his voyage had no impact on later voyages of exploration (despite frenetic attempts by some historians to prove a link – Columbus may have visited Iceland where he may have heard about Ericson’s exploits which may have made him more confident in his convictions and so on).


The contrast with the Vikings’ voyages to the east could not be stronger. Well before a handful of Norwegian Vikings landed on the Canadian shore, descendants of Swedish Vikings were raiding along the coast of Turkey in their hundreds if not thousands. Leif Ericson has no historical significance, but his name is remembered because of its virtually fictitious link with America. The name of the Viking leader who established the great trading city of Novgorod and founded a principality that came to dominate the region for centuries afterwards is almost completely forgotten. There are few romantic tales about him, and indeed very little other than his name is actually known. He is variously described as a merchant prince whose primary concern was the development of new trade routes, as a principled mercenary soldier invited with his two brothers to protect the natives from their enemies, or as a vicious warlord taking territory and treasure by force. Yet it is that forgotten Viking warlord whose contribution to world history was monumental. The man himself may have passed into oblivion but his name has lived on in a form known to everyone.


The Viking prince was named Rurik, and his followers were known simply as Rurik’s people, or Rus; his territory was Rurik’s land: Russia.