Vikings: Life and Legend is the British Museum’s first major exhibition on the helmetted marauders for decades. Jack Watkins went along to see if their story could still chill the blood…
‘Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race… The heathens have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of our saints like dung in the streets.’
The words above are by Alcuin, who’d been a librarian at the cathedral church of York in the 780s, not long before the Vikings began their raids on the coastline of Northumbria. By the time he wrote this account, he was rather more securely holed up on the European mainland as a scholar at the court of the emperor Charlemagne, but he retained strong contacts within his native kingdom, and was generally deemed honest in his reportage.
Generations of schoolchildren have delighted in reading about the brutish exploits of the Vikings. The juvenile novels of Henry Treece (with titles like 'Horned Helmet', 'Vinland the Good' and 'The Road to Miklagard') were a particular favourite of mine. The Vikings were romantic heathens of the first order, we agreed quite happily (and watching the physical ‘long ball’ approach of Scandinavian football teams today, it’s possible to believe that not much has changed).
Yet when I went to university in the 1980s, those wretched academics were putting it about that, really, the Vikings weren’t so bad after all. They were, they said, highly gifted craftsmen, brilliant with wood and metalwork – yawn, yawn – and much of their bad image was owing to the fact that the chronicles of the day were written by Christians, who were naturally biased against them –snore – and who overlooked more positive aspects, such as their loyalty and desire to establish peaceful trading links.
Fortunately, the British Museum’s exhibition allows the more warrior-inclined among us to have it both ways. It doesn’t stint on their fierce military deeds, and shows us what terrifically enterprising adventurers they were, but it caters for the more sensitive types among visitors too, allocating ample space for their skillfully decorated jewellery and brooches.
The great centrepiece of the show consists of the surviving timbers of the longest Viking warship ever found. At a whopping one hundred and twenty-one feet, this monster was longer than the Mary Rose. It was built to hold at least one hundred warriors, with forty pairs of oars. The exhibition is the first to be staged in the museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, but even in this newly created space, there is barely room to fit the craft in. Only about 20% of the timbers survive, but they have been sited within a remarkable, specially made stainless steel frame that reconstructs the original size and shape of the ship.
Just imagine the fear evoked in communities living by the sea or along rivers when one of these vessels – the Vikings were notorious for their lightning-quick raids, appearing out of the mist to violently ransack the villages, and then vanishing with the loot just as rapidly– suddenly ranged into view? These boats, so sleek and narrow-hulled, were the high-speed trains of their day, and you can be sure those witnessing their arrival were praying that the hard nuts on board hadn’t forgotten their return tickets home.
The ship was discovered by accident at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, in 1997, around the time an extension was being laid out. Workmen found themselves cutting through the mysterious and massive oak timbers of what turned out to be several ships, including this particularly large example. It post-dates the era of the great raids, however. Scientific testing puts its construction at c1025, when Canute, or Cnut, was already installed as king of England – as well as ruling a considerable portion of Scandinavia – having conquered this country in 1016.
The Vikings knew what they were doing when they built these intimidating ships. They made up songs about them, calling them dragons, and made sure their offspring were steeped in the warrior tradition at an early age, handing them toy warships to play with. At the end of their lives, members of the upper echelons of the community were often buried in large boats.
Pin with dragon's head, AD 950-1000. Hedeby, modern Germany. Copper alloy. L 16.2 cm. Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig. © Wikinger Museum Haithabu
No Viking went to sea without his sword, and there are plenty of them here. And one axe is really decorated with a golden shaft, just as described in the Norse sagas. It is apparently the only one known to survive. These men truly were given to displays of bravado that can only send a chill down the feeble modern spine. The surviving jawbone of a young warrior shows filed grooves within his teeth, and these may have also been coloured to make them stand out. They would certainly have created a fiercely distinctive appearance – and been proof of his ability to endure pain – conferring new meaning to the phrase ‘grin and bear it’.
The Vikings made it, we learn, as far afield as Morocco and Central Asia and Canada. They traded far and wide. The Vale of York hoard of Viking treasure, found in a Yorkshire field in 2007, is on display here, and it includes silver and coins from Russia and Afghanistan. A silver collar has a runic description which explains that the Vikings went to Frisia and ‘exchanged gifts’ with the locals. An early example of irony, Nordic style?
I also liked some of the wry observations handed down through Viking oral traditions, which have been mounted on the walls of the galleries. ‘A greedy bloke, unless he curbs his bent, will eat himself in to lifelong grief,’ says one. ‘He’s often derided when he comes among the wise, a man who’s a fool in the belly.’
Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjørnehøj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. © The National Museum of Denmark;
As for the arts and crafts, you can’t deny that the Vikings were gifted. And just like today, their fashion was essentially for show, not practicality. A gold neck ring from Denmark originally weighed 2kg and must have been impossibly cumbersome for the wearer. A brooch used to fasten a man’s cloak, made of silver, has a pin so large it could surely have taken someone’s eye out. The exhibition’s curator Gareth Williams admits that scholars probably went too far in emphasising the creative aspects of Viking culture thirty years ago, underplaying the violence of the warriors and their ability to spread terror. He calls it the ‘fluffy bunny’ school of Viking studies.
However, although this show strives to restore the better balance, I came away feeling a little more attention should have been given to some of the leading figures of Viking history. Canute does feature , which you’d expect as the creator of a great Scandinavian empire, but it’s in a pretty incidental way. Eric Bloodaxe was another ‘character’ and legendarily intimidating figure. And let’s not forget that William the Conqueror and the Normans were descended from the Vikings. This is a show that tends to concentrate on the artifacts, rather than personalities, which is worthy enough, but possibly misses a trick. What makes history appealing is the stories behind it, something academics too often seem to disdain.
'Vikings: Life and Legend' continues at the British Museum until 22 June