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  • Writer's pictureAn Oxford Historian

The 'Vikings' - 'culture-sponges'

Far from the aloof ethnic group envisioned by historical misuse, the 'Vikings' show a consistent trend towards assimilation within other cultures, adapting their ways of life to fit within local power systems, and to benefit from them.

Beyond studying a single aspect in great detail, there are 2 primary ways to conceptualise the 'Vikings' within a macro-historical narrative, and their impact on the world. One is their role in establishing connecting-lines across Europe (and further afield), raiding and trading. The flow of people, ideas and objects helped open up the world, and the way that others saw the 'Vikings' (and the Vikings saw other) tells us about notions of self and the 'Other'. This has been well observed throughout the historical literature.

The second important way to understand the 'Vikings', I'm going to suggest, is to picture them as 'culture-sponges'. Far removed from the idea of cultural purity that the 'Vikings' often get misused to represent in modern political discourse, the 'Vikings' consistently adopted to local cultures and adapted their ways of life for their benefit.

Evidence from three areas of Scandinavian activity - England, the Frankish Continent, and Eastern Europe - points towards the historical validity of this argument.

The Danelaw

I have written elsewhere about the benefits of approaching the 'Vikings' through a post-colonial lense in regard to the settlement of England. The archaeological evidence makes clear that a 'hybrid' material culture developed, through which a new Anglo-Scandinavian identity emerged, and 'Anglo-Saxon' cultural traits were adopted and developed. Unique artefacts like Norse Bells are found only at Anglo-Scandinavian sites. The remarkable variation in burial rites during the Danelaw seems also to point towards this hybridity - rather than maintaining a uniquely 'Viking' method of burial (easily archaeologically identifiable), there appears a broad spectrum of practices. Linguistically, among forenames, this hybridity seems also to be evident.

Far from staying culturally unique, then, the evidence in England points to a relatively quick blending of cultures, with Scandinavians adopting local cultural trends, and creating their own new 'hybrid' ones. Although the scale of the settlement is a long-debated question, this seems to be a deliberate attempt by a new ruling set of Scandinavians to secure their legitimacy and support by fitting within systems of power and adopting their own ones.

The Danelaw - Image Source: Wikipedia

Vikings on the Continent

It is clear that, within contemporary Europe, there was an understanding of this focus on assimilation by the 'Vikings'. Coupland has written about the deliberate Frankish policy turning 'poachers to gamekeepers', whereby Scandinavians were folded into the Frankish systems in order to defend against other Scandinavian aggression. Willingly, the 'Vikings' consistently adopted Frankish overlorship in return for land, power and potential wealth.

The most obvious example of this overall process is Rollo who, in 911, was given Normandy by the Franks - it was his descendants who, in a century an a half, would cross the Channel and conquer England in 1066.

This perhaps differs from the English case in that the emphasis is placed on the Franks, encouraging integration for their own political ends. However, the consistency with which Scandinavians took the Franks up on their offer seems to illustrate their happiness with the outcome and its benefits - indeed, it proved incredibly profitable for many. Again, rather than simple raiding, the 'Vikings' integrate themselves within local systems to their own advantage.

Rollo - Image Source: Wikipedia

The Rus

Finally, we have the historically difficult case of the Rus. Although a lot here is unclear, it appears that Swedish traders, heading down the Volga to trade slaves and fur with the Caliphate for silver, established some kind of political identity during the 8th century. Our major contemporary account of the Rus comes from Ibn Fadlan, a traveller of the Caliphate, and I have written elsewhere about the questionable legitimacy of his narrative.

If Ibn Fadlan's account is in fact accurate, it points to a remarkable adoption of local customs. Although the debate over whether ship-burials in mainland Scandinavia featured burning is hotly contested, it seems likely that this is a local tradition adopted by the Rus. Many of the elements of the Rus funeral described by Ibn Fadlan are unknown in Scandinavia, including the rather ominous 'Angel of Death', and it is plausible this is an adopted local tradition.

Furthermore, the description of the role and politics of the 'king' of the Rus that Ibn Fadlan describes is unlike anything in contemporary Scandinavia but holds much in common with the local Khazar. Coupled with the suggestion from a letter of Basil I that their leader was named the 'Chaganus', a term used by the Avars and Khazars, the theme of local adoption seems convincing.

It is possible that Ibn Fadlan's descriptions are unlike anything we see in Scandinavia for the simple reasont they are fiction, written for the amusement of the Caliphate. If, however, they are a genuine (or even partially genuine) reflection of truth, this seems to be another clear example of local traditions being adopted by the Scandinavians to their own benefit.

Viking Iceland - the exception?

It is worth noting, as the exception that proves the rule, the case of the Vikings in Iceland. Iceland was settled during late 9th and early 10th centuries into what was essentially a vacuum - no indigenous population existed on the Ireland. There developed in Iceland a complex system of law-giving, adovacy and representative 'parliament' - indeed, Iceland holds the claim to the oldest parliament in the world. The socio-cultural developments of Iceland are unique and unparalleled among the rest of the 'Viking' world. It is remarkable, therefore, that the greatest socio-cultural development among 'Viking' populations is in a situation of necessity, where no local customs could be adopted or changed. With no systems of power to exploit, the settlers were forced to develop their own.

Conclusions - rethinging the Vikings

Far from mindless violent raiders, there is evidence of consistent great intelligence among the political manouvres of the 'Vikings'. Across Europe, they appear to have integrated themselves into pre-existing networks of power to ensure their success. Rather than maintaining unique 'Viking' identities, they blended and adopted into new 'hybrids' to survive and thrive. This proves another clear example of the need to re-examine the 'Viking' age far beyond the simple presentation of an orgy of violence that modern media pumps out.

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