The Ancient Mariners: Forget the Horned Helmets: The Vikings Were Traders as Well as Raiders, Remaking Western Europe-And Sailing to America

Newsweek, April 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Ancient Mariners: Forget the Horned Helmets: The Vikings Were Traders as Well as Raiders, Remaking Western Europe-And Sailing to America


Looting! Raiding! Marauding! Yeah, it's a kick of a way to make a living, not to mention liven up a monotonous farming existence, but look at what it did to the poor, misunderstood Vikings. Some overwrought scribe writes in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that their A.D. 793 raid on Lindisfarne monastery in northeast England (considered the start of the Viking age) "miserably afflicted the inhabitants" with "fiery dragons... flying in the air" as "the heathen" engaged in "rapine and slaughter"--and the world forgets that the Vikings spurred urban development in northern Europe. And just because the Vikings realized how much portable wealth lay around (they extorted six tons of gold and silver bullion from the Parisians in 845), is that any reason to forget that they invented sails that tack into the wind? And, OK, the Vikings held nobles and churchmen for ransom, annihilated Tours and Orleans, occupied Chartres, plundered Bayeaux (nice tapestry) and Evreaux--but must the world therefore overlook the dandy little reindeer carvings they made? And did we mention Eric the Red, patron saint of all realtors who name cheap housing developments "Eden Estates"? Eric, exiled from Iceland after a murder or two, hoped to attract others to the godforsaken slab of ice he now called home. He named it Greenland.

Scholars have long labored to separate Viking reality from Viking legend, and now's their chance. This year marks the millennial anniversary of the Vikings' arrival in Newfoundland. In 1000, a band of men and women set off from Greenland, crossed Baffin Bay and hugged the coast of Baffin Island in their mighty wooden ships, escorted by Atlantic puffins and great auks. Under the command of Leif Ericson, the Norsemen sought timber for their boats and homes, pasture for their flocks and grapes for their wineries. But when they sailed into the bay on the tip of Newfoundland and encountered the Native Americans, they accomplished much more than a shopping errand: for the first time in human history, the Old World made contact with the New across the Atlantic. It was "the first step in the process by which human populations became reconnected into a single global system," says archeologist William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution. "Humanity had finally come full circle." The anniversary of that meeting is producing an outpouring of new scholarship, and a new translation (published by--really--Viking) of the Iceland sagas, the heroic tales of events from 875 to 1000. For anyone not up for 782 pages along the lines of "It's no great news that Hrafnkel kills people. He's pretty handy with a wood-axe," there is a fascinating Viking exhibit at the Smithsonian (April 20 to Sept. 4), a lavish companion book and a two-hour "Nova" special airing in May on PBS.

(Just to get one stereotype out of the way: yes, the Vikings did wear helmets. No, the helmets did not sport horns. Vikings are not Wagnerian opera.)

The Viking raids began in the late eighth century, for which you can blame those innocent-looking Danes. Danish kings expanded their hegemony into Sweden and Norway, and many local lords and landowners chose exile and a life of raiding. They first targeted the Shetlands and Orkneys, Scotland, Ireland and England--former trading partners. But as Fitzhugh says, "Why pay for it if you could steal it?" Nevertheless, farming, trading and diplomacy soon "became as common as raiding and pillaging for Vikings living abroad," he says. In other words, the Viking legacy goes beyond ruined monasteries. They "redistribute[d] the wealth that was stored in the treasuries of churches, kings and magnates," says Peter Sawyer of the University of Leeds. "They stole it, shared it out and spent it: a good example of Keynesian economics." This stimulated urban development from Kiev to Dublin, York and Normandy as the Vikings turned sleepy shires into bustling trade towns. "Contrary to the stereotype," says Lars Jorgensen of the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, the Vikings "were experienced actors on the international political stage, and this required more talents than brute force. …

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