Nowadays, thousands of international students flock to Scandinavia each year to study at any number of its schools, colleges, and universities. 

Whilst higher education is not quite the region's lucrative export compared to countries like Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, or the United States, students worldwide are increasingly choosing Scandinavia for its educational institutions. 

Compared to other European countries, Scandinavia has a relatively young tertiary education system: the oldest university was founded in 1477 in Uppsala, Sweden, with Copenhagen University established a few years later. 

Further north, Norway's oldest university is a relative spring chicken, founded in 1811. 

The dissemination of knowledge and skills has a much longer history in Scandinavia, dating back thousands of years. However, it was during the Viking Age that Scandinavian societies began to develop a more structured approach to education. 

Say it loud, say it proud 

Unlike contemporary European societies and civilizations, oral culture was a hallmark of Viking communities

Knowledge and information were passed down orally, and there is little evidence that the sort of formal education we know today existed during the Viking Age. 

Most education during this period was informal and practical, passed down within families. Part of this oral culture was the development of advanced memory skills through storytelling. 

Skalds – the fabled bards and poets of Viking societies – played an important role not only in entertainment but also in the preservation and transmission of knowledge through sagas, poems, and tales. 

Their compositions, which borrowed heavily from the rich tapestry of Norse mythology and religion, served as both thrilling forms of entertainment and education. 

The sagas – though many were eventually written down in the later medieval period – were originally oral tales of historical and mythical events and characters. 

Buried within these deeds of daring and adventure were educational or moral lessons that served as historical and genealogical records, explanations of social norms and standards, clarifications of legal precedents and rulings, and developments of linguistic skills. 

Yet more reasons to delve into the sagas straight away! 

The Vimose Comb from Funen, Denmark, dating back to 150-200 CE, features one of the earliest known runic inscriptions, "Harja," a male name meaning "warrior." Photo: The National Museum of Denmark (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The myth of the "Dark Ages" 

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, political insecurity led to a fragmentation of polities, which historians dubbed the "Dark Ages" until only recently. 

There was a perception that during this period, the civilizational high-water mark that Western Europe had achieved under Roman control receded, and education and learning were snuffed out. 

Scandinavia, though never part of the Roman Empire but with indirect contact for much of its existence, supposedly never scaled the civilizational heights that much of Western Europe achieved under Rome, or so we are led to believe. 

However, much archeological and historical evidence indicates that early medieval Scandinavians, by the 8th century, had developed a unique and impressive writing system using the runic alphabet

By the time of the devastating raid on Lindisfarne, which traditionally signaled the start of the Viking Age, the runic alphabet had evolved into a sophisticated writing system that adorned runestones and artifacts throughout the Viking world. 

For linguists worldwide, the evolution of the runic alphabet, from an older, larger alphabet (the Elder Futhark) to a slimmed down, more modern version (the Younger Futhark), is proof that this written language was constantly being used and thus evolving throughout the Viking Age (c. 750–1100). 

Whilst literacy was certainly not widespread, it is believed there was enough knowledge of the writing system to warrant its inclusion on huge runestones, such as those at Jelling, to communicate political propaganda or moving tributes to fallen family members. 

There are over 3,000 runestones in what was once the Viking world, with the vast majority in Scandinavia, scattered from the Nordic north to the British Isles and the Black Sea. 

Despite popular depictions as brainless barbarians, the fact remains that people in Viking societies brought with them a certain degree of literacy to the regions they raided, traded, and settled in. 

The Viking raid on Lindisfarne Monastery in 793 initiated a period of cultural integration, leading to the spread of Christian literacy within Viking societies. Photo: givi585 / Shutterstock

How Christianity helped make Scandinavia smart... again 

Aside from possessing an oral culture, another hallmark of Viking societies was the pervasive advance and influence of Christianity into the medieval period. 

Arriving with brave missionaries sometime in the 5th–6th centuries, Christianity slowly established a foothold and, by the 12th century, had become the dominant religion throughout Scandinavia. 

However, between these two historical bookends, there was a great deal of religious synthesis involving the new Christian religion and the old Norse gods. 

Along with new religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs, Christian missionaries and later monks and priests brought the Latin alphabet and a love of written records. 

By the latter period of the Viking Age, Christianity had overseen increased literacy as the Catholic Church established monasteries and very basic schools. 

Clergy were often the most literate members of Viking societies as they had to master not only Latin but also the runic alphabet. 

The Viking ruling elite used Christianity to establish legitimacy and control throughout this period and benefited from the Church's large pool of literate clergy. 

These clerics helped rulers transcribe legal rulings, opinions, and laws and record historical events and deeds. 

For those engaged in mercantile affairs, trading missions to societies abroad were crucial. They often traded with Christian societies that had more advanced levels of education, learning, and literacy, such as the Frankish realms or the British Isles. 

These interactions highlighted the need for traders to sharpen their intellectual skills. 

Traders not only brought back goods but also a wealth of new ideas, including books and manuscripts, that aided the dissemination of learning throughout Viking societies. 

The graffiti in Hagia Sophia, carved by Viking visitors, underscores the presence of literate individuals among the Vikings, capable of inscribing their names in runes. Photo: Not home (Public domain)

Practical skills 

Aside from written forms of education and knowledge, there was a very pragmatic and practical side to the dissemination of knowledge in Viking societies. 

Most of the education in Viking societies focused on teaching practical skills needed for daily life. These skills ranged from fishing and hunting to agricultural and domestic work. 

For these seafaring people, there was a deep knowledge of all maritime matters. Not only did knowledge about shipbuilding need to be passed down and perfected, but much time was spent fine-tuning how best to navigate boats and ships. 

In an era before any sort of modern technology or GPS, vast oceanic distances were crossed thanks to generational knowledge of the best sailing practices. 

The Codex Runicus, a unique manuscript from the 14th century, illustrates how Viking runes were used for legal and historical documentation long after the Viking Age. Source: Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection (Public domain)

Helped build the foundations of today's educational institutions 

Despite popular Hollywood depictions of brainless Vikings, there was a surprising amount of education and literacy in Viking societies throughout the early medieval period. 

Certain segments of these societies had access to education, though in a vastly different form than what we know today. 

For the majority of people, however, their education was highly practical, ensuring they possessed the skills needed to survive the harsh and often dangerous daily life of the early medieval period. 

By the end of the Viking Age, the supremacy of Christianity helped foster a whole new system of literacy, writing, and educational institutions, which would be built upon throughout the ages to the present day. 

For more information on more modern methods of "Viking" education, visit The Guardian here

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