What Western historians and academics called "the early medieval period" (c. 500 – 1000) is sadly shrouded in as much historical mystery as fantastical legend. 

Infuriatingly for history lovers, what little is written down should be met with a great deal of skepticism and an open mind. 

The Vikings have had centuries of mixed press. During medieval times, many monks and scholars lamented the wicked ferocity of these Nordic raiders and warriors. 

They would appear on the horizon, destroy everything in their path, and then quickly disappear onto their longboats with stolen goods and sometimes even human captives. 

Yet despite all the contemporary accounts of Viking hordes, the scourge of pious Christian communities, and the length and breadth of coastal Europe, their legacy nowadays is a remarkably positive one. 

This is, in part, thanks to their cultural ancestors in Iceland who, during the 13th century, compiled the Norse sagas – a series of tall tales, myths, legends, and pseudo-histories that portrayed their Viking forebears as brave and heroic. 

Vikings, romanticized as descendants of the great old gods of Norse mythology, are seen as individuals to be admired. 

Centuries before Columbus, these intrepid explorers crisscrossed the North Atlantic Ocean and discovered new lands

They were proto-European colonists who established new civilizations on the edges of the known world, canny merchants who helped open up vast swathes of Eastern Europe and beyond to trade, and braggadocious poets capable of enthralling listeners with honeyed words. 

Beneath this veneer of romanticized tales, which has persisted for centuries, lies a complex and multifaceted legacy that warrants critical examination, like all old and assumed knowledge. 

During the Viking Age, which lasted from the late 8th to the 11th centuries, communities dealt with instability and didn't have centralized leadership, which made them vulnerable to raids and invasions. Photo: The Viking Herald

Slavery, sexual assault, and violence 

Modern apologists for the Vikings often cite that they were no more violent or murderous than warriors from other cultures and civilizations. 

There is no doubt that the Vikings operated in a highly insecure era. Gone were the certainties and security of the Roman Empire throughout much of Western Europe, meaning societal governance and safety were, at best, limited. 

There was no overarching governmental structure or standing army to keep the barbarians at the gates or to defend towns, villages, or cities. 

The early medieval period saw huge migratory movements of people throughout the former borders of the Western Roman Empire, causing societal stress, and collapse. 

The Vikings, operating towards the latter stages of this period, were more than pleased to pick off weak communities, be they undefended British monasteries, coastal Frankish villages, or towns lining the many river systems of Eastern Europe. 

Vikings did indeed operate in an insecure world, which meant that violence was far more common than it is now. 

It is also true that other warriors – be they Angles, Saxons, or Franks – committed heinous acts of violence, rape, and assault. 

It was the Vikings, however, that struck fear into communities, cultures, and civilizations for almost three centuries. 

Many factors contributed to their fearsome reputation. One reason was their ability to launch stealthy raids and attacks, thanks to their advanced naval technology, the Viking longship

Additionally, the Vikings were often viewed by their victims as a form of divine retribution to punish sinful Christians. 

Most of this ferocious reputation, however, came down to the violence – sexual and physical – that Vikings would dish out during raids, battles, or sieges. 

They put entire villages and towns to the flame, whole populations to the sword, and those lucky enough to survive either or both were bundled off to the nearest slave market to be sold into a life of forced servitude. 

Slavery was one of the largest contributors to Viking economic activity, and it underpinned the establishment of many Viking settlements, from Birka to Bristol to the Black Sea. 

Countless children were born because of rape; countless lives were lost due to brutal sexual and physical violence. 

Although these victims – whether they were sliced open during the initial part of a raid or suffered the indignity of life as a slave - are all long dead, it is worth remembering that their perpetrators were not the uber-cool warriors with 21st-century morals often presented nowadays on the silver or small screen. 

These were nasty, brutish, and rapacious harbingers of gross societal and personal violence and sexual depravity. 

The Vikings, through their extensive exploration and trading networks, left a lasting linguistic legacy that continues to influence modern English and other languages. Photo: The Viking Herald

Linguistic and geographic imprints 

Beyond their reputation as warriors and raiders, people from Viking societies did make significant cultural contributions that continue to resonate today. 

One of their most enduring legacies, for which we at The Viking Herald are grateful, relates to their language, Old Norse

By the end of the early medieval period, Old Norse was evolving into the predecessors of the modern Nordic languages: Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish. 

Icelandic, for example, separated by the vast North Atlantic Ocean from outside cultural influences for centuries, has retained most Old Norse words in their original form. 

This geographic and cultural insularity has preserved the most conservative grammar and vocabulary among these languages, with minor changes since the Vikings sailed the seas. 

Yet the Nordic region was not the only place where the Vikings left a linguistic legacy. 

Across the North Sea, on the British Isles, the Vikings significantly impacted the transformation of the English language. 

Old Norse contributed a substantial number of words to the English vocabulary, especially in areas of everyday life (e.g., window, egg, and knife), governance (law and thing), seafaring (anchor, keel, and mast), personal pronouns (they, them, their), and family (kin, sister, and brother). 

Many place names scattered across the British Isles, particularly in England, bear traces of the Old Norse language. 

Names ending with –by denote a village (Grimsby, Whitby), while Dublin (an Anglicization of Dyfllin – Old Norse for "black pool"), Lerwick (Lerivik - "clay bay"), and York (Jorvik) can thank the Old Norse language for their names. 

During the mid-20th century, the Nazi regime in Germany depicted Vikings as symbols of Aryan power and dominance.  Photo: The Viking Herald

Cultural appropriation, extremists, and Nazis 

The Viking legacy continues to evoke strong emotions and debates in contemporary discussions. 

For many Nordic nations, their Viking history is seen as something to be proud of, as their ancestors influenced world events, often through force, more prominently than today. 

However, there is a darker side to this legacy, particularly regarding cultural appropriation and nationalism

The darkest chapter of this cultural appropriation occurred in the mid-20th century, with the Nazi Party glorifying them as brawny representations of Aryan purity and strength

They also used Norse mythology in both propaganda and uniforms of the Wehrmacht, SA, and SS until the end of the Second World War (1939 – 1945). 

Picking up where the Nazis have left off, many modern Neo-Nazis and ultra-right-wing nationalists have also used Vikings for their nefarious means. 

Ultra-right-wing nationalists, particularly in the Western world, have sought to co-opt Viking imagery and symbols for their political agendas. 

These groups, ranging from some of the supporters who stormed the US Capitol in 2021 to the Norwegian anti-Muslim group SIAN (Stop the Islamization of Norway) and extremist German supporters of the AFD (Alternative Fur Deutschland), have romanticized the warrior ethos of the Vikings whilst ignoring the complexities of Viking society and history. 

This commodification of the Viking legacy can obscure the reality of their impact on the regions they inhabited and the cultures, people, and civilizations they encountered and interacted with (often though not always negatively), perpetuating stereotypes and oversimplifications. 

Triumphs, tragedies, and enduring contributions 

Thanks to a new generation of researchers, academics, and historians, the Viking legacy is beginning to be critically examined after centuries of romanticization. 

Whilst people from Viking societies were undoubtedly skilled seafarers, traders, and explorers, their legacy was marred by many flaws. 

Their raids and conquests left a trail of destruction and suffering that haunted early medieval Europe for centuries. 

Yet their cultural contributions – the spoken or written word – paint a more nuanced picture of Viking society, one that continues to inspire us today. 

Despite this more critical and mature view of the Viking legacy, some extremist groups and organizations seek to glorify and celebrate the warrior ethos of Viking societies. 

We owe it to future generations, as well as past, to tell the whole story properly and try to understand the triumphs, tragedies, and enduring contributions to human history that people in Viking societies, including their warriors, made. 

For more information on the Viking legacy in England, visit The Daily Mirror here

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