Yet how can we trust this picture from an era without a free press, or, to put it more precisely, no press at all?
New research into contemporary sources shows that you shouldn't always believe the historical hype...
Bad weather forecast
The early medieval Anglo-Saxons were a superstitious lot. Like their 21st-century British descendants, they also seemed to be a little obsessed with the weather.
Take this entry for the year 793 CE in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled during the reign of the King of Wessex (and later of all the Anglo-Saxons), Alfred the Great. The chronicle states that,
"This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine..."
Sounds rather ominous, right? Well, it only gets worse for our poor citizens of the Kingdom of Northumbria. The chronicle goes on to recount that,
"...not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter..."
Far across the English Channel, in the court of Charlemagne, an Anglo-Saxon exile, and chronicler, Alcuin, was mortified at these bloody raids. Writing in a later letter to the Bishop of the monastery that was ravaged by these "heathen men," he lamented that the Bishop was there, firsthand, to witness,
"when heathens desecrated God's sanctuaries, and poured the blood of saints within the compass of the altar, destroyed the house of our hope, trampled the bodies of saints in God's temple like animal dung in the street…"
These two descriptions – one from the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, perhaps the best source we have of Anglo-Saxon England, and the letter from Alcuin, an Anglo-Saxon exile and court chronicler of Charlemagne, to the Bishop of the Lindisfarne Monastery – have influenced – poisoned at worst or muddied the waters at best - contemporary and later interpretations and views of who the Vikings were and how they were perceived.
Isolated monasteries were easy pickings for the Viking raiding parties. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Increased raiding, increased paranoia
The raid on Lindisfarne represents the beginning of what would become a regular pattern for the Vikings until about the mid-9th century CE.
Isolated and remote monasteries, sometimes on an island (like Lindisfarne), were easy pickings for these Scandinavian pirate warriors.
Given that many monasteries, churches, and cathedrals were full of precious jewels and decorative art, it should be no surprise that they were top of the list for lightning raids.
With a few dozen men, and a longboat or two, Vikings could sail to a remote monastery, launch a lightning raid and sail away in an amazingly short time period. This, quite literally, both amazed and terrified the lucky priests, monks, and abbots left standing.
What began as remote and opportunistic raids on remote monasteries soon became less remote and more real for Alcuin. Throughout the first half of the 9th century CE, the Vikings particularly targeted the Frankish realms, in a state of chaos following the death of the first Holy Roman Emperor, and Frankish king, Charlemagne.
Frisia (in 810 CE), Flanders (820 CE), and Aquitaine (820 CE) were devastatingly raided, whilst Paris (845 CE), Bordeaux, and Nates (848 CE) also felt the scourge of the Vikings.
These cities, villages, and towns were part of a sophisticated culture and civilization that, in many ways, was the supposed civilization "superior" of these barbaric pagan raiders.
Furthermore, the Vikings also turned their gaze onto other areas of the British Isles, with Arnagh raided three times in a year (832 CE), Dorestad three times in two years (835, 836, and 837 CE), and Dublin first raided then ultimately conquered by Vikings within the space of a year (841 CE).
Alcuin was deeply concerned with all these raids, both near and far, in the isles of his birth and his new adopted home, when he wrote,
"What security is there for the churches of Britain if St Cuthbert with so great a throng of saints will not defend his own? Either this is the beginning of greater grief, or the sins of those who live there have brought it upon themselves."
The following centuries would see Alcuin's worst fears prove correct, as it was indeed the beginning of greater grief for many medieval communities, societies, and civilizations. Yet grief was not the only thing that Vikings brought to these societies.
Throughout the first half of the 9th century CE, the Vikings particularly targeted the Frankish realms. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Those vulgar Vikings...
In a series of lectures at Yale University, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in early 2022, Dr. Timothy Synder delved deep into a region that was often at the crossroads of cultures, civilizations, and commerce.
Snyder remarks that the Viking raids, which decimated Frankish communities from the late 8th century CE onwards, were possibly a reaction to the aggressive military expeditions of Charlemagne.
Too bad Charlemagne was born about nine centuries too early to learn about Isaac Newton's third law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
What started out as mere coastal raiding soon, with the help of the most sophisticated piece of early medieval naval technology, spread to the many river systems that lined Europe, especially Eastern Europe.
Here, the Vikings' main mission, according to Snyder, was to head south where the great economic powerhouses of the Byzantine Empire and Abbasid Caliphate lay.
One of the most important river-based trade networks was the Volga trade route, which connected the Viking homeland in Scandinavia, via the Baltic Sea, and Volga River, to the Norse creation of the Kievan Rus, the Black Sea.
From the Black Sea, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire were nearby, or Viking traders could cross eastward into the realms of the Abbasid Caliphate and/or Samanid Emirate.
Contact with the Byzantine Empire would dub these Viking traders, raiders (and later settlers) who exploited the river systems of Eastern Europe, the "Varangians") and it was amongst these Vikings that a 10th-century CE Arab trader and diplomat gives us one of the earliest forms of ethnographic records in history.
Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān ibn al-ʿAbbās ibn Rāšid ibn Ḥammād, better known to posterity (in the West) as Ibn-Fadlan, was a 10th-century CE traveler, budding travel writer (perhaps the first in history, he certainly beat Marco Polo by more than two centuries) and diplomat who gave us our best firsthand impression of the Vikings.
As part of a part diplomatic, part trade mission to parts of the Kievan Rus, Ibn-Fadlan traveled widely up many of these same river routes that his Viking counterparts did too.
Coming across a Viking trade camp, Fadlan wrote, with the scorn of a school teacher, that these Vikings did not exactly practice "safe hygiene" as,
"...they are the filthiest of all Allah's creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food..."
Fadlan, however, is rare amongst medieval chroniclers when he even managed to heap praise (albeit somewhat shallow) on the Vikings. Obviously fond of a good body, or two, Fadlan wrote that he
"...have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs (the Vikings) – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the tunic or the caftan."
Fadlan's account of his travels, throughout Eastern Europe, remains not only a great piece of travel writing but also a more realistic depiction of what many medieval people may have thought of the Vikings, away from all that Christian propaganda and angst.
What medieval people REALLY thought of the Vikings is far more complex and nuanced than the common popular stereotype of these supposed bloodthirsty warriors.
While many people in Viking societies never lifted a battleaxe in anger and were involved in peaceful trade or business, a small percentage of fierce warriors seems to have captured many people's imagination, and worst fears, both in the past and the present.
Science Norway has published an article on some of Ibn Fadlan's accounts of the Vikings, available to read here, whilst Yale Professor Timothy Snyder's excellent lecture series, The Making of Modern Ukraine, is available to view on YouTube here (of special interest for any Viking aficionado is Episode #5 - Vikings, Slavers and Lawgivers: The Kyiv State).
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