Friday, 4 April 2014

Historical Revisionism

Historical Revisionism is a process that in the Western tradition, is meant to be a scholarly process of updating the current view of historical events .... however there is increasingly apparently a need amongst some scholars, to 'rehabilitate' groups who previously were cast as villains.

The latest such group to get the goody goody makeover is apparently the Vikings! .... a group whom history has not necessarily presented in a good light over the centuries. In fact in the past, they were often cast in the same group as the Hun and the Mongols, as good for nothing barbarians with no redeeming features. Under the auspices of political correctness, 'The Mongols', being Asian, have been subject to revisionism some time ago, and so are now considered as 'stable empire builders', and the race that opened up the silk road between the West and East - Marco Polo and all that, and a Dynasty of China - as well as the Mughals of India, after some converted to Islam.

Vikings In The West Had A Bad Reputation

The Vikings first broke into the Christian worlds conciousness on the 8th June 793 AD.  The raid on the monks of Lindisfarne island was described in the local sermons (the equivalent of the local newspapers) in terms of the apocalypse arriving "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race .... The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets," wrote one chronicler, Alcuin of York. That set the tone of the reports across England, Ireland, and France .... for the next 300 years.

Then came the modern era and their portrayal as marauding barbarians was questioned on the grounds that the monks of the time who wrote the records who as the "victims", were not  objective but that the Norse sagas - written several centuries later by the descendants of the raiders - were more reliable? Suddenly, the Vikings were seen as as a 'domestic, family-oriented people'.

Now, there is something of a second wave of revisionism with some like Prof Simon Keynes, saying that "There's no question how nasty, unpleasant and brutish they were. They did all that the Vikings were reputed to have done". ... and more! With leaders like 'Ivar the Boneless' it doesn't take much in Saxon propaganda to portray the Vikings as from hell ..... even according to the pro-Norse sagas he was described as cruel. He allegedly put Edmund, King of East Anglia, up against a tree, and had his men shoot arrows at him until his head exploded.

He didn't even just restrict his activities to Non-Vikings .... Viking King Ella was put to death in York by having his ribs cut at the spine, his ribs broken so that they looked like wings, and his lungs pulled out through the wounds in his back in what was infamously known as 'The Blood Eagle'. They burnt and despoiled Churches after taking the valuables, they drove off cattle, and took slaves, leaving a trail of terror and destruction in what he describes as 'maritime blitzkrieg'.

Vikings In The East Had A Better Reputation

Oddly in the East, the 'Ruotsi' or Volga 'Rus' as they became known, were recognised more as trader warriors, driven by a love of silver to travel the wastes and waters of the world, trading Slaves and Black Fox furs to the Arab Caliphates, and serving in 'Varangian' regiments for the Byzantine Empire ...

It was the Arab chroniclers, who bore the Vikings no grudge, who gave us the best of the descriptions, as many Imperial Byzantine records were lost after the Turkish conquest, because the 'Rus', while not to be messed with i.e. not to be taken as slaves, or forced to convert, were also largely peaceful and tolerated as traders of precious goods .... "bringing beaver skins, and skins of black foxes, and swords, from the furthest part of the Slav lands down to the Black Sea.". 

In fact, they were described as heroic men, who displayed great loyalty to each other - the original band of brothers in fact. With their primary interest in the region being acquisition  'Their only occupation is trading in sable and squirrel and other kinds of skins, which they sell to those who will buy from them," one Arab writer observed. "In payment, they take coins which they keep in their belts."  What often surprised the Arabs was that the Vikings cared little for the face value of the coins, but simply used an Arab system of balancing weights, to measure the silver by weight for worth. The coins were then often hewn into smaller pieces, to be melted down into ingots or fashioned into arm-rings for subsequent "hacksilver" transactions.

The reasons for this difference in behaviour and the descriptions of the Vikings in the two areas of the world are fairly obvious ... in the West, they were raiding tribal groups, who were little different in organisation from themselves. Ireland was made up of clans and small wars under a 'High King' in Tara - The Viking Kingdom of Dublin was established. England, was multiple small Kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria - half the country fell under the Danelaw. Only the Frankish kingdom in France could resist most Viking raids, but even so the 'Normans' (Northmen) wrested the land of Normandy from the French King  (although only after acknowledging him as overlord - which they then ignored).

While in the East - there were two Major Empires - the East Romans or Byzantines, were the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire, and the most powerful Christian state, and its capital Constantinople (or Miklagard as the Vikings called it - 'Big City), was the largest city on Earth. The Arabs, were the new empire of Islam, which was based upon the old Roman African and Middle Eastern provinces, and the old Persian Empire all of which they had conquered. Both were far too powerful to raid or conquer .... so mostly it was trading that the Vikings undertook ... hence the more peaceful and less apocalyptic descriptions.

So depending upon in the world where you look, the Vikings were either the scourge of the West, or the first 'Globalised Traders' (well, after the ancient Phoencians) ... who once they settled an area (i.e. after the fighting etc), assimilated and intermarried with the locals, only displacing the elite ruling class. Or they were explorers, traders, and mercenary warriors. The truth probably lies in-between all these descriptions, so the historical revisionism being undertaken, is simply looking too much in one direction or another .... like most historical revisionism.     

The Huns by the way, have now been left on their own on the 'naughty step' of history, unredeemed by anyone .... up until now. So last word to the Vikings .... from 'The Havamal' or Book of Viking Wisdom

Never walk
away from home
ahead of your axe and sword.
You can't feel a battle
in your bones
or foresee a fight.

Wake early
if you want
another man's life or land.
No lamb
for the lazy wolf.
No battle's won in bed.

Be your friend's
true friend.
Return gift for gift.
Repay laughter
with laughter again
but betrayal with treachery.


  1. Interesting article. The Viking ages were a remarkable period and culture.

    1. They were indeed if you weren't on the wrong end of their swords.


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