By Anthony Faulkes
Saga Book of the Viking Society, Vol.31 (2007)
Introduction: Historians and archaeologists over the last two generations have changed our perceptions of the Viking Age and have drawn people’s attention to less destructive and more creative activities than rape and pillage, such as their trading and settlements both in new countries like Iceland and in already settled countries like Britain and France, where they had a great effect on the culture, organisation, law and language of the local populations, an effect that was not always deleterious and may in many respects be seen as having been beneficial. The Viking exhibitions that were held by various museums in the second half of the twentieth century emphasised the peaceful side of the Vikings, as traders, craftsmen, shipbuilders; and archaeologists and anthropologists have radically changed our understanding of what Vikings were like, showing us that their culture was not just destructive and chaotic, but ordered and creative. Vikings are now seen as having made a positive and valuable contribution to the development of western civilisation. This view is encapsulated particularly in the title of Peter Foote and David Wilsons book, The Viking Achievement (1970).
Literary historians and theorists have also changed our perceptions of the Viking Age. Archaeology can only show us the objects and artefacts made and used by Vikings, and illuminating though these objects are for a proper understanding of the nature of the Vikings, it is to literary sources that we must go to find a representation of what went on in their minds. The interpretation of literary sources about the Vikings is, however, problematic; they conflict with each other and all contain various kinds of bias, so that the truth about the Vikings is difficult, probably impossible, to recover. Indeed structuralists and other literary and historical theorists warn us that there may not be a simple truth to discover about the past and about the meaning of literary sources.