Viking Ethnicities: A Historiographic Overview
By Clare Downham
History Compass, Volume 10, Issue 1 (2012)
Abstract: The ‘Viking Age’ is well established in popular perception as a period of dramatic change in European history. The range of viking activities from North America to the Middle East has excited the interest of many commentators. Vikings are variously regarded as blood thirsty barbarians or civilised entrepreneurs; founders of nations or anarchic enemies. But how cohesive was the identity of the ‘Vikings’ and how did they see themselves? In recent years the answer to this question has been evaluated from a range of perspectives. Established paradigms (often situated within a nationalist framework of thought) have come under greater scrutiny and new ideas have entered the debate. This paper will review some trends in the historiography of viking ethnicities and cultural identities in the period 800–1000 AD. This overview also highlights the value of comparative analysis of human migrations to the field of Viking Studies.
Who are the Vikings?
The word ‘viking’ is itself used by different scholars to mean different things. Its use in Modern English stems from the early 19th century and it was broadly used to describe people of Scandinavian cultural identity active in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. In Old Norse the masculine noun vıkingr is normally translated as ‘sea warrior’. It was not used as a general description of Scandinavians in the Middle Ages. The noun denoted the activities of a minority of men and it was not an ethnic label. Because of divergence between the word’s origin and modern popular usage, some scholars would argue that ‘viking’ (with a lower case ‘v’) should be restricted to descriptions of Scandinavian warriors (although the distinction between warriors and non-warriors may be problematic in some situations). Some treat ‘Viking’ (with a capital ‘V’) as an racial label to describe the peoples of medieval Iceland and Scandinavia at home or abroad. Others regard ‘Viking’ (with or without a capital ‘v’) as a cultural label to describe the spread of Scandinavian influence circa 780–1050. It is the last designation which is used in this paper.