The Age of the Vikings
Lecture by Anders Winroth
Given at the Kansas City Public Library on January 29, 2015
The Vikings maintain their grip on our imagination, but their image is too often distorted by medieval and modern myth. It is true that they pillaged, looted, and enslaved. But they also settled peacefully and developed a vast trading network. They traveled far from their homelands in swift and sturdy ships, not only to raid but also to explore.
Yale University historian Anders Winroth dismantles the myths and captures the innovation and pure daring of the Vikings without glossing over their destructive heritage in a discussion of his new book, The Age of the Vikings. Winroth is the Frost Family Professor of History at Yale.
Anders Winroth’s book The Age of the Vikings was published in 2014 by Princeton University Press. Here is a short excerpt from the Introduction:
We continue to be fascinated by the Vikings and stories about their exploits. Ferocious barbarians in horned helmets with gleaming swords and sharp axes, descending on Lindisfarne, Hamburg, Paris, Seville, Nantes – almost everywhere – to slaughter, raid, rape, and generally wreak destruction, toppling kingdoms and laying waste to Europe; the Vikings pique our imagination. We picture them killing and maiming without regard for age, gender, or status in society. We imagine them as super-masculine heroes, practitioners of frenzied violence for its own sake, devotees of strange pagan religions that required bloody sacrifices necessitating horrendous torture.
Just as we as a society continue to have a fraught and complex relationship to violence, we are both spellbound and repelled by the Vikings. While we may sympathize with and grieve for their helpless victims and feel put off by all the mindless slaying, we can scarcely help admiring the strength, courage, and virility of the Vikings.
But the Vikings also represent a more unambiguous positive image: we like to think of them as youthful, courageous, and exciting adventurers devoted to travel and exploration. We think of the Vikings as accomplished and fearless discoverers who sailed across the Atlantic five hundred years before Columbus. On the other side of Europe, they navigated the rivers of Russia and discovered overland trade routes to Central Asia and the Arab Caliphate, connecting with China via the Silk Road. The new trades routes helped them make fortunes as traders.