The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History

The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History

By Simon Coupland

History, Volume 88, Issue 290 (2003)

viking ship - photo by John Lillis / Flickr

Abstract: The Vikings have a bad reputation, and it was no different on the Continent in the middle ages where they were regularly portrayed as brutally cruel, devilishly cunning and of superhuman stature. This article examines the evidence for the Vikings’ supposed cruelty, cunning and remarkable height and investigates how true the stereotypes were. What emerges is that all three contained a grain of truth, but led to exaggeration and distortion in later medieval texts and even some ninth-century sources. There were, for example, tall individuals among the invaders, but little difference overall between the height of the average Frank and the average Dane. There were likewise instances of Scandinavian brutality, but not on a large scale, and they were no worse than acts carried out by the Franks in the same period. Nor, surprisingly, is there clear evidence of Viking rape: certainly they were not known for ‘rape and pillage’ in the ninth century. Finally, though the invaders were capable of duplicity, Carolingian parallels are once again not hard to find. In sum, tales of tall, treacherous and brutal Northmen can be shown to have grown in the telling, and there is an evident gap between the Vikings of myth and the Vikings of history.

Introduction: Two of the most widespread popular myths about the Vikings are that they preceded the Romans and that they wore horns on their helmets. Scholars shake their heads over such ignorance, but misconceptions about the Vikings are not confined to the general public; some are widespread in scholarly circles, too. Somehow an idea enters popular consciousness and becomes virtually unassailable by dint of frequent repetition. One example from the ninth-century raids on the Continent is the notion that a network of fortified bridges was constructed by Charles the Bald to keep out the Vikings, despite the fact that only one or two existing bridges were actually fortified. Another instance is the oft-quoted presence of a Viking base camp on the island of Noirmoutier in Aquitaine. In fact, the one contemporary reference to such an island camp, in the Annals of St. Bertin for 843, locates the base in more southerly Aquitaine (‘inferioris partes Aquitaine’) and simply calls it ‘a certain island’ (‘insulam quandam’). The eleventh-century Chronicle of Nantes does contain a report that the Vikings landed on Noirmoutier after their raid on Nantes in 843, but goes on to record their departure from the island following an argument over the distribution of booty. This evidently happened before the end of September 843, since it is inconceivable that Nantes cathedral would have been reconsecrated in that month if the Viking fleet which had sacked the town had still been encamped on nearby Noirmoutier.

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