Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Feeling insecure? Blame the Vikings!

Ever wonder how historical images and reputations get propagated, reworked, and repropagated?

Magistra et Mater,
a real medieval historian, was struck by a UK press denunciation of supposed efforts to supposedly minimize Viking rape and pillage. She asked:

I want instead to ask another question: why is it so necessary to modern Britain that the Vikings were violent? This can’t simply just be put down to right-wing prejudices about immigration (although this crops up in the Daily Mail): Simon Schama had pretty much the same attitude to Vikings in his History of Britain (BTW, the best takedown of Schama’s TV history style I’ve yet seen is here).

There is a very interesting contrast here with an earlier British attitude. If you look at some of the classic popular histories from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Our Island Story or 1066 and All That, then the Danes (not yet the Vikings) are simply one among many violent attackers of early Britain. There is nothing that particularly distinguishes their violence from that of Romans, Saxons or Normans. The same attitude is still shown by Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. But generally in Britain, it is now the Vikings alone whose violent reputation must be defended or revised: no-one outside history facilities really cares how violent the Saxons were or whether Hengist was coarser than Horsa. Why does Viking violence now spark the imagination in a way it didn’t 100 years ago? There’s been the discovery and display of much more material culture (as in Jorvik), but we’ve got more Saxon stuff as well.

It’s also not a reflection of modern politics in the normal sense: there are no significant anti-Scandinavian prejudices here. If you’re going to demonise the EU via the past, then Normans as proto-French and Saxons as proto-Germans are a better bet. But if you look at which aspects of the Vikings are remembered, you get the clue. It’s not Canute/Cnut or even the Danelaw which strike the modern imagination, and King Alfred is surprisingly absent. It’s the raids, from Lindisfarne in 793 onwards. What this country remembers about the Vikings is the sudden alarm of longboats appearing at a ‘peaceful settlement’ (this was the main trope in Simon Schama). It’s not the threat of invasion and conquest (Britain being ‘overrun with fire and the sword’) that sends a thrill of terror up British spines now. It’s the small-scale, unprovoked, seemingly random and meaningless violence that does that: the Vikings as the first terrorists.

So there you have it, cherry-picking of useful images once again...

Image:
Re-enactors at the Dublin Viking Festival.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually the picture is from a field in Moesgaard just outside of Aarhus Denmark if you are interested in the propagation of misinformation.

6:02 PM  

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