In the ninth century, the word ”viking” in many parts of Europe would have conjured up a terrifying image of violent maurauders teeming forth from their longships and inflicting unspeakable carnage. Today, the word ”viking” is invoked in all sorts of contexts, from underwear and hand-dryer brands to the fantasies of business and management leaders and onwards to home DNA testing kits and their seductive promise of ”Viking heritage”. In this podcast, medieval historian from Aarhus University Richard Cole explores why the Viking era is ‘up for grabs’, and zooms in on why and how some business gurus have latched on to truths, half-truths, and fallacies about the Vikings. In doing so, we explore the paradox that although capitalists may not be able to tell us much about the Vikings, the Vikings end up telling us unexpected things about capitalists.
Warning: Your preconceptions of the Vikings may be challenged by listening to this podcast!
Richard Cole is interviewed by editor of nordics.info Nicola Witcombe and the podcast was recorded in November 2020 at the department for history at Aarhus University.
Sound credits from freesound including Battlecry by Akrythael.
Richard Cole 0:48
If you're a capitalist, and you want to find yourself in the past, where do you go? Well, your past isn't actually that deep. Capitalism is probably only about 300 years old give or take. So you've got to find someone you can latch onto in the past - and the Vikings are up for grabs. And they people see part of themselves reflected in that historical phenomenon. But it also allows you to imagine yourself doing something much more romantic than what you're actually doing.
Nicola Witcombe 1:22
That was the voice of assistant professor of History at Aarhus University, Richard Cole, and he was talking about how business people and others appropriate what they perceive to be Viking characteristics for various reasons. But are their claims historically accurate? And does it matter if they are or not? Why is there always so much hype around Viking history and imagery? These are some of the issues we explore in this podcast.
nordics.info is a research dissemination website based at Aarhus University in Denmark, and publishes material by researchers on many different aspects of the Nordic countries within the social sciences and humanities. Nordics.info is part of the university hub. Reimagining Norden, in an Evolving World (ReNEW). This podcast was recorded in November 2020. When I, the editor of nordics.info, Nicola Witcombe, caught up with Richard at the Department of History at Aarhus University. Richard is ideally placed to help us with the subject. Not only has he researched the Viking period in many different contexts, including from the point of view of racial and religious differences and bureaucracy, but he also takes an interest in modern conceptions of capitalism. And generally how ideologies through the ages have managed to convince people to treat each other and themselves spectacularly badly. And as we have just heard, he speaks Viking. Richard Cole, you are assistant professor of History at the School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University. Could you tell us briefly when and where you have come across Vikings in your academic and non academic life?
Richard Cole 3:22
Thanks for having me. In my academic life, I like to think that I meet the Vikings twice over. At first, I meet them in the early Middle Ages, in the Viking Age itself, you could say so, from around the 793 to 1066. And when I meet the Vikings, then I'm meeting them as Scandinavian Raiders, traders and settlers, spreading out of Scandinavia all the way from the shores of the new world in the West to Central Asia in the East. And I meet them turning up and more or less making everyone's lives a misery in continental Europe, as well as founding new societies in places like Iceland and Greenland. That's my first meeting with the Vikings, the actual Vikings if you like. And then funnily enough, I end up meeting the Vikings again, in what we call the high Middle Ages, so that's the period after the Viking Age.
[Richard reading out loud in the language of Old Norse]
I read Old Norse, both the language that was spoken by the Vikings themselves, but it was also the language that people in Norway and Iceland were writing down from about the 1200s onwards. And in that period, where people in Norway and Iceland are writing stuff down, they do a lot of remembering about what had happened in the Viking Age so you get to meet them a second time. Not actually as the raiders themselves, but as distant memories of the way things used to be.
Nicola Witcombe 5:08
Okay, brilliant. I noticed that you've only answered part of the question. And that's your academic interests, presumably. What about your non academic interests? And the fact that you are British and you've moved to Denmark, are the some ways that you meet Vikings in everyday life?
Richard Cole 5:28
Yes. And there were before I came to Denmark as well, there is actually a project. It's called "the World-Tree Project" of the worldtreeproject.org. It's run by Tom Birkett and Roderick Dale, where they try to collect examples of strange and unusual Viking branding. Some of the things I've noted down from them, and some of them are my own observations. That's the rover logo that's got a Viking longship on it. There is the largest brand of underwear manufacturer in India are called Viking. Here in Denmark, I have seen Viking brand ryebread. I have seen people saying "Vikingeboller" [Viking buns]. Presumably the high fiber content is supposed to speak to the Viking heritage. You've got the Viking hats of the Danish football fans. Although for me the absolutely most abstract and surreal one is Dan Dryer, the hand dryer manufacturer. I really, it's got to be people who have not used a downdraft product, they are exported, of course they're seen all over the world, you don't have to come here to see one but it's got a little Viking with a little hat and a sword and a shield next to the button you press to dry your hands in the toilet. So I'm really not entirely certain what the interaction is between Vikings and energy efficient toilet hygiene, but.
Nicola Witcombe 6:53
Maybe it's because Vikings sell but I guess we'll maybe come back to that in the podcast.
Richard Cole 6:58
I suppose that must be it.
Nicola Witcombe 7:01
In popular culture like the hate HBO series and the plethora of sort of TV series and radio programs and stuff like that about the Vikings.
Richard Cole 7:12
It's also never been as global as it is now in the popular culture.
Nicola Witcombe 7:15
Richard Cole 7:17
Like nowadays, there is one of the most popular TV shows in the Philippines is called uhm "Victor Magtanggol", which is a show about Thor being reincarnated in the Philippines. There's a Malaysian Viking movie called Viking from about two years ago, three or three years ago. So this is this is new, why people have been getting really into Vikings in Europe and North America for 300 years. But now it's starting to to go everywhere.
Nicola Witcombe 7:49
Interesting. Do we know why that is?
Richard Cole 7:52
I think a part of it is very mundane, a part of it is this is the Marvel movies. And it's Thor and I think part of it is the HBO series. I think that's also played a huge role. And it's interesting to see, it'll be interesting to see how the Vikings prosper in these new contexts.
Nicola Witcombe 8:17
So how much do we know with any certainty about the Vikings? And why are Vikings so interesting to people nowadays, do you think?
Richard Cole 8:27
I think that the Viking Age is, in some ways a very challenging period of history to work on. Because fundamental problem is that the Vikings did not write things down in the way that as modern historians, we'd quite like them to have written things down. They did have writing, they had Runic script, and they put up Runic monuments and left little bits of Runic graffiti all over the place. There's about 6710, give or take, Runic inscriptions leftover from the Viking Age, but the sort of things they write down, there aren't the sort of things that historians would really want. Now, they don't keep tax records with Runic script. They don't tell you, as a rule, they don't tell you the year that something happened. Actually, they mostly just talk about awesome people who died and how awesome they were. And sometimes grotesque graffiti and obscenity and things like that, which was all very interesting, but not very useful for the sort of history writing that people generally do today. So there's a lot about the Viking Age where we don't really know, we're reliant on sources that were written by the victims of the Vikings, who all came from more literate cultures. I brought an example of a rune stone.
Nicola Witcombe 9:47
Richard Cole 9:47
I didn't bring the rune stone itself, but the inscription I have got, this is the sort of thing you get. This is from U617 or the blue stone, which is from Sweden. It's from the early 900.
[Richard reading the runes in Old Norse]
The daughter of hunger, the sister of Sigrid and Greytor. She had this bridge made and this monument erected in memory of her husband, the son of Earl. He who was on Viking watch with Greytor. May my god help his soul now and forever,
Nicola Witcombe 10:48
So they use the word Viking in that?
Richard Cole 10:51
in that particular inscription, you've got this word "Viking watch". And that's actually almost like neighborhood watch against Vikings. That's not people going out there and doing Viking activity. It's people staying at home and worrying about Vikings. And a historian can get hold of that and start doing things like saying "Oh, hang on a sec, it's women who are putting up the stone. So does that say something about the role of women in society and it's, it's a woman erecting a bridge? Was it up to local people to maintain infrastructure, and oh, they call them God to bless them. So there must have been Christians around". So you can do that sort of historical work, but detailed text where Viking say this is who I am, and this is what I'm all about, those who don't have so many of.
Nicola Witcombe 11:32
I was expecting you to mention something about the Icelandic sagas, or at least the word saga in the answer to that question. Could you say something a little bit about the sagas? Were they useful to find out stuff about the Vikings?
Richard Cole 11:49
Yes, all of the stuff that's written down in Old Norse, which is largely the sagas, some other texts too, from the 1200s onwards, almost entirely in Iceland, one or two in Norway, are used as sources for the Viking Age, or at least some sagas are. But it has to be remembered they are written down at a time when people have not been Vikings for some three centuries. So there are big question marks over how to use those sources. I think some of the problems that we get when Viking Age history gets into the popular sphere is that that nuance gets lost, which I can understand it's very tempting, you've got this nice juicy saga with loads of details in it. And it's not very much fun when some tweedy person comes in and says, oh, but actually that wasn't written down till 300 years afterwards. So I can see how it happens. But it can lead you down pretty worrying parts.
Nicola Witcombe 12:47
And you also mentioned that what we do have is written down by Vikings' victims, was that the word you used? So surely that means that they're slightly biased against the Vikings? So you have to take that into account as well?
Richard Cole 13:05
Yes, or at least the people writing these things down are not doing so with a thought that one day future historians will read this stuff. For example, one of the main reasons that people in what today's France wrote stuff down about Vikings was because when Vikings had attacked, it meant that there had to be extraordinary arrangements made to repel them. You had to allow people to do things where you had to ask for things from your vassals that you wouldn't normally ask. And people wanted it memorialized, that, you know what we did this one time, we helped out the carolingian Emperor this one time because the Vikings were in town, but you can't expect us to come come running every time you call when Vikings aren't around. So I wouldn't know if bias is the right word, but it's certainly a mismatch of expectations.
Nicola Witcombe 13:56
And already there there's sort of some political uses of writing down what they did or did not do for the Vikings or to repel the Vikings. So the Vikings' behaviors and systems are perhaps surprisingly often referred to nowadays in business contexts. Why do you think that is?
Richard Cole 14:23
I think that the basic platform upon which uses of the Viking Age today are build, this is as true of businesses, as it is in nationalism or anything else is that in some sense, the Viking Age is up for grabs. As we've seen the sources for it are murky and contested. There is quite a lot of what you might call grey literature, or even outright pseudoscience that is published about the Viking Age. It doesn't make it to academic peer review, but there's all manner of websites and even published books that make all sorts of claims about the Vikings, not based on the sources. So you've got this body of literature out there that's accessible, it tells you what you want to hear. And ultimately, it's harder. Although Scandinavians have done a lot of saying, "Hey, this is ours, and we are the Vikings", we can't today go and visit Vikings on reservations or anything like that. The Vikings are not going to turn around and say, "Hey, you can't say that about us. That's not what we're all about". So that means that the Viking Age is there, and it's ready for the taking. I think that's that's one part of it. I think that another important thing is that capitalism is a relatively recent historical development. There have been traders, since forever. There were Jade axes from the stone age that are found all over Europe, even though they can only be manufactured in one region of Northern Italy. So long before there was even currency, there were people out there being traders that's been going on for a long time. And mercantilism, corresponding form of economic organization has also been doing the rounds. But capitalism as a mode of production, as a way of organizing how things are made, is relatively recent. Traders have existed forever, but they've been reliant on the fact that the people who are actually out there making food or making pots or whatever it is, are not necessarily running capitalist enterprises. So this is the thing that makes capitalism and novel development; suddenly, people who are essentially shit traders start owning the the things that parts of society that allow them to produce the things they sell. I think an interesting question is if you go to Viking in a time machine now, and we could set them up with a little business in town or something, how would that work out? And, yes, I think there is something to be said for the idea that these were people who came up with projects to enrich themselves and damned be anybody who gets in the way of that, you know, I'm going to make that happen. Yeah, I think that's something that they would probably find agreeable, but the actual business of capitalism, the concept of extracting profit from other people from having a team of workers who you pay a certain amount to, and then you have to make sure that the wages you're paying them are less than what you get back on the product and using that capital to reinvest in further projects, things that absolutely make you a capitalist, I think that would have been very puzzling to a Viking. That being a historical novel development means that if you're a capitalist, and you want to find yourself in the past, where do you go? Well, your past isn't actually that deep, capitalism is probably only about 300 years old, give or take. So you've got to find someone you can latch on to in the past. And the Vikings are, as we've seen, up for grabs and make people see parts of themselves reflected in that historical phenomenon. In some sense, the Vikings allow you to resolve the internal contradictions of being a capitalist. Capitalists, this is a point that David Graeber makes, he calls it the "iron law of liberalism". You say you want a free market, you say you just want the government to let you do your thing, and not have all these regulations and everything. You can go out there and make money and everything's gonna be great. That's what you say. And I'm sure that many people genuinely believe that. The problem, of course, is that it's a bit like being in the playground; in the playground, all you want is to play. We don't want teachers, we're not adults around telling us you know what to do, we just, we just want to play. But the minute you get poked in the eye, then it's time to go and get teacher.
And similarly, with capitalism, there's this internal contradiction, where capitalists who say, "We want less regulation, we want the government staying out of our business. It's all about the entrepreneur going out there and just being free and taking what they're going to take and making what they're going to make", that's going to be fantastic. But at the same time, actually, you spend quite a lot of hours lobbying for legislation that's going to potentially smother your competitors. Persuing cases in intellectual property law, you actually spend quite a lot of time not doing stuff that's all about being liberal and being free and not following the rules, you spend a lot of time building and policing the rules. So by latching on to the idea of the romantic Viking who's just held there, it's between the Viking and the high seas and the raiding and the trading that he's going to do. You allow yourself to minimize that part of you that says, "Hey, actually, I need to get up tomorrow. And remember to sue someone because they're logo looks a little bit like mine", you can minimize that and just focus on the fantastic entrepreneurial side of things.
Nicola Witcombe 20:35
Yes, you presumably the fact that it's kind of like a smorgasbord of things that you can choose from, because it hasn't been written in stone, although obviously runes are written in stone, but written in stone to a very great degree, means that people can come nowadays and choose aspects of it that they would like to and neglect other aspects of it, for example, yeah, historical accuracy or things that are things that they don't like.
So could you give some concrete examples of when Viking traits or similar have been used in these sorts of business business contexts?
Richard Cole 21:17
I think a really exciting example and one of the earlier ones actually was from 2008, the Icelandic financial crisis, when the investors who would go on to cause that disaster were branded as the "Útrásarvíkingar" [the outvading Vikings] by Icelandic media and the people who are responsible for that surge of dodgy investment. There's actually also a book released this year by Alaric Hall about the Útrásarvíkingar. I'm also interested in two manifestos if you like, there's one that's actually called "The Viking Manifesto" from 2007 by Steve Strid and Claes Andréasson. And most recently, there is one by Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg, "Return of the Vikings". Return of the Vikings offers up these nine noble virtues, which the book says are particularly Viking; it's courage, truth, honor, fidelity, stroke trust, that's one virtue in the schema, discipline, hospitality, self reliance, industriousness and perseverance. What I find interesting about these virtues is that some of them are if you look into primary sources, most certainly not Viking virtues. The idea of truth or fidelity or trust, for example, I mean, if you had a penny for every time the primary sources talk about somebody making a peace deal with the Vikings that is immediately broken, and everybody gets butchered and pillaged or people being hired Vikings being hired to defend against other Vikings and then just burning down the people that they'd said they'd been paid to protect, you'd have lots of lots of pennies. So some of these are not really Viking virtues at all, in a historical perspective, some of them are just the good old fashioned, barbarian, you know, Protestant ethic virtues. Having this idea that basically the cold, rational, hard working, Northern Europe was the natural place for capitalism to take root. And a lot of those have just been taken directly, I think and transported to a Viking context. There's a sociological journal, there's a sociological article, I should say, from the American Journal of Sociology from 1955 Rosalie and Murray Wax's "the Vikings and the Rise of Capitalism". And that's a different thing to these manifestos. I mean, that is a piece of peer reviewed academic research. But what the wax is, and they've done a straight up about this actually what the wax is do that as they say, we're going to take Weber's virtues, and we're going to say that's what pagan Vikings were also like, and that must be more or less where it comes from. That is an astounding claim to make. They even at one point say, "Oh, well, yes, we know that when they converted to Christianity, they did so and it was Catholicism, but you know, that was just a little phase. They just sort of bounced off that and went straight into Protestantism really, and it's only three years ago that Scandinavia reached a point in its history where it's been Protestant longer than it's been Catholic, but they were so determined to find these barbarian Protestant capitalist virtues that they turn off their critical sense.
Nicola Witcombe 24:55
You mentioned the barian capitalism. Could you just say a little bit about how he sort of brought Protestantism together with capitalism, I think that would be useful.
Richard Cole 25:13
The gist of Weber's process and ethic and the spirit of capitalism is that there were certain virtues that were found predominantly in Northern Europe. And those virtues were intimately connected with Protestantism. And they were the same virtues that made Northern Europe good at capitalism when it came along. And these are rationality, the idea that, you know, the people of Northern Europe were naturally not as superstitious, as the people in the South. Self discipline, the idea that people in Northern Europe could just damn well get up in the morning and, you know, want to sleep out of their eyes and get to work and not be seduced into, you know, sleeping in and that kind of thing. And this industriousness, this idea that they just naturally people in this part of the world are working harder. And that's the basic gist of his idea.
Nicola Witcombe 26:18
And it came out in the paper you mentioned from 1955. I think that this sort of asceticism that Vikings were hard and they worked hard. And whereas I associate capitalism, with consumerism, as well, that one has to drink and eat and consume a lot. But I guess that idea of consumerism came much later than what what Weber was talking about.
Richard Cole 26:50
Yes, I think that's a good point, as certainly Vikings loved nice things. There's no doubt about that. All kinds of, you know, jewelry and luxury goods are found in Viking digs and described in the texts even, so there's no doubt about that. But that is a different thing, very different thing to consumerism, I think, because the point about consumerism, is yes, we should all be out there consuming all this stuff. And we've almost got an imperative on us to do that, to support the huge industry that makes all of the stuff. That's a part of the capitalist experience. Vikings loved nice stuff, went out, took nice stuff off people who had it. But the idea that raiding was an industry that we all had to do our bit to, you know, keep going. That's not a raiding, it's a means to an end and if you can just settle down and do some farming or better yet, get some slaves do some farming for you. That's a much more preferable to a Viking.
Nicola Witcombe 27:51
Richard Cole 27:54
Can we go back to the Icelandic example, briefly. So they were portrayed as outgoing Vikings? Could you explain a little bit more about that? Why was that, do you think?
Yes, I mean, something that's interesting about that case, is that the Útrása, part of Útrásarvíkingar is actually a neologism. That's a word that was made up seemingly to justify this term. It is appealing to this notion of the Vikings as people who travel on the high seas who go abroad, acquire wealth and bring it back home. And that's fundamentally historically okay. In most contexts that's true. That's a thing that Viking Age people did; they went abroad, and they acquired wealth and they came home. The thing that's particularly funny about that is Iceland is about the only Scandinavian country where that wasn't true. It would have made a lot more sense if Danes, Norwegians or Swedes have come up with that concept. But Iceland was a settler society. So when the "Vikings" turn up, and they pretty much immediately start farming. And yes, they do go on all sorts of colorful adventures abroad, but no one was taking Viking ships from Iceland to go and raid in the British Isles or France, or anywhere like that.
Nicola Witcombe 29:15
I guess I'm also interested in why they chose the term Vikings in that particular context. Was it because they perceived this group of the monetary elites as metaphorically raping and pillaging their society? Or was it just yeah, maybe it was just a catchy phrase, I don't know?
Richard Cole 29:42
I think it's a catchy phrase, yes. But it also allows you to imagine yourself doing something much more romantic and when you're actually doing. Even the most hard working dynamic entrepreneur, he's probably spending most of their time on Excel. So it's very exciting to be able to say, "Okay, maybe I'm spending most of my time on Excel and writing emails. But what I'm metaphorically doing is getting in my longship and going over there and doing some really manly stuff". And I think I really think that is a part of the attraction of the Vikings in a business or in a capitalist context.
Nicola Witcombe 30:38
As you mentioned, the word "manly". Could we jump to my question on machismo? So there is something about the Vikings that maybe appeals to sort of masculinity and toughness, and so on and so forth? Despite it being recognized that women are also strong and influential in Viking times that appears to be this element of machismo. Have you, could you comment on that? Or do you think that's a correct assumption?
Richard Cole 31:12
I do think you're absolutely right. This machismo is a thing you see, whenever people from the business community or people from the more theoretical part of the capitalist world, start talking about Vikings. And I think that a large amount of that can be explained because it's a way to identify with a more manly thing than the thing that you're actually doing.
Nicola Witcombe 31:39
-with the Excel spreadsheet [laugh]
Richard Cole 31:40
I say with the Excel spreadsheet, I do think that's a part of it. There's another thing going on, perhaps, which is that the Viking Age is has been commandeered by people, long before capitalists got their hands on it. I mean, as soon as people start writing the history of the Viking Age, they are trying to integrate it into various nationalist or imperialist projects. That's been going on for centuries. So there's a lot of baggage that comes with the Viking Age. And I do wonder how far the capitalists end up picking up some of that either accidentally, or maybe in some cases, not even completely accidentally. Because, and I've talked about this gray literature, there's all this stuff out there written about the Viking Age, it's not peer reviewed, where dodgy claims are repeated over and over again. And that is the literature that is overwhelmingly cited by the business community. When you start imbibing all of that grey literature, you start picking up all the funny ideas that have come with it, I think. And certainly some ideas about you know, rugged manliness are going to be a part of that. You also see something I find really interesting in Shay Shannon. Yeah, bounce book, is the nationalistic or even slightly racialized way of talking about the Vikings coming in. And I have to make it clear, I share Shannon about multiple times say that they are pro multiculturalism, and they don't want anything to do with the far right use of the Viking Age. And they explicitly define themselves in opposition to it. And yet, it's not possible for them to stop referring to roots and DNA, this idea that Viking is something you inherit and this genetic research, that's what being a Viking is. And that's very funny, because you wouldn't do that with other periods of history. We don't go around Europe, testing people to see what percentage ancient Greek they are. But we do do it with the Vikings. And I think that's because of this dodgy history that is out there in the grey literature.
Nicola Witcombe 33:57
And I mean, we were both from the UK. And for years now, it's been quite popular to get a DNA test. And people are desperate after proving that they have some sort of DNA from the Vikings. And that's an interesting phenomenon. And it perhaps reflects popular culture. But there's also a sort of ethnic undertone that's quite difficult to place or quite difficult to analyse. I don't know whether you'd be able to elucidate?
Richard Cole 34:34
Yes, I'm also very intrigued by that. And I find myself to be quite troubled by it. Now, there is some value to be had in this sort of testing. For example, there's been some data that was published recently that showed that testing of bones, for example, I think it was bones that the relevant genetic data was extracted from showed that people in Viking mass burials from the Baltic and Northern England were genetically so close to each other, they must have been immediate family members or something like it. So that's an example where the gene testing stuff can actually tell you something that's historically valid and interesting. But to be quite frank with you, and I realise this will generate controversy even amongst other academics, I do find it extremely troubling and I don't think it tells you anything that you didn't already know through the texts. So it must be telling you something else. And I think what it is telling you is a basic residue from this racial way of thinking about the Vikings that goes back to, at least to the Victorians, certainly in the British Isles, it's coming from the Victorians. And then I mean, from the off, Andrew Wawn is an academic, he's written about this great book, The Vikings and the Victorians. He points out that there was this rhetoric in the Imperial period, where to explain Britain's greatness, Viking stock, what now we would call DNA was used to say, "Hey, that's the thing that makes us different from say, Germany, right, that, you know, we have this X-Factor that came from the Vikings". And of course, when you just walk around England, you don't see, you know, statues of Odin, Thor and that kind of thing that claim that there's this X-Factor, it's made a special, it's a claim that's very seductive, but it's got nothing in your everyday experience to back it up. So gene testing comes in. And now we say, "Okay, well, it's all invisible, the X-Factor, but I got a blood test, and it shows that I'm, you know, 23%, Viking or something like that". But yeah, it's got absolutely nothing to say for it. I think, historically, the idea that, look, you can convince me that there's a blood test for diabetes, but the idea is of blood tests of being a Viking, when you think about how much people move around in Europe, also moved around historically, especially how much they move around in the Viking Age, I'm not even convinced that most of the time you're testing for anything meaningful at all.
Nicola Witcombe 37:24
So you've talked about how lots of people within the grey literature, maybe intentionally or unintentionally misrepresent what actually went on in the Viking age? Does it really matter that they do that? Does it really matter that these are inaccurate representations of the Viking Age?
Richard Cole 37:50
Such a fascinating question. Because in a sense, where someone a position like me is never going to be able to fix it, we're just gonna have to accept that there's all these claims out there. And the sorts of peer review, that mean that the work that I come out with means that it's genuinely free of these sorts of assumptions, or it's as free as I possibly can be, also mean that it's not going to be terribly interesting to people who want to believe in this stuff in advance. I think that is what's so fascinating about things like Shannon, about and chaos and chaos and and even the waxes as well, what they are actually doing is they're not telling you anything about the Vikings, they're telling you about the things that they desperately want to believe about the Vikings. And I think that's probably the value, the strange value of these sorts of historically illiterate claims. They tell you something about the people saying them, something that maybe the people saying them themselves don't actually know.
Nicola Witcombe 39:13
Traditionally, the Vikings have been perhaps portrayed as very violent, and so on and so forth. As some of these books and academic articles, just trying to perspectivise the Vikings in a more sort of nuanced way rather than just people who raped and pillaged and were dominant overseas. What do you think?
Richard Cole 39:44
In a way , he texts that are coming out of the business community do reflect an actual debate that has been going on inside the walls of the university as well about the Viking AgeT. There is a sort of pendulum that swings from what a nasty horrible lot the Vikings were , you wouldn't want them living anywhere near you. To actually, you know, the Vikings were cultured, lived in nice clean wooden houses that look a bit like a IKEA catalog. So that debate's happening inside the university as well and you can't really fault the business community for latching on to that side of things, for sure.
We talked earlier that it appears that Vikings sell everything from hand dryers to bread to a political message, as well, these writers and thinkers and companies, they're just using the term Vikings for the publicity that it offers. Could you comment on that?
Well, I think from an advertising perspective, there probably is a bit of that going on the the Vikings are always going to be eye catching. So certainly in in that regard, admin are probably up to some of that. But I do think there is more going on. It does look as though the Vikings are fulfilling some sort of psychological need for the business community and for people in capitalist theory that other parts of history are not doing. This search for finding yourself in the past, finding someone say, "Hey, look, we've always been here", that's something that capitalists do today. And they use the Vikings to do that. But other historically novel developments also did that, the British Empire for example, used spent a lot of intellectuals of the British Empire spent a lot of energy on claiming Viking tradition for themselves. And a similar sort of novelty had to be dealt with, in their case, the British Empire was something very new, there hadn't been a global maritime empire like this before. So to find some sort of historical roots for that project, the Viking Age was there, it had exactly the same, exactly the same things that made it amenable for, for business people to latch on to it, the fact that the sources are quite mixed, actually. And, and there's a lot of dodgy stuff out there that you can sort of claim and like hold on to and use to justify yourself. Exactly the same thing that happened with the British Empire and now it's happening with the business community or with capitalists too. So I think there is something a bit more going on there than just in an advertising message.
The word Viking also quickly sums up images of Scandinavia, modern Scandinavia, or the Nordic countries, which people quickly equate with progressivism and the top of transparency, international lists, and all the other good things that are associated with the Nordic countries and Scandinavia. Could that be another reason why this label Viking is often used? Because it's a good go global brand. It's another way of saying the Nordics without actually explicitly saying it
It's certainly interesting that in Shern and Jeberg's book and actually, to some extent, the Viking manifesto too, the previous one by Strid and Andréasson, actually what their method really is, is to use a load of data and a load of sort of good PR about the modern Nordic countries, and then slap a bit of Viking imagery over the top of it and say, "Oh, well, this must be the historical reason that the Nordics are like this". Actually, a lot of the claims made in the books haven't got anything to do with the Middle Ages, you can go for 20-30 pages at a stretch in both of those books, and not get any details about the Viking Age at all. And it's precisely because of what you're saying, precisely because Viking is standing in as shorthand for the modern Nordic countries. They're very fond of beginning chapters by citing an Old Norse poet, called ___, the words of the high one, or the words of Odin possibly. And that's a very interesting poem, it's written down in the 13th century, so it's written down after the Viking Age. To be fair, it does look as though, I won't go into the reasons here, but it looks as though bits of that poem at least, would have been known in the 1900s. So it's possible that there were people who were called Vikings and knew parts of that poem, that's all fine. And ___ was very like aphoristic poetry, it's full, it's a sort of wisdom poetry. So it's all about these sort of proverbs and, you know, sort of grandfatherly advice you might get they'd like to have a bit of half an hour, and then they'll launch into a report about equality in the workplace in 2007, or something like that. And I think, in a sense, using ___ to say something about the Vikings might be all right. But you'd have to look at all of _____ and the selective quoting that goes on with ______ is incredible. A lot is made in both these books of Nordic gender equality and finding that reflected in the Viking Age itself, is a slightly troubling assertion, so we do have to be a bit careful. I'm sure it was not a wonderland for women of the Viking Age. But I've got a bit of ____ here that is not cited by either of these people.
Okay, brilliant yeah.
I certainly do not endorse this message, by the way. This is stanza 84.
[speaks Old Norse]
Translation: Not trust a girl's world, or anything a woman say, but on a turning wheel, their hearts were made to seat buried in their breasts. Right. Yeah, that's not really on brand. Okay? No, that does not that's not on brand with the modern friendly Nordic identity. And it's actually not on brand with the role of women in office environments. At least I'm sure it does happen in practice like that. But certainly, there's no HR department that would want that one knock on their door today. And this is what I find so difficult when you are a historian reading these books, because they will come out with these statements. And all it does is really show you the stuff they already believe, going into writing it, right? The stuff that they don't cite from the Viking Age is as telling.
Are you able to take a guess in what a Viking would make of all this?
I absolutely love that question. I do think that a Viking would appreciate the notion of pure self interest. I think that if you could try to explain to a Viking, the concept of the welfare state or paying these really high taxes out of your profits, I think a Viking would find that absolutely absurd. The part of capitalists that says, you know "I call that that part of me that just wants to go out there and not be confined by any higher authority than myself", that is something that seems like it's going on in the purview of the Vikings. Vikings constantly flee from the authority of kings, anyone who's going to try and build a state over the top of them. They really don't want anything to do with that. The difference, of course, is that the Vikings actually go out there and did it. When the Vikings want to escape the grip of the state, they leave Norway and they go to Iceland, and they set up a society where they do everything they can to avoid having a state. It's still a very cool and exploitative society, but nonetheless and that's something that they might partially find themselves in looking at the sort of the business community who used the image of the Vikings today. Yeah, so I think that sense of individualism is something that Vikings would find agreeable. A Viking would have operated in a world where getting someone to work for you was done to some sort of status relationship; some sort of idea of mutual obligation, you know, "You are a lesser man to me, but we've engaged in some sort of gift giving ceremony that says that if you ever get into some sort of conflict, I'll be the one who has your back or I will arbitrate in return, you will come out with me and go on Viking raids" and that sort of thing. That's something that doesn't translate everyone to a payslip.
So to sum up then, the sources of the Viking Age are challenging and require careful interpretation by experts to understand them. So the period is in some ways up for grabs, leaving space for all sorts of stories and narratives which may be more or less factually correct. Well, it is of course nice to have certainty and to know what did and did not happen. Whether these interpretations are 100% historically accurate does not always matter. What seems more important is to recognize that often, when we grab on to these images from the past, which ones we choose and how we choose them often tells us more about ourselves, than about them.
[speaking Old Norse]
There is no teaching that is so false that there is not some truth mixed in with it. And in my view, there is no debate that is so frivolous, that it does not teach us something. So says a churchman around the turn of the 1100.
You've been listening to nordics.info podcast. Thanks go to researcher Richard Cole and to our very own research hub, Reimagining Norden and Evolving World (ReNEW) funded by NordForsk. If you'd like to find out more, please visit nordics.info.