Exploring the Martial Cultures of the Viking Age

To commemorate Grimfrost's 10th anniversary, this is the second in the series of 12 monthly blog posts by acknowledged academics about their chosen Viking Age subject. 

About the Author

Ben Raffield is an Associate Professor in Archaeology at Uppsala University, Sweden. He specialises in the study of the Viking Age, with a focus on socio-political and military organisation; conflict, slavery, and social inequality; and migration and cross-cultural interaction in Late Iron Age Scandinavia and the wider Viking world. In addition, he has a specialist interest in the study of modern conflict, with a focus on the archaeology of the 1941-45 Pacific War. He currently leads the Swedish Research Council-funded project, Social Inequality, Structural Violence, and Marginalisation in Viking-Age Scandinavia, and is a co-investigator on the NordForsk-funded project Making a Warrior: The Social Implications of Viking Age Martial Ideologies.


Encountering the warrior

Since the 19th century, the stereotypical image of the heavily armed viking warrior has lain at the forefront of both popular and academic representations of the Viking Age. In Scandinavia, this motif has at times been propagated, and in some cases quite relentlessly, as a fundamental cornerstone of Nordic cultural identity. Elsewhere, it has been held up as an archetypal representation of the ‘barbarian at the gates’ – an embodiment of the dangerous heathen forces that are recorded in historical sources as having once wrought so much havoc on the kingdoms of Europe.

Over the last fifty years, however, our understanding of the Viking Age has shifted dramatically. Whereas scholars were once content to simply rely on – or dismiss as mere exaggeration – the narratives of violence that survive in early medieval chronicles, we now recognise the period as one of profound socio-cultural and ideological change, driven by a constellation of factors that combined to dramatically reshape the historical trajectory of Europe and the emergent Scandinavian kingdoms. ‘The Vikings’ themselves are recognised as key agents in these changes, and since the mid-20th century they have been rehabilitated and remoulded on numerous occasions as a result of academic and public discourse.

And yet, despite this, conflict and violence remain strongly embedded in our historical consciousness. Indeed, for many people, the term ‘viking’ itself is often considered as being synonymous with violence (1). Our perceptions of warrior groups remain closely tied to the one-dimensional stereotype of the barbaric viking raider presented to us in historical documents, and in recent years it has become increasingly clear that the study of Viking-Age martial culture would benefit from a reappraisal.

Confronting Viking-Age militarism

Our understanding of Viking-Age militarism, and that of warrior groups themselves, has evolved and fluctuated in line with various trends emerging within and outside of archaeological research over the last two centuries. The common archetypal trope of the seafaring viking warrior, as noted above, has much of its origins in the 19th century, a time when European powers sought to expand and consolidate their overseas empires. At this time, ‘The Vikings’ were portrayed as daring explorers, conquerors, and colonists. In Scandinavia, the influence of national romantic perspectives provided an impetus to look back to the Viking Age as the period during which the unified national identities of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark began to emerge.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the Viking Age was still widely celebrated as a formative period of state-building and consolidation. During the 1930s and 1940s, however, the period acquired a much darker legacy as a result of co-option and misappropriation by the Third Reich, which harnessed archaeological evidence and images of Viking-Age warriors as a means of promoting its murderous racial ideologies. With the conclusion of the Second World War, however, the nationalistic perspectives of the 19th century fell away. In a trend that mirrored those seen more broadly in the archaeological and anthropological disciplines, scholars actively sought to downplay discussions of conflict and militarism as formative influences within Viking-Age society, with a view instead to promoting a focus on trade, art, and other cultural achievements that transcended previous representations of the period. These revisionist perspectives were so influential that, by the 1990s, discussions of conflict had almost been eradicated from the study of the Viking Age. It is only in the last two decades or so that real efforts have been made to adopt a more balanced and holistic approach to the study of the past.

Postcard celebrating ‘The day of German Art’ in Munich, 1937, featuring a replica of the Oseberg ship.

Today, the societies of Viking-Age Scandinavia are widely recognised as having been militarised. The emergence of militarised social structures can be observed in the burial record, where from the 7th century there is evidence for the cultivation of an ostentatious martial identity among elites. This can be seen in burials from grave fields such as those at Valsgärde and Vendel in Sweden, where the dead were interred in elaborate graves accompanied by a range of high-end military equipment, including weapons and helmets inlaid with gold and garnets. The consolidation of royal sites and burial complexes that had earlier arisen at key sites such as Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, Borre in Norway, and Lejre in Denmark, similarly speak to the growing authority of these groups and the influence that they wielded over regional landscapes. Their power was further enhanced by ideological perspectives that placed an emphasis on the concept of sacral kingship, reinforced through patronage of the cult of Óðinn and expressed through ritualised performances as part of feasting and other public ceremonies. The evident extravagance associated with the martial lifestyle indicates that warriorhood was as much a social construct as an occupation grounded in active participation in violence. Although conflict was likely fairly widespread, this was probably small-scale and may have involved an element of ritualisation.

Moving into the 8th and 9th centuries, societies appear to have become more intensely militarised. Members of the free population were legally entitled to carry arms, and communities would have been exposed to the presence of armed groups and the display of weaponry on a regular basis. The education of at least some children (most likely of a certain social status) also would have incorporated a martial element. Violence was ingrained in judicial proceedings and ritual practices, and heroic values were glorified and instilled in the ideological and moral psyche. The consolidation of elite power would have also likely involved a measure of violence and coercion, as increasingly influential local and regional rulers sought to expand their influence at the expense of their competitors. The entrenchment of militarism is argued to be seen in a visible decline in the extravagance of weapons and other equipment in the archaeological record, with notable emphasis instead being placed on functional utility and standardisation. This may indicate the arming of increasingly large forces to participate in conflict.

Plan drawing of the Valsgärde 8 boat burial, Sweden.

Helmet from Valsgärde, Sweden.
 

Characterising Viking-Age warriors

But what was the function of warriors within this environment, and how were their identities and social roles articulated within the broader sphere of society? The answer to this question may initially seem obvious, but there have in fact been few attempts to actively characterise warriors as a population group. For many people, warriors are defined in relatively simplistic terms by their roles as combatants. Previous archaeological research (including that by the author), has focused primarily on the internal dynamics and structures, militaristic capabilities, and ideological foundations of warrior groups. In textual scholarship, similar prominence has been ascribed to concepts such as the comitatus (described by the Roman historian Tacitus) and the männerbund, which stress the deeply exclusive character of warrior bands as autonomous fraternities. While none of these perspectives is necessarily inaccurate, the overwhelming emphasis placed on them serves, in our minds, to sever the links that must have existed between warriors and their communities. It becomes all too easy to forget that these individuals were not just agents of violence. Rather, they were bound into the very same networks of kinship, obligation, and diplomacy that shaped the lives of every member of society. Little thought has been given to the roles played by members of various demographic and social groups within militaristic contexts, nor to the social structures and hierarchies that sustained and legitimised martial ideologies and the influence of warriors among society at large.

An elite phenomenon?

In seeking to better understand the lives of warrior groups, it is first necessary to consider who the lifestyle of the warrior was open to. The Viking Age was a period in which the lives and livelihood of the population were, for the greatest part, dependent on subsistence farming. Indeed, many of the viking ‘warriors’ that we encounter in the historical record were likely part-time fighters – opportunists who participated in seasonal raiding as a means of enrichment, or who were obliged to participate as a result of their duties owed to local rulers.

If we are to turn to the archaeological record, we can deduce that the core of martial society comprised members of the elite – major landowners and political figures who were able not only to cultivate and project a militarised identity, but also raise and equip warbands for participation in conflict. One interesting grave that speaks to the entrenchment of militarism within the lives of the elite is, perhaps surprisingly, that of a child, found in grave Bj. 977 at Birka in Sweden. This richly furnished chamber grave, situated in the huge Hemlanden cemetery that lies immediately adjacent to the settlement, was found to contain the remains of a child of around nine years of age, who was accompanied by full-sized functional war gear, including a sword and shield, and a horse equipped with a bridle.

The grave is interesting for several reasons. First, children’s burials are generally underrepresented in pre-Christian Viking-Age cemeteries, and as such their inclusion within these contexts could indicate that they were members of high-status families who were able to offer special treatment to their dead. The inclusion of weapons within the burial is also noteworthy given that the child was too young to have been able to use them effectively. This implies that the items were included in the grave for symbolic purposes, perhaps as an idealised expression of the mounted warrior that they might have become, had they survived to adulthood. This would align with practices observed in societies where membership of warrior institutions is based on inherited status. While membership is technically open to all members of the elite, that ascribed to the very young or very old tends to be honorary, reflecting their association with the group despite their inability to actively participate in its activities. This argument may also provide an explanation for a number of stray finds of functional but scaled-down swords, found across the Viking world, which may have been manufactured as bespoke weapons for high-status children.

Further evidence for elite-based warrior groups can be seen in the Salme II boat burial, found during archaeological excavations on the island of Saaremaa, Estonia, in 2010. Dating from the mid-8th century, this large clinker-built vessel – measuring some 18m in length – was found to contain the skeletons of at least 34 individuals buried in three superimposed layers in the hull, the topmost of which was covered with shields (2). 14 showed evidence for injuries indicating a violent death. They were accompanied an array of weaponry, including over 40 swords, in addition to a number of animals including dogs and raptors, the latter of which are birds generally found in association with high-status burials. Both the material culture and the burial rite itself are reminiscent of those encountered at elite grave fields such as Valsgärde and Vendel, with isotopic analyses revealing that the majority of the individuals tested did in fact originate from eastern Central Sweden. While the circumstances that led these individuals to their fate remain the topic of debate, the evident wealth associated with the burial indicates that the expedition was outfitted by and may well have comprised members of the elite who perished while raiding or conducting a diplomatic mission into the eastern Baltic. Interestingly, recent genetic analyses have indicated that four of the deceased were brothers, which when combined with the isotopic evidence could suggest that members of military expeditions were drawn from a relatively small geographical area, with high-status families leveraging their influence and connections to mobilise warbands for collective action. Future dietary and pathological analyses of the remains would do much to shed further light on the social composition and identity of early viking raiding parties.

The role of the retinue

Another key defining characteristic of Viking-Age martial society was the retinue, a group of warriors who served as the personal bodyguard or warband of an elite leader. These individuals, who were bound to their lord in a reciprocal relationship of obligation and allegiance, held a special place within the kinship and social structure of the community. In return for oaths of loyal service, they were provisioned and rewarded with the spoils of war, including weapons, wealth, and captives. Two Old Norse terms used to describe members of the retinue – heimþegi (‘home-receiver’) and húskarl (‘house man’) – also imply that members of the retinue were provided with their own homes, or that they may have lived under the same roof as their leader. They were, in effect, full members of the lord’s household, creating a shared familial bond that was further reinforced through participation in collective religious practices and ritual feasting, travel, and shared experiences of trauma.

A so-called ring-sword from Vendel, Sweden. Rings appear to have held a special association with oath-taking, and it is possible that oaths of loyalty were sworn on such weapons.

The intensity of the relationships that could develop within such groups should not be underestimated. Evidence attesting to these bonds can be seen in the inscriptions carved on two 10th-century runestones from Hällestad, Sweden, which were commissioned to commemorate a war leader named Tóki, who is noted as having perished in a battle at Uppsala. One of the stones (DR 295) was raised by a man named Áskell on behalf of a group of men described as drengir (see discussion below), while the other (DR 297) was raised by one of Tóki’s heimþegar – a man named Ásbjörn. On both runestones, Tóki is described as the men’s ‘brother’ – in this case likely indicating not direct kinship but rather that they were brothers-in-arms. The raising of two runestones to the same man, however, provides an opportunity to study the relationships between Tóki and his followers. While DR 295 refers to a collective – one might assume the drengir to be members of a warband, though perhaps not necessarily ‘professional’ warriors – DR 297 stands out as having been raised by a single member of Tóki’s personal retinue. It is notable that Ásbjörn felt the need to personally commission an additional commemorative stone; as a heimþegi, he may have felt that he owed a special bond of obligation and allegiance to his former leader, which transcended that of his comrades.

‘Áskell placed this stone in memory of Tóki Gormr’s son, to him a faithful lord. He did not flee at Uppsala. Valiant men placed in memory of their brother the stone on the hill, steadied by runes. They went closest to Gormr’s Tóki’
- Dr 295, Hällestad, Sweden

‘Ásbjörn, Tóki’s retainer, placed this stone in memory of Tóki, his brother.’
- Dr 297, Hällestad, Sweden(3) 

The social context of martial activity

The raising of rune stone DR 295 by a group of drengir, translated in this case as ‘valiant men,’ raises another point that draws us towards the conclusion of this piece, and which also forces us to consider the wider links between warriors and society. The term drengr is just one of several Old Norse words encountered in runic inscriptions and skaldic poems that could be used to denote those engaged in martial activity. It is not, however, a direct correlate for the modern term ‘warrior.’ In a number of cases, it is used to describe young men man engaged in a specific range of activities – including warfare and overseas travel – while living within the orbit of a military leader. In others, it is used to refer to individuals engaged in trade; an activity that is often presented as the ‘peaceful’ antithesis to the violence of viking raiding.

The evident ambiguity associated with drengr and other Old Norse terms raises a number of questions concerning our understanding of the groups that we, today, describe as warriors. It is important to remember that the meaning and use of these terms undoubtedly varied regionally, through time, and also within individual contexts of commemoration. Their application, however, to a broad range of people, engaged in an equally broad range of activities, supports the notion that many elements of what we might call ‘warrior identity’ lay outside of the sphere of conflict. This apparent contradiction might initially seem problematic, but it does not have to be. Far from indicating that warrior identities were grounded solely in violence, it implies that warfare, travel, and trade represented just three of perhaps many different occupations that were bound into a certain type of social persona – one that was projected through the display of ‘proper’ behaviours and participation in honourable activities. While archaeological studies of militarism are by their nature guided by materials such as weaponry, which are explicitly associated with violence, we should not forget that participation in conflict represents just one aspect of the martial life course.

That said, the discussion above also encourages us to think more widely on the ways in which conflict intersects with processes that we would usually view as being far removed from contexts of violence. While trade, as noted above, is often presented as a relatively ‘peaceful’ activity, it goes without saying that any form of long-distance travel was fraught with danger. Pirates and bandits preyed on travellers, and merchants were especially lucrative targets. The most successful merchants, therefore, would have been those who not only knew their markets but who were also able to defend themselves. An even more effective strategy was to establish a network of control points along trade routes and networks, which would allow certain groups to monopolise access to these and extract tribute from other parties through the use of violence or coercion. The dual influence of militarism and mercantile proficiency is clear to see in the emergence of the Rūs, a multi-ethnic society that dominated the riverine trade routes of what is now Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. The Rūs are recorded in historical documents not only as being prolific traders, but also as capable of mounting large-scale raiding expeditions and effectively competing with their neighbours in war. Far from being opposing occupations, warfare and commerce likely went hand-in-hand (as they so often do today). The identities and roles of warriors can therefore be viewed as lying at the interface of the key processes of overseas travel, raiding, and trade that are so often taken as characterising the Viking Age.

In considering the relationships that existed between warriors and wider society, we might also look closer to home. While the relationships that bound warrior groups together cut across family and wider kinship networks, we should acknowledge that these individuals lived out their daily lives not at a distance from communities, but rather as an integral part of them. Their absence would have been felt during times of conflict or when travelling abroad, and their loss would have been mourned when they did not return home. A unique and somewhat sobering insight into the devastating losses that were undoubtedly experienced by many families during the Viking Age is provided by a group of more than two dozen 11th-century runestones from the Mälar Valley of Central Sweden. Known as the Ingvar runestones (Swedish: Ingvarsstenarna), these stones were raised to commemorate men who left Scandinavia as part of an ill-fated expedition to the east, led by a commander named Ingvarr. The size of the expedition and its objectives are ultimately unknown (current theories argue for an intervention into Rūs politics or a massive raid on the Caucasus region), but it is clear that it was a disaster. As news filtered back to the Mälar Valley, there appears to have been an outpouring of collective grief that is unprecedented in terms of its scale. The runestones tell of parents mourning their sons, siblings their brothers, and children their fathers, and we can only guess at how many families either chose or were not able to commission their own monuments. It is impossible to assess the extent of the damage caused to the social fabric of those communities, or to fully realise the implications of such a loss for their short- and long-term subsistence, security, and prosperity. What can be said with some certainty, however, is that this event must have dramatically reshaped the nature of social networks and structures within the districts that the voyagers called home.

Runestone Sö 131, raised in memory of a man named Skarði, who travelled east as part of Ingvarr’s expedition.

‘From here he travelled to the east with Ingvarr; in Serkland lies Eyvindr’s son.’
- Excerpt from runestone Sö 131, Lundby, Sweden. (4)

Stories that have yet to be told

For centuries, the motif of the viking warrior has held a prominent place in discussions and representations of the Viking Age. We cannot deny the allure of this image, which for many embodies a curious mixture of heroism and courage blended with a strong measure of brutality, and it will undoubtedly continue to draw future generations to engage with the period. However, at the same time, it is clear that the martial cultures of Scandinavia are long overdue for a renewed and critical review. While previous research has focused for the greatest part on the exclusive dynamics of warrior groups, there is now increased scope to explore warriorhood and militarism not only as an expression or extension of elite violence, but rather as an integral aspect of past lives. Of course, we cannot ever hope to know how the identities and roles of warriors were conceptualised and enacted, nor gain a full understanding of the relationships that they shared with wider society. Archaeologists, historians, and literary specialists work with fragmentary datasets, all of which are open to (re)interpretation, and all we can do is paint an imperfect image of the past, with full acknowledgement of its limitations. This should not stop us, however, from seeking to ascribe warrior groups with a sense of humanity that they have often been denied, nor from working to develop a more clear-eyed and balanced understanding of the realities of the Viking Age.

This article was produced as part of the NordForsk-funded research project Making a Warrior: The Social Implications of Viking Age Martial Ideologies (project no. 150106). A collaboration between researchers based at several universities and museums spread across the Nordic countries, the project is designed to critically reappraise and explore the institution of warriorhood in Viking-Age Scandinavia. Over the next few years, the project team will produce a range of open-access scientific articles and promote the findings of the project through a specially tailored package of public-facing outputs.

For further information please visit https://www.khm.uio.no/english/research/projects/making-a-warrior/.

Footnotes:

(1) The term ‘viking’ is used here not as an ethnonym, but rather to refer to the primarily Scandinavian seaborne raiders, pirates, and merchants operating in northern and western Europe, Scandinavia, and the Baltic during the Viking Age (c. 750–1050 CE). Although there are many longstanding debates on the ‘proper’ meaning and use of the term viking, there is no universally accepted definition. It is hoped that the meaning of the terminology employed in this article will be made clear from its context. 

(2) A smaller boat, Salme I, had been found c. 30m to the northeast only two years earlier. This vessel contained the remains of at least seven males, aged 18-45, accompanied by a range of finds and animal remains. While detailed analyses of the Salme II skeletons have yet to be published, initial studies have indicated that those who could be ascribed sex were males.

(3) For the inscriptions and translations see https://app.raa.se/open/runor/inscription?id=6c4a4fd7-a3dd-4140-b7b1-9587c4df33d9 (DR 295) and https://app.raa.se/open/runor/inscription?id=1c65b81d-a4c6-4ff5-b614-16c14b28ceeb (DR 297).

(4) For the full inscription and translations see https://app.raa.se/open/runor/inscription?id=cc60fdfc-60eb-4848-8ca0-5b5154d4953b.


About the images:

IMAGE 1: Postcard celebrating ‘The day of German Art’ in Munich, 1937, featuring a replica of the Oseberg ship. Photographer unknown, published online by the Munich Stadtmuseum, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

IMAGE 2: Plan drawing of the Valsgärde 8 boat burial, Sweden. Image used by kind permission of the Viking Phenomenon project, Uppsala University.

IMAGE 3: Helmet from Valsgärde, Sweden. Photograph by the author.

IMAGE 4: A so-called ring-sword from Vendel, Sweden. Rings appear to have held a special association with oath-taking, and it is possible that oaths of loyalty were sworn on such weapons. Photograph by Sören Hallgren, Historiska Museet/SHM. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

IMAGE 5: Runestone Sö 131, raised in memory of a man named Skarði, who travelled east as part of Ingvarr’s expedition. Photograph by Bengt. A. Lundberg, used under the Creative Commons Attributions 2.5 Generic license.

  

 

 


6 comments


  • Bobby

    Very good read I’d recommend.


  • Brenna Corbit

    Fantastic. You should write a book on this subject. There is one aspect of Viking culture that really peeves me. Many historians today often state that Christianity tamed the Vikings. One only has to look at Christian history to see that they were just as brutal as any other non-Christian culture. I often think it is a form of Christian prejudice that still runs in history.


  • Nick E.

    Nice to see the blogs coming back! Great to read about the history of that age.


  • James Lawer

    This post is a much needed goad towards a more complete, integrated human valuation compared to an otherwise iconic elevation of a pure, and perhaps mythic, warrior class. It bears rereading.


  • Michael Lockhart

    Excellent! Thank you for the wonderful research and clear presentation. I have been researching pre-Viking Age Scandanavia (set circa 536CE) for a work of fiction. That said, I like to include facts of daily life that are realistic for the edification of the audience. I have decided recently to take the path of “sticking to the story”, rather than adding in too many details… Still, a writer is obligated to paint a picture in the mind of the reader, as you have done so effectively. That is best accomplished with a realistic backdrop, to assist with immersion into the story world.
    I apologize for babbling – it’s a sign that I genuinely enjoyed the work – Thank You!


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