The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History
History, Volume 88, Issue 290 (2003)
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.