A Yale historian wants us to rethink the terrible tales about the Norse.
© Tom Lovell
This illustration shows the stereotype of Viking marauders wreaking mayhem, even on clergy. The scene depicts the monastery at Clonmacnoise, Ireland.
The Vikings gave no quarter when they stormed the city of Nantes, in what is now western France, in June 843 - not even to the monks barricaded in the city's cathedral. "The heathens mowed down the entire multitude of priest, clerics, and laity," according to one witness account. Among the slain, allegedly killed while celebrating the Mass, was a bishop who later was granted sainthood.
To modern readers the attack seems monstrous, even by the standards of medieval warfare. But the witness account contains more than a touch of hyperbole, writes Anders Winroth
, a Yale history professor and author of the book The Age of the Vikings
, a sweeping new survey. What's more, he says, such exaggeration was often a feature of European writings about the Vikings.
When the account of the Nantes attack is scrutinized, "a more reasonable image emerges," he writes. After stating that the Vikings had killed the "entire multitude," for instance, the witness contradicts himself by noting that some of the clerics were taken into captivity. And there were enough people left - among the "many who survived the massacre" - to pay ransom to get prisoners back.
In short, aside from ignoring the taboo against treating monks and priests specially, the Vikings acted not much differently from other European warriors of the period, Winroth argues.
In 782, for instance, Charlemagne, now heralded as the original unifier of Europe, beheaded 4,500 Saxon captives on a single day. "The Vikings never got close to that level of efficiency," Winroth says, drily.
© Peter Essick, National Geographic
Erik the Red, a famous Viking explorer and the discoverer of Greenland, built a wooden church (replica above) for his wife in Qassiarsuk, Greenland.