The Vikings: it wasn't all raping and pillaging

Forget what history tells us about the Nordic invaders. New research suggests they were model immigrants who co-existed peacefully with the natives

For centuries, they have been stereotyped as marauding barbarians arriving in their helmeted hordes to pillage their way across Britain. But now a group of academics believe they have uncovered new evidence that the Vikings were more cultured settlers who offered a "good historical model" of immigrant assimilation.

The evidence is set to be unveiled at a three-day Cambridge University conference starting today, when more than 20 studies will reveal how the Vikings shared technology, swapped ideas and often lived side-by-side in relative harmony with their Anglo-Saxon and Celtic contemporaries. Some may have come, plundered and left, but those Vikings who decided to settle rather than return to Scandinavia learnt the language, inter-married, converted to Christianity and even had "praise poetry" written about them by the Brits, according to the experts.

The conference, entitled "Between the Islands", draws on new archeological evidence, historical studies and analysis of the language and literature of the period, and shows that between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Vikings became an integral part of the fabric of social and political life that changed Britain and Ireland far more profoundly than previously realised. The academics hope it will tip the balance still further in the "raiders or traders" question.

Scholars will argue that they should be seen as an early example of immigrants who were successfully assimilated into British and Irish culture. Their so-called "invasion" led, to some extent, to the creation of trans-national identities, a process that has particular relevance to modern Britain. Dr Fiona Edmonds, of Cambridge University's department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, said: "The latest evidence does not point to a simple opposition between Vikings and natives.

"Within a relatively short space of time – and with lasting effect – the various cultures in Britain and Ireland started to intermingle. Investigating that process provides us with a historical model of how political groups can be absorbed into complex societies, contributing much to those societies in the process. There are important lessons that can be gained from this about cultural assimilation in the modern era."

Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, who is co-organising the conference, said it was not a simple case of the Vikings coming and conquering. There was a "cross-fertilisation" of practices, including Anglo-Saxon communities adopting Norse names. "They were mutually transformed in the process, it was two-way interaction," she said. "Those who settled had to become different, and adapt to the society around them and learn to communicate with each other."

Some Viking kings learnt to speak English, Welsh and Irish as well as Latin, the language of the elite in Britain, and adopted Anglo-Saxon names. One king who settled in Ireland was honoured with "praise" poetry dedicated to his rule by the indigenous community. The Viking kings of Dublin, said Dr Ní Mhaonaigh, became a very active element of the city's political scene.

"What is clear is that the popular picture of Vikings is not quite as it seems, and when viewing their long-term presence, it is quite untrue. The communities were mutually transformed in the process. Of course, there was plundering and pillaging, but those who started to build camps and started to settle began interacting in a very different way," she said.

She added that King Amlaib, who settled in Dublin in the 10th century, became a Christian and was venerated by the local poets, while another leader from the mid-11th century, whose Welsh name was Gruffud ap Cynan, bore Welsh and Norse blood-ties, and spent a long time in Dublin. This, she said, was another example of cultural inter-mingling.

"It's a good historical model when a relatively small number of people can adapt and assimilate into a complex, sophisticated society," she said.

A new analysis of personal names in the Domesday Book also suggests that settlements established in Yorkshire from the 9th century retained their Gaelic-Scandinavian identity until the Norman Conquest. Even after the Battle of Hastings, and long after the Norse were believed to have been expelled from the area, there were people with some element of Scandinavian identity living happily in the heart of Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire. Through this time, they were able to hang on to elements of their Viking identity without expulsion by the indigenous people – further evidence that there was little opposition to these conquering emigres.

Research into Scandinavian settlements reveals a profound level of social and economic interaction between Viking incomers and the Celts. There was mixing in many towns and rural camps in Ireland, while recent studies of regional coins from the Viking age show that these rulers were far from impervious to local economies. In East Anglia, for example, where they had a well regulated monetary system, they adapted the existing economic system, while in other areas with only limited coin circulation, they introduced a bullion economy.

On a cultural level, Celtic folklore began to influence Viking literature. An analysis of Old Norse literary works that shows some of their tales may have been borrowed from Gaelic storytelling, thus the myths of Scandinavia, Ireland and Britain became inexorably intertwined. Professor Judith Jesch, from the University of Nottingham, reveals how Norse poetry was composed in the Hebrides. Professor Terje Spurkland, from the University of Oslo, has found that rune stones combined Scandinavian inscriptions with Celtic designs.

Over the centuries the importance of this cross-fertilisation was overshadowed by a skewed mythology of the Viking age that was created by 12th and 13th century Irish chroniclers and poets long after the Scandinavians' golden era had ended. A host of poems and prose narrative emerged which depicted the Vikings as "otherworldly beings" who came and stream-rollered across the cultural terrain of the British Isles.

These Irish writers went to great lengths to "extol the virtues of their Celtic ancestors who had fended off the Vikings", and so circulated this mythology of the maurading invader. It is only now, in recent decades, that academics have begun to unpick the stereotype and reveal an altogether different story.

From raiders to traders

They were prolific seafaring explorers, warriors and merchants from Denmark, Norway and Sweden who colonised swathes of Europe from the late 800s to the 12th century. In Norse, the word Viking means piracy and therefore the Vikings have become known as raiders who terrorised Europe instead of disciplined conquerors who established settlements as far afield as Constantinople, Greenland and Newfoundland.

There is archaeological evidence they discovered the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Their famed narrow longships allowed them to enter countries through rivers and it is this access which allowed them to settle and trade throughout Europe. A stereotyped image as a noble savage emerged in 17th century British texts and then again during the Victorian era. This image later turned into a cartoonish caricature of Vikings as barbarian invaders.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Day In a Page

Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference