As you well know, history has been written by the victorious, but in the particular case of the Vikings, history was written by their victims. As such, the Vikings have been portrayed as brutal, bloodthirsty barbarians, and so their terrible reputation went on even to our days. Fortunately, with the help of Archaeology and the profound study of the historical records, we now know that the Vikings weren’t as brutal mindless barbarians as they have been portrayed.
The image we have today of the Vikings is both wildly off the mark, and ignores the major contributions they made in shaping Europe during the Middle Ages – or what we know nowadays as the European continent. Not only the Vikings are completely misunderstood, but they may have also saved Europe.
The Vikings were not so selective about the places they wanted to raid, but the treasures and ransom achieved by attacking monasteries resulted in the Vikings being relegated to the “vicious barbarian” category of history. The monks in those monasteries were the only historians around at that time, for the christian church had the monopoly on writing in that time, and so all the records concerning the vikings, were made by the terrified priests and monks. Since the Vikings attacked those with a monopoly on writing, all of their deeds concerning their victims have gone down in history, and so they became known as the infamous, irrational, and bloodthirsty murderers.
One of the reasons the Vikings are viewed so negatively is that their violence could seem wanton or irrational. Part of that lies in the lack of documentation of what the Vikings actually did during their raids. To many at the time, clerics in particular, attacking a monastery or church would have seemed irrational and an act of such evilness that only “Devil worshipers” could perform such a thing. Those who documented the raids, which were usually monks, had something to be gained by playing up the Vikings’ violence against religious figures, and they often resorted to broad, generic rhetoric about the “devastation” and “destruction” without specific detail. Also, some of the documentations we are left with were written centuries after the events, often without the true knowledge of the events, only by listening the accounts from generation to generation; we know that people always add something to the tales to enhance its importance.
It is important to take note that the Vikings were acting completely rationally with their raids. These men were not addicted to violence, the treasure gained from the raids was used by chieftains in the complex and even poetic gift-giving system of the Viking halls; it was no different than what Charlemagne did.
The contemporary ruler Charlemagne is today generally extolled as the founding father of Europe. France and Germany compete about who has the greatest right to claim him as their national founder; Charlemagne was the cultured hero of that age.
Charlemagne treated Saxony like his own personal punching bag. One day in the year of 782, Charlemagne ordered no fewer than 4,500 Saxons to be decapitated because they were oath-breakers. Meanwhile, because they attacked those who would control the written record, the Viking execution of 111 prisoners in the year of 845 lives on in infamy. Germany is so quick to extol Charlemagne, when their Saxon ancestors were among the longest-suffering of Charlemagne’s victims.
Charlemagne’s wars on his neighbors were not dissimilar from Viking raids in that their primary purpose, particularly the raids of Avar and Pavia, was booty for his currency-starved empire.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, all of Europe faltered as trade and commerce dried up. While things had picked up by the height of the Viking era in the 9th and 10th centuries, two things were holding the region back. One was a negative balance of trade in Charlemagne’s kingdom and the region as a whole. This was largely due to currency being made of silver and gold, but the precious metals came from the East. The second factor was that in regions where currency was not used, the system in place was the barter system, which limits economic growth. However, the Vikings solved these problems in two ways:
The first, and less significant one, is that by attacking the monasteries and churches, the Vikings tapped into the sole major untouched source of precious metals in Europe. Those riches did not disappear, as the Vikings were well integrated in the European trade network. They used it to buy anything from Frankish swords or turn them into coins for the chieftains of the Scandinavian kingdoms set up in England and Ireland. More important than that, the early medieval resurgence of commerce in western Europe was the central Asian silver that Scandinavian merchants brought to Europe. The trade network of the Vikings stretched from Greenland and Iceland in the west all the way to the caliphate and Bolghar in the east. The Vikings prodigious exports, mainly fur and slave. The economic recovery in Europe was during the Viking Age.