Vikings were not racists, but …

In last few weeks, I had the chance to read several articles that connect Viking Age with racist and anti-racist movements of different countries. For a person living in the Czech Republic, whose re-enactment scene is not contaminated by racists and is more focused in authenticity, this is an incomprehensible problem. However, I feel the need to intervene, when it comes to misinterpretation of history.

In fact, no real history enthusiast would ever combined “medieval/Viking” and “racism” in one sentence. There are at least two reasons. Firstly, we cannot simplify the main problems to yes or no questions, because actual reality is too complex for being comprehended by the answer. That means, a misleading question gives you a misleading answer. As my favourite speaker professor Stanislav Komarek says:

Europe is used to think in a cold way – in yes or no questions. This could lead to the invention of computers, for example, but not to mind harmony or to realistic perception of the world. In medias, we can hear a lot of pseudo-questions, like “Is human nature peaceful or aggressive?”, “Is capitalism good or bad?”, “Is human purpose to work or to have fun?”. These questions are totally goofy. […] It is important to stress that a person from a different culture cannot understand this kind of questions.

Secondly, it is not possible to judge the past, based on our modern experience and value system. The fact we have the word “racism” in our dictionaries for around 100 years and we understand the meaning (“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior“) does not determine the same kind of knowledge in previous cultures and societies. This phenomenon is called cultural relativism.

anders-meeting

A meeting of Norse people and Indians in Newfoundland, 1003–1007. Drawn by Anders Kvåle Rue.

More correct questions would be “What was the relationship of Old Norse people (including Vikings) to other European and non-European societies?” or “Are there any sources that show Old Norse people acting as what we call racists?”. To find out, we have to describe the main signs of the period. We are talking about millions of people, living in several centuries, different circumstances, weather climate and with various customs. It will always be difficult to summarize such a huge, inhomogeneous mass of people. The Early medieval world was cosmopolitan in the transport of both people and objects, but – at the same time – relatively closed with regard to traditions and habits. Old Norse culture was fixed to customs of fathers, very similar to what we can see in “primitive” societies of the modern world. Changes were accepted in the span of decades and centuries, not months and years as is normal today. The life in that period was much more focused on continuation, on the long-term aspects and the connection to a family, land and traditions.

In the world where – due to the lack of the centralized mechanism – every person can easily kill her/his non-related opponent, one will develop a very good sense for suspiciousness, self- and kin-defence, fame and shame. From our point of view, Viking Age Scandinavia would be a very hostile place to be, with a fragile peace sticking the community together; a typical feature of an uncentralized society that is infested by continual struggle for domination. Speaking of supremacy, it is natural that people feel mutually superior to others, mainly to foreigners, strangers and poorer people. Judging by Sagas of Icelanders that are full of local micro-conflicts, there is no doubt that oppressions took place not only on the geographic level, but also on the hierarchic level. A kin from one side of a fjord felt superior to a kin from the other side, people of Firðafylki felt superior to the people of Sygnafylki, Norwegians felt superior to Icelanders, elites were mocking at lower classes and so on. In contrast to our modern society, there was also functional slave system that used a lot of prejudices and stereotypes (see the table below). It is way easier to became a suprematist in the world where people have different life values given by the law. Using modern terminology, these states could be called “hierarchical supremacy”, “ethnocentrism”, “kinship-centrism” or “proto-racism”, but definitely not “racism” as we know it.

Stereotypes of the Viking Age, gathered from Rígsþula (“The Lay of Ríg”).

Class Description
Slaves (þrælar) Slaves are ugly but strong, with twisted backs and crooked limbs. Their skin is sunburnt, black and wrinkled. Their palms are rough, fingers thick. Slaves have no valuable property. They live in a cottage that has door open (everybody can go in and check them). There is a fireplace, a simple table, a bowl and a rough bed inside their house. Speaking of clothing, they have old, not fitted clothes. Probably no shoes at work. They eat tough, whole grain bread and broth. Their best meal is boiled calf meat. Slaves work for their masters. Their labour is hard, dirty and inferior, including the daily and intensive work with animals. They have much more children than others.
Free men (karlar / bændr) Free men are beautiful and generous to their friends. Their hair and beards are trimmed. They have good senses. They own a house and lands. The house can be locked. Inside the house, there is not only a fireplace and a soft bed, but also some furniture (a chest) and tools (a weaving loom, a distaff). Free men have fitted, practical and fashionable clothing with some pieces of jewellery. They are their own masters. They are independent multicrafters, devoted to farming and precise crafts, like woodworking and weaving.
Elites (jarlar, konungar) Elite people represent the top level of the society. They are young, bright-haired, pale-skinned, beautiful and kind. Men are robust warriors, generous with weapons, horses and jewellery. They have advanced knowledge of runes. Elite people own several halls, each of them has doors with a knocker. The floor of the hall is covered with straw. There is a linen patterned cloth on the table, together with beakers and silver plates. People sleep in velvety beds. Elite people wear coloured, fashionable clothing made of top materials. They also wear golden jewellery. Elites eat wheat bread, roasted birds and bacon. Their drink is wine. Generaly speaking, they do not work at all. In their free time, they are having discussion, men are training, competing, hunting, ruling and fighting, women are taking care of their appearance and of the guests.

It is true that the most of Early medieval Scandinavian population had what we call white skin, as is probable that bright-coloured hair was more prestigious than dark one. For a non-travelling person, the chance to meet a person with a different skin colour was rather low in the period. However, do sources attest any bad behaviour towards a person of a different skin colour? To avoid any misleading and concluding answer, let’s say that approaches surely varied and were not uniform. As the table shows, the lower status and worse physical appearance, the worse behaviour. If Rígsþula is not taken in account, there are two more examples. In the Eddic poem Hamðismál (“The Lay of Hamðir”), heroic brothers Hamðir and Sǫrli are mocking of their half-brother Erpr, who is said to be jarpskammr (“brown little one”). After a short conversation full of misunderstandings, Erpr is killed. The crucial fact behind the relevant word is probably that brothers consider their half-brother to be illegitimate and of half-Hun origin. The second source, Eiríks saga rauða (“The Saga of Erik the Red”), mentions the first meeting of a Norse group with a group of so-called Skrælingar (Indians/proto-Inuits) in what is now Newfoundland. The group of aboriginals are described in these words: “They were black men, ill-looking, with bad hair on their heads. They were large-eyed, and had broad cheeks.” In the source, the negative look plays the role of the first presage of later misunderstandings and fights. Eventually, two native boys are captured and taught the Norse language. A very similar behaviour can be seen in case of slaves that were captured in Ireland and taken to Iceland, where they were assimilated.

Landnámabók (“The Book of Settlement”) mentions three upper class or elite men with the infamous byname heljarskinn (“skin blue as hell”); two of them were probably sons of a Bjarmian concubine and there are some theories their bynames could be related to a possible Finnic / Mongolian origin. Despite the fact that Saami people are described as despicable seiðr-practitioners, shapeshifters and miraculous archers in some sources, these mentions seem to be a common literary formula, contradicting to a more realistic description (for example Ohthere). What is more, aggresive slave characters named as blámenn (“blue men”, men from the Northern Africa) sometimes occur at king’s courts in some sagas, but these could be a copy of the literary invention of High and Late medieval romances, where heroes use to slay dozens of angry Saracens, berserkir and blámenn.

The battle between Norse people and Indians. Drawn by Angus McBride.

Non-Scandinavian sources, the most promising group of evidence, seem to lack any relevant mention. Persian and Arabic sources mention rather positive relations with Norse people. Ahmad ibn Rustah noted that Rus had “the most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.” Ahmad ibn Fadlan even recorded his good-humoured conversation about burial practises:

One of the Rūsiyyah stood beside me and I heard him speaking to my interpreter. I quizzed him about what he had said, and he replied, “He said, ‘You Arabs are a foolish lot!’” So I said, “Why is that?” and he replied, “Because you purposely take those who are dearest to you and whom you hold in highest esteem and throw them under the earth, where they are eaten by the earth, by vermin and by worms, whereas we burn them in the fire there and then, so that they enter Paradise immediately.” Then he laughed loud and long.

By this positive quote, we should end this short article. To sum up, it is impossible to use the word “racism” in the context of the Viking Age. The period people would probably not understand the concept of exclusively racial supremacy. However, the distinction was based on the status, property and appearance, and the final discriminating result could be similar. Before the very end, let me remind several notes. Do not forget that by asking yes and no questions, you are supporting the idea the world is black and white. Learn more about history and various cultures, do not expect people of the past to have the same manners as you. Remember one of the most important Old Norse principles – the foreign world is a place of strangenesses and dangers, but – simultaneously – it is a place of great potential and gain.

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