In June 793 AD, Viking raiders landed at the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England and came ashore to ravage the monastery that had been sited there for over a century, killing many of the monks, burning the buildings to the ground and making off with both slaves and loot. It caused an outrage in Christian Europe at the time that was to tarnish the reputation of the Vikings, and Norse civilization in general, for a millennium. From almost any account of this attack, it seems that a Viking was nothing more than a murderer and a thief operating on a scale that makes a contemporary murder seem frankly small potatoes by comparison. What case could we possibly mount that a Viking could be deemed more moral than a murderer?
Our impression that a Viking must be judged either as bad as, or worse than, a contemporary murderer, rests on using our own moral standards as the judge of their conduct – a misleading way to look at any historical era (or indeed, any foreign culture). Obviously if we have faith that our ethical beliefs are right, whatever earlier system we examine will be found wanting, yet the measure of just or ethical behaviour by international law today is the standard of the society in question. We judge a murderer in our time by our moral and legal standards because that is the world they live in, but if we want to judge the ethics of a Viking raider, we have to ask about the moral beliefs of Norse society at the time that dispatching Vikings abroad occurred.
Vikings were not a people, but rather a temporary occupation undertaken by individuals from various Norse and Sami territories (i.e. what is now called Scandinavia) that involved sea travel. Not all of these voyages ended in pillaging: at least as many, if not more, resulted in trade or colonisation, and the term ‘viking’ descends from an Old Norse word meaning ‘overseas expedition’. The motives for Vikings setting out is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate, but may have resulted in part because their home communities had outgrown their ability to expand by farming at home, and also in part because the despotic Christian monarch Charlemagne had set about converting pagan communities by violence. This could have created a desire for revenge that may indeed have been the reason for the Lindisfarne attack.
Vengeance was an important aspect to Norse life, since their moral philosophy was based on what we would now consider a virtue ethics of honour. All virtue ethical approaches are agent-focussed, and therefore praise the qualities of certain people while condemning others. For Norse people, there was one particular range of behaviours that dominated their conception of ethics. As Icelandic poet-historian Snorri Sturluson wrote: “Valiant men who exert a good influence are called drengr,” The associated virtue was called drengskapr, which entailed the qualities of bravery, magnanimity, respect for others, fairness and commitment to personal honour. Self control was perhaps more important than bravery, since this trait was rather taken for granted: a drengr remained composed when facing danger not out of recklessness but because to show fear was counterproductive. Risking death was irrelevant next to maintaining the respect of the community.
At the opposite end of this scale of honour, a níðingr (ny’thing’r) was a reviled outcast and the vice of níðr (ny’th’r) was despised. The term is sometimes translated ‘shame’, and entails treachery, cowardice, oath-breaking or other dishonourable actions, such as killing one’s own kinsfolk or defenceless people. This last point is interesting in the case of Lindisfarne – the monks would not have used violence against the Viking raiders, so wouldn’t slaying them have been níðr since they were defenceless? On the one hand, this speaks highly in favour of the idea that this raid was motivated by vengeance, but conversely the fact that the monks would not defend themselves may have made them appear to be níðingr, at which point they would have been beneath contempt. Alternatively, since the monks were outside of the Norse culture these issues might not have applied.
We will never know the truth about this particular matter, but if Lindisfarne was an avenging raid its goal would have been the reparation of the honour of a community that was wronged, not in meting out punishment. Matters of Norse honour could be quite subtle: a thief was considered far worse than a robber, since breaking into someone else’s house was a cowardly act, whereas challenging a traveller still allowed for an honourable clash of arms. A killing that occurred at night or in secret would be viewed as murder, but if conducted openly it would be considered manslaughter – a state of affairs attained by declaring it immediately to the next person encountered (with some small deference allowed if that person happened to be a relative of the person killed!).
These descriptions of the positive and negative qualities admired and despised by Norse peoples goes a long way towards answering the question before us. Vikings were honourable people – certainly within their own communities – and their occasional attacks on outsiders represent a moral grey area, equivalent to questions concerning animal treatment today. (Since animals are not, by default, part of our moral community, they do not automatically accrue the rights we afford other humans). Furthermore, while Viking raiders did take slaves – as they did from Lindisfarne – archaeologist William Fitzhugh notes that “slaves became part of their families… They weren't out to kill everyone in the countryside but rather to find a way to live, to set up shop, and I think they just readily mixed in.”
A contemporary murderer transgresses the moral standards of the society they live in, and are thus immoral, and since murder is considered one of the worst offenses imaginable they are vilified. Conversely, Vikings have been denigrated largely because of a reputation that typically misrepresents a complex pagan society in which moral respect for oneself and one’s community was absolutely central. Vikings may have been away from home, but they were still with their kinsfolk and deeply concerned with matters of honour and shame: they were acting ethically, according to the standards of their own communities. As a result, the moral case of the Viking versus the murderer must find for the Viking – even though for many of the monks at Lindisfarne, there really wasn’t any difference at all.
I am endebted to William R. Short’s discussion of Norse honour in the Icelandic sagas for the construction of this piece, as well as the Manaraefan Herred Viking Re-enactment Society’s discussion of Norse law.