End of the Viking Age

11.06.2018 |

Episode #10 of the course Vikings: History and mindset by Tom Shippey


Welcome to the last lesson of the course!

Today, we look at the end of the Viking Age. It was terminated by two battles: at Clontarf in Ireland, fought on Good Friday, 1014, and Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, September 25, 1066.


Clontarf and the Valkyries

Clontarf was won by Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, fighting against Jarl Sigtrygg of Dublin. Brian, aged 88, was killed once the battle was over by a renegade Christian Norseman from the Isle of Man. Brian’s Norse allies cut him open, nailed his intestine to a tree, and made him walk around it till he died.

Linked with the battle is “The Song of the Pennants.” The valkyries—the word means “choosers of the slain”—were seen weaving their web of war, with guts for thread and heads for loom-weights. As they did it, they acted out the battle in song. First, the storm of missiles, then the clash of swords, and all the time, who will die: “Only valkyries can choose the dead.”

What this tells us is that battles were mysterious and unpredictable. And sometimes, like Clontarf, decisive.


Stamford Bridge, Where Luck Ran Out

After he escaped from Stiklastadir, Harald Sigurdsson, dead king Olaf’s half-brother, had gone south, become commander of the Varangian Guards, and distinguished himself by personally gouging out the eyes of Byzantine Emperor Michael V.

He came back with more money than anyone in the north had ever seen, and made himself King of Norway, Hard-Line Harald. Then King Edward of England died, and Harald decided to try his luck in the “game of thrones,” which had been continuing in England ever since Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, made his vow to conquer England many years before.

Harald’s luck ran out at Stamford Bridge, when English King Harold Godwinsson caught Harald’s Norwegians unprepared, their armor discarded on a hot day. The battle was a slugging-match, fought out with axe, sword, and spear, and the Norwegians lost catastrophically.

According to his saga, Harald was composing poetry to the last. First, he came out with a characteristic death-song, ruefully mentioning his bad luck: “Helmets shine. I don’t have mine. Now our gear lies down with the ships.”

Then, critical snob that he was, he composed a more complicated one, full of allusions to valkyries. In the end, he was brought down by an arrow in the throat, and the Viking Age died with him.

Its finality was made even clearer three weeks later at Hastings, where King Harold Godwinson lost to a different claimant to the English throne, William of Normandy, since called William the Conqueror. William’s new weapons-system—archers and mailed cavalry—made Viking and English axes obsolete. After that, the knight in armor ruled the battlefield for generations.


Conclusion: The Viking Mindset

What, finally, can one say about the Viking mindset?

As Emperor Constantine pointed out, Vikings had unusual unit-cohesion.

They had a flat social structure too. Ganger-Hrolf wouldn’t kneel to kiss King Charles’s foot, but nor would the ranker he told to do it. They didn’t need leaders for morale.

Vikings were also braced for adversity. They admired losers. We don’t, because our mindset is framed by games played fairly. If we lose, it’s our fault. Vikings were wiser. The greatest heroes could be outnumbered, caught off guard—or just be selected by the valkyries. The important thing was how you took defeat and death. That was when you showed what you were made of. As at Ragnarok, when even the gods would lose to the giants. The gods knew they were going to lose, but that didn’t make them give up.

Vikings were hard-headed. Also hard-hearted. They were realists. It’s said approvingly of one hero, “He saw everything the way it was.”

Maybe the most important thing was the mean streak they showed in their humor. Laugh as you die, like Ragnar. Make a joke about your own poem, like Egil. Turn the tables, like the Jomsviking prankster. Call a bluff, as Olaf I did to the pagans, and Olaf II did to Thormod.

If you have to go—and one day, we all will—that’s the way to do it.

And that’s all for this course. Thanks for taking it!

P.S. Enjoyed the course and want to learn more about Vikings? Tom Shippey’s latest book, Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, is now available from University of Chicago Press (for link to UK publication, visit Reaktion books).


Recommended reading

Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson, trans. Anthony Faulkes and Alison Finlay


Recommended poem

“The Cowboy Havamal,” from The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes, trans. by Jackson Crawford


Recommended book

Viking Poems on War and Peace: A Study in Skaldic Narrative by Russell Poole


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