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AcademicIamA Author, Viking expert, and speaker at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds AMA!

Jan 21st 2017 by cjadrien • 36 Questions • 4177 Points

C.J. Adrien is a French-American author with a passion for Viking history. His Kindred of the Sea series was inspired by research conducted in preparation for a doctoral program in early medieval history as well as his admiration for historical fiction writers such as Bernard Cornwell and Ken Follett. He has most recently been invited to speak at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds this summer.

https://cjadrien.com/2017/01/21/author-c-j-adrien-to-conduct-ama-on-reddit/

//EDIT//

Thanks to everyone who participated and asked questions. If you'd like to read more about the Vikings, check out my blog. This was my first Reddit experience, and I had a great time! That's it for me, Skal!

//EDIT #2//

I received a phone call telling me this thread was getting a lot of questions, still. I am back for another hour to answer your questions. Start time 11:35am PST to 12:30pm PST.

//EDIT #3//

Ok folks, I did my best to get to all of you. This was a blast! But, alas, I must sign off. I will have to do one of these again sometime. Signing off (1:20pm PST). Thank you all for a great time!

Q:

How accurate is the tv show vikings?

A:

The show has its merits, but of course it falls short in several respects. The timeline is all out of whack. It jumps around hundreds of years, and cares little for the actual timeline of the Viking Age.

But despite all its shortcomings, I think the real question is, "how accurate does it need to be?" It is, after all, historical fiction, and while we all expect a measure of authenticity in its presentation, the goal is to entertain. In my mind, the show Vikings' greatest merit is that it has cultivated tremendous attention to the actual history of the Vikings, which in turn is giving this field of study a much needed boost.


Q:

On the TV show Vikings, religion is very important. How accurately is religion portrayed?

Also any good documentaries or sources you could recommend for more detailed info (more detailed than a reddit response) on Viking religion and also influence of Christianity?

A:

Well, the thing about the pagan norse is that what we know about their religion is not entirely reliable. Most stories from their mythology were written down centuries after the Christianization of Scandinavia. Therefore, we are left with the basic structure of their mythology, but too many questions to know for sure what it was like. So the show does what it can within this context. If you are interested in the Vikings' religion, I encourage you to start with their mythology. I enjoyed "The Norse Myths" by Kevin Crossley Holland.


Q:

How much evidence is there for the existence of Ragnar and for his story's? Or are they entirely myth

A:

What we know about Ragnar is from an account written hundreds of years after the fact. He is considered to be a semi-legendary figure, and as such there is no reliable evidence to support he was real. There are several real historical figures who are candidates for being the inspiration for Ragnar, but no one agrees which one is the best fit. The story of Ragnar and his sons, as far as historians can tell, are part of a foundational narrative that was created during the Danelaw in England when the Danish rulers sought to legitimize their titles. So it's very likely it was all made up. However, there are real historical figures who are alleged sons of Ragnar, such as Bjorn Ironside, Ivar the Boneless, and Hastein, but of course it is surmised that they may have just said they were sons of Ragnar to legitimize their leadership, like the kings of Europe did by forging documents tracing their houses back to Charlemagne.


Q:

Ragnar sacked Paris in 845 and it documented by the Franks, isn't that proof enough that he existed?

A:

Ah, but was it really Ragnar? The name mentioned as the leader of the attack in the Annales of St. Bertin is Reginfred, who is sometimes asserted with Ragnar, but there is no consensus. There are also problems with associating Ragnar with this figure, chiefly that the semi-legendary figure of Ragnar would have been impossibly old in 845 A.D. So no, it's not proof enough that he existed.


Q:

Whilst you and I know what "historical fiction" means, I think it needs to be more accurate when dealing with people/situations that may have existed on any level... at least slightly. As if these stories need exaggerating anyway!
Titanic and The Tudors taught us that this stuff is widely believed these days. There are actually 18 year old guys who now believe Cardinal Wolsey broke his own neck on his way to the tower, for example. Some bloke called Jack who died on the Titanic? His grave is now a goddamn PILGRIMAGE site...

Source: Educator, though not a teacher. I help teach the kids that believe this shit.

A:

I tend to agree with you, the show creators really deviated from any shred of credibility. The opening season was actually quite good. But ratings, it seems, are too powerful a force for History Channel to ignore.


Q:

What are the main myths concerning their culture. Are they the gruesome barbarians the history books are depicting them?

A:

Well, they didn't have horns, that was an invention of a costume designer at the Berlin opera in the 1880's.

I think the big myth that should be dispelled is that they were not more violent that the other peoples of Europe at the time. In fact, one of the [many] causes of the launch of the Viking Age may have been war atrocities committed by the Carolingians against the Danes' neighbors, the Saxons. So to say that they were terribly violent barbarians is not entirely accurate. They were violent, but so was everyone else.


Q:

Has DNA research revealed anything new about the Vikings?

A:

It has. Particularly, we are more aware than ever of just how good of progenitors the Vikings were. They spread their seed far and wide, and now we can track where and how much through DNA. Great question.


Q:

So how much further than Scandinavia/Finland did their DNA spread to?

A:

In terms of actually DNA tests, the field is in its infancy and has yet to map everything out, but it holds great promise for the future. From historical and archeological sources, however, we may predict with fair accuracy that Vikings spread their genes to the British Isles, France, Iberia, all the Baltic States, and Eastern Europe, chiefly Russia and Ukraine, and even Turkey (via the Varangian Guard).


Q:

I love to relax at the end of a long day by watching a good documentary or two; what documentaries do you recommend that pertain to your area of study?

A:

The Ulfberht by PBS was pretty good! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FsfV5A6ktk


Q:

I watched that sometime ago and was quite dis appointed that they didnt even test the sword at the end.

A:

Ah, well, I read books mostly so my list of documentaries is quite short :)


Q:

Well what books would you recommend?

A:

Start with the primary sources: https://classesv2.yale.edu/access/content/user/haw6/Vikings/index.html

John Haywood's new book is also very good for a broad overview.


Q:

Have you spent much time in Sweden? We have significant Viking memorials, such as Haväng, Ales Stena, Kungagraven, Anundshög (also includes a MASSIVE Stone burial ship and an entire village complete with working ships, huts and food.

A:

I have not spent much time in Sweden, but I began my studies on the Vikings on the subject of the Swedish Vikings, the Rus, and arguably they are the ones I know the most about. I do plan on a longer trip to Sweden in the near future.


Q:

How were women treated in Viking society? I've heard they were considered equals in many aspects.

A:

It is true that women held certain rights their southern neighbors did not. How this played into the fabric of their society is a complex question, and one must be wary not to conflate out of romanticized optimism as I have seen done recently. But, if this is something that interests you, the historian Judith Jesch has done the most extensive work of anyone out there on the subject of women's role in Norse society, drawing from textual and archeological evidence to form her conclusions. I encourage you to look up her books to learn more.


Q:

I studied Viking Studies BA at the University of Nottingham and part of my study was specifically on Viking attitudes to women. Ridiculously, I never actually studied under Judith due to conflicting timetables, however we shared a joke about Havamal translations in my first year, which was cool I guess.

I made a point in a (now) far lower comment on the concept of 'rape and pillage' and feel that it would be useful to copy it here as an addendum to your statement. Rape, of course, is not the only factor to study how women were treated, but the results are telling.

The concept of Vikings 'raping' isn't quite founded, at least not as a unique character trait. Unfortunately acts of sexual violence have been a reality of war throughout history and this undoubtedly includes Viking raiders; however, from a historical perspective, there are actually few contemporary sources which refer to Viking rape in raiding situations. Specifically, it is alluded to once by Roger of Wendover (who was writing about an event long after its occurrence) and once by Adrevald of Fleury, who refers to the raiders' 'ludibria' of maidens. The word 'ludibria', usually translated as 'mockery', suggests rape. However, the uniqueness of this evidence and the relatively common reports of raping warriors in contemporary cultures like the Carolingians suggests that it actually was a relatively uncommon Viking act.

On the non-raiding side, we see some strong punitive laws in Scandinavia against sexual aggression; unfortunately the only source I can find right now is this less-than-credible secondary source: https://satwcomic.com/keep-your-hands-to-yourself , but maybe /u/cjadrien can find something better.

In the literary accounts, on the seldom occasions where rape is depicted, it is used to humiliate or as an act of vengeance (in Guðmundar saga dýra and Völundarkviða respectively).

Hope that's of interest.

A:

Thanks for this wonderful comment. I don't know that I'll be able to dig up a source on the internet for such a thing, but a book, probably. Although, I'll have to do some real digging to find one.

I do not know if you are aware, but a recent study came out to say that many of the dead found in a few mass grave sites dating to the Viking age contained women. Many jumped to the occasion to say it meant that half of Viking warriors were women. I interpret the findings more as the Vikings brought their own women to the places they intended to colonies, and for culture reasons preferred not to mix with the local women at first.

Anyhow, it's an evolving field of study, and one which will assuredly give us much more great information about women's roles in Viking Age Scandinavia in the years to come.


Q:

What is your favorite, most recent finding about vikings?

A:

The reindeer antler comb that predates academia's general understanding of the Viking timeline. I wrote about it here: https://cjadrien.com/2015/05/19/the-reindeer-antler-comb-that-is-rewriting-history/

And there are also massive hoards that were recently discovered in England and Sweden, and I just read that they've found a new settlement in America. So, lots going on!


Q:

I've always wondered about the validity of the belief that vikings were heavily tattooed.

Did viking culture favor tattoos? What significance did they represent culturally? And how did they tattoo themselves?

A:

The problem with tattoos is that they do not survive very long after death. So, archeologically, we have no evidence for them, nor are there is there any evidence of tools or ink that would have been used. The only reliable account we have for their tattoos is from the Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan, who described their blue tattoos. Outside of that, the rest is guess work.


Q:

Have you ever been to "Vikingar" in Largs up in Scotland? I used to go a lot when I was younger and it really cultivated an interest in Viking history and culture for me.

A:

I have not, but I'll be in the area this summer, so I'll add it to my itinerary. Thanks!


Q:

Check out the Viking museum in Dublin too if you're around there, if you haven't already. I had a great time there.

A:

I have! I was in Dublin in '05, it was wonderful!


Q:

What did the Vikings call themselves? How unified were they as a people?

A:

The Annales D'Angouleme state that the Vikings who sacked Nantes in 843 A.D. were Vestfaldingi, or Men from Vesfold. This tells us two things: 1, Scandinavians referred to themselves regionally, like Vestfold, and not generally as Norwegians, Danes, or Swedes, although they did refer to themselves as such in some cases; 2, Vikings introduced themselves to their victims before killing them.

As far as being united, they had a common culture and language, but were far from one people politically. They often fought each other, even abroad, based on regional differences.


Q:

I have always enjoyed the Legend or the story of the Kensington Runestone. Do you give it any merit? Is there any merit to Norsemen and Western Plains Indians having substantial contact? Thanks for your time.

A:

There really isn't. The Kensington Runestone was definitively proven a fake quite some time ago. Does this mean the Vikings did not travel that far? No. They could have, and they had the skill to do so. But there simply is no evidence to prove it.


Q:

did vikings wear underwear?

A:

The bodies buried in the Osberg and Gokstad ships showed signs of having worn undergarments, but only the important people.


Q:

Why made you like Vikings?

A:

I talk about it on my website here.


Q:

Do you think the blood eagle was a real thing?

A:

There is some textual evidence for it, but it is considered unreliable, and so probably not.


Q:

have you heard about the discoveries in Ribe, Denmark, that suggests that Viking Denmark were christians far earlyer than we thought?

A:

I have, and I have actually discussed this with others in my field. It seems the evidence points to early christianization, but there is a growing consensus that it may not be what many people are interpreting it as being. In the early 800's, there was a war of succession in Denmark, and one of the rival claimants, Harald-Klak, agreed to be baptized to gain support from the Carolingian empire. This act is widely regarded to have been a political move, and not an actual conversion. Therefore, the artifacts in Ribe may just be more evidence of this trend. It will be interesting to see what comes of the research!


Q:

Are there large scale war recreations for medieval battles similar to those done for the civil war? How accurate are they?

A:

The biggest I know of are in Russian, and they're quite good!


Q:

Am I imagining things when I see lots of similarities between pre-Christian Irish and Viking art? I'm from Ireland and spend a lot of time in Norway, and it seems like all our properly-ancient stuff is largely interchangeable.

A:

There's a cultural link there that goes back a ways, before the Vikings even. And it's not really my area of expertise, but there is ample literature out there about it.


Q:

Is it true that the Vikings ate a lot of fish? What type of salad dressing?

A:

Yes, herring especially. Salted, cured, etc, fish was a major part of their diet, but so was game meant, especially in Norway and Sweden. No salad, as I've ever seen, so no salad dressing either. They ate mostly root-based veggies, like beats, carrots, radishes, etc. A recent study by a university in Finland has demonstrated that it is actually a very healthy diet.


Q:

What evidence dictates that vikings were tougher or more fearless warriors then their neighbours?

A:

We know very little about their battle tactics and fighting style. But here is what we do know: they are thought to have been fearless because they were portrayed as such by their victims, chiefly christian clerics (those who could write this stuff down). Therefore, this perception may very well be a result of their biases. Militarily, they were not particularly effective against well-trained and organized armies. This is particularly evident in the early interactions they had with the Carolingians and the Arab Emirate of Al-Andalus (Spain). Their true strength was the sheer speed at which they could appear and disappear again, which struck fear in the hearts of those they attacked. The best example of this is by Noter the Stammerer. Later on, when their ambitions shifted from raiding to colonization, this myth of their invulnerability disappeared as they fought in pitched battles with the armies of Europe with very mixed results.


Q:

My expertise as far of this subject goes it what I learned in High school over 20 years ago- so not much.

How much of the travels outside Scandinavia to the British isle were about colonization, and how much of it was a protection racket?

What were the social differences between the folks who stayed at home and herded goats, and the sailors who took off on long voyages and then returned home?

Were the voyages pretty much for the young folks, (then they came home and farmed) or was it one of those life-time career things were you keep going until you dropped (or someone dropped you.)

Did medieval Scandinavians get sick of everyone being named "son of" , "Daughter of" like the modern folks Reference or did the fact that they lived in a more agrarian community help? (identity tied to the farm they lived at)

When doing genealogy (Norway) in the 1800s, my relatives took their names from the farm they lived at.

firstname, son of, farmname.

How far back in the past was this practice used?

EDIT: How far back in the past was the practice of taking military last names go? My assumption that there were WAAAY too may Olesons in one spot, and everyone got confused.

A:

Lots of questions! Ok, so as far as the names are concerned, you should check out The Viking Answer Lady, she's done all manner of work on the subject of names and that should answer your questions in regards to that.

As far as colonization vs raiding, in very general terms the early Viking Age started as raids, and toward the end of the 9th century we see a concerted effort to invade foreign lands, such as Britain, Brittany, Normandy, and the slavic lands in the east. Throughout the Viking age there existed a didactic in which both types of interactions happened at the same time, driven by different groups for different purposes.


Q:

Thanks for answering!

The Viking Answer Lady

Cool. Will do.

So the reasons for venturing out really depended upon who was backing them. Various political objectives and drives from different parts of Viking society.

Colonization started when they saw the raids worked well. Sort of: Well, that worked before, lets just stay there next time?

A:

Some colonies were also formed in response to raiding. Normandy, for example, was settled by Danes who were invited there by the French king specifically to fend off other Vikings.


Q:

Where did Vikings get their slaves? Also, do you have any theories as to where the 2nd settlement in America was?

A:

Salves were typically taken from the people they conquered. At first, these would have been other Scandinavians, but later it came to include people from all over, including black slaves from North Africa.


Q:

Vikings are often portrayed as larger and more physically intimidating than other men of their time. Is there evidence of this, or is it just a result of their portrayal in other texts and the notion that they were somehow more violent than other cultures at the time, or was it something else?

Also, briefly, since I know this would take a long time to really get into, how did religion "work" within their society? Do we have much information about how the "everyday" Viking treated their faith?

A:

The chroniclers who wrote about them were also their victims, so this view that they were bigger, meaner, etc is just an affirmation of their own biases.

How their religion actually worked is actually still mostly a mystery. We have the broad architecture of their pantheon, but texts attesting to their practices are vague. Anskar, a famous bishop who went on missions across Scandinavia, reported human sacrifices in Sweden, and described the ritual. Further east, Ibn Fadlan wrote about their funeral practices. But both are, again, framed within the cultural lens of the chronicler, and so not particularly good evidence for Viking culture and religion. Archeologically, we have lots of artifacts to support which deity one person or settlement followed, but outside of that we really don't have much to go on to describe their rituals.


Q:

do you think the kensington runestone found in Minnesota is a 14th century Scandinavian artifact or a 19th century hoax?

A:

It was definitely proven to be a hoax years ago.


Q:

I read (unsourced) that the vast majority of Viking activities took place in the east all the way down to Byzantium, or was the British isles and France where most the raiding and settling took place? Was most of the activity settling or raiding and going back?

A:

The Vikings known as the Rus did travel east and established an extensive trade network along the volga and dniepper rivers. They founded the principalities Kiev and Novgorod which would form the nucleus of the future Russian state. It started first as raids, but to secure the trade routes from raids by the Slavs, they began asserting dominion over Slavic lands and establishing fortifications along the way. So trade was the segue to conquering the east.

In the west, it also started as raids, but as politics at home, and indeed populations sizes and food supply, changed, many resorted to exoduses to new lands for survival. This is thought to be the driving factor of the settlement of Ireland, Iceland, and later, America. In England, the Danes who attacked were of a different kind. They were a conquering army with close ties to their home land. So the aims were not colonization, but conquest.

As far as which area, east or west, had more activity, it is hard to say. We know the most about the Danes and their activities because they were the ones the chroniclers of the day documented the most.


Q:

I am from a sami family and have always wondered how the relatio between them were, you don't happen to know that? Like, did they trade alot and did they have borders or something?

A:

I don't know much about the Sami, but I do know they were present before the Vikings, and early on there wasn't much interaction between them. That changed later on, but it's not my area of expertise, but I encourage you to research the subject further.