Vikings: Not Ones for Written Records


With the coming of the Vikings came another age with a dearth of written records.

As the Saxons before them, the Vikings didn’t believe in the idea of writing down tales of their conquest or their religious beliefs or what they had for breakfast or any other such important or trivial matters. They just didn’t carry pen and paper around so much as they carried swords and other weapons.

This is not to say that the Vikings were stupid or illiterate, for they certainly were neither (although it could be argued that learning to read and/or write were not always at the top of the list of the Viking’s Guide to Plunder). Rather, it is to say that keeping detailed written records of the various invasions and sackings along the British coast just wasn’t the Vikings’ idea of a good time.

It is ironic, then, to compare this part of the invasion process with the similar Saxon indifference to written records. It will be recalled that the Saxons didn’t really believe in writing things down, either, until they were converted to the Christian faith and the new monks began writing things down for them. Once they saw the light, so to speak, the Saxons became comparatively prolific in their record-keeping (which is why we have recipes for Small bird and Bacon Stew with Walnuts or Hazelnuts, among other medieval oddities). With the Church leading the way, the Saxons put down their thoughts, dreams, and conquests for all of their descendants to read.

But this didn’t happen at first. And neither did it happen at first with the Vikings.

The Men from the North were ultimately very successful in their invasions and the effect they had on England (in both the short and the long run). But because they didn’t keep their own records of what happened, we in posterity are left with the records of the victims, which is why the Viking period contains so much description of blood and mayhem and sacking of monasteries and the like. In most historical cases, from the Middle Ages on, history was written by the victors. ‘Twas not the case here.

No, the accounts of the sacking of Lindisfarne and other “sacred” settlements were all written by Saxon “defenders” (monks or otherwise) who were being robbed by their livelihood by the very same kind of people who had robbed the Celts and other native Britains of their livelihood once upon a time.

Were the Vikings really peaceful men looking for new homes for their families, who would come later? We’ll never know for sure, and it’s mostly their own fault.