Our course began by studying scholarly approaches to the Viking Age, identifying salient points of debate, and surveying critical sources. On the one hand, our understanding of the Viking Age is rooted in the present. The word viking—which first appeared in Old English and Old Norse sources in the sense of pirate—dropped out of use in the Middle Ages. It was reinvented in the early modern period as pirate stories old and new circulated to evoke a sense of swashbuckling adventure. By the late 1800s, new meanings had accumulated around the idea of a “Viking” culture and a “Viking Age” that seemed to describe a period when Scandinavians were especially known for piratical exploits.

On the other hand, this process of “making a Viking Age” can be dated to the Viking Age itself, as Alcuin wondered whether the raid on Lindisfarne betokened a new beginning. Indeed, many people who lived through the Viking Age were undoubtedly aware of the ways in which they appropriated and reworked stories of the past. Writings which survive from the Viking Age, for example, have often been handed down to us piecemeal, as we saw in our own visit to the Special Collections of the Princeton University Library. The image below features a letter by Alcuin like those that preserve some of our earliest traces of viking activity in England. And yet the people who compiled this book in Austria sometime around the year 1100 had little interest in those features of Alcuin’s work that interest us today. Instead, they curated passages highlighting Alcuin’s thought on sin and penance. To us, Alcuin’s focus on sin and redemption might seem an unnecessary distraction from his descriptions of historical events, but to some of his earliest readers, it was the evolution of theological thought that was the real story worth telling.

Letter by Alcuin reworked into a volume of miscellaneous texts in Austria, ca. 1100. Princeton University Library, Garrett MS. 169.

Of course, if some evidence of the Viking Age has survived the fortunes and misfortunes of a thousand years, much has also been lost. Sometimes tantalizing traces survive. For example, the coin below comes from the Princeton University Library Numismatic Collection. It was first minted in North Africa under the Umayyad caliphate in the early 700s. But as Arabic coins become the dominant means of exchange from the Western Mediterranean to the reaches of Central Asia, the Byzantine rulers Constantine V and Leo IV—a father-son duo—found it expedient to simply re-mint as many of these dirhams as they could acquire. In this case, traces of the original Arabic text—which would have included the Muslim statement of faith known as the shahada—have been obliterated but remain visible beneath the over-stamped cross. The coin survives as a reminder that, while Viking Age scholars devote well-deserved attention to the many Arabic coins that ended up in Scandinavian hoards, these can have been only a fraction of a much larger coin economy that reached the northern margins of Europe at the same time that viking raiders pillaged western shores.

Arabic silver coin re-minted into a Byzantine miliaresion by Leo III and his son Constantine V (r. 741–775). Princeton University Library Numismatic Collection.

Perhaps we are meant to be frustrated by these sources. Perhaps we are meant to question the very questions that drive us to them in the first place. In the Old Norse poem known as Völuspá or “The Prophecy of the Sybil,” the speaker recalls sacrifices that the god Odin is said to have made for knowledge. This was already an old story when a scribe put the poem to parchment in Iceland in the 1200s, living in a very different world from the world from when the story first circulated. Odin is said to have sacrificed his eye and hung from a tree for knowledge, but according to the Völuspá, the doom of the gods was by no means averted. Wisdom, the poem suggests, requires knowing the limits of knowledge, and acknowledging the alterity and opacity in our sources might be one path to wisdom that our Viking Age interlocutors could respect.

Why have you come here?     What would you ask me?
I know everything—     where you left your eye,
Odin, in the water     of Mimir’s well.
Every morning     Mimir drinks mead
from Warfather’s tribute.     Seek you wisdom still?1

Detail of an Icelandic law book featuring a hanged thief, late 1500s. Princeton University Library, Princeton MS. 62.

See further

Princeton University Library—Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts

Princeton University Library—Numismatic Collection

1 Patricia Terry, trans., “Völuspá,” in Poems of the Elder Edda, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 1–10, at 3 (stanza 20).

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