The Blog

Sexism's Blurred Lines on the Vikings, Boko Haram and Slavery

We don't celebrate modern slavery and sex trafficking. We don't think Boko Haram and other armed terrorist and pirate gangs in Africa, and elsewhere who are kidnapping people for ransom or sale are great fun, so we'll dress up like them - do we?

Now that the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, has rightly been condemned around the world, it might seem that our attitudes to the kidnapping of young girls are clear cut. But - if we so definitely disapprove of Boko Haram kidnapping girls and saying they'll sell them as slaves or exchange them for prisoners - why do we think the Vikings are so marvellous?

It's not just the current British Museum 'Vikings' exhibition and the permanent Jorvik Centre in York that have set me thinking about this. We have lots of exhibitions and events celebrating the Vikings. There's the annual Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival in Shetland, and in York, the annual Jorvik Viking Festival. In February this year the Jorvik festival celebrated it's 30th anniversary attended by 40,000 people.

Vikings are good for tourism and, as Kirk Douglas proved in Technicolor with his 1958 film 'The Vikings', they are also very good box office. There are endless TV series, both historical documentaries and dramas, featuring Vikings. We have sports teams, businesses and radio stations named after them.

Historians speak of the poetry, craftsmanship, seamanship and international trading abilities of the Vikings. All that rape and pillage and oh yes kidnapping of women to work as slaves is somehow just minimal collateral damage caused by such a wonderful male warrior culture that it has even inspired a modern sci-fi version with the equally brutal Klingons in Star Trek.

What is clear is that we collectively cope with brutal histories by blurring the lines on historic rape and kidnapping. How else to explain our contradictory celebration of the Vikings and our condemnation of Boko Haram?

"To the victor the spoils" has been a war cry for centuries, and women are classed as part of the spoils of war. It's only in recent years that rape has even been recognised as a war crime. At the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, the consideration of widespread rapes as war crimes was ruled out.

So how bad were the Vikings? The 9th century Anglo Saxon Chronicle records frequent attacks by 'raiding armies' of Norsemen and 'heathens' from Denmark who loot and destroy villages and churches, attacking and killing without warning. Cruelty, destruction and savage, unprovoked aggression were the Vikings constant tactics.

"Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race," wrote Alcuin of York. The Viking raids on England started in the late 8th century and continued for three hundred years, stopping only after William the Conqueror invaded in 1066 and founded a new Norman kingdom. The Normans came from Normandy and were themselves descended from Norwegian Vikings. They too were very brutal. But we don't celebrate them do we? Perhaps because they were French and we prefer Robin Hood?

In Scotland and Ireland the Viking raids continued for a further 200 years. Some Vikings settled in Britain and Ireland and eventually became Christians (and less aggressively Viking), leading some recent historians to try to soften their brutal rape and pillage image. Now that we know about DNA, we have news stories about millions of Britons being descended from Vikings. "Got bunions? Arthritis? You're descended from the Vikings" etc..

I was brought up with positive historical propaganda about the Vikings, and how fierce, brave and wonderful they were, so I hadn't really thought things through until I first visited Iceland a few years ago. There you get a really clear insight into the brutal reality of Viking life.

The Vikings settled in Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries. As far as is known there weren't any other people living there, so for once they didn't have to kill any locals. Most of the Viking settlers were Norwegian, but some were of Scottish and Irish origin.

According to the Icelandic sagas, the Scots and the Irish were either slaves or servants of the Norse chiefs, or descendants of Vikings who had settled in Scotland and Ireland and intermarried with local people.

Tellingly, recent DNA evidence suggests that approximately 60% of the Icelandic maternal gene pool is derived from Ireland and Scotland, which is much higher than other Scandinavian countries, and it's all because the Vikings were in fact armed gangs who kidnapped women and girls from Ireland and Scotland for marriage and for slavery. Similar DNA results also show up in the Faroe Islands.

The facts are that the Vikings consistently kidnapped both women and men for slavery. Now we don't celebrate more recent slave traders as wonderful people. We don't say that, despite their unfortunate habit of putting thousands of black people in chains in cruel conditions on boats across the ocean, British and American slave traders were jolly decent people do we? We don't have an annual slave traders festival in Bristol or Liverpool.

We don't celebrate modern slavery and sex trafficking. We don't think Boko Haram and other armed terrorist and pirate gangs in Africa, and elsewhere who are kidnapping people for ransom or sale are great fun, so we'll dress up like them - do we?

So why do the Vikings get a free pass on slavery? And in particular on enslaving women?

Sadly Boko Haram are not doing anything new. Throughout history, groups of armed men have kidnapped, raped, and enslaved women.

Bad Boko Haram and good old Vikings? For me historical distance does not lend enchantment to any view of the Vikings. If the Vikings had had video and the internet, I'm sure, being great traders, they would have used it to negotiate good prices for the women they kidnapped.

Despite the good news of practical help for the Nigerian Government from the US and British governments and the spreading of the 'Bring Back our Girls' campaign, we still have a long way to go to unblur our vision on the sexist oppression of women - both now and historically.