When we visited Copenhagen a few weeks ago, Blair and I took refuge from the abysmal weather at the National Museum of Denmark, which houses almost all the nation’s antiquities. Yes, they have fascinating relics. Yes, they trace the history of Danish people from stone age settlements all the way through their wars with Sweden and into the modern age. Yes, the Danes have a rich cultural heritage filled with Han Christian Andersen and pickled fish. It’s all very nice. But let’s be honest, there’s only one period of Danish history that non-Danes care about: VIKINGS.
Vikings combine the savagery of medieval warfare with the swagger of pirates and a rich and enchanting mythology that rivals the Greeks. If your ancestors were unstoppable badasses who made the civilized world quake in fear, you might make a big deal out this. But you are not Danish.
The National Museum doesn’t omit the Viking period. The Vikings are just blended into the the Iron Age writ large. In between the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Christianity in Denmark, there are casual mentions of some expeditions, a few displays of arms and armor and a lot of domestic relics– combs and keys and the like. The museum doesn’t deny the period happened, it just doesn’t celebrate it. The Danes fuse to focus on, much less sensationalize, their violent past. It’s very sensible. Very sane. Very 21st Century.
The weekend before New Years, we traveled to York, in the North of England. York’s recorded history goes back to the Roman occupation, but human habitation there is probably much older. It has always been an important trade center. But it wasn’t always called York. Once upon a time, it was called Jórvík and it was heart of the Danelaw,* the part of England the Saxon kings ceded to the Viking invaders for about 100 years.
You’d expect that there would be some casual acknowledgement of this fact, the way many English cities will shrug at a pile of bricks in the middle of their city center and say, “Oh yes, the Romans. Well, there you are. Pile of bricks. Fat lot of good it did them.”**
But York doesn’t just acknowledge its Viking connection. It revels in it. There’s a museum and a walking tour and souvenirs and a festival. The vikings were in York for just a handful of generations and many more important things have happened in and around York since. But for some reason none of it quite captures the imagination like being colonized by bloodthirsty barbarians.
The Jorvik Center is based on the preserved remains of an archaeological dig completed in the 1970s. It explores how the dig was performed and what the findings tell us about how these people lived. After examining a preserved section of the dig site, you climb into an “It’s-A-Small-World-After-All”-esque ride and travel around a reconstructed Viking village, watching dead-eyed animatronic puppets re-enact daily life in Jorvik.*** Finally, you tour a collection of artifacts recovered from the dig, including multiple skeletons, weapons and a fossilized piece of poop that tells us a shocking amount about the diet of Vikings.
Like the exhibit in Copenhagen, there’s plenty of context for why these people did what they did. It’s all based on sound archaeology. There are no horned helmets here. But it’s done with a zeal and a level of detail that the Danes never muster for their own story. When writing about Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking to rule in Jorvik, the museum can barely contain its glee regarding the fact that the guy’s name is Eric Bloodaxe. You see, because he murdered people. With an axe.
Why is that? Why do the Danes downplay their past conquests while the people of York revel in having their city defiled and rebuilt by invaders? I think it boils down to 3 reasons:
- Only some of the Vikings come from the part of the world we now think of as Denmark. They came from all over Scandinavia. It’d be a little disingenuous for the Danes to take all the credit, such as it is.
- The Danes are now a polite, fastidious people. While they had a shockingly violent past through the 1800s, they have little use for warfare these days. They’re proud of their facility in design, architecture and pickled fish. There’s no room for the Vikings in that narrative.
- The indigenous people of York were probably integrated into the Jorvik settlement and likely interbred with them. That means that the people of York get to say they carry the blood of savage northerners in their veins — something most Englishmen can’t boast. They can claim all the savage awesomeness of Viking-hood, without any of the residual guilt. If I could do that, I’d play it up too.
* Danelaw would be an awesome name for a terrible speed metal band. If you are in such a band, Danish or otherwise: voilà. It is my gift to you.
** I’m exaggerating a little here. The English aren’t quite that willful in their desire to ignore the Romans. There are plaques and some places even have museums about Roman life, just like you’d expect. But these things are never selling points, not even in York. My theory is that England has so much history of its own that it has a hard time getting excited about being a tangential part of someone else’s story. Unless that story involves Vikings.
*** It was 15 minutes of white-knuckled terror. At every turn, I expected the robots to stop their preordained tasks and turn to face me, their eyes glowing red, before picking up an eel-boning knife and advancing on my soft, fleshy form. We have every reason to fear a violent robot uprising. And if those newly-sentient robots are also Vikings? That’s just a fancy way of saying, “game over.”