Viking Civilization

6 September 2009



Several times in this forum I have mentioned Kenneth Clark’s documentary Civilisation: A Personal View. I have a great admiration for his engagement with important ideas, and his willingness to be bluntly honest about this personal views, to admit his prejudices, and to simply say what he thinks. It is easy to get people to say what they think, but most opinions are not informed opinions. Recently on the Foundations of Mathematics listserv Allen Hazen wrote: “Moral, if there is one, is that intuitions have to be well-schooled. When one has studied set theory as deeply as Gödel did, or as Woodin has, one’s intuitions will start deserving respect.” Kenneth Clark has well-schooled views on civilization that deserve respect, although it is also important to point out that I disagree with a great many of his interpretations. What is valuable in an interpretation is not the selection of facts, of which any person familiar with the given area of study should know, but the way the facts are shown to hang together. Sometimes this can be challenging, as different people see the world hanging together in different ways. But it is the challenge that inspires us to think for ourselves.

Gokstad ship

Of the episodes in Clark’s documentary, my favorite is the first. In fact, I brought the DVD with me to Norway and re-watched part of it last night. The first episode is pregnant with much that deserves to be unfolded in detail, and it is here that Clark presents his most general, overarching theses on civilization, with which many I disagree. Clark begins his entire series by invoking the Vikings, employing the image of the prow of a Viking ship floating along the Seine, striking fear into the hearts of medieval Parisians. He returns to this image several times, and indeed later in the same episode stood in the same Vikingskipshuset that I visited today to showcase the marvelous Oseberg and Gokstad ships.

Viking ship prow

For Clark, the Vikings represent what is not civilization, and perhaps even the antithesis of civilization. I think it is fair to characterize his views in this way as he quite explicitly invokes the Vikings in order to contrast their life and their world with the life of civilization and the world of civilization. Well, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone from the British Islands has a low opinion of Vikings. After all, the Vikings pillaged, plundered, looted, killed, and took as slaves his ancestors. This is not the way to win friends, though it may well influence people.

Viking ship from above

Though Clark resists giving an explicit definition of civilization, he tells us that he knows it when he sees it. He sees civilization in the edifice of Notre Dame de Paris, and apparently does not see it in the Vikings. There are several places in the first episode that Clark comes perilously close to using civilization as a evaluative term, rather than a descriptive term, not only in his treatment of the Vikings, but also in the implied (though not stated) idea that the early Christians kept the flame of civilization dimly lit throughout the Dark Ages, so the Christianity comes to be implicitly identified with civilization.

Oseberg carvings

One of the properties that Clark tells us is crucial to civilization is a feeling of permanence. He extends this to the moral and psychological elements of civilization, telling as that people have to believe that civilization is worth the effort, that people must believe in what they are doing. Clark presents the Viking ship as a symbol of impermanence and fluidity, invoking the truly fluid and beautiful carvings on the prow of the Oseberg ship. For Clark, then, the Viking ship is a motif of transience, and civilization must be about permanence, not transience, therefore the Vikings were not civilized.

Does this represent the northern imagination taking shape in fear and darkness? Are battles won by sweetness and light?

Does this represent the northern imagination taking shape in fear and darkness? Are battles won by sweetness and light?

Clark also says that the northern imagination takes shape in fear and darkness, and to illustrate this point he again invokes the Vikings, showing a magnificently carved animal head and contrasting this to the Apollo of the Belvedere from classical antiquity. Classical antiquity, he tells us, cultivated order, harmony, proportion, and a sense of permanence. How shall we understand Clark’s denial of Viking civilization? Firstly, Clark has an interesting and perhaps eccentric undefined definition of civilization, as later in the series he uses a Hogarth painting to explain why England at this time was not “civilized,” but I will not attempt to deal with that now. The point is that Clark’s conception is obviously subtle and nuanced, and civilization can be denied on a number of bases.

Viking cooking pot

It is certainly true that the Vikings were all about mobility, and this is illustrated not only by their elegant and functional ships, but also by many of the grave goods on display in the Viking Ship Museum. There is, for example, a wonderful cooking pot that is as elegant and functional as the ships. One can see that it is designed so that the frame that holds the pot over a fire can be completely collapsed, though it easily folds out to form a stable tripod, and each leg of the tripod ends in a three-pronged talon that would bite into the ground. It would be difficult, more than a thousand years later, to design anything better. There was also a bed with beautiful dragon heads that could be completely disassembled, loaded on board a ship, and re-assembled at the next destination. What does this evidence other than a sense of order, harmony, and proportion, though it is the order, harmony, and proportion of the transient life? And what is life if not transient?


Thus Viking life and Viking technology were built around transience and predicated upon transience. They created a civilization of mobility, but a civilization nonetheless, for the Viking era produced a civilization of the mind that remains meaningful and moving today. One cannot honestly say, as Clark said of the exhausted Romans of late antiquity (echoing but not crediting Gilbert Murray’s matchless book Five Stages of Greek Religion with its famous failure of nerve thesis), that the Vikings had nothing to live for and that they saw no point in going on. On the contrary, the Vikings were deeply committed to their lives of plunder and rapine. It was, as I suggested yesterday in Art and Landscape, a way of life that naturally emerged from the geography of Norway.

viking carving 1

We can say, as a matter of fact, that the Viking life gave way before the pressure of Christianization and the expanding medieval European economy and hence, by extension, way of life, but this is a separate historical phenomenon. Compare, for example, the nation-state system in our own time: just because every people has attempted to assimilate itself to the nation-state paradigm as the reigning political form of our time does not mean that these peoples were all intrinsically dissatisfied with a political order not based on the nation-state system. Similarly, the Vikings gave way before Christianity and medieval European kingdoms (the reigning political paradigm of that time), but that does not mean that the Vikings decided that they preferred to earn their bread by the sweat of their own brows when bread could be had for pillage.

viking carving 2

It may well be what distinguishes the Vikings and the civilization of the mind they inhabited was their form of historical consciousness. I can imagine a Viking raider of the ninth or tenth century desiring that his transient life of raiding should go on forever. His view of history and of the world was not cyclical, as with most pre-modern peoples, and it was not strictly speaking a linear historical consciousness (though, as I have noted in From Islam to Iceland, Norse mythology is strikingly linear). Perhaps the Viking civilization of transience was predicated upon an historical consciousness of the eternal present, something such as I credited to classical antiquity and called the history of the eternal present (in From Islam to Iceland). But just as the order, harmony, and proportion of the Vikings was not that of classical antiquity, so the history of the eternal present of the Vikings was not that of classical antiquity.

viking carving 3

Finally, about the claim that the northern imagination takes form in fear and darkness, which is connected to the claim of the frightening apparition that the Vikings would have been, with their carved animal heads and barbaric appearance: any people who live by the sword know that they can be more successful if they achieve shock and awe. Warlike peoples often knowingly cultivate a fearsome appearance, and this can go to the extent of living a known known by repute to be fearsome. In other words, the frightening Viking art may have been intentionally frightening. The Viking mind was not about fear; the Vikings played to the fear and the darkness in the minds of their victims.

I finished the day with a marvelous dinner at Lysebu in the hills up behind Oslo.

I finished the day with a marvelous dinner at Lysebu in the hills up behind Oslo.

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9 Responses to “Viking Civilization”

  1. T.B. said

    Hi Mr. Nielsen,

    I agree; to say the Vikings had no civilisation (in my opinion) is rubbish and narrow minded. firstly it has to be defined, secondly, to be civilised to some people, means conquering native people and bleeding them of all resources and land grabs. If this is civilised, I’ll take the Vikings any day, at least you knew what you were getting.

    In Ireland they (Vikings) introduced coinage, trading settlements (Limerick, Waterford, Wexford), towns (Dublin, Cork), law, economic structures and a concept of international commerce: items missing in Gaelic Ireland’s insular inter-tribal world of domestic warfare, trade and politics. Although they only had a small area of activity they still had an effect on the island.

    Examples of civilisation:
    – Spanish conquest of S. America,
    – French North Africa,
    – British in Ireland,
    (in the 1580s how many native Irish did Edmund Spencer and Sir. Walter Raleigh, the queens darling, slaughter for Civilisation – an estimated 15,000-30,000)

    As mentioned above they brought social structure and new ideas to Ireland, thus the argument is irrelevant. The Irish assimilated the Vikings (Norse) into what we know as the Hiberno-Norse. These families continued successfully up until the ‘attempted Norman conquest 1169-1170’.

    I hope this short perspective was helpful. Also this was a very interesting article keep up the good work 🙂


  2. Nick,

    You write:

    “The Viking mind was not about fear; the Vikings played to the fear and the darkness in the minds of their victims.”

    It seems your sympathy here is on the side of vikings, not their victims. Why?
    If people live by war, rather than by their own creative work, there is something wrong with them, I think.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Marina,

      It is not so much that my sympathy is with Viking actions as that my sympathy is with the kind of civilization that they briefly had. Yes, it was violent, but was it any more violent or destructive than the sort of organized, mechanized violence of the world wars of the twentieth century? Violence of this order of magnitude is only possible given the kind of settled civilizations that has emerged over the long term from settled agricultural societies.

      All societies involve both creative and destructive work, the will to live and the death drive, eros and thanatos. The Vikings certainly were responsible for fear and terror, but quantitatively I suspect that the settled (non-nomadic) civilizations have been responsible for much more violence and have produced a far greater number of victims. All civilizations have lived by war; the Vikings also lived in truth and made no attempt to explain away their violence.

      I have further discussed the character of violence in Viking society in A Note on Social Contract Theory and Muscular Paganism.

      Best wishes,


    • Andrew said

      You seem to think the Vikings ONLY raided. The Viking civilizations thrived at home in Scandinavia and the lands where they settled! The warriors were only a small part of the culture. The Vikings settled and founded towns in present day Scotland, Ireland, England (Danelaw), Isle of Man(n) and France (Normandy). Even islands in the Mediterranean and parts of Russia.

      • geopolicraticus said

        Dear Andrew,

        I chose to focus on raiding because I wanted to emphasize precisely what was deeply alien about a very different kind of civilization than what we know today by the term. In the long view it could be argued that the Vikings were more “successful” with trading than raiding, but in the long view the Viking civilization was annihilated by its assimilation to European Christendom, and all that was distinctive about it as a civilization was lost.

        Best wishes,


  3. Nicholas said

    Dear Nick,

    In my world history class at school our final exam is a presentation on a civilization proving through the elements of the definition of civilization why and how that group met those requirements. My group is proving how the Vikings were indeed a civilization so this article was quite helpful. Would you know where I could find more information for my group to help us with our project.



    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Nicholas,

      Thanks for your message.

      As you know, I certainly think that the Vikings constitute a civilization, but I would also argue that it is a distinct kind of civilization. A definition of a civilization will include certain assumptions which may include some societies while excluding other societies. It is worth putting the definition in critical focus and asking what it includes, what it excludes, and why it does so.

      For a negative view on Viking civilization (that is, claiming that the Vikings were not a civilization), I strongly urge you to watch the first episode of Kenneth Clark’s television series “Civilisation.”

      For detailed information on particular artifacts, the web pages for particular museums are often quite good. You might read the web site for the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo ( and the Viking ship museum in Roskilde ( The latter has more information in English.

      The book published by the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, The Viking Ships in Oslo (Oslo: Universitetets Oldsakssamling, 1985) by Thorleif Sjøvold, is concise and has lots of detailed information.

      Also read the website for the Överhogdal tapestry:

      At least skim some of the Skaldic and saga literature. Most of this dates to post-Viking Christian times, but it in some cases preserves the spirit of the Viking world, especially in what remains of Skaldic poetry. There are many translations and editions. Read as much of the Poetic Edda as you can make your way through. Of the Sagas, skim Njal’s Saga or Laxdæla saga or Eyrbyggja Saga. At least read the Wikipedia articles on these Sagas. The Penguin editions of the translations of the sagas are helpful as all have introductions that place the sagas in historical context. Even if you don’t make your way through the sagas entire it is valuable to read the introductions. Njal’s Saga captures the transition from Viking paganism to Christianity in Iceland.

      In some ways the topic of the ex post facto historicization and chronicization of the Vikings is parallel to that of the great civilizations of South America, which latter never developed literacy in the Western sense, but after the arrival of the Spanish were documented after those civilizations disappeared and were absorbed into something new (as were the Vikings). It could further be argued that the runes employed by the Vikings, which were never merely language but always had an incantatory function, were similar to the elaborately carved glyphs on Mayan temples which archaeologist have tried to translate with greater or less success, but which only have their full meaning in the religious context of the temples in which they were found.

      Best wishes,


      • Nicholas said

        Dear Nick,

        Thank you for all of that information, we were actually thinking of trying to construct a much smaller version of a viking ship for our presentation so those museum websites our quite helpful. One thing I’m having trouble finding is information on Viking politics, do you know anything about the system they used or where I could find information on that? Also we weren’t sure what really is the correct term to call them by Viking or Norse?



  4. A. Karhumaa said

    I just read Egil’s Saga, and wrote some of my impressions of it in this comment on another page:

    Now I realize also another way to see the meaning of what Nick wrote above: “Vikings lived in truth”: They were not trying to spread any kind of religion or ideology to the people they traded with or pillaged on, and the feuds and fights that happen in the Saga are never painted as fundamental battles between the good and bad (contrast Tolkien). The other side might be just a slightly more right in his cause, but that’s all to it. Also, it’s refreshing that there’s no quest for any utopistical salvation, anything like what the Christianity (and other non-pagan religions), Enlightenment, “Progress” or Transhumanism tries to force-feed us. When Egil dies, his descendants just continue living in Iceland.

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