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Rampaging Hordes – or Darlings of the Dark Ages?

"Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now… Behold, the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of its priests, despoiled of all its ornaments… given up as prey to a pagan people."

The religious scholar, Alcuin of York, writing in the late 8th century, had just experienced a bad case of the Vikings. Fiery dragons had been seen in the sky, followed by the arrival of raiders in longboats. For the next two centuries, the pattern of mayhem continued, and the caricature of the Viking as a kind of Scandinavian pillage idiot became thoroughly established.

Last week, a different picture of the invading Norsemen emerged from a conference of academics at Cambridge University. Far from disgracing themselves on our shores, the Vikings can now be seen as model immigrants, whose successful assimilation into British society holds lessons for our own time. Their image problem largely stems from their failure – what, with all that plundering to do – to find time to record their own history; meaning that chronicling their presence was left to those on the receiving end of their, shall we say, pragmatic approach to revenue gathering.

"Most people’s image of the Vikings centres on their arrival and the disruption it brought, but that only continued for a very short time," says Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, a Cambridge professor of Celtic studies who organised the conference. "Afterwards they started building settlements and interacting with the locals and influenced them in many ways. They provide a clear example of how a particular group came into a sophisticated, established society and the resulting interaction was positive."

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March 16, 2009