Yale professor discusses commons misconceptions, historical facts about Vikings
This past Thursday evening, the medieval and early modern studies minor program presented the second of two presentations on Vikings for the semester. The goal of the presentations is to garner interest in the interdepartmental minor.
According to Katherine McKinley, Associate Professor of English and Director of the MEMS minor, “The MEMS minor is now four years old, and this spring we will have had seventeen minors graduate in total.”
The speaker for the lecture, entitled “The Glory of the Viking Ship,” was Anders Winroth of Yale University’s Department of History. Winroth specializes in Medieval Europe and Viking Age history, and recently published his fifth book, The Age of the Vikings.
Winroth began the lecture focusing on common misconceptions about Vikings. He began by discussing Viking hygienic practices, explaining that they actually bathed once a week — more frequently than most Europeans at that time.
Winroth also discussed the misconception of horned helmets. He explained, “When you fight with clubs and axes and swords and so forth, it’s very stupid to have big things protruding from your helmet.” The association of Vikings with horned helmets began in 1876. The first horned Viking helmets were designed by Carl Emil Doepler for Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and the association these helmets claimed with Vikings persists today.
The second section of Winroth’s presentation, “How You Speak Like A Viking Everyday,” centered on Scandinavian words that have been incorporated into English for so long that their true origins are not commonly known. He showed how words such as “awesome,” “husband,” “eggs” and “steak” are all of Scandinavian origin. Winroth also showed that the Bluetooth logo is the Viking king Harald Bluetooth’s initials in runes. The presentation also discussed how Vikings loved poetry and wearing silk.
Winroth, however, acknowledged that not all of our perceptions of Viking culture are incorrect: “Did we just get history wrong? Are Vikings nothing but misunderstood metrosexuals? No. Unfortunately that’s not so,” Winroth said. “Their poetry, after all, glorified violence. They were violent.”
Winroth concluded his lecture by talking about how the Viking ship really helped the Vikings to thrive. He added lightheartedly, “Without the Viking ship, there would have been no Viking race; and without the Viking race, there would have been no Viking Age, and I would have never gotten to Baltimore.”
Winroth explained that throughout his undergraduate education, in Scotland and Sweden, professors did not teach about the Vikings extensively. “It’s a funny thing of, especially, Scandinavian history teaching that when you have written sources it’s thought to be history, but when you only have archeology it’s archeology and it’s not really taught in history departments.”
He went on to state that most historical evidence of the Vikings is archeological, which explains why there seems to be a limited historical understanding of them. As a result, after getting his PhD in medieval legal history, Winroth decided to take on Viking history as his second project.
The MEMS minor holds these lectures annually, this being their third. For more information you can check their site here: http://mems.umbc.edu/.