I dont know how the conference Between the Islands: Interaction with Vikings in Ireland and Britain in the Early Medieval Period , which took place this weekend in Cambridge went, but in terms of newspaper publicity, they certainly did very well. They got several pieces on the conference into the Guardian, including a leader, but the Daily Mail and its columnists were also inspired to write. The articles in the two papers might almost be seen as stereotypical of their attitudes: the Guardian celebrates the softer side of Vikings, while the Daily Mail rages at the political correctness that suggests there was more to Vikings than rape and pillage. I dont want here to get into yet another debate on the actual Vikings and their violence. I want instead to ask another question: why is it so necessary to modern Britain that the Vikings were violent? This cant simply just be put down to right-wing prejudices about immigration (although this crops up in the Daily Mail): Simon Schama had pretty much the same attitude to Vikings in his History of Britain (BTW, the best takedown of Schamas TV history style Ive yet seen is here).
There is a very interesting contrast here with an earlier British attitude. If you look at some of the classic popular histories from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Our Island Story or 1066 and All That, then the Danes (not yet the Vikings) are simply one among many violent attackers of early Britain. There is nothing that particularly distinguishes their violence from that of Romans, Saxons or Normans. The same attitude is still shown by Terry Dearys Horrible Histories. But generally in Britain, it is now the Vikings alone whose violent reputation must be defended or revised: no-one outside history facilities really cares how violent the Saxons were or whether Hengist was coarser than Horsa. Why does Viking violence now spark the imagination in a way it didnt 100 years ago? Theres been the discovery and display of much more material culture (as in Jorvik), but weve got more Saxon stuff as well.
Its also not a reflection of modern politics in the normal sense: there are no significant anti-Scandinavian prejudices here. If youre going to demonise the EU via the past, then Normans as proto-French and Saxons as proto-Germans are a better bet. But if you look at which aspects of the Vikings are remembered, you get the clue. Its not Canute/Cnut or even the Danelaw which strike the modern imagination, and King Alfred is surprisingly absent. Its the raids, from Lindisfarne in 793 onwards. What this country remembers about the Vikings is the sudden alarm of longboats appearing at a peaceful settlement (this was the main trope in Simon Schama). Its not the threat of invasion and conquest (Britain being overrun with fire and the sword) that sends a thrill of terror up British spines now. Its the small-scale, unprovoked, seemingly random and meaningless violence that does that: the Vikings as the first terrorists.