Far from the brutal cliches of old, the Viking invasion of Britain story at the heart of Assassin's Creed Valhalla, reveals ample evidence of clever dealmaking, organisation and complex lives says the University of Aberdeen's Dr Hannah Burrows.
Dr Hannah Burrows runs a course called Myths of the North at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She's also Honorary Secretary of the Viking Society for Northern Research, and with such credentials it's no surprise she was able to give the AltChar team some brilliant information about the era in which the new Assassin's Creed game is set, as well as puncturing a fair few of the old preconceptions about the hairy warriors from the fjords.
AC: Assassin's Creed Valhalla is set in Britain in the year 873 AD. Where are we in 873 AD?
Dr HB: So we're right in the middle of the first major kind of Scandinavian settlement effort, I suppose you would call it, in what is now England. In 865, there's the arrival of what's known as the Great Heathen Army, so-named by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because of course the Anglo-Saxons are Christians. From the 790s up until about the 860s, there's been these kind of stereotypical smash-and-grab Viking raids on the British Isles. They come, they attack some high wealth status target, they grab the booty and go back to Scandinavia. But, in the 860s, they start coming and staying rather than going back home.
The year 865 is when the Great Heathen Army arrives. They land in East Anglia and head up to Northumbria and by 866/867 they've got control of Northumbria. They install an Anglo-Saxon puppet King - so they don't become kings there themselves immediately, later they do that of course - but at this stage they seem to be more about just collecting tribute. They want someone locally under their control as they continue their military campaigns elsewhere.
They also seem to have made local peace treaties, which is partly why they move about from kingdom to kingdom. They'll come in and raid, then they'll agree with the local leaders that they'll stop raiding in exchange for food and the ability to trade - which is what enables them to have these overwinter settlements rather than have to go back to Scandinavia because they don't have provisions.
By 867, they start raiding down southwards to the Midlands and agree a truce in Nottingham and return north to York. Then 869 is the conquest of East Anglia, and 870 is the first time they really start trying to invade Wessex, although they're initially not successful, it's a stalemate. They occupy London between 871 and 872, and there are coins minted from that time with the name of Halfdan, one of the main leaders of the Great Heathen Army, so we know he is definitely trying to establish himself within existing structures, representing himself on coins in the way that people would be familiar with.
In 873, when the game begins, the Great Heathen Army is based in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, roughly equivalent to the English Midlands today. They are still more or less in control of Northumbria, and they've made considerable gains in Mercia. Certainly, in 873 they spend the winter in Repton, which was the seat of the Mercian royal family. They even establish Viking burial sites there, right on top of this very prestigious Anglo-Saxon place.
They're also about to begin serious campaigns on Wessex, which from 871 is controlled by King Alfred the Great. So, by 873, we've got a sizeable community of Vikings, an army but also a broader community, all the people that come along with an army - craftsmen for example and there's evidence women and children were with them too.
They're not really going on military campaigns in winter, they're establishing settlement camps for themselves. They are preparing to try and expand their territorial control. With Wessex the jewel in the crown.
In around 874 the Great Heathen Army splits, and Halfdan goes back to Northumbria and rules there as king for a time. Halfdan also has interests in Ireland and was likely recognised as a king in Dublin before he ever set foot in England - in fact he eventually would go back to Ireland and be killed there.
At this point, Guthrum really comes into the picture. He attacks Wessex with some success and makes a treaty with King Alfred. This treaty separates a kingdom ruled by Alfred - Wessex and western Mercia - from the Danelaw, the area under Viking control. The Danelaw comprised southern Northumbria, eastern Mercia and East Anglia.
What was the Great Heathen Army?
It was probably made up of a lot of different warbands, under different leaders who had their own troops under their command, who had formed a coalition. The way the warbands are organised is around loyalty to those particular leaders. So there would be different levels of unity and organisation of the army as a whole at different points, depending on the goals of the leaders.
Why did they come and stay in England?
In Scandinavia, as in Anglo-Saxon England, you've really then got lots of little polities, lordships, or petty kingships and lots of dynastic infighting: just as one leader stabilises, then somebody dies and it all starts again. So there are various power struggles going on in Scandinavia and also in England. That's one reason the Vikings could get easy access into Northumbria - it was already terribly factional. There's an element of opportunity: people who maybe don't have much of a claim to land in Denmark or elsewhere in Scandinavia, they could be part of high status families, and so they feel like they should have somewhere to rule, so they come and try and take it elsewhere.
There's also been a theory floating around for a long time that there's a lack of resources in Scandinavia, that the Vikings have outgrown what they're able to produce. I think that's really hard to prove. It strikes me it's more about power and wealth than desperation.
How do we know what happened?
In terms of written sources there's very little from the Scandinavian side. So a lot of the documentary sources are from the Anglo-Saxon side: the Chronicle primarily, or Anglo-Saxon clerical records as well as histories written some time later. The Irish Annals are useful as well.
A lot of the evidence, particularly for where the army was at that time, comes from archaeology. We've got finds we can reasonably safely attach to being from the Great Heathen Army, from where they camped to what they were doing while they were there. There's one burial ground in Mercia which is clearly a pagan Scandinavian burial ground, and that dates from just about 873. Linguistics gives us clues too, although that's harder to date precisely, especially place names in the Danelaw. So we can tell from place names that there was a significant Viking influence at around this time on the landscape, and because a lot of places are named after people, we know that there are a lot of Scandinavian personal names floating around.
What extent did faith/belief play in the conflict?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is very clear about pointing out the invaders as being heathens. There are pagan clues in the archaeological finds, such as Thor's Hammer pendants. The burial ground in Mercia clearly has bodies being burned according to a variety of pagan tradition. Vikings are buried there with weapons or animals or even burned animals.
Because Christianity is so well established in Anglo-Saxon England, because it is so important and influential, we do see Viking acceptance of it. When Guthrum makes his treaty with Alfred, one of the conditions is that he agrees to be baptised into the Christian faith. He's potentially only been in England for ten years, and is now agreeing to convert to Christianity. We don't know how far this meant leaders would nominally convert while the rest of the Vikings continue on with their existing traditions - it's certainly not black and white, as it's not modern Christianity. For example, Thor's Hammer pendants have been found with Christian crosses on them. Or monuments with both Norse and Christian symbolism. So some people were clearly hedging their bets. People don't just immediately change or abandon one set of beliefs, overnight. Equally, the Vikings reached agreements with the Church in the Danelaw.
The main character in Assassin's Creed Valhalla is called Eivor, any idea where that comes from?
It's a female name but it could well be from Ivar the Boneless, a historical figure who is said to be one of the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, who people may know as the main hero of the Vikings TV show. Ivar was a real person and was involved in the Great Heathen Army, although Ragnar is more of a legendary figure.
You can play as both a male and female character in the game. Did Viking women fight?
I don't think we should idealise Viking society in the respect of the role of women. This is a game, so they can do what they want to make it fun and to expose this period of history to as wide an audience as possible. In reality, I think the position of women can be overstated, certainly if there's a perception of Viking society as some kind of proto-feminist society, because I think that minimises what it was like for those women.
But we do know that women did have certain legal rights, for instance of divorce and property ownership. They were respected as individuals. Undoubtedly women's work was valued in Scandinavian society. From the Great Heathen Army camps we know that women and children were there so it was obviously important to have your family with you or that women were supporters to the army. They would have been in the middle of it all, one way or another.
On the Anglo-Saxon side, in the late 910s, Æthelflæd of Mercia, the eldest daughter of King Alfred, was essentially the leader of the Mercians and managed to reconquer parts of Mercia from the Vikings - the town of Derby for example. She probably wasn't fighting herself, but she was a kind of strategist and a political figure that troops were willing to rally under.
What was better about Vikings than the Anglo-Saxons?
The area where the Scandinavians are traditionally accepted to have dominance is in seafaring - better ships and better organisation - and managed to move rapidly around England in the way they did in part through the river network rather than across land.
Then there's personal grooming! There were various complaints by Anglo-Saxon churchmen that the locals were imitating Viking hairstyles - Alcuin of York complains about this already in the 790s and there are similar complaints up to the early 11th century. There's also a 13th-century chronicle writing about the late 10th century that Danish men were able to seduce all the English women because they took weekly baths and changed their clothes frequently.
Could the two sides understand each other's speech?
It's thought speakers of Old Norse and speakers of Old English could probably have adequately understood each other at this time. The grammatical structure is similar and a lot of the words are basically the same but pronounced differently - with a bit of pointing and shouting, they would have been able to make themselves understood without having to become bilingual.
Do you think games such as Assassin's Creed Valhalla are good for our understanding of Viking society?
I'm always excited when there's new adaptations of Viking stories and Viking history. I'm not a purist, I'm not like, "Oh, it's going to be historically inaccurate...". I'm always pleased when these things come out, if it gets more people interested, then great. For me, I guess I always just want it to be more than the stereotype of the bald, bearded, fierce, growling Viking warrior. There was a really complex society and there's a lot more to them than just the martial side of things, with beautiful artwork for instance, and incredible literature and poetry.
Players will have a Raven to use in the game, what is the meaning of the Raven to Vikings?
That's very appropriate. That's what the god Odin would have done with his ravens. He could send them out to see and hear things for him. So that's actually quite accurate. That fits really nicely. Odin is also often depicted with his two Ravens, and Ravens are one of the Viking Beasts of Battle. They're very much an ever-present feature of the battlefield and a Viking phrase such as "Reddening the Ravens claw" is a metaphor for succeeding in battle by leaving them bodies to eat.
The game is set in what is called The Dark Ages. Why are they called that?
I would say "Don't call it the Dark Ages" at all really. It was the age when classical learning was allegedly lost, and one theory is that it's just called the Dark Ages because we don't know much about it in comparison to other periods so it is a 'dark period' - dark as in secretive rather than bad or negative. But it tends to have a bit of a pejorative sense, as if everyone was just living in mud huts which is not the case.
What don't people know about the Vikings?
I think if people are really interested in the Viking period, then getting into their poetry would be great. The mythological poetry is fascinating, but there's all kinds of humour there and elsewhere that really shows who they were as people.
Skaldic poetry was a kind of praise poetry composed for Viking kings, an elite language with a complex system of metaphors which sometimes can be read in a good way or a bad way. And because reputation is so important in Viking society, if your reputation is commemorated negatively in poetry it lasts forever, beyond the life of the individual. This was the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. There were actually laws recorded later in the medieval period against the composition of poetry about other people. One of the worst things that you can do to your enemy is not to kill them, but to write unfavourable poetry about them which will last longer than then they will.
Can you suggest some further reading?
- The Poetic Edda translated by Carolyne Larrington (mythological poetry)
- Edda: Snorri Sturluson translated by Anthony Faulkes (Norse mythology as told by a 13th-century Icelandic historian/poet)
- The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection edited by Jane Smiley (written down in the 13th-century in Iceland but set in the late Viking Age; includes 'The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue' about a poet who gets himself into trouble for composing insulting verse about his rival)
- Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World by Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir (brand new and very accessible)
- The Vikings in Britain and Ireland by Jayne Carroll, Stephen Harrison and Gareth Williams (also very accessible and considers different evidence types)
- The Viking World edited by Stefan Brink (lots of short articles summarising the state of knowledge about different aspects of the Viking Age)
Dr Hannah Burrows is the Honorary Secretary of the Viking Society for Northern Research, and Senior Lecturer and Director of the Centre for Scandinavian Studies at the University of Aberdeen.