Written sources for the Viking Age

The contemporary Scandinavian sources for the Viking Age are few. Since Scandinavia did not have a literary tradition like the Christian and Islamic areas, we lack the Vikings’ own words. So the historiography about the Viking Age has often been based primarily on foreign sources, and on sources written down much later, in the 1200–1400s, based on oral tradition.

The Scandinavian written sources can be divided into:

  • Chronicles
  • Sagas
  • Skaldic epics
  • Laws
  • Runic inscriptions

Runic inscriptions

The most reliable written sources are usually those written down at the time of the events they refer to. Runic inscriptions belong to this category. But runic texts are usually limited to just a few lines, and their occurrence is scattered both chronologically and geographically. Only a few wooden sticks with inscribed runes survive. The sticks were used to pass on information. In addition to these are the texts on the 140-odd runic stones presently known in Denmark. These runic inscriptions give a certain insight into the political and social conditions. For example, on the Jelling Stone, we can read: “King Harold ordered this monument made in memory of his father, Gorm, and his mother, Thyra; the Harold who conquered all of Denmark and Norway, and made the Danes Christian.” 

Foreign sources

Apart from the runic inscriptions, the great majority of contemporary written sources about the Vikings originate from outside Denmark.

The foreign source material can be divided into:

  • Annals
  • Chronicles
  • Biographies
  • Travelogues

 

Most of these texts are written in Latin and often against the background of political, military or religious confrontation with the Vikings.

Annals

Annals are chronologically kept yearbooks written by clerics about events in a country's internal and foreign policy.

The Annals of the Frankish Empire report that in 808 Godfred, King of the Danes, fortified his southern border with a bank because of conflict with the Emperor Charlemagne of the Frankish Empire.

The first plundering by the Vikings is mentioned in the Irish Ulster Annals in January 840: “Lugbad was plundered by the heathens from Loch n'Echach and they led away captive bishops and priests and scholars, and put others to death.

The annals make it possible to trace the activities of the Vikings: plundering, conquests, and trade in much of the Christian world, and even though the annals were first written down in the 15th century, they are viewed as a reliable version of the earlier original annals.

Other foreign texts have the character of chronicles, biographies or travelogues, in which the information on the Vikings is just a small part in a greater story of the writer's experiences.

Chronicles

Adam of Bremen’s chronicle on the History of the Hamburg Archbishops from about 1075 is an important source for Scandinavian history from the time around 870 down to 1080, because the fourth book, entitled Description of the Islands in the North is based amongst other things on oral accounts from the Danish King Svein Estridson: “The Danish king, whose memory will live long, had the misdeeds of the barbarians as fresh in his memory as if they had been written down.”

It is difficult to ascertain from the text whether Adam of Bremen had been in Scandinavia himself, but in the third book he reports a meeting with Svein Estridson and states: “Much of that which I have collected in this book, I have heard from his mouth”.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are also an important source for the Viking Age. The chronicles are a collection of documents covering the history of the Anglo-Saxons in England down to 1154. Although many of the documents are secondary sources and based on legends and stories, the chronicles also contain first-hand accounts of events not illuminated in other written sources. Among the many stories are accounts of the Vikings’ plundering and conquest of English towns.

Biographies and travelogues

Ansgar's Biography, written by Archbishop Rimbert, is primarily a description of the monk Ansgar’s work as a missionary and his path to the episcopacy. But since Ansgar's missionary activity was in Scandinavia, the work contains several illustrative accounts of Denmark and Sweden in the 9th century, including about the social life in the Swedish trading town of Birka.

Most of the Arab sources about the Vikings are travelogues.

The Arab envoy, Ibn Fadlan, met the Vikings in the 10th century by the River Volga, and his account of this meeting contains descriptions of Viking ceremonies and rituals associated with the burial of chieftains, including the sacrifice of slaves. But there is also a comment on Viking hygiene: “They are the filthiest of Allah’s creatures". But a Spanish Arab called Ibn Rustah, who visited Hedeby in the 10th century had a different experience and his account describes the Vikings as well-dressed and clean.

By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen

Chronicles 

Chronicon Roskildense (the Roskilde Chronicle) from around 1138–1140 and Saxo’s Latin work on the exploits of the Danes, Gesta Danorum (the Denmark Chronicle) from about AD 1200, are considered today to be the two oldest histories of Denmark. The author of the Roskilde Chronicle is unknown, because the usual practice for ecclesiastical scribes was to remain anonymous, but the author was probably a local cleric. The centre of interest of the Chronicle is the city’s cathedral.

An unknown author attempted a continuation of the first text and the chronicle has been copied several times. Many of these copies reveal that the copier has made changes to the text. So in one and the same text it is possible to find the original sentence: “Erik Ejegod (Erik I) made many unreasonable and unjust laws” and the correction “Erik Ejegod (Erik I) made many reasonable and just laws”.

Both histories of Denmark show the influence of being modelled on foreign accounts, notably Adam of Bremen's work on the history of the German archbishops, but Saxo’s Chronicle also has a rich gallery of characters based on the orally handed down sagas, skaldic epics and heroic poems.

Sagas and skaldic epics

Most of the sagas from the middle ages were written down in Iceland and are about Norse lords, chiefs and kings. They often take the form of “a good story” about heroic deeds. But the sagas are also full of information about Viking society. In Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Olav Trygvason, there is important information about shipbuilding, what the ships looked like, and how boat wharfs and boat building was organised, and in Magnus Erlingssøn’s saga, we learn about ship provisions. It can seem as though useful information is rare, but after reading through these exuberant texts several times you discover definite information on the size of water barrels, arrangement of sleeping spaces, clothing for the Atlantic, rules for women on board, and not least the size of the fleets that attacked England.

The Scandinavian skaldic epics have been handed down by way of Snorri Sturluson's great work Heimskringla (the World Cycle) from 1230. Snorri was himself a skald (bard), and by writing a work on the poetry of his time (Edda), he helped posterity understand the skaldic epics.

Many of the epics handed down by Snorri or in other later texts bear not only the name of the king or chieftain they praise, but also the skald’s own name, so it is easy to see where they fit in with other written sources. The epics were handed down orally from generation to generation, but despite being retold many times they are considered today to be important sources for the Viking Age.

As Snorri argues in Heimskringla, a pride was taken in reproducing the epics correctly and in telling the truth: “It is of course the practice of the skald to praise most the one he is standing in front of, but no one would dare to tell a man of deeds he has done, if the whole audience knew it was all lies and bragging. That would be insult and not praise.”

Laws

A few legal texts written down in the Middle Ages contain regulations that can be traced back to Viking times. These can be rules prohibiting practices common a few hundred years before, rules for how to behave in the presence of the king, or rules for trading, and legislation about the organisation of shipbuilding.

The last applies to the Norwegian Gulatinglov. The Gulating was the main assembly for western and southern Norway. The law's construction and content was probably the model for the earliest Icelandic law, Ulvljotslovi, from about 930. So the Gulating Law must be even earlier, even though it was first written down in the 1100–1200s. The law’s main text contains several chapters on boat building, navigation, and rules on weapons, which add to our understanding today of Viking Age shipbuilding and the organisation of fleets.