Viking history as told by the victims

Just how bad were the Vikings? Historians have debated the issue for decades. In a feature article for National Geographic by Christopher Shea, Yale history professor Anders Winroth, author of The Age of the Vikings, argues that contemporary accounts were exaggerated, and the writers often contradicted themselves.

From the article:

The Vikings gave no quarter when they stormed the city of Nantes, in what is now western France, in June 843—not even to the monks barricaded in the city's cathedral. "The heathens mowed down the entire multitude of priest, clerics, and laity," according to one witness account. Among the slain, allegedly killed while celebrating the Mass, was a bishop who later was granted sainthood.

To modern readers the attack seems monstrous, even by the standards of medieval warfare. But the witness account contains more than a touch of hyperbole, writes Anders Winroth, a Yale history professor and author of the book The Age of the Vikings, a sweeping new survey. What's more, he says, such exaggeration was often a feature of European writings about the Vikings.

When the account of the Nantes attack is scrutinized, "a more reasonable image emerges," he writes. After stating that the Vikings had killed the "entire multitude," for instance, the witness contradicts himself by noting that some of the clerics were taken into captivity. And there were enough people left—among the "many who survived the massacre"—to pay ransom to get prisoners back.

In short, aside from ignoring the taboo against treating monks and priests specially, the Vikings acted not much differently from other European warriors of the period, Winroth argues.