“They came from where the winds are cold and truth is seen through keyholes…” I have a confession to make. I’m a secret Viking fan. Always have been. I blame a-ha, the Norwegian trio have enthralled me since I was 12 years old thus making the Scandinavian countries of the North extremely appealing.
Viking is a collective name for the seafaring people of Scandinavia. The typical image we have of the Vikings is a mish-mash of blond brutes who wore peculiar hats with horns protruding from their metal forms (an invention created in the 19th Century by story illustrators). They were raiders and had no problem invading and pillaging which had a devastating impact on northern Europe during the Medieval period. However, it has to be said that these “men from the North” were excellent seafarers and are well-known for their trading skills travelling as far as Russia and Constantinople. They soon built up a rich trade in precious metals, fur and tusks.
A major new exhibition, at the British Museum, London will try to shed new light on these warriors, who it has been discovered had progressive attitudes to women, influenced our the English language and even played a part in or modern idea of jury service.
But what I’m particularly interested in is the way they dealt with women. It seems the Vikings were well ahead of Christian Europe. Under Scandinavian law in the Viking Age, women could inherit property and they also had the right on their own initiative to divorce their husband. If I’m correct, this system sounds very familiar to the Brehon Law of Ireland (indigenous system of law from Celtic times): a time when women had a say over their affairs and lives. In other words, they had rights.
The current exhibition focuses on the core period of the Viking Age i.e. late 8th Century to the early 11th Century. The exhibition has been developed with the National Museum of Denmark and the National Museums in Berlin.
The Viking Age may have ended in 1100 but their legacy lives on. And, as long as I can hear the soul-stirring voice of Morten Harket my favourite Norwegian, I’ll be happy and remain a life-long Viking fan. The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend runs starts Thursday 6th March until Sunday June 22nd. Visit http://www.britishmuseum.org