Vikings are one of the most legendary groups of warriors from the Middle Ages. Their combat strength took undefended monks and villagers by storm and created a legion of terrifying Viking myths. How much of it is really true though? Our understanding of history changes all the time, and Hollywood can just confuse matters when they take artistic license.
Historians have been hard at work debunking myths about Vikings for decades, but a lot of their conclusions are still little-known by the public. Behind the battle cries and the mighty longships, Viking culture was complex and remarkably different from the rest of the European world at the time. Viking facts can now replace myths and give us a better idea of what both Viking women and men were really like.
The Reality: The short summers and harsh winters of Scandinavia meant food resources were limited and Vikings' main source of nutrition came from raids. As a result, they were often underfed and quite small.
Why The Myth: Scandinavian people were allegedly slightly taller than their mainland European counterparts, but the average Viking man appears to have been just 5 feet 6 inches tall. It is more likely the myth about Vikings' massive composure came from anecdotal accounts by travelers in the Middle Ages.
The Reality: Vikings were often laid to rest in specially arranged graves or burial mounds. The wealthiest and most important Vikings were sometimes buried with their boats, and early Vikings may have been cremated. There is little evidence that anyone was ever put in a boat and set sailing while lit aflame. It would have been considered incredibly expensive and a waste of a good ship.
Why The Myth: Traveler Ahmad Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of Viking funerals during the 10th century that involves burning ships, but this is just an anecdotal account. Archeological evidence does not exist for this type of funeral.
The Reality: Viking raids were undeniably vicious, but Scandinavian raiders were hardly the only rough people in the Middle Ages. More often, Vikings were traders. The worst of their behavior was reserved for opportunistic targets and those who slighted them.
Why The Myth: One of the most common opportunistic targets were monasteries, which were rarely guarded with any real force. Since priests and monks made up a large percentage of the literate population in the Middle Ages, their accounts of Viking ferocity became accepted fact. While monks really did suffer at the hands of Vikings, others had more positive experiences interacting with them.
The Reality: When given the choice, Vikings would have opted for a sword, but these were expensive and out of reach for many warriors. The spear actually appears to be their most popular choice.
Why The Myth: While many Vikings did carry an axe, they likely just brought them from their homes since axes were handy tools on farms. Swords were expensive due to the cost of digging up and forging iron, and reusing a farm axe would have been the only choice for many poor warriors. Popular images of Viking warriors typically depict them with axes, which are associated with barbarism more than spears.