What can the historian learn about Viking society from a study of Rune stones? Essay
The world of the Vikings was extensive. It stretched round the whole of Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. Discussion of the Viking Age has too often been dominated by a picture of fierce, pitiless barbarians spreading terror and destruction in their boundless lust for loot, and many less sensational but equally important aspects of the period have been overlooked. This is largely due to the one sided view presented by contemporary European chroniclers who, very understandably, saw the Vikings as plunderers and extorters of tribute. These writers knew little and cared less about their background, culture or trade, hence giving us a very distorted and biased overall picture. Modern historians of course realized this and take a closer and much broader look at all facets of the Viking Age in order to paint an accurate picture of Viking society. One such important facet is that of Rune Stones.
The alphabet the Vikings used was known as ‘runic’, each letter known as a ‘rune’. Nobody knows exactly when or where the runic characters were invented. It was several centuries before the Viking period and probably somewhere near the Roman Empire, as many of the earlier letters inscribed resemble those of the Roman alphabet. Runic images were carved on wood, mental, bone and stone. They were widely used and in the case of Viking society, they offer us an interesting insight into their everyday life.
The earliest messages were carved on sticks, but unfortunately wood doesn’t preserve well over the years and few runic wooden objects have been found. Runic designs were soon adapted for other, more durable materials such as bone and stone. Here the carvers could use a variety of different techniques for cutting the letters since they were no longer dealing with the fibrous material of wood. They were used for quite a wide range of texts including memorials, boundary posts, marker stones for bridges and roads, owners or makers marks, as well as for casual graffiti by Vikings on a day-to-day basis. In most cases it is hard to interpret runic monuments as most of them have deteriorated over time. Many stones show traces of paint that encourage reconstruction. They used basic primary colours for design and the letters themselves were often done in red. A dragon pattern on a rune stone in London shows the beasts coloured in dark red and black against a creamy background, the animals bodies spattered with white spots. This not only tells us that the Vikings of the time had the ability to mix and create different colours, but also that they were interested in using this runic method of inscription to tell stories as well as for everyday use.
In Gotland one can find many inscribed stones showing fine pictorial designs including many human figures. These show battles, processions, ships in full sail, men on horseback; their meaning is often mysterious, but they are very valuable sources for studying the appearance of men and women, since the realistic representation of human figures is extremely rare in Viking art. Ornamental inscriptions can also be found. These may give the name of a dead man and of the mourner who had the monument erected. On occasion they may even offer details such as the personal qualities of the dead man, his standing in life, and the place and circumstances of his death. Such information can contribute to our understanding of Viking society, though it only occasionally adds a new fact to our historical knowledge.
Rune stones offer us an exact location of the Vikings at one time. They’re not portable like inscribed weapons or jewels which often end up far away from their places of origin. So the uncovering of Viking rune-stones and inscribed monuments tell us of what lands the Vikings travelled in and settled. Furthermore, rune-stones confirm for us a picture of widespread activity among the Vikings. We can see them in an array of activities and positions, such as pirates, professionals, soldiers, merchants, and farmers who brought home the profits of their expeditions to invest in land and stock. They offer us an idea of how the Vikings viewed themselves as human beings and how they saw each other in their different roles within society.
Not all inscriptions however describe this active Viking life. Some reveal its more peaceful and domestic aspects. Some monuments may just record a list of a mans possessions or what he has contributed to society. Again this gives us enormous insight into the roles of certain individuals in the Viking community.
Equally as important to the historian as the Viking society and way of life, is the ideals of the Vikings and the mindset of the time. The sort of behaviour they admired can be found through the runic inscriptions. They describe a society that knew it was aristocratic and heroic, its members bound together by the ties of family relationship or by the duties that were expected by lord and man. We can see them praising heroic gestures, endurance in battles, generosity, loyalty, respect and honour. This is not to say, however, that each Viking held true to these virtues. Some inscriptions are done with the sole purpose of naming and shaming certain men who had done wrong. Examples of which can be found on the Isle of Man.
Early runic inscriptions such as these are important for a number of reasons. They record early stages of the Scandinavian tongues and so tell us something of the language the Vikings spoke. Their distributions throughout the world is some indication of the geographical areas the Vikings visited. Their content shows us aspects of the Viking Age that are not recorded elsewhere, from them we know how the Vikings saw themselves. From them we can almost visualise what life was like for them. How they traded, operated on a daily basis, how they buried their loved ones and how they communicated with each other. They are vital to our understanding of a society of Vikings which can not reasonably be called primitive, unorganised, or exceptionally cruel, which is often how they are perceived. Through examination of the inscriptions they left us, we can paint a very different picture indeed.