History Channel specials and Medieval Christian manuscripts depict Vikings as a singularly ravenous and violent lot, but historical evidence suggests that they were also a highly sophisticated society of artists and artisans. When they weren’t out discovering new continents or reciting complex skaldic verses, the Vikings excelled at woodwork and metalwork. They were great makers and lovers of art, including jewelry.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the term “’Viking’ generally applied to medieval Scandinavian culture as it flourished between the 790s and roughly 1000.” The Vikings sailed and settled everywhere from Iceland to Ireland, France to Britain, and in the river valleys of Russia. Some traders may have gone as far as the Middle East, and Leif Erickson famously voyaged to North America.
Since the Vikings were always running around – conquering this, raiding that – it was paramount that lords and warriors cement their alliances. One way to show bonds of loyalty was through the exchange of rings. Lords, who held most of the wealth, gifted rings of precious metals to warriors as a means of redistributing treasure and giving thanks.
If you’ve ever read Beowulf, or even seen the CGI’d Angelina Jolie version, you know that dragons were among the mythical creatures most despised by the tribes of Northern Europe. Apart from breathing fire, dragons also represented a self-destructive force inherent in tribal culture. Dragons hoard treasure in dungeons and caverns far removed from villages and cities. For the Vikings, along with other Northern tribes, wealth best served as a means for building communities. Lords who gifted treasure gained alliances, and thereby strengthened their own ranks. The distribution of wealth meant larger, safer, more vibrant populations. Lords who hoarded wealth like dragons weakened necessary social structures, and essentially rendered their wealth useless.
The Vikings smelted all sorts of fancy art pieces and jewelry from their hoards. Worn by both men and women, Viking jewelry was mostly made of silver or bronze, with gold jewelry often reserved for the elite. Women wore brooches that fastened their clothes together, as well as necklaces. Men, on the other hand, wore rings. These rings were not limited to fingers, but also worn about the wrists, arms, and neck. Warriors also adorned their weapons, especially the sword hilt.
The Vikings acquired wealth in a few ways. Firstly, they were traders. Viking coins and runes have made it to many ends of the earth. Eventually, the Vikings realized that precious metals, along with other luxury goods, could be more easily acquired by raiding the monasteries of Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe. At the time, Viking ships were fast and costal British monasteries were isolated and poorly defended. The Viking “reign of terror” is generally agreed to have begun in 793 after a raid on England’s Lindisfarne monastery. Archaeologist Colleen Batey of the Glasgow Museums wryly notes that the Vikings “had a preference for anything that looked pretty.” Eventually, the Vikings settled in many of these areas, choosing to colonize rather than extort their southern neighbours.
So while the early Vikings did in fact make periodic raids on the rich monasteries of the British Isles, and while they did steal a considerable amount of the finest treasures, I try to envision the Vikings as “art collectors” and “jewelry connoisseurs” in addition to brutish thieves.