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What is a Viking?

The use of the term Viking

Defining terminology is often difficult, especially when a term has a specialized usage and a popular usage. The term “Viking” is a case in point. David Wilson, in his recent book “The Vikings in the Isle of Man” has discussed this problem, and his comments are worth quoting in full:

“In writing of this period one quickly becomes conscious of the need to define terms, for usage has changed over the centuries. Terms glibly used are now questioned on a regular basis by semantically oriented scholars with their own baggage. This hurdle has to be overcome. One of the problems facing any serious writer dealing with the Viking Age concerns the usage of the term ‘Viking’ itself, which I have used – if sparingly – in much of this book. The word ‘Viking’ did not come into general use in the English language until the middle of the nineteenth Century – at about the same time that it was introduced into serious academic literature in Scandinavia – and has since then changed its meaning and been much abused. It must, however, be accepted that the term is today used throughout the world as a descriptor of the peoples of Scandinavia in the period from the late eighth Century until the mid-eleventh Century. To the general public, however, it has apparently two meanings; both are respectable and hallowed in the English language by two centuries of usage. The first is in the sense of ‘raider’ or ‘pirate’, the second in the sense of the activities of the Scandinavians outside their own country in that period. It is the latter meaning that has given rise to the useful term ‘the Viking Age’. Disregarding the ultimate philology of the word and the history of its use over the centuries, which has been much discussed, it is now in such everyday use by both specialists and non-specialists – however improperly – to describe the Scandinavians of the Viking Age, that it almost impossible to avoid its use in this generic sense. Although it is often appropriate and necessary to use such terms as ‘Scandinavian’ or ‘Norse’, as I have done in this book, it is often simpler and less confusing to label something as ‘Viking’ rather than deal in scholastic circumlocution to placate purists, however justified they may be in their arguments. I have tried therefore to use all three terms in a fashion appropriate to a general reaership – the term ‘Viking’ is too valuable and generally used to jettison now. The only serious caveat is that the word ‘Viking’ is a western European construct which many Russians and even Swedes, with justification, sometimes find hard to use in relation to Scandinavian activity in eastern Europe.”

(from: “The Vikings in the Isle of Man” by David Wilson, Aarhus University Press, 2008)

See An Iron Age Timeline For Scandinavia; for definitions of the Viking Period in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Neil Price answers the question
“What is a Viking?”


This short video clip is taken from his lecture Children of Ash which was given at Cornell University in 2012.