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Popular Vikings: constructions of Viking identity in twentieth century Britain
By Alexandra Service
D.Phil, University of York, 1998
Abstract: Vikings are a vibrant part of modern popular culture. Although the Viking Age ended nearly a millennium ago, today Viking images are everywhere, functioning as tourist attractions, marketing devices, role models, and sources of regional/national pride and identity. This thesis examines the causes of the Vikings’ adoption as icons of popular culture, and looks at the various ways in which Vikings are used.
Crucial to an understanding of modern Viking constructions are questions of popular culture’s roles, and its relations with high culture and academia. As an historical people who have been re-invented by popular legend, Vikings illustrate the problematic relations between scholars and the popular incarnations of those scholars’ subjects. Scholars in the Viking field often feel antagonism toward the popular images which they see as distorting their topic. Yet without the popular Viking visions, it would be difficult for academic work on the Vikings to continue. Popular interest is what sells books, brings visitors to venues such as the Jorvik Viking Centre, and attracts many scholars to the Viking field in the first place.
The thesis first discusses theories of popular culture, and the development of cultural studies. From there it turns to a chronological overview of political, literary and archaeological developments which have influenced the evolution of Viking images.
In the third chapter, attention turns to questions of the popular Vikings’ appearance. Viking men, Viking women, Viking ships and Viking helmets are discussed in the context of the physical traits assigned to them by popular imagery, and the various sources of these representations.
The fourth chapter examines a central dichotomy of Viking constructions, the question of whether Vikings are good or evil. A discussion of cross-cultural constructions of the word “barbarian”, and the interactions between barbarism and civilisation, is followed by an examination of the Vikings in their barbarian interpretation. The chapter also looks at the reverse side of these barbarian images, by which Vikings gain sympathy through their characterisation as a people who have been done wrong by history, and need to be rescued from their barbaric reputation.
Chapter Five looks at the Vikings’ positive roles, in which they function as models of discipline and skill, industriousness, independence, and adventurousness, and illustrate ways in which “the human spirit reached new heights”
Finally, Chapter Six looks in more detail at questions of why the Vikings are important today, attempting to discern what elements of the Viking myth have ensured its survival in modern popular consciousness.
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