Written sources are usually most reliable when authored at the time of the events they refer to. Unfortunately, contemporary sources for the Viking Age by Scandinavian authors are almost non-existent, the main exception being runic inscriptions. This is mainly due to Scandinavia not having a literary tradition like the Christian and Islamic influenced regions of Europe at the time. Therefore, what does exist of contemporary writing is mostly based on foreign sources. Only in the 1100-1400s do Scandinavian writings based on oral traditions turn up.
The written sources by type/category:
- Scandinavian runic inscriptions
- Contemporary (foreign) annals and chronicles
- Contemporary (foreign) biographies and travelogues
- Later (Scandinavian) chronicles
- Later Norse sagas and skaldic epics
1. Runic inscriptions
Runic inscriptions are usually limited to just a few lines. Furthermore, their occurrence is scattered both chronologically and geographically. Runic texts occur on both wood and stone.
Only a few wooden sticks with inscribed runes survive. The sticks were used to pass on information. Rune stones are more numerous, and do provide a certain but limited insight into the political and social conditions in and around the location they were placed. There are a few thousand rune stones known today scattered around the Scandinavian countries. For instances, there are about 140 runic stones presently known in Denmark. Several examples include:
- Large Jelling stone – placed at the royal seat in Jutland in the late 900s, and which reads: “King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of his father, Gorm, and his mother, Thyra; the Harald who conquered all of Denmark and Norway, and made the Danes Christian.”
- Tirsted runestone – earliest mention of Sweden on a surviving runestone, it reads: “Asrathr and Hildung/Hildvig/Hildulf erected this stone after Fretha, their kinsman, … he died in Sweden and was first …. of every viking.”
2. Contemporary (foreign) annals and chronicles
As mentioned, the majority of contemporary written sources about the Vikings are found outside Scandinavia. Mostly written in Latin, and usually the authors had their own political or religious interests and agendas. There was no motivation or ambition to be non-partial or objective – and in particular in describing the Vikings it is necessary to remember that they were always seen as outsiders, and most often as the enemy.
Annals are year books about important events of a region. Viking activities were noted, and this makes it possible to trace activities such as plundering, conquests, and trade in much of the Christian world. Although surviving copies are often of a later date, these are mostly viewed as reliable versions of the earlier original annals.
- Annals of the Frankish Empire – report that in 808 Godfred, King of the Danes, fortified his southern border with a bank because of conflict with the Emperor Charlemagne of the Frankish Empire.
- Irish Ulster Annals – mentions the first plundering by the Vikings in Irland, c840: “Lugbad was plundered by the heathens from Loch n’Echach and they led away captive bishops and priests and scholars, and put others to death.”
Chronicles are compiled histories and especially the German, English and French contain mention of Viking activities. Examples include:
- History of the Hamburg Archbishops – Adam of Bremen’s chronicle from c1075 is considered a major source for Scandinavian history from the time c870 and up to c1080. Contained in its fourth book “Description of the Islands in the North” are oral accounts from the Danish King Svein Estridson at the time. It is difficult to ascertain whether Adam visited Scandinavia, but he mentions a meeting with Svein and states: “Much of that which I have collected in this book, I have heard from his mouth”. Which could indicate Adam traveled to meet the king.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – also an important source for the Viking Age as the chronicles cover the history of the Anglo-Saxons in England up to c1154. Although some content comes from secondary sources and some no doubt is based on legends and stories, the chronicles also contain first-hand accounts of events not described in other written sources. Among the stories are accounts of the Vikings’ plundering and conquests in English as seen from Anglo-Saxon side.
3. Contemporary (foreign) biographies and travelogues
Example of German source:
- Ansgar’s Biography – Written by Archbishop Rimbert, it is primarily a description of the monk Ansgar’s work as a missionary and his path to episcopacy. However, as Ansgar did missionary work in Denmark and Sweden in the 9th century, then it also includes details of for example day-to-day life in the Swedish trading town of Birka.
The Arab sources about the Vikings are typically travelogues, such as:
- Ibn Fadlan – An Arab envoy who encountered the Vikings in the 10th century by the River Volga. His account of this meeting contains descriptions of Viking ceremonies and rituals associated with the burial of chieftains, including the sacrifice of slaves. Included is also a comment on Viking hygiene: “They are the filthiest of Allah’s creatures”.
- Ibn Rustah – A Spanish Arab who visited Hedeby in the 10th century had a different experience. In his account he describes the Vikings as well-dressed and clean. The contradicting remarks about hygiene can of course in part be a result of circumstances, however may also be a good reminder of the subjectivity of the authors.
4. Later (Scandinavian) chronicles
Both histories of Denmark show the influence of being modelled on foreign accounts, notably Adam of Bremen’s work on the history of the German archbishops, but Saxo’s Chronicle also has a rich gallery of characters based on the orally handed down sagas, skaldic epics and heroic poems. Examples include:
- Chronicon Roskildense (the Roskilde Chronicle) – from around 1138–1140 The author of the Roskilde Chronicle is unknown, because the usual practice for ecclesiastical scribes was to remain anonymous, but the author was probably a local cleric. The centre of interest of the Chronicle is the city’s cathedral.
- Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) – written by Saxo Grammaticus c1200 and commissioned by Archbishop Absalon. It was compiled two centuries (or more) after the events describes and clearly colored by political views of the time of writing – which diminishes its value as a primary historical source of the Viking Age. Nonetheless, it does contain fragments of historical value.
5. Later Norse sagas and skaldic epics
Most of the surviving Norse sagas from the middle ages were written in Iceland. They often take the form of “a good story” about heroic deeds of Norse jarls and kings. So while questionably as histories (and quite often contradicting other sources), then the sagas contain a great deal of information about Viking society.
- Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (“the World Cycle”) – this epic saga was written c1230 by the Icelandic skald, Snorri Sturluson. Because of its scale and scope, it is considered one of the greatest sagas written and an important source on the Viking Age – although based on oral traditions, and written in light of some prevailing attitudes towards Norwegians and Danes of the time.
- Snorri Sturluson’s Saga of Olav Trygvason – besides “historic” events, it also contains information about shipbuilding, what ships looked like, and how boat wharfs and boat building was organized.
- Magnus Erlingssøn’s Saga – contains information about ship provisions, such as the size of water barrels, arrangement of sleeping spaces, clothing for the Atlantic, rules for women on board, and also the size of some of the fleets that attacked England.