After the image went viral of a man dressed in a Viking headdress and face paint at the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, there was a deluge of criticism of the contemporary celebration of medieval imagery. White supremacist groups have lately embraced such imagery, including symbols from the Scandanavian marauders and Christian Crusaders. As The Viking Heart opens, Arthur Herman anticipates these critiques.
“The crucial mistake many make is to insist that the defining legacy of the Viking heart is somehow racial,” Herman writes. “In truth, the Norsemen of the Dark Ages never formed a single race or even one national identity. What defined them was a way of life and an outlook that we can delineate as cultural and spiritual, and they still have relevance and meaning today.”
What follows is a comprehensive history of the different groups that would eventually be known as the Vikings. Herman also includes an outline of Scandinavians’ contemporary contributions to European and American history, from their involvement in the Civil War as Union soldiers to Knute Rockne’s legendary football coaching career. He attributes such contributions not to some set of uniquely Scandinavian genetic traits but to what he calls the “Viking heart”—an unquenchable thirst for improvement married to a strong sense of community-building.
Whether you’re new to Viking scholarship or a well-read medievalist, The Viking Heart has something to offer. While there are some places where Herman could have better amplified the advantages Scandinavians experienced as immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, all in all, The Viking Heart honestly assesses the results of the Vikings’ past actions around the world and makes an evenhanded argument for the importance of Viking culture in U.S. history.
As we wrestle with how to make our world a better, more equal place, The Viking Heart provides a framework for recognizing the importance of the past in shaping our present and future.