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Today marks the start of the 28th Jorvik Viking festival: a week of Viking-themed activities (well, Viking-lite, since pillaging and rapine is thankfully excluded by Health and Safety), all focused on the Jorvik Viking Centre. Renowned for its interactive display, this celebrated archaeological museum attracts thousands of tourists to York every year. Though I don’t participate in February, I make my own contribution to Jorvik’s queues, since I accompany some of the third-year students in my class on the world of King Alfred (d.899) there, on what threatens to become a kind of regular pilgrimage.

The appeal is easy to explain. The Viking Centre seems to offer so much more than just texts, archaeological reports and seminar discussion (even really lively seminar discussion). Based on the excavations of tenth-century Coppergate in York, Jorvik (named after the Old Norse name for the city) promises to bring the past alive by offering a ride through a reconstructed street, in which you experience the smells of an unsanitised city, meet animated statues, whose faces, we are assured, are modelled on actual excavated skulls, and chat with Vikings in booths hammering out coins on demand – in short, the real thing, or nearly.

But, while my students think they’re just going for a fun day trip out, I like to ask them a trick question on the train: this is a university, after all. The animatrons in the exhibition all speak to the visitors in impeccable Old Norse (expertly voiced, I should add, by specialists in the field). But how do we know what language the people in tenth-century York spoke? Answer: we don’t know, in fact we can’t know – but we can make a good guess. It would in general not have been Old Norse, it would have been a dialect of English. People certainly travelled in the early Middle Ages, and indeed of the few skeletons from York in this period to have been unearthed, one or two individuals apparently came from Scandinavia. But no one has suggested that all the inhabitants of a town whose population at this time was measured in the thousands or tens of thousands had sailed from some distant fjord.

Does this matter? On one level, of course not. You can hardly begrudge Jorvik one or two artistic licenses, or playing up the Viking connection. ‘Jorvik Viking Centre’ has a ring to it that ‘The centre for the archaeology of tenth-century York’ lacks. The place has to make money, and it does an excellent job of stimulating interest in the ‘Dark Ages’ in visitors both old and young; it also provides CV points and meaningful employment for promising young historians and archaeologists who, fully-clad in leathers, cloths and furs, cheerily hail visitors and usher them towards the till. But Jorvik’s marketing pitch isn’t just that it’s fun, it’s that it’s true. And that bothers me a little.

It’s not just that the Viking aspect is somewhat over-played.  It’s that these claims to authenticity are what underpin the whole set-up. Jorvik is jammed full of beautifully-made reconstructions, ‘bringing History to life’. But isn’t reconstruction just a polite word for ‘fake’? The discussion in my seminars is often abstract, or focused on headache-inducingly impenetrable sources; and we don’t, as a rule, dress up as Vikings. Quite often we conclude that we just don’t know, and that we’re maybe asking the wrong kind of questions. But this discussion, with all its uncertainty and provisionality, brings us closer to a real knowledge of the past than any Viking experience I know. And that even includes the ‘Viking on the toilet’ scratch-and-sniff postcard available in the gift-shop.

Dr Charles West is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield.

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Tags : heritagehistoryJorvik Viking CentrevikingViking Festival
Charles West

The author Charles West

12 Comments

  1. Having grown up in York (and been a proud owner of a Blue Peter badge, which equals FREE ENTRY!), I have visted the Jorvik centre more times than I care to remember.

    Although I agree that its claims at truthfulness are questionable, I think that its true merit is in engaging people who aren’t historians in history. It is a combination of the Jorvik Centre and the fact that I accidentally appeared on Time Team as a five-year-old that led to my fascination with history, and, ultimately, to study history for my degree.

  2. Very jealous of the Blue Peter badge! I absolutely agree with you – Jorvik does a really good job at engaging people, and if that gets more people interested in history, then that’s great. I’m certainly not criticising it: just reflecting on the differences between what ‘history’ means in different settings.

  3. Very interesting points. I found myself having a similar internal debate the other day, when I used several excerpts from the ‘Nicholas and Alexandra’ epic in a lesson about the causes of Russia’s revolutions. It basically boils down to ‘is this history?’, which I’d say it wasn’t. Though I guess if you can answer positively to the question ‘does this give us a way in to the history’ or ‘could this start a discussion about the history?’ Then it probably has its place, used sensitively and followed up with some sort of acknowledgement of the provisionality that’s at the heart of our field. Having said that, used badly, these things can be viewed as something more than stories, interpretations or versions of the past – akin to the single correct narrative so loved by our ‘rigorous’ Education Secretary!

    1. I absolutely agree. What prompted the post was precisely that sense that for some (influential) people, History is really just telling people what things used to be like, with implications for the present chosen according to taste. Wouldn’t be surprised if someone suggests making a ‘national curriculum’ History TV series or film for use in the classroom to make sure the lessons stay on message! But like you, I think the provisionality’s really important: I’ve always thought of history as a discussion about (the sources for) the past, not as just handing down heritage. Ivory tower?

  4. Not at all ivory tower! In fact (I did my PGCE at Sheffield as well as UG degree) the PGCE course tutor was excellent in promoting this sort of discussion.

    I’m not saying for a second I’d ever use the word ‘provisionality’ with a year 9 class(!) but just make it clear that the past is up for debate and argument, and that sources are largely what we can make (or want to make) of them. Leading students into some sort of assessment/acknowledgement of why some historians consider King John to have been such a poor ruler, whilst others might defend him, seems much more interesting to me than learning the story of his life from cradle to grave, passed on didactically by ‘an expert’ (because I read it from a book!). That examples from Y7, so it is admittedly a bit watered down and the sources might be simplified/moderated, but the point probably still just about stands…

    Questions around just why a propaganda poster might have been published, or why a particular piece of film was ever recorded (where was the camera pointed/not pointed?!) can be quite instructive in this regard too.

    1. Given that under the new curriculum, Y9s will be dealing with Locke and Adam Smith, they might have to get used to a lot worse than provisionality! But yes, again I agree.

      What I think makes this interesting is that there’s a legitimate debate about what ‘history’ really is, ie, whether it’s the past itself (=heritage, affirming) or discussion about it (=problem-based, critical): and this debate has been given an edge by heightened concerns about relevance both in schools and in universities, which tends to emphasise the heritage/identity side, because history doesn’t count as science or business, and these are the three categories of relevance at stake…

      But maybe that’s just the complaint of a medieval historian whose field is politically marginal (?), but who’s got some great sources!

  5. Haha, you’re right.

    You certainly wouldn’t want to go to the other extreme – getting on for a postmodern ‘no such thing as history’ sort of argument. Neither should we divorce the content from the subject and end up with a reductionist ‘competencies/skills’ based curriculum that obsesses with the transferable value of the subject, and is unable to tell great stories as great stories sometimes!

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