The Vikings of Hedeby

When talking historical periods, which we are about to do, my heart beats with particular vehemence for Ancient Greece. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the Romans, or have a soft spot for Medieval England (if only to think, often, thank Christ I wasn’t born then). Of course school history successfully embedded an ongoing preoccupation with WW1, WW2, the Cold War, and the Kennedy administration. And Tom Robb Smith books and The Americans nudged me in the direction of Russia in the latter half of the 20th century. But. It always goes back to the Greeks. (Including when it came to naming our daughter.)

That being said, the country I live in has a rich and varied history, and one that is largely excellently preserved – or when not preserved, painstakingly rebuilt. When we lived in Bayern, Germany’s medieval history was around every corner, in every walled town and cobbled street, in every grand cathedral and castle. Münster was full of churches, one with the original, grisly, iron cages in which the bodies of the three leaders of the Münster rebellion, still hanging. Repeated trips to Berlin aren’t enough to take in all of the spots and sites and exhibitions and museums that house the ghastly details of Germany’s dark 20th century and all it brought with it. Nürnberg. Dresden. München. Leipzig. (Shall I just list all of the cities that house so many extraordinary stories?)

Up here in the north, things are a little different. That isn’t to say we don’t have what the rest of the country has; sites related to both WW1 and 2, old castles, towns with pretty little medieval quarters and streets of pre-war architecture. And it isn’t to ignore the maritime history that dates back hundreds and hundreds of years, and courses through the veins of northern German cities like Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck and Kiel. No, all of those elements help make up the unique and proud cultural traditions of Germany’s north. But up here, the history books take a rather cool turn when you flick back to the years between 700 and 1000AD. Because that’s when the Vikings were out and about. And do you know where the second largest viking settlement in the Viking Age was located? A forty minute drive from our front door.

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So, one day last year, we hopped in the car and drove to Hedeby, or Haithabu as the Germans call it, where, on the site of the settlement, one can now find a great little museum and a display village. Wandering throughout the village, dressed in full viking garb (no horned helmets … they weren’t a thing) were either actors or enthusiasts, I am not entirely certain – but they lent an appreciated authenticity to the entire thing.

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The museum was a well laid out, informative insight into a fascinating age, one I know so little about. My goodness those Vikings got around. The piece de resistance was the room with the full-sized viking ship. One whole wall was glass and looked out onto the very water inlet which made Hedeby such an important trading settlement.

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Last year we started watching Vikings. It is bloody and dramatic with inexplicable, terrible accents, but overall a highly watchable show. It ultimately inspired, in our household, a belated fascination with the Viking Age. (For whatever reason, the fact we lived in, essentially, viking land, had never seemed to click.) On a recent episode, as the opening scene panned the frosty environs inhabited by the Vikings, up popped the name of where the episode’s action was taking place: Hedeby.

You can only imagine the excitement.