Berserkir: a re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life

Dale, Roderick Thomas Duncan (2014) Berserkir: a re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This thesis discusses whether berserkir really went berserk. It proposes revised paradigms for berserkir as they existed in the Viking Age and as depicted in Old Norse literature. It clarifies the Viking Age berserkr as an elite warrior whose practices have a function in warfare and ritual life rather than as an example of aberrant behaviour, and considers how usage of PDE ‘berserk’ may affect the framing of research questions about berserkir through analysis of depictions in modern popular culture. The analysis shows how berserksgangr has received greater attention than it warrants with the emphasis being on how berserkir went berserk. A critical review of Old Norse literature shows that berserkir do not go berserk, and suggests that berserksgangr was a calculated form of posturing and a ritual activity designed to bolster the courage of the berserkr.

It shows how the medieval concept of berserkir was more nuanced and less negative than is usually believed, as demonstrated by the contemporaneous existence in narratives of berserkir as king’s men, hall challengers, hólmg†ngumenn, Viking raiders and Christian champions, and by the presence of men with the byname berserkr in fourteenth-century documents. Old Norse literature is related to pre-Viking Age evidence to show that warriors wearing wolfskins existed and can be related to berserkir, thus making it possible to produce models for Viking Age and medieval concepts of berserkir.

The modern view of berserkir is analysed and shows that frenzy is the dominant attribute, despite going berserk not being a useful attribute in Viking Age warfare which relied upon men holding a line steady rather than charging individually.

The thesis concludes that ON berserkr may be best translated as PDE ‘champion’, while PDE ‘berserker’ describes the type of uncontrollable warrior most commonly envisaged when discussing berserkir.

Most illustrations have been removed from the digital version of this thesis for copyright reasons. The references in the captions guide the reader to the original source for those illustrations.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Jesch, J.
Keywords: Vikings, beserkir, Viking Age warfare
Subjects: D History - General and Old World > DL Northern Europe. Scandinavia
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 28819
Depositing User: Hatton, Mrs Kirsty
Date Deposited: 12 May 2015 07:26
Last Modified: 06 Sep 2016 09:58

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