British Sarcasm – Part Of The Norsemen’s Legacy In Viking Age Britain?

Mr Claus Grube, the Danish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, claims that the sarcastic, self-deprecating, and understatement types of humour that popular in Britain might trace their roots back to the Viking Age, highlighting thus a common cultural heritage between the British and the Scandinavians. According to him, it was ultimately the Norsemen that brought sarcastic humour to Britain during the Viking period.

Wooden sculpture of a Viking in the UNESCO Nærøyfjord, Aurland municipality, Sogn og Fjordane county, western Norway.

Wooden sculpture of a Viking in the UNESCO Nærøyfjord, Aurland municipality, Sogn og Fjordane county, western Norway. Image source:

So it seems that the Norsemen brought other things (except for the already commonly stereotypical phrase ‘rape and pillage’) to Britain during the early Middle Ages, namely sarcasm. This quintessentially British sense of humour seems to be shared by the Scandinavians as well, which might actually explain the tremendous popularity of Monty Python in Scandinavia. This can also be strengthened by the striking similarities of some of their sketches with the Nordic humour, typical for Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or Iceland.

Historically speaking, the cultural links between the British and the Norsemen date back to at least the end of the 8th century, when the Scandinavians commenced to raid the coastal areas of the early medieval kingdoms of Northumbria and Wessex.

Artistic depiction of a Norse longship from ‘Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Danish painter Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Mr Claus Grube reinforces the fact that sarcasm and self-deprecating humour are part of the inalienable shared cultural heritage between Britain and Scandinavia. The Danish Ambassador to the United Kingdom also claims that there are comic traces and episodes in the Icelandic sagas as well, such as in the ‘Orkneyinga Saga‘, where an earl is depicted going out in disguise as a fisherman in the purpose of helping a farmer.

Some passages from the Icelandic sagas are renowned for their ‘laconic humour, detail examples of comedy in the face of adversity, and also contain the roots of some Danish and English words showing more similarities in how we communicate. Sarcasm is very much inherent in British humour,’ Mr. Claus Grube stated in an interview to the Telegraph. He then cited the ‘extreme popularity’ of Monty Python in Denmark, and added ‘It has always struck me that in the UK we have the same sense of humour as in Denmark’.

In the end, it is clear that the Vikings weren’t always for the bounty, but rather for trade. As a matter of fact, recent studies prove the fact that they were firstly trading, then going to raid. ‘It was not all about raping and pillaging, the Vikings were trading as well,’ Mr Grube stated. ‘You have a more open attitude to the world around you if you are living from trade,’ he added.

In order to highlight the shared British-Scandinavian sense of humour here’s a proper example from a chapter of ‘Orkneyinga saga’ entitled ‘Poetry and fishing’. An earl, dressed in a cowl, is depicted going fishing with a farmer. At some point, the earl reveals his identity as follows:

‘Wittily the woman
mocks my wear
but she laughs overlong,
and may not laugh last.
Early I sailed out,
eagerly, and all fully
furnished for fishing
Who’d figure me for an earl?’

Additionally, John Cleese of Monty Python took part in a 1979 short comedy film made by the Norwegian Broadcasting Company (NRK) to compete in the Montreux Festival Rose D’Or of the same year. You can watch the entire short comedy film below:

Documentation sources and external links:

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3 Responses to British Sarcasm – Part Of The Norsemen’s Legacy In Viking Age Britain?

  1. David Fraser says:

    I can see that actually. Viking to Briton, we’re here to rape pillage and plunder. Briton to Viking, thanks guys, we’ve been looking forward to that. Fancy a cup of tea since you’re here?

  2. Iain Buik says:

    We are pining for the fiords!

  3. Lynn Morrey says:

    I’ll put the kettle on…

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