PARIS -- For centuries after the marauding Vikings retreated to their native Scandinavia, around the year 1060, Roman Catholic congregations in Western Europe would routinely intone the words "A furore Normandorum libera nos, Domine," praying for protection from the wild men of the north.
In modern times, novels, comic books and movies have kept alive the image of the Vikings as giant bearded pagans who attacked unsuspecting towns and cities to the south, ransacking their churches for treasures and carrying off their women as slaves. They were tough, yes, but how uncivilized!
This month, a major exhibition sponsored by the Nordic countries opened in Paris with the goal of changing this image.
"The idea is to demonstrate that the myth of the barbarian is a myth," Jean-Pierre Mohen, one of the show's French organizers, said. "No, they weren't just gentle poets, but they weren't just brutes, either."
"The Vikings," on view at the Grand Palais until July 12, is the largest exhibition ever held on what is now assertively called the Nordic civilization, and it brings together more than 600 wooden, stone, leather, metal, ivory, glass and textile objects covering A.D. 800 to 1200. In addition, a replica of a Viking longship is cruising the River Seine.
The exhibition sets out to detail not only the Vikings' way of life at home, in the fields and as traders, navigators and warriors, but also their cultural influence on other European societies and even occasional integration into them.
Many Frenchmen, for example, have newly discovered that Normandy takes its name from the "men from the north" who settled there in the 10th century, which in turn explains why the famous Bayeux Tapestry shows Norman troops traveling in Viking longships en route to conquer England in 1066.
Giving extra novelty to this exhibition, works have been made available for the first time by museums in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic republics. Together with works on loan from 10 other European countries, they reflect a Viking presence that at different times was felt from Greenland to the Caspian Sea and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean.
Further, by timing the exhibition for 1992, the Nordic countries have naturally not missed the paradox of using the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas to remind the world of growing evidence that the Vikings landed in the New World some 500 years earlier.
But while anxious to repair the reputation of their ancestors, the five Nordic countries also have the future in mind, with Europe's next major step toward unity set for the end of this year, when the 12-nation European Community changes into a single regional market.
Of the five, only Denmark belongs to the community. But Sweden and Finland have applied to join and Norway may soon follow.