But Cambridge University has launched a campaign to recast them as “new men” with an interest in grooming, fashion and poetry.
Academics claim that the old stereotype is damaging, and want teenagers to be more appreciative of the Vikings’ social and cultural impact on Britain.
They say that the Norse explorers, far from being obsessed with fighting and drinking, were a largely-peaceful race who were even criticised for being too hygienic.
The university’s department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic has published a guide revealing how much of the Vikings’ history has been misrepresented.
They did not, in fact, wear horned or winged helmets. And they appear to have been a vain race who were concerned about their appearance.
“It seems that the Vikings may not have been as hairy and dirty as is commonly imagined,” the guide says.
“A medieval chronicler, John of Wallingford, talking about the eleventh century, complained that the Danes were too clean – they combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday, and changed their clothes regularly.”
The guide reveals that Norsemen were also stylish trend-setters: “Contemporaries who met individual Vikings were struck by the extreme bagginess of their trousers.
“A tenth-century Persian explorer described trousers (of Vikings in Russia) that were made of one hundred cubits of material, and a number of runestones depict warriors with flared breeches.”
The traditional view of the Vikings as “illiterate warring thugs” exaggerates considerably the reality of their life, the academics argue.
“Although Norse men and women may have sometimes liked fighting and drinking, and were sometimes buried with weapons, they also spent much of their time in peaceful activities such as farming, building, writing and illustrating.”
The guide points out that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary list of notable events beginning in the ninth century and running through to the twelfth, records some battles, but not for every year.
“Life can’t have been as violent as we sometimes like to imagine,” it adds.
Dr Elizabeth Rowe, a Viking expert and lecturer in Scandinavian mediaeval history at the university, said it was important that children should not picture the Norse warriors as an aggressive race, preoccupied with raping and looting.
“Many British children are quite likely to have Viking ancestry and we want to make them think about the reality of their past,” she said.
“It’s damaging to think that they were simply a violent society, and easy to undermine them as a people who have no redeeming qualities.
“The truth is that their culture was very artistic and they were keen to make an impression because they want to cultivate a certain look. They were very concerned about their appearance.”
The first burial ground of Viking origin in Britain was located only four years ago. Discoveries at the site have challenged the romanticised picture of a noble savage race, perpetuated most famously in Wagner’s operas and Hollywood films.
Archaeologists in Cumbria unearthed the remains of Viking men and women buried with copper brooches, jewellery, and riding gear as well as swords and spears.
Dr Francis Pryor, an archaeologist and regular on the Channel Four series Time Team, said the discovery had shown the Norse warriors to be part of an advanced society.
He said: “Far from the illiterate warring thugs in horned helmets who brought us to new depths of barbarism after landing by boat to sack monasteries and molest women, they were a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life and joined the property-owning classes.”