I mentioned a while back that I’d been reading a volume of essays about the Vikings in Normandy, which was actually the papers from a 2002 conference, edited by Pierre Bauduin as Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie : colloque de Cérisy-la-Salle (Caen 2005). I bought this at Leeds in 2006 and, disgracefully, have only recently got round to actually reading. You might ask what the point of reading up-to-date books several years late is, and a fair point, but I don’t work on Vikings as you can easily tell, and really I was just looking for a mise-au-point on the general scholarship.
Actually it’s pretty good for that. The conference’s original purpose, as Bauduin tells it in his introduction, was to wrestle with the surprising absence of Viking archaeology and the difficult textual evidence from the area by adopting a wide comparative perspective. What came out of this was not just that Normandy, where we know many Scandinavians settled but where the language and culture was hardly affected at a material level, is unusual, but that really there is no `usual’ Viking experience. The Danelaw soaks up a reasonable (but uncertain) number of settlers who seriously bend the language, material culture and political landscape, but who are ultimately swallowed into England, the two cultures blending more or less fully. Ireland has several centuries of Viking settlement but it’s kept on the fringes in trading towns that Ireland otherwise pretty much doesn’t have, and it’s only when the kings decide they need some and swallow them that this stops. The Western Isles, Orkney and so on become Norse political outcrops. Iceland on the other hand, while strongly linked to Norway, is independent. In Frisia there are several attempts to found a state like Normandy but none of them take. In Normandy a self-consciously Scandinavian state is formed: but its material culture and language is almost entirely Frankish/Old French. And so on.
Because a lot of the people contributing came from all over—James Graham-Campbell gives an excellent short survey of the archaeology of the British Isles in contrast to Normandy, Stéphane Lebecq covers Frisia (as almost no-one else can), Lesley Abrams does the Danelaw, Olivier Viron does Ireland—there is a lot of background. So for example if you wanted to know what the Vikings did do in Frisia, actually this will tell you quite neatly, and similarly with the others. Only in Normandy, the papers covering which are a bit less than half the volume, is a certain amount of knowledge assumed but really there’s such a surprising lack of material for early Normandy that you pick most of it up anyway.
The papers I found most interesting were Niels Lund‘s, talking about why Scandinavian warlords got baptised by Western monarchs and what that meant, his conclusions being that they did it when they’d lost, and that while they mostly accepted the religion they don’t seem to have thought it to impose a political obligation; and Régine Le Jan‘s, as her “Le royaume franc vers 900 : un pouvoir en mutation?” starts several hares about the supposed disintegration of Frankish royal rule and really offers good grounds for starting whatever we call that transformation of circa 1000 a few years early in some respects. That paper and Bauduin’s own, which is all about how the incoming Scandinavians, especially good old Rollo the Ganger, fitted themselves into the existing competitions for power or, sometimes, remained aloof from them, are most of what fuelled the Charles the Simple post of a few days ago. So there’s loads of interesting stuff here, if you can read French at least, and it’s nice to come to the end of a volume of conference papers and actually feel quite well read about something, rather than hideously under-educated.
This however did leave me wondering: why do people work on the Vikings? All the results one can expect are so small, inches of progress by dozens of scholars slowly pushing our ignorance back. I realise they’re fascinating but, other than digging up seemingly endless hoards of metalwork, which are problematic to interpret in themselves, there’s nothing one person can do to radically change the way we think about these things, not now Peter Sawyer already exists. I wouldn’t choose this field if I were hoping to make a mark. But maybe if you can fairly sure of doing something, and there is a lot of small inching to be done, that’s good enough.
Edit: m’learned colleague Ms Chester-Kadwell points out to me that actually archaeologists can hope to do quite a lot, because actual identified Scandinavian sites in other countries are still woefully under-represented in the record compared to contextless metalwork finds. So if, for example, you can excavate a big burial in an area where they’re hardly known, actually you will be cited for a long time…