(I shall schedule a post about war and violence for 11 o’clock on Armistice Day! Of course! That’ll be, er, something… Anyway. The robot Jonathan Jarrett should cease with this post and real editing resume next.)
We know, of course, that Vikings are always a hot topic. But the latest round of press coverage of Viking scholarship (even the newspapers know that Vikings are a hot topic) is giving me awful dejà vu. If you have a look at this story in The Daily Telegraph, perhaps not exactly Britain’s most forward-thinking go-ahead periodical but as with many others always eager to help so-called scholars make fools of themselves, you will find that we’re back into the fluffy phase of the old raiders-or-traders debate. You know the one? The one where we ignore all the victims’ reports of the violence of the Vikings’ attacks and say how really they were just traders out for a quick buck who didn’t mind knocking over the odd church when there was nothing more remunerative to do. This time we’re not saying how the Vikings weren’t really that numerous so the sources must be exaggerating (which was Peter Sawyer’s take), we’re not saying how the stimulus they brought both to the economy and to the few governments that were able to resist them was vital in developing Europe, which has been argued and argued persuasively, and we’re not even saying that a lot of the places that write stories about how serious the Viking attacks were are trying to explain why they need a lot more land, honest, or where they got the lands of some other less fortunate house from; there’s actually a lot of mileage in that one but it’s not what’s being said here. Instead we’re stressing that the Vikings weren’t really barbaric, because they took care of their hair and liked to dress sharp (or indeed baggy).
“Academics claim… ” is never a good sign, is it? Well, Telegraph, and regrettably Cambridge’s Department of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic, who appear to be behind this latest whitewash in an attempt, among other purposes, to placate the feelings of “British children” who “are quite likely to have Viking ancestry”, I have some small history with correcting myths about the Vikings on the Internet, so let’s make it clear that some ‘academics’ don’t claim this at all. Of course the spin is the Telegraph‘s, who have cherry-picked the bits most likely to contradict what people were told at school. And they include bits that I would never seek to disagree with, like:
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.
I know this, OK? Obviously there were farmers back in Scandinavia. They had runes, and could leave us quite complicated messages in them, so no-one should be calling them illiterate. Is anyone? (Although, of course, what is not known is how generally those runes could be read, but as exactly the same dispute is to be had over the Christian West and Latin in the same period, fuelled indeed by the writings of King Alfred, one of its greater literary children, I think we can call that a draw.) And the kick that Viking styles of art gave the West is widely known and again, not to be denied. Here I go not denying it:
Right, now my turn. We can also not deny:
- that as a result of Viking attacks, for all that they exploited internal dissensions, the kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and substantial parts of Scotland all fell to Norse or Danish overlordship, and that the last single ruler of the whole Carolingian Empire, Charles the Fat, was forced to abdicate at least in part because of his inability to deal with what his contemporaries perceived as a Viking menace;
- that Viking armies large enough to defeat the best that the kings of the time could raise, on a good day, were in practically continuous operation on both sides of the English Channel for most of the late ninth century, and over-wintered in Britain and France, where indeed few better than my Department know that they did produce some very lovely metal-work and artefacts at their warcamp before returning to the warpath in Spring;
- that many Danes, Norse and Swedes made their way East to work as bodyguards for the Byzantine emperors, where they were among the most feared soldiers available to him;
- that Viking colonies established in what is now Ukraine generated a lot of the income they won, yes, as traders and merchants, by mounting repeated slave-raids into the Slav countries to their north and west, from which indeed the modern English word ‘slave’ derives;
- that rather a lot of monasteries and churches, being easy undefended targets with money, did in fact genuinely close down because of repeated attacks by the ‘Northmen’;
- and that the extensive, witty, highly artistic and picturesque Norse literature of later eras delights in stories with ridiculous and if at all possible obscene body-counts and gore ratings, including burning, rape and mutilation.
And you also have to admit, please, that the evidence often used that the Vikings were enthusiastic traders has been of disputed interpretation for sixty years or more—I originally edited here about the relevant paper precisely because I heard about some work coming out of the ASNC team which appeared to have forgotten this. Please, people, remember Philip Grierson. Also, those of you who so love that anecdote about Viking personal grooming, which runs of course:
They were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many frivolous devices. In this matter they laid siege to the virtue of the married woman, and persuaded the daughters even of the nobility to be their concubines
will you please take into account that it is by a twelfth-century writer, and that contemporary sources recording the annual attacks and raids should perhaps be given more weight than this however wonderful a story it is? Or, if you prefer, ask what this says about John of Wallingford (for it is he!) and his sense of appropriate hygiene…
I am not, you understand, saying that all Scandinavians of the ninth and tenth centuries were in fact unwashed unscrupulous warmongering cut-throat psychopaths, any more than the ASNC team are saying, through the stencil the Telegraph has placed over their work, that they were all soft-hearted over-barbered craftsmen with poetic souls and startlingly-cut trousers. But everyone seems to want to tip the emphasis one way or the other. We don’t need to! They were all of these things! Sometimes even in the same person, but there were certainly both farmer-craftsmen and boatloads of hairy warriors around at the same time. We can have both! Although, when we admit the hairy warriors, we should bear in mind that just because you’re looting a Christian sacred place in a hit-and-run raid from the sea, you can still at least do something stylish with your hair, as that slate from Inchmarnock that I mentioned the other day, of which I have now found the picture below, shows….
And really, it’s not only not a matter of not maligning the living or even the dead (I think many Vikings, however nicely they dressed or how clever a piece of knotwork they could carve, would have felt more than a bit miffed to be called “a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life“). Firstly, it reduces the wonderful interest of this culture to neglect either side. To call them boneheaded illiterate berserkers is obviously unfair; but so is it to neglect the fear and awe that their warriors could bring with them. To emphasise their economic and cultural aspects is important, but not at the expense of the political and military impact they had on Europe. And whatever balance one comes to of those sides, they have to have room for both the artwork and the bloodshed, they have to be able to explain both Jelling style and the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, both runestones and Varangians, both sagas and, well, sagas. All the events and phenomena listed above have to continue to be explicable no matter how nuanced you make your Vikings, because if you try and take the ‘viking’ out of the Vikingr, large parts of ninth- and tenth- century history stop making sense…
An example of one man. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which was kind of to the Viking Age what Altamont was to the hippy era, when it all goes wrong and poisonous, not only did Harald Hardrada King of Norway die, but so did his nephew Olaf. He had been in the thick of the fighting, and he was known to the later writers as Olaf the Flashy, because of his taste in personal adornment. I tell you, you can have both. The era that invented and lauds James Bond really shouldn’t need telling that someone can plausibly be all of heroic, well-dressed and pathologically violent…
I’m not going to try and set basic reading for journalists here, but I wonder how many of the readership may have come across the recent articles trying to achieve a balance on the ‘how violent were the Vikings?’ issue, either Jinty Nelson’s summary, “England and the Continent in the ninth century: II, Vikings and Others” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 13 (Cambridge 2003), pp. 1-28; Simon Coupland’s “The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History” in History Vol. 88 (London 2003), pp. 186-203, or most interestingly perhaps, because of doing real exploration of the monastic narratives and the truth behind them, either of Anna Trumnore Jones, “Pitying the Desolation of Such a Place: Rebuilding religious houses and constructing memory in Aquitaine in the wake of the Viking incursions” in Viator Vol. 37 (Berkeley 2006), pp. 85-102 or Hélène Noizet, “Les chanoines de Saint-Martin de Tours et les Vikings” in Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie : colloque de Cérisy-la-Salle (Caen 2005), pp. 53-66. For general reading you could probably just start with Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997) and see where it takes you. Not, I’m guessing, into journalism… I would however also like to mention Fergus Fleming’s The Viking Invader, which is a should-be present for any medievalist in your life, and something of which I for some reason don’t have my own copy. Ahem. Christmas is very soon isn’t it? Anyway.