Fluffy Vikings follow-up

In the event, I’m afraid I didn’t make it to the Between the Islands conference I advertised here a while back. I could only do one day of the three, couldn’t bargain a discount because of this, and work needed me because so many other people were going; also, Alex Woolf, whom I was hoping to catch up with, had to cancel. But now I wish I had because of the press coverage it got. Yes, you read that right: an academic conference, nay, an academic conference on the Middle Ages got reported in, well, I count four different national dailies and the national TV channel’s website. when did that ever happen before? Here are the links:

Now if you look closely at these, you may notice two things. Firstly, none of them actually got somebody who was at the conference to report. These are all reports on the press release by Dr Maire Ni Mhaonaigh. Secondly, they almost all distort the bejasus out of it. Every single headline is based on the idea I lampooned so readily when it appeared to be coming out of the Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic Department that organised this conference itself, at the end of last year, that the Vikings were fundamentally peaceful traders who contributed a great deal to the lands in which they settled (note: settled, not invaded). As you can read there, I would prefer to retain their violent side as well and don’t see why we can’t, but if you look at the quotes the papers give from the press release, it’s clear that Dr Ni Mhaonaigh wasn’t giving the soft-side case, but trying to achieve a balance. Someone who did go to the conference tells me that the word `raiding’ came up an awful lot, and that generally the tone of the papers was not even so pacificatory as the press release, but it is nonetheless true that the papers have only wanted to report one idea, the forty-year-old one that maybe the Vikings weren’t actually single-minded agents of mayhem. Why is that so titillating to journalists, or why do they think it is to the public?

Well, I was without ideas on this except that observing that my teaching experience suggests that really, nobody doesn’t love Vikings. However, I can now point you at a pretty darn clever consideration of this same question by the one-and-only Magistra et Mater, and suggest you take a look. Though I warn you: she uses words derived from `terror’ and therefore may have her blog shut down by the Man any minute. Go quickly, and then muse upon it for it is interesting.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria with revisions for context.)

8 responses to “Fluffy Vikings follow-up

  1. I just thought I’d add this to the list of things written about the recent conference and initiatives: http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/univ/newsletter/2009/april/university_of_cambridge_newsletter_apr_2009.pdf#page=10.
    Although it too contains the rather hackneyed phrases about Vikings being ‘traders not raiders’, the general gist of the piece seems to be that to properly understand the ‘Vikings’, we must look at them in their ‘Scandinavian’ context too and appreciate that, rather like the Franks (who, as we know, were only one’s friends if they were not one’s neighbours), only a very small portion of society was a part of a highly aggressive military elite.

  2. There’s a big question there about social stratification in Scandinavia that I wonder if we’re really ready to answer, though. What about people who were sometimes part of a part-time fairly aggressive military sub-élite? and so on…

  3. True indeed, but I still suspect that only a portion of society could go on such expeditions. Beyond the need to leave ones land, crops etc. for an extended period of time, going raiding required a ship (okay, that might be provided by the guy in charge, but even then the money had to come from somewhere), which was certainly very dear, and weaponry, which in a country with little iron would also not have been cheap to come by. Certainly the Vikings seem to have been no worse equipped than their Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon opponents, and there seems good reason to believe that it both of these realms only a (perhaps quite small) portion of society had the means necessary to fight. As far as I have understood it, the Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon armies of the period might also be terms a ‘part-time fairly aggressive military sub-élite’. Of course some of the Scandinavian wealth and armour might have come from earlier raids, but I don’t think that fully solves the picture.

  4. No, sure, I think that’s nicely nuanced; it’s the voyage that’s the expense, isn’t it, not the weaponry so much? I’m too used to working on an area where certain historians have been very attached to the idea of a late-surviving peasant militia sort of military.

  5. Well, I must admit that I never quite know how much credit to give the peasant militia and large armies that Bachrach et. al. like to champion. Certainly in defence such call-ups might be possible (though how practicable is a different issue of course!), but I tend to believe that for offensive expeditions Reuter is likely right that a relatively small elite or sub-elite is involved.

  6. I concur. What this means for me with Catalonia, where there do appear to be a stratum (the fabled Hispani) of peasant landholders with military responsibilities to the state, is that actually they must be pretty wealthy, and not perhaps very representative… But because they are there, and apparently independents, and because of the way that when Scandinavians of the period have free hands they establish either powerful monarchies or collective quasi-democracies, I do wonder how many of the social strata got out a-Viking… Related question: how rich does a settler need to be? Can he be a landless exile with his last few cows and the family heirlooms? Or does he have to have backing from elsewhere? I’ve seen a range of answers to these questions but they’re often very heavily ideological!

  7. Well, I would have thought that would depend a lot upon the context of settlement. If I remember Barlett’s case in The Making of Europe correctly, he suggests that large scale colonisation (particularly when into largely unsettled or uncleared regions) tends to involve more peasants, under an elite, whilst more small scale settlement (or replacement of an elite) tends to favour the upper eschelons of society. I certainly would think in the case of the Vikings that a bridge-head would be won by a militant (semi-)elite, but that in cases where land was plentiful and more peasants were needed (or welcome), they would be called for from back home. Of course, this is not to suggest that the warriors themselves need have known nothing of farming… just that the ‘first wave’ into a hostile region was unlikely to involve the poorest, whereas in the case of, say, Iceland, there’s no reason to suggest anything other than peasants coming along for the ride from the start.

  8. We should now add the recent piece in The First Post which manages, marvellously, to lose by Godwin’s Law.

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