Saturday, July 4, 2015

From Whence Came Our Grendels: The Northern Germanic Link Between Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki

Hello again, History Fans! I bet you didn't expect to see us back up and at it so soon. Well, the joke is on you, haters! We've got a whopper today that I am sure will keep our only three (reluctant) readers absolutely floored:


Classic Pun

But we aren't just looking at the text; we are making CONNECTIONS!

Back in 2010, while on tour, we made a trek to the Grand Canyon. On the way, I read The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse Byock. I read it in the backseat of the hot, stuffy Fart Van, which was named not just for the sticker on the back that said, "FART," but rather for its delightful habit of trapping the worst stenches that seemed to originate from the bowels of hell. Really it was our bowels.

Anyway. It was a quick read, stinky but real nice. In Byock's introduction, he discusses the close relationship between the story of Hrolf Kraki and Beowulf (Byock 1999). I stored that nugget away for a future comparative study, which has finally manifested into a blog post five years later. You might say we are on top of things.

Here's what makes this study so interesting: Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon text, one of the earliest manuscripts of its kind. The experts date its composition to as early as 700, while it was written down around 300 years later, not unlike our Icelandic sagas of the Viking Age. However, Beowulf takes place IN SCANDINAVIA. Remember: During the age of migration, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes picked up from Northern Germany and settled into England. This is an easy historical fact for some folks to pass over. But when you pick out these places on a map, you will see how closely related these folks were to the Scandinavian population. The Jutes, for instance, often overlooked in the English emigration (Saxons and Angles get place names in the British Isles, while the Jutes remain aloof) come from Jutland, the main peninsula of the modern Danish kingdom. So it is entirely possible that the Jutes, themselves basically Danish, took the story of Beowulf with them across the sea to England where it was written down in a magnificent poem.

Not only that, but Shakespeare himself took his classic story of Hamlet from the incestuous and kooky story of Helgi and Yrsa from The Saga of Hrolf Kraki. What a world!

Beowulf, like many of our Icelandic sagas, contain historical information that is mixed in with fantastic folklore, myth, and simply ficticious elements. Gregory of Tours confirms that there was a king Hyglac who led a raid into Friesland in the 6th century (Kacani 2015). Hrolf Kraki's royal center of Hleidigard is thought to be near modern day Lejre in Denmark (Heaney 2001). The court that Grendel haunts in Beowulf, the magnificent Heorot, could also be placed at this site. Interestingly, there seemed to be a royal or important hall at Lejre during the Viking Age but nothing that predates 660 which is the time period when both stories took place. There was certainly an important center in Denmark that the authors knew about, and the royal line of the Skjoldungs also seems legit. Beowulf predates the other sources by a good couple hundred years. Because the setting is in Scandinavia, that means our earliest information of pre-Viking Age Scandinavia comes from an Old English poem. Weird, huh?

The legendary Heorot from Beowulf

Before we dive into a comparison, I have to get you up to speed on some abbreves. For the Old English/Beowulf references, we'll be using OE (Old English), while the Scandinavian/Icelandic/ Saga of Hrolf Kraki will be referred to as ON (Old Norse).

The main element that links these two accounts is the names associated with them. Both texts deal directly with the legendary line of kings from Denmark, the Skjoldungs (ON)/ Scyldinga (OE), known today as the Shieldings family. This is a famous story in the ON traditions. In fact, Hrolf Kraki himself is mentioned not only by Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda but is also discussed at length by Saxo Grammaticus in his lengthy Gesta Danorum, or The History of the Danes (Davidson 1979). Saxo's account adds to the confusion in that it was written in Latin and many of the names find themselves oddly translated. More than that, though--it gives us further evidence that these people and these stories, if not totally true, were widely known and popular.

Saxo looking absolutely sinister

Both Beowulf and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki introduce a hero from Gautland, probably Gotland in modern day Sweden, who travels to Denmark to assist a king who is being plagued by a monster.  Hrolf Kraki's tale is much more involved, with many other scenes. Yet it is not nearly as eloquently described as the beautiful Beowulf. Hrolf Kraki's story is echoed again by Snorri, Saxo, and is backed by the anonymous Icelandic poem Bjarkarimnar and The Saga of the Skjoldungs, neither of which we here at History Books could get our hands on.

The ON traditions tell an overall story yet vary in many different ways. We discussed in the last post about how Icelandic sagas were based on a known structure, but depending on the oral performer (gross) and the scribe who wrote it down, the story could be very different by the time it reached its IMMANENT FORM.

Jesse Byock sets out a nice little table of the common names in his book, Viking Language (2013). We will attempt to recreate it so that you can get an idea of the characters that appear in the different ON traditions, the OE Beowulf, as well as Saxo's Latin tittering.

Hrolfs SagaSkoldunga SagaGesta DanorumBeowulf
Bodvarr BjarkiBodvarusBiarcoBeowulf
Hrolf KrakiRolfo KrakeRoluo KrakeHrodulf
SkjoldrSkioldusSkioldusScyld Scefing

As you can see, the main players are present in every tradition. Their roles, locations, and relationships, however, change from source to source. Beowulf in particular is the odd man out. While Helga plays a role in the story, it is not nearly as involved as his counterpart Helgi in Hrolf Kraki's story. Beowulf's counterpart, Bodvarr Bjarki, is not the main character in the ON tradition. However, as we learned from Margaret Clunies Ross, the written accounts were accumulations of oral stories (Clunies Ross 2010). Could Bodvarr Bjarki's tale in the saga be related to Beowulf's?

There are a couple of similarities. First, the names can be loosely translated as having to do with bears. Beowulf literally means "bee-wolf" which can be, with some persuasion, a loose translation of bear (Byock 2013). Bjarki is very straightforward and means "little bear." Bodvarr Bjarki has a much stronger connection to the bear theme. His father, Bjorn (bear), married Bear (she-bear) and was cursed by a sorceress to transform into a bear. They had three sons, all of which are weird creatures, including Bodvarr, who, according to the Icelandic poem about him, was born with a bear claw (Byock 1999).

Bodvarr's story follows a very old folktale motif known as "Bear's Son." In this tradition, a man mates with a female bear, or the other way around, to create a hero with bear-like qualities. Often he has to retrieve a family heirloom to fight a creature or rescue someone. Bodvarr Bjarki's father was killed as a bear but not before leaving a sword stuck in a stone that his other creepy brothers couldn't unstick (Byock 1999).

The sad and horrifying truth behind the Bear's son tale

While the closest Beowulf gets to a bear is his name, which is a stretch, and that the poet refers to him as a cub, which is just cute. The monster fight scene, however, links the two not only together, but to a wide northern Germanic tradition. Indeed, J. Michael Stitt believes that this fight scene connects both traditions to an ancient oral tradition that can be traced back to some of the earliest Indo-European myths and folktales (1992). In the OE version, Beowulf first fights the creature Grendel, ripping off his shoulder. Grendel escapes but dies later in his underwater lair (Heaney 2001). King Hrothgar CONVENIENTLY forgets to mention to Beowulf that more than one monster was seen stomping around in the moors until after one of Beowulf's buddies is torn to shreds by Grendel's mother. So Beowulf goes under water to the lair and fights Grendel's mother, killing her with his bare hands.

Bodvarr, in the ON tradition, takes on a troll that threatens the royal hall at Hleidargard. Interestingly, the sword with which he kills the troll is named Golden Hilt while Beowulf's sword is described as having a golden hilt. COOL, HUH?! Bodvarr takes care of the troll, which is a very generic term in ON, then has to face another monster who is this time described as a boar (Byock 1999). Like Beowulf's encounters, Bodvarr Bjarki's sword fails to penetrate the monster and he is therefore left to fight it with his bare hands. He, too, rips off a part of the boar.

To add proof that these stories all had roots in an ancient tradition, Stitt offers an eerily similar scene in Grettir's Saga (1992). In this ON version, Grettir fought a troll woman and sliced off her arm at the shoulder. She then escaped to a deep chasm below a waterfall. Grettir follows her to the lair only to find a different giant there who he then kills. Two monsters, a severed arm, and a descent into an under/otherworldly cavern. Stitt traces these elements back to very early Indian traditions, both what he deems the "Two - Troll" tradition and the "Dragon Slayer" tradition (1992).

Traditional Two-Troll story. AND I MEAN TRADITIONAL!

The consensus is that both Beowulf, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, and Grettirs Saga all could have originated from these Indo-European tradition that then branched out and changed elements to fit the culture in which they were written (Stitt 1992). For instance, the early Indian versions have a distinct water motif that is represented by a monster cutting off a population from its water source. This motif makes sense when transplanted into the dry climate of India where water is such a necessary resource. It appears to get confused in the later OE and ON traditions that insead show characters like Beowulf and Grettir plunging into bodies of water in order to reach their adversaries (Stitt 1992). Perhaps because of the abundance of water in Northern Germany, the water motif was tweaked but not altogether dropped.

Does that mean that all these stories derive from one common oral genesis? Some scholars have their doubts. The removal of a limb appears to have come from an Irish folk tale tradition known as "The Hand and the Child (Stitt 1992)." In this tradition, a monster or villain reaches its arm through a window or doorway into a hall and it is severed by the hero. Both Grendel and Grettir's troll woman suffers this unfortunate fate. Does that mean that story of Beowulf, which appears to have been transplanted from a Northern Germanic tradition into an Anglo-Saxon masterpiece, was mixed with a traditional Irish folktale motif? Jan de Vries argues that "the Hand and the Child" is Celtic in nature anyway and would predate the Celtic migration to the British Isles (Stitt 1992). This would not only date these traditions to WAY VERY OLD but also could explain how both the Anglo-Saxon and Northern Germanic could be so similar and yet have some gaping holes and very noticeable differences.

So what about the bear connection? It would appear that "The Bear's Son" is simply another motif, much like "Two-Trolls" or "the Hand and the Child." These are common stories, common scenes that are used in hundreds of different stories over the centuries. That shouldn't discredit any of the works themselves. Both Beowulf and The Saga of Hrolf Kraki are masterpieces in their own rights. This connection, to me, makes them all the more fascinating. How did these motifs spread? What caused the differences in the texts? What cultural clues can we pick out to help us understand both the stories in their contexts but also where they came from? These are the exciting questions that must be probed. We aren't sure if they are totally interrelated, but in Stitt's words, "it seems clear that the Beowulf poet and the saga redactors after him created specific versions of a widely known tradition (1992)."

Once again, History Fans, we are left in a quagmire of doubts and assumptions. But that doesn't stop us! We press on and gather more and more information. It's not the answers that keep our engines running, it's. . .I couldn't think of a very good metaphor. Until next time, History Fans. Keep looking for those connections!

Byock, J. (2005) translated, Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. London: Penguin Books
Byock, J. (1999). translated The Saga of Hrolf Kraki. London: Penguin Books
Byock, J. (2013). Viking Language. Clibri: Jules Williams Press
Clunies Ross, M. (2010). The Cambridge Intorduction to The Old Norse-Icelandic Saga.Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press

Davidson, H. and Fisher, P. (1979) translated, Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the Danes, Book I-IX. BOYE6

Kacani, R. (2015). "Ragnar Lothbrook and the Semi-Legendary History of Denmark" senior thesis (online). Available from

Heaney, S. (2001). translated Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton Stitt, J. (1992) Beowulf and the Bear's Son : Epic, Saga, and Fairytale in Northern Germanic Tradition. New York: Garland Publishing

Um, disregard this weird blank chart that I can't get rid of.


Monday, June 29, 2015

The Icelandic Saga: Margaret Clunies Ross and the Impossbile Study of the Saga

Welcome back, History Fans! We hope this summer is giving you plenty of opportunity to explore history, especially since here in the United States it is unfolding before our eyes! With the downfall of the ol' Stars n' Bars and the federal approval for everyone to be miserably married, there is plenty of issues to discuss. We here at History Books, however, have decided to discuss the history of the Icelandic saga. Relevant, right?!

For today's discussion, we will be pulling from Margaret Clunies Ross's brilliant and helpful The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga. I know what you're thinking: god, could this be any more boring?! The answer is, yes, it could. But we'll save that for next week when we tackle Beowulf.

Charlize Theron - eat your heart out

Part of the reason we are talking about this subject is because of an idea that I had while reading some of the sagas. Harald Fine-hair is painted in the certain sagas as a tyrant. While he was certainly a formidable opponent, the sagas seem to exaggerate his brutality. Why? I posited that maybe the saga authors, feeling bummed out after they lost their independence to Norway in the mid-13th century, wrote in anger, or were romanticizing their past. In order to figure out if this were true or not, I thought it best to dive back into Maggie's book and look into how the sagas were created.

Aside from being a remarkably unique genre of literature, the sagas give us a window into everyday life during the Viking Age. Some sagas describe actual historical events. Yet we have to approach them with trepidation. As well shall see, these stories were never meant to be reliable, historical fact. They instead grew from a tradition of entertainment. That is not to say that it's all made up! On the contrary, many names, places, and events can be verified. Yet there is also an element of supernatural, of folklore, and of fiction mixed in. Clunies Ross describes the sagas as occupying, "a grey area between fact and fiction, springing in variable parts from known events, but also shaped by the creative imagination of its composers." As an invaluable link to the Viking Age, it is incredibly important to understand where the sagas came from and how we should read them today.


Seriously, though: The sagas that exist today are written compilations that originated out of an oral tradition. People told stories for entertainment. What is interesting about the Norse-Icelandic oral saga, which more than likely originated from a Northern Germanic tradition, is that the oral storytellers would have only told portions of an overall story.

Listen: the medieval audience would have been totally aware of the story being told- they were based on common knowledge. So the performers could tell a part of the overall story, adding and subtracting elements of the narrative where appropriate. Can you see how this would take shape? The over all story, which Carol Clover dubbed, "the immanent whole," would have existed in the minds of the medieval audience, in the collective memories. They knew the stories. The performer's job was to tell it in a new and interesting way. Professor Harl compared it to free jazz: there is a basic underlying structure yet it is up to the performer to lay his or her creative interpretation on top of that structure. The immanent whole existed in potential form but was rarely, if ever, performed in totality.

Two traditional Icelandic bards working out the kinks in their sagas

The performers would tailor a story to their audience. As a musician, I can totally get behind this. As a band, we would tailor our performances according to who our audience was. For instance, if it was a younger crowd with a lot of energy, the set tended to be more upbeat. If it was a laid back older crowd, the set might take a more mellow turn. And even the immanent whole seems to fit this analogy! As a band, there are certain songs that contained inside jokes or certain appeal to a specific audience. Our set list would look different playing in front of strangers as opposed to playing in front of our friends and family. They understood the back story of the jokes and songs. We could potentially cover a song, or make a reference to an In the Face of War lyric that would be appreciated, whereas far from home we'd get a roomful of crickets (the latter was typical of our sets). That is because in our community there existed an IMMANENT WHOLE in our collective cultural memory of certain stories, jokes, references, etc. No "long form prose" exists in any other oral society, meaning that the immanent whole was never told in full until written down.

The conversion to Christianity around the year 1000 brought to Scandinavia and Iceland the resources and the training for literacy and for writing. Previously, the Scandinavians had relied on a runic alphabet to show ownership, for memorial stones, or to give certain objects magical properties. These runes were not used for record keeping or any kind of literature. Christianity not only brought the resources to write but also the Latin alphabet and the possibility of wide-spreading literacy. The oral sagas began to take literary shape in the late 12th century and what is unique is that the were written in the Icelandic vernacular and not the traditional Latin that was popular throughout Christendom.

Even if they could read, nobody can make sense of this shit!

The saga-writing phenomenon that came out of Iceland is attributed to a number influences. The saga genre is completely unique and seems to come from the Icelandic-Norse indigenous tradition but also influenced by the new Christian culture and technology. Historical writing and court romance had begun to flourish in Europe, both in Latin and in the local vernacular, in the 12th-14th centuries. Iceland seems to have responded to the surge with its own creative take on memorizing its present and past. There were a couple theories early on in saga scholarship as to how the written saga then developed. One group of people, known as bookprosists, were convinced that the early saga writers had other, now long lost or forgotten texts that they used as sources. Both narratives and poetry were used by the authors in shaping their sagas. Another group, known as freeprosists, assumed that the stories developed out of a lower-class folk art. Neither of these theories satisfactorily describe how the sagas took shape. And, as Margaret Clunies Ross explains, this uncertainty will come define this area of study.

Very few sagas have authors--another missing step in an already unsteady staircase. One of the reasons for lack of authorship is in the nature of the written saga itself. Saga writing was considered compiled and not creative at all. The noble art of the Viking Age and after was, of course, poetry. Numerous styles of poetry is mentioned in a number of sources. Poets found steady work in the royal courts throughout Scandinavia and in the Northern Atlantic kingdoms. As we have already seen, the immanent whole existed only in potential form. The authors of the sagas were simply collecting these already known and recited stories and copying them down in full. The authors themselves probably thought they weren't doing anything all that important!

But there was a huge flaw in the plan. Remember earlier when we said that oral performers relied on variability? That, depending on the performer, the audience, and number of other variables, the known story could take an infinite number of different shapes. These variations can explain why similar scenes pop up in totally different sagas, and why different versions of the same saga differ noticeably. If immanent forms were variously written down by various authors with varying agendas, based on one or more of the various oral versions, no wonder there is not always agreement within narratives! This has caused all kinds of problems in trying to verify which version of the story is truest to its original form and also why it is difficult to trust any of the sagas as a true source.

Placing the sagas in a chronology has been difficult to say the least. Look at what we have to work with! Very few of the manuscripts have survived over the years. So we have a saga whose originally writing can be dated to the 14th century, the poetry it cites can be dated to 12th century, while the surviving manuscript is dated to the 16th century. How do we make heads or tails of this?!

The rare yet popular Saga of the Vomiting Fish

One theory sort of mirrored my original question - were the Icelanders writing out of some fervent nostalgia, spurred on by the events of the Sturlung Age? For those of you unfamiliar with Icelandic history, the Sturlung Age represents the tumultuous 13th century when a number of powerful families, including the Sturlung family, battled for power in Iceland, using what basically amounted to their own private armies. This struggle culminated with losing their independence and being enveloped into a sort of commonwealth that answered to the Norwegian crown. So the theory is that this rocky internal power struggle was the catalyst for a sort of literary explosion. Along with this romantic notion of violence giving birth to a new and exiting literary tradition, was, that because of its nature, the early sagas were more classical and purer to the original form, while the later sagas, especially the contemporary sagas written during the Sturlung Age, as well as the later translated court romances, were considered post-classical and therefore less important and artistically inferior.

This theory is problematic for a number of reasons. The first being that scholars have concluded that the Sturlung Age does not seem to be that radically different from any other time period in Iceland's history. Also, over the years, the later contemporary sags have come to be respected alongside the early sagas of the Icelanders. Another reason is that dating the classical and post-classical is nearly impossible. The theory would have the later court romances as written well after the 13th century. Yet we have some written evidence from one of the sagas of a Latin court romance being performed for King Hakon Hakonarson in the 1220s, a good 40 years prior to the loss of independence in Iceland.

It is easy to romanticize the sagas and theorize that, yes, that tumultuous time in Iceland was the cause of the literary fervor. But there is honestly no way to verify this as true. In fact it so difficult to verify anything because of all the missing pieces that Margaret Clunies Ross begs us not to throw our hands up in frustration and walk away.

One exciting and yet totally inconclusive case study mentions Oddr Snorrason was a monk who is attributed to having written two sagas: one version of the Saga of Tryggvason (of which there are many) and of Yngvars saga, which describes the travels of a man called Yngvarr east into Russia from Sweden. A man called "Oddr the Wise monk" from the Thingeyrar monastery is mentioned in a number of accounts of the life of Olaf Tryggvason. The Landnamabok suggests that these two Oddrs are one in the same, a sentiment echoed by Dietrich Hofmann in 1981. A 15th century manuscript of Yngvars saga ends with a statement that Oddr the Wise sent this version of events to be checked by Jon Loptsson, who died 1197, and to Gizurr Hallson, who died in 1206. This means that the original version would have presumably be written before Gizurr died and can there for be dated to very late 12th century/early 13th century. Yet the two manuscripts that we have now, attributed to Oddr are EXTREMELY different. Indeed, Oddr's version of Yngvar's saga contains some very exotic elements that would, in theory, make the story much younger than its counterparts. However, there are at least 26 runestones throughout Sweden marking the graves of people who went east and died with Yngvarr (Invgarr).

One of the many runestones commemorating Ingvarr's failure

How then do we date the sagas, when they describe events from the Viking Age, were written down 200-300 years afterwards, but only survive on manuscripts from the high Middle Ages?!

We keep plugging away, looking at both internal and external evidence. We may never be quite sure if both Oddrs were the same, or which of his sagas were written first, nor who influenced it over the centuries as they copied it down. What does seem apparent is that this marvelous form of entertainment evolved from an oral tradition to an unparalleled written genre. It appears, too, that the different types of sagas were developed side by side instead of the previously discussed "classical to post-classical" categorizing.

And although we cannot use the sagas as an historical source, we can use them, much like Oddr's Yngvars saga, to confirm other sources, like the Swedish runestones. It is a treacherous and slippery path, to walk between the lines of fact and fiction, fishing for motifs, narrative patterns, and character types, doing comparative studies both internally in written records and externally in oral societal norms. But somebody's gotta do it!

I hope this was every bit as exciting for the two of you who feel sorry for me and read this far. Because we love it!

Keep digging, History fans. The truth is out there!

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Carolingian Catastrophe: The Failure of Charlemagne's Line Against the Vikings

Hello again, History Fans!
I have been revisiting the wonderful lecture series by Professer Harl. This is what ignited my passion in this subject, and I would urge anyone interested to give these lectures a shot!

Harl does an amazing job of summing up the utter failures of the Carolingian Empire against the Viking attacks, and we are going to poorly sum up his summation here for you. THIS WILL BE SUM BLOG POST, HUH?!

Let's start with Charlemagne. The first attacks began under Charlemagne's reign, including classic Viking sackings of monasteries. Then, a Danish sea king Godfried shows up just outside Frisia, and demands payment. If this isn't embarrassing enough, Godfried is threatening the immensely important commercial center of Dorestad. Ol' Chucky couldn't stand for this, so he marches towards the border with some troops and fortifies the area. This kinda works. Godfried is murdered by his own men, and the fortifications, though not fail proof, include an early warning system of beacons and barricades around the important ports. Charles thinks the threat is neutralized so he returns to his palace and dies.

So he's dead.

The importance of Dorestad

Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's son and LAST CHOICE for an heir, continues this mild success in the early parts of his reign. But he can't stop all of the attacks. The Vikings continue to pick off monasteries and coastal towns here and there but without much real importance. Then, things pick up in the 830s. Part of the reason for this is because Louis's sons are fighting between themselves over the empire. Nobody wants Lothar to rule the whole thing, so they want to split it up. The Vikings, those masters of chaos, know this and prey on this weakness.

Louis cannot keep up with the attacks. With his sons fighting, the Viking raids, and his just generally becoming an old grump, the naval defenses deteriorate and no effort is put into keeping the Vikings at bay. Between 834-837, that important town of Dorestad is sacked every year. EVERY YEAR! By the 840s, the town is completely abandoned, due mostly to the relentless attacks but also to the changing course of the river. Louis then comes up with a brilliant idea- what if he hires a Viking to keep the other Vikings away?! So, he gives a fief to a Danish sea king named Harald Klak. This set up sort of works. The attacks stop around that area of Frisia. But Harald is all to happy to give his fellow Vikings a market in which they can sell their stolen goods, give them information on the goings on in the empire, or simply direct them down the coast. This last option seems to have pleased the Vikings because they found their way down the major river systems of the next 20 years and really wreaked some havoc on the old Carolingian Empire.

Louis the Pious died in 840, and by 843, his sons had divided the empire into three separate kingdoms. Poor Charles the Bald inherited the western-most kingdom, which is basically modern France, and in doing so also inherited the brunt of the Viking attacks. Charles the Bald lacked the manpower and resources that his father and grandfather enjoyed, having a significantly smaller realm. In the mid-840s, some truly devestating attacks embarrass the hell out of Charles the Bald. A band of Norwegian Vikings sack the city of Nantes in 843, possibly with the help of the local count! This attack was followed by a similar one the following year. But it was in 845 when Charles received the heaviest blow.

A famous sea king by the name of Ragnar Lothbrok, who has been made popular by the History Channel show, Vikings, sailed up the Seine with the intention of taking Paris. Charles the Bald leads his army out to stop him and for some reason, splits them in half: one to each side of the river. Ragnar and his men capture 111 men and hang them on one side of the river in full of view of the other half of the army. Needless to say Charles gets cold feet watching them bodies swing in the wind and leaves Ragnar's way open. The Vikings don't sack the city, however. Charles pays them 7,000lbs of silver to please just leave him alone.

Hunky Ragnar

This payment of silver set a precedent. All the Vikings had to do now is just pretend that they would attack a city and get paid for it! Charles the Bald spent his reign paying off wave after wave of Vikings, much like Ethelred would do in England almost a century later. Scholars estimate that over 120,000 lbs of silver were paid out between the reign of Charles the Bald and Charles the Simple, who took the throne just before the 10th century.

These payments also had an unintended and world altering consequences. By the 860s and 870s, the Frankish kingdoms were almost completely broke. With all of the money going to Vikings to leave them alone, no money was available for actual defense. Instead the kings began handing out massive plots of lands to nobles who were then responsible for raising their own defenses. THUS BEGAN THE FUCKING FEUDAL SYSTEM! These Viking bullies, who were really just looking for a quick buck and maybe some poetry written for them, altered the European governmental and economical systems in an incredibly huge and indirect way. Seriously, if this doesn't blow your nug, your nug shouldn't still exist.

Peasants put the FUEL in FEUDALISM

In 865 the Carlongians got a break. Viking attacks ceased for about 15 years. One only has to flip through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the years of 864/865 to figure out why. The Vikings either got bored with Charles and the incredibly easy time they had in Western Europe or they heard that England was vastly richer than its counterpart. In any case, the Vikings focused their energy toward England with the arrival of "the Great Army" as the terrified chroniclers called them.

The Vikings returned in 879 with the sacking of Ghent in modern day Belgium. This was incredibly unsettling for the Carolingian kings for a number of reasons. First, it was the first attack in 15 years and was completely unexpected. But more importantly, this was in the center of a very important economic center for the realm. If the Vikings could get that far into the kingdom with no issues, what else could they do?!

In 881, nearly 80 years after the attacks began, Louis III enjoyed something that no other Carolingian king had up to that point: he defeated a band of Vikings! This victory was celebrated in song and poetry as a mighty show of Frankish superiority! Then some Vikings put siege to Paris and everyone remembered how awful the brood of Charlemagne were. in 884/885, a group of Vikings led by a man named Sigurd set up outside of Paris for about 18 months. Now in the light of the recent Viking attacks, the Frankish nobility had agreed to reunite the old Carolingian Empire that the sons of Louis had broken up. It was united under Charles the Fat in 883. So his first challenge is Sigurd and his boys breathing down the neck of Paris and its one protector, Odo. Charles the Fat comes to the rescue AND. . . pays them off in silver. Charles the Fat is quickly deposed of, and in classic Frankish tradition, is tossed into a monastery to live out the rest of his life, thinking about how awful of a ruler he was.

Charles the Fat thinking about his patented "Fat Burger"

In 895, a third wave of Viking attacks show up on the Seine, this time led by a sea king named Hrolf. By this time, however, the empire . . .or are they back to separate kingdoms now? . . anyway, they are out of money. They have been devastated by the continued attacks and pay offs. So the king, Charles the Simple, rolls the dice with a plan that Louis had tried: give the Vikings some land and tell them to fend off their contemporaries. Charles carves out a huge chunk of land and handed it to the Northmen, thus began the duchy of Normandy. This time, the plan worked. Hrolf and his men quickly assimilate into the French culture, keep the beaches Viking free, and his successors become a real pain in the ass for later French monarchs.

Now, this certainly isn't the end of the Viking Age, nor is it the end of Frankish dealings with Vikings. After Normandy was handed over, the relationship changed and the old Carolingian Empire was no longer as vulnerable as it had been. So for our purposes, this post is OVER.

Until next time, History Fans. You never know how your bullying attitudes might affect the outcome of history. So keep up the work, and keep being rude!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Diaspora: The Beauty and the Confusion of Assimilation

Welcome back, History Fans! I apologize for the long absence, but this time I have a very good excuse! Having found out last month that I was (finally) accepted into the University of Iceland's Viking Studies masters program, I have been working on my Old Norse language/grammar skills, not to mention brushing up on some of the sagas.

Today, however, I want to discuss some very exciting things, at least for me, from a cumbersomely titled book, In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England. Good lord. I decided to follow up with a blog post title of equal complexity. Why not?! It's Saturday morning! Let's get nutty!!

Here's what the title of the book means: The majority of Viking activity in England occurred in the North-East, above the Danelaw and centered around York, Northumbria. Yet over the last century, more and more evidence has popped up to support a Scandinavian/Viking influence on the other side of the country, in North-West England. We are talking Wirral, Chester, Cumbria, and the Isle of Man. The areas of the Danelaw are heavy in the written sources, archaeology, and place names. More digging and research was needed to understand the influence in the North-West, whose history was largely ignored in sources such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or William's Domesday Book. Editors Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths, and Elizabeth Royles compiled some of the groundbreaking research that has been done on this subject into this ridiculously named book.

One of the contributors is the delightful Judith Jesch, who briefly discusses the difficulties of understanding diaspora. Jesch defines diaspora as relating to, "the processes and results of migration and how migrants think and feel about their situation." (Harding, et. al 2015).


The Vikings reacted so differently in each place they visited. They settled in Iceland where they maintained intense Norse connections and cultures. Charles the Bald handed over Normandy to a group of Vikings who were almost immediately engulfed into French culture--hardly any Norse connections remain! In England, however, there is a weird convergence of similar cultures: purely Scandinavian, Hiberno-Norse, Irish, Gaelic, and Anglo-Saxon. Traces of each exist in North-West England, so our question, and the one the book is trying to answer, is just how Norse were these communities? And more to the point, how do we even know?

Once again, we have to look at our not-so-trusty sources: the written record, archaeology, and language/place names. I've already mentioned that the already few written sources are mostly mum on the goings-on in North-West England. Some of the archaeological finds, however, tell an amazing story. Possibly the most intriguing relic is the Halton cross that was found at Halton, near Lancaster. This sculpture contains carvings depicting scenes of Sigurd Fafnisbani, or as we know it, The Saga of the Volsungs. This is astounding on a couple of levels. First, this is a pagan, Old Nose heroic story that has been transplanted on a cross. England had been Christianized for centuries prior to the Viking raids/migration, and even the Scandinavians themselves would have at least been nominally Christian by the 11th century when the cross was made ( This means that even though the culture would have been deeply rooted into an organized Latin Christianity, stories like Sigurd's were still circulated.

Halton Cross

Even more amazing is that the Icelandic version of the story, The Saga of the Volsungs, matches perfectly with the scenes depicted on the Halton cross! That saga wouldn't have been written down until at least the 13th century. Do you realize what that means?! The story of Sigurd slaying the dragon, probably an ancient Germanic legend, took shape in the minds of the Scandinavians before the Viking Age. Multiple examples exist on stones and in carvings in pre-Viking Age and in Viking Age Scandinavia. The story was carried by long ships to the west side of England FULLY INTACT. AND THEN THE STORY CROSSED TO ICELAND CENTURIES LATER AND WAS STILL THE SAME STORY! That is simply amazing for a culture with no real documentation, no writing system besides the occasional runes. But those weren't used for record keeping or writing stories. It's amazing how this legend survived. And its existence in North-West England in the 11th century meant that at least some of the community was holding onto its Norse roots.

Happy lil Sigurd slaying a dragon

Place names are normally instructive as to who was living in a specific place. Jesch explains, however, that no names in the North-West are entirely Irish, nor entirely Old Norse (Harding, et. al 2015). Instead, we see a splattering of odd combinations. Irish names smashed with the Old Norse -by, which means farm. Or they appear the other way around, with Old Norse personal names combined with Anglo-Saxon or Irish landmark descriptors. The fact that both of these forms exists in large numbers leads one to believe that the language of Old Norse was not just a fading form of communication. The language was relevant and dispersed enough to replace existing place names and to take hold in the local population. Of course, Jesch argues that many of the Viking settlements could have been unoccupied, which is why we see such a large number of Old Norse names (Harding, et al 2015).

This doesn't really answer our question, though. Did the Vikings bring their wives and children to England and assimilate into a mixed culture? Did they take Irish and Anglo-Saxon wives who imposed Christianity. Did these wives learn Old Norse, or did the men take time to learn the local dialect? Were the children bilingual?

The contradictory Halton and Gosford crosses and the jumbled place names are beautiful examples of  two cultures attempting to co-exist. They also undermine how confusing it is to pick a part the already muddled pieces. Christina Lee piles on the confusion in the chapter that follows Jesch. Lee points out that English contains many loan words from Old Norse --an obvious testament of the Norse influence on the English people. Ugly, egg, to die, to kill, skull, sky, and window are just a few of the common words we yanked from Old Norse. She also points out the place name of Helperby in North Yorkshire is derived from an Old Norse female name, Hjalp, combined with the -r, a genitive form, which shows ownership, and -by, which means farm. Lee says that the community would have had to have spoken Old Norse long enough for this combination of words to hold in place. So the North-West communities MUST HAVE MAINTAINED THEIR LANGUAGE AND CULTURE, RIGHT?!

I'm not so certain. It's so hard to make assessments based on place names and language. Lee also presents the uncertainty of grave goods. The classic oval brooches, which have come to define Viking women's costume in a kind of a blanket one-size-fits-all sort of assumption, are strangely absent from from the archaeology and from the grave sites in the area. Instead, the women seem to prefer ringed pins, which are more of an Irish influence.

Modern babe modeling the classic oval brooches

Without a written account, assessing the diaspora is a nearly impossible task. How did the Scandinavians feel about their relocation, about their neighbors, about assimilation? The sources at hand leave a murky picture, much like the mapping of the Christian conversion. We are left with our classic assessment: the Vikings were the supreme opportunists and would have looked for an advantage in any situation. If converting to Christianity would enhance their standing, they would have converted. If learning the local language would have increased their status, they probably would have happily abandoned their mother tongue. What is obvious, however, is that no matter how far from home or to what god they answered to, the Vikings held onto certain aspects of their culture that have bled through in the north-west region of England. The place names, the monuments, the loan words, and even the runic inscriptions which appear quite frequently, if not haphazardly, prove that the Scandinavians had a hand in shaping North-West England.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anders Winroth and the Economics of the Viking Conversion

History Fans! Two posts in one week? What is this madness?! Or should I say: This is being single at 29. . .

Anders Winroth's book, The Conversion of Scandinavia, has been read front to back and MY GOD IT WAS FANTASTIC!

Not only did Winroth support my theories about the conversion (which has been discussed here at length) but he also presented some new and amazing ideas about the Viking Age. Not least of all that Adam of Bremen is a total prick.

Winroth's first revelation is a pretty good explanation for the Viking Age raids. History books contain many theories, such as a population boom in Scandinavia, the inheritance-less younger sibling syndrome, a sudden desire to show off their mad sailing skills. While all of these things may indeed have been true, none of them really satisfactorily answer why the Scandinavians began scooting around the world and taking things from the neighbors. Winroth suggests an explanation of simple economics.

Scandinavian chieftains, even long before the Viking Age, relied on a system of giving gifts to their followers and warriors and receiving loyalty and service in return. This was not simply a military leader paying a soldier. On the contrary, chieftains needed to give their followers and warriors prestigious and often times personal gifts. The chieftains would attempt to tie as many of his retinue to him, by means of marriage or official friendship rituals. But in order to keep warriors that were not related by blood or marriage, a chieftain would have to present his men with those unique and personal gifts, often times taking the form of gold or silver arm band, an artistically inlaid axe, or exotic dishes like walnuts and wine.

Do you think a warrior had to axe for this gift?

You can do the math in your head: If a chieftain wanted his constituents to grow, he needed to produce more gifts, but more importantly more prestigious gifts. And the Scandinavians knew, through their trade routes, that some VERY prestigious gifts lay undefended in the monasteries that dotted the British and Frankish coasts. With their innovations in ship building, the Scandinavian chieftains found themselves in a unique position. Competition for power was always a heated affair in the north, as chieftains controlled people instead of territory. With the Christian European models of kingdoms popping up, competition to create a state must have driven some of the leading chieftains. In order to maintain their current stash of warriors and more importantly to increase the support, the chieftains were driven further and further out, to those undefended coasts, to steal what they needed in order to maintain their power. For instance, Olaf Tryggvason was run out of his country and lived for a while in exile in Novgorod. He then began his life as a raider, amassing treasures and wealth. After getting his cut from a very lucrative campaign against Ethelred, Olaf had enough wealth, prestige, and treasures to produce gifts to his followers and even attract new ones in his face off against Hakon.

Does this solely answer the question of how the Viking raids began? Certainly not. But it does give us a good grasp on how they could have come about. It is my opinion that it was a slow and steady increase and not a sudden onslaught as the dramatic authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would have us believe. Indeed, the fluidity of power exchange in the Scandinavian countries would have pushed less powerful chieftains overseas to find a niche where they could carve out a piece of the POWER PIE.

These chieftains did not just steal gifts and give them away. As the Viking Age continued, many chieftains set up their own towns so that they could gather artisans in one place, either surrounding their hall or at a busy trading spot. We know from the Royal Frankish Annals that King Godfried launched Hedeby as a center of trade in 808. Many of the early Scandinavian trade towns were laid out in regular, organized lots that appeared to have been planned out, not grown organically. Many Vikings would shake take their booty to these towns, melt them down and create new and prestigious gifts for their followers. Viking warriors probably had no real use for a lot of the church treasures they lifted, but if their leader melted them down and turned them into arm rings, well by golly we are sticking with this guy! Here is an interesting question: Did the demand for more prestigious gifts push the artisans to create or modify new and different artistic styles? Could some of the beautiful animal-style designs that we now associate with the Viking Age be simply a byproduct of economic supply and demand?

Viking art on a fat guy

On the other hand, some chieftains wouldn't even bother bringing all that shit home. They would set up a temporary market to sell the stolen goods IN THE SAME KINGDOM WHERE THEY STOLE IT FROM. Good lord, you can just see those poor clergy men just staring across a river at the Vikings selling their property and probably their friends to Arab traders. But, if you think about it, this weird move kinda improved the European economy--an irony that the Vikings appeared to have mastered.

In the early Middle Ages, Europe was dragging itself out of the barter system and into, at least in the large empires (BECAUSE WE SAW CHARLEMAGNE JUST DO THIS), a coin system. However, a lot of the gold and silver that could be used as currency was locked away as static capital in the royal coffers and in the treasuries of the monasteries. So how's this for irony? The Vikings stole a lot of that gold and silver, turned them into goods or sold them for coins into a booming European market. AND the Carolingian and British kings emptied those treasuries to pay the Vikings not to steal their things, in which case the silver and gold were melted down into coins anyway! The Viking raids themselves injected steroids into an already blossoming medieval European economy. Whether they stole the money or were paid off in tribute, the fact remains that the Scandinavians, who had up until the Viking Age had not been part of the European world, had not just joined the modern world: they helped keep it on its feet.

What a wild world!

An interesting side note before we get to the conversion and tearing apart Adam: the actions of the Vikings were nothing new. Plenty of Celtic and British tribes sacked churches and monasteries. Charlemagne raided his neighbors every god damn summer so that he could pay his troops. But Charlemagne was Christian and so were the sources. The Vikings were incredibly more efficient and knew when to strike and when to back out (cough..cough..didn't spendthirtyyearssubduingtheSaxons...cough). That's just the way people paid for things back then. Until the Viking attacks, that is.

Listen: When the Vikings demanded tribute or payment, the fearful rulers of Europe would drain the royal and ecclesiastical treasuries. But when that ran out, they began taxing their subjects so that they could pay off the Northmen. Likewise, Alfred the Great demanded a certain percentage of income (not necessarily in monetary form) from his subjects to build fortifications against the Vikings and to support his troopz. These taxes continued long after the Viking Age and became the woes and miseries of many later Middle Age peasants. Do you guys see yet? Do you see how important and incredible the actions of the Vikings were? They forced Europe to organize! England was a wreck until the Vikings showed up. The subsequent Carolingian kings could not match Charlemagne's zeal or organizational skills and they too fell victim to the Vikings' shrewd attacks. Better administrations, faster armies, stronger fortifications, more organized institutions--a lot of what came to define the Middle Ages were a direct or indirect result of the Viking Attacks.

Charles the Bald liked to call them "FARTIFICATIONS"

I won't go into full detail of Winroth's discussion of the conversion, as we have covered it pretty extensively here on History Books. But Winroth does agree with me in that the benchmarks used to track Christianity's progress throughout Scandinavia are largely obsolete because the conversion was ultimately a political move.

Try this on for size: Christianity was nothing new to Scandinavia. They were not as cut off from the Roman world as we might think. They traded with Europe, stole from Europe, and had plenty of interaction that, especially in Denmark, the religion had already started to seep in. Yet by the 9th century, Christianity was to be associated with the powerful Carolingian Empire, the majestic Byzantine Empire, and the filthy rich English kingdom(s). Christianity was, to the Vikings, a very prestigious religion that produced extremely prestigious treasures. Olaf Tryggvason and St. Olaf were both baptized overseas at the courts of kings and important European players and saw firsthand how they could monopolize this power. When one was baptized in the medieval world, a person was to stand as a sponsor. For instance, Robert of Rouen, brother to Queen Emma (Ethelred's wife), stood as sponsor for St. Olaf and became his godfather. This increased Olaf's status. When he returned to Norway, he stood in as godfather to some of his followers, sharing with them the prestige of having those important ties. The relationship of godfather really mirrored the old marriage and blood ties that kept warriors indebted to their chieftain. In this way, Christianity became gift, one of the most prestigious gifts, that a chieftain could give to his warriors. It became a commodity and was used, just as the inlaid axe or arm ring, to build a political alliance with his followers.

The Scandinavian kings quickly realized the advantages Christianity had over their former pagan ways. The latter was decentralized and easily accessible to anyone. According to archaeology and the tidbits in the written records, there doesn't seem to have been any priests or specific roles within the pagan religion. Some chieftains appeared to have led sacrifices but the roles were not exclusive. On the other hand, Christianity had exclusive roles. Only bishops could anoint priests and deacons.

The kings soon saw their chance: Christianity promoted an ideology of kingship blessed by God. If they could claim the kingship, the bishops would submit to them, with the churches, priests and deacons all following suit. A king could monopolize the church, taking on its full power, organization, and allegiances and used it to carve out their little niche of power in their own country. And, just as Charlemagne ruled as the head of his church, so the Scandinavian kings found themselves at the head of their churches. The Viking kings took advantage of Christianity, the way they took advantage of anything they could get their hands on in order to achieve their goals.


In other words, the Vikings saw THE BENEFITS OF INCLUSION and converted simply as a political move, which is why we cannot trust the traces of Christian archaeology scattered throughout the north. Once the kings began using Christianity in their gift exchange model, the old pagan model stood little chance. The pagan religion was then rooted out not so much because of religious reasons but because it represented political opposition. We get a glimpse of this in the Icelandic conversion when certain pagan rituals were allowed even though they were strictly against canon law. It was all political. Especially for Iceland who used their conversion to circumvent Norway's attempt to plant their bishops there and swallow up the island into a commonwealth.

And at last we come to Adam of fuckin' Bremen. His account is one of the premier primary sources of Viking Age activity. And even though we knew at the time of our first reading that Adam flubbed certain facts, we believed he was innocently mistaken and just did a bad job of making sense of his sources. Winroth, however, provides a darker truth to Adam's mistakes. The pope had placed the Scandinavian missionary efforts in the hands of the church of Bremen (and eventually the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen). The sons of Louis the Pious had broken up the Carolingian Empire in a way that really sapped the church of its power. Angasar lost his funding due to the monastery that helped pay for his missions got separated from the bishopric in the empire's divisions. By the 1070s, when Adam was writing his history, Hamburg-Bremen was clinging on for any sense of importance. The pope had given them the responsibility of Scandinavia; however, as the Scandinavian kings learned to monopolize the religion, they brought in English and Polish bishops to bypass Hamburg-Bremen and essentially keep their position as head of the church.

This really pissed Adam off so HE MADE UP a bunch of shit to try and sneak in a claim for Bremen to still have control over Scandinavian Christianity. For instance, he claims in his history that a certain Emperor Otto of Germany had invaded Denmark and forced Christianity on Harald Bluetooth. This is simply not true. Not only are there no other accounts of Otto's invasion, something that surely would have been celebrated, but by all accounts Harald Bluetooth converted on his own. In fact, he invited bishops and missionaries into Denmark because he saw the BENEFITS OF INCLUSION! Adam paints both Olaf Tryggvason and Svein Forkbeard as Christians who relapsed into paganism. Svein, as far as we know, was baptized at a young age. Olaf, as one of the contributing players in the conversion of Norway, does not appear to relapse in any of our other sources. Adam was angry with these kings because they refused to acknowledge Hamburg-Bremen's authority. One of the most controversial parts of Adam's text is his (second hand) description of a sacrifice ritual at a temple in Uppsala. This, too, seems to be fabricated in resentment! Sweden had brought in Polish bishops instead of German, and Adam threw a god damn hissy fit. No pagan temple has ever been discovered in Uppsala, and the pagan rituals described cannot be satisfactorily verified.

"Uhhh...fuck it, I'll just make it up." - Adam of Bremen

Adam: kiss my ass, you prick!

That will do, History Fans. Let's learn a lesson from Adam. Don't be a diaper baby!

Until our next adventure!