Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Vikings Part 3: Hey Columbus! The Vikings were discovering the New World before it was cool!

So many posts!
So much I've learned!
So many Vikings doing cool things!

The last few lectures on the recording have been following the vikings as the Norse and Danish push further west and the Swedes set up camp in the east. And let me tell you something: my mind was totally blown. I'm sure you've all heard the legendary stories about how vikings reached North America way before Columbus, but I never knew the details or even how it came about. And you know our wacky Russian nemesis? Born out of Scandinavian design! These guys could do it all.

Let's start with the vikings pushing west out of England. They knew that there was some land across the sea that they hadn't seen yet, but they weren't sure what it was. So eventually the vikings gathered up some ships and headed out and landed on a snow covered island that seemed hopsitable, but more importantly, uninhabited. They named it Iceland and set up camp. The geography seemed ideal for raising cattle and sheep but the pastures were limited. The interior of the island was this volcanic wasteland. So land started going fast.

What is incredible about the Icelandic settlement is the astounding amount of autonomy of not just for the four districts of the island, but for each individual farmstead. The people did not want a ruling government. They set up their farms and expected to be left alone. Every quarter, there would be what they called the "Thing." Respected men from the community would get together in their district and discuss problems and laws and so on. Every year would be the "All Thing." Here, the people would gather at one huge convention to make sure things were going smoothly in Iceland. And for the most part, they did. There was no governing body, no monetary system, and no taxes of any kind. There was a simple set of laws set down by the people that were to be followed. Even after Norway claimed Iceland as its own, the laws and way of life didn't change. Eventually, however, the land couldn't sustain the amount of people there. Ecologically, Iceland was being exhausted, which meant people were leaving and starving. It wasn't until 14th century when Denmark conquered Norway that laws were changed and Iceland as it had been was no more.

Scandinavians were used to harsh winters, but in Iceland, the ports and seas froze over so that for about five months, no trading could occur because of the impassible waters. The Icelanders, therefore, were forced to not only stock up on supply but also entertain themselves for a very long time indoors. They took to reciting the old Scandinavian stories and poems. There hadn't really been a Norse language to write them down, but now Icelanders had a language and had learned to write from Christian missionaries. So they started writing everything down. Most of what we know about Scandinavian folklore, myths, religious beliefs, comes from Iceland. The great family sagas also came from this tiny island. Geography influencing literature. Fascinating!

But, as I said, Iceland gets bogged down and overpopulated, so people start pushing west again. Erik the Red leads an expedition and lands on a giant ice-capped land mass. Only the west coast was inhabitable. Once again, there were no people. Only this time, the land was nowhere near as inviting as Iceland. So in order to get folks to come to his little settlement, he decided to deceive them. He called it Greenland. The settlement barely survived. It wasn't much too look at. Leif Erikson, Erik the Red's son, heard rumor of another island west of there that was covered in trees. So Leif took a small party out and accidentally found the New World. Covered in timber, they thought, this time foolishly, that they had found another island with nobody living there. This time, though, it was covered in timber. They lasted a short while until the Natives chased them out. They tried three different times to make the settlement last on the shores of modern day Canada. But between the harsh winter and the Natives, all attempts to settle on this land were abandoned. Keep in mind this is around 1009, nearly 500 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. So eat it, Chris!

While the party continued in the west, business was booming in the east. The Swedish vikings were tearing apart Eastern Europe with their mad river navigating. Their business was once again slaves. They would get into Eastern Europe, kidnap a bunch of Slavs, and float on down the river and sell them to the Muslims for silver. Now, at the beginning of this venture, the vikings and the Turks and Muslims were getting along quite well. There is evidence that the vikings were starting to adopt certain Turkish habits and customs. But this relationship came to an abrupt end. See, there were two different river systems that they would go down. The first one went down through Turkish territory and dealt with the Muslim Empire. The other went through Eastern Europe and Russia and emptied into the Caspian Sea and led them to the Byzantine Empire. The Muslim Empire started to crumble a little and there was a shortage of silver. So the vikings took off down the other river way, and that decision completely changed the landscape of Eastern Europe.

The Slavic people around Kiev were a bunch of numbskulls and kept killing each other, so they asked some of the vikings if they would come in to the area and rule over them. Pretty wacky when you think about the fact that these are the same people who had been stealing their neighbors and selling them into slavery. Nevertheless, the vikings set up shop in Kiev, which is in modern day Ukraine. They began trading more and more with Byzantium and eventually found their way into Constantinople. And they were very impressed. Scandinavia and Russia were untouched by the Roman Empire, so they had not seen any sort of organized city or city programs like what Constantinople offered. They liked it.

Three different times the vikings tried to sack the great Byzantine city. Not so much of hostility or hard feelings, but because it looked like a challenge. It was the most organized and defended place they'd seen so far. The first two times, they were thwarted. The third, however, they made impact on the city even though they did not succeed. A treaty was signed that gave the vikings great merchant rights in the city and all sorts of benefits. But the stipulation was that they had to convert to the Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Like most vikings, they saw the benefits of conversion and said yes even if they had their fingers crossed behind their backs.
What does this mean? Well, the vikings took that Eastern Orthodox Christianity with them back to Kiev, back to Eastern Europe and modern day Russia, which did not exist back then. They were so impressed by the cities and organization of Constantinople that they began modeling their settlements in a similar way. They began marrying Slavs and creating this hybrid culture with that specific religion. Out of these settlements, out of this culture and these people, Russia was born. The Russia that we know with its Orthodox church and it's Slavic-related peoples can trace its roots back to the first few cities set up by the vikings.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Vikings Part 2: Different Strokes for Different Folks

It's much too late to be starting this post, but I have too much information in my head. I need to write it out.
I've been continuing my journey with the vikings. I've been learning new things as well as being reminded of other segments of history that I have studied before, such as St. Patrick's role in Ireland or the way the Danes shaped England. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We need to start with some raids.

Viking raids began at the very end of the 8th century. They started drifted across the sea to Western Europe, which was then Gaul and the empire of the Frankish kings and so on. What pushed the vikings to travel such distances to raid and pillage and destroy and steal? I discussed in my last post how they wanted to venerate their ancestors by proving themselves in battle. That had something to do with it. But really the vikings were just clever bullies. They saw weaknesses and they decided to strike and take whatever they wanted. The slave trade was huge at this time, so these Norsemen would either take prisoners to trade or hostages to sell for ransom, along with precious religious items and all kinds of booty.

Eventually Charlemagne took the throne as king of the franks and later the Holy Roman Empire. He did a decent job of keeping the vikings at bay, but they still raided. Across the sea, down the rivers, through the towns, through the monasteries, into the churches. As soon as he died, his sons started fighting each other over who would get what territory. And the vikings, being the smart handsome bullies that they were, saw a weakness and went for it. Charlemagne was organized so it slowed the raids. But as soon as they saw disorganization, they went for the jugular. A whole new generation of brutal Scandinavians tore through Western Europe, reeking havoc.

The empire was too big to protect. The descendants of Charlemagne had to eventually break it up into smaller kingdoms, what became the feudal system as we know. The vikings indirectly invented, or at least set the stage for, the feudal system within autonomous kingdoms that were so well known through the Middle Ages. The raids continued, however, until finally a large chunk of what is now France was handed over to the Norwegians. You see, many of these raiders had been at sea and to battle many times over the last 15-20 years. They had acquired so much wealth and so many wives and slaves, they were ready to settle down. They were given Normandy, land of the North men. This slice of wonderful land became the guidebook for how to build your kingdoms in the Middle Ages. All kinds of kings and emperors could not get the dukes of Normandy to obey their rule. The vikings were left to do their own thing right next door.

The vikings got tired of Western Europe (and some, as we see, just decided to settle down), so they moved across the sea to the west and found England sitting all by its lonesome self. And man they tore that shit up! Raid after raid came through the island, causing mayhem to the highest degree. England was in even more chaos than Western Europe. A non-unified state, England consisted of four major territories with chieftains and clans battle each other for one reason or another. Again, perfect conditions for a viking invasion.

The Danes moved in on England pretty harshly. They took two of the four territories and were ready to take the most important at the time, which was Wessex. Alfred the Great was the military genius who finally beat the vikings and pushed them back to a certain line. Alfred said that the Danes could stay as long as they stopped bothering them and if they were baptized as Christians. The Danish vikings said, okay, but you have to let us keep our own customs and you have to pay us a lot of money. So the English paid the vikings to leave them alone. But something very interesting happened in England which did not happen anywhere else. Following the collapse of Rome and the subsequent viking raids, most places in Western Europe were falling apart at the seams and becoming less and less entangled with any sort of state or patriotism or country. England, however, banded together against the vikings, and by the end of the Viking Age, had unified the country under one king. Crazy!

Likewise, the vikings did rather odd things in England, too. Whereas in Western Europe, they tromped along and took what they wanted, or in the case of the Norse, were given a big chunk of land where they had their own little Norwegian community, in England, they settled in with the Celts and the Anglos and the Saxons. They adopted some pieces of their lifestyle, such as Christianity, but kept others like their love for Scandinavian legends and poetry.

Ireland, too, was hit hard by the vikings. But Ireland itself was an anomaly in this whole scenario. The reason for this is because although it was in the path of trade routes with Roman merchants, it was never a part of the Roman world. It sat on the fringes of society, picking up an interesting sect of Christianity and copying down books. Monasteries were the main learning and cultural centers in Ireland. Everything revolved around them. So of course, that's where the vikings liked to hit. The Irish were not exactly worse off than the Anglo-Saxons in England. They didn't have the organizational problems the way England had. Ireland was still a fragmented society of warrior clans. This impressed the vikings, who still had superior weapons for naval battle, but stayed out of the hinterland where the Irish were master ambush warriors.

The viking take on Ireland is yet again different from their previous two victims. Here, they practically conquer the majority of the island. But they don't do anything about it. Someone claims the throne, but no huge Scandinavian kingdom is set up like it could have been. The Irish pushed back and forced the vikings out of Dublin. The vikings hit back and so on and so forth.

Very strange, this life in Ireland. One of the biggest reasons the vikings like Ireland was because of its booming slave trade. Vikings would take Irish, Scots, Pict's, and many other European neighbors and sell them to the thriving Muslim empire to the south east. Slaves were the most sought after commodity during this time. And while later the Christian sea-kings thought it unwise to capture fellow Christians like themselves, most of the time the slaves were regular white skinned neighbors. Although, they were particularly fond of Eastern Europeans who eventually became named after their occupation: the Slavs.

What is bizarre to me is how inconsistently the vikings directly and indirectly changed the landscape of the world. The Danes pretty much completed the English language, but the Germanic languages of Western Europe hardly had any use for Scandinavian words. They settled in Europe and in Normandy, but left other places ruined and broken. Sometimes they took to Christianity, sometimes they didn't.
I have a few more episodes to go, but you can see why I needed to stay up late and get this pounded out.
See you in Valhalla.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Vikings Part I: Free Jazz

After my great bamboozle, I strapped in to take on Nicola Tesla head on. I was graciously interrupted by a handful of history sources all at once. First, the Michael Heckenberger book came in from the library. I was so stoked. It is some heavy reading, but awfully interesting. There will be more on this later, which will probably much more academic in style. It's that serious. Secondly, I came across two pieces of audio literature that I could not ignore. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is sitting on my ipod, patiently waiting for me to finish the lecture series on Vikings.
Yes, Vikings. What is so interesting about them? Well, I knew a little bit going into it. Those Scandinavians were essential in building a unified England as well as shaping the English language. We discussed them at length in History of England and even in the History of the English Language, two courses I loved (and excelled in) at school. Of course, the only thing I really remember was the idea of going "berzerk." The Vikings would get trashed then go raiding and pillaging. How awesome is that?
This lecture series can be found here:

The Vikings had their day between around 800 AD - 1100 AD. There are a few reasons why they dominated Europe and Russia. First, they had surpassed everyone in ship building. At this point, people were still using very small vessels that could not handle rough waters. The Scandinavians figured out how to build longships, using technology they borrowed from both the Celts and the Romans, and could successfully navigate rivers. Eventually they tamed the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. No one else had come to terms with the water like the Norsemen. So they had the upper hand in naval skills.
Not only did they have boats, but they had weapons and armor, too. Once again, borrowing ideas from Rome, the Scandinavians put their own personal spin on things (no, they never wore hats with horns). The would make fierce chain armor and tough helmets as many of them were expert smiths and metal workers. They were a hunting people, not an agricultural, so they knew how to use bows and arrows well. Their main income came from their timber trade, so they weren't too bad with an axe.
Another reason for their success was their sheer strength, especially when it came to survival. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are home to some of the harshest winters anyone can imagine. Living that close to the arctic requires every bit of cleverness, strength, and wisdom you can muster. You must know how much food to stock up for the winter. You must know how to get across the land to trade. These people were experts at exploiting the northern climate for their advantage. And they became all the stronger for it.
The most intriguing advantage was the way that they were raised. Their belief system was all based on venerating and honoring their ancestors. They eventually came to enjoy the myths and stories of famous warriors who spent eternity in Valhalla, the Great Hall of the afterlife. Every viking was raised to believe in this, which meant that every male viking was bound to be a warrior of some type. They went into battle without fear of death, without cause or thirst for justice. While their Christian neighbors fought over beliefs and boundaries, these men showed up to fight simply to honor those who fought before them. The rest of the world found this terrifying. For three hundred years, no one could stop them or slow them. And even then it was a meager compromise that involved paying the vikings to leave England alone. With this attitude, their superior weapons and will to survive, as well as their knowledge of the waterways, the vikings traveling through western Europe and up into Russia, raiding villages, fighting anyone who dared.

The Scandinavians, like most civilizations, had oral traditions that passed down through generations. Many of these oral traditions were finally written down when our idiot ancestors finally figured out how to write. You may remember the Iliad or Beowulf or any other really long, boring story you had to reading in 11th grade English. These were memorized and recited and passed down. The vikings, however, had a super interesting way of using the oral traditions. There was the basic shell of the stories that people knew. Then, there was the meter and the form of the poetry in which it was to be recited. So you had the story and the form. But the way it was told was never word for word. The lecturer compared to jazz musicians. They have a song and style and a key, but each musician may put their own spin on a solo they give or take a classic song like "When the Saints" and put something a little different into it to spice it up. This is the way the vikings passed along their myths and stories until some idiot wrote it down. I love that. I've never thought of language in such beautiful terms.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

FAKE OUT 2009!!

Today, two different tangents crossed paths and made my mind go crazy in what became one of the greatest Zack Melton Bamboozles of his history life.

I have been trying to get my hands on The Ecology of Power by Michael Heckenberger. I went to the library to order through ILL. But I forgot what the title was, so I got on the internet to look it up.

Last night, I spent some time with my good friends Nate and Tiffany Woodard. Nate told me a really long story about getting verbally assaulted by a Marion cop, and when he finished, he went further to tell me all about Nikola Tesla. Now, I have to admit I didn't know anything about this guy except that maybe I remembered that weird electricity room scene in The Prestige. Needless to say I was captivated.

So as I am looking for Michael Heckenberger's book, I find an article the combines Tesla and Heckenberger. I was thinking this was some awesome Cat's Cradle shit coming to life. I scanned the article and saw something about Tesla's grid and Heckenberger's discovery in the Amazon (Lost city of Z), as well as Stonehenge other cradles of humanity.

I went ape shit. I was on the verge of unearthing one of the craziest and most important discoveries. This one writer, Doug Yuchey, pointed it out and I would take it from there. I would connect the dots and be heralded as a hero.

I got my Tesla book and marched out of there to hurry through a few errands so I could get down to business. When I arrived at my favorite WiFi hotspot, I got everything ready for a mind-blowing discovery. I went back to the website. But this time I slowed down and looked at the other articles this guy had published. UFO's. Atlantis. The dude is a crackpot. Here's what he was really saying. Tesla had a theory that 9 magnetic towers could be erected across the earth that could create wireless electricity. Doug Yuchey said it was very similar with these ancient civilizations. They had all been constructed similarly. Sweet. But instead of conducting electricity they were supposed to have opened up a utopic harmony that would allow the gods to dance around and move among us.

My hopes crushed, Tesla rolling in his grave, and my afternoon wasted, I decided to share here on History Books the joys and disappointments of being a passionate history lover. Sometimes she is beautiful and gentle and maybe can put her legs behind her head. Other times she can be mean and resentful and laugh at the size of your . . .intelligence.

Here's to you, history. Time makes fools of us all!