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.

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