Monday, October 4, 2010

Lunch Break Viking Update!

When you read history books, you often have to start at the pre-history. For instance, if you want to talk about the United States of America, you have to talk about the Native Americans, no matter how embarrassed you get. Nothing springs from nothing. There has to be a foundation that often takes centuries to build. Another example is the Cold War. To understand how it began, you have to start with the end of WWII. To understand how that war began, you have to go back to the end of WWI, which leads all the way back to the Franco-Prussian War. See where I'm getting?

The same is true when we talk about Scandinavia, or more specifically, Vikings. However, the Viking Age can be misleading, especially when you are looking at the literature. What I mean is this: The great sagas and poetry were all written in Iceland mostly in the 13th century. Those sagas and poems are simply written versions of the oral traditions that come from the Age of Migration, which is basically 5th and 6th century AD. So why, when I am studying Vikings, do I read the sagas and the poetry when the literature seems to just sort of swim through that time period. Wouldn't I be better off reading the ecclesiastical accounts of monks whom the Vikings terrorized?

This question as well as others have been puzzling me over the last couple weeks since I dived back into my research. How do the pieces fit? Thankfully, Professor Harl has come through once again to help me along the way.

In order to study the Vikings, I really have to travel back to the Bronze Age when the religion was formed. This provides sort of the basis of the ethos that would drive the later generations of Scandinavians. I plan on going back through the Prose Edda to get a firmer grasp on just how the religion was viewed and how it affected the people.

The Age of Migration brings forth the heroes and kings that we now read about in the sagas. There really did exist King Hralf Kraki and Sigmund (although, it is believed that Sigmund is a fictional character based on either Arminius or King Sigbert). These historical figures did accomplish great deeds that were later embellished and made legend. But Professor Harl does a really great job of explaining how the kingship of 5th century Scandinavia differed from our idea of kingship. The sagas never tell of battles for territories. That may be the outcome but hardly ever the cause. Usually there is a grievance, or a dishonoring of another king. He is offended and he comes to best his offender. So we see in the Saga of Hralf Kraki. And although at the end of the story, Kraki and his men retreat, he throws the stolen gold along the ground and basically buys his enemy's men. Kraki was seen as a great king not only because of his deeds but also because of the riches he obtained and then shared with his men.

What do these stories of heroes and kings have to do with the Viking age?

Harl tells us that it was mostly psychological. The Vikings were raised to honor the great ancient kings, like Hralf Kraki and Sigmund Volsung, who died in honor and our now with Odin at Valhalla. There existed the mindset that in order to be honored, one would need to emulate the deeds and the attitudes of those great kings, which instilled in the viking warriors a sense of invincibility. Not that they wouldn't die, but that there was no fear of death for to die in battle was to be greatly honored.

What is fascinating to me is how the stories survived. You don't often think of poetry and warriors going together, but the two went hand in hand in the Viking Age. A good bard, if you will, would learn the great poetry of the old kings and heroes, and recite them. Every person who grew up in that time knew the stories. And even after the conversion to Christianity, when the rest of Europe was trying to hide its pagan past, the Icelanders looked at their past with pride and interest. So, even though the Viking Age is really around 800-1100 AD, you must start much further back to understand how they got there and really wait until the 1300s when Snorri and his pals wrote everything down.

Neat, huh?

I think for my next project, after I finish The Saga of the Volsungs, I'd like to read Beowulf and The Saga of Hralf Kraki side by side to compare. Sounds like a snoozefest!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Get on Your Titanics and Ride

History Fans, I have a special treat for you today!

You might remember a few weeks ago when I asked the question, "How should we approach history?" My dear friend and recent graduate from Ball State University with a degree in History, David Buckler, was gracious enough to answer my question with a very insightful and provoking interpretation of how to reconstruct the past.

(David, I tried to clean up some of the grammatical errors and misspellings. I hope that's okay!)

The question: how should we approach history?
This, out of all questions, makes history worth doing. Or in more complicated way of saying it, different approaches, from Marxist to revisionist allow historians, amateur or professional to approach history with a new perspective.

So first, let's talk about perspective. This aspect is always difficult to first. Perspective is deceiving. When an event happens to us today it is recorded in the annals of history quite quickly, with the Internet and all. When given that instant information, people quickly write their histories with blogs and such. History, no matter what, changes over time. Because time and history go hand in hand, time changes history. When time passes and more and more information has become available, we have to change with evolving information. For instance, our easiest example for this would be 9/11. At first, most were definitely sure this had been a terrorist attack. But as skeptics, historians, scientists and conspiracy theorist etc. have second guessed this, at the time, certain fact and now have written a new perspective.

Historiographical approaches. I could spend days upon days on trying to explain historiographical approaches, but I'm sure you don't want to hear it from me. But, I will give you mine for good measure. Although it's very not [savvy? bad?] to be a postmodernist or revisionist historian, I like to call myself a Marxist historian. Many reasons cause me to take such approach like my current and seemingly long lasting dissatisfaction with capitalism, my disbelief in the Christian god as the all high being of this earth, my love affair with the tenets of the working class, etc. etc. Basically Marxist historians take to history to build up the proletariat and push down the bourgeois. For instance, my senior thesis centered on the UAW of the 1920/30s and how their members used the union as an avenue to achieve the American Dream. But you may ask, how is that possible? Well, the union actually has it's roots in communist/socialist agendas. Using a collective to create a common individual good that all members can equally receive. What's so deceiving about the American Dream sometimes can be that only special individuals can achieve such heights in their lives, but that essentially it had been a comfort all Americans expected and wanted by the 1950s. Since all wanted its benefits, they tried to find the quickest way possible to achieve such benefits. Ok, my rant about that is done, but in my thesis, I could not help but reprimand the management, aka bourgeois, in my paper for using the tenets of capitalism to keep the working man down. It's not a wrong perspective, and my research proved such accusations right.

So, let's think about it from a revisionist perspective. Since revisionism happens after a longer period of time, they tend to look at the long term, or instead of a period of study, they expand it from the beginning to today and mark where differences unfold and decide that a new perspective is necessary. So what they might see in the UAW is that in short, the unions win, but in the long, management wins. See, today the unions have been corrupted and wrangled away from their original form : collective solidarity. Thus, because in this case the capitalism has prevailed, leaving Marxist thought dead on the paths of history.

Quickly, postmodern thought would have that unions won then and today, and management won then and today. It is literally relative to the documents' voice that tells them so. Example? If in 1937 at one the ford plants, a document from a union newsletter says that the union won a hard fought strike battle, they did. If a corporate newsletter says they won, they did. Confusing and completely unnecessary isn't it?

So you ask about facts, which I think you can glean from my information above, that locking down facts would be like raising the titanic today. You technically could bring up bits and pieces at a time, to understand how exactly people lived on it, how the ship worked, etc etc, but taking it all up at once would provide a break down of information. Historical fact takes much longer than we might think. We are too used to it today to be given what is said to be the "truth" but you as well as I are too smart to know that's impossible. So, never be afraid that you can't raise the titanic all at once. Take it piece by piece and create the story. As time permits you will be able to take up more and more pieces, correcting the mistakes you made before or proving yourself more correct. Pick a side and defend it the best of your ability. That's why there are academic critics and reviewers who will say to you, "are you sure this is a piece of the titanic, or a piece of another unfortunate ship?" When they do ask, go back out again, research primary documents and sources.

At the end of the day, remember you are essentially telling a story. With stories you need protagonists and antagonists. With history you choose those sides and you defend them. If you do it well, you have a great story.

First, I'd like to reiterate how well spoken this reply is. I think he hit the nail on the head. History is never set in stone. Even the histories chiseled into stone! As long as we are even the slightest bit curious, we can go back to points in history, with a hunch or a hunger and search for truths.
I am also glad that he used his Marxist approach as an example. In my post about Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel I mentioned that I thought his conclusion had an extremely capitalist outlook. I don't know if that is a popular approach, but according to David's explanation, an approach can envelop economics, philosophies, and many other aspects of look at different time periods. What we believe will shape our paradigms and world views, and that in turn will provide us with the drive, as well as the tools, to unearth history.

The beautiful thing is that no approach is better than the other. They each have immeasurable value. David obviously has no room in his heart for a postmodern approach. But research in the UAW in the 1920s and 30s in said approach may trigger David's passion. He says, no, that's not the way it happened, and he sets out to prove his case, bringing up new pieces and new truths that were previously unknown. And though David and the postmodern historian may not see eye to eye when it comes to approaches, in the end, the two have worked together, bouncing ideas off of each other to bring to light the mysterious of our past, wherein lie lessons for our present and our future.

Thanks, David.

Up next: Vikings. . . Where do you begin?!?