Friday, December 6, 2013


Welcome back, History Fans. We last saw King CNUT as he was attempting to improve his status as not just the King of England, but as an emperor that could carry his weight alongside any other European ruler. Let's see what kind of wacky adventures he gets into today!

During the early part of the 1020s, we see CNUT doing what he does best: ruling shrewdly. He expelled Thorkell from England only to be reconciled with him two years later. He was sending a message. Throkell couldn’t be trusted because he had served Ethelred and betrayed him. Thorkell may have been one of the lucky ones. Some who served both kings saw their lives end either in death or in exile. But CNUT proved how cunning he really was during this time when he embraced not only the English culture but more importantly the English Church. The church was a huge part of the way of life in England. Being a part of the Roman Empire helped them develop that wonderful bureaucratic system that the Christian church filled out so nicely. Denmark, however, was just outside the reach of the Romans. There was no central church the way there was in England. The priests, bishops, and monks served more than a spiritual purpose: they helped run the country. CNUT was quick to recognize this and also that it would be impossible for him to replace these members of societies with Danish men of his choosing. Instead, he swore to be a good Christian king, to fight for the church, and to keep most of the Anglo-Saxons in their positions.

Something happened at the end of the decade that flared up that natural opportunistic Viking feeling inside of King CNUT. I mentioned above that CNUT’s father had for a time put Norway in his empire and under the rule of Eric of Lade. Well, Eric shows up in England in 1016 as one of CNUT’s earls. Eric left the country’s fate in his brother’s hands, who was quickly disposed of by Olaf Haraldson (another Olaf!). Olaf of Norway teamed up with the King of Sweden, Anund Jacob, and attacked a CNUT-less Denmark in 1027. In 1028, CNUT sailed to Norway with 50 ships. Before any battle was fought, CNUT bought off a large part of Olaf’s army. Once again, we see CNUT’s shrewdness: he takes Ethelred’s defense of tribute and turns it into an offensive. Olaf offered little resistance and CNUT took Norway back and even claimed a part of Sweden as his own, thus regaining, for the moment, the North Atlantic Empire that his father Svein had worked so hard to get. He left Hakon, nephew of Eric of Lade, in charge in Norway and returned to England as an emperor. But, like everything in CNUT’s life, this position would soon be gone.

CNUT continued to be the king he swore to be. He traveled to Rome in 1030, and there he asked for the dues of the English churches to be lowered. He also secured a lower toll for trading vessels in Italy. He probably got a glimpse of the emperor’s life there in Rome and thought he would love to have that kind of power. But that same year, Hakon passed away in Norway. Olaf tried to return but was actually killed by his own people! CNUT put one his oldest sons, Svein, back in power in Norway until he was run out in 1034. So the empire already started to crumble before CNUT’s death in 1035. His death caused one of the craziest chain reactions in all of history. This is where it gets real good!

Here was CNUT’s plan of succession. His son Svein was supposed to inherit Norway, Harthacnut to stay in Denmark, and Harold Harefoot to take the English throne. Svein’s reign was cut short before CNUT’s death by Olaf’s son, Magnus. The rest of the plan may have worked if it weren’t for the fact that Harold Harefoot was the son of CNUT’s first wife, while Harthacnut was the son of Emma of Normandy. So after King CNUT’s death, his son Harold Harefoot wanted to succeed him, but had a weak claim to the throne. To make matters worse, Ethelred’s younger sons, seeing their opportunity, return from exile to try and reclaim the throne from the Danes.  

The story of Ethelred’s exiled children is fascinating. Remember: when Ethelred had to flee England during the invasion, he took with him two sons, Edward and Alfred, who, had they had a force behind them, could have made a very real threat to the throne. Before CNUT’s death, Duke Robert of Normandy had asked the king to return the children to England and restore their property. He backed up this request by raising a fleet. CNUT went to meet him, but Duke Robert decided to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem instead. Probably a good call, but whatever deal CNUT had with Normandy through his wife Emma died with him. Alfred wastes no time returning, but immediately is captured by Earl Godwin. Edward, however, buys his time. In 1037 Harold Harefoot was sworn in as king. He ruled for three years before his untimely death. Harthacnut came over from Denmark and took his rightful place as King of England. His reign was even shorter than his brother’s. In 1042, the last of CNUT’s sons died, putting Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred, champion of the Anglo-Saxons, back on the throne.

Edward the Confessor had some big shoes to fill. His father earned the nickname “the Unready” because of his failure to defend the country. By the time of Edward’s ascension, England probably looked just as vulnerable as it did back in 1013 when Svein Forkbeard conquered it. His enemies are the Scandinavian men who found a role in Anglo-Saxon England. The powerful Earl Godwin wanted a shot at the throne and threatened to take it from Edward. In 1051, Edward showed that he meant business. He stopped paying the tribute to the Danes and he also outlawed Godwin and his son who were making trouble. Over the next ten years, Edward ran all over the country, from town to ports, trying to defend England from the Scandinavian armies who were supported by Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. To keep this brief, I won’t go into detail as to the inner workings of England at this time. It is fascinating and difficult to follow, but our focus is on 1066. In that year, King Edward died. Godwin’s son, Harold, who had inherited his father’s earldom, lays claim to the English throne. And here’s where things get really crazy: Harold’s brother, Tostig, decided to support a different Harald. This was the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. He too threw his name into the hat for future kings of England. He and Tostig had earlier campaign in Wales. His return to England was anticipated by Harold Godwinsson, who went to go meet him at Sandwich.

Here we see some of the difficulties of Ethelred echoed in King Harold’s reign. While waiting at Sandwich, he realized that he could not afford to keep his whole army together. Harald Hardrada finally does show up to join with Tostig, but not at Sandwich. King Harold rides hard to meet the invading force. Before he reached them, two earls from Northumbria, Edwin and Morcar, try to take the force head on. These men replaced Tostig when he was expelled from Northumbria. The Norwegians defeat the earls and their force and continue on to York. There they are met by King Harold and the rest of his forces. King Harold wins decisively at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both Tostig and Harald Hardrada are killed. And things are finally looking up for the Anglo-Saxons!

Yet while Harold was busy fighting off the Norwegians, an unseen foe crossed the English Channel and landed at Hastings: Duke William. William the goddamn Bastard! Did his Viking roots kick in when he saw the turmoil in England? The perfect opportunist, the duke got wind of Harold Godwinsson heading north to fight off a large invading force. He took his chance. Landing in Hastings on September 29, 1066, he quickly built a classic Norman castle and prepared his defenses. He knew Harold would come to meet him. Indeed, Harold meets his end at the Battle of Hastings and William becomes the Conqueror.

Now, William’s claim to the throne was shaky at best. The story is that while Edward the Confessor grew up in Normandy, he and William became buddies. An agreement was made. If Edward could regain the throne, William would be his successor. The validity of this rumor is suspect, but William defended the realm with a ferocity that had not been seen England for many years. He chased off multiple invaders. Prince Edgar, a distant relative of Edmund Ironside, tried to stir up a rebellion that was quickly put down by William.

So why do we remember and celebrate William’s victory in 1066 and not Svein’s in 1013, or CNUT’s in 1016? The simple reason: longevity. CNUT’s early death led to the tumultuous environment within his empire. Instead of leaving everything in the hands of one capable heir, he split up his kingdoms. This may have worked if any of his sons had any of the charisma and skill that CNUT displayed in winning over the English people, going from enemy to beloved king in a matter of decades. But none of CNUT’s sons lived past the age of 30. Without a proper heir to rule the empire, each country fell to its enemies, including England. William on the other hand secured an heir (Henry I) and protected England in a way that CNUT’s successors could not. William also had an advantage over CNUT. In Normandy, there was a central church, which meant that William could indeed replace English priests and bishops and administrators with his own. In the end, William may have proved to be shrewder than CNUT, but the Danish king brought England into the circle of European powers. His daughter married a Roman emperor and he attended the coronation of another emperor. An English king had never enjoyed these privileges.  Beyond that, CNUT displayed an incredible talent of recognizing strengths and weaknesses and adapting to the throne of England, rather than forcing his Danish touch on England. This, I think, is what makes his story so compelling and why the invasion of 1013 is worth learning about. Accepting his role as the head of Church, CNUT really put his whole self into it, working with the clergy, keeping the English in their administrative roles, and even going to the Pope for a break on tributes.

Pleasing the church wasn’t his only accomplishment as king. He became committed to justice, even though he was behind some of the worst crimes against the English people. He fought off his Scandinavian contemporaries and put back together the North Atlantic Empire that had once been held by his father.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an amazing piece of writing that does a wonderful job of spelling out just how everything fell into place for CNUT, and how everything eventually slipped from his grasp. And while Lawson’s book is mostly speculation, it still put into perspective just how daunting of a task it was for CNUT to do what he did.

The moral of the story, History Fans, is to keep your children healthy. Who knows when they could become emperor!

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Greetings, History Fans! Today is part one of a two part series on our favorite Viking king: CNUT! I have a post the recounts a lot of the same information when I was first listening to Professor Kenneth Harl's lecture series, but I wanted to go into a little more detail about the Danish conquering of England. I hope you find this as fascinating as I do!

In the year 1066, William the Bastard crossed the English Channel from Normandy and conquered England. It is a date well known throughout history, made even more significant by the famous Bayeux Tapestry. But history often overlooks the conquerors from earlier in the century. In 1013, Svein Forkbeard not only had the entire of nation of England in the palm of his hand but he also held his native Denmark and even Norway for a brief period of time. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives a marvelous timeline of the events in medieval England. In this post I would like to walk us through those events, starting with ascension of Ethelred the Unready in 978 and ending with Duke William of Normandy and the incredible Battle of Hastings.

In order to understand the relationship of Ethelred and England, and just how an invading army could take over the country, we need to go back and retrace the important events that led to his sorry ass sitting the throne.

The first official Viking attack in England was in 793 at Lindinsfarne. Many people attribute this particular raid as the official beginning of the Viking Age. Of course, there had probably already been raids in the Baltics, France, or even some of the British Isles. But this attack was significant in that it focused on the monastery, which contained an awful lot of valuables. The church was also willing to pay for hostages. The Vikings got to wet their whistles in Lindinsfarne and really set a precedent for how the next two centuries would play out.

At this point, England was broken into a few different kingdoms: Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. For the next century, the Danish Vikings really did a number on England. Northumbria was the first to fall to the enemy and would remain on the edge of Dane-English relations, switching hands and allegiances and ultimately embracing its Scandinavian roots. The other kingdoms soon fell to the might of the Vikings, except Wessex who finally got their savior in 870: Alfred the Great.

King Alfred may have been the only ruling monarch who stood up to the Vikings. Over in mainland Europe, Charles and the others were buying their peace, a strategy that did not wholly work, and one that Alfred utilized when he deemed pertinent. Alfred chose his battles. When the time seemed right, he would swoop and attack a Viking host. He wouldn’t meet an army head on. He also began building fortresses and protecting the farmers with soldiers so that harvest could be secured. He baptized some of the leaders, drove others out, and nearly succeeded in uniting a broken England. This, he knew, would be key. The Vikings were opportunists. They knew how fragmented England was and played on its fears and vulnerabilities. This charming trait would eventually come back to bite them.

Alfred the Great died in 899 after serving England for 28 years. After his death, things really fell to shit. The Danes settled in Northumbria and cut it off from the rest of the country. King after king seized the English throne, each more futile than the last at expelling the Vikings from their country. The Danes and English take turns murdering and baptizing each other, until finally Ethelred takes the throne in 978, succeeding his brother who died under some fishy circumstances. Ethelred’s reign starts off with a fresh wave of Viking attacks. Olaf Tryggvason is the culprit for many of these raids, and in 991 Ethelred pays him 10,000 pounds of silver--the first of many tributes that would come to define his time on the throne.

The year 994 was the first time we see Svein Forkbeard’s name pop up, though he was most likely in England in 991. He was the King of Denmark and joined up with Olaf Tryggvason who promised some good booty over in England. The two attack London and are eventually paid off by Ethelred with 16,000 pounds. On his return, however, he found that King Eric of Sweden had taken Denmark and expelled Svein from his own country. He was turned away by every country until Scotland let him in. There he waited until King Eric’s death. Svein then makes a deal with the new ruler in Sweden (Olaf. I know it’s confusing) and an earl in Norway, Eric of Lade, to get rid of Olaf Tryggvason. He is killed at a battle in 999 and Svein puts Eric of Lade in charge of Norway as his vassal. Svein then held both Norway and Denmark. He then turns his eyes upon the real prize in the North Atlantic: England.

Between 1003 and 1006, Svein attacks all over England, just making a real mess. Ethelred pays him 24,000 pounds. Svein returns in 1007 and is paid off with 36,000 pounds. Are you seeing the pattern here? Further raids continue by different Vikings, but the result is the same: Ethelred shelling out 48,000 pounds of silver.

                                    (Ethelred looking like a chump)

At this point in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle you can really feel the hopelessness of the authors. So much violence met with a cowardly payment. And those people who lost everything to the foreign attackers were being taxed heavily by their own king to pay off the culprits! What a miserable time!

Svein returns to England in 1013 with his son CNUT and a huge army that nobody wants to fuck with. Either that or the people are just so sick of being harassed and their king just lying down and taking it. Either way, England wholly submits to Svein and Ethelred zooms across the channel with his sons Edward and Alfred to stay with his wife’s relatives in Normandy. But the celebration was short. Svein died the very next year, leaving his son CNUT to try and hold on to a foreign throne barely won.

Ethelred sees his chance and returns to England and chases CNUT out of the country. Before he leaves, however, he mutilates some of the hostages given to his father as part of their peace agreement. In 1015, CNUT returns and begins a campaign against Wessex, the former stronghold of Alfred the Great. Ethelred’s third son, Edmund Ironside, takes up the role as champion for the Anglo-Saxons. He and CNUT go at each other. But CNUT has help from an Englishman! Eadric, the Earl of Mercia, switches sides and joins up with the Danes! In 1016, CNUT’s army arrives and he leads them against Edmund in London. Edmund holds out. Ethelred died, and Edmund claimed the English throne. He fought one last costly battle against CNUT in 1016. The latter was victorious but the cost was enormous. The two met and made oaths and pledges to live in peace. They divided the country in half—Edmund takes Wessex and London, CNUT gets Mercia and Northumbria. But once again, the victory is bittersweet. Edmund dies on November 30, 1016, leaving England to its other king: CNUT!

Now, before we get into the details of CNUT’s reign in England, I would like to point out a couple ideas that M.K. Lawson describes in his book, Cnut: England’s Viking King. I’d like to defend Ethelred for a moment. Sure, he was unorganized and mostly ineffective, but the payments of that much money may not have been such a horrible idea after all. At that time, with an enemy that was also unorganized and ferocious, keeping up an army would have been extremely expensive. Lawson suggests that Ethelred weighed the costs. Would feeding, housing, equipping, training, and replacing men cost any less than those astounding amounts of silver he forked over? Maybe Ethelred wasn’t the total bumbling idiot we make him out to be. Then again, he deserves some of the criticism. Why couldn’t he gather the forces and take a stand, the way Alfred had centuries before? Lawson also has an answer for that: Ethelred took the throne after his brother was murdered. Many believed that members of Ethelred’s camp were responsible for the assassination. There were pockets of loyal followers of the dead brother who may have welcomed a new leader.

And don’t you think at this point, the English people could give a shit who their leader was, as long as life stopped being so crazy? The people, especially the church, wanted peace and justice in the land. After thirty years of non-stop violence, it’s no wonder Svein was met with such little resistance. Ethelred was incompetent and the people had no will left to fight.

CNUT takes the throne in 1017 and immediately begins strengthening his hold on it. Remember, even though the English people were worn out and tired of violence, that doesn’t mean that they forget that CNUT and his dad burned down their villages and killed their relatives! He broke the country back into four pieces and puts one of his in each section. He takes Wessex for himself, gives East Anglia to Thorkel, Mercia to Eadric, and Eric of Lade gets Northumbria. His reasoning for doing this is two-fold. The outward reasoning was to reward his followers for their service. Eric of Lade had helped him rule Norway, Eadric secured Svein’s entry to England. But splitting the country up like that helped keep tabs on possible uprising. Remember, these men were warlords. They had small militaries of their own. So a military presence in each quarter, plus a more efficient way to collect taxes underlined the more attractive “earldom” these men received.

CNUT’s next move was to marry Ethelred’s widow. This too had a few meanings. For one, it put CNUT that much closer to a legitimate claim to the throne. Marrying a former English queen was a pretty good way to get in with the English people. But he took it a step further. He visited Normandy and got the blessing of Duke Richard II. This pseudo-treaty not only kept Normandy nearby as an ally rather than an enemy, but it also meant that Ethelred’s youngest sons, Edward and Alfred, would be discouraged from coming back to England to seek vengeance on what was rightfully theirs. Pretty dope, CNUT!

In that same year the traitor Eadric died. Something interesting Lawson says about Eadric: as an earl, he very well could have benefitted from raising tribute to pay the invading Danish armies. His nickname in some of the remaining documents was “Acquisitor,” which would lead us to believe that when the people he ruled over couldn’t afford the tax put into effect to pay the tribute, they would have to hand their land over to Eadric, who would then pay their part of the tax. This would have made Eadric a very rich man. It could also be another pass for poor old Ethelred. Imagine having a very important political presence being so in favor of paying off the Danes. Fighting them would not put money in his pocket, so he would have been in favor of the tribute every time.

In 1018, we see the Danes collect a huge payment of tribute from the English, especially the citizens of London. Then, just two years after securing a shaky throne, CNUT leaves! He heads back to Denmark with half of his army. This is an interesting move. First, it shows how unconcerned he was about someone trying to rise up against him while he was gone. He must have either trusted his Scandinavian contemporaries or had not seen a competitor in any of the remaining Anglo-Saxon nobles. Secondly, it is a reminder that his was no ordinary Viking. CNUT was a formidable military mind who now was king of two powerful countries. There were rumors of his brother Harald making trouble back in Denmark. Whatever it was, CNUT must have fixed it because he returned to England the next year. This too is telling. Why did CNUT choose England over Denmark as his residence? I think an obvious answer is that England had taxations and a coinage system whereas Denmark did not. C.R.E.A.M. Am I right? But, as we will see, CNUT used his position as King of England to make a splash on the international stage.

Pretty tight cliffhanger, huh? Tune in next time to see what happens to the new international sensation and Christian KING CNUT!!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Euhemerism: Snorri Re-Writes the History Books

Welcome back, History fans! I hope you enjoyed your visit to Nazi Germany. But today, we are traveling way, way back… TO THE BEGINNING OF THE COSMOS!!!!

Okay, not really that far back. But I want to discuss some Norse Mythology. More accurately I want to explore how the mythology made its way to us today, how it was shaped, written, changed, and evaluated. Because as you should now know, the Christian Icelanders were the ones who wrote down all of the oral histories. And, if you read History Books closely, we know from Dave Buckler’s eloquent post that our worldview will shape our discoveries. The same is true with our Icelandic writers in the 13th century.

Over the past few weeks I have been reading John Lindow’s book that is simply titled, Norse Mythology. It is essentially an encyclopedia of the names and objects found throughout the mythology. But what I found most intriguing was his introduction that dropped bomb on how we understand history: euhemerism. But before we start dissecting this word and its meanings and implications, I think it is important to look at how we got our information on the Old Norse religion. “But why?” you might be asking, if in fact anyone is reading this. I’ll tell you why!

Taken at face value, the gods and the stories of their misadventures are simply that: delightful and fun stories that may or may not serve a purpose to teach a lesson or explain how things came into being. Reading into them, however, you can build a decent platform from which you can see the Viking worldview. A quick example: in the mythology, the gods obtain many precious objects, as well as invaluable concepts, from the dwarves and the giants, simply by taking them. Or, as we see with Thor, killing and then taking. The mead of poetry—stolen from the giants by Odin. Sif’s headpiece—taken from the dwarves by Loki. And so you can kind of see this ingrained belief that it is not only permissible to take valuables from others, but it is straight up honorable! If you transplant this into the Viking Age, maybe you can see how the Vikings did not see themselves as ruthless pirates, but rather honorable warriors who were living out the old stories in real life! Taking valuables from chumps! Pretty neat, huh?

We get our information on the Norse gods from a handful of sources. The two most relevant are the Poetic Edda, and the Prose Edda, the latter written by all around badass, Snorri Struluston. These two important works are confirmed by fragments of poetry and references in the sagas throughout Medieval Scandinavian literature. The Poetic Edda is a collection of eddic poems which describe the exploits of Odin, Thor, and all the wonderful characters in the mythology. More importantly, it contains the poem Voluspa, which describes the CREATION OF THE COSMOS!!! Snorri’s work is more or less a textbook on how to tackle the extremely difficult task of writing and speaking in eddic poetry. He describes the myths not as explanations or as a religious tract. Instead, he is simply citing the old stories as references for how to write and speak in the poetry of the celebrated skalds, or old poets.

In his Prose Edda, Snorri makes sure to let us know that while he is giving information on the old religion, he himself now follows Christ. It is astounding to see a Christian author write with such reverence about the old gods and the old abandoned religion—a point that I am sure I’ve mentioned more times than people care to hear. But Snorri has one other great work attributed to his name, Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway), and in it he yanks us all around by our proverbial dicks.

I don’t really think that learning about Snorri’s life will help us better understand his writing. But who knows! Snorri lived, wrote, and died in the tumultuous 13th century in Iceland where he was one of the wealthiest and most respected men of the time. He was elected as law speaker at the Althing multiple times. He was a chieftain who grew wealthy by serving his thingmen and by really manipulating the law in courts. Kind of a shrewd asshole, Snorri found himself a target of those he went up against in court. Eventually he found his way to Norway, where he developed a close relationship with an earl and even the King himself. The King of Norway wanted to use Snorri’s power and reputation to help bring Iceland under Norwegian rule for good. Snorri said yes but either got cold feet or never meant to help. He went back to Iceland where he continued his life, somewhere in there writing the two masterpieces that we have today. He was then murdered by some of his kinsmen at the request of the King of Norway.

Did his indecisiveness at the end of his life leak out of his pen onto the parchment? I highly doubt it. But maybe it is a good explanation for the road he goes down in his work, Heimskringla. In the first chapter, the famous The Saga of the Ynglings, Snorri introduces Odin, Njord, Frey, and Freyja as mortal humans. Why the heck would he do this? We all know he wrote the Prose Edda, in which he explains to us that these were the gods of his ancestors. What does it mean? Lindow’s explanation is one of justification.

Snorri partakes in the most interesting of concepts: euhemerism. Named after the Greek philosopher Euhemerous, the word is in reference to gods ascending from humans. In Heimskringla, Snorri paints Odin as a man with extraordinary powers. He was undefeated in battle and was therefore considered indestructible and his name was called upon by warriors on the battlefield. He could perform magic and use the runes to do his will. But he was a human, nonetheless. And Snorri describes his funeral. Njord and Frey also have superhuman powers attributed to them that explain how people could THINK that they were gods. They, too, meet their mortal ends here on Earth.

Is Snorri justifying how his ancestors were hoodwinked into believing these ludicrous stories? Is he embarrassed? Why then would he write something like the Prose Edda. Lindow argues that even in the Edda, Snorri again uses this method of euhemerism! What?! It’s been a couple years since I’ve read that masterpiece, so I’d need to go back through and seek out this tragedy. Does this tarnish our reputation of Snorri and his wonderful works? I don’t think so. We have enough information to know most of the whole story about which gods were worshipped, and for some, how they were worshipped. Snorri’s dangerous walk down euhemerism is a wonder because he’s not totally sold on it. His work in the Prose Edda proves that he is familiar with the background, and he doesn’t go to the same trouble trying to historify (I made this word up) the myths.

My opinion of Snorri hasn’t wavered. I still think he is a bad ass. What concerns me though is the idea of euhemerism. Where else does it occur? Of course my thoughts immediately go to the Bible. Here we have another religious text written down years after the events occurred. Yet, the intentions would be different. Snorri wanted to excuse his ancestors. He was a believer in Christ. But the Scandinavian culture held family ties and ancestors in extremely high regard. Snorri, who was proud of his ties to Egil Skallagrimsson, wanted to display his belief in Christianity and to exonerate his ancestors. Perhaps this method of euhemerism was his best answer: to squeeze the gods into an actual history and explain how people would have been brought into that false religion.

The authors of the Bible, on the other hand, would want to write their stories into history in order to get more believers! Now I’m in no way saying that I believe that they used such a method, nor am I conjuring up a blasphemous theory about the Bible. I’m simply speculating that if Snorri walked down that road, who’s to say others didn’t as well?

So keep those eyes peeled, History Fans. You never really know what the author of those history books is up to. . . (see what I did there? If I’m lying to you, what can you believe?!?!?)

Monday, November 4, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts

Greetings, History Fans! 
We are going to take a break from Vikings and Medieval history to enjoy a fresh breath of Nazi air! 

A few weeks ago, Dillon’s mom (sup Lydia!) was kind enough to let me borrow Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. I have been a fan of Larson’s ever since I read Devil the in the White City all those years ago. He has a knack for uncovering little-known stories from the past and writing a very compelling book around it. Isaac’s Storm is a great example of taking a relatively uninteresting circumstance like the Galveston hurricane and having me, as a reader, hooked until the end.

Whereas Devil tends to get a little lopsided (you start wanting more of H. H. Holmes and less of the World Fair), In the Garden of Beasts is evenly paced, and a thrilling look at Germany’s buildup to World War II.

Larson follows the lives of the Dodd family through letters, diaries, official government transcripts and communiques, as they begin their new lives as ambassadors in Berlin. William Dodd, a history professor, Jeffersonian democrat, and all around grump, finds himself offered the position of American ambassador to Germany by his pal President Franklin Roosevelt. Dodd was unsuited for the job—a point his contemporaries made sure to drive home at every chance they could. His only real qualifications were that he had studied in Germany in college and was familiar with the geography and language. Dodd, on his part, thought being a sitting duck ambassador might give him some extra time to complete his book on the Old South. 

Dodd certainly was hesitant. As a modest penny-pincher, he did not fit the profile of lavishly rich ambassadors who would throw parties for any occasion, vacation on their yachts, and employ more servants than necessary. And people were aware that something important was happening in Germany. By the time of his appointment in 1933, very little was understood about Hitler and his policies. What was then just an undertone of anti-Semitism was not seen as odd or even out of place, if perhaps a little exuberant. It seemed like an exciting time in Berlin, and as Larson reveals, the Dodds were taken in by the majesty of the city and the mystique of the Nazi regime, which had yet to show its true colors.

Finding new and fresh ground within the realm of Nazi Germany and World War II is not an easy task. So much is known and many of its main points have been trampled to death to the point that we can make Goebbels jokes without a second thought. But Larson puts his best foot forward and expresses three major points in his book that I had not been totally aware of prior: the subtlety of the Nazis, the strange proximity and responses by the United States, and the internal discrepancies within the early Nazi party.

It is so difficult for us to detach ourselves from the swastika in order to see the appeal of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s. The swastika, for us, is a symbol of ultimate evil and hatred. But early on, it had been a symbol of hope and revival. Germany shit the bed in World War I, and France made certain that they sleep in it for a long, long time. The Treaty of Versailles, while necessary, was extreme.  It left Germany humiliated, broken, and desperate: a perfect recipe for a psycho to come into power!

The genius of Hitler was his subtlety. People knew he was kind of a nut, but he kept in check in those early years. He was charismatic, compelling, and proactive. He instilled back into Germany a sense of pride that had been stripped from them following the Great War. He slowly built the SA and the SS. Under President Hindenburg, he kept a cool head (until the Night of the Long Knives). But what was really impressive was how they pulled the wool over the eyes of the world, and strangely enough, their own population. Joseph Goebbels was a master at filtering stories and editing information. The rest of the world saw mostly what Goebbels and Hitler wanted it to see: that there was a peaceful revolution happening in Germany. Even more masterful was the persecution of Jews in those early years. Hitler knew he needed to bide his time in order to build the army needed to meet his goals. So he played for peace. And instead of destroying the Jews in an extremely horrendous way, he began by slowly breaking their wills and eliminating them from the social and cultural life of Germany. In 1933, a law was passed that Jewish people could no longer be physicians. Months later, that law was expanded to include dentistry. It was slow and subtle and humiliating, and it worked. Between 1933 and 1935, Hitler had convinced the world, his own country, and probably himself that he wanted peace and that these were simply precautionary steps to insure said peace.

I took a World War II class in college taught by the wonderful Dr. Mark Smith. One of the books we were asked to read was titled The Nazi Conscience, in which the author tried to explain how an entire country could go along with Hitler.  Along with the new found pride in their decimated country, there was a palpable fear that ran through Germany, especially in Berlin. Larson does a terrific job at bringing this fear to life through Dodd’s diary and through letters between Americans and even Germans who were aware of the pressure building within the capital. Ambassador Dodd’s daughter, Martha, might be the greatest example to help us understand just how anyone could have been swept up in the Nazi propaganda. Martha was taken by the young German men, impressed by their passion, and quick to dismiss the disturbing rumors of brutality. She even witnessed a public display of anti-Semitism in Nuremburg and still waved it off as an isolated event. Germany and in particular Berlin contained a very majestic quality, something regal of the old, Prussian world. Add to it the excitement of a gathering national pride, and you can see how people could be smitten with the country.

We can also put it into a modern context that we can understand. Keep in mind that I am not comparing the weight, horror, or consequences of these two events. I simply want to illustrate how a group of people can be wont to go along with bad ideas in the wake of horrific events. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States Congress gave the okay for our military to go to war with Iraq. This made zero sense, and in retrospect, was ridiculous and wrong. However, the country felt vulnerable for the first time in nearly 200 years. Someone needed to be punished, and everyone went along with a bad idea during an emotional time. Now, those events happened within two years. The distance between the end of the First World War in and the rise of Hitler to Chancellor is much greater. And again, the events are not equal by any means, but the environment in which those ideas became realities was eerily similar. 

“But!” you are probably saying, “Not everybody wanted to go to war with Iraq! We protested!” Yes, and this is where Larson unveils a hidden gem within the early Nazi years: not everybody was on board. 

It is easy to make the assumption that everyone who lived in Nazi Germany was kind of a bad person. You either A) believed in the Nazi doctrine B) went along with it out of fear or C) did not say or do anything to challenge those in power. The heartbreaking stories we get of Germans sheltering Jews and hiding whole families are the exception, not the rule. But this assessment is unfair. It was not that black and white. Take the Night of the Long Knives for example. Rohm, Hitler’s pal for years and a person instrumental in bringing him to power, gets shot in the back of the head because he is an inconvenience. No one felt safe. Friends were pulled from their homes and never heard from again. Staying silent was staying alive. But Ambassador Dodd, protected by his status, decided to say what the Germans could not. In an uncharacteristically ballsy move, Dodd gave a speech at an event in which he slyly condemned the Nazi order by discussing the failures of countries with too much hubris to know they are crossing the line. He of course mentioned the subject of his one true love: the Old South. The Nazis did not like Dodd’s speech at all, and had it removed from newspapers and radio programs. They saw right through his guise and saw the critical admonishment directed at them. But many Germans, and even Germans within the current government, sent Dodd their congratulations and thanks. What they could not say out of fear, Dodd spoke brashly out of simple stubbornness, much to the annoyance of the State Department back home.

Is it possible to say that there were good men who sported the swastika? That might be a stretch. Could it be possible that in those early years, men believed in Hitler as a leader and stayed quiet about their disgust with some of his policies and with his means of carrying them out? Surely. Does that make these men good or morally superior to their peers? I don’t know! I do know, however, there existed at least two men within the Nazi party who eventually spoke out and did what they could to slow the oncoming tide of aggression and violence. The first was Rudolf Diels, who, at the beginning, was head of the Gestapo. Being the head of anything within the Nazi regime kind of makes you automatically a shithead. And leading the Gestapo makes a violent and dangerous shithead. So Diels was definitely not a good guy. I’m sure he had his hands dipped in torture and murder. But he was also instrumental in closing notoriously violent prisons and concentration camps. Hitler deemed he had too soft of a heart and probably would have been exterminated if it weren’t for his close friendship with Goring. 

The other person who stood up against his own party and government was vice chancellor Papen. Granted, Papen was closer to President Hindenburg than Hitler, and much of the credit for his courage needs to go to his speech writers, but Papen stood up and spoke his mind about the way things were shaping up. The vehicle, like Dodd’s, was a speech. But unlike Dodd, Papen and his speech writers were not as candid about their disagreement with the Nazi party. If it weren’t for his closeness to President Hindenburg, Papen would surely have been a dead man following that speech. And in the end, that speech didn’t do much good. Hitler ignored it like he ignored all other forms of human feeling and plowed right on ahead to his plan of extermination and decimating his beloved Germany all over again. But for us as historians, this speech is incredibly illuminating. Papen had not agreed with Hitler. Finally, we have evidence of someone attached to the swastika that did not agree and actually said something. But beyond that, it was his speech writers’ idea. They formulated the plan and Papen followed through. This gives me hope that we can remove the stigma that the German population was evil or stupid or cowardly. We now have seen a few men light sparks in the shadows.

As wonderful as it is to see Germans standing up against Hitler, it is equally as shocking to see America’s response to Hitler. Before arriving in Berlin, Dodd was charged with two missions. The first was his official task handed to him from the State Department: get those Germans to pay their debts! Part of the Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany pay its debtors, which humiliated Germany and worried the United States. Hitler, who despised the treaty, of course refused to pay anything to the United States when he became chancellor. Dodd was charged with getting the payments back on track. His second task was off the books, charged to him in confidence from none other than President Roosevelt himself. This task was to do as much as he could in an unofficial capacity to protest the mistreatment of the German Jews. Before long, Dodd understood that repaying the debt was the last thing on Germany’s mind. So he set his mind on performing his duties and to the mission that Roosevelt had put on his shoulders. But how could he carry out such a task, and without the official backing of the United States?

By the time Dodd took up his post in Berlin, President Roosevelt had been working on a silent and secret game of chess. He personally wanted to head on over and wallop Hitler before any real damage could be done. But the consensus in the U.S. was that of isolation. The Great War was still fresh on their minds. Plus, the country had fallen into a depression and drought. Things were a mess! And the last thing the American people wanted to do was go fix a problem in Europe that they had already tried to fix! WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE EUROPEANS?! The government, too, was keen to stay out of any European affairs. They just wanted their god damn money from the war. Roosevelt was in a tight spot. Getting their debt settled with Germany was the number one priority, so what followed was the most heinous of crimes that is not actually a crime: appeasement. The U.S. government had to look the other way and believe the lies trickling out of Berlin that stated all Hitler wanted was peace. And once Dodd became disenchanted with the Germany he had loved since his college years, Roosevelt had to hear the truth and ignore it. 

This appeasement of the United States is another point that I think is difficult to appreciate in retrospect. Roosevelt had the information. Dodd had the information. Things were looking grim in Germany and still we didn’t do anything. But it took the Dodd’s nearly two years to accept what was happening in Berlin and throughout the rest of the country. And they were there to see it firsthand. The book shows some fantastic examples of Americans vacationing and travelling in Germany who dismiss the rumors of violence and have nothing but wonderful things to say about the new Germany. Even the intelligence community at that time didn’t have a full grasp on what was going on in Europe. All they had were rumors and the transcripts and letters from the ambassadors that they didn’t fully trust or respect. 

What really weirds me out is just how close the Dodd family, and thereby the U.S., was to the center of the Nazi storm. William Dodd frequented parties that featured Nazi officials. He had two separate meetings with Hitler in which he got to speak with the lunatic one on one. Diels was a common guest in his house, and his neighbor was the chubby gay boy Rohms, who was on everybody’s shitlist. Martha Dodd was an independent and adventurous woman. Who liked to sleep around. She had affairs with Nazi officials, with Russian spies, with Carl Sandburg, the poet from Chicago, and was even set up on a lunch date with the Big Cheese himself, Hitler! While Dodd was eventually canned and sent back to the states, he took Roosevelt’s charge to heart. He stopped attending the parties and events hosted by and in honor of the Nazis. He took what unofficial action he could with what little power he had.

The last and shortest point is the derision amongst the Nazi leaders. I really had no idea how much they all hated each other. Himmler and Goring hated Rohms, who wanted his SA to engulf the army, which would have made him more powerful than probably Hitler himself! They then manipulated Hitler’s fear and anger by feeding him some misinformation, which led to Rohm’s death, as well as many others on the Night of the Long Knives. Diels was on Hitler’s shitlist, but was saved because of his close relationship to Goring. Hitler was known to despise and mistrust everyone and preferred the company of his chauffer and mid-level thugs. It is possible that once the war started really rolling, the Nazi government started to mesh a little bit more, but in those early years, it’s a wonder they could get anything done. I think it shows just how charismatic Hitler really was. He united many (despicable) people under his cause and kept the machine oiled just enough to perform his sinister deeds. What a butthole. 

Well, I hope you learned a little bit today. Love each other, and keep trying to destroy each other’s ethnic groups. We will be diving back into some Norse Mythology on our next post. But King Cnut is right around the corner!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Viking Age Iceland: How Does This Crazy Thing Even Work?!

Viking Age Iceland: How Does This Crazy Thing Even Work?
Here at History Books, we have really driven this Iceland thing into the ground, huh? It’s just so fascinating! What else could I possibly say on the subject that I haven’t already dribbled incoherently on this website or blown into your ear while you wished you were somewhere else? The answer is LOADS MORE!

What I’d like to do with this post is to address a couple points Jesse Byock addresses in his wonderful book Viking Age Iceland.  A handful of questions popped up while reading The Book of Settlements and Byock answered these with detailed information. I don’t want harp on about the same old points over and over, like I am prone to do. But these are the questions I want to answer:
  • ·         Why wasn’t Iceland conquered until late in the 13th century?
  • ·         How did the Free State survive as long as it did?
  • ·         How did the legislative and judicial branches of Iceland operate, and how did it thrive without the   executive branch?
  • ·         How did Christianity affect the social structure?
  • ·         What led to the surrender of Iceland to the Norwegian crown?
 As you probably know by now, Iceland was first settled in 870 for the most part by Norwegians, although there were plenty of folks from Britain and various other Viking settlements scattered through the North Atlantic, like the Orkneys.

There were many reasons why Iceland looked enticing. First and foremost –free land! Remember, part of the reason for the Viking expansion was lack of resources, money, and people plum running out of room! Wait, there’s a huge island sitting offshore with just a couple of monks farting around? Let’s take it! Many historians blame the mass exodus from Norway to Iceland on the tyranny of King Harold Finehair. While this was a bit of an exaggeration, Fairhair’s actions had a huge impact on not only why Norwegians were heading over to Iceland but also how the emigrants built the country’s legal infrastructure.

For hundreds of years, families could own their own land and farms in Norway without the hindrance of a king or overlord. They were protected under Norwegian law from any taxation that the petty kings and jarls who were competing for power might try to place upon them. This centuries-old right was challenged by the punk upstart Harald Fairhair who was trying to unite Norway under one crown. To pay for this expensive conquest, King Harald started to collect a tax from all the farmers, including the freemen who had lived untaxed on their family farmsteads since the Bronze Age. Many of the Norwegians packed up and headed to Iceland where Harald couldn’t bother them. Others stayed to stand up to the king and later had to run for their lives. They also ended up in Iceland. Still others were criminals who killed folks and stole things and had to run from the law. And they ended up in Iceland, too! Talk about a melting pot!

Why didn’t Harald follow any of these groups to Iceland? If he wanted to demand payment of taxes, confront his political enemies or even snag a thief, why on earth did he stay in Norway and let a potential gold mine, a large mass of free land, keep to itself? Jesse Byock answers this question by stating that King Harald was too busy trying to get everything straight in Norway. With all the other kings and jarls to subject to his crown, it seems that Iceland mattered little in the grand scheme. Plus, an expedition of that magnitude would have cost a lot of money that he didn’t have AND leave the mother country exposed. That still doesn’t quite explain why so much time elapsed between the Age of Settlements in Iceland and the end of the Free State. This was a country without a military or defense. I’d like to make an uneducated speculation: would it be possible that Harald’s successors had learned of the fragile state of Iceland’s ecosystem? There wasn’t much land left at this point. And the land that was in use was being abused. This could be a total shot in the dark. But surely by the 11th century, Norway had to have known that Iceland had almost no natural resources. Aside from building an empire, there would have been few reasons to swallow up the island under the Norwegian crown.

So the Icelanders were left on their own to construct a constitution and build a nation without the influence of a king, or really even a ruling class. At the time of its inception, Iceland was a group of farmers who lived on scattered and isolated farmsteads. The memory of King Harald imposing on their land pulsed fresh in their minds as they created a complex system of legislative and judicial checks and balances. There is a lot take in, but we’ll give it a shot.

Iceland was broken up into four regions: north, east, south, and west. Each region was further broken down into local chieftaincies. A chieftaincy could contain multiple chieftains. A free farmer had the right to choose which chieftain he would follow. The reason could be for a variety of things, such as blood ties or maybe a chieftain is famous for his knowledge of the law. Regardless of the reason, a man’s chieftain could be his neighbor or could live a day’s hard ride on the other side of the island. This was right to choose their leader is what defined and protected Iceland throughout its span of the Free State.

The relationship between freeman and chieftain is an interesting and possibly unique one. No oaths were sworn. It was a formal and public agreement that was beneficial for both parties and could be terminated if either party felt like their needs were not being met. The two sides needed one another—the more followers a chieftain had, the more wealth and power he could gain, while the farmer depended upon his leader to protect him in and out of court. Yet, the Icelanders, because of their constitution and because of geographical set up of the island, kept a chieftain from growing too powerful in one specific area. Remember, they wanted their freedom and did not want anyone meddling in their business like pesky Harald. Because there were no sworn allegiances, the chieftains could not maintain a military force for an extended period of time. His followers, or thingmen, could afford together at an assembly (thing) or the national assembly (Althing), but that was special circumstances. Leaving their farmsteads for a long period of time could mean total demise for him and his household.

What was the role of a chieftain? One of the chieftain’s original duties was to oversee religious ceremonies and temple upkeep. This role was dropped and/or adjusted after the Christian conversion in the year 1000. More important were their roles in the judicial courts and as legislative administrators.
Each of the four regions had a spring thing (SPRING THING!) at which court was held and cases were brought against each other on a local level. After some initial deliberation, each region decided it would be more prudent to have multiple things that the people could attend. They designated three things to each region except the north, which had four. The Althing was held in the summer, and all of the chieftains were expected to attend. This is a truly remarkable practice wherein a group of elected officials, whose duties did not overshadow their principle occupation as a farmer, made laws, overheard difficult cases, and agreed, as a group, upon extremely difficult issues, such as foreign policy and the prices of imported goods.

Explaining how the court system works is very difficult. But it is here where we see the invaluable nature of the chieftain, and, again, how the Icelanders were able to survive as long as they did without a king or a government.

Here’s how it’s broken down: Let’s start with a dispute, the plot of any saga. Let’s say our dispute is between two neighbors and is over who owns a piece of property. Each neighbor claims he has a right to it, and eventually, one man offends the other. Now, these men could take matters into their own hands and just wallop the offender or kill him, which often happened. But let’s say in this instance, these are men of moderation. They want to settle their dispute within the legal limits (which does include manslaughter). The first step is to go to their respective chieftains and see if they will take their case. A chieftain has the option of denying his thingman’s case. Many times a chieftain will only act if there is payment—mostly property—and would then take the case to the local thing, or, if it was a big enough case, to the Althing.
Now, any freeman was theoretically allowed to take a case to court, just like in our wonderful United States. And yet, like in our United States, a freeman would not be considered worth anything if he didn’t have somebody representing him. In our case, it’s a lawyer. In their case it was the chieftain. As a representative, the chieftain took matters out of his thingman’s hands, and, as a man with power and authority, could manipulate the law in order to meet his follower’s (and, in turn, his own) needs.

There existed both inside and outside of the courts third party roles for both chieftains and free farmers. An advocate was a person who would speak on behalf of a person in a dispute. A man of goodwill was someone who would step between the feuding parties and try and find a resolution. The purpose for these third parties was to take a dispute out of the original parties’ hands and to avoid violence.

While violence was an option in a dispute, the majority of the country worked to repress it. Icelandic law states that if a person is killed that the offended party can legally take blood vengeance. This option could snowball into an all-out blood-feud. But Iceland would not have been able to handle prolonged violence. Its structure as a free state, as a rural egalitarian country with no real government, would have been in jeopardy. Therefore a lot of people got involved in disputes in order to avoid violence. The lack of escalated violence (there was never open warfare) can be attributed to both the streamline push for other options within the legal system and to the above mentioned territory-less chieftains who did not have the power, wealth, or authority to build an army large enough for prolonged battle. This, I think, was another key to the Free State’s longevity.

There were laws covering basically EVERYTHING. If something popped up and there wasn’t a law for it, the issue would be addressed at the Althing. The chieftains would debate and talk about it and, depending on the general consensus, would create a new law. Seriously, there were a TON of laws. And if somebody broke a law, it was brought by a chieftain, to the courts at the spring thing (SPRING THING!). If a settlement couldn’t be reached there, it would be brought to the Althing. But without an executive branch, how were all these able to be enforced? That difficult task fell upon the chieftain, who had, at best, minimal power. But criminals and habitual law breakers were stripped of their rights as freemen and were therefore unprotected under the law. This meant anybody could kill you and they wouldn’t even get in trouble!

Here’s the crazy thing: because of the isolated nature of the Icelanders, disputes became almost a social event. So many people got involved that it was a chance for interaction. And people made careers and built status and wealth based on other people’s problems! I tried to equate this phenomenon with something from the United States. My best comparison would be social services, like welfare. It began as a way to help people in need and now there are social workers and counselors and all kinds of people who make a living (albeit a meager one) assisting people in their problems. Weird, huh?

One might think that the introduction of a religion like Christianity into a country like Iceland would have devastating consequences to its social and judicial structures. You can look all over medieval Europe to find leftover Christian-Roman courts, or royal courts impartial to the will of a monarch. Christianity was bound to upset the order that Iceland had worked so hard to maintain. The people were indeed split between new believers and the worshippers of the old gods. Yet Iceland, in is mechanical, practical legalistic culture, treated the split like any other dispute. It was brought to the Althing, and, as I’ve described in a previous post, was resolved in a peaceful and pragmatic way. Again, Iceland wanted to maintain its order and not succumb to violence, so the law speaker, Thorgeir, decided that in order to avoid civil war, the nation would adopt Christianity, while worship of the old gods would be allowed behind closed doors.

But even a century after King Harald Fairhair’s attempt to claim what wasn’t his, Iceland was still stingy about its land and freedom, and they did not allow the Church to take hold like it did in other European countries. Churches were built on private property, just as temples were, and the buildings and land were owned by the Church only theoretically. In this way, the church did not grow into a powerful entity. In fact, Iceland was considered low on the list of priorities in the spectrum of Christianizing and organizing Scandinavia. Because of this attitude, the Icelandic Church evolved on its own, isolated from Rome and church officials, and within the confines of Iceland’s complex social structure. It grew to complement the culture that held the church in check, rather than oppose it, like so many of its European contemporaries.
The chieftains originally transferred their power to the church and became priests. To them, the roles were the same, just in a different arena. No longer caring for the temple, they now cared for the church. This was eventually stopped because the chieftains had the potential to grow too powerful (which is eventually what happened anyway). 

The isolation of the Icelandic Church proved both helpful and ultimately disastrous. Being separated from the rest of the Christian world allowed Iceland to maintain its identity. Instead of being bullied into the religion, the Icelanders took a practical approach and were able to slowly integrate themselves into it. I think it was this slow and steady approach that created the mindsets of people like Snorri Sturluson who accepted Christ and yet still revered the mythology and the history of their pagan past enough to write it all down. Not in any other culture do we see Christians writing so respectfully about their heathen ancestors.  And yet, the integration of the Church into Iceland’s social structure in the end led to the demise of the Free State. The bishop Gudmund Arason fought the traditional Icelandic way of life and demanded an independent court system for the church. It was an already tumultuous time in the mid-13th century, where a handful of powerful families had grown too powerful for poor little Iceland to contain. Gudmund added to the chaos with his band of vagrants by killing a man who opposed to church’s demand for more power. His unruly behavior opened the door for the Christian King Hakon of Norway to step in and take control of the crumbling state of Iceland in 1262. And while Iceland remained somewhat autonomous, Iceland was now subject to a foreign king, thus, the end of the Free State.

I hope this wasn’t too difficult to follow. Obviously, it would be much better for you to read Jesse Byock’s book. But I hope that I was able to portray a little of how Viking Age Iceland functioned and to help you see how, at least in a convoluted and grammatically atrocious way, how fascinating the history of Iceland is.