Monday, October 6, 2014

The Big Whiff: Contemplating What Never Happened

Playing the "what if" game as a historian is dangerous. It is all fun and games until someone starts dribbling out conspiracy theories (which, of course, we love here at History Books), or until someone begins reshaping historical viewpoints based on heresy. There is a thin line between infuriatingly inaccurate theories and game-changing revelations.

So what do we do with the term "non-event"? Can we look at a moment in history and say, "such and such didn't happen and it didn't change a god damn thing...which is important." Now we aren't playing a what-if game. We aren't asking, "What if Hitler had learned a lesson from Napoleon and hadn't stormed into Russia?" No, instead we are looking at a critical moment in which a history was on course for a certain destination and was interrupted by decision not to act.

A good flimsy example is America's involvement in the first Gulf War. The American forces got Hussein out of Kuwait, but instead of cutting off the head of the aggressor, the military wiped their hands, patted themselves on the back, and went back home. This decision not to pursue the Iraqi dictator weighed heavily on those involved. They felt cheated, especially Dick Cheney who spent eight, long Clinton years scheming and eating tubs of potato salad in his underground lair. As soon as the opportunity arose (9/11), Cheney and his band of orcs put all of their energies into their unfinished business in Iraq, leading to one of the most confusing wars and allocating of military resources the U.S. has ever seen....since Vietnam!

 
Dick Cheney chomping on a delicious plate of revenge

But this post isn't about Napoleon, or Hitler, or Cheney (but it's fun to think about those three hanging out and swapping stories, huh?). This post is about...you guessed it...VIKINGS!

One of my professors used the term "non event" to describe a decision not to act that (possibly) changed the course of Scottish history. My question here is this: do we honor a non-event as something worth noting in history?

The non-event that didn't take place happened in the late 9th century. In 853, Olaf, the son of a certain Gudrod, left Norway to wreak havoc in Ireland. According to the Irish Annals, Olaf and his brother Ivar were a nearly unstoppable force in the British Isles. In the 860s the annals record Olaf diving into Scotland and taking many hostages for either ransom or slaves. Then, in 870, we see a curious move at the fort of Dumbarton. Instead of the typical Viking hit and run, Olaf and his forces lay siege to the fortress. This speaks volumes to not only the size of Olaf's force and resources but also in the ability for the Viking forces to adapt.

At the peak of his power in Ireland and Scotland Olaf is summoned by his father Gudrod to assist him in Norway. The mighty Harald Finehair was making his moves for king of a consolidated Norway. Gudrod, a king in his own right, planned on fighting Harald and requested the sizable force of his son to lend a hand. Olaf agrees, leaving what could have been a vast Scottish/Irish empire to disappear in the legendary battle of Hefrsfjord (probably).

The idea is this: Olaf was on a roll and would have more than likely created something that reflecting the Danelaw within the Scottish interior. Instead, he let himself be dragged into Norway's drama, leaving Scotland to its own devices. Of course, in a few years, The Great Army arrived and began raids anew in and around Scotland. But what if upon arrival they found an already established Viking kingdom? Shit, that was a what-if, wasn't it?

The professor's argument is that Olaf's decision not to stay in the British Isles and continue riding his wave of success was one of the biggest non-events in Scotland's history. Can we validate this claim? Is Olaf's inaction something we can say changed history? Or do we simply remark that Olaf blew it, giving up what could have been a great dynasty for a most certain death in Norway?

I am not sure if there is a right or wrong answer. Historians are going to talk about whatever they damn well please, be it an actual event or non-event. Close calls are fun to discuss, but I am just not sure we can give any academic credit to something that never happened.

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