Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anders Winroth and the Economics of the Viking Conversion

History Fans! Two posts in one week? What is this madness?! Or should I say: This is being single at 29. . .

Anders Winroth's book, The Conversion of Scandinavia, has been read front to back and MY GOD IT WAS FANTASTIC!

Not only did Winroth support my theories about the conversion (which has been discussed here at length) but he also presented some new and amazing ideas about the Viking Age. Not least of all that Adam of Bremen is a total prick.

Winroth's first revelation is a pretty good explanation for the Viking Age raids. History books contain many theories, such as a population boom in Scandinavia, the inheritance-less younger sibling syndrome, a sudden desire to show off their mad sailing skills. While all of these things may indeed have been true, none of them really satisfactorily answer why the Scandinavians began scooting around the world and taking things from the neighbors. Winroth suggests an explanation of simple economics.

Scandinavian chieftains, even long before the Viking Age, relied on a system of giving gifts to their followers and warriors and receiving loyalty and service in return. This was not simply a military leader paying a soldier. On the contrary, chieftains needed to give their followers and warriors prestigious and often times personal gifts. The chieftains would attempt to tie as many of his retinue to him, by means of marriage or official friendship rituals. But in order to keep warriors that were not related by blood or marriage, a chieftain would have to present his men with those unique and personal gifts, often times taking the form of gold or silver arm band, an artistically inlaid axe, or exotic dishes like walnuts and wine.

Do you think a warrior had to axe for this gift?

You can do the math in your head: If a chieftain wanted his constituents to grow, he needed to produce more gifts, but more importantly more prestigious gifts. And the Scandinavians knew, through their trade routes, that some VERY prestigious gifts lay undefended in the monasteries that dotted the British and Frankish coasts. With their innovations in ship building, the Scandinavian chieftains found themselves in a unique position. Competition for power was always a heated affair in the north, as chieftains controlled people instead of territory. With the Christian European models of kingdoms popping up, competition to create a state must have driven some of the leading chieftains. In order to maintain their current stash of warriors and more importantly to increase the support, the chieftains were driven further and further out, to those undefended coasts, to steal what they needed in order to maintain their power. For instance, Olaf Tryggvason was run out of his country and lived for a while in exile in Novgorod. He then began his life as a raider, amassing treasures and wealth. After getting his cut from a very lucrative campaign against Ethelred, Olaf had enough wealth, prestige, and treasures to produce gifts to his followers and even attract new ones in his face off against Hakon.

Does this solely answer the question of how the Viking raids began? Certainly not. But it does give us a good grasp on how they could have come about. It is my opinion that it was a slow and steady increase and not a sudden onslaught as the dramatic authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would have us believe. Indeed, the fluidity of power exchange in the Scandinavian countries would have pushed less powerful chieftains overseas to find a niche where they could carve out a piece of the POWER PIE.

These chieftains did not just steal gifts and give them away. As the Viking Age continued, many chieftains set up their own towns so that they could gather artisans in one place, either surrounding their hall or at a busy trading spot. We know from the Royal Frankish Annals that King Godfried launched Hedeby as a center of trade in 808. Many of the early Scandinavian trade towns were laid out in regular, organized lots that appeared to have been planned out, not grown organically. Many Vikings would shake take their booty to these towns, melt them down and create new and prestigious gifts for their followers. Viking warriors probably had no real use for a lot of the church treasures they lifted, but if their leader melted them down and turned them into arm rings, well by golly we are sticking with this guy! Here is an interesting question: Did the demand for more prestigious gifts push the artisans to create or modify new and different artistic styles? Could some of the beautiful animal-style designs that we now associate with the Viking Age be simply a byproduct of economic supply and demand?

Viking art on a fat guy

On the other hand, some chieftains wouldn't even bother bringing all that shit home. They would set up a temporary market to sell the stolen goods IN THE SAME KINGDOM WHERE THEY STOLE IT FROM. Good lord, you can just see those poor clergy men just staring across a river at the Vikings selling their property and probably their friends to Arab traders. But, if you think about it, this weird move kinda improved the European economy--an irony that the Vikings appeared to have mastered.

In the early Middle Ages, Europe was dragging itself out of the barter system and into, at least in the large empires (BECAUSE WE SAW CHARLEMAGNE JUST DO THIS), a coin system. However, a lot of the gold and silver that could be used as currency was locked away as static capital in the royal coffers and in the treasuries of the monasteries. So how's this for irony? The Vikings stole a lot of that gold and silver, turned them into goods or sold them for coins into a booming European market. AND the Carolingian and British kings emptied those treasuries to pay the Vikings not to steal their things, in which case the silver and gold were melted down into coins anyway! The Viking raids themselves injected steroids into an already blossoming medieval European economy. Whether they stole the money or were paid off in tribute, the fact remains that the Scandinavians, who had up until the Viking Age had not been part of the European world, had not just joined the modern world: they helped keep it on its feet.

What a wild world!

An interesting side note before we get to the conversion and tearing apart Adam: the actions of the Vikings were nothing new. Plenty of Celtic and British tribes sacked churches and monasteries. Charlemagne raided his neighbors every god damn summer so that he could pay his troops. But Charlemagne was Christian and so were the sources. The Vikings were incredibly more efficient and knew when to strike and when to back out (cough..cough..didn't spendthirtyyearssubduingtheSaxons...cough). That's just the way people paid for things back then. Until the Viking attacks, that is.

Listen: When the Vikings demanded tribute or payment, the fearful rulers of Europe would drain the royal and ecclesiastical treasuries. But when that ran out, they began taxing their subjects so that they could pay off the Northmen. Likewise, Alfred the Great demanded a certain percentage of income (not necessarily in monetary form) from his subjects to build fortifications against the Vikings and to support his troopz. These taxes continued long after the Viking Age and became the woes and miseries of many later Middle Age peasants. Do you guys see yet? Do you see how important and incredible the actions of the Vikings were? They forced Europe to organize! England was a wreck until the Vikings showed up. The subsequent Carolingian kings could not match Charlemagne's zeal or organizational skills and they too fell victim to the Vikings' shrewd attacks. Better administrations, faster armies, stronger fortifications, more organized institutions--a lot of what came to define the Middle Ages were a direct or indirect result of the Viking Attacks.

Charles the Bald liked to call them "FARTIFICATIONS"

I won't go into full detail of Winroth's discussion of the conversion, as we have covered it pretty extensively here on History Books. But Winroth does agree with me in that the benchmarks used to track Christianity's progress throughout Scandinavia are largely obsolete because the conversion was ultimately a political move.

Try this on for size: Christianity was nothing new to Scandinavia. They were not as cut off from the Roman world as we might think. They traded with Europe, stole from Europe, and had plenty of interaction that, especially in Denmark, the religion had already started to seep in. Yet by the 9th century, Christianity was to be associated with the powerful Carolingian Empire, the majestic Byzantine Empire, and the filthy rich English kingdom(s). Christianity was, to the Vikings, a very prestigious religion that produced extremely prestigious treasures. Olaf Tryggvason and St. Olaf were both baptized overseas at the courts of kings and important European players and saw firsthand how they could monopolize this power. When one was baptized in the medieval world, a person was to stand as a sponsor. For instance, Robert of Rouen, brother to Queen Emma (Ethelred's wife), stood as sponsor for St. Olaf and became his godfather. This increased Olaf's status. When he returned to Norway, he stood in as godfather to some of his followers, sharing with them the prestige of having those important ties. The relationship of godfather really mirrored the old marriage and blood ties that kept warriors indebted to their chieftain. In this way, Christianity became gift, one of the most prestigious gifts, that a chieftain could give to his warriors. It became a commodity and was used, just as the inlaid axe or arm ring, to build a political alliance with his followers.

The Scandinavian kings quickly realized the advantages Christianity had over their former pagan ways. The latter was decentralized and easily accessible to anyone. According to archaeology and the tidbits in the written records, there doesn't seem to have been any priests or specific roles within the pagan religion. Some chieftains appeared to have led sacrifices but the roles were not exclusive. On the other hand, Christianity had exclusive roles. Only bishops could anoint priests and deacons.

The kings soon saw their chance: Christianity promoted an ideology of kingship blessed by God. If they could claim the kingship, the bishops would submit to them, with the churches, priests and deacons all following suit. A king could monopolize the church, taking on its full power, organization, and allegiances and used it to carve out their little niche of power in their own country. And, just as Charlemagne ruled as the head of his church, so the Scandinavian kings found themselves at the head of their churches. The Viking kings took advantage of Christianity, the way they took advantage of anything they could get their hands on in order to achieve their goals.


In other words, the Vikings saw THE BENEFITS OF INCLUSION and converted simply as a political move, which is why we cannot trust the traces of Christian archaeology scattered throughout the north. Once the kings began using Christianity in their gift exchange model, the old pagan model stood little chance. The pagan religion was then rooted out not so much because of religious reasons but because it represented political opposition. We get a glimpse of this in the Icelandic conversion when certain pagan rituals were allowed even though they were strictly against canon law. It was all political. Especially for Iceland who used their conversion to circumvent Norway's attempt to plant their bishops there and swallow up the island into a commonwealth.

And at last we come to Adam of fuckin' Bremen. His account is one of the premier primary sources of Viking Age activity. And even though we knew at the time of our first reading that Adam flubbed certain facts, we believed he was innocently mistaken and just did a bad job of making sense of his sources. Winroth, however, provides a darker truth to Adam's mistakes. The pope had placed the Scandinavian missionary efforts in the hands of the church of Bremen (and eventually the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen). The sons of Louis the Pious had broken up the Carolingian Empire in a way that really sapped the church of its power. Angasar lost his funding due to the monastery that helped pay for his missions got separated from the bishopric in the empire's divisions. By the 1070s, when Adam was writing his history, Hamburg-Bremen was clinging on for any sense of importance. The pope had given them the responsibility of Scandinavia; however, as the Scandinavian kings learned to monopolize the religion, they brought in English and Polish bishops to bypass Hamburg-Bremen and essentially keep their position as head of the church.

This really pissed Adam off so HE MADE UP a bunch of shit to try and sneak in a claim for Bremen to still have control over Scandinavian Christianity. For instance, he claims in his history that a certain Emperor Otto of Germany had invaded Denmark and forced Christianity on Harald Bluetooth. This is simply not true. Not only are there no other accounts of Otto's invasion, something that surely would have been celebrated, but by all accounts Harald Bluetooth converted on his own. In fact, he invited bishops and missionaries into Denmark because he saw the BENEFITS OF INCLUSION! Adam paints both Olaf Tryggvason and Svein Forkbeard as Christians who relapsed into paganism. Svein, as far as we know, was baptized at a young age. Olaf, as one of the contributing players in the conversion of Norway, does not appear to relapse in any of our other sources. Adam was angry with these kings because they refused to acknowledge Hamburg-Bremen's authority. One of the most controversial parts of Adam's text is his (second hand) description of a sacrifice ritual at a temple in Uppsala. This, too, seems to be fabricated in resentment! Sweden had brought in Polish bishops instead of German, and Adam threw a god damn hissy fit. No pagan temple has ever been discovered in Uppsala, and the pagan rituals described cannot be satisfactorily verified.

"Uhhh...fuck it, I'll just make it up." - Adam of Bremen

Adam: kiss my ass, you prick!

That will do, History Fans. Let's learn a lesson from Adam. Don't be a diaper baby!

Until our next adventure!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Charlemagne Part Three: Daddy Issues

Welcome back, History Fans!

Today we are going to finish up our study of Charlemagne. So far we've seen how the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace seized royal control (thanks to a scared pope) and how Charlemagne's military victories put him position to be crowned emperor (thanks to a scared pope). This post has less to do with spooked clergy and more to do with Charlemagne's personal life and some of the institutions and policies he set in place.

Charles seemed to have no trouble knocking up his wives and concubines but the royal succession turned into quite a disaster over the span of his life. His first marriage was more or less an old Frankish custom that looked more like our idea of common-law marriage. There was no real ceremony, and it was definitely not approved by the church. Remember the church, though no longer in its infancy, was still fighting to take hold in the West after Rome fell. Einhard calls Charles's first wife a concubine, but this is misleading. The king certainly had his fair share of concubines but he married this woman named Himiltrude. The church, as it grew and planted itself in Frankish policy, eventually decided that those old Frankish marriages were not official and therefore null. This meant that Charles not only had to find a new wife, but the child that Himiltrude bore him, whose name in history is PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, would never have a legit claim to the throne.

If you remember from our last discussion, Charlemagne had also married the princess of the Lombards. She did not have any children, so any Italian heirs who may have wanted to continue the desperate fight for Lombard independence thankfully did not come into existence. Nevertheless, it is significant that both of his early marriages had pretty intense political consequences. We saw Desiderus early on attempt use his daughter's marriage to Charles to regain his footing and get anointed by the pope. PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, though gross and disfigured, had been born before the church policy that denied him his birthright had been put into place. As we shall see, this decision by the church to strip his disgusting son of his claim to the throne, will come (hunch) back to haunt him in 792. The HUNCHBACK got mixed up with some folk who urged him to take what was his. Pepin led a rebellion against his father that was quickly stomped out. As punishment, PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK was locked away in a monastery for the rest of his life. A fate worse than death.

Charles then enjoyed a handful of brides for different periods of time. Most famous was Queen Fastrada, who Einhard blames for all of Charles's merciless destruction that his military had been bestowing on Europe since before he married Fastrada. But with a name like that, I'm sure she was no peach! Entering the ninth century, here's what Charles's succession plan looked like. . . with BULLETS!
  • Pepin the Hunchback - doomed for life in a monastery
  • Carloman who later took the name Pepin - kingdoms of Italy and Lombard
  • Louis who later became the Pious - kingdom of Aquitaine
  • Charles Jr - was not given a kingdom but was to replace his father as King of the Franks
 We have seen how the Germanic tradition of splitting up kingdoms totally ruins them. Very few sons have the charisma and leadership skills of their father. A great example that we have studied here on History Books is old King CNUT. His North Sea Empire crumbled as soon as he passed away. Charles, though centuries before CNUT, likewise divvies up his kingdom that he fought so hard for between his remaining sons. When will these Germanic numbskulls learn?!

Yet disaster struck in 810, and the kingdom, for better or worse, was left in the hands of one son. Carloman, who was to take over the Italian portion of the empire, died that year. The following year Charles's pride and joy Charles Jr. died. This was a heavy blow because Charles had been pruning him, letting him take over military operations and diplomatic issues. With PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK locked up with monks and his legitimacy ruined by the damned church anyway, the entire empire was left to the weakest of all Charlemagne's sons: Louis the Pious. Charles, probably still frustrated with how the Pope ruined his own coronation, made sure that Louis was crowned by no one but himself. Possibly Charles knew that his son Louis didn't have the stuff to be an emperor and wanted to make sure that he gave him the best shot at a successful tenure - without the aggravating interruptions of the Pope and silly policies created by the clergy. This way, Louis stood above everyone else. Charles had seen himself as head of the church. Crowning his own son took any question out of the symbolism - Louis was now head of Western Christianity.

Louis the Pious HATED the alphabet

Whether or not Charles actually took such a special interest in Louis is debatable. His special treatment of his daughters, however, caused quite a bit of controversy in the royal court. A typical medieval ruler would have used his children to his advantage--marrying off daughters to strengthen or make new alliances, and setting up sons with land or titles or as successors. There is clear evidence that Charles attempted the latter even though bad luck struck in the early ninth century. Even PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK had a prestigious ecclesiastical position with his name on it until he led the rebellion. The daughters, however, stayed at court, either traveling with Charles or in place at Aachen. He had intended to marry a daughter early on to one of the Constantines in Byzantium, which would have linked the Christian world in an unprecedented way. He backed out at the last minute and kept his daughter near to him.

Nothing ever gross is reported. He didn't sleep with his daughters, you monsters! I know that's what you were thinking. He was just a lonely dude who liked to be surrounded by people who liked him. Maybe he was afraid of solitude or just a really social guy. Maybe he had daddy issues with the first Pepin. But having multiple grown and rich daughters at the court was bound to cause some trouble. With a rotating cast of eligible bachelors coming in and out of Aachen, the daughters had their pickings. One of Charles's daughters got pregnant from a famous poet. Another was rumored to have been sleeping with a trusted military leader. Without proper marriages, the princesses got their kicks and suddenly the palace was filled with illegitimate bastards. Is that redundant? Whatever.

Charlemagne was a man who could adapt, which was part of what made him such an effective ruler. We witnessed two policy shifts in his military aggression. The first was when he realized that he had destroyed the Italian countryside and that families were selling themselves into slavery because they couldn't pay their debt. Charles was quick to act and forgave the Italian debt. After his ruthless and tiresome venture against the Saxons, Charles was willing to change tactics against the Avars and lighten up a little bit. Another policy that shifted under Charlemagne, though not necessarily for the positive, was slavery. The gap between slave and peasant had slowly been growing closer together, and with the church's encouragement to do away with slavery, serfdom was created. They were like slaves, who had no choice but to rely on their patrons or former patrons for survival. Yet they were free! Kinda.

The monetary system also saw a transformation. Charles demanded a standardization of weights and measurements to ensure a balanced economy. He slowly took the old Roman gold coins out of circulation, keeping the old Frankish silver ones and even minting some new currency. It would appear that Charles was obsessed with organizing, something that became clear on the battlefield. His troops were no better equipped or stronger than their adversaries, but Charles knew how to organize his resources. It certainly helped to have a seemingly unending supply of manpower. Standardizing the monetary system created, in Charles's eyes, a real empire, not just different lands under one ruler. 


The most famous of Charles's policies or improvements was that of the church and of education, which at this point in time, went very much hand in hand. The Frankish church under Charles Martel was in shambles. Reforms began under Pepin the Short and Charle's brother Carloman, who wanted to see a bishop in every city. All the clergy in that bishop's diocese must answer to that particular bishop. Charles himself wanted to see the church cleaned up. He began dishing out stiff penalties to bishops, deacons, and monks who disobeyed their ecclesiastical orders. Old ecclesiastical provinces that had fallen in disuse were restored. Charles was getting organized more than anything. And though he demanded better behavior from the clergy, keeping tabs on all the wickedness was nearly impossible. Charles then went further and began updated ancient liturgies and customs in the church. He tested his clergy to see how well they knew the Lord's Prayer and even personally changed how the Catholic Creed was worded.

Charles held education in very high regard. He loved to learn and was very concerned that his kingdom would lose the Frankish language to the Latin of the church. He spearheaded a move to actually create a standard Frankish grammar. In 789, the Admonitio generalis instructed priests to gather up boys of all stations and statuses for educational instructions. Thus began the first Frankish schools. Again, Charles wanted everybody on the same page. Book production increased under Charlemagne who enjoyed reading and being read to, though he could not write.

We can't get ahead of ourselves though. Charlemagne is often attributed with pushing education and cultural change into modern Europe. And this he may have done but his number one concern was the church. As Barbero put it, "culture and education were revived for the express purpose of reforming or rather rectifying the way the church worked and the way that Christian people lived." Charles believed he was put in a position to protect the church. In fact the pope gave him that title! But the Frankish king took this responsibility to heart and tried to get his people organized, educated, and on the same page so that they could serve God efficiently. Educational reforms and cultural betterment were simply byproducts of Charlemagne's ultimate goal: serve the Lord (this included killing tons of pagans).

Charles seemed to have lost his edge during the Viking attacks that preceded his death. Instead of aggressively striding into Denmark and cutting down every pagan in sight, he tried to fortify the borders and come to peaceful terms with Godfried, the king of the Danes. In that devastating year of 810, Godfried died and left the kingdom of Denmark in mad and bloody rush for the throne. Charles figured the threat had disappeared with Godfried and decided not to invade. Boy, was he wrong! And after all that effort to prepare Louis for an easy reign, Charles had left the door wide open for the ultimate villains: THE VIKINGS. The great emperor died in January of 814, and Louis took on the burden of keeping the empire from crumbling. But that story is for another time.

Stay cool, Chuck.

This concludes our look at the life of Charlemagne. Hopefully our guest writers will have their posts ready in the next week or so. Or else it is back to THE VIKINGS!

Until then, History Fans. Don't trust poets with your daughters!