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.

WTFWJD


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!