The cable access TV interview I participated in, about my Viking reenactment group, is now accessible on YouTube:
It’s getting so there’s a new bogus, agenda-driven story about the Vikings every week or so. Not long ago it was the story about the “female Viking warrior,” which seems to have been far less than advertised. This week it was the name “Allah” “discovered” in a piece of Viking embroidery. From the English paper, the Independent:
The silk patterns were originally thought to be ordinary Viking Age decoration but a re-examination by archaeologist Annika Larsson of Uppsala University revealed they were a geometric Kufic script.
They were found on woven bands as well as items of clothing, in two separate grave sites, suggesting that Viking funeral customs had been influenced by Islam.
I was skeptical about this story from the git-go. In the first place, the pattern looked like a fairly standard geometrical pattern, very much like the kinds you get from tablet weaving, common in the Viking Age. Secondly, even if the pattern was derived from Muslim script, that does not imply belief. The Vikings had strong trade contacts with Baghdad, to whose representatives they sold thousands of slaves every year. Arabic silver coins (dirhems) are one of the most common objects found in Viking hoards, especially in Sweden. Arabic coins have no pictures, in keeping with Islamic law. Just the flowing, graceful Arabic script. It would be no surprise if the shapes of the letters might have inspired a Viking embroiderer. No religious motive should be assumed.
Now, as expected, there’s been a rebuttal, even more categorical than I expected.
…now a leading expert in mediaeval Islamic art and archaeology has disputed the claim and said the inscription contains “no Arabic at all.”
Stephennie Mulder, a professor from the University of Texas in Austin, said the error stems from a “serious problem of dating”.
She claims Kufic script did not occur until 500 years after the Viking age.
“It’s a style called square Kufic, and it’s common in Iran, C. Asia on architecture after 15th century,” she wrote on Twitter.
Listen archaeologists – I know you want to see your names in the papers. And I know it’s good for your careers to make the most exaggerated claims you can, in the service of multiculturalism. But stop trying to promote your causes by exploiting history.
That’s the job of historical novelists. Like me.
Tip: Dave Lull.
I’m finally back from Høstfest.
“Wait!” you reply. Because you’re an intelligent and attentive reader, you seem to recall that I got back a little more than a week ago.
And you are correct, as always. But you know, there’s the physical journey and the spiritual journey. And my spiritual journey lasted through Saturday.
Which is a pretentious way of saying that I wasn’t able to get out of Viking Presenter mode, because I had two – not one, but two – last-minute lecturing gigs last week.
Which, incidentally, explains my blogging silence Thursday and Friday.
Thursday I lectured to a Sons of Norway lodge which happens to meet quite near my house. When I was setting up, I had a (biblical) Job Experience: “The thing which I have greatly feared has come upon me.” Continue reading PowerPoint chronicles
I suppose you’ll want a report of my week at Høstfest 2017 in Minot, North Dakota. You’re demanding that way; I’ve been meaning to discuss it with you.
My major reaction, frankly, is that I’m pretty exhausted. That doesn’t mean it was a bad week. It just means I’m old and too fat, and not as much up to the challenge as I used to be. Back when I was a fighter, I found the fight shows kind of demanding. Now that I’m retired, I miss the action. 11 hour days, surrounded by crowds of strangers. Walking around on concrete floors wearing unstructured medieval shoes. The dusty, dry air of the horse barn which was our venue. It all took its toll.
But the thing in itself was pretty successful. We had a large group of reenactors, most of them of pretty high on the authenticity scale. I met or improved my acquaintance with some interesting people – notably Phil Lacher the wood carver, Dawson Lewis the Saxon moneyer, and – surprising to me – Randy Asplund, an artist who used to work with Baen Books, and now – get this – makes medieval books in the traditional manner.
My basic criterion for a successful Høstfest is whether I make enough money selling books to cover the cost of the Viking bling I buy. I succeeded at that, and I got some pretty cool stuff. One was a finger ring based on a famous Danish arm ring. The other, an even greater delight to me, was a silver crucifix that looks like this:
This picture isn’t of mine, it’s the original, but they’re pretty much identical, except that the thong ring on mine is a tad narrower, and mine is – I honestly think – a little better executed than the original. I used to have a rather crude copy of this crucifix, but I lost it last year. This one, I am told, was made by a Polish artisan who once crafted a chalice for Pope John Paul II. It is tiny and perfect and exquisite.
So all in all, a good festival. Now excuse me, I have to lie down.
A number of people have drawn my attention to an article recently published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. I think I’ve seen it linked at least twenty times of Facebook: A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.
Several people asked my opinion of it. My initial responses were brief. I had a pretty good idea that there was more smoke than fire here, and that the article was going to get some pushback.
And I was right. This article is by none other than Judith Jesch, author of Women in the Viking Age, a standard work on its subject. I’ve never read the book, allergic as I am to feminist historians, but I think I’ll get it now. Because Ms. Jesch has articulated exactly my concerns. (Plus a lot more, because she’s you know, smarter than me.) Continue reading Skeleton in armor (not by Longfellow)
Sorry about not posting yesterday. It was a day like no other, remarkable in its occurrences. There was no time, or energy, for blogging.
I don’t think I mentioned it before, because the event was a closed one, but I was invited to speak – twice – at a retreat for the pastors of my church body. They wanted me to first do an afternoon presentation on the Vikings, and then give a sermon to the pastors at the evening banquet.
Even I thought this rash, and probably ill-advised.
But I prepared my talks, and I was on the spot at the appointed hour. First I spoke about the conversion of Norway in the Viking Age, rehashing Fridtjof Birkeli’s revisionist arguments that the whole business was more peaceful than the saga writers suggest, and that Haakon the Good has been unjustly underrated by historians. I wondered whether any of the pastors would care about this, but in fact it turned out to be the first standing room only crowd I’ve ever addressed. The question and answer session afterwards was thoughtful and fun, and it ran overtime.
In the evening I gave a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-20, where St. Paul describes the church as being like a body, in which every member has a function to carry out. I related this to our church body’s history, and to its emphasis on lay participation back in the days when it was still a debatable question whether a layman would be allowed to lead a prayer in the pastor’s absence. I stressed the risks involved in this way of doing church, and urged them to become risk-takers. (Easy for me to say; I’m not a pastor.) It went over very well, and the response was positive.
Oh yes, the food was delicious, too. We bachelors don’t get that many really good meals that we can afford to overlook them.
Then I drove home (depending on my GPS to get me around a bridge under repair), a shell of my former self, because that was about all the human contact I could handle in one day.
I really wanted to like Norsemen, a Viking Age comedy produced by the Norwegian NRK network. The series is filmed at the reconstructed Viking farm at Bukkøy, which is associated with the North Way Interpretational Center at Avaldsnes, Karmøy, Norway. Avaldsnes is the parish where my great-grandfather Walker was born and baptized. I’ve been to the Viking Farm, so when I watch this show I’m looking at a familiar place.
In the first episode, a shipload of Viking raiders under the command of Chieftain Olav return to their home in Norway. Olav’s brother, Orm, has been in charge in his absence, and he’s so bad at it that old men are reduced to jumping off a cliff to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Orm’s wife, Frøya, was along on the raid as a warrior, while Orm himself is pretty much useless with weapons. She despises him. Olav’s chief warrior is named Arvid. Olav arranges for Arvid to marry a widow – or rather, she becomes a widow after he’s killed her husband. But they find themselves incompatible. Meanwhile, the chief slave, Kark (saga fans will recognize that classical reference), gives instruction to the newest slave, Rufus of Rome, a professional actor who seems to think he’s on a pleasure cruise and keeps complaining about the accommodations.
What you’ve got here, essentially, is the History Channel’s Vikings series, crossed with The Office. The costumes and hair are intentionally similar to those on the Vikings show (which is to say, even worse. Black leather, which real Vikings never had, abounds). But the dialogue is straight out of The Office, with people talking in 21st century jargon. That dialogue concerns a lot of killing, which is played for laughs, and it’s also very smutty. The program was filmed in both Norwegian and English, so what you see on Netflix is neither dubbed nor subtitled.
I watched three episodes. The first two, which mostly introduced us to the characters, seemed to me kind of rudderless. But the plot began functioning at the end of Episode Two, and I went on to watch the third one. I could probably continue, because the story got more interesting once I detected a plot, and realized that the characters I’d felt sorry for were pretty much as awful as the characters I’d hated. What it boils down to is that this is one of those shows about appalling people whom I don’t care about at all. And considering the level of profanity (very, very) black humor, and casual violence, plus a little nudity, I don’t think I’ll continue with it. And I don’t recommend it to our readers.
Another history of the Vikings. This one, by Neil Oliver, a Scottish archaeologist and TV presenter, is more subjective than, say, The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth, which I reviewed recently. I don’t rate The Vikings: A New History as highly as Winroth’s book purely as a scholarly work, but I expect it might be just the gateway book for some readers.
The Vikings: A New History takes a generally chronological approach, which is a useful thing. Books on the Vikings, even histories, tend to separate various geographical spheres of interest into watertight sections. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there’s also a need for a work that displays the sweep of Viking activity overall, decade by decade. So author Oliver has done a service in that regard.
The execution is a little idiosyncratic. The book begins (apart from personal reminiscences by the author, telling how he came to be interested in the Vikings) with quite a long survey of Scandinavian history beginning in the Ice Age. In compensation, perhaps, it seemed to me the later stages of Viking history got treated in a somewhat perfunctory manner. As if the author was running out of pages and needed to compress. Continue reading ‘The Vikings: A New History,’ by Neil Oliver
A Danish scholar, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, is considered one of the fathers of the modern field of archaeology. He was the first curator to arrange artifacts according to the materials from which they were made, helping to develop the concept of historical ages – Stone, Bronze, Iron.
Scandinavian archaeology suffered a serious blow recently, when thieves entered the University Museum of Bergen, Norway, by way of a repair scaffold. Inventory still has not determined the entire extent of losses, though I’ve seen pictures of missing items posted on Facebook, with alerts to watch out for them on the antiquities market. It appears a number of Viking Age items are among those missing.
It was quite a weekend. By an old bachelor’s standards, anyway. I take some pride in having got through it with my natural force unabated.
Saturday was the big event at Camp Ripley (believe it or not), Little Falls, Minn., for the 75th anniversary of the activation of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the US Army’s Norwegian “foreign legion” in World War II. The festivities actually began the day before and continued through the evening, but I was only there Saturday afternoon. (That doesn’t mean I wasn’t invited to do more; I was. But I had to get home and unload my car for the following day’s exertions.)
Saturday afternoon was the public event. Besides us Vikings, there was an informational booth explaining about the unit’s history. There was also a small encampment of World War II reenactors:
[A photo belongs here, but our account doesn’t seem to allow posting from Photobucket anymore.]
Nice guys. Had some interesting conversations. These are history people, and Vikings were not outside their range of interest. Continue reading The strenuous life
It’s a little disappointing, after my glowing review of Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings (reviewed a few inches south of here), to deliver a less than enthusiastic review of his earlier work, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Of course it’s ridiculous for me, an amateur historian and fantasy novelist, to challenge a scholar of Winroth’s stature. But this is my area of interest, blast it, and I’m going to defend it with whatever flimsy weapons I’ve got.
The thesis of The Conversion of Scandinavia is fairly easily stated. In Winroth’s view, the conversion essentially never happened – not in the way we’ve been taught. All those cultural clashes and crusader atrocities are just the fancies of Icelandic storytellers. What actually happened (in this view) is that various chieftains and kings realized that Christianity offered both prestige and (in the Church) a bureaucratic model that could be expanded and adapted to solidify their own power. The kings were baptized, and their kingdoms declared officially Christian. Other than that, the changes were few, but the people gradually adapted to the new religious order.
One thing that immediately struck me was that Winroth completely bypasses the institution of the Things, the Viking democratic assemblies that balanced and limited royal power. He writes of the Scandinavian kings as if they were autocrats, ruling by decree. Although he doesn’t explain this omission, I imagine he considers the idea of the Thing another invention of Icelandic saga writers – and in his view (apparently) the very fact that a saga writer says it is conclusive proof of falsehood. He does not recognize the recent work of scholars in the field of folklore studies, who argue that useful information can be preserved in pre-literate societies for three centuries or more through traditional mnemonic devices, before being written down. Continue reading ‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth
Here’s a ten minute video of Anders Winroth, whose book The Age of the Vikings I reviewed a few inches south of this post. In this interview he discusses his previous book, The Conversion of Scandinavia. I have purchased that book and will report when I get it finished.
I generally agree with his view that conversion had prestige value in the Viking Age. I’m interested to see if he cites Fridtjof Birkeli’s untranslated book, Tolv Aar Hadde Kristendommen Vaert i Norge (Twelve Years Had Christianity Been in Norway). Birkeli argues that, in Norway, Haakon the Good’s peaceful approach to missionary work was just as (or more) effective over the long run than the better-publicized bloody crusades of the two Olafs.
Charlemagne himself rode toward the plundering Northmen, bringing with him his beloved pet elephant, Abul-Abbas, a gift from the Caliph Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad. The elephant suddenly died after crossing the Rhine River, a bad omen.
Hear me: From this day forth, and until I change my mind, when someone asks me for a good introduction to the Viking Age, I will recommend to them Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings.
The book opens with a vivid description of a feast in a Swedish chieftain’s hall. The warriors enjoy a dessert treat of exotic walnuts. A skald recites a poem, which all praise but few understand, in honor of his host.
This, in my opinion, is the way to open a book on the Viking Age. Author Winroth, who teaches medieval history at Yale, knows his material, but he also knows how to grab a reader. There’s no excuse for a book on the Vikings to be dull, though some writers accomplish that feat. Winroth, on the other hand, milks the drama for all it’s worth, and it makes his book a joy to read. He’s an excellent stylist too.
He covers such subjects as the relative violence of the Vikings (compared to their contemporaries), Viking Age emigration, Viking ships, Viking trade, Viking political development, everyday life, and religion. No subject is covered exhaustively, but his material is authoritative and his scholarship up to date.
He writes some things that surprised me and contradicted information I thought I knew. Chances are he’s right and I’m wrong. He exercises the normal caution of contemporary scholars in using the Icelandic sagas; I’m associated with the revisionist party on that point. I hope that scholarly opinion will alter in the future. Till then, Winroth’s cautious approach is prudent.
Highly recommended. Suitable for ordinary readers teenaged and up, but students of the age (like me) will also learn things.
Some books are a chore to read, even if the subject interests you, but a necessary chore. Like textbooks when you’re in school. For me, Philip Line’s The Vikings and Their Enemies: Warfare in Northern Europe, 750-1100 was that kind of book. It contained information I needed and from which I profited, but I thought it would never end.
Casual readers will probably find it long and daunting, as the Amazon reviews indicate. First of all, though “Vikings” is in the title, that word here indicates the time period, not the main subject. Most of the material does not focus on the Vikings themselves. The main reason for this is that the author, like so many historians, is skeptical about the Icelandic sagas as sources, and so uses them only lightly. That leaves him with limited source materials about Scandinavians. Most of the ink is devoted to the Vikings’ enemies, the British, the Irish, the French, the Germans, and a few others. For them we have a certain amount of documentary evidence (though Line handles that evidence with caution too).
The practical upshot is that he spends a lot of time telling us that popular histories are wrong about many, many things that have entered the general information pool. Which is the mark of a rigorous historian. But it does not make for an exciting narrative.
However, the book contained, in particular, some information on Viking naval tactics that I needed for the book I am writing. So the work I put in reading The Vikings and Their Enemies was well worth it to me.
The normal reader will probably find other books on the period more interesting and easier to consume. I recommend this one only for its appropriate audience.
I apologize for standing you up last night. My service provider, apparently, suffered a major outage in my area. At least that’s their excuse.
I wanted to tell you about Sunday. I’ve done this almost every year pretty much as long as I’ve been blogging. Danish Day at the Danish American Center in Minneapolis. The first big event of the summer for the Viking Age Club & Society.
As you know (or if you don’t, pay attention!) I finally broke down and got a smart phone last winter. I’m cautiously learning the pleasures associated with that device (though I never plan to tweet. I fail to see the charm of tweeting, or of following tweets).
On Sunday I did my first Food Selfie. I’d bought what they call a Danish Hot Dog (or pølse), and I thought I’d take a photo with my phone and post it to Facebook.
Got lots of responses. Amazing what fascinates people nowadays. Our lives must be very dull.
But amidst all the discussion, in which I defended (for instance) the use of ketchup on hot dogs against the authority of Clint Eastwood himself, I got a response from my distant cousin in Denmark, who had intelligent and enlightening things to say about the Danish hot dog tradition.
It’s all quite silly, but I have to concede it’s fun. And if we can have international fun in these troubled times, why not? Continue reading Danish Day, 2017