Tag Archives: Vikings

Heist

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.

The strenuous life

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

‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

The Conversion of Scandinavia

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

Anders Winroth on the conversion of Scandinavia

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.

‘The Age of the Vikings,’ by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings

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.

‘The Vikings and Their Enemies,’ by Philip Line

The Vikings and Their Enemies

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.

Danish Day, 2017

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.

Poelse

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

We call them ‘wall hangers’ nowadays

Viking sword
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Via Dave Lull: An article from J-Stor by James MacDonald, on new Danish research that indicates that some Viking swords were never meant for a fight. “The trick to creating an ideal sword using this technique is to distribute different types of metal that balance hardness and flexibility—durable enough to hold an edge while absorbing the shock of contact. The scanned swords were not made in such a way that they can both cut and flex.”

I mentioned the story to a reenactor friend last weekend, and he wasn’t greatly surprised. The sagas do not speak of swords made entirely for show — what we call “wall hangers” today. But we know that sword making was an iffy proposition. The “Havamal” says, “Praise no sword until it has been tested.” And one unfortunate character in one of the sagas comes proudly home from Norway with a beautiful sword with gilded furniture. But when he tries it in a fight, it bends, and he has to set the tip on the ground and try to straighten it by stepping on it.

So it’s not unreasonable that a status-conscious Viking might have bought a sword purely for show, as a status symbol, but would depend in battle on his trusty axe, which was easier to use anyway.

News flash: ‘The Great Army’ was actually great

Via Dave Lull: A report from The Guardian on a new exhibition in England, devoted to the Viking Great Army (also known as the Great Heathen Army) which wintered over in England in 872:

A major exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum, staged in partnership with the British Museum, draws on new research by the universities of York and Sheffield. According to Professor Dawn Hadley, one of the co-directors of the universities’ project at the site of a Viking winter camp, archeologists and historians had thought that the invading Viking armies numbered in the low hundreds. But archeological work at the camp on the river Trent at Torksey, Lincolnshire, suggested otherwise.

Historians have been inclined to consider contemporary chronicles, which numbered the Great Army in the thousands, as exaggerations, because… because historians always think medieval chroniclers were very gullible and stupid, and exaggerated everything. In general, my impression is that trusting the most contemporary sources is generally a prudent approach.

New ‘Viking’ trailer

I’m weary of the world tonight. Can’t think of anything to write that I wouldn’t regret tomorrow.

So here’s the latest trailer for the new Russian Viking movie. My reenactor friends complain that the costumes aren’t accurate, but in my view they look punctilious compared to the costumes on the History Channel.

The latest news I’ve seen says international rights have been sold, but there’s been no announcement of a US release date.

Landmarks and visions

Landmark Center
The Landmark Center in St. Paul. Photo 2005 by Mulad.

The old US post office, custom house, and court house in St. Paul, built in 1902 and home to much graft and corruption in its time, is now called Landmark Center. They’re a little more tolerant of architectural treasures in that city than in Minneapolis, so it was saved from the wrecking ball and now exists as a cultural center. Once a month they host events for various ethnic groups. This month (yesterday) it was the Danes, and we Vikings were asked to man a table for the event. Three of us showed up. We had a pretty good time.

Lots of visitors, and lots of questions, many from children, which is always nice. I was able to explain how people got the idea that Viking helmets had horns, and how chain mail was made. Sold a couple books and several bits of leather work.

One of the best parts was that we were right next to the aebelskiver stand. Aebelskivers are Danish pancakes, formed by secret and occult methods into spheres. They’re generally served with powdered sugar and strawberry preserves. Delightful.

I also had the pleasure, over the weekend, of receiving another tip from Dave Lull. He remembered that I’m fond of the late D. Keith Mano, and he alerted me to a reprint of one of Mano’s old columns over at the National Review. They’re going to be publishing a series of them over the next few weeks. This one concerns a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in Bayside, Queens, New York back in 1975. Mano describes his “investigation” in bemused and gentle terms.

The church of St. Robert Bellarmine—now half school, half gym—stands two blocks up. There used to be a statue on the corner: large copy of those Virgins in telephone booths that wait outside Catholic houses. Veronica had her first visions here. But, as crowds grew, an unsympathetic Mother Church had the statue sledgehammered away. So much for mariolatry. You can still see the pedestal stump, cordoned off by wooden snow fencing.

It occurred to me to do a web search on Dave Lull. Turns out he’s not merely a reader of this blog, which would be enough to adorn the fame of any man. He’s a librarian (thus one of nature’s noblemen) and a facilitator of blogs. Blogless himself, he sends tips like this to a number of book bloggers.

I am honored to be among that number.

‘Vikings’ unearthed

I think I’ve written about the old TV show, Tales of the Vikings, here before. It formed the spark that first roused my interest in the Vikings. Judging by the clip below, which recently appeared on YouTube, it was about as cheesy as I figured.

According to the link, there are six extant episodes available on CD now from this site. I had been given to understand that all episodes had been lost forever. So this is good news. Except that I’m reluctant to order from an unknown site.

I probably will, though.

Minot Post-Mortem

I am back from Norsk Høstfest in Minot, North Dakota. The nation rejoices.

I have a couple mediocre pictures to share, taken with my Kindle, but Photo Bucket is moving very slowly tonight, so I’ll have to upload them later.

As you know, it’s been two years since I did Høstfest. Things tend to change when you neglect them for 24 months, and there were many changes for the Vikings.

One major change was that they moved us to a different building. That move had benefits and drawbacks, as I see it. The main benefit was increased space. We now share that space with other Viking groups and individuals, but that’s a benefit too (though it might be hard on our pride). There were several vendors, and several craftspeople showing off their skills. So it’s a much more educational event than it used to be. Also the music played in the building (Nordic and Sami) was more evocative than the Country and Western we generally had in our old venue.

The drawback was a certain separation from the mainstream of the festival. People had to pass through two temporary covered walkways to reach us, and there were a lot of people (or so we heard) who gave up on finding us, or never realized we were there at all.

Still, business wasn’t bad, and was quite good on Saturday, the final day. My own book sales were a little disappointing, though. I think I about broke even on the trip.

My most memorable moment came after I realized I had misplaced my cell phone. I went to the lost and found area the following morning and described it to the ladies there. After that they went all Jack Webb on me: “Do you have any idea where you might have lost it, sir?”

I said it might have been in the hallways somewhere. Then one of them went into a closet and came back with my phone. A note had been taped to it saying, “Porta-Potty.”

Then they broke up in laughter. “You’re just having fun with me, aren’t you?” I said. “I’m your morning’s entertainment.” They admitted that it was true. Theirs was a weary job, and they needed to wring from it whatever amusement they could.

I pointed to my security identification badge, which gave my name and (as was the case for all the Vikings) the designation, “Entertainer.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for,” I said. “Entertainment.”