19 August 2023

One Day Towards the End of Summer

The following is an extract from something I am working on at the moment - an analysis of the killing of Earl Rǫgnvaldr of Orkney, as reported in chapter 103 of Orkneyinga saga, on the 20th of August, in 1158 (all translations my own):

Replica of a statue possibly of Earl Rǫgnvaldr, Kirkwall, Photo © Judith Jesch 

It was one day at áliðnu sumri 'towards the end of summer' that the two joint earls of Orkney, Rǫgnvaldr, originally called Kali Kolsson, and Haraldr Maddaðarson, sailed over to Caithness to go deerhunting. By the end of the following day, the 20th of August, or five nights after Assumption Day as Orkneyinga saga has it (ch. 103), Rǫgnvaldr was dead and Haraldr was in sole charge of the earldom. For Haraldr, this was the beginning of a very long period of rule which is given rather short shrift in the saga. As for Rǫgnvaldr, it was some 34 years before his holy relics were taken up, ostensibly after some miracles and with the Pope's permission, and he was sanctified, though there is no official record of this. In the Icelandic annals, the death of Rǫgnvaldr is dated to 1158 and his translation to 1192. Discussion of this episode has tended to focus on its implications for politics, both ecclesiastical and secular. Whatever the politics of it all, the episode describing the killing of Rǫgnvaldr in chapter 103 deserves some more detailed attention.

Already the first words of chapter 103 are remarkable enough: 'When Rǫgnvaldr had been earl for twenty-two years since Earl Páll was captured...'. This reminds us that Rǫgnvaldr's grip on the Orkney earldom was consolidated when his rival Páll Hákonarson was eliminated through the actions of Sveinn Ásleifarson (chs 74-75). On that occasion, Rǫgnvaldr managed to keep a low profile despite clearly benefiting from Sveinn's actions. This first sentence is a clear signal that this chapter, too, will result in a similar situation: the reduction of two earls to one, with the survivor escaping any real responsibility for the events.

There is another echo of earlier events in the lead-up to the killing. Chapter 100 tells how Rǫgnvaldr and his eventual killer, Þorbjǫrn Cleric, get involved in a feud between their respective followers which turns violent after some drinking in Kirkwall. This feud was never settled and the implication is that this unfinished business contributed to the events that led to Rǫgnvaldr's death. This episode echoes a longer one back in chapter 61 in which there is a similar feud between followers of respectively Rǫgnvaldr and a Norwegian called Jón, also arising during some drinking, but this time in Bergen. This feud is eventually settled by no less than the king of Norway, who also uses the occasion to grant half of the earldom to Kali and to bestow on him the name of Rǫgnvaldr. This echo of an earlier episode at a crucial moment in Rǫgnvaldr's career serves to suggest that his luck has now run out, that what once served him well will no longer do so. This is further emphasised by two ominous events. On the first night in Caithness, Rǫgnvaldr sneezes, and on the next day when he sees Þorbjǫrn and wants to dismount to engage with him, he unfortunately catches his foot in his stirrup. Both of these are typical saga-motifs of omens signalling the death of the person to whom they happen. Other omens have happened before in the saga: in chapter 29, Rǫgnvaldr's namesake Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason anticipates his own death with the fateful misspeaking '"We will be fully old when these fires have burned out." But what he wanted to say was that they would then be fully warmed up'. And in chapter 47 a wave engulfs Magnús Erlendsson's ship as he is approaching Egilsay where he will eventually be martyred.

Rǫgnvaldr however does not come out of his 'martyrdom' quite as well as his uncle Magnús did. Or at least the story of Rǫgnvaldr's killing lacks the hagiographical tinge that one might expect of a future saint and there are some details which suggest that the narratorial sympathy is not entirely with him. Interestingly, it is Rǫgnvaldr's killer who is presented as a heroic figure in this account. Þorbjǫrn Cleric is the one who manages, despite severe injuries, to leap nine ells across a ditch. The extent of his injuries only becomes clear after his death: 'and when Þorbjǫrn’s wounds were inspected, his intestines had slipped out through the wound that Jómarr had given him'. The wound in question was given right at the beginning: 'And at that moment Jómarr thrust a spear into Þorbjǫrn’s thigh and the lunge continued into his intestines'. After receiving that wound, Þorbjǫrn and his men cross a swamp and defend themselves manfully, Þorbjǫrn makes a long impassioned speech to Haraldr and then jumps across the ditch, and he and his men make for some deserted shielings where again they defend themselves manfully, before eventually Þorbjǫrn expires. No one else in this chapter is said to have defended themselves manfully, certainly not Rǫgnvaldr, but the defence of Þorbjǫrn and his men is twice described this way in the chapter.

Þorbjǫrn's speeches are also extraordinary. In asking Haraldr for a truce, his grounds are that the surviving earl is going to benefit from his crime: 'And this deed that I have done is a great crime, and I am responsible, but all the territory has fallen into your power'. It is only at this point, as Haraldr is dithering about what to do, that some of Rǫgnvaldr's followers intervene and put an alternative argument, emphasising Haraldr's potential role in the killing:

...if Þorbjǫrn is given a truce after this deed and also that he dares to tell you to your face in every word that he had done this evil deed for you or to honour you, it will bring everlasting shame and dishonour to you and all the earl’s kinsmen if he is not avenged. I think that Earl Rǫgnvaldr’s friends believe that you will have for some time been advising the killing of Rǫgnvaldr, which has now happened.'

In the end, Haraldr takes the easy way out, refusing to do anything to Þorbjǫrn but tacitly allowing him to be killed.

Stepping in at this late stage to chase Þorbjǫrn and his men are the sons of Hávarðr Gunnason, including one called Magnús, who made that speech, but it is noteworthy that these supporters of Rǫgnvaldr take no part in the earlier encounters. The only followers of Rǫgnvaldr mentioned when he is first attacked are two complete unknowns, a young Norwegian called Ásólfr who gets petulant when he loses a hand in the fight, and Jómarr, said to be a kinsman of the earl. Jómarr could be said proleptically to have carried out the vengeance for Rǫgnvaldr with his spear-thrust to Þorbjǫrn's intestines which was the ultimate cause of his death. It is therefore odd that he is not more celebrated for this, rather the focus is on Þorbjǫrn for heroically persisting despite such a grave injury.

This reading suggests that the narrative of Rǫgnvaldr's death did not come from his camp. He does not cover himself in glory, but then neither does Haraldr. Indeed, Haraldr's prevarications stand in contrast to the way in which Rǫgnvaldr himself managed totally to evade any responsibility for the elimination of his rival Páll Hákonarson twenty-two years earlier. It has been suggested that the narrative derives from the eyewitness account of the sons of Hávarðr, but as already noted these only come into the story at a slightly later stage. Certainly the close attention to landscape and place-names in chapter 103 does suggest origins in an account by someone who knew the area and perhaps even was present at the events. But the real import of the narrative is in the speeches of both Þorbjǫrn himself, and Magnús Hávarðarson, as cited above. These are both deeply political speeches, encapsulating what must have been a matter of much local discussion, at the time or afterwards, about responsibility and benefit in situations where a leader is ousted.

By contrast, the rather glowing obituary for Rǫgnvaldr in chapter 104 presents him as quite the paragon:

Earl Rǫgnvaldr’s death was much lamented, because he was very popular there in the isles and widely elsewhere. He had been of assistance to many people, generous with money, calm and loyal to friends, a man of many skills and a good poet.

This can presumably be seen as official church or court propaganda, especially since it follows the reference to his translation many years later, and so is likely to represent a later, whitewashed picture. There is little sense of this person in the chapter describing his killing and, as already suggested, Haraldr does not necessarily come off much better either. Chapter 103 resonates with a feeling of 'a plague on both their houses', the response of an exasperated population who is not particularly enchanted with the leadership available to them.

Street named after Earl Rǫgnvaldr, Lerwick. He had connections in Shetland. Photo © Judith Jesch

This is for all 'exasperated populations' around the world....

24 April 2022

On Oak Hill I

It's good to be in Norway again on Norse and Viking business and today I had a free day in Oslo. I'm almost ashamed to say that despite coming here regularly for many decades and even living here a long time ago, I had never been up to Ekeberg. Until, that is, when, on a previous trip in a brief Covid lull last December (on different Norse and Viking business), our group was taken up there for dinner one night, and a very fine dinner it was too. Seeing what a fabulous view there is from up there of the city, particularly the newer parts of the city in Bjørvika, I decided I really needed to go back up that hill on my next visit. So there I was today in Ekebergparken, on a slightly chilly but still beautifully sunny spring day, ready for both friluftsliv and cultural experiences. And, wow, there are certainly a lot of those!

Today, most of Ekeberg is a part of Ekebergparken, which is primarily a sculpture park, and more about these in a moment. But the area has associations and antiquities from the Stone Age to the twentieth century, all within a fascinating morning's walk. There's a good website explaining it all here. In the Stone Age, the plateau was actually an island, but as the ice receded and the land rose up, gradually it came to be the prominent hill it is today, rising up to 200m. above the sea level of the Oslofjord. There are rock carvings galore, including a helleristning (petroglyph) with hunted animals, and quite a few cup marks, those slightly more boring but still mysterious rock carvings. There are burial mounds, some possibly from the Bronze Age, most probably later, into the late Iron Age (early Viking Age to you and me), all as far as I know still unexcavated. Mostly they are not particularly visible except with the eye of archaeological faith (or expertise). Easier to see are a stone circle (or what remains of one) and a ship setting (ditto, and now reconstructed, as it was destroyed in the war). I particularly liked the way the ship setting was set off by a metal structure drawing attention to it and explaining it, even down to the little ship-shaped holes (click on the photo above to enlarge it and see!). There are dry stone walls from 2000 years ago and a cemetery wall which relates to the second World War. The Germans used a part of the area as a memorial cemetery for their fallen soldiers, with some monumental steps. These steps were removed and replaced with modern steps, and the spot has the most glorious view of the blue Oslofjord. 

Two nineteenth-century houses in the 'Swiss Villa' style beloved in Oslo at the time, and the slightly Art Decoish restaurant from 1929 complete that strong sense of travelling through time. All of these are to be seen in a glorious wood carpeted (today at least) in wood anemones. Now you might just wonder about the name of the place, for Ekeberg (Old Norse Eikaberg) means 'oak hill' but there are very few oak trees about. I could identify spruce and birch, and the lovely (free) museum on the site informed me there are also willow, ash, pine, black alder and maple. Oak is of course a very useful timber and so most of the oak trees which once distinguished the hill enough to give it this name were felled and used to build things. The whole area was opened as a scuplture park in 2013, and there are currently 43 sculptures dotted about along the paths that wind through this wood (as well as a 44th, a horrendous enormous red Santa at the bottom of the hill).

The sculptures are both traditional and modern, and it's fair to say whoever chose them has a fondness for the female form (by both male and female sculptors), as these seem to predominate. There are some pretty big names here, ranging from Salvador Dali to Damien Hirst via Gustav Vigeland, and many other names that even a non-sculpture person like me has heard of. The sculptures themselves are a pretty mixed bunch, as might be expected, but they often appear in unexpected places, or in startling ways that certainly make it an experience to walk around and look at them. Some of the best ones are by female sculptors:  Louise Bourgeois' couple, dangling from the trees, and Tori Wrånes' traveller both surprise and delight, while Ann-Sofi Sidén's self-portrait urinating is more engaging than you might think.

My favourite sculpture though was Sean Henry's 'Walking Woman', slightly larger than life, and confidently striding along the footpath as her slightly smaller real-life counterparts were doing around her.

From the Stone Age to the twenty-first century, with glorious views and a wonderful place for a walk, there is certainly something for everyone here. If you are ever in Oslo at a loose end, I highly recommend jumping on the no. 19 tram to Ekebergparken and checking it all out.

'On Oak Hill II' to follow in due course ...

19 March 2022

Tooley Street Delight


On academic business in London the other day, I chanced upon Tooley Street, just near London Bridge Underground station. Now, I've known about Tooley Street for a long time, but never actually visited it, which was clearly remiss of me, as you will understand below.

Tooley Street takes its name from St Óláfr of Norway, or rather from a church dedicated to that saint, as explained by Bruce Dickins in a classic article in Saga-Book in 1940 (pp. 67-68). As Dickins shows, there are quite a few churches dedicated to the saint in London, but this one is special, since its site is very close to one of Óláfr's youthful exploits, as recorded in the poem Víkingarvísur by the king's Icelandic poet Sigvatr Þórðarson, and edited by yours truly some years ago.

The poem recounts, in a numbered list of battles, the future king's youthful adventures in England and across the European continent.  Stanza 6 is as follows:

Rétts, at sókn in sétta,
(snarr þengill bauð Englum
at) þars Ôleifr sótti
(Yggs) Lundúna bryggjur.
Sverð bitu vǫlsk, en vǫrðu
víkingar þar díki;
átti sumt í sléttu
Súðvirki lið búðir.

It is correct that the sixth battle [took place] where Óláfr attacked the wharves of London; the valiant prince offered the English {the strife of Yggr <= Óðinn>} [BATTLE]. Frankish swords bit, and vikings defended the ditch there; some of the troop had huts in level Southwark.

At the end, he returns to Norway to become king and eventually martyr, Scandinavia's first royal saint, and rex perpetuus Norvegiae (Norway's forever king). 

It is of interest that stanza 6 mentions two specific place-names, giving the location of the battle, firstly Southwark and then the bryggjur of London. I have argued that this does not refer to London's bridge(s), as one might think, but to the wharves of London (as depicted on the cover of the book pictured above; follow the link above to read more about this question, there are also some comments there on the name Súðvirki and on the possible meanings of the word víkingar in this context).

But getting back to Tooley Street, imagine my delight to discover that one part of London Bridge Hospital is the unbelievably splendid (and grade II* listed) St Olaf House. This was built on the site of the old church, which stood until 1737, then was rebuilt and eventually demolished in 1928 to be replaced by this amazing edifice in 1932. It was originally built for the Hay's Wharf Company and became a part of the hospital in the 1980s. It's a lovely example of Art Deco, with lots of gorgeous details and quite a splendid entrance. I'm surprised it hasn't appeared in one of the Poirot episodes (or perhaps it has?).

An inscription on the corner of the building gives a brief history of the site and mentions Óláfr's military activities in the vicinity. However the exact history of all this is difficult to determine. Back in 2013 I wrote: 'Although Óláfr appears to have fought for the English King Aðalráðr (Æthelred) after the death of Sveinn tjúguskegg ‘Fork-beard’ in 1014, Snorri’s claim that Óláfr’s earlier battles were fought in support of him ... is probably erroneous ... His earlier English campaigns seem rather to have been fought alongside Þorkell inn hávi and the Danes ..., and it appears that Óláfr ‘like his friend Þorkell, changed sides and became a supporter of Æthelred’ (A. , 12). The skaldic stanzas do not in themselves clarify who Óláfr’s allies and opponents were, nor exactly where and when he fought; even when they are considered in conjunction with the English and Norse prose sources much remains uncertain ...' And it goes without saying that the idea that Óláfr’s exploits are commemorated in the nursery rhyme 'London Bridge is falling down' is most likely fanciful.

The other corner of the building depicts the royal saint in all his regal majesty, rather than as a young attacker (or possibly defender - the stanza is a bit ambiguous) of a muddy ditch. It is this subsequent saintly and regal figure, rather than the youthful warrior on his gap year abroad, that is commemorated in this very fine building. I'm glad to have discovered it for myself and can recommend it as a must visit for anyone who loves both Art Deco and royal Viking saints....

29 July 2021

St Olaf and Orkney

Doorway in Kirkwall
photo by Judith Jesch
Today is the feast day of Óláfr Haraldsson, king of Norway and saint, who died in battle, killed by his political enemies at Stiklestad, on this day in 1030. He soon became a popular saint in many parts of northern Europe and further afield, as can be seen in some interesting contributions on Twitter today (they tend to turn up every year on this day, and I have been guilty of some blog posts on this theme too). Thus, St Óláfr was venerated in England (Eleanor Parker and Francis Young), Denmark (Steffen Hope) and Ireland. So it is no surprise that he was an important figure in Orkney, too. The doorway pictured is what is thought to be left of a medieval church (possibly from the eleventh century) dedicated to St Óláfr in Kirkwall.

As an important saint and historical figure, Óláfr gets quite frequent mentions in Orkneyinga saga, the text I'm mainly working on these days. That he was considered to have a special bond with some of the earls of Orkney is also clear. Thus, in chapter 29, Earl Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason travels to Papa Stronsay to get some malt for the brewing of ale for the upcoming Christmas feast. While they were sitting by the fire there one evening, 
....he who was stoking the fire spoke about how the firewood was running out. Then the earl misspoke and said this, ‘We will be fully old when these fires have burned out’. But what he wanted to say was that they would then be fully warmed up. And as soon as he noticed, he said this, ‘I have not misspoken before, as far as I remember. What occurs to me is what my foster-father, King Óláfr, said at Stiklestad, when I heard him misspeak, if it ever happened that I misspoke, that I should prepare myself that I would stay alive for only a short time. It might be that kinsman Þorfinnr is alive.’ [my translation]

And indeed, Rǫgnvaldr's uncle and rival earl, Þorfinnr Sigurðarson and his men turn up and make short work of killing him to consolidate Þorfinnr's power.

South doorway
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
photo by Judith Jesch
The earls of Orkney were often in the habit of killing their kinsmen to ensure their own grip on power. The most notorious example involved the feud between Þorfinnr's grandsons, the cousins Hákon Pálsson and Magnús Erlendsson. The former killed the latter on the island of Egilsay at Easter, creating another much loved Scandinavian aristocratic saint, to whom the very beautiful cathedral in Kirkwall is dedicated, replacing the smaller church dedicated to St Óláfr.

Magnús' connection to St Óláfr is perhaps not quite as clear as that of his father's cousin Rǫgnvaldr, though the saga does connect their deaths chronologically, stating somewhat confusedly that the killing of Magnús happend 74 years after that of St Óláfr (ch. 51) - although we don't know the exact year it happened that is out by at least a decade.

As can be seen from the quotation above, Rǫgnvaldr Brúsason had been present at the battle in which Óláfr was killed, while Magnús in his turn became a saint like Óláfr, his cathedral sponsored by his nephew, also called Rǫgnvaldr, who was in his turn murdered by his political enemies in the interminable internecine warfare of those times. Despite his saintly powers, Óláfr could no more keep his Orcadian earls alive than he could keep himself alive, but it may have comforted these political martyrs that he was on their side. Certainly, through the powers of sanctity and the church they are remembered more than the kinsmen and compatriots who killed them.


03 April 2021

The Tale of the 'Holiday Shocker'


Christine Fell in 1965
from a photo
kindly provided by
Gillian Fellows-Jensen 
One of my most treasured possessions is my copy of Sigurður Nordal's scholarly edition (1913-16) of Orkneyinga saga, which has been my constant companion for over two decades now, ever since I inherited it from my former colleague and friend Professor Christine E. Fell OBE (1938-1998; you can read about her on pp. 214ff. of this link). I have treasured this volume for its mere existence, because this edition is not always easy to get hold of and it is essential to my work on this saga and on Orkney generally. As a result, it's started to get a bit battered. Using it regularly always reminds me that it was Chris who encouraged me to go to a conference in Kirkwall in 1987, celebrating the 850th anniversary of St Magnus Cathedral. It was my first visit to Orkney and so she can be held responsible for my subsequent obsession with the place. But, although I have always been aware that the book has an interesting history, I've only just recently started to explore that history in more detail through the clues in the book itself.

The book bears the mark of Weeks & Co. Binders. London. N.W.1., and it was when it was bound that the letter that explains the book's provenance was bound into it. Loosely inserted into the book (it's a miracle that I still have it) is a small, neatly written note that explains who that letter was from. More on the letter later, but first the note. It is signed (but not dated) by Edith C. Batho. The name rang a faint bell with me, so with the help of Wikipedia, I discovered that she was the Principal of Royal Holloway College of the University of London from 1945-62. There I thought I had a possible connection with Chris Fell, as she got her BA in English from Royal Holloway in 1959, and Batho was an English specialist. Chris Fell went on to do an MA in Old Norse at UCL, awarded 1961, and presumably her interest in the subject began during her undergraduate years. However I have not been able to find any evidence that the two met then, though it is quite possible - in the late 1950s, there were apparently fewer than 400 students in the college. There's a nice painting of Edith Batho in 1961 here and I would like to imagine that Batho had given Fell the book around then, but it could equally have been at a later date. I'm told by an authoritative source that Batho was a regular attender at meetings of the Viking Society for Northern Research until her death, suggesting that she was still interested in Old Norse topics even after her retirement. This could have been where they met if not before and it gives an extended window during which Batho could have given Fell the book, perhaps especially when Chris was the Society's President 1980-82. But I also know that Chris was an assiduous purchaser of secondhand books and had built up an impressive library before her own death in 1998, so she might have bought the book after Batho's death in 1986. At the same time, Chris was keen for her books to be passed on to people who would find them useful, which is how I and some other younger colleagues and students had the privilege of selecting items from her library after her death. I suspect that this attitude reflected her own experience as a grateful young scholar on the receiving end of important books, which is why I like to think she got it directly from Edith Batho, whenever that was.

But why did Edith Batho have this book in her possession? Well, she had a degree in English and, although Wikipedia only mentions her publications on Wordsworth and the Victorians, she also had an interest in Scottish texts. She published on James Hogg, the 'Ettrick Shepherd' (more on this below) and co-edited John Bellenden's 1531 translation into Scots of Hector Boece's Chronicles of Scotland for the Scottish Text Society. And she published an article on Sir Walter Scott and the sagas in the Modern Language Review for 1929. Well, that's more than enough to explain why she might want the edition of Orkneyinga saga, but how did she get it?

The answer is in the letter, which Edith's note explains is from Olivia Stuart Horner, 'my friend for 50 years'. While the note is not dated, the letter is, to '10.11.25', so the note cannot have been written any later than 1975 and could be quite a bit earlier. In 1925, Edith was 30, and Olivia a bit older (the note states that she married Sir Ernest Barker a year or two after writing the letter and the census records that she was baptised in 1891, though elsewhere it is suggested that she was born in 1894). Googling Olivia Stuart Horner certainly gave me a clue to what the letter says about the book. Olivia was the god-daughter of no less than William Paton Ker, a distinguished literary scholar usually known as W.P. Ker, who was himself Scottish and who wrote on both Old Norse and other medieval topics. Among his many achievements was the establishment of the teaching of Scandinavian Studies at University College London in 1917. Olivia was with him when he died on a walking tour of Italy, at a place called Macugnaga.

According to the letter, Olivia is sending Edith what she describes as 'W.P.'s "holiday shocker" as he called it in 1923 at Macugnaga'. The reason she had it was because 'it got among other paperbacked books' which she discovered as her family was moving house. Clearly Edith thought highly enough of this rough paperback (the original paper covers are bound into the back of my copy) to have had it bound in London, with the letter also bound in to indicate its provenance. Olivia notes that 'you are the right person to have it'. This is explained by the fact that not only did Edith get her degree in English from University College London in 1915, while W.P. was Quain Professor of English there, but her book The Ettrick Shepherd (1927) is posthumously dedicated to him. The preface makes clear that it is based on work she did for her MA, and one could surmise that he was her supervisor for it, but then perhaps these things worked differently in those days. I'm wondering if it was W.P. who introduced his promising student to his god-daughter.

W.P. Ker's literary interests were very wide, and when he wrote about Old Norse texts it was usually to place them in a broader literary context. Typical is his inaugural address when he became President of the Viking Society for Northern Research (then still known as the Viking Club) printed in its journal Saga-Book as 'Iceland and the Humanities'. He was very active in the Viking Club during the first two decades of the twentieth century and his obituary in Saga-Book notes that 'The thing for which he cared most was the study of what Scandinavia had given to the world' (p. 410).

Although Olivia Barker is less well-known than the other actors in this little saga, there's actually quite a bit more to say about her and her family, even if it is not especially relevant to my book and its history. She was born in Cheshire, but by the 1911 census was living in Surbiton, and may have spent time in the family's ancestral home of the Manor House in Mells, Somerset. At the time of writing the letter she was, on the testimony of the letter itself, still living in Surbiton but about to move to Sussex. One of her brothers, Maurice, was murdered in London in 1943, a murder that was never solved. Another, David, wrote a novel based on this murder and was the long-term partner of no less than Osbert Sitwell.

I still need to find out whether the Scot W.P. Ker had a particular interest in this 'Scottish' saga, or whether he was just omnivorous when it came to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. So far I have not discovered any specific references in his works (but there are very many!) to Orkneyinga saga, but maybe he was reading it for the first time on that fateful Italian holiday. After all, it had only quite recently been published. So there may still be more to be found out about my treasured book. In the meantime, I'm delighted to have learned a bit more about its adventures.

So it's wonderful to think that my copy of this book has been to northern Italy with W.P. Ker, sat on the shelves first of Edith Batho and then of Christine Fell, and here I've been bashing it about for 20-odd years. I really must take better care of it! And from a personal point of view, I am delighted that this book links three Past Presidents of the Viking Society (Ker, Fell and myself) and three women scholars (Batho, Fell and myself), and that it is all down to Olivia Stuart Horner's clearout.

08 March 2021

International Women's Day


For International Women's Day it is always useful to remind ourselves that, even in the Viking Age, women were approximately half of the population. There seems to persist an idea that both Vikings and everything that went on in the Viking Age were somehow entirely a masculine domain. Naturally, I have been trying to nuance this picture for at least thirty years (this year being the anniversary of my Women in the Viking Age (1991), still to my amazement in print after all this time. I suppose it is still useful to people though I hope my ideas have moved on a bit since then.

Although I haven't been publishing on this topic too much recently, I still often get asked to talk about it, or write in a popular context. So here are some links to what I have said or written about women and other female figures in the Viking Age during the last few years:

  • 'In Praise of Queen Astrid' 10-minute talk from the British Academy (March 2021)

[the image above is how the late nineteenth-century artist Christian Krohg envisaged Queen Astrid's speech at the Swedish assembly, public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

  • ‘Inghen Ruaidh, the Birka Grave and Viking warrior women’ podcast on Not What You Thought You Knew with Fern Riddell and guests (September 2020)

  • ‘Valkyries: Fierce women of war’ on BBC World Service, Forum with Bridget Kendall and guests (July 2020)


  • 'Viking women at home and at war', History Extra (March 2019)



For those particularly interested in shield-maidens, I do have an article forthcoming in the journal Viking

29 November 2020

If You Want to Listen

Shameless self-promotion has not generally been the main purpose of this blog. I've tended to aim for the slightly quirky, or even personal, just recording things that I have found interesting. But I have also enjoyed bringing to light various Norse and Viking things that I have observed in my studies or my travels. And every once in a while I am minded to comment on books or other phenomena from the academic world of Viking studies. Over the last few years (and especially during the pandemic) I have increasingly been doing this in the form of podcasts and other audio discussions or interviews. While my preferred medium is still the written word, I have noticed that more and more people seem to like listening to something more than reading something (and unlike reading it's something they can more easily do while doing something else). So I have enjoyed this way of communicating with people who might not otherwise read anything I have written. The audio experience is also different from this blog (and from much of what I write) in that in these contributions I am not necessarily following my own nose but more likely responding to questions or topics suggested by those who produce them, and this can force me to look at things differently.

So, for those who think this blog has been a bit thin of late, or who can't be bothered to browse in it, here are some links to the things that I have been broadcasting to the world in recent times, in reverse chronological order:

The Viking Diaspora - podcast interview with two of the guys who run the Seven Ages website, 'Exploring History, Archaeology, Science and Culture' (November 2020)

Inghen Ruaidh, the Birka Grave and Viking Warrior Women Not What You Thought You Knew with Fern Riddell and one other guest (September 2020)

Valkyries: Fierce women of war BBC World Service, Forum with Bridget Kendall and two other guests (July 2020) 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Vikings, but were afraid to ask History Extra podcast with David Musgrove (May 2020)

The Danelaw In Our Time BBC Radio 4 with Melvyn Bragg and two other guests (March 2019) 

Runes: The Vikings in their own Words  on The History of Vikings podcast with Noah Tetzner (October 2018) 

By the way, the title of this blog post is a quotation from the first stanza of Háttalykill 'Key of Metres' by Earl Rǫgnvaldr Kali Kolsson and Hallr Þórarinsson, ed. by Kari Ellen Gade for the Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages project.