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 Macugagna.

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)

 https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/vikings-women-home-matriarchs-traders-artisans/

 

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.


19 September 2020

The Children of Ash and Elm

In what now seems like a completely other world, less than a year ago I wrote blog post listing some recommended Viking reading. If I had been writing that blog post now, I would certainly have had to consider this very recent offering (it was published last month), all 599 pages of it, with the rather curious title The Children of Ash and Elm and the more prosaic subtitle A History of the Vikings. This book is by Neil Price, one of the best-known Viking specialists working today. He is professor of archaeology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, and leader of a massive 10-year project called The Viking Phenomenon. By any account, this book, one of the outputs of that project, deserves serious attention.

I have to admit that not long ago I declined an opportunity to review the book, though this was only for practical reasons and not from any disinclination. Since then no one else has asked. So I thought I'd share some thoughts here. In fact, I rather like the freedom of writing as many (or as few) words as I like, and not having to follow the conventions of book reviews, or worry about who I was writing for, or explain the book to those who haven't read it and are wondering whether they should or not (the short answer is yes, though there's a longer and more complicated answer below). So this is not a review. Just some thoughts, mainly on those aspects of the book which particularly interest me, and which may or may not be of interest to others.

The first thing to note is that not only have I read it, but I have read it carefully and in its entirety and enjoyed doing so. You might think this goes without saying, but I can assure you that when it comes to popular or trade books about the Viking Age, this is very rarely the case for me... Too many books about the Vikings, aimed at a general audience, just say the same old things, in the same order, and in the dullest possible way. They might have their uses in providing the basics for those who know nothing, but I can rarely get past the first few pages... I assume this one is intended for a wide audience, as it is published by Allen Lane and will I guess eventually become a Penguin paperback, presumably to replace Else Roesdahl's The Vikings, which has now been around for quite a long time. So the very fact that I enjoyed reading it, and with attention, tells you a lot. However, its destiny as a popular book also makes it a bit difficult to review. How much should we expect of it? Who is it really for? We all know that it is really hard to encompass the whole of the Viking Age without making some mistakes, but how significant is that in this context? Does anyone care? I'm always being told that our first priority is to engage as well as inform the general public. But how far do we go in this process?

Well, this book is certainly very engaging. So what do I like about it? A variety of big and small things. Most important to me is how Neil's love of his subject shines through every word on these 599 pages. Here is someone who likes Vikings and the Viking Age a lot, as much as I do, almost certainly even more than I do, although probably for very different reasons. He resists the dreary tendency of some archaeologists to insist on the calling it the 'Viking period' and instead argues cogently (p. 9) for the validity of the notion of a 'discrete Viking Age'. He even admits that he is 'promoting the Vikings' worldview' (p. 26), something that sounds potentially dangerous these days. But it's not sinister, rather it is clear that his aim is deep understanding, an attempt to get inside the skin of the Vikings. Overall, I like this attitude. This is not a book for those who want battles and bling, rather I see it as an attempt to work out what motivated battles and bling (and of course much else).

Another good thing is that some of the book is about the centuries before the Viking Age, a period which is given a variety of names in different archaeological traditions (usefully tabulated on p. 66) and which is less well studied outside the circles of Scandinavian archaeology than the Viking Age itself. Very few books about the Viking Age consider this preceding period in any detail and it is illuminating to see both the continuities and the changes. In fact, you could argue that the author's idea of a 'discrete' and in many ways unified Viking Age is justified by that very contrast with the preceding period, with its multiple monikers and lack of a unifying narrative. Despite his over-fondness for Beowulf and the sixth-century 'dust veil', this focus on the pre-Viking period is still an important aspect of this book. I would also say the author is generally good on religion, even if I shudder at his adoption of the term 'religiolect' (p. 207), or when he overstates the evidence for worship of the Norse deities in England (p. 408).

I am of course very pleased that the author recognises the usefulness of the concept of 'diaspora' in understanding the Viking Age - this word is the title of the whole of chapter 13. Unlike many others, he is also alert to the fact that it is a difficult word to use and needs explanation and exploration rather than just appropriation (see especially pp. 363-5 and 555).

So, overall, this is a book which has many new and interesting things to say about Vikings and the Viking Age and already for that reason it is well worth reading. It's also a book which stimulates both thought and occasional disagreement, and I wouldn't be me if I didn't have some Thoughts about some of what Neil says.

The book is definitely the product of an archaeologist's mind, as indeed his predecessor Else Roesdahl's is. Allen Lane/Penguin still seems to belong to the class of publisher who believes only archaeologists are qualified to write about this topic. However, Neil is one of those archaeologists who is not only not embarrassed to use Old Norse texts to help understand his subject, but is also pretty knowledgeable about them. Indeed he has been supporting his archaeological interpretations with textual evidence for most of his career. This is laudable, but has some dangers. I have sometimes noticed that not only MA dissertations and PhD theses but also papers by more senior archaeologists have a tendency to use his work as a primary source to access these texts. While it is understandable that archaeologists cannot also be textual specialists, I think there is still some educating to be done here. But that is not this author's fault, rather that of those who use him in this way. This book is upfront about its use of sagas in particular, more than once urging its readers to 'read the sagas' - which can only be a good thing. I'm also totally with Neil when he notes (p. 23) that 'skeptical literary researchers' are probably too skeptical since they do not explain where all the Viking Age material in the sagas comes from, though his own justification (e.g. p. 222) is a bit thin. Let's by all means have more exchange and discussion of this topic which is sorely needed.

So I am disappointed to have to say that this book is not a particularly good advertisement for the use of sagas, or indeed any old texts, in archaeological narratives. At the most basic level, there are too many errors, often of a linguistic variety. So not only are we introduced to those weird Anglo-Norse hybrid dynasties the 'Ynglingas, Skjöldungas, and Völsungas' (p. 92) but, even more egregiously, the Saga of the Ljósvetningas (p. 160). I think our author has been reading too much Beowulf and not enough sagasConstantine Porphyrogenitos' De Administrando Imperio is, despite the title, written in Greek not Latin (p. 366). Miðjarðarhaf  is a literal translation of 'Mediterranean Sea' and nothing to do with Miðgarðr (p. 374). A few such errors are forgivable but there are a little too many for my taste. Especially because they could easily have been eradicated by asking someone who knows about these things to read through the manuscript. But despite two pages of Acknowledgements to the Great and the Good of Norse and Viking Studies (pp. 574-6), this appears not to have been done, at least not successfully. The hubris of thinking you know everything affects us all in the end...and it's those who really do know a lot who have to be particularly careful. (I'm looking at myself here, too).

Similarly, some of Neil's reading of Old Norse texts is at least debatable and sometimes just wrong. On p. 55, he conflates without notice the texts of the poem Darraðarljóð and the prose narrative of Njáls saga in which it is cited. This is a pity for the argument because many people believe the poem is a genuine Viking Age product, while the saga definitively is not, and is therefore unlikely to be a reliable guide to what the poem really means. (I've more than once heard archaeologists at conferences claim they are citing the saga when in fact they are using the poem - when making a point about textiles, for example, this is an important distinction). Individual texts are in danger of being overinterpreted. Thus, Neil says (p. 110) that  Rígsþula 'describes an elaborate high-status wedding with fine linens and much ceremony',  but there is no such thing, only a very sketchy reference in st. 38 (40 in Larrington's translation) to Erna marrying Jarl and wearing linen. On the same page, he refers to the 'impotence' of Hrútr in Njáls saga, whereas most readers would I think say this character's marital problem was too much potence. We're told that 'sagas and poems are utterly saturated in magic' (p. 221). Well, yes, there is a fair bit of magic in these texts but 'utterly saturated'? Not in my experience. 'Professional mourner' is an odd concept to link to the Eddic heroine Guðrún (p. 253) in a context in which it is clear that she is mourning her own daughter - surely a genuine tragic figure rather than a hired weeper. It all smacks a bit too much of making the evidence fit the argument.

Runes are also not well-represented in this book, despite many of them being, unlike the sagas but like some poetry, contemporary texts from the Viking Age or earlier. It's disappointing when the author misses several opportunities to mention that important archaeological finds he discusses actually have runic inscriptions on them, such as some of the pre-Viking weapon deposits at Illerup (p. 70). Even more scandalously, the carved stones of the Isle of Man are mentioned for their Christian iconography beside images from Old Norse cosmology (p. 417) without any reference to their (more frequent, but perhaps less obviously exciting) runic inscriptions. Two Swedish rune-stones which Neil alleges (p. 112) provide evidence for men having two wives simultaneously are not only rather slim evidence for polygyny but could also be read in a variety of ways, even before we consider the problems of using these laconic inscriptions to write social history. And no, Ingibjörg did not have 'sex with me when I was in Stavanger' (p. 192). The medieval (not Viking Age) Bergen rune-stick N B390 M says that Ingibjörg unni mér þá er ek var í Stafangri or 'Ingibjörg loved me when I was in Stavanger'. You might argue that the verb unna is a euphemism here (though not always in runic inscriptions where it does seem to indicate romantic love). But I would argue that is interpretation which needs to be argued for, ideally with a consideration of how the word is used in other contexts. In this context, what is needed rather is just to get the translation right. Norse-speaking people are not known for euphemisms and did not shy away from the f-word when they needed it, as can be seen from several runic inscriptions including a famous one in Maeshowe (also post-Viking Age). 

Any one of these slips, individually, is not significant on its own, but there are rather a lot of them when it comes to the texts. What is more concerning is the overall pattern, of exaggeration and dramatisation, of literally sexing up things that were originally perhaps more mundane. Too much of this ends up with a slightly cartoonish view of the Vikings which both feeds into and panders to the ways they are portrayed in popular culture. Boring as I am, I would argue that the Vikings are fun enough without having to exaggerate what they were up to, they don't need all this showmanship. The end result is that the book sits very uneasily on the border between scholarship and yet another 'popular' version of the Viking Age. This is a worrying tendency in several aspects of Viking studies today, one example being the controversial Viking display at the National Museum of Denmark, though this book is not I think in that league, mercifully. And yet many people will regard this book as the 'defnitive' view of the Viking Age (as can be seen from both journalistic reviews, and consumer reviews on Amazon). Once again, the drive to 'engage' the public seems to be at the forefront of all public-facing scholarship and is in danger of overshadowing the actual scholarship.

This popularising tendency may be responsible for the author more or less ignoring certain forms of evidence which are not so easily tied into a colourful narrative (though others do manage it). So, place-names, a really important source of evidence, get very short, and sometimes inaccurate, shrift. It is simply not true that there are 'no non-Norse place-names in the Hebrides' (p. 404). I wonder if the author meant the Northern Isles in this instance, but even there this is not true. According to him, place-names provide the 'greatest evidence for the Scandinavian presence' in Normandy, 'as in several areas in the British Isles' (p. 419), but this point regarding the latter (and especially England) is not taken up elsewhere. The author could, I would suggest, also do with reading up on some of the recent (and older) discussion about the  name of Norway which I,  in agreement with others, no longer believe means the 'North Way' (p. 86). It's perfectly understandable that this is an area in which our multi-talented archaeologist author feels less confident, but I would really have liked to have seen more about this in a 599-page book which calls itself 'A History of the Vikings'.

Even in areas where he is more knowledgeable, the author is not always entirely reliable. I didn't know that ringed pins were a 'uniquely Norse invention' (p. 135) and I doubt it, but admittedly that's not my area of expertise. Snaptun (the find location of a carving beloved of my students which ostensibly shows Loki with his mouth sewn up) is not 'near the Norwegian border' (p. 136) - Denmark does not share a land border with Norway. It did in the Middle Ages, but that is still not where Snaptun is. I do wonder how we can be sure that Sámi traditions recorded in early modern times go back to the Viking Age and beyond (p. 89). This could well be true, but I'd welcome some comment on the question, especially in light of the author's semi-skepticism about the (earlier-recorded) sagas. His disappointingly brief comments on genetic research (p. 381) add nothing to what is an important and current discussion.

So, despite the stated commitment to interdisciplinarity, and a voluminous bibliography (in which I have happily discovered many items I knew nothing about), I'm not convinced that the author has fully digested everything he has read, especially in other disciplines. The saga-references in particular read a bit like someone who once read a saga some years ago and is retailing it from memory. Personally, I do not mind these errors, they are easily made and I can recognise them and filter them out. I can also tell when the narrative slips from fact to speculation and I for one enjoy speculation even when I do not fully agree with it, because it stimulates thought. A case in point is the author's new-found conviction that the Vikings were non-binary or queer, which seems a bit tacked on here and there to a narrative which otherwise still assumes a highly gendered society (my considered views on shield-maidens will, I hope, be published elsewhere soon, in the meantime you can get an idea from this recent podcast). The speculation is not always signposted though careful reading will reveal it. But I do wonder how many students and less experienced readers will look at the range of evidence cited and assume the author is equally expert in all of it. And then continue to cite him, rather than the original sources, for literary and linguistic detail... I'm almost tempted to say that you should study the Vikings for a few years before reading this book - you'll get more out of it and not be led astray. But is this the right kind of book for The Penguin Book of the Vikings? I'm already dreading some of Neil's more colourful exaggerations turning up in student essays for years to come.

Despite these disappointments, I do still really like this book. I hope it is recognised that engagement at this level of detail is a form of praise for this book - there are very few books I would take so much trouble to write about, especially in this informal way. I fantasise that I could even use this slightly uneven character of the book to train students in distinguishing between old news, new news and fake news, but it wouldn't be easy. The narrative is, I imagine, pretty seductive to those (almost everyone) who have less knowledge than Neil Price.

To end on a more positive note, the book has some insights or generalisations that are sufficiently interesting and provocative that I want to take them away and really chew over them, which is one reason I like this book. While it should not always be taken literally, the following random selection of observations shows some of the ways in which this book successfully stimulated my thought processes at least:

  • 'trickster ... nomenclature may not help in understanding [Loki] from the point of view of the Vikings themselves' (p. 46)
  • 'The mythology of the Vikings is one of only a tiny handful in all world cultures in which the divinities also practised religion' (p. 50)
  • [with reference to the Migration Period, but also relevant to the Viking Age, and here's looking at you 2020] 'Some were fleeing, and others were those they fled from. Most were looking for economic security, safety, and a quieter life while a powerful minority were trying proactively to shape a world more to their liking' (p. 68)
  • 'it is the man's gender that was limited and intensive, while the gender of women was to a degree unlimited and extensive' (p. 172)
  • 'the Rök stone ... was deeply socially embedded (and visible) in a way that the book cultures of the Continent never wished to be' (p. 195)
  • the importance of planning and preparing for Viking expeditions (p. 308)
  • the 'armies' in England were 'continuously evolving migratory communities' (p. 339) or 'armed family migrations' (p. 357)
  • 'There is little evidence of racism in Viking society' (p. 398)
  • 'the Vikings live on today primarily as tourist magnets, as the draw of heritage trails and "experiences". The Scandinavians of the Viking Age were acutely concerned with memory; they might have been happy at this.' (pp. 498-9)


05 September 2020

Runes in Our Troubled Times


Back in the day when this blog was nobbut a baby blog, one of my first posts gave a quick mention to the Odinic obsessions of a certain Julian Cope, ageing musician and antiquarian who grew up in Tamworth. Twelve years later, the Other Half is still keeping not-very-musical me up to date with Cope's antics, especially when they have a Viking flavour, as they often do, such as his 2017 album Drunken Songs with a cute Viking ship on the cover. So I couldn't help noticing that his latest album, Self Civil War, includes a runic inscription which is very familiar to me (pictured above). It is of course one of the graffiti from the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, on the mainland of Orkney, which I have had occasion to mention one or two times before. Not that you would know this from the album, which nowhere explains what these funny marks are...

The runes read utnorþr : er fe · folhit · mikit, which in standard Old West Norse is Útnorðr er fé folgit mikit, meaning 'In the north-west is great wealth concealed.' What it actually means is anyone's guess, though I suspect there is a strong element of joke about it, like many of the other graffiti in Maeshowe, several of which play with the idea that there was once treasure in the mound. Why this inscription is on this album is also anyone's guess, though Cope has a long history of being interested both in ancient monuments and Norse stuff. A quick internet search shows that he was writing a version of this message (with what looks like a felt-tip pen) on a plastic-looking stone at the Lunar Festival in Tamworth in 2015. OK, so he wrote 'buried' instead of 'concealed', and 'north', instead of 'north-west', but he is forgiven for thinking that treasure is always buried and for not knowing the concept of útnorðr, which only features in my more advanced Old Norse classes. Like many Old Norse words it reveals a fascinating way of looking at the world, but would require altogether another blogpost to explain.

But Cope does appear to have been doing his Scandi homework, since the album also contains a song 'Lokis sympati' in Danish. I don't pretend to understand what it's about, even though my reading Danish is excellent. If you have any thoughts, let me know! The credits say 'All words by Julian Cope' so I have to assume he knows Danish. Good lad. I suppose this goes back to his interest in 'lost Danish music' which started in a charity shop in Melksham in 1999...


The title of the album is however not Cope's but taken from a poem from the 1630s, 'Self Civil War' by a certain Reverend Roger Brearley. This one I do understand, all too well, and also Cope's comment that it 'seems to sum up the psychic and political divisions that many modern Brits share with their Cavalier and Roundhead counterparts.' This is even more true now than when the album came out at the beginning of this year. Let us hope we can somehow find that elusive treasure, wherever it is.



14 January 2020

Dad Runes

The 29th of this month would have been Terje Spurkland's 72nd birthday. I first encountered him in the academic year of 1980-81, when I was on a scholarship in Norway and attended his lectures on Old Norse grammar, to improve both my Norwegian and my Old Norse. He was certainly a memorable lecturer, even then, but I didn't really get to know him until about ten years later. That was when I attended my first of what have come to be known as the 'Annual Meeting of Field Runologists' which on that occasion in 1990 ranged from Cambridge to Scotland, but with a focus on Northumbria. From then we met regularly at runic and other Norse and Viking events. The last time I saw him was again at one of the annual runologist meetings, in Västergötland, Sweden, in September 2017, where I took this runatic selfie (right) with him. Terje was a devoted runologist, a good colleague, and really excellent company on any runic excursion. He died on Christmas Day in 2018 from an aggressive form of brain cancer, and is deeply missed by all runologists, but also remembered by them and others with great affection.

In this, what would have been his birthday month, I have been reading a memoir by his daughter Marte, Pappas runer ('Dad's runes'). It really is a most extraordinary book. Terje had been working for some years on a book about runes, but also about literacy more generally, with a particular focus on the 300 or so years when Norway in particular was a two-script society, in which both runes and the roman alphabet were used side by side, often by the same people. A substantial draft of this book was in existence when Terje's cancer was diagnosed at Christmas 2017. His daughter had the idea to work on it with him as a way of distracting them both from the tedium and anxiety of all the hospital appointments, treatments and general misery of the illness. In the end, it turned out to be a different sort of book, in which a very personal account of Terje's illness and its effect on his family is interwoven with an introduction to runes and runic inscriptions. The ideas about runes and inscriptions are very much Terje's, and derived from his manuscript, but seen through the eyes of his daughter, whose interest in runes only came during this last year of her father's life. Like dad dancing, her father's interest in runes was just an embarrassment to the younger Marte, along with his clogs and old rucksack, his firm opinions on some aspects of the modern world, his oft-repeated stories, and his generally friendly grumpiness. This book is the story of how, just in time, she discovered why runes are so fascinating and why her father was such a gifted communicator of that fascination.

Obviously, the book is of great interest to those of us who knew Terje and who also love runes and runic inscriptions (though I think few people loved them quite as much as Terje did). Terje was a very popular teacher, and an engaging speaker, and his voice shines through much of what Marte writes about runes. In this way the ideas he had for his book find their way into print, though in an unusual context. It's hard for me to judge how the book would strike those who do not share these obsessions, or do not know the people concerned. However I believe the book has done very well here in Norway and even won a prize. It is certainly well-written and Marte switches between the two threads expertly. What I find fascinating is how well she has woven together the story of the rise and fall of runic writing with the story of Terje's last year on earth. There is an obvious metaphorical connection, and also many surviving runic inscriptions, especially on stone, are memorials to the dead. But some were raised by living people to commemorate themselves, and the book recalls how Terje commissioned the lovely stone pictured above right for himself and his wife Marit.

Marte finds even more intricate connections, discussing runic inscriptions that echo the events and memories of the book. For instance, the 8th-century human skull with runes from Ribe, in Denmark, comes at the point in the book when Terje has had an operation on his brain. The Ribe skull has a hole in it which might be evidence of Viking Age trepanation, also a form of brain operation. The Jelling stone erected by Harald Bluetooth is linked to her father's late adoption of a very simple mobile phone, which nevertheless also had Bluetooth technology. The Eggja stone, which probably recounts a shipwreck, recalls Terje's feats of rowing. These took place in Terje's childhood tracts of Nordmøre, and visits there during the last year of his life evoke other inscriptions, like the Kuli stone and the very fine inscription in Tingvoll church, near the family cabin. In fact, much of the book evokes Terje as he was before struck down by illness, strong, reliable, often taciturn, kind, and with a wicked sense of humour. To me it's a familiar picture, and yet I also learned a lot about Terje the father, the husband, and the human being, as well as the runologist. He's lucky to have had such a daughter, even if her runic enthusiasm came a little late! Thanks, Marte.