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.


12 January 2020

Víkingr in Oslo

Here in dismal, grey, snowless Oslo it was a delight to visit the Historical Museum and especially its exhibition called Víkingr. The museum is currently being renovated, so this exhibition is a pared-down version of its old Viking Age exhibition, but also a long-term stop-gap while we wait for the new Viking museum on Bygdøy in 2025. It's quite minimalist, in terms of both the way it is presented and what it presents. I suppose that is partly because of limited space during the renovations and partly from a recognition that the Viking Age is such an extensive and complex phenomenon that it is hard to encompass it all in one exhibition. So on entering the room the visitor is told to expect 'a selection of exceptional objects that reflect the world of the Vikings and what they valued'. This seems to me like a good idea - it admits it's only a partial view of the subject and gives the exhibition focus, even if it does lead to a slightly clichéd emphasis on war and bling. There is no 'daily life in the Viking Age' as we were also promised there wouldn't be in the big exhibition of 2013-14 - which was a shame in the much bigger exhibition, but fine for this one.

Entering the room is a delight. It's a beautiful room in its own right, but is also very beautifully lit and laid out. The cases are all the same size and it is easy to follow them through the room in a logical order, with each row of three given an introduction on the wall to the right. The labels on the cases are very low down (for smaller people, or those in wheelchairs?) but there is a booklet you can borrow which gives general information and full details of all the exhibits. (You can also download the booklet in either Norwegian or English.) The massive Dynna rune-stone at the end of room and the logo behind it break up the monotony and draw the eye through the room, and you get to appreciate the art nouveau details of this very fine building from 1902.

The exhibits themselves move logically from international contact and the riches acquired from there to war and its accoutrements, ending with religion and new ways. This does mean that the vast majority of the items displayed are of metal, with just a few beads and the rune-stone breaking up this heavy metal emphasis. But I'm not complaining, for some of the absolutely top metal objects from the museum's collections are on display: the gold hoard from Hoen, the Gjermundbu helmet, and plenty of coins, jewellery (including some made from bits of metalworks acquired in the west), Thor's hammers and weaponry. The other non-metal exhibit is the skull of the young lady from Nordre Kjølen that featured in a recent National Geographic documentary on women warriors which I discussed in a previous post. The curators of the exhibition are suitably cautious as to whether or not this burial represents a female warrior, I was glad to see, and present alternative explanations.

In addition to the burial from Nordre Kjølen, women are well represented, in part by their jewellery (there are plenty of both oval and trefoil brooches) and by the magnificent Dynna stone. This has always been a striking element of the museum's exhibitions. It is a roughly 3-metre high pillar of sandstone on which a mother commemorates her deceased daughter Ástríðr, the 'handiest maiden in Hadeland' (her name is in the picture to the right) with a runic inscription and Christian images, particularly of the Epiphany (so very seasonally appropriate, even if a few days late).

On the whole, I would say the exhibition is small but perfectly-formed, like the little gold serpent from the Hoen hoard pictured left, and well worth a visit. Also, if you buy a ticket to the Historical Museum, you also get in free at the current Viking Ship Museum on Bygdøy, also a beautiful building containing some fabulous objects. I only wonder why they called this exhibition Víkingr (just one Viking?). I myself would have gone for Víkingar (Vikings) or even Víking (a Viking expedition). Oh well, you can't have everything.

24 December 2019

Orkney Yule

The church at Orphir.
Photo © Judith Jesch
As I noted in a festive blog post a few years ago, the Old Norse word jól can refer either to the pre-Christian midwinter festival, or the Christian one. What seems to unite them is that it is very much a time of feasting, as can be seen from both skaldic and saga-references. But the stories are generally interested in conflict, so we rarely get a picture of peaceful feasting, rather the Yuletide feast often seems to be a trigger for violent altercations. These violent events are quite clearly linked to the alcohol consumed at these feasts, and I guess it is these saga-episodes which give us our popular image of violent Vikings indulging in excessive drinking..

In the saga about the earls of Orkney, usually known as Orkneyinga saga, we get two rather different views of the most famous of those earls, Þorfinnr Sigurðarson, at this season. In chapter 20, he is praised for how he treats his followers at this time of year and, yes, it does involve feasting, with perhaps a little moral twist to the tale:
Earl Þorfinnr did that admirable deed in the Orkneys that he gave hospitality, both food and home brew, to all his court and to many other powerful men all through the winter, so that they did not need to go to the tavern, just as it is the custom for kings and earls in other countries to entertain their court throughout Yule.
The anecdote is supported by a half-stanza by Arnórr jarlaskáld 'Earls' poet' emphasising Þorfinnr's generosity. It comes just at the point in the story in which Þorfinnr's brother Brúsi dies, and he takes power over all the Orkneys. The throwaway comment about keeping his men out of the pub also underlines his firm hand on the tiller of state.

The saga is largely about internecine warfare in the families born to rule. So it is no surprise that Brúsi's son Rǫgnvaldr soon comes back home from his travels to challenge for his share of power, which he gets, at least temporarily. Þorfinnr however starts to chafe at the power-sharing arrangement, which also involved political interventions from Norway. After a decisive battle, Rǫgnvaldr flees to Norway but soon comes back and sets fire to the farm where Þorfinnr was staying at the time, but doesn't realise that the earl has managed to escape with his wife Ingibjǫrg. Rǫgnvaldr assumes power and does his ruler's duty by going to Papa Stronsay for the malt with which to brew the Christmas ale (chapter 29).

His followers never get to drink the brew, as Þorfinnr uses the advantage of surprise to attack Rǫgnvaldr and his men and burn the house down over their heads. Rǫgnvaldr has a premonition of his death just before: as they are sitting around the fire he misspeaks and says that 'we will have reached our allotted ages [fullgamlir] when these fires have burnt out', having meant to say fullbakaðir 'fully-baked', or 'well-warmed up', I suppose.

Having eliminated his main rival ('the most popular and most accomplished of the earls of Orkney; his death was a great sorrow to many'), Þorfinnr consolidates his power and continues to rule successfully. His obituary is less positive. In chapter 32, we're told that he was the most powerful of the earls of Orkney. His death was mourned by those in his ancestral lands. But in those lands he had subjugated, people really felt their lack of freedom living under his power.

More dramatic Yuletide events are recounted in chapter 66, as I alluded to briefly in a blog post a few years ago. It is a chapter of great interest since it not only provides quite a lot of detail about the buildings at the earl's residence of Orphir (remains of which can still be seen), but also gives a detailed account of the Christmas festivities as held by the earl, in this case Páll Hákonarson. Páll was at the time resisting claims to power by yet another Rǫgnvaldr, or Kali Kolsson, the nephew of St Magnús who had been killed by Páll's father Hákon. I told you there were family feuds aplenty in the saga.

The sequence of feuds and killings in the saga is really quite complicated at this point, so suffice to say that the episode marks our introduction to the saga's most complicated character, Sveinn Ásleifarson, a great power player in Orkney politics, and variously friend or enemy to several of the earls. At this point in the story, Sveinn's father Óláfr has recently been burned to death in his house with five other people. Sveinn uses the Christmas feast at Orphir as an opportunity to kill another Sveinn, called brjóstreip 'Breast-rope', an associate of the person responsible for Óláfr's death.

The narrative weaves the story of the killing into the sequence of Christmas festivities. Orphir is said to have had a large drykkjuskáli 'drinking-hall', with a fine church right next to it. Going into the hall, there was a large flat stone slab on the lefthand side, behind which were many large beer-barrels. When people came from Evensong, they were placed in their seats. After the tables had been taken up, most of the people went to sleep, but then got up during the night for the canonical hours. Then there was a high mass, and people then went to eat. There was a master of ceremonies, a certain Eyvindr, who was in charge of the feast, with waiters and attendants serving the drinks he poured out. There was a minor contretemps when Sveinn brjóstreip thought he was being served more quickly than Sveinn Ásleifarson, who was holding back on the drinking, contrary to etiquette. After another service at nones, the drinking continued, with speeches and drinking from horns. Then Sveinn brjóstreip, whose horn was smaller, wanted to switch with Sveinn Ásleifarson. Eyvindr intervenes to make this happen and Sveinn brjóstreip mutters under his breath that one Sveinn will kill the other. This is heard by Eyvindr, who basically eggs Sveinn Ásleifarson to kill Sveinn brjóstreip, but not before further drinking up until Evensong. The deed is done beside the aforementioned slab, as people are leaving the hall for church again. Sveinn Ásleifarson is spirited away and thanked by the bishop for his good deed in ridding the country of Sveinn brjóstreip. His responsibility for this (another man is killed too) becomes clear back in Orphir when the earl makes people go back to their seats and only Sveinn Ásleifarson is missing. Clearly, feasting your followers to keep them out of the pub and whatever trouble they might have got into there didn't really work, and the episode does seem to mark Páll out as a rather weak earl.


And so the feuds continue. It's rather hard to sum up all the events of Orkneyinga saga so I won't. But the episode presents quite a complex picture. Two people are dead and, though there are feuds and enmities to explain the killings, the sheer amount of drinking that appears to have gone on must have been a factor, too. Presumably the regular excursions to church broke the drinking up somewhat, but the church is also complicit in this kind of behaviour by the powerful, to judge by the bishop's reaction. Once again, there is a potent combination of the dark of winter, fire, home brew, and murder, here with added multiple church services.

It's rather good to think that nowadays, factions of Orcadians compete and contend at Christmas (and New Year) only in a rough, but not violent, game of surfing a ball from one end of Kirkwall to the other, known as the Ba' - indeed they are doing it more or less as I write this. And Merry Christmas to them.


17 December 2019

Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? II

Reproduction dice and a gaming piece
made by Adam Parsons
(c) University of Nottingham
CC-BY-4.0
In my previous blog post, I looked at two recent television programmes on this perennially popular topic. I found a few things to like but on the whole concluded that the programmes were still very much driven by a strong desire to prove at all costs that there really were Viking women warriors (without really defining what those might have been). I also came to realise that what is essentially an academic debate was being carried out in the televisual sphere rather than in more academic fora, to the detriment, I think, of the discussion. Basically, when a TV programme has a particular message to sell (as both of those did), there is no real discussion, apart from a few knee-jerk references to 'debate' and 'controversy', which are not explored. I'm not even sure I think there's that much of a controversy, so one-sided have most of the discussions been - these are straw men to stir up interest in the programmes. What there certainly hasn't been is any nuanced discussion of the fragmentary, ambiguous and complex evidence, let alone the challenges of defining our terms, and reaching conclusions through interdisciplinary explorations.

I've never denied the possibility of female Viking warriors and, in case anyone still believes I am a warrior-woman denier, they should refer to what I wrote in 2015, even before the current discussions blew up in 2017 (The Viking Diaspora, pp. 104, 107):
...people in the Viking Age and its aftermath were perfectly capable of imagining women as warriors, or at least as imagining them carrying and using weapons, whether this occurred in real life or not. Doubtless it did occur in real life, since human beings are capable of most things, whether or not it is considered 'normal' for them to do so, but the strong emphasis on gender distinctions in Viking Age society already outlined suggests that it did not happen very often.
... that the very few women buried with weapons were warrior women in life seems the least likely explanation of all. 
I may have moved slightly on the last point, but not that much. But really, being the nerd that I am, what I am most interested in is not the answers but the questions. I'm fascinated by the past because we know so little about it, we have to piece things together using, as I have just said, fragmentary, ambiguous and complex evidence. I also relish the challenges of defining terms, and of interdisciplinary explorations. And there is no doubt that such things are hard to put across in a television show. Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try. And I was heartened to come across yet another Swedish TV programme on Viking women warriors that shows signs of a more nuanced approach than the ones I discussed in my previous post. Even though it takes its starting point in the Bj 581 burial, and features some of the same experts as other shows, and despite its oddly provocative title, it does seem to be moving slowly towards that kind of more nuanced (and much more interesting) discussion that I have been looking for all along.

The programme was first aired in October and comes from the series Vetenskapens värld 'The World of ???' Unfortunately, we don't have an English word for vetenskap (as for German Wissenschaft). Although a literal translation would pick up on the root (from veta 'to know') and translate it as 'knowledge', it is a bit more than that, implying science, scholarship and all those kinds of things that go on in universities (sometimes), and sometimes elsewhere too. The actual programme is called 'Sanning i sagorna?' or something like 'Truth in the sagas?' but again it doesn't translate well since the 'sagor'  of the programme go beyond what we tend to think of as the (Icelandic) sagas. In this case, the anonymous Old English Beowulf, the Latin-writing Dane Saxo Grammaticus and the Byzantine historian Skylitzes all get a mention, and I would call none of their works sagas. So that is stretching it a bit, but despite the title, the programme takes an intelligent approach, at least to the female warrior question.

My advice is to skip the first 40 minutes of the programme (some self-indulgent stuff about Beowulf not relevant to my topic today) and just watch the last 18 minutes which takes up the question of Viking women warriors again, in supposed contrast to the 'masculine world' of Beowulf. After a brief repetition of the scientific identification of our old friend Bj 581 as a woman, the camera shows Tommy Kuusela, identified as a historian of religion at Uppsala, w ith quite a pile of books. The voiceover states by way of introduction that there are a lot of 'more or less' trustworthy textual accounts of female viking warriors. Kuusela reads out the usual bits of Saxo, and then the relevant bit of Skylitzes, which the voiceover narrator claims is more more reliable than Saxo because written down in the 11th century (not quite correct, but I'll leave all that pesky detail for another occasion). But when challenged about the textual basis for Viking warrior women, Kuusela admits that there is no 'certain' evidence. This is then immediately contrasted with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson claiming that the evidence of Bj 581 is 'certain' evidence for female warriors. But interestingly she straightaway modifies this by emphasising that this evidence does not mean that this was a common phenomenon. Also, unlike some other presentations, the programme recognises that the evidence could potentially be undermined by some of the find circumstances in which the bones might have been mixed up. Even though the osteologist Anna Kjellström reassures us that the remaining bits of the skeleton do in fact belong together and are from the right grave, it is still interesting to see these various admissions of potential uncertainty.

There then follows a bit in which our heroine the presenter sets out to demonstrate what might be required physically of a female Viking warrior by meeting a combat trainer. Compared to a similar episode in the National Geographic programme, this seems much more realistic and the presenter concludes that it was not that simple to become a female viking warrior after all. The emphasis is very much on the physical training that would have been required to wear all that armour and swing those weapons, not to mention wielding the shield. This leads into the point that the Bj 581 skeleton shows no traces of such physical training, or indeed of wounds that might have come from fighting. Kjellström does point out the fragmentary nature of the evidence, that not much of the skeleton survives, so we cannot say for sure, but again it's good that these counter-arguments are aired. Back to Hedenstierna-Jonson and we get once again the argument that the playing pieces suggest someone whose role in war is a strategic one, as a senior officer, for example. The suggestion is made that the nature of the grave-goods suggest a member of the elite and that it was such elites that could 'break the gender mould'. Hedenstierna-Jonson brings up the parallels of patriarchal societies where women could nevertheless rule because they belonged to a particular dynasty (presumably she is thinking of the likes of Benazir Bhutto).

It is then proposed that the spear in the Bj 581 burial was a kind of ticket to Valhalla for the deceased, but, importantly, it is stressed that this does not mean that she actually participated in battle in life. Kuusela's concluding suggestion is that she was the wife of a military leader who accompanied him on his expeditions (here I'm reminded of Admiral and Mrs Croft in Jane Austen's Persuasion) and who was buried in this way to follow him in the next world too. I'm not sure I really buy that argument, partly for lack of evidence of women in Valhalla (apart from valkyries, but they're another story...), but it's a thought.

Just when you think the programme is over and the credits roll, there's a curious postscript. Our friend Leszek Gardeła pops up again and gives a better brief summary of the Åsnes burial than in the National Geographic programme (where it was supposedly a centrepiece), and, unlike there, with at least a hint of why the skeleton has been identified as female (it is slight and gracile). On being questioned about the Birka burial, Gardeła admits that the lack of trauma on the skeleton complicates the warrior interpretation, and that gaming boards might have had other meanings than indicating military commanders or strategists.

All in all, I would say there is some considerable backtracking going on in this short programme from the original bombastic claims of 'A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics' back in 2017. There is some recognition of potential problems with both the physical and the textual evidence, there is an emphasis on what being a 'warrior' (however that is defined) involves by way of training, and there are alternative suggestions put forward as to why a woman might have been buried with what is traditionally regarded as male equipment. And all in 18 minutes. Well done Vetenskapens Värld.

Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? I

MM131 Andreas II
Viking Age runic cross from the Isle of Man,
commemorating a certain Arinbjǫrg
I never for a moment thought the fascination with the possibility of female Viking warriors would go away. After all, I have already argued that this fascination goes back at least as far as the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus writing in Latin around 1200, and since then it has come back at regular intervals. Way back in 1991, I suggested (and I was not the only one) that Saxo's warrior women owed more to Amazons than to Vikings (Women in the Viking Age, p. 178). This is an aspect I have touched on in some talks over the past year, and which I am developing for a proper academic article in the near future, for those who think (with some reason) that blogs are not an appropriate venue for such discussions. In the meantime, of course, the proponents of the Birka warrior (Bj 581) continue to pop up all over the place. I have already discussed a brief reference in the Channel 4 programme Britain's Viking Graveyard, last April, so won't repeat myself about that. Howard Williams will fill you in on the Megan Fox approach to the topic. What I thought I would survey in this blog post and the next are three recent television programmes which take the discussion in new directions, not all of them entirely negative. I'm not going to rehearse arguments which have already been aired ('what is a "warrior" exactly?', 'do board games really indicate military leadership', etc. etc.) but try to see what directions these programmes are taking the debate in, since judging by the number of TV programmes just within the last year, the debate is being conducted on the airwaves more than in academic fora.

Den kvinnliga vikingakrigaren

This programme , the title of which translates as 'The female Viking warrior', was first aired on Swedish television in August of this year and is still available (in Swedish, though some interviews are in English). Although the main heading on the website describes it as a 'documentary', this is nuanced a bit in the paragraph below, which claims it is a 'drama documentary' based on 'research results'. It is basically a dramatisation of what the life of the person buried in Bj 581 'could have been like'. I will leave others to decide how well they think it works as a drama - in these contexts fiction is not my business. However, it seems clear enough to me that the dramatisation (which is only about half of the programme, interspersed with more academic content) seems designed to give further credence to those 'research results' to a wider audience. The programme makes brief reference to the 'international debate' those results caused back in 2017, without giving any sense of what the debate might have been about. Some of the interviews are with the archaeologists involved in the original research, and Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson in particular is worth listening to in her explanation of the importance of roles, and of belonging to a group, which I agree is an important aspect of the Viking Age. Other interviews are clearly designed to give the drama bit a sheen of academic credibility but they don't really explain anything. Thus Elisabeth Ward gives some useful information about Iceland, Greenland and North America, based on the sagas of Icelanders, but there is no explanation of why or how these sagas might be relevant to understanding the Bj 581 burial, it is just assumed that they are. This assumption that what happened in one part of 'Viking society' can explain what happened in another part of 'Viking society' is shared by Janina Ramirez who also generalises about 'Viking society' without reference to any actual evidence - her comments are all based on, and obviously meant to support, the narrative of the drama. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the programme refers to 'Byzantine sources' as evidence for female warriors. This idea is crucial to the development of the narrative, which envisages the Birka person as having travelled to and to some extent developed her martial skills in the East - here we are presented with a rather distinct part of 'Viking society' when it suits the story. The programme several times makes the suggestion that Freyja was a goddess of war (the evidence for this is actually quite limited and mainly from Snorri), and the implication that she was therefore a goddess for female warriors. Also, my favourite bugbear, the word 'Viking' itself, makes some annoying appearances. The archaeologist Leszek Gardeła, asserts that 'Saxo talks about Viking women', but Saxo never used the word 'viking', and of course Saxo is problematic as I keep saying. And Ramirez asserts that 'the Vikings did not call themselves Vikings', but they did! She also says that what they did say is that they would 'go a-viking', implying that it is a verb, which it patently is not. Yes, yes, I know I'm nitpicking, but even so, let's get it right folks.

The programme is yet another example of what I have called 'a view of research ... which fills out our meagre evidence with speculation and imaginative reconstruction' which 'can lead to the blurring of the line between primary research and public presentation'. It's a difficult balance to manage in these days when academics are practically required to engage with the general public and I know how difficult that can be. I'm not sure how successful this programme is as drama - the story is interesting enough but could have been more so. It is clearly devised to reinforce the research results and the interspersed interviews tend to disrupt any flow it might have had. I cannot see this programme as anything more than yet another attempt to lodge the interpretations of the 2017 and 2019 articles even more firmly in the minds of the general public and cut off further discussions. I am still uneasy with the 'docudrama' format, since the 'docu' bit is just there to support the drama, and doesn't allow for any ambiguities in the interpretation of the evidence, let alone any counter-evidence. A proper documentary, however, can be expected to present different interpretations, no?

Viking Warrior Women

So is this programme such a documentary? It was first aired (in Britain at least) on the National Geographic Channel earlier this month, I assume it is regularly repeated. This programme is more closely focused on archaeology, which is I think a good move, since previous attempts have come a bit unstuck on the literary and linguistic aspects. Nevertheless, the credits show that Neil Price was a consultant on the show, so it is once again a show with a mission (as the presenter, an 'archaeologist and National Geographic explorer', admits). As the presenter, Ella El-Shamahi, is not to my knowledge a Viking archaeologist, she plays the traditional role of the non-specialist presenter being informed by a variety of experts, most of whom have already appeared in previous TV shows about this topic. One could almost get a bit bored... (Disclaimer: a few years ago, when National Geographic was first thinking about this programme, they got in touch with me with a view to interviewing me for it. For whatever reason known only to them, that never happened).

The non-specialist presenter is of course allowed to say things like 'It's always been assumed that Viking warriors were all men' or 'what is being revealed right now is transforming everything we thought we knew about the Vikings and how their women might have gone to war' to big up the programme, even though they are patently untrue. Again, there is the formulaic reference to the fact that Bj 581 is 'causing controversy in Viking archaeology' but without really explaining what that controversy might consist of. But heyho, a good controversy will make the programme seem even more cutting-edge and relevant and all that. And I'm afraid the word 'badass' is used of the occupant of Bj 581...sorry but it grates in something intended to be serious.

The content of this programme is really rather interesting, as it draws on the research of the aforementioned Leszek Gardeła, and Marianne Moen from Oslo, regarding certain Viking Age graves in Denmark and Norway which could also be interpreted as being those of 'warrior women'. What interests me is the questions that the programme raises without answering, or sometimes even without recognising that they are interesting and important questions (I suppose the downside of having a non-expert presenter). An example is how an examination of the Bj 581 skeleton moves very quickly from the width of the greater sciatic notch being 'in keeping with a female pelvis' to it is 'of course female'. But OK, I'm willing to take the osteoarchaeologist's word on this matter. In other cases, there is a real lack of information.

The programme is about two graves, in addition to Bj 581, one Danish and one Norwegian. On the Danish island of Langeland, there is apparently one (out of 49) graves that has been identified as female, but never before as a warrior. (Leszek admits at this point that 'I don't think this [i.e. women warriors] was very common but they certainly existed'). What makes her a warrior? Well, she has an axe, a battle-axe in fact, and indeed one that was 'crafted hundreds of miles to the east'. Does one axe (especially an exotic one) make a woman a warrior? I'd like to have heard more about that. But it is a high-status chamber grave, so with some parallels (including the eastern connection) with Bj 581. Lots to discuss here, but it is not discussed much.

The presenter and Moen then make a pilgrimage to Åsnes, in Hedmark, Norway. Here, there is a grave discovered in 1900 which contained a 'kvinneskjelett med mannsutstyr' (a woman's skeleton with a man's equipment), according to a contemporary monument on the spot (a fascinating object in its own right, as Moen points out). This skeleton is the piece de resistance of the programme, since her grave goods, along with a wound on her forehead interpreted as a battle-scar, are the evidence for her having been a warrior. What I'm interested in is how, in 1900, the archaeologists decided it was a female skeleton? They certainly didn't have the advanced techniques used on the Birka 'warrior'. Given what we're told about Victorian (and later) preconceptions about Viking warriors being all male, what led the 1900 archaeologists to decide the skeleton was female? And do specialists still agree with this assessment? We are not told. We are only told by the presenter that 'not everyone agrees', but we are not told who disagrees, nor are any such people interviewed. Academic discussion is reduced to a one-way monologue by experts on a mission. I was particularly annoyed by the presenter's comment about these '[n]ew discoveries that I really hope will challenge what some people still refuse to believe, that there's evidence out there that not only did elite female viking warriors exist but that they had the skills and the weapons to fight on the battlefield alongside men'. It's not a matter of 'belief', dear TV presenters all, just let us into the secrets of the evidence!

Despite these caveats, there were one or two good bits in the programme. I did quite like the suggestion that the occupant of Bj 581 was a high status mounted archer. But does this imply that s/he was a warrior or a leader? Could she have been an aristocratic lady who liked hunting? I can't help but remember the riding and hunting imagery on some of the Manx Viking Age crosses, several of which commemorate women. This needs some more digging, including the implication that burials with horses suggest that the occupants were riders.  Well, yes, people with sufficient wealth probably did ride horses (in the summer), but does this make them a warrior, or a hunter, or could the horses have other meanings? I don't know, just asking for a friend.

The excellent Cat Jarman was also a refreshing interviewee on the programme regarding the female skeletons at Repton. Ignoring the presenter's astonishment ('it's previously been thought that Viking women were left at home' - no, Dr El-Shamahi, see Jesch 1991 and others), Cat made the important point that, yes, 'women were in some way part of moving out of Scandinavia, they weren't just sitting at home, looking after the farm'. But what part they played in this process is certainly multifarious, complex, and still to be discussed.

While these two programmes had some good bits, on the whole they were both mainly designed to reinforce the PR machine that has grown around the Bj 581 project. There is one other recent programme which does, however, in my view, begin to really have the more nuanced and important discussions that this topic needs. I'll let that programme have its own blog post, so stay tuned for 'Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? II'.