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Oct 23rd, 2009 9:15 PM #1
Vikings: Truths, Myths & Misconceptions
Vikings: Truths, Myths & Misconceptions
I figure this would be a good place to start a continuous thread about Viking myths and misnomers. A vast amount of what the general public thinks they know about Vikings is either blatantly wrong or a result of misinformation spread through Romantic artwork. In this thread I will mainly offer factoids about Vikings and correct misconceptions.
The first thing we need to do before we dissect the myths and misnomers is understand who the Vikings were, where they came from, and which ethnic group they are historically associated with. I will make this introduction brief and concise as I can so that we can get on with the trivia.
I won't go into detail regarding where the Norse originated from, but suffice to say, the Scandinavian people are an ethnically Germanic folk. Germanic language comes from ancient Indo-European, and the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic) are all forms of High German. The Norse people that became the Vikings were originally (mostly) from continental Europe in and around what is today Holland, Germany, Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic (e.g. Germania).
The Vikings came out of the latter end of the Dark Ages, and the age in which they explored, expanded, and raided is called the Viking Age (A.D. 787/793-1066). The Vikings made such an impact on Europe in under 300 years that the last part of the Lower Middle Ages is called the Viking Age. In under three centuries the Vikings infiltrated Islamic Spain to the Middle East, injecting their culture in nearly every pocket of continental Europe and Western Asia. The reason most of us are not aware of the reach of Viking culture and society is because the Norse were not strictly brutal raiders but adept traders, many of which assimilating into the cultures in which they usurped or traded with. (Two prime examples are the Goths and the Rus, both of which originally hailing from Scandinavia and eventually assimilated into the cultures they came into contact with.)
But I must backtrack slightly because I used the term "Viking" a little too freely. Medieval Scandinavians were not all Vikings; in fact most were not. Moreover, not all Vikings were Scandinavians. Viking raiders captured slaves and came into contact with other cultures and ethnic groups who joined raiding parties, thus not all Viking raiders were Scandinavian. In order to understand the Viking you have to understand where the word "Viking" comes from. In Old Norse, the word vik means inlet or bay, thus the word viking is actually a verb and not a noun meaning to go on a sea journey. Linguistically speaking, to viking did not inherently mean to raid, although that became the lasting definition, one which has stuck with us to describe the Norse raiders of the Lower Middle Ages. But I'm straying too far from the introduction, so I must get back on target.
The Viking Age began sometime between A.D. 787 and 793. The earliest record of a Viking confrontation comes out of Portland, Dorset in 787. However, the conflict doesn't appear to be the result of a Viking raid but perhaps a trade that went south, the Vikings killing nearly everyone there. The first recorded raid occurred in 793 at the Lindisfarne Monastery in England. So, if we scrutinize the written record, we should say the Viking Age began with the first recorded Viking raid in 793. There are a number of theories as to why the Norse began raiding, not a single of which are conclusive. I have my theories and other historians have theirs. We may never know why the Norse began raiding, but we can certainly understand who they were and what they were made of, starting with this thread. So on to the facts!
No Winged/Horned Helmets
The Vikings never wore winged or horned helmets in battle. What archaeological evidence we've recovered tells us horned helmets were used only in religious ceremonies, and what evidence of even that is scant, telling us it was not a universal idiom amongst the Norse. Most of the horned helmets recovered are pre-Viking Age artifacts, the majority of which believed to be Celtic in origin. The ox-horned helmet we think of as a representative Vikings is more likely Celtic or early Indo-European in origin, only used in formal ceremonies. The Norse did not worship the bull such as did the early Indo-Europeans and early Celts. Furthermore, the addition of horns, antlers, or wings on a helmet is not practical. The Vikings wore either cured leather skullcaps or helmets much like those worn by the Anglo-Saxons: An iron or steel skullcap with possibly a nose guard and/or eye guards. Whether the helmet was made of leather or a type of metal depended on individual factors such as wealth or raiding experience.
Another common myth is the medieval Norse were these massive warriors, giants of men as tall as seven stones and as wide as four. This visage is an exaggeration taken from survivor accounts and oral tales told by the Norse themselves. The average height of a Norseman in the 10th century is 175 cm (5'9"), a far cry from the towering man we tend to see him as. Of course there were large Vikings, but there are also large Asians! The Viking stature in medieval literature is an interpretation of his skill, wealth, and personality; a larger than life fictional or historical person is thus represented in physical terms. In ancient and medieval literature it was common to exaggerate size in order to stress the power of a person or group of people. The Vikings were certainly enormous in character, personality, and combat savvy, but their physical stature was no more extreme than any other human on the globe.
Greatest Warriors/Over-glorified Pirates
There is no doubt the Vikings were amazing warriors. They were elite, brutal, raiding monstrosities, keen in the arts of skirmish warfare. The Vikings successfully crippled Europe with fear in the blink of an eye historically speaking. The only group known to successfully repel Viking raids was the Muslims in Spain during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate. (I'm not counting the Byzantines choosing to hire the Vikings as opposed to combating them.) Medieval Norse society was nothing shy of regular conflict. [All] males began learning the ways of battle at a prepubescent age, thus by the time they were young adults they were mentally and physically equipped for combat. That combat could come in the form of a neighborly duel, a civil war, or viking. (It made it easier given the fact the weapons Vikings used were nothing more than modified domestic tools, such as the axe and spear.) But this combat conditioning was not invented or exclusive to the Vikings. This same conditioning was a regular part of society occurring within the Spartans, Persians, and Turks.
The longship and the raiding tactics used by the Vikings made them a seemingly unstoppable force. Truth be told, Viking combat tactics only worked against other Norse and during raids. On a number of occasions Viking armies were wiped out by cavalry forces. The Vikings never adopted cavalry in their piecemeal military and thus were spanked nearly every time they confronted horseback soldiers, with only but a handful of exceptions. Vikings hit hard and fast, and they were gone just as quickly as they arrived, a town's people and wealth left in ruin. Vikings were pirates to an extent. They hit hard and fast, and they brought home what they could loot in a quick surge. Vikings were the absolute best at skirmishing and raiding during their era. Between A.D. 800 and 1100 there is no other skirmish group as deadly and efficient as a Viking raiding party. However, the Vikings were best at skirmish warfare, thus when they attempted to assemble large armies they tended to lose when facing European forces.
This is it for the introductory post in this thread. A lot has been written, mostly regarding the history leading to the Myths & Misnomers part. But if you don't get at least a taste of the history then the trivia that will fill this thread will be meaningless. Context is crucial to comprehension.
Future posts include the role of women, democracy vs. monarchy, murder laws, and the difference between Viking raiders and Viking traders. Stay tuned and feel free to ask questions between my posts. I'll answer any question in as much detail as I can.
Last edited by lazserus; Nov 20th, 2009 at 5:45 PM. Reason: Considering I'm adding more history than myth, I changed the name of the thread.
Oct 24th, 2009 6:39 AM #2
You've pretty much cleared up what I was planning on adding as a side point haha! Good post there, looking forward to more.
Another part of Viking society I know a lot about is their Mythology... although I don't know of any misconceptions about that.Science doesn't have all of the answers... otherwise it wouldn't be science.
Nov 2nd, 2009 8:50 PM #3
Viking Arms & Armor
The myths surrounding Norse weapons and armor are superfluous. The Viking warrior such as appearing on Spike's "Deadliest Warrior" is mythical at best. Moreover, images found on the internet of Viking warriors depicted by reenactment groups further perpetuate misinformation and faux history regarding the Vikings and their arsenal. It appears that those interested in Viking history either add too much or too little. When it boils down to it, what you'll find on the television or within even historical reenactment groups is at best an exaggeration and at worst complete nonsense. Why? Simply because they don't do their research. Well, I've done the research—Medieval Scandinavia being my primary field of scholarship as a historian—and I am here to set the record straight!
In films, on television (including quasi-educational programs), and in modern literature we frequently observe Vikings wielding swords. Although some Vikings did wield swords, this was not common by any stretch. Swords were expensive and a sign of social status. Only wealthy Vikings carried swords, and most of the time they were of some form of nobility1. Though we cannot take the Norse sagas as dogmatic history, they give us a good picture of what life might have been like during the Viking Age. In one of the epic sagas, Laxdęla saga, a sword is given as a gift to someone and its value equals 16 milk-cows. The sword is ornate, decorative, and not intended for use in combat.
So what did the Vikings use? They used spears and axes. Vikings used the tools of everyday life in combat, and they also modified those tools so that they were fit for combat.
The spear was probably the most common weapon used by a Viking warrior. Spears were used for hunting, and they were used as missile and close-range weapons. Plus, spears were inexpensive to make. It is legend that Vikings would throw two spears at once. Although this is possible, and even might have happened on rare occasions, it is best to picture a Viking hefting one spear at a time.
The axe, on the other hand, was the most brutally used weapon by the Vikings. A variation of their domestic axe was used, wherein the axe blade was bearded, giving it a longer edge, and the shaft was extended, giving it reach. There are two names given to this type of axe, both of which well describe the weapon. One name is skeggöx (beard axe) and the other is breišöx (broad axe). A breišöx swung by a strong man pumped with adrenaline could cleave another man from the shoulder to the liver, and if that man were armored, say wearing leather jerkin or even piece mail, it could still cut from the shoulder to heart. Needless to say, the blow from a Viking axe came with enough force, and complimented by edge, to cleave any man, armored or not, nearly in half.
Viking armor is a bit trickier. Ring mail was not widely used until the 11th century, and even then only by those with wealth or perhaps amassing under a king’s banner. Archaeological evidence only unearths a single suit of ring mail from the Viking Age, which is indicative of them not using it regularly. If the Vikings used ring mail regularly then there would be more evidence. It is likely Viking raiders and warriors wore quilted or lamellar armor, both of which would not stand the test of time. The Norse did not have professional armies during the Viking Age such as the Muslims or fragmented European polities; therefore money was not always readily available to those fighting for a king or chief. And besides, maintaining a professional army was and still is extremely expensive. We just do not have the archaeological evidence to support Vikings wearing mail armor, however there are a few tapestries that suggest perhaps on occasion mail corselets (chainmail shirts) were worn.
Raiders vs. Traders
By no fault of anyone, Vikings are traditionally remembered as raiders, violent marauders that rape, pillage, and plunder. A great contributor and source of perpetuating that idiom falls in the hands of Western Europe, particularly in the hands of the monks that survived such raids. And Western society tends to only look at records from the Western World, which certainly doesn't help the case. It's certainly true that the dawn of the Viking Age ignited following the raid at the Lindesfarne monastery in A.D. 793, and like a brush fire more and more reports of Vikings raids followed in the years immediately after. Western Europe was wracked by frequent but unpredictable Viking raids in the British Isles, France, Spain, and even parts of North Africa. The Viking longship's shallow draught enabled them to sail into the interior of Britannia and Europe and hit towns and cities on or near the river systems; and as quickly as they struck, they were vanished.
During the Viking Age there was no nationalism in the Norse world, for there were not nations. Hell, for that matter, there truly wasn't any nationalism in any part of Europe until during and after the Crusades (beginning A.D. 1095). Scandinavian borders shifted constantly, because as much raiding being done, there was equal fighting back home; kings or chiefs attempted to consolidate wealth and land under a banner, but any victory only held for a generation or two2. Moreover, at any given point before A.D. 1066, the King of Norway could have also been the King of Denmark.
From what we can see from the historical records and oral traditions, those that resided in Norway led the early raids into Europe, and then from there raids were led from Iceland. Raiding was seasonal and only occurred during the summer months. The typical Viking owned a farmstead of some kind and spent the summer months raiding for extra money whilst his wife ran the household and the slaves in his absence. But I must back up just a bit and mention the Danes. Denmark has always been classified as part of Scandinavia even though it is attached to continental Europe. The residents of Norway led a number of raids from what we can glean from the historical record, but the Danes may have been the chief instigators. Either way you cut it, the early Norwegians and Danes were responsible for expansion to and raiding in the West. The Norwegians and Danes (and later Icelanders) were responsible for the bulk of raids, meaning their actions during the Viking Age results in how the common layperson thinks about Vikings.
But there was another group of Norse that took a different route, and that is those that resided in today's Sweden3. The Norse in Sweden certainly contributed to their fair share of raids, but not in the same direction as their Norwegian and Danish brethren, and not so much to the same extent. The history of the Norse in Western Asia and Asia Minor opens with the Rus', a tribe of Swedes under the chief Rurik sometime in the middle of the 9th century. As this post is already lengthy enough, I won't go into the disputed history of the Rus' people; however, I will mention that the Rus' occupied the Novgorod for a length of time during the 9th century and eventually migrated south, through Volga Bulgar territory, and established a foothold in Kiev (modern Ukraine). The Kievan Rus' at the very least contributed to building a potent trading post connecting Eastern Europe and Asia, wherein Asian goods and culture filtered, if maybe only minimally, into parts of Eastern Europe. The Rus' split into a number of groups, some assimilating into Slavic culture, some becoming Varangians (elite guard and soldiers of Byzantium), and some traveling further east into Central Asia as far as the Caspian Sea. In fact, the earliest written record of a pagan Viking funeral precession comes from the Muslim writer Ahmed ibn Fadlan, a dignitary of the Abbasid Caliphate out of Baghdad in the early part of the 10th century. The Swedish (or Kievan) Rus' were not raiders per se, but aggressive usurpers and traders.
1 Norse nobility was not like the nobility of continental Europe. Family lineage was important to all Norse people; and nobility was not an inherited class, it was something earned. Any man with the right qualities could become nobility.
2 Royalty did not exist in medieval Scandinavia. Any one capable of uniting the Norse under a single banner successfully could declare himself King. Moreover, unlike medieval Europe, the people of Scandinavia were not subjects or vassals of a monarch; therefore, if and when a man became "king," he would travel all over the countryside asking people to join him. Any man was free to decline support, but if they declined and the self-appointed king succeeded in his aggressive movements, those that refused to aid could be punished.
3 There is much debate over the origins of the Rus'. Unfortunately, those involved in the debate are ethnically biased. Slavs claim the Rus' never existed or that they were ethnically Slavic. The Swedes support the Rus' being Swedish in origin. In attempt to take an objective position, with no legitimate ethnic bias, I am inclined to agree with the Swedes. The Finnish language, which is a form of Indo-European not of Germanic origin, includes Ruotsi as a name for people from Sweden, which in some circles is believed to provide the root for the Rus' name.
Last edited by lazserus; Nov 4th, 2009 at 9:59 PM. Reason: Made some minor grammatic edits
Nov 3rd, 2009 12:37 AM #4
I hope it's ok to add to this thread....
This is a book written around 1900 full of Viking legends and activity, entitled Viking Tales. It gets good press for its insight into Viking life. My son and I are reading this now. The book is available to read here:
Nights were long in Iceland winters of long ago. A whole family sat for hours around the fire in the middle of the room. That fire gave the only light. Shadows flitted in the dark corners. Smoke curled along the high beams of the ceiling. The children sat on the dirt floor close by the fire. The grown people were on a long narrow bench that they had pulled up to the light and warmth. Everybody's hands were busy with wool. As the family worked in the red fire-light, the father told of the kings of Norway, of long voyages to strange lands, of good fights.
And in farmhouses all through Iceland these old tales were told over and over until everybody knew them and loved them. Men who could sing and play the harp were called "skalds," and they called their songs "sagas." Eventually these stories were written down on sheepskin or vellum so that we can enjoy them today.
In this book we follow the fortunes of Harald from the time he is acknowledged by his father as a baby and given his own thrall at the cutting of his first tooth, through his exploits as a viking adventurer, to his crowning as King of Norway. It is when Harald is King of Norway that population pressures at home and eagerness for adventure and booty from other lands combine to drive some of the bolder Vikings to set forth from their native land. Sailing ever westward across the Atlantic, they hop along the chain of islands that loosely connects Norway with America-Orkneys and Shetlands, Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland. It is from link to link of this chain that the characters in our story sail in search of home and adventure. Discoveries are made by accident. Ships are driven by the wind into unknown ports, resulting in landings and settlements in Iceland, Greenland, and America.
Nov 4th, 2009 9:45 PM #5
I always encourage people to read nonfiction books about the Vikings, but one has to be cautious, for there is a considerable amount of published work out there based on unsubstantiated speculation, speculation that surpasses the evidence. To get a better picture of Viking culture it is encouraged to read the Norse sagas. However, the sagas have to be taken with a grain of salt, because A) they were written 200 years after the Viking Age ended based on oral traditions, and B) a considerable amount of fiction was added for entertainment purposes. What's unique about the sagas is they are a mixture of fact and fiction, and not all of the fiction—like the mystical and mythical elements—stands out from the facts. Furthermore, the sagas have been translated to English a number of times (and the originals no longer exist) from the originals written in Old Norse. The translators tend to embellish some when translating from Old Norse, for they too are attempting to tell a story in which to keep the reader interested. To make sure nothing is lost in translation, it is best to read the sagas in the language in which they were originally scribed. Of course, that requires the reader to learn Old Norse. Although this is the best case scenario, it doesn't mean those interested in Viking history and culture should just ignore the English translations. A few of the sagas can be found online for free here.
Nov 4th, 2009 9:52 PM #6
I find that reading the stories, myths and legends is an invaluable activity, in that, it is these that spark interest in pursuing further historical study. These have proved very productive in encouraging academic interest in our educational efforts. Of course impecable academic and historical sources are well beyond the strata of myth, stories and legend in the pursuit of cultural authenticity.
Last edited by calliope; Nov 5th, 2009 at 12:50 AM.absit invidia
Nov 4th, 2009 11:22 PM #7
Vision of Vikings via a Mytho-Christian slant:
"Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples."
-Bishop Alcuin, Letter to Ethelred, King of Northumbria (extract)
It is a well known piece of history. On the 8th June, 793 CE , the first of a series of coastal raids from Scandinavia struck the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. The wild pagan raiders unleashed a previously unimaginable terror on the peaceful monks. Simeon of Durham writes in his Historia Regum Anglorum et Danicorum: "[The Vikings] came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea..." It was 400 years until Lindisfarne regained its past glories, long after the end of what historians came to call ‘The Viking age’ (793 CE – 1066 CE). In that time, countless other attacks would shake the coasts of Britain and France. Viking raiders would penetrate even into the Mediterranean as they unleashed a reign of terror: raping, pillaging and slaughtering with uncaring abandon and an anathemic hatred of Christianity.
At least, this is what the chronicles tell us. Contemporary accounts are abuzz with the atrocities of the northmen. "Summa pia gratia nostra conservando corpora et custodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna" runs a religious litany of the period: "Our supreme and holy Grace, protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage Northman race which lays waste our realms": one of many possible sources for the infamous, more succinct, but almost certainly apocryphal ‘Fury litany’, ("A furore Normannorum, libera nos Domine" – "From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, Deliver us!") quoted so freely in many books and articles on the subject. Europe almost leaps from the Dark Ages of historical uncertainty with chronicles, accounts and letters detailing the depredation of the Vikings.
It is all so clearly laid down, that until the mid twentieth century it was mostly taken as fact: most of our history of the Vikings, and indeed the very concept of the Viking age, comes from these documents, and the works of mainly nineteenth century scholars. It is only comparatively recently that revisionist historians have stopped accepting these sources at face value, indeed, when one thinks for an instant, there are some things that do not add up. Alcuin’s letters, to the King of Northumbria and the Bishop of Lindisfarne, are the only contemporary sources for the raid. If the fact that, despite the raids severity, there still was a Bishop of Lindisfarne for Alcuin to write to does not make us ask ourselves some questions, then the place that Alcuin sent his letters from should. For the single contemporary account of the sacking of Lindisfarne was written by Alcuin whilst he was at the court of King Charlemagne in Aachen, over 500 miles away. It is, in fact, agreed by a growing number of revisionist historians to be little more than propaganda, an opinion which requires us to undo the major mistake of earlier historians in attempting to understand the history of Scandinavia and its place in Europe and the wider world at this time, which is to view it as somehow apart from the rest of Europe. For the location of Alcuin at the time he wrote his famous letters is significant for two reasons, and our erroneous view of the Vikings cannot be unbound from Alcuin’s perception of the Saxons.
In 775 CE Charlemagne had launched full-scale into a bloody war to conquer and, more importantly to our purposes, Christianise the Saxons. The brutality of this conflict cannot be underestimated. The Saxon nobility submitted to an alliance with Charlemagne and a series of mass baptisms culminating in 777 CE after a succession of successful campaigns by Charlemagne. However, the Saxons did not hold fast to their word, and not only continued worshipping their own gods, but executed a series of uprisings against Charlemagne throughout the rest of the eighth century (They would only be quelled in 804 CE). Charlemagne responded ruthlessly against such oath-breaking and apostasy with mass executions of prisoners and by laying waste to the Saxon’s sacred groves. The Saxons in turn began burning churches in retaliation. Aachen was Charlemagne’s base for waging this war, and the proximity of Alcuin to this conflict can be seen on the map below:
Why is this of importance? There are two reasons: first, Saxons being driven north by the conflict into Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula may have been one of the instigators of the Viking age. But more importantly, historians such as Prof. Janet Nelson have highlighted the fact that the prejudices of contemporary chroniclers such as Alcuin in their view of ‘pagan races’ and ‘northmen’. If we consider matters for a moment, it is no wonder that Alcuin’s mind instantly jumped to images of church desecration and murder: he was tarring all pagans with the same brush. There is no archaeological evidence that the Vikings did anything more than steal Lindisfarne’s silver and gold (and why should they have any respect for Christian symbols, or even comprehend them, being at this time still Pagans?) There are no mass graves to suggest the wanton murder of holy men, and no evidence of burning. The main source is Alcuin, whose authority in the matter can be likened to that of a journalist reporting on casualties in the battle of Stalingrad from Berlin, with no other information but that ‘there is a battle happening in Stalingrad’. A staunch supporter of Charlemagne’s Christianising mission, it is highly likely that Alcuin embellished his report to a lesser or greater extent. And here I must state the conclusion I have come to personally in my research: the Vikings, such as they existed, were indeed coastal pirates and traders; indeed, the word ‘Viking’ came to English in the 18th century from a Scandinavian word meaning only those who engaged in such activities (In Medieval usage ‘Viking’ referred to a pirate, rather than to any culture; when the Vikings had left their boats behind, they were no longer called Vikings), pre-loaded with Romantic connotations. However, these Vikings have, along the way, been loaded with a reputation for extraordinary brutality that has no real basis in fact. Particularly from the traditional British standpoint, the Vikings have been in a curious position of being romanticised and demonised, whilst Scandinavian nations and later even Nazi Germany, would mix history, hearsay, folklore and mythology into the so-called ‘national romance’ movement, further muddying the waters. The basis for this vast historical misconception, it would seem, is the accepting at face value of not only contemporary chronicles, but many of the sagas and earlier historical studies of dubious provenance and purpose.
Next: the Sagas ~ http://www.eveningoflight.nl/en/arti...hy_hearsay.htm
Last edited by calliope; Nov 5th, 2009 at 12:52 AM.absit invidia
Nov 5th, 2009 12:55 AM #8
I suppose this leads me to another segment of this thread. Instead of responding directly I'll just move along to a topic of great importance.
The history of the runes is important but complex and muddy. I am not a linguist, therefore I cannot go into great detail about the runes and the various Germanic languages. However, I can share what I know (to an extent) and assure you that in order to share that much I had to study some linguistic elements. There are a number of runic "alphabets" but the ones we're concerned with here are specifically of Norse/Germanic origin, the three most important being the Elder Fužark (or Old German Fužark), the Younger Fužark, and the Anglo-Saxon Fužorc1.
SWEDISH/NORWEGIAN (RÖK RUNES)
The first thing that must be stressed is that the fužarks are NOT alphabets. We get the name fužark from the first six "letters" in the Germanic rune rows. Although we have associated the runes with Greek letters, the runes were not truly an alphabet, but more closely related to ideograms than alphabetic letters.
From oral tradition, early Germanic texts, and the Norse sagas we know the runes represented ideas and were used in ritual and magic. As opposed to casting spells verbally, the Norse would scribe certain runes onto objects in order to infuse that object with magical properties. These objects could be anything from the handle of a sword or axe to a wooden bed post. Moreover, some of the earliest forms of runic inscriptions come not on on stone but on the bones of slaughtered livestock, mostly the shoulder blades of sheep. This particular mode of inscription was used in other cultures as well. The archaeological record suggests this was more common amongst the Indo-European peoples, though there are some examples of it being used in Indo-Iranian or Asiatic groups as well. According to the sagas the runes were carved into domestic or combat-related objects (i.e. furniture, beams, weapons) and used to aid in healing the sick, granting protection, or granting strength to those possessing the inscribed item. As shown above, individual runes could symbolize an idea, and a string of just a few runes could be combined to achieve some ultimate magical effect. In Egil's saga, Egil carves magical runes into an object and places it under the bed of an ailing woman in order to help her recover from her illness.
NOT AN ALPHABET
A common mistake historians make when referring to runes is identifying them as some form of standardized alphabet. This not only hinders translation, it completely offsets the purpose behind the runes, leading to the precipitation of misinformation. The modern Norse scholars don't run into this problem because they understand that the runes are not an alphabet. This precipitation of misinformation tends to stem from other Western scholars, especially American historians. This also slows and even prevents accurate translation of rune items (particularly rune stones), and this misunderstanding of the runes also perpetuates bogus history. A perfect example is the work by Scott Wolter on the hooked X. You may have seen the special on the History Channel called "Holy Grail in America." Scott Wolter is an amateur geologist with an undergraduate degree and whom cannot actually read any runic language. But the History Channel saw fit to produce a 2-hour special on his faux history.
Let me reiterate here that the rune rows were not a standardized language by sharing with you two parallels. The German languageas in modern Germanwas not standardized until the 16th century after Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation. The reason German became standardized is because Luther's Bible was the first book to be widely dispersed amongst the Germans using the printing press. The Lutheran Bible actually led to the standardization of the German language. The other parallel is the fact the English language was not standardized until sometime in the 19th century. One could look at two historical documents from say 1799 by formally educated Americans and see that they each spelled certain words differently. This also goes for writers in England during the same period. Because English was not yet standardized by the dawn of the 19th century, we see variational spelling.
Although runic was not specifically a phonetic or ideographic language by definition, nor was it a pictographic language, it is plausible it evolved from simplistic written language used for mystical purposes to something slightly more complex in order to record spoken language. As the world renown Dr. Richard Nielsen once said at a lecture I attended, these runes are inscribed vernacular on par with today's emails or text messages. The rune rows displayed above are what scholars tend to use, and they use them to date inscriptions and identify forgeries. But that is currently being done wrong because those scholars are working under the false assumption that the rune rows we have record of are standardized. Because historians aren't linguists and linguists aren't true historians, there tends to be a gap in the scholarship wherein we get a fair share of misinformation2.
On a final note, historians must first accept the fact the runes were a form of vernacular, not some standardized literary language in order to truly appreciate their historical significance. In point of fact, the runes never developed into a literary language. It was not until the appearance of Old Norse sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries that we have a literary Norse language; and Old Norse used the same alphabet we use today in English, with a few exceptions. This is on par with the first uses of cuneiform, which originally developed in Mesopotamia as means of recording inventory in ziggurats. Cuneiform eventually developed into a literary language. This is analogous to the runes. However, the runes themselves never developed into a literary language. Old Norse developed independently from the runes, but when it became widely used runic vanished.
1 For those that do not know, the ž (thorn) is equivalent to a "soft" th sound like in the word "thanks."
2 To clarify, I am particularly speaking of Western scholarship not including scholarship from Scandinavia. Since this is an English-speaking site based out of the United States, and AO's membership has the highest percentage of American members over any other, I am writing with an American audience in mind. Therefore, in this thread, when I mention Western scholarship, I mean American scholarship (which includes scholarship done in America by non-Americans).
Nov 5th, 2009 1:42 AM #9
Awesome about the runes! Great info that I would generally overlook...even with my interest. I had considered purchasing a collection of such runes just yesterday.
I am sorry that I am not as erudite as the learned Lazserus, and that my info tends to fall more in the copy/paste arena. But the following is an interesting facet of rune-ology today:
Norse Heathen Symbols Are Not Hate Symbols
What would you feel if you saw a guy with a runic tattoo? Many would probably feel uneasiness, including myself. The question is why. I perfectly know that ancient Germanic peoples used the Elder Futhark not because they were white supremacists. I realize that vikings used the Younger Futhark not because they were racist skinheads. So where comes the uneasiness from? Let’s take another example. If you use the Bluetooth technology on your mobile phone, you should remember their logo. Do you? It is actually a bindrune, that is two blended runes: Hagall (hail) and Bjarkan (birch). These two represent the initials of the 10th century viking king Harald Blåtand (Bluetooth), who ordered the Jelling stones to be erected. Bluetooth team are certainly not a hate group, and their rune logo does not scare people away from buying their technology. However, tattooed on someone’s shoulder, it may make others feel uneasy. The question remains: why? My answer is: because western civilization has been too long obsessed by Classical Antiquity as its treasured source. All we usually know about Norse or ancient Germanic symbols is that nazis used them and neo-nazis still use them. That’s not a lot. The other answer is: many people with Christian background still feel that heathen convictions may be dangerous, especially if associated with Norse or Scandinavian culture (or with anything ancient Germanic). Even atheists have been educated in schools long dominated by Christians who admired Classical Antiquity. “Virgil and Homer, not Edda and Beowulf” has been their slogan for many centuries.
True, Norse heathen symbols were used by Nazis. For instance, the Hagall rune used in the Bluetooth logo is present on the SS Totenkopfring. In his description of the ring, Himmler wrote: “The swastika and the Hagall-Rune represent our unshakable faith in the ultimate victory of our philosophy.” This rune was also used during the SS wedding ceremonies. Does it mean that the Hagall rune is in itself a hate symbol? No way.
I too, am all for Beowulf...we just found a wonderful edition of Beowulf for kids, including some additional traditional folk tales about the Celts and the Sidhe. We definitely will be looking at the Edda works, and I will introduce the Norse runes to my son as part of our historical study.
Again, awesome thread.absit invidia
Nov 5th, 2009 2:15 AM #10
Now that I'm done with my little rant, I want to make some comments on what was posted from that source. My comments won't be in order as the quotes appear in the text.
First I have to object to the author's explanation of the Vikings.
Originally Posted by Author
My next comments are not in regards to any particular quote but a number of them. From what we can glean from the sagas, the Norse Vikings were not barbaric blasphemers bent on desecrating the holy sites of other faiths. It's unlikely, at least from the sources we can glean from, that the Norse went out of their way to disrupt or desecrate the sites of other religions. To simply define the Vikings, they were opportunists. They weren't outspoken liberals or revolutionaries. They came, they took, they left. In a number of cases they remained behind (Ireland, England) and either attempted to keep their own culture intact or quickly adopted the culture of the people they came into contact with. On the other hand, if you study medieval Norse culture, you come to an understanding that they were aggressive and violent. One thing I can never stress enough is one cannot interpret an extinct or historical culture with a modern outlook. One must make an attempt to strip themselves of as much of modern culture to understand those of the past. If one looks at a historical people, no matter where in the world they hail from, with modern eyes, they will completely miss the picture. We can never begin to understand the cultures of the past, even as recent as 50 years ago, if we subject and scrutinize those cultures as if they were around today.
With that said, the culture the Vikings spilled from was extremely violent. Violence was a way to prove worth and to gain reputation. That doesn't mean the medieval Norse murdered one another just for the sake of gaining reputation, but physical confrontation was a regular occurrence in the Viking Age. If a neighbor borrowed a tool and refused to return it, he could be killed. If a neighbor had excess food and refused to share, he could be killed. I'm flirting with one of my future topics, murder laws, but this serves a purpose. Remember that these people lived on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle, in a geographic region that was environmentally unforgiving.
I suppose I could dissect more from the fat quote, but it could be excessive and bordering redundancy. This author's attempt to save face for the medieval Norse is just what I was warning about a few posts up. This level of bias can lead us in the wrong direction equally as damaging as the direction we're coming from. When challenging the status quo the challenger must realize the status quo is not entirely dysfunctional. The trouble with authors like this one is that they direct so much energy at attempting to disprove the historical accounts that they create a whole new level of fiction in the process.
On a positive note, this sort of energy is why I find Viking history so compelling. It's one extreme to the other, and Western scholarship continuously misses the mark, completely incapable of finding realistic middle ground. Norse historians, even historians in general, are frequently guilty of painting the past and present in black and whites. There is no good. There is no evil. There are no good guys or bad guys. The Vikings weren't strictly raiders and they weren't huggy-bear traders. Human social history is so much more complex. It's time people start adding color to the palette.
Nov 5th, 2009 11:11 AM #11
Oh my goodness....Bravo!!
What a very impressive explication on the processess of historical craft, and the ways of perception.
However, in my humble opinion, true history scholarship does not have to be limited by the the subjective written record. History is, above all, a study of the human condition and its evolution over time, therefore requires nearly an excessive amount of biased material. But that doesn't mean historians cannot think outside the box and fraternize with other historical disciplines (e.g. archaeology, geology, anthropology, palaeontology) in order to get a better picture of the past. A professor of mine once said history is not the search for truth but the perpetuation of lies. Historians are here to perpetuate the lies of the past and study them in the backdrop of human social change and development, for better or worse. I can accept that, but does it have to be only that? I say no. As a historian myself, and also as an amateur geologist, I want to combine the human record with the historical sciences in order to gain a better understanding of the past, and to paint a more detailed picture of humanity's past. Truth is subjective and interpretive. Anyone who has studied philosophy knows there really is no such thing as absolute truth.
One thing I can never stress enough is one cannot interpret an extinct or historical culture with a modern outlook. One must make an attempt to strip themselves of as much of modern culture to understand those of the past. If one looks at a historical people, no matter where in the world they hail from, with modern eyes, they will completely miss the picture. We can never begin to understand the cultures of the past, even as recent as 50 years ago, if we subject and scrutinize those cultures as if they were around today.
On a positive note, this sort of energy is why I find Viking history so compelling. It's one extreme to the other, and Western scholarship continuously misses the mark, completely incapable of finding realistic middle ground. Norse historians, even historians in general, are frequently guilty of painting the past and present in black and whites. There is no good. There is no evil. There are no good guys or bad guys. The Vikings weren't strictly raiders and they weren't huggy-bear traders. Human social history is so much more complex. It's time people start adding color to the palette.absit invidia
Nov 9th, 2009 10:34 PM #12
In my opinion, historians [in general] are getting too careless these days. They're beginning to make too many assumptions, describing people and events in much more detail than the record provides. You see this in every program on the History Channel. Historians excitedly describe ancient events in such detail they're flirting with fiction. Granted the study of history requires a significant amount of imagination, we have to be careful not to blur the lines. And, particularly in the media, the lines are being blurred all the time. I try and walk on eggshells, especially in this thread, so not to report more than is provided within the written record. I will, of course, add archaeological findings to help better flesh out the history of Vikings; but I try and not get ahead of myself and insert introductions to information such as starting with, "According to the sagas..." And this gives me an idea for my next segment: medieval Norse literature and the written record.
Medieval Norse Literature & the Written Record
As far as the contemporary written record is concerned during the Viking Age, we only have information written by outsiders. What little has been discovered or pinpointed written during the Lower Middle Ages about Vikings comes mostly from the victims of Viking raids; particularly Christian monks. As I've said before, this is a major contributing factor to why we, to this day, still associate Vikings with marauders. Throughout the Dark Ages Christian monks were the primary scribes of Europe1. In some cases the aristocracy learned to read and write, but for the most part the written record coming out of Europe is dominated by Christian monks. Furthermore, these monks reporting on Viking activities were the victims of raids. These accounts, whether written first-hand after surviving a raid or by a brother a thousand miles away, depict the Vikings as monstrosities that thrived on their ability to create chaos and destruction. Allow me to present two examples of this.
Originally Posted by Anglo-Saxon Chronicle²
Originally Posted by Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
These two examples from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle give you an insight into the reports that proliferated throughout Europe during the Viking Age, and they are only but two of probably hundreds. We cannot fault the Christian monks for their interpretation, nor can we rely on their accounts solely. There is, however, another account (and probably more if we dig in the right places) of Vikings from somewhere in West Asia, possibly coming from the area in or just north of modern-day Ukraine. The account is victimless, though it equally describes the Norse as barbarians. This account is from the Muslim writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan, employed by the Abbasid Caliphate in the 10th century on a diplomatic mission to reach the Volga Bulgars. En route Ibn Fadlan came into contact with the Rus' and described some of their behavior.
Originally Posted by Ahmad ibn Fadlan
The Norse sagas are what historians primarily use when attempting to reconstruct Viking Age culture. This isn't a bad thing but historians are notorious for taking the sagas at face value, which, any scholar of Norse literature and history will tell you, should never be done. The Norse sagas marry both legend and mythology with oral history. And the myth and mysticism is written in such a way to be fact, a part of actual history.This creates a unique and dangerously fragile situation for historians. Because the sagas blend fact and mythology together, they can be unreliable.
So what is a saga?
Originally Posted by Dictionary.com
Old Norse is commonly associated with the Germanic language used in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages. Although this is true, it's not so cut and dry. During the Dark Ages and even throughout the Upper Middles Ages, bordering along the early Modern Period, languages were not standardized outside the Christian Church. Since the Roman Empire Latin was the recorded language. Outside of the Church the world was in shambles; and after the fall of Western Rome, Europe turned into a melting pot. Political borders dissolved and there was no entity local or regional to group peoples. The Germanic peoples in Europe spoke a number of dialects, and they themselves never unified until the 19th century. The Scandinavian languages were likely much more diverse due to geography. Continental European Germans were only separated by distance, rivers, and cultural groups. Scandinavians were separated by glaciers, mountains, and even seas. Therefore, Old Norse was not a standard language spoken or written. It became standardized long after the Viking Age and, from all accounts, specifically in Iceland.
Old Norse (Old Icelandic) was used to record oral tales, stories of kings, great families, great adventures, and the gods. Just as the Epic of Gilgamesh was written over a century after the king's death, and Homer's Illiad was written more than two thousand years after the supposed battle of Troy, the Norse sagas did not appear until the early 13th century, over two centuries after the Viking Age was over3. The Norse legends were once tales spoken orally by bards or skalds through poem or song. The sagas are prose versions of those oral tales.
Interestingly enough, a number of Norse sagas describe events we can verify by other accounts and/or archaeological evidence. Thus the sagas tend to carry with them a significant historical weight. At best the sagas should be considered as embellished history. At worst complete fiction.
At the time the sagas were written down they were the first pieces of history and literature written in a language other than Latin in medieval Europe. Nothing so profound and secular in recorded literature occurred again until the 17th century.
1 The Dark Ages only occurred in Europe. The Near East flourished during this period (after A.D. 600), quickly becoming a literate society after the development of written Arabic. Whilst the masses of Europe suffered from illiteracy, the average Arab could read and write.
2 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a compilation of annals written in Old English that pieces together Anglo-Saxon history; more or less German history. The earliest writings begin in the 9th century and go up to the last decade of the 12th century.
3 Old Norse, as far as we can tell, was a literary dialect developed in the isolated Iceland. The Norse sagas, or at least the vast majority, come out of Iceland during the 13th-14th centuries. Old Norse was not a standardized spoken dialect of High German in Scandinavia. It was strictly a standardized literary language. The Scandinavian peoples spoke in a number of dialects derived from High German, much more so than they do today. (Today's standardized Scandinavian languages are Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic.)
Last edited by lazserus; Nov 13th, 2009 at 7:12 PM. Reason: Updated a footnote with more information
Nov 11th, 2009 8:54 PM #13
I must make an amendment to the origins of the word Viking. I was inaccurate in describing the origins of the word. The word Viking comes from the Old Norse vķkingr, where vķk means inlet or bay + ingr meaning "one possessing the quality of." However, the word may not have its roots in Scandinavia.
Originally Posted by Oxford English Dictionary: Etymology
Nov 13th, 2009 1:23 PM #14
Great work keeping this up to date good man. I don't have much to contribute at present, as we've had some real life issues requiring our attention.
Excellent content, nonetheless, and keeps me on the best quality path regarding our educational endeavors. Keeping an eye on those Norse runes also....because of this thread!
Well done Lazserus......absit invidia
Nov 19th, 2009 12:15 AM #15
We know there was a democratic society in medieval Iceland because we have reports coming out of the Middle Ages by people attending and/or involved in annual meetings. One such example comes from Snorri Sturluson (A.D. 1178-1241), whom wrote the Prose Edda and the Heimskringla and was a medieval Icelandic historian and lǫgsǫgumašr (lawspeaker). It is believed Icelandic democratic society was derived from earlier societies in Norway and Sweden and carried to Iceland when it was colonized in the latter part of the 9th century. Most of the reports we have come from Iceland, so I will focus on there.
Iceland never experienced any internal form of monarchy1. From its settlement the island remained democratic. The first settlers, which consisted of both wealthy families and pilgrims looking for a new life, were able to set up farming or fishing communities with little to no capital. Those with wealth and/or reputation became gošar2 (chieftains) and established a community foothold in Iceland. What happened was these gošar came together annually to discuss the way the land was governed among other things. These annual meetings were called alžingi3, which translates to "all things." There were a number of alžingi in Iceland based on region, but one Alžthing existed wherein all gošar in Iceland attended once per year. These annual gatherings were crucial to sustaining Icelandic society.
Unlike even the democratic systems of today, medieval Icelandic democratic society and the alžingi did not require a head of state. There was no over-chief, president, or more important person. It was democratic on par with ancient Greek republican society, if not more effective. All gošar had somewhat of an equal say, however there was one significant difference: the goši with the most support almost always came out on top. This sounds democratic until you understand how that support can be attained. (Note, still to this day there is no such thing as a genuine democratic society, only variations of true democracy.) But maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Perhaps it's best to break here and list what occurred during the Alžthing.
- Political alliances were made. Gošar would befriend one another and groups would align with one another in case of civil conflicts.
- Business transactions were made. During the Alžthing it was not uncommon for merchants, traders, or anyone with something to sell, to set up shop.
- Personal contracts and promises were made between families or clans, such as an assurance that one would provide wood whilst another would provide meat say during a harsh winter. Personal alliances and promises were made. (This includes treaties between families, clans, or even minor political entities.)
- Rumors and news spread during the Alžthing. What community was gaining strength, which had the most slaves, or the most food might have been news topics shared.
- In cahoots with gossip, those that attended the Alžthing would listen to or share legendary tales of old and new. These tales could be the exploits of men returning from viking or how the age-old feud of a pair of families resulted in less fish or game in a region. Gossip spun into tales, and tales were always spun at the Alžthing.
Śtlegšarcan be translated a number of ways: exiles, outlaws, outlawry. According to Diana Whaley’s glossary in her book Sagas of Warrior-Poets the word śtlegš “literally mean[s] ‘lying, or sleeping, outside…’ The root word here is śt, which means “out” (and in certain context mean “outside”), with legš meaning “banishment” or “exile.” I am bringing outlawry in here to lead into how the medieval Norse handled such crimes as murder. Before we can get into the rest of medieval Norse law we must understand a major part of its punishment, which happens to be outlawry. There are two types of outlawry: fjorbaugsgaršur (lesser outlawry) and skóggangur (full outlawry). First I will list the crimes for which people could be outlawed, and then I will describe each type of outlawry.
CRIMES RESULTING IN OUTLAWRY
- Harboring an outlaw
- Grievously insulting another man
Lesser outlawry was the punishment for lesser crimes if the one committing the crime was not caught and killed by the victim. The punishment for fjorbaugsgašur was exile from the land for three years, and that meant leaving the borders of the country, loose as they may have been. For example, Leifr Eirķksson’s father, Eirķkr Žorvaldsson (historically known as Erik the Red), was outlawed from Norway as a result of “some killings.” We have no historical record to provide any detail of these killings, therefore we cannot be certain as to whether or not Eirķk was outlawed with his family or on his own, nor if it was lesser or full outlawry. Either way, Eirķk ended up in Iceland where he married and spawned sons, Leifr being the most remembered. But in Iceland he was outlawed again for committed a number of murders.
Originally Posted by From Wikipedia
An śtlegšmašr (m. outlaw—mašr meaning “man”) was sent into exile beyond the borders of the community or state for a period of three years. The śtlegšmašr had three months to get his affairs in order and to get out of the area. Whilst in exile his family was cared for and his land and property remained intact. During the three months he had to get his affairs in order his movements were restricted, meaning he could only move about in the area of his home to set his affairs in order and to leave the region. Any movement outside of this, or refusal to leave the region, could result in full outlawry.
A skóggmašr was a man whom was punished by full outlawry. Full outlawry was much simpler than lesser outlawry, a skóggmašr forced to flee the region immediately or be killed on sight without recourse. A man sentenced to fjorbaugsgašur could become a greater outlaw if he did not get out of the region within the three months provided. Those with sufficient wealth were able to leave the region, however it was likely more common that a greater number remained behind, living in the outskirts of civilization and sometimes receiving aid from family members or friends. Furthermore, when a man was sentenced to skóggangur all of his possessions were confiscated.
Laws not in Stone
The crimes mentioned above did not guarantee those committing them were sentenced to a form of outlawry. Context of the crimes committed was important and there were ways around being tried. In a local dispute the perpetrator and the victim could come to an agreement without a trial. For example, a man stealing grain from his neighbor could be fined by the neighbor, and if the fine was paid the dispute was settled. If a slave was killed the killer could offer payment for the slave to the owners. The owners could accept or refuse payment. If refused a feud could result between the two families. Blood money could be paid any time, but it was considered appropriate and a display of honor to present such payments during the annual Alžthing.
Theft was frowned upon more than murder because theft was dishonorable. Murder in medieval Scandinavia was different from how we see it today. If two men got into an argument, and especially if insults were exchanged, they may attempt to kill one another if things escalated enough. If one man was killed after an argument, the killer would have to announce that he killed someone and the reason why. The killer could then attempt to pay the victim’s family for their loss and that was that. Legally that was that. The family could choose to deny payment, but it was much more common that payment was accepted. As long as the killer did not hide the fact he slayed a man, and he attempted to pay for the loss, he broke no laws. If a man killed another and hid the fact, he was classified as a murderer and could be subject to sever punishment. Now, even if a killer comes clean and attempts to pay the victim’s family, that doesn’t get him off the hook. If the family refused payment (in private or at the Alžthing) a trial could ensue. If a trial occurred the killer could still be outlawed if enough support backed the victim’s family; however it would more likely be temporary exile.
This is a brief overview of the major medieval laws the Norse used, including their democratic system. There are a number of lesser laws that do not result in any serious punishment, such as fines for cross-dressing, or fines for abusing a spouse. I will not make any posts regarding minor infractions unless specifically questioned. I’ll gladly go into detail if asked a question, but I see no reason to go into details and examples regarding the fines for cross-dressing.
1 Iceland never had its own monarchy, but on a number of occasions throughout the Medieval Era it was subject to other Scandinavian monarchies. Iceland was considered a piece of both the Danish and Norwegian monarchies during and after the Viking Age, though Iceland always remained autonomous and relatively independent.
2 Gošar is the plural of goši, which refers to an Icelandic chieftain. The š is eth, thus spelled gothi, with the th sounding such as the word "there."
3 Alžthingi is the plural of alžthing. The ž is thorn, thus spelled althing, with the th sounding such as the word "thorn."
Nov 20th, 2009 8:37 PM #16
Going back and reading the first post I think it is necessary to clarify the age in which the Vikings flourished.
Originally Posted by lazszerus
The Medieval Period is split into the Lower and High Middle Ages. The division point and reason is still debated by historians, and it remains a stalemate because every side of the argument claims (rightly so) legitimate veracity. Historians focus on art, social change, military development, technological development, as breaking points that separate the two ages. All of these significantly changed the face of Europe politically, economically, and socially, thus they all warrant attention. When you throw all of those theories into a blender and puree you get a mix of everything. This perhaps corresponds more accurately with history, because there is never any clear division separating one era from another. Consider the Civil Rights movement in the United States. When exactly did things change? Did everything actually change? These questions cannot be answered simplistically because there is no such thing as a yes/no question. No form of history can be quantified, therefore there are never any clear-cut answers.
Moving along, I separate the Lower and High Middle Ages using the Christian Crusades--at least where Europe is concerned. (It should be of note that Europe experienced the Middle Ages differently than the rest of the world, including their Near Eastern Islamic neighbors.) I'm sure plenty of historians would disagree with me, but the period in which the Crusades occurred may have been the darkest time in medieval Europe. During the Lower Middle Ages European ethnic groups and broken states were either fighting to find their identity or niche, or fighting for survival. The only thing keeping Europe from slipping completely into chaos on par with Revelations is Christianity. However, Christianity, as does any organized religion, caused its share of problems. But if Christianity did not exist in Europe during the Middle Ages, things could have turned out much worse. On the other hand, they could have turned out much better. We cannot focus on the "what if," for it's not only moot, it can easily stray us from looking at history objectively.
Before the Crusades Europe behaved one way, and it was mostly chaotic with the exception of certain strong-willed leaders (Charlemagne for example). The century the first crusade occurred Europe was in complete shambles politically, which is what we see as the feudal period. The Crusades were mostly failures for Christendom, the West taking Jerusalem only once in 200 years. After the last Crusade in 1291, economic and political systems in Europe began to change. And that change I believe led us into the High Middle Ages.
So how does this correlate to Vikings? I mentioned before the Viking Age began at the end of the Dark Ages, basically ending after the Battle at Stamford Bridge in the fall of A.D. 1066. The Vikings did not experience a dark period along with the shambled Europe. In fact, they exploited Europe's anarchy to their benefit. During the previously proclaimed Dark Ages the Islamic world not only grew exponentially but developed a number of technological and theoretical systems we still use today. (The current number system still used today in the West [1,2,3] is Arabic.) It is inappropriate to call the Lower Middles Ages the "Dark Ages" because we now know a lot of good things came out of the period.
Dec 11th, 2009 11:14 PM #17
The Viking Sea Vessel
The stereotypical Viking traveled by sea in the notorious longship. Images in art and cinema, including literary imagery, dating back to the 18th century, place Norsemen in single-mast, narrowly wide, low-draught sea vessels called longships. The truth is much more diluted. Moreover, what we've discovered archaeologically and within Norse literature (sagas), it is apparent that the longship is not only iconic in relation to the Viking Age, but also there is an abundant amount of misinformation at the ready for anyone interested in Viking history.
First and foremost, before exploring the world of Viking nautical engineering, we must first understand where the stereotype comes from. The longship, also called longboat, is a long and narrow sea vessel propelled by both oars and a single square sail. The switch between wind and labor propulsion is not what made the Viking ships unique; in fact, the engineering concept predates the Anno Domini centuries.
What made the Viking longboat so much more efficient was its low draught. Even the mightiest of longships discovered had a draught of no more than three feet. For those who do not know, draught is the nautical term used to describe the depth in which a vessel is immersed below the surface of water when carrying a given load. A low draught enables a vessel to navigate through shallow waters. To give you a modern picture, modern yachts cannot do what medieval longboats could over a thousand years ago. The longboat's low draught enabled the vessel to easily travel the river systems of Europe, something no other vessel of the time could do. This particular engineering feat is most likely the reason why Vikings were so successful. There are a number of other reasons why Vikings were successful, but their low-draught vessels enabled them to quickly reach towns and monasteries on sea coasts and riverbanks, and then quickly vanish from the region. This naval technology gave the Vikings an edge.
The Vikings were not only masters of skirmish warfare, they were masters of the sea; and their vessels enabled them to explore regions of the globe no other European ethnic group did until the late 13th and early 14th centuries. But the Viking longship was just a precursor, and there is still so much information spread about the vessel that simply isn't true.
The Norse did not conduct naval warfare in any way similar to the Greeks, Persians, or Romans of antiquity. Nor did they conduct warfare like the Ottomans, Spanish, French, or English in the latter part of the Middle Ages. Norse naval warfare was relatively unique. Many a battle took place in a bay, a fjord, or lake, with both opponents poised on their longships. Yet there was no cannon fire of the early modern era, nor was there installed permanent ballistae on the ships like in the times of the Greeks and early Romans.
Two opposing vessels would maneuver in such a way archers could rain down missiles, but the goal was to collide. The two vessels would come close and the men aboard would toss grapnels to the opposing ship, then tug to pull the vessel abreast with their own. Then it was an all out melee between both forces, using the longships as battle footing. The idea was to grapple the other boat as it came close and pull it near enough to board.
The Vikings had no other form of naval combat. This became apparent near the end of the 10th century as they faced against the Abbasids near and around Jabr al-Tariq (Gibraltar). The Vikings successfully raided the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula and the Abbasid Muslims built an extravagant and effective navy in order to prevent further raids. As it turns out, the Abbasids did just that. The Vikings were incapable of matching the Muslim navy protecting the Iberian coast.
There are a number of longship designs. The defining difference for each is how it propells, how many oars, and how many men could be carried. There are a number of names given to the various designs: karvi, snekkje, skei, drekar. Although I typically detest Wikipedia as a reference, they do offer a fairly decent article on longships. Because Wikipedia does a decent job with providing viable references, I'll link to the article for those interested in details regarding longships.
The drekar is the most common vessel used in artwork and story. It is the dragonship. The drekar was ornately carved in such a way the prow of the vessel resembled the head of a beast, fitting a serpent or dragon, hence the name. The drekar appear mostly in literature and were likely not used for raiding. The Osenberg ship is an example of a drekar, but it was constructed as a tomb. The drekar, or the dragon-headed ships we see in popular art, was most likely used as a ritual device, not something used in the raiding field.
The average longship during the early Middle Ages carried roughly 20-30 Vikings. Tales are spun about longships carrying 70+ Vikings as if there were Norse naval troop carriers. This misconception is based on fact, but it's a notion that has been overly-embellished by writers and historians. Very little archaeological evidence exists to support ships of this size used in travel or warfare. One of the largest longships ever discovered was 119 ft long, room for 72 oars and maybe 100 men, and a sail over 2100 sq ft wide. Its draught is just three feet. It likely never made a raid and was consumed by the North Sea in a storm. The largest found vessel carried 150, and it's the only of its kind. Large longships were very rare.
THE LONGSHIP TALE
Probably the earliest vessels the Norse used were small rowing boats. There was the four-oared fęring and the six-oared sexęring. These small boats required a rower for two oars. Later renditions required an oarsman per oar as opposed to a man per two. The various forms of longship evolved to fit with raiding needs.
Make no mistake, Viking longships were sea-savvy, and they were architecturally capable of crossing great distances. However, the Viking longship was not used for exploration. An exploration vessel was more likely the knarr or a construction related. The knarr was a later vessel built from longship design, though its draught was not so shallow for need of storage space. More than likely the knarr, or cousin of, carried Leifr Eiriksson and his people from Greenland to the northern coastline of North America.
Dec 25th, 2009 9:44 PM #18
The Viking Quandary
Everything I have said up until now should be scrutinized and taken with a grain of salt. Studying Viking history, in particular the Scandinavians during the Viking Age, is particularly challenging because there are few reliable contemporary sources. Historians tend to focus on the sagas and on written accounts from third parties, especially because few can interpret the rune stones. A great number of historians take English translations of the rune stones (which in themselves may not always be reliable) and focus on certain phrases. This behavior is common and thus we get "authoritative" accounts of political structure and social mores and norms that are not accurate. It does not mean these historians are intrinsically wrong, it's just that they don't have the whole picture. Below I will rein in a few reasons why the Viking Age is so difficult to grasp, and also why there is so much incomplete or even inaccurate information readily available.
Any decent historian should recognize any and all written accounts from any part of the world's history impose a reasonable degree of bias. The bias can be cultural or religious in nature, but every scribe in history cannot help but inject their own personal bias into all accounts they record. Even good historians that recognize all history is biased, because, as a social science, it is portrayed through the eyes of man. As much as I try and remain objective, I too succumb to bias in my interpretations of sources and in my own writings. It's something we can never truly escape, however we can make attempts to minimize it.
A perfect example of historical bias comes from Adam of Bremen around A.D. 1075. Adam of Bremen was a German chronicler famous for his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church). Many historians have taken this man's testimonies at face value, which is folly on their part. Adam of Bremen in his chronicles describes Scandinavian lands in somewhat detail, covering Denmark, Sweden and Norway. His descriptions are without a doubt biased and mostly false. It is apparent he never traveled to the countries he describes in his chronicles, for he describes their ecology in such a way nearly opposite of what they truly were. For example, Adam of Bremen describes Denmark as an infertile realm unfit for humanity, a marshy and sandy wasteland. The reality is Denmark, out of the three Scandinavian countries, had the greatest number of farms and villages. Although the village was more common in Denmark and individual farmsteads were not as common, Denmark did offer enough fertile land to warrant farms associated with large villages, and those farms were far from rarities. Taking Adam of Bremen's historical chronicals at face value is just as irresponsible as taking the Greek Herodotus' Histories the same. This is not to say the chronicles were intended to be fiction. Adam's descriptions of Scandinavia were likely the retelling of reports given to him by a third party.
Bias aside, the fact remains there really are no native contemporary sources describing Norse history other than rune stones, and the rune stones alone are not enough. Most rune stones are historical or grave markers, intended to chronicle deeds and family. And even those rune stones that are more intricate, and offer some detail of specific people, are difficult to translate which brings us to the next obstacle.
I've mentioned before there was no literary language used by the Norse until the late 12th century or early 13th. And I mentioned briefly the linguistics including the Norse languages being a form of High German. There is a much bigger picture to consider here.
As the early Scandinavian languages were a form of Germanic, it was easy for Germanic-speaking peoples to pick up on the language, and that includes early English speakers. Modern English (what we speak today) is a mongrel language consisting of a number of other languages, including German, French, Greek, Latin, Scandinavian, and Arabic. Early English language had its roots mostly in German (this is apparent if you read anything in Old English). But the Scandinavian languages developed and evolved independently of continental German. The Scandinavian languages today are still so similar that a Norwegian can understand a Swede, and a Swede can understand a Dane. Naturally words have changed, pronunciations shifted, etc., but there is still a very clear connection, which also includes English. Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and even Icelandic, are all examples of how dialects shifted into national languages.
During the Viking Age there were a number of Scandinavian dialects. And I don't mean the difference in vocabulary or accent, such as the difference between British English and American English. These dialects were remarkably different, each region offering its own vocabulary, phonology, accents, etc. A Dane in southern Jutland had nearly a different language from one in northern Jutland. To a foreigner these differences were minute and likely unnoticed, but throughout Scandinavia they were significant differences. Even still, regardless of the differences between the regional languages throughout Scandinavia, it is believed the commonality of the languages was enough that a Dane could meet a Norwegian and converse. The best way to express the commonality and differences (including English) is to provide some linguistic examples.
All words below are modern words in the respective languages and are listed in the order of Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, then English.
rejste, reste, reiste, raised
sten, sten, sten, stone
dųd, död, dųd, dead
var, var, var, was
I mentioned above there are no native literary sources, so why this emphasis on language? The emphasis is important because the rune stones make attempts to record information, and many words have multiple meanings and uses. Thus, a single phrase recorded in Denmark can mean one thing when that phrase means something different in Sweden. A number of words had multiple meanings, with those meanings changing based on where the words were used. The word for "bear" in Uppsala could mean something different in Götland. Though the word may mean bear in both places, the frequency of the word and how it was used is important linguistically. There may be three words for "bear," but one use in Uppsala could mean warrior where the same word in Götland means king. This makes the rune stones difficult to translate, because the region in which the stone is found is equally as important as where from the carver hails. This linguistic conundrum contributes to the difficulties in translating rune stones found in America, and in identifying fakes from authentic ones.
The Norse literature, the sagas, describes Scandinavian life in some detail. Unfortunately, the sagas did not appear until roughly 200 years after the Viking Age ended. The study of the Viking Age is a double-edged sword. You have those historians that rely primarily on the sagas, and you have those historians that believe the sagas are no more reliable than the Greek epics. The problem lies in the fact neither side is wrong, nor is either side right. Then you have a number of those that look strictly at the archaeological evidence. Here, between the three groups, we have the Viking Quandary, as I like to call it. Who is right? Who is wrong?
No one is right and no one is wrong. The complexities involved in grappling history always extend beyond a single discipline. One reason history is frequently debated is the evidence isn't scientific, no clear-cut numbers, no atomic weight, no mathematical equation to put things into perspective. History is written and interpreted by people. History also requires a different type of imagination than say physics. Unfortunately, though, imaginative physics can be proved a number of ways without a doubt, whereas history will always be debated. Even if you were there at the time of a historical event, your word cannot be point of fact.
Viking history is much more complicated than we ever imagined. Moreover, the political and social systems in medieval Scandinavia were more dynamic in a short period than any other region of Europe at the time. Archaeologists focus on physical evidence, excavations and such. But that isn't enough. Archaeologists tend to limit their opinions based strictly on what has been found. Just because it hasn't been found doesn't mean it doesn't exist, right? However, on the other end of the spectrum here, we deal with the historians, those that analyze documents of the era. Well, there are none in the Viking Age, at least none from the Scandinavians. The best documentation is provided by the rune stones, and 9.8/10 historians haven't the foggiest idea how to interpret them, thus they rely on someone else to do it. Copy of a copy of a copy. Furthermore, historians focus on third-party accounts, such as the chronicles written by Adam of Bremen. Too many times have I seen historians count Adam of Bremen's Scandinavian account as a reliable resource.
I've posted a lot in this thread. Looking back at my old posts I realize I really stunted the information, or even misled the readers. Viking Age Scandinavia is truly an epic tale, and it is far more complex than most would imagine. Here I am concluding this thread. The thread will remain open for anyone to comment on or ask questions, but I will not be adding any new material unless in response to a post.
I hope you buggers enjoyed it. Cheers to all who supported this thread.
Jun 12th, 2010 12:40 PM #19
K, finally got a nice collection of runes.
Cool that all this great info and expertise is to be found here at AO.
Thanks to the gods!!
Jun 12th, 2010 4:35 PM #20
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- Minkowski space Posts: 49,989
Sometimes when I hear Old English or German it almost sounds familiar to me. I wish I would have the time to learn some of these languages."I was put on trial twice near Y2K for acting like Jesus and claiming to be the Messiah. Its not everyday that a man parks a Chariot of Fire in front of a tomb and stands against the US government with a bow and razor tipped arrows over his shoulder. I wore a suit of armor and was protected by an invisible bubble and my sharp tongue was more than the judicial system could handle."Jake
"The toilet is more than a throne. It is a sacred chamber."-Anton LaVey, High Priest of Satanism
Jun 13th, 2010 1:28 AM #21
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when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature
Jun 14th, 2010 10:30 AM #22
"I was put on trial twice near Y2K for acting like Jesus and claiming to be the Messiah. Its not everyday that a man parks a Chariot of Fire in front of a tomb and stands against the US government with a bow and razor tipped arrows over his shoulder. I wore a suit of armor and was protected by an invisible bubble and my sharp tongue was more than the judicial system could handle."Jake
- Join Date
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- Minkowski space Posts: 49,989
"The toilet is more than a throne. It is a sacred chamber."-Anton LaVey, High Priest of Satanism
Jun 15th, 2010 8:40 AM #23
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Jun 16th, 2010 1:40 PM #24
Wouldn't if be fun to understand the Old English literature -- hearing the literary works in their original form....lol, fun to me.
Our first foreign language will be German....Rosetta Stone software has a homeschool version and we're starting this program this summer. It's a great opportunity to start learning languages at a young age...in our program, kids often begin learning a few languages at a time. We're starting with just German now, but will add another soon, possibly classical Mandarin, as we have grandparents who speak fluently. Or perhaps Spanish, as we live in near proximity to Mexico.
Thanks for mentioning Laz's travels....if anything a historian should travel!! My kid already is making plans to travel and "study Ireland" as he puts it. He wants to be Indiana Jones -- scholar, archaeologist, traveler, adventurer.
Jun 23rd, 2010 10:56 AM #25
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