Tag Archives: Norse History

History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

hnefatafl

Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for nortthern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,
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History Undusted: Avaldsnes, Norway: A Hidden Gem

In the summer of 2013, I went to Norway on a holiday/research trip for “The Cardinal,” a 2-part fantasy-science fiction novel set in ancient Scotland, ancient Norway, and modern Scotland.  Norway, however, seems to carry its dislike of small-talk into the area of promotion and marketing, and as a result, its museums and attractions are not as well advertised, marketed or signposted as they could be; we only found out about this little gem of a site because we happened to run into a Swiss friend in Haugesund, and he knew of the place!  I promised the curators to get the word out, so here’ goes, and with pleasure:

On the island of Karmøy, along the western coast of Norway, sits Avaldsnes.  With over 50,000 islands in Norway, it wouldn’t seem to our modern minds (as dominated by cars and roads as we are) to be a significant location, but Avaldsnes is rewriting Norse history.  It has long been a place from which to control shipping passages through the narrow neck of the Karmunsundet, also called the Seaway to the North, or in Norwegian Nordvegen, and it is the maritime route that eventually gave its name to the country.

The kings of sagas and lays have become real at Avaldsnes, the rich archaeological finds there making it one of the most important locations in Europe for the study of Viking and Norse history.  Avaldsnes was a royal seat, so it’s not surprising that some of the most important burials in Norway have been found here:  One of its ship burials was dated to the 8th century (making it much older than any other such burials known of thus far).  It was clearly a king’s burial, and the findings there have proven its political importance several hundred years before King Harald Fairhair unified Norway.

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Today there are three main points of interest at Avaldsnes, all within walking distance from each other:  St. Olav’s church, built on the site of the oldest church in Norway, was commissioned by King Håkon Håkonson around 1250 AD as part of the royal manor complex.  On the north side of the church stands the Virgin Mary’s Sewing Needle, one of Norway’s tallest standing stones, measuring in at 7.2 metres today (though it was originally much taller; it can be seen in the picture above):  Local legend says that when the obelisk touches the wall of the church, Doomsday will come; over the years, priests have climbed the stone in the dead of night to chip away any threatening pieces from the top, thus saving the world from annihilation.  This church was an important site for pilgrims on their way to Nidaros (the medieval name for Trondheim, the capital of the land’s first Christian kings and the centre of Norwegian spiritual life up until the Protestant Reformation); on the north side of the church is a sealed door which was originally the entrance for those pilgrims, as it is said that they had to enter any church with their backs to the north.

The next site is the Nordvegen Historic Centre; at first glance, it’s merely a circular stone monument, but it is actually a stairway leading down into the underground museum, built so as to not interfere with the landscape.  The exhibitions guide you (with a bit of modern technology) through 3,500 years of history through Avaldsnes, focusing on daily life, international contacts and cultural influences from those contacts.  Foreign trade and communication were major factors at Avaldsnes, and archaeological evidence shows it to be a barometer to the prosperity and decline of European commerce as a whole.  The museum has a hands-on section, as well as a gift shop that’s well-stocked with books covering various aspects of Viking history.

The third site is a hidden gem, located about 20 minutes’ walk from St. Olav’s:  The Viking farm.  The gravel path takes you along the shore, over two bridges and through a forest to a small island.  It’s well worth the hike, as you come through the forest to find a Viking village tucked behind a typical Telemark-style fence (pictured above).  A 25-metre longhouse is the centrepiece, a reconstruction of a 950 AD house, and built of pine and oak, with windows of mica sheets.  The aroma of tar wafts from the house as you approach, as it is painted with pitch to weatherproof it; the smell reminds me of a dark peat-whiskey, and also of Stave churches, which are also painted with the tar.  [The photo of the longhouse has one element missing to the trained eye:  The low stone wall which should surround the house, as insulation, is missing at the moment while boards are being repaired.]  Other buildings on the farm include pit houses (both woven twig walls as well as wattle and daub) used for activities such as weaving, cooking or food preparation, and other crafts necessary to daily life; a round house, a reconstruction of archaeological finds in Stavanger (which may be a missing link between temples and stave churches in their construction); various buildings of a smaller size; and at the shore is a 32-metre leidang boat house, representing a part of the naval defence system developed in the Viking Age:  A settlement with a leidang was expected to man the ship with warriors and weapons when the king called upon them for aid.  When the boat house was vacant of its ship it was used as a feasting hall, and the modern replica follows that example as it is often hired out for celebrations or festivals.

Both the museum and the Viking farm have friendly and knowledgeable staff; the farm staff are all in hand-made period clothing and shoes; as a matter of fact, one of the women was working on her dress while we were there, and she said it was linen; the total hours to make such a dress from start to finish would be around 600 hours (including shearing, spinning, weaving, then cutting and sewing).  Had it been made of or included leather, it would have taken much, much longer.  That is why clothing was very valuable, and most people only had the clothes on their back; you were considered fortunate, and even wealthy, if you had a change of clothing – even into the mid-eighteenth century in countries such as England.

If you are interested in Viking history, Avaldsnes is well worth the journey.  Take your time; we stayed overnight in the area to spread the visit out over two days, and we could have spent much more time there.  If you’re a natural introvert like me, you’ll need time to process the multitude of impressions, but that’s what we like – quality time, and quality input.  And then get the word out about these points of interest!

 

Originally posted on History Undusted, 14 September 2013

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The Thorny Issue of Horns

As an author and writer, I do a LOT of research.  I love history particularly, but then I could say the same thing about the topics of geology, astronomy, archaeology, science and technology, crafting, drawing, botany, and a dozen others.  As I apply my studies to my work, I am sometimes faced with the issue of horns – Viking helmet horns.

Real Viking Helmet

 

Accurate Viking helmet, reproduction.  Photo credit, Pinterest, unknown

 

While everyone seems to accept as a historically proven fact that Viking helmets had horns, the actual fact of the matter is that they didn’t.  While there were many horned helmets dating to before the rise of the Norse powers of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, most, if not all, were for religious or ceremonial purposes.  However, if I write a description of a Norse helmet and leave off the horns, someone will inevitably point it out.

Recently I spent a couple hours on Skype with one of my Beta readers for my current project, the third book in the Northing Trilogy (set in 18th century England).  Several of her comments were based on her knowledge of the 19th century as portrayed by Georgette Heyer, while others were based on her lack of historical knowledge that I, as the author, have amassed over time.  While some of that knowledge needs to seep into my writing to help the reader along, I have to continually remind myself (especially with this particular book in the trilogy, as it is centred around the Royal Navy) that I am not writing a history book but a novel, and anything I include needs to support the plot – the plot should never be forced to support a history lesson.  So it is that questions arose as to the behaviour and manners of the children of the time.

In any time period up until the mid-20th century, children in western societies matured far sooner than their modern counterparts, both out of necessity and out of cultural understanding of their roles in society.  Many families were dependent on the contribution made by the children in their household, whether it was housework, factory work, or working on the streets as beggars, shoe shiners, chimney sweeps, street sweepers, selling newspapers, or any other job they could earn money with (this is still true in many poorer countries of the world today).

If they came from a wealthy family, children were educated, but as to what extent and to which form it took very much depended on their particular circumstances:  They were educated either at home by tutors, or sent away to a boarding school.  Leaving school might be anywhere between ten and twenty; Jane Austen finished her formal education at the age of 10 or 11, whereas Charlotte Brontë’s character Jane Eyre left school at 18.  Boys who were second sons were often educated (after their basic education in either a college or at home) toward the military or toward a life as a minister (if their families held a high status in society, they might be trained toward politics; first-born sons, heirs, were rarely sent to the military due to the inherent dangers).

Midshipman Henry William Baynton, aged 13 -1780 - Wikipedia.jpg

Henry William Baynton, aged 13 years, 6 months, midshipman on the Cleopatra.  Photo Credit, Wikipedia.

If their fathers could afford to do so, these younger sons were often bought commissions in the military so that they would start off their career with some smidgen of position, such as a midshipman in the Royal Navy; the younger they entered, the sooner they could rise through the ranks, and thus it was not uncommon for lads of 7 or 8 to enter the navy.  Aboard ship they were trained in various skills, which included not only practical skills to do with the day-to-day running of the ship, but how to read navigational charts and how to use instruments such as sextants. How fast or slow they rose to higher ranks thereafter depended on their skills, intelligence, connections, and luck.

If poor children were either abandoned or given to workhouse orphanages because their families could not afford to keep them alive, they were also trained:  The girls were trained toward becoming servants (paying back society for the privilege of being alive), and the boys were trained for a life in the military (ditto).  They were taught to read using the Bible, and were expected to live by its principles.  Unfortunately, religion was often used as a guise for abuse and heavy-handed tyranny, but as the characters in Jane Eyre portrayed, some were true Christians in their behaviour toward her, such as her friend Helen, or the kind apothecary.  If the girls were going to become governesses, they would also be trained in more refined accomplishments such as French, drawing, needlework, history, etc.

All of this is to say that, were I to include all of this kind of information in a novel (and believe me, there’s a lot more where that came from!), it would get boring rather quickly.  And so I need to pick and choose what is used in the organic flow of the plot and character development that both serves those elements and also helps inform the reader; sometimes it’s a tricky balance.  So when the 11-year-old boy acts far more mature than a modern boy, unless the reader is aware of the historical context, I will inevitably get feedback to that effect.  Sometimes I can help their understanding by including e.g. the subjects he might be learning with his tutor, such as French, sciences, or elocution, but more than that might drag the story into the realm of a history lesson.

There are many modern myths, like the Viking horns, that people have accepted as historically accurate, when in fact they’re not.  One of my pet peeves is Christmas films that inevitably portray three kings showing up at the manger along with the shepherds in Bethlehem.  I won’t go into that here – if you’re interested in the historical details, read my article on History Undusted, here.  Other urban legends include:  We only use 10% of our brains; the full moon affects our behaviour; lightning never strikes the same place twice; cracking your knuckles gives you arthritis, and antibiotics kill viruses.  If I rankled any feathers there, or you said to yourself, “But that one is actually true,” then I would suggest you do your own research on the issue… I’ve got my plate full at the moment with the 18th century.

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