Tag Archives: Vikings

History Undusted: A Small Treatise on the Viking Age, began at Lindisfarne

Viking ship

In researching for my novel, “The Cardinal“, I did a lot of research into the Viking Age of Scotland, Norway, and in modern-day Britain.  The following is a snippet of the notes and thoughts I percolated over while studying into this amazing time in world history.  Some of the speculations, such as the motivations behind the Lindisfarne attack, are my own, based on studies and extrapolation.

I think it’s impossible to do justice to any information about the Vikings; their existence, culture, language, mentality, and the effect of their actions have had repercussions that echo down through the ages.  They gave names to countless cities throughout the world, and even entire regions:  The Norse kingdom of Dublin (Old Norse for “Black Pool”) was a major centre of the Norse slave trade; Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow were other major ports of trade; Russia gets its name from them, and the list goes on and on. Had they not been so successful in the slave trade and conquest, entire regions of the earth would be populated differently, place names would be vastly different, and English would be a far poorer language than it is today.

“A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pg. 37)

This reference from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the most famous history books available in English, is a reference to what would become known as the beginning of the Viking Age, the attack on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne.  Firstly, I’d like to clarify a few points:  “Viking” is a term that first came into being, in its present spelling, in 1840; it entered English through the Old Norse term “vikingr” in 1807.  The Old Norse term meant “freebooter, pirate, sea-rover, or viking”, and the term “viking” meant “piracy, freebooting voyage.”  The armies of what we would call Vikings were referred to by their contemporaries as Danes, and those who settled were known by the area they settled in, or visa-versa.  Those who settled in the northeastern regions of Europe were called Rus by their Arabian and Constantinopolitan trading partners, perhaps related to the Indo-European root for “red”, referring to their hair colour, or – more likely – related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.

Oh, and not a single Norse battle helmet with horns has ever been found.

I’d like to focus on a key point of the Lindisfarne episode, if one could refer so glibly to the slaughter of innocent monks and the beginning of the reign of terror that held the civilized world in constant fear for over two centuries:  Yes, the Vikings were violent; their religion of violent gods and bloody sacrifices and rituals encouraged and cultivated it to a fine art.  Yes, the Vikings were tradesmen, but they were also skilled pirates and raiders, that skill honed along their own home coasts for generations prior to their debut on the rest of the unsuspecting world.  Yes, it was known that monasteries held items sacred to the Christian faith, that just happened to be exquisitely wrought works of art made of gold and jewels.

Gold was one enticement; but their primary trading good was human flesh; slaves.  It was by far the most lucrative item, and readily had along any coast they chose; if too many died in the voyage they could always just get more before they docked at Constantinople, Dublin, or any other major trading port.  So why did they slaughter the monks so mercilessly at Lindisfarne, when they would have gained more by taking them captive and either selling them as slaves or selling them for ransom?  The answer might actually be found in Rome.

Charlemagne (ruled 768-814 AD) took up his father’s reigns and papal policies in 768 AD. From about 772 AD onwards, his primary occupation became the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Saxons along his northeastern frontier.  It is very important to make a distinction between the modern expressions of the Christian faith and the institution of power mongers of past centuries; Christianity then had extremely little to do with the teachings of Christ and far more to do with political and military power, coercion, and acquisition of wealth through those powers; it was a political means to their own ends with the blessing of the most powerful politician in the history of the civilized world, the Pope.  Without his blessing and benediction, a king had not only very little power, but was exposed to attack from anyone who had “holy permission” to exterminate heathens; joining the ranks of the Christian church took on the all-important definition of survival, and protection from the others in those ranks being free to attack you at their leisure.

In the year 772 AD, Charlemagne’s forces clashed with the Saxons and destroyed Irmensul, the Saxon’s most holy shrine and likely their version of the Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, of Scandinavian mythology.  In the Royal Frankish Annals of 775 AD, it was recorded that the king (Charlemagne) was so determined in his quest that he decided to persist until they were either defeated and forced to accept the papal authority (in the guise of “Christian faith”), or be entirely exterminated [Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, trans. Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers (Michigan 1972: 51)].  Charlemagne himself conducted a few mass “baptisms” to underscore the close identification of his military power with the Christian church.

“In 782 the Saxons rebelled again and defeated the Franks in the Süntel hills. Charlemagne’s response was the infamous massacre of Verden on the banks of the river Aller, just south of the neck of the Jutland peninsula. As many as 4,500 unarmed Saxon captives were forcibly baptised into the Church and then executed.  Even this failed to end Saxon resistance and had to be followed up by a programme of transportations in 794 in which about 7,000 of them were forcibly resettled. Two further campaigns of forcible resettlement followed, in 797 and in 798….  Heathens were defined as less than fully human so that, under contemporary Frankish canon law, no penance was payable for the killing of one” [Ferguson, Robert (2009-11-05). The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings (Kindle Locations 1048-1051). Penguin UK. Kindle Edition.]

The defining of a heathen as less than human was actually not a unique idea;  Scandinavians were familiar with that notion from their own cultures, which defined slaves as less than human and therefore tradable goods; and if a freeman announced his intention of killing someone (anyone) it was not considered murder as the victim was given “fair” warning.

The more I learn about Charlemagne’s brutal policies toward what he considered sub-human pagans, the more I understand the reaction of retaliation toward the symbols of that so-called Christian faith, the monasteries and its inhabitants.  They slaughtered, trampled, polluted, dug up altars, stole treasures, killed some, enslaved some, drove out others naked while heaping insults on them, and others they drowned in the sea.  The latter was perhaps a tit-for-tat for those at Verden who were forcibly baptised and then killed.

Lindisfarne was merely the first major attack in Britain that was highly publicized (as chroniclers of history were usually monks, and those such as Alcuin knew the inhabitants of Lindisfarne personally), in what would become a 250-year reign of terror, violence, slavery, raping, pillaging, plundering and theft either by force or by Danegeld.  But as in all good histories, it’s important to remember that hurt people hurt people; the perpetrator was at one time a victim.  One might say that what goes around comes around.  It’s no excuse or downplay of what happened there, which literally changed the course of the civilised world, but it perhaps gives a wider perspective on the Vikings of the times rather than just the vicious raiders portrayed in so many documentaries.  And it is important to remember that Vikings did not equal Norsemen; the majority of Scandinavians were farmers and fishermen, living as peacefully as their times would allow, and even themselves victims to the occasional Viking raid.

Originally posted on History Undusted on 14 July 2013
Image Credit: Origin Unknown, Pinterest

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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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New Book Release: The Cardinal

Facebook Announcement with Website

Hi everyone!  I’m excited to announce the release of my latest books:  The Cardinal, Parts One and Two!  The Cardinal is an epic fantasy, spanning from the pre-Viking Age of Scotland and Norway to modern-day Scotland.

The Cardinal

790 A.D.

In the far northern reaches of the Highlands of Scotland a Pictish tribe, with their language of peat and stone, ally together with a strange kingdom of mist and whispers.  As a foe descends upon them in longships from the north with axe and smoke and they are scattered in defeat, will those left behind ever find those wrenched from their arms?  Will those slaves taken by the Vikings ever find their way to freedom and home or not?  Either way life will never be the same again.

Now

More than a thousand years later their lives, deaths and fates are brought to light by an archaeological team who uncovers the find of a lifetime… of a thousand lifetimes.  The more they discover the more perplexing it becomes; their finds challenge our very understanding of what it means to be human, and the assumption that myths are groundless and history is fact.  That we are not alone in the universe is one thing; that we are not alone on this earth is another thing entirely.

 “Legends come about when truth is considered too implausible.”—G.K. Chesterton

For further information, images and characters, please check out the page here.

If you enjoy the novels, please do leave feedback!  Both here and on Amazon would be excellent!  Every feedback is greatly appreciated, and the more the better!

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The Etymology of February and Wednesday

 

February & Wednesday

We can blame both spellings on the Romans!  February is fairly clear:  Februa is thought to be a Sabine word (maybe we could blame them for italics, too), meaning “purifications”; Februarius mensis was the month of purification.  Before 450 BC this was actually the last month in the ancient calendar and referred to the feast of purification celebrated on the ides of that month throughout the Roman Empire.  Ides was the term used for approximately mid-month, being the 13th or 15th, depending on whether that particular month had 29 or 31 days.  Interestingly, in English it replaced the Old English solmonað (“mud month”… very appropriate, that) sometime in the 12th century when they began using the Old French term Feverier.

Wednesday accumulated slightly more pedigree before landing in our agendas:  It started off as the “day of (the god) Mercury,” the Latin dies Mercurii.  It was confiscated by the Scandinavians for their own religious version for Odin, Oðinsdagr (Old Norse) or Onsdag in Swedish.  This came with them over the Channel and was adopted by their English counterparts as wodnesdæg, or “Woden’s day.”  Old Frisian came fairly close to modern English with Wonsdei (I’ve probably seen that spelling on Facebook from people who can’t type with their i-phones properly…).  By the mid- 400 AD period, the Germanic Goths had been converted from Paganism to Christianity by Greek missionaries, and their language began to reflect the changes:  The astrological or religious terms gave way to ecclesiastical (or at least neutral) ones.  This difference is reflected in words like Mittwoch (German for Wednesday, meaning literally “mid-week”), sreda (Russian), or środa (Polish), both meaning literally “middle.”

So there you have it:  Blame it on the Romans, or the Vikings; but whoever you blame, just remember to spell them in correct modern English.

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