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The Age of the Vikings
By Anders Winroth
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2014 Princeton University Press
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The Fury of the Northmen
Finally the chieftain took his high seat. The warrior band had waited eagerly on the benches around the great hall, warmed by the crackling fire, quaffing bountiful mead. The chieftain's servant girls had spent weeks this fall mixing honey and water, brewing barrels full for his famous party at Yule, the old Scandinavian festival of midwinter. Now the chieftain was there in his best clothes demanding to know why his famed warriors had been given such simple drink. Did they not deserve better hospitality after all they had accomplished in Frankland? Had they not hauled home barrels of the best Frankish wine from the rich cellar of that monastery last summer and paid dearly for their loot with their blood?
The appearance of the pitcher, its perfect regularity so unlike the clumsy local earthenware containers that most of them were used to, hushed the rowdy warriors in the vast hall. Tin foil in several horizontal lines and, between them, sequences of rhombuses decorated the pitcher, a glorious vessel for an exotic drink. The chieftain, served first, received a chalice with an artful decoration of blue glass in delicate strands after which the man in the seat of honor was handed a matching glass. The rest of them drank out of horns or simple mugs, but now everyone drank wine instead of mead to celebrate their bravery and their success when they had gone on Viking raids during the summer. Some of the warriors, recognizing the glassware bought by the chieftain when the band of warriors had visited the town of Hedeby on the way home from faraway kingdom called Egypt; the chieftain could have procured a good longship for what he had paid for them after hard negotiation.
Used to coarser drink, some of the warriors were unfamiliar with the taste of wine. What a great leader of men who so generously shared such luxuries! And he looked the part, too. His cape featured embroidered leopards and silver sequins, and it was trimmed with lustrous fox fur. He sported a silk cap on his head. An eiderdown pillow with a beautifully embroidered cover depicting a procession of people, horses, and wagons cushioned his seat, and by his side stood a ceremonial ax with rich decoration in silver-wire inlay depicting a fantastic animal. This was a real chieftain! Where did he get all these amazing things? Few of the warriors had ever been this close to such luxuries. They had never seen foxes as darkly glistening as these, nor had they experienced any textile that could shine this luminously.
Not everyone in the hall had sailed out last summer with this chieftain to seize opportunities in Frankland; many newcomers had come to the chieftain's celebration. They could be heard bragging about how they, next summer, would go with this chieftain to redden their swords with the blood of the Franks and the English, or why not the Moors in Spain? And they were going to gain undreamed-of riches.
This past summer, they had not been so fortunate. Of the three ships that had gone out under another chieftain, only one came back, and that was without their leader, who had fallen, it was rumored, when the Frisians had unexpectedly fought back. Nobody was really sure what had happened, for those who had returned were not eager to talk about it.
It was time for the food to be brought in, but first the gods must have their share. The chieftain cut the throat of the sacrificial animal and let the blood stream down on the floor, pouring some wine on top of it. The chieftain also held up a tiny gold foil between his fingers for everyone to admire. Those who sat closest could just make out an embossed picture of a couple embracing. The chieftain attached the foil to one of the posts supporting the roof. Not all of his warriors were sure exactly what this ritual implied, but they were certain it must be beneficial. The sacrificed lamb was taken out to be roasted, and the rest of the food was brought in, large chunks of roasted meat, cauldrons of boiled fish, and sweetmeats. The warriors feasted heartily and happily on all that was on offer. One certainly did not need to bring any packed food to the feasts of this illustrious chieftain!
Their bellies full of a glorious meal, everyone was leisurely cracking the hard shells of nuts to get to their sweet contents as dessert, but the chieftain himself and his closest men were having larger nuts that were easier to open, for their shells were softer and thinner. Were their contents more delicious, too? Few in the hall had ever tasted these foreign "welsh" nuts, or "walnuts." Some of them remembered seeing a single walnut when it had been put in the magnificent grave of the last great chieftain before this one.
That funeral had been something to behold: the dead man was given a huge, gorgeous ship with exquisite wood carvings, which was going to ferry him to the Afterworld. People were impressed that his son was willing to sacrifice such a grand vessel, although malicious tongues whispered that the ship was anyway not very seaworthy and had capsized twice, drowning the chieftain's brother. The son of the old chieftain had also sacrificed an unheard-of-number of horses on the foreship. People talked at length of the sea of blood on the deck of the funeral boat before soil was thrown over the boat to form a mound, from which, as a reminder, the mast still protruded.
The skald stood up in the middle of the hall, and the warriors, by now boisterous, did not quite fall silent, but the hall became still enough that most people could hear him. He turned to the chieftain and declaimed: "Listen to my poesy, destroyer of the dark blue, I know how to compose." This skald was a good one, even a very good one; one could hear from his accent that he was an Icelander as, everyone knew, were all the best skalds. The warriors enjoyed the euphony of the verses he recited: the rhythm, the alliteration, the end rhyme, the slant rhyme, the assonances, but they did not quite understand every stanza. So unnatural was the word order, so complex the waft of rhyme, and so far-fetched the poetic circumlocutions. Dark blue ... what exactly? Wound-swans? Meals of giants? But the verses clearly celebrated the achievements of last summer's Viking adventure. The warriors recognized individual words: Franks, fire, gold, horses, a raven. A warrior suddenly burst out, "We fed the raven well in Frankland!" when he suddenly realized that this was the solution to part of the riddle of one stanza. Everyone cheered, and the poet had to fall silent for a moment. In the ancient poetry of the Norse, to feed the raven (also poetically known as the wound-swan) meant to kill the enemy, providing a meal for beasts that feed on carrion. It was difficult for the drunken warriors to make out even such phrases, for the Icelander excelled not only in far-fetched expressions, but also in using unnatural word order and rare locutions. The beginning line had been easy enough, for the skald began, strategically, with expressions readily understandable. There could be no doubt, either, of the ending, for his gestures and inflections made it abundantly clear when he reached the grand peroration of his praise of the chieftain.
The chieftain rewarded the skald with a golden arm ring that he took from his own arm, and he lavished on the expectant warriors, for their bravery and loyalty, arm rings in gold and silver, swords with richly decorated pommels, clothes, helmets, chain mail, and shields. Even those who had just joined the chieftain received tokens of his new friendship, mostly weapons, each according to his standing and promise as a warrior.
At the end of the evening, everyone was happy. They had eaten and drunk to their satisfaction and beyond, listened to and half-understood what they were sure was great poetry, and they could proudly carry their new arm rings or swords that proclaimed to everyone that they were the valued friends of this great chieftain. This winter, a lot of men were spending months building a new, even more formidable ship for next summer's raiding season. Slave women and servant girls were spinning and weaving a great woolen sail, an investment of thousands and thousands of hours, but the sail would be worth it. The new vessel would not only sail faster but its greatness would also ensure that the chieftain's reputation spread even further, prompting even more warriors to volunteer to fill the rowers' benches.
Of course, he could easily afford any expense after all the silver and gold he had collected last summer; some he had simply taken in monasteries, churches, and homes; some had been paid out in return for his promise not to attack hapless Europeans; some had been his payment for men and women he had captured and sold as slaves. Life was good for this chieftain, who presided over a band of devoted warriors. They were all excited to go out and fight loyally for their chieftain, to the death if necessary. They were all looking forward to raiding again in Europe as soon as spring returned.
It all began in the great feasts in the halls of Norse chieftains. Viking raids started here, springing from the loyalties and friendships inspired by the drinking, eating, and gift giving. And in the halls it also ended with the distribution of the loot as gifts, laying the foundations for a new cycle of violence the next year. The warriors loved their generous chieftain who provided food and drink, entertainment, jewelry, and weapons. They were happy to give their allegiance and military prowess in return. Although the humiliation of Europe's powerful kingdoms, the sacking of the rich treasuries of monasteries, and the great battles between Vikings and Europeans may comprise the most spectacular and best-known events of the Viking Age, the real story of the time unfolded in the great halls of the North. They were the focal points of the early medieval geography of power in Scandinavia. Each hall was the centerpiece of its chieftain's honor, worth, and reputation, the focus of his world, the locus of his power.
The ancient king of the Danes, Hrothgar, resided in a most splendid hall, Heorot, at least in the imagination of the Viking Age Beowulf poet. When the Swedish warriors of the eponymous hero Beowulf approached Heorot in friendship, they were endlessly impressed by the tall and magnificent hall, famous throughout the world. Hrothgar had ordered it built so that his reputation would grow and remain forever great. The poet emphasized the glory and the excellence of Heorot, which gave Hrothgar bragging rights and a basis for his power. That was exactly the purpose of building a hall, a structure that impressed and a famed place to which warriors would flock to share in the hospitality and generosity of its chieftain.
Chieftains built halls all over northern Europe, where archeologists have discovered the remnants of dozens, teaching us just how many warlords strove for power in early medieval Scandinavia. Each chieftain cherished his hall, built it as large and tall as he was able, had it decorated, if not with gold as in the imagined Heorot, then at least with painted wood carvings, weapons, and other embellishments.
The halls of Scandinavian chieftains are the largest buildings known from the early Middle Ages in northern Europe. Measuring 48.5 by 11.5 meters, the hall at Lejre on the Danish island of Zealand was the greatest of them all. Beyond a few fragments of wood at the bottom of some postholes, nothing is preserved of the great building, the pride of its chieftain, except the imprint of its foundations in the Danish soil. That imprint is sufficient, however, for us to know the dimensions of the hall and to learn that it was solidly built: sturdy timber posts held up the roof, and the walls were six inches thick, made up of planks cut from ancient forests. A great hall should be a tall and impressive building. At Lejre, archeologists conclude that the roof reached at least 10 meters. It was held up by two rows of interior posts, and also by posts in the walls, which needed to be buttressed by twenty-two raking planks on each side, 1.5 meters apart. In the middle of the building, two sets of roof posts were omitted, creating a large interior space of some 9.5 square meters with the fire burning in the main hearth on one side.
This open space was fundamental to the political power of the Lejre chieftain. His thronelike chair, or high seat, stood here, richly decorated with wood carvings and probably paint. Scandinavian artisans during the Viking Age were capable of splendid wood carving. Furniture found in a grave mound in Oseberg, Norway, displays, for example, exquisitely carved dragons, with large stylized eyes; the animals intertwine legs, creating a richly detailed interlaced pattern. Around the chieftain, his warriors would sit on what the Beowulf poet called "mead-benches," enjoying their leader's hospitality, certainly including much mead, but also more distinguished drinks, as well as food and entertainment. It was here that the Viking raiding bands first came together as communities of warriors under the leadership of the chieftain. Bonds of loyalty, fellowship, friendship, and blood brotherhood were established and oaths of solidarity were sworn. In the mead hall, throngs of Scandinavian warriors came together, drinking and feasting and generally having a good time. The generosity and wealth of the chieftain impressed them all deeply. As often happens when men drink together, they came away with a renewed sense of solidarity with one another and loyalty to their leader.
We will take the hall of the Viking leader as our starting point for exploring the history of the Viking Age, just as it was the starting point for Viking raids attacking Europe. Here, all strands of that history come together—politics, military prowess, trade, agriculture, exploration, religion, art, literature, and much else—and we will follow them from the hall out into the early medieval world, in some cases going very far indeed, to exotic places like al-Khwarezm in central Asia and Newfoundland in America, Seville in southwestern Spain, and the White Sea on the north shore of Russia. For the Vikings, experienced by Europeans as a kind of unqualified evil coming from the ends of the world in fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, were in fact deeply embedded in the texture of early medieval European society.
We continue to be fascinated by the Vikings and stories about their exploits. Ferocious barbarians in horned helmets with gleaming swords and sharp axes, descending on Lindisfarne, Hamburg, Paris, Seville, Nantes—almost everywhere—to slaughter, raid, rape, and generally wreak destruction, toppling kingdoms and laying waste to Europe; the Vikings pique our imagination. We picture them killing and maiming without regard for age, gender, or status in society. We imagine them as super-masculine heroes, practitioners of frenzied violence for its own sake, devotees of strange pagan religions that required bloody sacrifices necessitating horrendous torture. Just as we as a society continue to have a fraught and complex relationship to violence, we are both spellbound and repelled by the Vikings. While we may sympathize with and grieve for their helpless victims and feel put off by all the mindless slaying, we can scarcely help admiring the strength, courage, and virility of the Vikings.
Excerpted from The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth. Copyright © 2014 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents1 Introduction: The Fury of the Northmen 1
2 Violence in a Violent Time 15
3 Röriks at Home and Away: Viking Age Emigration 45
4 Ships, Boats, and Ferries to the Afterworld 71
5 Coins, Silk, and Herring: Viking Age Trade in Northern Europe 99
6 From Chieftains to Kings 131
7 At Home on the Farm 157
8 The Religions of the North 181
9 Arts and Letters 213
10 Epilogue: The End of the Viking Age 241
Further Reading 249
List of Illustrations 289