Sunday, October 20, 2013

Schoolwork: The Traits Important To The Viking Identity

rain is a PSN game with an interesting aesthetic / atmosphere. I saw the game a bit at PAX, but mostly I just downloaded the soundtrack since the name was familiar to me. It's quite nice. Very melancholy, but very relaxing. I can easily imagine a light rain sound effect drizzling over the entire thing quite nicely.

Well, it's nearing midterm season, and that means I've got a pair of essays due. One is already done and submitted, which is why I can share it today. It's for my class on The Vikings (same professor are The Middle Ages last semester and Early Modern Europe the semester before - I'm a big fan of his). I'll keep this brief. Here's the prompt:

Primary sources from the era of Viking raids in Western Europe (750-1050) are quite diverse. While some documents describe the Vikings as brutal pagan invaders from the North bent on murder and destruction, other sources describe the Vikings as seasoned travelers who possess more admirable traits, including athletic prowess, musical gifts, literacy (the ability to read runes), spiritual sensitivity, poetic gifts, strength, and diplomatic skill.  Write an essay that engages at least 5-7 assigned readings from The Viking Age that provide evidence of these mixed views on the Viking invaders.  What were the main attributes of Viking warriors—positive and negative—during this period?  As you compare and contrast the different documents, be sure to carefully identify the source and author of each document, and the social, political, or religious context of each opinion.  Is there some way that all of these descriptions somehow contain a grain of truth?  You might also comment on this question: Do you think that the Viking raiders from Scandinavia were really all that different from their medieval neighbors in Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, and the Frankish Kingdoms?
As usual, this is my essay, made available so I can potentially receive feedback and to help others learn what I'm learning myself. I'm no expert, so seriously, none of the would-be paper thieves out there should use or even cite this. Still, I think I learned a lot to be able to write the essay, and hopefully you learn something too!
And if you know something about the subject, let me know if I got something right/wrong, or if you have interesting insights or thoughts about it! Same with folks who know things about writing essays! And I do love hearing when just other regular folks get some education out of my work.

With that, here's the essay!

Max / Ego
The Vikings
Warriors, Poets, Pirates: The Traits Important to the Viking Identity
            In the 9th century, the mighty Frankish king Charlemagne had carved out an enormous swathe of land for himself, known as the Carolingian Empire. Stretching from the neck of the Iberian Peninsula, down into Northern Italy, and through about half of modern Germany, the Carolingian Empire was a dominant force in Europe. However, they were not alone. In addition to the people of the British Isles (referred to by their modern name, including Ireland), another group of people, entirely unlike the Christian empire in behavior and belief, was proving itself a force to be reckoned with. These peoples, the Vikings, actually were a number of smaller cultures, but as they were significantly more alike to each other than to the Christians and seemed to hail from the same area, they were often grouped together under one identity. While none of the individual cultures collectively identified as the Vikings were actually identical, the Scandinavian kingdoms and tribes did share many attributes, which can be categorized as warrior traits, personal traits, and societal traits.
            First though, a distinction should be made between the different groups. There were three main groups throughout the 9th century: the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Swedes. The Swedes were less active in the raiding of the British Isles and European mainland, mentioned with significant infrequency throughout the texts of the Franks.[1][2] It is possible that the Swedes were participating in raiding the British Isles, as unlike the Franks (who often referred to specific kings or nationalities of attacks and recognized the distinctions of the Scandinavian peoples)[3], the Irish and English instead tended to call the vikings by more generic terms such as “heathens,” “foreigners,” and “Norsemen.”[4] However, knowledge of the general raiding patterns of the Norwegians and Danes accounts for many of the incidents the Irish and English reported, so the involvement of the Swedes is still likely to be minimal.[5] Both the Danes and the Norwegians were highly active throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, raiding, conquering, and settling. Most of the strikes against continental Europe, especially on the northern coast, were perpetrated by the Danes, while the north and west coasts of Britain, along with Ireland, were mostly targeted by the Norwegians.[6] These raiding and conquering attacks are the primary topics of Viking literature, and almost the only topic discussed by the Christians that gives any insight into the behavior of the vikings.
            Sheer combat ability, ruthlessness, courage, and ability at sea were all elements of a master warrior that were valued by the Vikings. As evidenced by the regular violence exhibited by the Scandinavians, their cultures prized many traits related to war and combat. They were certainly very effective at war; The Annals of Ulster, an Irish history of events, are rife with references to one town after another being plundered, massacred, or burned,[7] with very few Irish victories (only seven, compared to several dozen victories by the vikings over the 47-year except from the Annals)[8]. The vikings were unrelenting in these attacks, destroying whole populations at a time, with very little discrimination between civilians and combatants. One case in 806 reads that “The community of [Iona],” a town that would become a common raid target,” to the number of sixty-eight, was killed by the heathens.”[9] This sort of ruthlessness was not uncommon for Viking raids. One particular example of Viking disregard for whether their victims were soldiers of not was again at Iona. The Irish warrior-aristocrat Blathmac arrived and joined the monastic community when it seemed likely that the Scandinavians would arrive again. Blathmac became a monk and, when the raiders came, he presented himself before them, “with unarmed hand, and with unshaken purpose of mind.” After a brief speech, which the Danish raiders likely understood almost none of, Blathmac, an unarmed man presenting himself before the Vikings, “was torn limb from limb.”[10] Against their foes, the Vikings treasured this ferocity. The pinnacle of this wild battle fervor can be seen in the berserks. As they were described in the Saga of the Ynglings, they “advanced without coats of mail, as mad as dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They slaughtered men, but neither fire nor iron harmed them.”[11] In the thick of battle, a berserk was a sight to behold. This wasn't as admirable outside of war, but when harnessed against their foes, the incredible capacity for violence was deeply admired. Even King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway was described as cheerful, generous, sociable, and “when he was angry, he was very savage and tortured many of his enemies. Some he burned; some he had torn to pieces by wild dogs; some he had maimed, or thrown from high cliffs.”[12] Ruthlessness and cruelty was not only considered something done in anger; while emotionally satisfying in some cases, it was also often very practical. A leader renowned for being dangerous to their foes helped keep unruly citizens from causing trouble through fear, and the same dangerous reputation acted as a deterrent, keeping other kings at bay.[13] There was an additional factor that made Vikings terrifying to inland communities: while European armies would be forced to contend with their walls, the Vikings' shallow longships could come up the rivers[14] and strike at the exposed side of the community, bypassing the strongest defenses of the community. This additional fear of being defenseless against a swift-arriving and indiscriminate threat made the Vikings powerful, and thus the ability to fight at sea (a difficult trick when you needed to rely on oarsmen for motion and had no ranged artillery to fight with, necessitating hand-to-hand combat[15]) was highly prized among the Scandinavians.
            If the warrior traits were the values treasured with regard to a viking's relationship with their foes, the personal traits are the valued attributes regarding how they treat themselves. The Vikings were a religious (or perhaps superstitious) group, tempered by a sense of personal honor, and had an unquenchable thirst for wealth. Their greed was evidenced most by the constant plundering and looting of the coasts and river communities across Europe and the British Isles. Ireland was repeatedly victimized. The towns were ravaged and their valuables taken[16], and they stole away people to act as servants or to sell.[17] Wealth was the ultimate goal of many of the raids, rather than simple violent savagery or populating an area. If something else had been the goal, Charles the Bald would have been met with much less success when he handed over “7,000 lb [of silver] as a bribe.”[18] Their hunger for booty coincided with another element of their values when it came to raiding monasteries. The Vikings were pagans, and thus were not often on great terms with Christianity. The tendency of 9th Century Christians to move significant amounts of wealth, both material and spiritual, to the monasteries made them prime targets for the Vikings. Slaughter of monks was a routine occurrence when the Scandinavians were around. Iona's monastery was so frequently targeted that the abbot, Diarmot, fled to Scotland with the relics of the monastery for safe-keeping.[19] Destroying monasteries provided a two-fold victory for the Vikings; they could redistribute the monetary situation in their favor, and could strike a blow against Christianity, which had the additional benefit of demoralizing the Christians. Fighting back against Christianity was valuable to the Vikings, who were mostly very religious (the exception being Iceland, a settlement of Norwegians that became a significantly separate identity, who were markedly less public with their religious activities). A proper Viking was expected to be devout and faithful in their life, and explained many phenomena through divine connection or superstition. One example would be the afore-mentioned berserks. The legend of the berserks told in the Saga of the Ynglings tells that the crazed warriors were the worldly warriors of Odin, the one-eyed god who sat at the top of the hierarchy of the Norse mythology.[20] Another element of the Vikings' superstitious nature was their understanding of great weapons, particularly swords. Swords had names that were passed down through time, and these named blades were considered to be their own entities, with special needs and methods of use. A prime example of a sword being treated as a conscious entity is Skofnung, which a Viking named Kormak once attempted to take from Skeggi, it's owner at the time. Skeggi told Kormak that “Skofnung is slow and deliberate whereas you are rash and impatient,” embodying personality traits in the blade, and later, when being given the sword, there were special requirements, such as never allowing the sun to shine on the pommel, never carrying it unless a fight is imminent, and drawing it in a special way.[21] The story tells that, when used improperly, it lost all power in Kormak's hands and lost him the duel.[22] Another story tells of the sword Gram, and the story perfectly parallels the modern story of King Arthur and the sword in the stone, perhaps even inspiring that tale.[23] While the Vikings were resolute in their religion, it seems that they believed in the potential wrath of the Christian God as well, as after sacking a prominent monastery (and bearing St. Germain's relics) they were “struck down by divine judgment either with blindness or insanity, so severely that only a very few escaped to tell the rest about the might of God.”[24] As the source of that quote is a French document, it would be reasonable to dispute its credibility, but immediately following the “divine judgment” their king Horic immediately opened peace talks with King Louis and returned the stolen treasures, which indicates that the Vikings certainly believed the French at fault for the deaths. This particular incident is interesting in that the symptoms exhibited closely match late-stage syphilis, a sexually-transmitted disease whose presence during the era is highly disputed, but the first reported outbreak of the disease originated in France.
            In additional to the traits a Viking was expected to uphold in their personal lives, the Scandinavians could be distinguished by how they acted in peaceful society. A very important factor of a Viking was that they be multi-talented, skilled in far more than simple combat. Beyond the war-making abilities described above, it was required that they be musically skilled, literate in the rune language used by the Vikings, athletic, and capable of drinking heavily.[25] One of the more unusual traits prized by the Vikings was the ability to create and recite poetry, which was often distinguished by considerable alliteration.[26] One of the great heroes of the Sagas, Egil, was noted for his quick wit with poetry and quicker work with a sword, and the description of his battle against the berserk Ljot included no less than five poems, recited immediately before and during the fight.[27] The sort of focus required to be eloquent and artistic in the middle of a vicious battle made Egil all the more admirable. It was evidence of his discipline, which was a very valuable trait to the Vikings' society. While the crazed power of the berserk was awe-inspiring and destructive in a fight, being a berserk was a negative status, as indicated by Thorgred's scolding of Skallagrim for “raging like a berserk”[28] and by the editor of the anthology, providing the context that in the sagas berserks were “little more than social nuisances.”[29] Power was admirable, but controlled power was even more so as it allowed them to be both members of society and agents of war. Instead of simply leaping to violence to settle disputes, a Viking was expected to behave with honor, which meant upholding the standards of the law and fighting in ways deemed honorable. Duels were the most frequent form of honorable combat. Duels allowed the combatants to fight in a highly ritualized setting[30] and for both parties to come through alive, while still determining the man in the right. For larger disputes on a national scale, whole armies would fight, simply to settle the uncertainty, as the children of King Godofrid did upon his death.[31]
            All of these traits were vital to the identity of Vikings. In war they were ruthless and powerful and courageous, but at peace they were eloquent and well-rounded, behaving with control and honor. Their motivations of religion and greed drove them forward against the other major nations of the time, and even the mighty Carolingians had significant trouble keeping its borders safe from the Vikings. Each of the individual cultures of Scandinavia had its own variations on the priorities of the values (such as Iceland's variant stance on religion), but as a whole, their values made them known, and feared, as Vikings.

[1]“The Royal Frankish Annals” in The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 245-252.
[2]“The Annals of St-Bertin” in Ibid., 252-261.
[3]“The Royal Frankish Annals” in Ibid., 249.
[4]“The Annals of Ulster” in Ibid., 239.
[5]    John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 55.
[6] Ibid., 57.
[7]“The Annals of Ulster” in The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 236-237.
[8]“The Annals of Ulster” in Ibid., 236-240.
[9]“The Annals of Ulster” in Ibid., 236.
[10]“The Martyrdom of Blathmac” in Ibid., 240-242.
[11]“The Saga of the Ynglings” in Ibid., 162-163.
[12]“The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason” in Ibid., 161-162.
[13]“The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason” in Ibid., 162.
[14] John Haywood, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 40.
[15]“Grettis Saga” in The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 202.
[16]“The Annals of Ulster” in Ibid., 236.
[17]“The Annals of Ulster” in Ibid., 237.
[18]“The Annals of St-Bertin” in Ibid., 253.
[19]“The Annals of Ulster” in Ibid., 238.
[20]“The Saga of the Ynglings” in Ibid., 162.
[21]“Kormak's Saga” in Ibid., 173.
[22]“Kormak's Saga” in Ibid., 175.
[23]“The Saga of the Volsungs” in Ibid., 179-180.
[24]“The Annals of St-Bertin” in Ibid., 253.
[25]“Orkneyinga Saga” in Ibid., 160.
[26]“Egil's Saga” in Ibid., 166-168.
[28]“Egil's Saga” in Ibid., 164.
[29]“Egil's Saga” in Ibid., 165.
[30]“Kormak's Saga” in Ibid., 174.
[31]“The Royal Frankish Annals” in Ibid., 249.

That's it! Hope you learned something interesting.
End Recording,

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