Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Viking Age: A Reader

 The History Channel's The Vikings series, and especially the sexy Ragnar Lothbrok, inspired a number of my friends to ask, What one book should they (or their children) read to learn about Viking history? I was at a loss. How to choose among the dozens of Viking books on my shelves?

Then I bought The Viking Age: A Reader, published in 2010. If you read only one book about the Viking Age, this is the one.

It's not a book about the Viking Age. It's a book from the Viking Age. It contains excerpts from 35 texts that were written between 787 and the late 1200s in Arabic, Latin, Old Irish, Old English, and Old Norse.

The Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, subject of my biography Song of the Vikings, is amply represented, as is his nephew, Sturla Thordarson (whom I called Saga-Sturla). For example, here are two passages from Sturla's Saga of Hakon the Old that give a nice picture of the dangers of travel in Viking ships:

King Hakon sailed along the coast of Jadar. As they approached Hvin, the steering oar on the king's ship broke, and almost the whole blade snapped off, but by using the gangplanks and the oars, they steered the ship south around the headland. When they had cleared the headland, they laid aside the gangplanks and steered into Skerdadarsound using the remains of the steering oar as well as the regular oars. The damaged steering oar was brought ashore when they came into port, and it seemed astonishing that such a large ship had been steered by such a small fragment of rudder.

And the second passage, from a voyage by Hakon's son, Magnus:

When they entered the harbor and dropped anchor, the momentum of the ship was so great that fire broke out in the windlass around which the cable was wound. The fear was that the rope would burn, so they soaked an awning, intending to stifle the fire with it, but Prince Magnus was much quicker and more resourceful. He lifted up a tub full of drink, poured it over the windlass, and cooled down the cable.

Ah, the uses of beer.

Another of Snorri's nephews, Olaf White-Poet, who lived many years at the Danish court, may have written Knytlinga Saga (The Story of the Family of Knut) about Canute the Great, king of England and Denmark. In it, we have the picture of the perfect Viking:

Knut was extremely tall and strong. He was an outstandingly handsome man, except for his nose, which was thin, high-set, and slightly crooked. He had a fair complexion and thick blond hair. His eyes were more beautiful than other people’s and his eyesight was keener. He was a generous man and a great soldier; he was gallant, victorious, and exceptionally fortunate in everything concerning power and wealth. But he was not a very reflective man, and the same is true of Svein, Harald, and Gorm before him. None of them were great thinkers.

True of the History Channel's Ragnar Lothbrok as well, I'd say.

Knytlinga Saga has not been fully translated into English. Neither has the Saga of King Hakon, one of our only sources for the life of Snorri Sturluson. For these little snippets alone I am grateful to Angus A. Somerville, one of the editors of The Viking Age: A Reader and translator of all the Old Norse excerpts. I hope he is inspired to translate the rest of these important sagas so that more people can read them.

I do read Old Norse, so the texts in The Viking Age: A Reader that are most important to me are those translated from Latin, Arabic, Old Irish, and Old English. For example, historians writing about the Viking attack on the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793--often considered the beginning of the Viking Age--usually quote this phrase from a letter written that same year by the scholar Alcuin to King Athelred:

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.

But I've rarely seen quoted the middle of Alcuin's letter. Here it becomes clear that the Northumbrians were well acquainted with that "pagan race" who came by sea. The attack was terrible and surprising not because the English had never seen a Viking ship, but because God had allowed this holy place, this "place more venerable than all in Britain," to be "given as prey to pagan peoples."

Why would God allow this? Alcuin has an answer: Because the English had forgotten Christian charity. They had become like pagans themselves.

Wrote Alcuin to King Athelred:

Look at your trimming of the beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow? What also of the immoderate use of clothing beyond the needs of human nature, beyond the custom of our predecessors? The princes' superfluity is poverty for the people. Such customs once injured the people of God, and made it a reproach to the pagan races, as the prophet says: 'Woe to you, who have sold the poor for a pair of shoes,' that is, the souls of men and women for ornaments for the feet. Some labor under an enormity of clothes, others perish with cold; some are inundated with delicacies and feastings like Dives clothed in purple, and Lazarus dies of hunger at the gate. Where is brotherly love?

The Viking Age doesn't seem so long ago after all. Just replace "the princes" with "the one percent" and we could still say that "The princes' superfluity is poverty for the people."

The Viking Age: A Reader was edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald and published by the University of Toronto Press in 2010. For teachers there's a new companion volume, The Vikings and Their Age (University of Toronto Press, 2013), that essentially provides a syllabus by placing the excerpts in The Viking Age: A Reader into a broader context.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

1 comment:

  1. But but but...I just bought the Abacus and the Cross to add to my reading list :)

    I love your blog. It's entertaining, knowledgeable, and insightful. I have shared your stories and suggestions and interests with folks from my wife, to friends, to college professors. Thanks for giving me so much cool, smart ammo for conversation. Keep it coming. But please, let me tamp down my current "to reads" before piling on any more ;)