People love absolutes.
When people in the mainstream talk about the Early Middle Ages, they generally talk about Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and maybe Normans (but popular thought puts them erroneously after the Early Middle Ages). They are all totally separate, and not only is the extreme separateness of the cultures exaggerated by this popular thought, but great and overbearing differences are created and exaggerated.
The truth is that there are few differences between the Anglo-Saxon culture and that of the Norse. Regional differences among the Norse culture in Gotland is, in fact, greater than that in Roskilde and, indeed, less than between the Norse culture in Roskilde and the Anglo-Saxon in London. The people of these areas probably ate the same sort of things, wore the same sort of garments (with certain exceptions) and probably spoke languages that were similar enough that they could be mutually understood (see comments by Katherine Holman in The Northern Conquest: Vikings in Britain and Ireland on similarities in the languages).
True, if you want to wear a certain type of jewelry, you must be from a certain regional culture. If you want to display certain tenets of Faith, you might have to choose a specific culture. Certainly if you want a certain name, you’ll have to choose the culture which gave it to you. In the smaller sense, these details are most important; in a larger sense, things become more vague and less distinct.
When Micel Folcland was first forming, there were members who wanted to portrayal an Anglo-Saxon culture. There were others who wanted to portray Norse culture. In trying to find a compromise that would please both these factions, the Anglo-Scandinavian culture of the Danelaw was hit upon, and for three good reasons:
a) This gave us a chance to combines parts of both Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, since they were both in evidence in the geographic area of the Danelaw but were probably still distinct enough to allow the pogrom of all of those of Norse blood that was initiated by Ethelraed the Unready in the early eleventh century;
b) York, the center of the Danelaw, was enough of a cosmopolitan port that it allows the introduction of other cultures as well; and
c) The York Archaeological Trust (YAT), we discovered, was able to provide such an extensive and varying amount of period artifacts, as well as books and other writings explaining common everyday life in great detail.
The term “Anglo-Scandinavian”—or Anglo-Danish or even Anglo-Viking—is not an unknown term in many academic circles. The title of many YAT volumes bear that appellation, and many other academic and some popular history use the term. However, we have found that it is virtually unknown in many parts of the lay population. They want a straight and absolute term that is familiar to them. Putting them together is confusing, it seems, and the people wanting to glorify one culture over another are inevitably disappointed.
Yet, for us, it is not bad at all. We are given the ability to incorporate parts of the cultures, to unabashedly to draw and to use details from these cultures and to concentrate on one or the other culture as needed for different events. We strive in Micel Folcland to illuminate the everyday, the homely details of life at the tie, and there is little doubt in my mind that everyday life was not clear and distinct. I know that some objects, suvch as the Sutton Hoo, were at least a hundred years old when buried and had been repaired during its use, that ancient artifacts were still used by the people and that, it seems, even neolithic objects were being worshiped by the people of the Early Middle Ages, and I know that these were a practical and resourceful people who did not just throw out anything that was still practical and useful just because it was not in the most current fashion. While a certain ethnic purity might be a sort of ideal even if the believer is not a racist or prejudiced person, it seems certain that it was not that important in period. How else can you explain, for example, the discovery of a jade Buddha—from India or points farther east—in Birka? Of course, we cannot portray a Norse-Indian impression for spectators with any degree of justification, but we can—and do—represent Anglo-Scandinavian!
For people interested in seeing some of the Anglo-Scandinavian artifacts from York that have inspired us, see http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/piclib/photos.php; you can download pdfs of a few of the YAT books—including my favorite, on leatherworking in Anglo-Scandinavian York—at http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/resources/pubs_archive.htm
One of the problems *I* keep running into is one of time points and definitions:
In Scandinavia, ‘Viking Age’ often does not appear as the slot so commonly used from English perspective. Not surprising, as the two defining events are the sacking of Lindesfarne and the Norman Conquest, both almost exclusively English events.
What I saw in Denmark was ‘Late Iron Age’, refering to after the Romans and before the Middle Ages (usually pegged there at 1000 AD).
‘Migration Era’ is a possible, but that covers the spread from post Roman (say 450) to again some hazy point about 1000 AD.
Things do start to change significantly around 1000. The slow adoption of water power through Europe, the growth of centralized Kingships, even the Althing vote for Christianity by the Icelanders.
‘Real’ History, especially social and cultural history, just will NOT fit into those tight little boxes we what to stuff it into…
April 12, 2011 at 05:31
I never really encountered such an extreme ambiguity. When we visited the Danish National Museum, there were exhibits called “Viking Age.” At our events, we always stress that the “Viking Age” was defined by the ships and that the actual date may well extend before or after the starting and ending dates and did not exist in a vacuum. I certainly agree with you about the pigeon-holing.
April 12, 2011 at 06:59