I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Archive for July, 2016

A BUNCH OF “NO, I’M SORRY BUT…”s

“Viking” is a job description and not an ethnic descriptor. It entered English in the ninth century in the poem Widsith, but was not used very much and was not used during the rest of the Middle Ages. It started to be used in English only in the eighteenth century. The usual terms earlier were Danes—even when describing people from other lands than Denmark—Heathens or Northmen.  and was not generally used as a noun in Scandinavian writings before that time, being a part of “i-viking,” a verb meaning to go on a pirate/trade voyage. Pirates from other cultures, for example Muslim cultures, were known as Vikings in Scandinavian literature. In the Magnúsona Saga, for example, Snorri Sturluson relaters that near the Straits of Gibraltar, King Sigurth encounters a large number of Saracen corsairs (serkir Vikings).’

Histories are written by the winners it as I said, but it also written by the literate. The poor ideas that we have of the Norse raiders is from the writing of the people most assaulted: The clerics. This does not mean that the raiders were always peaceful and benevolent; they were thugs. However, everyone of the time was a thug, and there are plenty of examples of Christian atrocities that went without being complained about or even commented on by the Christian clerics.

Vikings did not have horned helmets. Horned helmets for Vikings—rather than earlier cultures—were first conjectured in the 1820s by the Swedish artist, Gustav Malmström, in illustrations for an edition of Frithiof’s Saga. The concept was popularized in 1869 by Carl Emil Doepler for Richard Wagner’s operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Earlier, horned helmets are seen in artwork, but they were worn by priests in religious ceremonies, were never used in battle and by the Viking Age seems to have no longer been seen.

Vikings did not wear furry loin cloths, black leather biker outfits or go bare-chested. In fact, the men  wore the same sort of clothing seen in most other European cultures of the time, differing only in the length of tunics.

Though modern thought often refers caustically to Anglo-Saxon obscenities, there is no indication that the Englisc had obscene curse words. They did have swear words, but in which they swear using religious terms such as God’s blood and I swear by Christ’s wounds.

Despite finding weapons in female graves, there is little indication— outside of fiction and fantasy of the time—that women fought. There is no doubt that women were taught to use weapons and that women were expected to help defend the home, but they did not go out on raid with weapons in hands for a number of reasons. The fact that weapons were found in graves means about as much that they were warriors as finding an adult key in a girl-child’s grave means that she was mistress of the house.

The only physical evidence of Norse occupation in North America has been found in L’anse aux Meadows and Sutherland, a farther north site. The Kensington Stone, the Heavener Stone, the Gulfport Tower and the Vinland map have all been proven almost conclusively to be the products of later times, either the results of forgery or of mis-interpretation.

The Norse were not a dirty people. Each Norse person carried a comb—like most other people of the time. This was not exclusively to look better but to help comb out lice and other bugs, but the Norse took a bath every Saturday night, and the original meaning of Scandinavian words for Saturday was laurdag: Washing Day. The results were apparent, for Anglo-Saxon girls were known to find the Norse boys more pleasant to date than home-grown ones. In fact, John of Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides, who complained bitterly that the Norse men of the Danelaw were unChristianly clean, noted that the Norse bathed so completely just to put the moves on the Anglo-Saxon females. Gwyn Jones notes:

“It is reported in the chronicle attributed to John of Wallingford that the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.”

Norse men were not all big and blond. Analysis of bones from cemeteries of the Viking age indicate that Vikings and Englisc were about the same height as an average person nowadays, neither exceptionally tall nor exceptionally short. There were exceptions, to be certain, but these are specifically pointed out so that they were probably extraordinary then as now. Although blond hair was valued, it was not universal among the Norse, and there are many accounts of men bleaching their hair.

 

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