In the Bible, God looks over creation and finds it to be “good, very good.” Adam and Eve live amidst plenty. Nonetheless, the first people sin and are expelled from the garden. Then, humanity sees its first murder. What might a civilization look like where the founding myth has the world created from the dismembered body of a murder victim? Instead of “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,” we must imagine that in the beginning was a crime scene.
That civilization would look like the Vikings. Violence was endemic amongst them and perhaps nothing illustrates more graphically their special skill set than the bodyguard to the heirs of Rome, the Emperors and Empresses of Byzantium, being staffed by Vikings. The bodyguard was known as the Varangian, the name derived from the Norse word for oath, vár.
Neil Price, an archeologist, rightly finds them astonishing, but never lets his guard down around them. Children of Ash and Elm closes with a picture of a six-year-old girl. The girl’s face is a reconstruction modelled on a skull excavated from Birka, Sweden. There is nothing terrifying about the child, she looks just like your children or grandchildren. Her world would terrify us, though. “The Viking mind is far away from us today,” writes Price. The Nazis might have glorified the Vikings, but Price, who is a very good writer, makes us leery.
Village life on the coast of Scotland could change in the blink of an eye. Set upon by Vikings, in a matter of moments, everyone you knew could be killed, raped, or enslaved. Vikings would trade the enslaved as far away as Russia or on the Silk Road. Archeology shows no evidence of slave markets as the trade was more akin to the business model of door-to-door sales. No household, apparently, was uninterested in the slaves brought back by Viking raids. Slaving was the “central pillar” of Viking culture and at its core was sex trafficking. A typical village raid ended with all the men slaughtered and the women enslaved.
Children of Ash and Elm is chock full of arresting images and details. It is not a rip-roaring tale of Viking adventure but more an encyclopedia, a blow-by-blow of the findings of archeologists sieved from soils across Europe, and beyond. Especially arresting is the evidence that shows long before the Vikings started raiding, they had been trading along the coasts of the British Isles, Northern France, and the Baltics. The age of raiding was inaugurated notoriously at Lindisfarne, a monastery island off the east coast of Northern England in June 793. The event is chronicled as monks fallen upon by slaughter-wolves, as the Vikings are termed. The event resonated because it marked a new, almost impossible to control menace that would reshape not only the British Isles but European civilization. Perhaps it is marked out, also, because of a sense of betrayal. The Vikings had come to trade first, they were believed a known quantity, then came the violence. As Price grimly imagines it, at some point, a Viking must have uttered aloud that these very rich, unprotected monasteries dotting the coasts, offered easy pickings: Why pay, why not just take? After Lindisfarne, great fleets of Vikings started to amass and raiding from Ireland through the Baltic States, to Italy, and even Egypt, accelerated dramatically.
What explains the appetite for raiding where once trade had seemingly been sufficient? At something of a loss, scholars conjecture that since Vikings practiced polygyny, with rich and famous warriors having many wives, concubines, as well as free run of the slaves, younger men needed to raise their status and prevail in wealth and battle fame. Raiding became the obvious strategy.
Raiding ships were confederacies, based on oaths of loyalty to the ships’ captains and valid for the duration of the raids, with plunder divided per skill or duty. Kitting out ships was expensive: the whole venture took massive resources. Behind the violence of the raids was pastoral sheep farming. One sail for an ocean-going ship required 4 person-years to make, and no boat sailed with only one sail aboard. It is estimated that the maritime life of the Vikings in the eleventh century required the annual production of two million sheep. This does not include the other cloth manufacturing needed by the wider society and especially the industry required to satisfy Viking appetite for decorative clothing.
Reassessing the Dark Ages
Though Vikings would have given as good as they got had they met the Spartans, they could not have been more different. It is hard to imagine a more decorated people. Not only were their bodies covered in tattoos and their hair stylized, but their clothes were adorned with patterns and textured buttons. They wore certain brooches which only make sense to the eye when seen by the wearer—when viewed upside down the pattern morphs, and is intelligible as a face, for example—and their weaponry, and even farming tools, were decorated. The period perhaps saw the first example of a luxury brand. The most highly coveted make of sword was of German manufacture, the Ulfberht. Over a hundred swords of this brand have been found in Viking graves in Scandinavia, and as far away as the Volga. So prestigious was this brand, with its name inlaid on the blade, that fakes proliferated, often the copycats misspelling the name.
Silks were just as coveted as swords. These hailed from Persia and China, and other decorative items from Bengal and Sri Lanka. The burial chamber on the deck of the magnificent Osberg burial ship (c. 834) was lined in silk. In the town of Birka, which was a specialist center in high-end spinning, 30 percent of graves contain silk remnants. In some places, like Iceland, clothes were currency, and one of the greatest of all Viking chiefs, Ragnar Lothbrók had a style signature. Ragnar, an especially vicious and innovative commander, sported röggvar, a distinctive style of trousers where extra pieces of fleece woven into the cloth give a tufted and exaggerated effect. His nickname was “shaggy-breeches.”
The patterns of raiding puncture one of the greatest caricatures we have of the “Dark Ages.” We are talking about 500 years before people like the saint-philosophers, Aquinas and Bonaventure. The Vikings started to transform Europe at a distance from Aquinas as you and I are from the Renaissance. In the caricature of the Dark Ages—as found in many school and college textbooks—the period is empty of dynamism, bleakly unchanging, stocked with dopey villagers condemned to eking out a grim existence. Evidence clearly tells otherwise. For example, genetic evidence in Iceland attests to early settlement by Norse, Sámi, Saxon, Frank, Scots, and Irish. Three hundred years before Aquinas, Gudríd Thorbjarnardóttir, a Norwegian woman from Iceland, who lived in Greenland, gave birth to the first European born in North America, on a trip to Labrador, Canada. She met First Nations people, did pilgrimage to Rome, met the pope, and saw out her days as a nun in Iceland. Her descendants would be bishops. Few people alive today have travelled as she, or had so varied, or dramatic an existence. To be sure, hers was an extreme version of an otherwise quite common pattern of Viking life around 1000.
The Viking diaspora included Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Northern France, the Baltic, Russia, Ukraine, and even short-lived settlements in Canada. Sometimes their settling meant extermination: for example, names of places in the Scottish Hebrides are derived from Norse, despite the Celts having settled the region four thousand years before. In other places, across decades, their beachheads eroded, and Vikings blended with local populations, as in England and France. Who blended with whom is not always easy to tease apart, however. At the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 the English army defeated the former commander of the Varangian, King Harald Hard-Ruler of Norway, who died leading the line. The victorious English army wheeled away to confront a second Viking army, out of Normandy. William the Conqueror was fifth generation Franco-Viking, his lineage tracing to Rollo, famous to many today for his role in the History Channel’s hit TV series, Vikings. Rollo had fought the French to a stalemate and been given a swath of northern France to settle, Normandy, land of the Norse. His heir in 1066 did not settle for stalemate but beat the battle-bruised English army at Hastings. A defining moment in British history, and world history, as it would turn out, and a history that begins with the Vikings.
The territories and waterways of the period were far less busy than today, but, in another sense, far more populated. “The products of the Norse mind form a category all their own,” and nowhere is this more striking than Viking ideas of personal identity. Human persons had four parts. Hamr is a person’s shell or shape and those gifted or cursed could change it. This gives the idea of the shape-shifter, an idea that resonates in the metaphysical speculations of Leibniz and the lore of Tolkien. To the Vikings, a person’s free acts ultimately conform to a personal blueprint, an absolute essence of self, hugr. Yet, intimate to each was also hamingjur, a personification of a person’s luck. The hamingjur was autonomous and might choose to leave its person, as in our, in fact, Norse expression, “my luck ran out.” Each also had another intimate spirit, a fylgja. Always female, a fylgja was a guardian, who departed a person at death only to wait another host in the same family line.
Beings internal to self, and, to us, strange beings external. There exist written records of legal proceedings against draugar, reanimated corpses, compelling the revenant to once again leave this life. Ships returning to port were required by law to take down their figureheads lest they frighten the spirits of the land. The Viking sense of settlement and order was tied to a bounded place, a gård (from which our word yard is derived), and trolls populated the Utgard, an open space of terror and “supernatural nastiness.”
Personal spirits abounding did not lead to anything like our sense of moral personalism, however. Blood sacrifices were everywhere, and poor dogs and horses bore the brunt, but humans were sacrificed to accompany aristocrats in death. These were not the high-minded self-sacrifices depicted in so much fiction about the Vikings, but murders of young women, accompanied by gang rapes. The violence of the rituals was obscured by bands beating drums to keep disoriented those who knew just what was happening.
Children of Ash and Elm is five hundred pages and includes an extra hundred pages of sources and notes. Yet, I wish more was said about what remains a puzzle, to me, at least. How exactly did such a people convert to Christianity? Runestones record pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the 1000s. Runic inscriptions in Greenland are witness to a developed cult of the Virgin Mary. With conversion, the diet of women improved. Previously, the evidence is boys got better food than girls. Christian graves give the first evidence of children being buried. Mixed religious households were common and reverence for the old gods and rituals continue in places until the thirteenth century. Weirdly, in Iceland, around 1000, the decision to convert was made by the “lawspeaker” during a shamanic ritual. It is not easy to grasp this, nor how a civilization with such a divergent founding myth to the Bible’s came under the latter’s sway. It would be interesting to know what archeology can tell us about how soon after conversion infanticide, human sacrifice, and the battery of women—which Viking law proves was pervasive—started to abate. Arab and Byzantine eyewitness accounts report mass killings of slaves—especially young girls. When did these frenzied events stop?
Some of the most suggestive parts of the book concern the role of play in the civilization. The outlandish Berserkers might not have been a cadre of special forces types going berserk, but more a troupe doing theatrics in masked animal costume in front of the line before battle. Burial ships off the coast of Estonia reveal the dead with chess pieces scattered over them, save one, the man with the worst injuries, who had the King in his mouth. An apocalypse myth, the Ragnarök, “a Viking funeral for the entire cosmos,” concludes with a magnificent new fertile earth, with only one couple left alive. This Norse Adam and Eve emerge from their hiding spot in the forest and all that is left of the old is a meadow upon which, bathed in sun, is a golden chess set. An achingly beautiful image left to us by a fascinating, but frightening, civilization.