Vikings, lecture 3


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Vikings, lecture 3

  1. 1. The Vikings at HomeSocial Structure and Political Institutions of the Scandinavian Communities
  2. 2. Social Structure In this lecture, we shall look at the social structure of Scandinavia in the first half of the Viking Age (AD 700 – AD 900) This shall also encompass an overview of relations amongst the regions and peoples of Scandinavia and their immediate neighbours to the south, east and west Let us consider the most fundamental aspects of the social structure in Scandinavia: sex and labour divisions, patterns in land ownership, craft specialisation, and hierarchical organisation It remains to be demonstrated that these patterns were shared across this vast region and evolved at the same rate
  3. 3. Sources  At the outset, it is worth enumerating the nature of the sources which provide us with an insight into social structure  At the risk of over-simplification, we can arrange the sources in the following broad categories: 1.Archaeological 2.Textual 3.Mythical 4.Literary  Each of these affords only a partial perspective and introduces a series of biases inherent to their basic premises
  4. 4. Archaeological Evidence The incompleteness and randomness of the textual evidence, along with the many interpretive difficulties inherent in the mythical and literary sources, has compelled many to privilege the evidence deriving from archaeological investigations This evidence is, however, also potentially problematic Although the archaeological evidence may be regarded as objective, it has no meaning in itself and must be situated into an interpretive framework for it to acquire significance for understanding social relations It would be incorrect and misleading to suggest that the archaeological evidence is not interpreted within a framework that is partly built on textual, mythical and literary sources
  5. 5. Inferences
  6. 6. Textual Evidence  A reasonable quantity of documents exist that describe Scandinavia and Scandinavians in the first phase of the Viking Age  Many of them were descriptions made by the clergy in their attempts to spread Christianity to the heathen lands  The political circumstances are outlined by Frankish sources as the nascent Danish kings came into conflict with Charlemagne and his descendants  Unflattering descriptions are also offered by Arabic sources
  7. 7. Problems of Interpretation The principal problems that arise in using the textual sources describing Scandinavia and Scandinavians in the Viking Age are that they are culturally biased and incomplete Biases arise from the attitudes of the chroniclers towards pagan societies, but also towards less urbane and sophisticated cultures Sometimes the biases are introduced by the nature of their relations: the Frankish sources are content to merely describe the political circumstances that brought them into conflict with Scandinavians The incompleteness is also a problem, as they are usually short and we know little of the places or people that they are describing in any detail
  8. 8. Mythical Sources  In some circles, particularly those of the French sociological schools that trace their descent from Émile Durkheim, it is suggested that the myths convey vital information concerning social organisation and the ideal relationships amongst social groups  As the pagan Scandinavian societies were illiterate, none of their practices nor their beliefs were recorded  We know of their religious life only through myths recorded in the Icelandic Sagas and the historical writings of the Scandinavian chroniclers from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries  It is therefore difficult to be certain of the authenticity of the beliefs and customs recorded in these sources
  9. 9. Populating the Scandinavian World One of the more curious mythical accounts is the tenth century poem entitled Rígsþula (The Song of Rig) which outlines the origin of three divinely ordained social classes: slaves or bondsmen, freemen, and rulers In this myth, the deity Heimdall is identified as the father of all mankind This account is partly at odds with other mythical traditions, but this should not reduce its value—the important aspect of this tale is the identification in broad terms of different social classes which must have appeared quite natural to those hearing the poem
  10. 10. Literary Sources  The richness of the Icelandic Sagas has tempted many generations of scholars to regard them as accurate accounts of the Viking Age  This assumption was comprehensively demolished by the Swedish scholars Curt Weibull and Lauritz Weibull and the Norwegian scholar Halvdan Koht in their studies  Many of the accounts were jettisoned as historical sources and seen instead as literary embellishments with no value for proper historiography  Nonetheless, even in these accounts there is the possibility of identifying recurring themes that might not reflect history in our strict use of the term, but instead represent the prevailing social structure
  11. 11. Sex and Age DistinctionsIdentifying the Division of Labour Based on Sex and Age in the Viking Age
  12. 12. The Mortuary Evidence In the reconstruction of social relationships and hierarchy, archaeologists privilege the mortuary record above all else This is because it is assumed that the social status of an individual is reflected in the investment of labour lavished on the disposal of the corpse The mortuary traditions of Scandinavia in the earlier Viking Age are, however, diverse and this may not correlate closely with status on every occasion Some of the diversity is probably attributable to religious affiliation, whereas others may represent regionally favoured traditions if not aspects of life and death that we could not reconstruct from the archaeological evidence alone
  13. 13. Distinctions Based on Sex  The most fundamental social divisions are those based on sex and age  In the mortuary record of Scandinavia, however, there is little evidence of sexual distinctions  Graves and cremations of men and women are similar, and high status mortuary features such as the ship burials are not specific to any sex  The only differences in the graves and cremations are grave good, but only those of incidental significance: these are usually the result of men and women being buried in their clothes and jewellery and do not represent any deliberate inclusion or omission of any grave goods
  14. 14. Sexual Distinctions: Other Sources But what do we know about the sexual distinctions obtaining in Scandinavian society from other sources ? The textual, literary and mythical sources provide valuable insights into the social distinctions and division of labour between men and women in the Viking Age As a rule, women in Scandinavian society enjoyed many rights and were largely the equals of men in most respects Evidence corroborating this statement largely derives from the literary, textual and mythical sources
  15. 15. The Account of the Rus  A description of the Scandinavians along the Russian and Ukrainian rivers, known to the indigenous population as the Rus, was written by the Ibn Fadlan  He was sent by the Caliphate of Baghdad with an embassy to the King of the Bulgars on the middle stretches of the River Volga in AD 921  We shall return to this account in more detail, especially for its vivid description of burial rituals, but for the moment let us consider its statements concerning the status and treatment of women
  16. 16. Dress and Status The status of the women seems to be largely dependent on the wealth of the husband: Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband Distribution of wealth at death is described thus: They burn him in this fashion: they leave him for the first ten days in a grave. His possessions they divide into three parts: one part for his daughters and wives This last statement suggests polygamy, but it is not encountered in any other sources Perhaps Ibn Fadlan did not distinguish between a wife and a concubine, or that there were customs prevalent in the east that are not recorded elsewhere
  17. 17. Priestesses  Ibn Fadlan then describes a priestess, responsible for the sacrifice of the slave girl: Then came an old woman whom they call the Angel of Death, and she spread upon the couch the furnishings mentioned. It is she who has charge of the clothes making and arranging all things, and it is she who kills the girl slave. I saw that she was a strapping old woman, fat an louring  This suggests (and there is no reason to doubt the account) that females were also responsible for the administration of religious rites  We have similar testimony from Tacitus and other classical writers, describing rites over which females officiated
  18. 18. Rulers and Aristocrats  It appears, from both the written and archaeological evidence, that women were full members of the aristocratic circles  The most salient example of this is afforded by the extraordinarily rich ship burial at Oseberg, in Norway  This contained the remains of a woman that oral tradition identifies as Queen Ása  Inside the mound was a skeleton of a woman, so this is consistent with the oral tradition  Most of all, though, it reveals that a womans status was not governed exclusively by her sex but her family connexions and marriage
  19. 19. Oseberg Mound
  20. 20. Oseberg Carriage
  21. 21. Oseberg Tapestry
  22. 22. Status DistinctionsSocial Hierarchy, Class Distinction and Political Structure
  23. 23. Bondsmen and Freemen  Men and women could be free (bondi and karls) or be slaves (thrall for males, ambett for females)  It is difficult to discriminate between freemen and bondsmen through the archaeological record  Many of the burials and cremations, for instance, were simple and lacked grave goods of any note  This was presumably identical for the lower levels of the freemen and bondsmen  It is nonetheless possible to associate different social classes with certain settlements and houses
  24. 24. Common Mortuary Traditions
  25. 25. Ladby, Fyn