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The vikings, lecture 1 (2011)


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The vikings, lecture 1 (2011)

  1. 1. The VikingsScandinavian Expansion, Political Relations, Economy and Culture Between ca. AD 700 - 1100
  2. 2. Introduction  This course concerns the Viking Age, a period often considered to begin sometime around AD 700 and conclude at AD 1100  In this period, profound changes occurred in Scandinavian society  The Scandinavians moved from a political organisation based on small, tribal bands to recognisable kingdoms similar to those of her neighbours in Christian Europe  Moreover, the Scandinavians became Christians themselves and entered fully into European culture and politics  It is therefore important to bear in mind that the Viking Age was not static
  3. 3. Course Structure This course endeavours to outline the main aspects of Scandinavian culture and their impact on their neighbours It begins by considering the sources and the nature of the evidence This is followed by a definition of the Vikings and provides the reasons for the Viking Age being considered to be the period between AD 700 – 1100 The subsequent lectures look at how the Scandinavian settlement in different regions developed, underscoring the relations between Scandinavians and those that they encountered whilst trading, fighting, and colonisation We see considerable variability in different parts of Europe and the North Atlantic as the process of assimilation varied depending on the nature of the political structure and cultures the Scandinavians encountered
  4. 4. Advances in the Studies  Our perceptions of the Scandinavians in the Viking Age have changed profoundly in the last three decades  This has occurred under the impress of new evidence—some of it afforded by the advances in scientific techniques that have resulted in better dating of sites and the recovery of material that has was formerly unknown  More importantly, however, have been the new paradigms and perspectives that have been borrowed from historians, social theorists, and so on  We are now far more inclined to look at the complexities of political and social relations than merely to regard the Vikings as pirates or barbarian despoilers of civilisation
  5. 5. Historical, Literary and Linguistic Sources
  6. 6. Literacy and Distribution of Evidence The Scandinavians were largely illiterate in the Viking Age, with the exception of those that composed runic inscriptions (which were principally used for commemoration) This means that most of the contemporary records concerning the Scandinavians and their exploits were composed by those in the literate cultures that they encountered Accounts by the neighbouring peoples were often written by the clergy and therefore were both pejorative and biased In many instances, they contain a complex admixture of factual accounts of military and political affairs and inaccurate descriptions of the Scandinavians Some are, nonetheless, quite valuable and provide incidental information on dress, custom, names and so forth that correspond with the archaeological and linguistic evidence
  7. 7. Historical Sources  The most reliable sources are the chronicles that were composed in France, England and Ireland  Nonetheless, the passages relating to the Scandinavians are mainly concerned with their military enterprises, with occasional mention of the political manoeuvres of the leaders  As an example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes attacks and battles and has little to say regarding culture, language, and so forth  The same obtains for the French sources that describe the assaults on Normandy and the Low Countries, and the Annals of Ulster that have accounts of Scandinavian attacks and settlement in Ireland (with occasional mention of Scotland and England)
  8. 8. Biases in the Historical Sources It must be recognised at the outset that the historical sources are profoundly biased Firstly, there is the bias of commission: the recording of perspectives, opinions and events by those observing the Scandinavians as outsiders. Usually, they were clerics or court scribes that were hostile to them because they were heathens that were attacking their lands Secondly, there is the bias of omission: the clerics and scribes were often unfamiliar with the traditions, objectives and perspectives of the Scandinavians and therefore did not record their views Another bias is temporal: almost all of these sources refer to the period of aggressive assaults on Western Europe by the Scandinavians and the subsequent period of conversion and assimilation
  9. 9. Ecclesiastical Records  Although the clerics composed biased records, they also sought to faithfully record the beliefs of the pagan people they encountered  This occurred, of course, through the prism of their own beliefs and their cultural milieu, but the records that were composed regarding the religious rites and the pantheon of those whom they set out to convert are often valuable sources of information  The attempts at conversion in Scandinavia and the settlements in Western Europe often resulted in vivid descriptions of the rituals that do much to advance our knowledge
  10. 10. Travellers Accounts Some very important accounts were committed to paper by travellers, usually merchants that encountered the Scandinavians in other parts of Europe Not all were by Christians in Western Europe—one of the most important described the customs and religious observances of Swedes on the River Volga, compiled by the Muslim emissary from the Caliphate of Baghdad named Ibn Fadlan Other accounts come to us from merchants that described their travels to Scandinavian markets, such as that by Ottar (or Othere) at the court of the English king Alfred
  11. 11. Sagas and Medieval Accounts  In the Medieval era—that is to say, after the Viking Age had ended— historical literature began to be produced in Scandinavia  The most remarkable accounts are the Icelandic sagas, which record many traditions and events from the Viking Age  We have, however, become hesitant in accepting their historical accuracy as they were often compiled as literature and do not faithfully record events  Nonetheless, there is much in the literature that is valuable and can be teased out through studies of grammar and correlation with archaeological evidence
  12. 12. The Sagas and Religion Some of the sagas are especially valuable, such as the descriptions of religious beliefs recorded in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda It is important to bear in mind that these were Icelandic documents and therefore describe beliefs and traditions current in western Scandinavia The beliefs of those in eastern Scandinavia, although likely sharing some broad similarities, differed for there some cults were more popular than in Norway and Iceland Only the rather turgid Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in Denmark affords information on the religious customs of eastern Scandinavia
  13. 13. Runic Inscriptions  The rune stones provide a special class of literary evidence  Such stones were principally erected to commemorate a death or some sort of significant personal event and offer little historical information  Most follow the model of proclaiming that a certain individual died abroad and the name of the person that raised the stone  Some of the runes, such as that at Jelling, do record significant political occurrences such as the Christianisation of Denmark  Other runes are encountered on weapons and were intended as magical charms
  14. 14. Place Names Important evidence for Scandinavian settlement in the Viking Age is provided by place names, or toponymic studies This indicates the intensity of settlement and also affords a sense of whether the colonists were rapidly assimilated or retained their identities It is also possible to distinguish older and later settlements by the place names, and the nature of the site The place names in Scandinavia also indicate the function and scale of the site, but more information can be gleaned here: the place names also reveal political and religious structure as well as topographical information
  15. 15. Survival of Scandinavian Words in Dialect  Another source of information regarding the extent and influence of Scandinavian settlement in the Viking Age are the number of loan words  Many Scandinavian loan words have been incorporated into English, but some regional dialects preserve more of these than others and reflect the intensity of settlement  In Scotland, the number of loan words in the dialects of the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands are the largest  Nonetheless, Lowland Scots has also incorporated a large quantity of Scandinavian words, possibly through an influx of Anglo-Scandinavian settlers sometime around AD 1000 in the Borders and the Lothians  We should not forget that Scandinavian words are more prevalent in some specialised occupations such as sailing and
  16. 16. The Archaeological Evidence
  17. 17. Advances in Dating Techniques The development of techniques by which we can accurately date features has been one of the most important developments in archaeological research Although the significance of this is perhaps least for the study of the Medieval period (including the Viking Age), it has transformed the approach to excavation of sites entirely We were formerly only able to date sites in relation to one another—that is to say, we could say if they were older, younger or roughly contemporary with another site This required us to dig trenches through sites to establish the stratigraphic situation of finds in relation to one another, or in other words, their relationship expressed as z on a graph A series of trenches, however, often missed vital evidence of the relationship between features as expressed as x and y Without the relationship between features expressed as x and y, the structure of settlements is poorly understood
  18. 18. Rescue Excavations  Another important advances has come through government development policy, requiring some construction work to be preceded by archaeological investigations  This has provided an opportunity to investigate sites that would ordinarily be inaccessible, chiefly those in urban environments  The excavations at York, for instance, have contributed profoundly to our understanding of the Scandinavian occupation of the city and the nature of urban sites  Similar policies have been followed in most nations, resulting in a tremendous increase in our knowledge  Moreover, the requirement for excavations before major infrastructure projects has also led us to investigate areas that were formerly not the object of research and has led to a steady accretion of evidence
  19. 19. Palaeoenvironmental Studies The advances in the study of the ancient environment have provided vital information concerning the economy of the Viking Age and the human impact on the landscape We can clearly distinguish the episode of the first settlement on the marginal landscapes of the North Atlantic, such as Iceland, Greenland and the Faeroe Islands An expansion of settlement, and a change in economic structure, is also detectable in the Hebrides and the Northern Isles Nonetheless, the methods have been applied widely and have afforded important information on the economy and conditions of settlement throughout the region impacted by the Scandinavians in the Viking Age We are able, for instance, to discuss hygiene, forest management, fuel supplies,
  20. 20. Other Scientific Developments  Archaeologists seldom develop scientific methods for the analysis of material themselves, so they are largely dependent on the innovations of other disciplines for novel methods of investigating their finds  One of the disciplines that has advanced quickly is genetics and we are only now beginning to see the applications of these studies to the archaeological record  It is now possible to extract DNA from ancient human remains and the genetic codes of different populations are being compared, as well as the scale of genetic flow into different regions  Work by those in nuclear medicine, using stable isotopes and chemical trace elements, have been important to the reconstruction of the diet and also the identification of the birthplace of those whose human remains are under analysis
  21. 21. Interpretive Paradigms
  22. 22. Social Structure Although the advances in scientific techniques for the study of archaeological remains has had a profound influence on our understanding of the Viking Age, the changing perspectives of the Scandinavians themselves has been of paramount significance for the new insights into this era We have been slowly discarding the image of the Vikings as little more than pirates— we have a more nuanced appreciation of the structure of Scandinavian society between AD 700 – AD 1100 and have begun to look at internal relations Moreover, we have also come to see the Scandinavians as merchants and peaceful colonists that quickly assimilated into many cultures and left an indelible mark on their host societies
  23. 23. Vikings and the East  The Scandinavian expansion into Eastern Europe has also risen to the forefront of research interest, as it is clear that this occurred before the Viking Age began and was of considerable importance in the creation of wealth in Scandinavia as it provided access to the wealth of the great civilisations of the Middle East  We are becoming more familiar with the Scandinavian contribution to the opening of Russia and the Ukraine, but also with their activities in the Baltic at large  The absorption of the Scandinavians into Russian culture and the part they played in the emergence of the Medieval state of Russia is a point of tremendous controversy and is the subject of great interest
  24. 24. Vikings and Their Neighbours The raids on different nations is also being seen differently, namely, as a response to opportunities afforded by the social structure of those people that were attacked or the large markets of Continental Europe Many of the assaults on Scotland and Ireland are now regarded as raids designed to acquire slaves for sale in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms or in France, where there was an insatiable appetite for this commodity Similarly, the weakness of some of the kingdoms provided an irresistible attraction to some of the Scandinavians, but it must not be forgotten that there was an internal compulsion in the Scandinavian homelands for expansion because of political instability and violence Much of this had to do with the nascent state formation occurring in Scandinavia
  25. 25. State Formation  One of the most important changes in our view of the Viking Age concerns the process of state formation in Scandinavia  This has been seen as one of the main reasons for the sustained attacks on their neighbours—the homelands provided little opportunity for low-level nobles and many residents found life brutal, short and uncertain  A trend towards warlords dominating larger and larger regions, undoubtedly through warfare, also afforded an opportunity for greater levels of organisation  It must be remembered, too, that the prestige based society that arose also required large quantities of wealth for distribution to loyal retainers, forcing further assaults
  26. 26. The North Atlantic