Where are the Women? A Discussion on the Role of Theory in Historical Analysis

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If you need a good medieval woman, look no further than St. Hildegard von Bingen.

Greetings and salutations!

These last several months I have been furiously applying to and visiting graduate schools for Medieval Studies programs, and now that this has died down I thought I would take the time to talk over something that I find both interesting and troubling. Specifically, the use of theories. (Warning, Academic Mode on High.)

Now to set up the framework of this discussion, a theory is a way to organize a discussion/book/article/etc. so that it can be more easily understood by others engaging with your text. It also acts as an analytical framework to help the author discuss the questions he or she is trying to solve, or at least pick apart. Let’s use as an example Marxist theory. Marxist theory can be applied to an analysis of economic and political history to help frame the discussion around issues of class and socio-economic status. But dear reader, you may be wondering: how does Marxist theory apply to what you talk about normally, like Vikings and Medievals and such. And I would answer that it doesn’t. It’s anachronistic to the Medieval Period, and any period before Marx was alive and writing. However, there would be those among the academic community who would consider me close-minded, and that using different theories like feminist, queer, Marxist, etc. help broaden the mind and elucidate certain neglected areas of history. Now I’m not denying that feminist theories have certainly generated a lot of useful discussions and literature on the role of women in various past societies, but I think it might be a mistake to blanket laud such efforts without understanding how to properly apply theories in the first place.

So, I’m going to do something that will probably piss off a large portion of the internet, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to take a critical view of feminist analysis of history in order to elucidate my point about the role of theories, and why in my view they should really be guidelines and idea generators, not frameworks on which to base an entire argument and discussion.

Let’s start with a base argument I heard recently and pick it apart. The discussion was that in x period historians used to think that only men went to church (these presumably were male historians), and that now that we have feminist and minority theory we know that women and children were also going to church. Therefore, feminist theories benefit the historiography (or the history of history writing) because they help us see history for what it truly was.

Now, this whole argument seems absurd to me for multiple reasons. First of all, it can be easily argued that these male authors were using a theory/view point of their own: namely a male-centric theory (my own term), and this theory clouded their analysis of the history they were studying. Can it not also be argued that, taken to the extreme, feminist theory can also cloud the historian’s analysis of the material? If one takes feminist theory in order to only find women in history and ignore men, then they will not see the material for the nuances within it, only lots of feminist things. What I mean, in short, is that in both cases the historians are using their own opinions and biases to shape the history before them into something that agrees with their world view. This is an inherently flawed approach because it does not take into account the culture and world view of the people and history being studied.

Indeed, in the above discussion of church attending, no mention was made of what the sources from the period say, or how we may interpret said sources. Perhaps the male authors only saw men being mentioned in the historical texts, and presumed from that evidence that only men went to church. This would be a narrow, but not inaccurate reading of the material. A more nuanced reading would be to say: “Well, this says only men went to church, but based on what I know of writing in this period – that the writing was all done by men and that they really only mention men in the writing – perhaps women are being left out of the picture.” That is sort of a feminist theory, but look at it more closely. I’m not saying: “Look at those men neglecting the important lives of women.” I’m only saying: “Perhaps women were there. I cannot say with certainty whether they were there or not, because the sources did not tell me.” I would perhaps have to look at archeological evidence (maybe there’s a spindle left on the floor in the church?), or try and read between the lines of certain texts for one or two mentions of women. Maybe, when they meant by church, they meant the main area of the church, and women stood segregated to the side. Or, maybe women held services of their own somewhere else. But these are all nice, women-ego-supporting guesses. Without physical evidence to support these other theories, all that we can say for certain is that, with the materials given to us by the past authors, men went to church. And I don’t find this conclusion bad at all. To me, it simply tells me what life was like in the past. My opinion doesn’t matter to the ancients. Their culture was what it was.

And that, dead reader, is what an historian does. A historian’s job is to OBJECTIVELY read the source material and tell others what it says.

Let’s take a step back. You may be wondering: but blog writer, how can you say this if you are a women? And I’ll say right back that I am a woman, and have always been a woman, and feel very satisfied in my womanliness. I do not need to bring the male patriarchy of the past down because I do not feel threatened by it.  I can still be a strong, kick-butt, independent woman and acknowledge that in the history I study men were in charge of politics and society (that’s the Middle Ages in my case). When I was writing my honors thesis for my undergraduate degree, one of my female professors suggested that instead of analyzing religion and politics, I look at the role of women in the Viking world. She was basically telling me that instead of using a religion theory, I should use feminist theory to frame my discussion of history. But I did not look at my writing in that way. I looked at the influence of religion and politics in the reigns of Olav Tryggvason and St. Olav Haraldsson because that was where the sources led me. If religion had had no impact on their reigns, then I would not have included it. And if I saw that women had had a role in their success, then I would have included it in the narrative.

Think of it like painting: I included religion like one includes green to show the color of the leaves in a tree they are trying to paint from life. Without the color green, the leaves would not be there, and you would see a bare tree (even though I was standing in front of a full tree when I painted it). And if I thought that everything should be in feminist blue, then I would paint the scene blue, or I would only paint the sky, but in either case the image would not show how the scene I based the painting on actually looked. It’s a style, to be sure, and many have done it. But I’m going for the objective, natural look to my paintings. I see a brown tree with green leaves and a blue sky, and so I will give you a painting with all the colors accurately represented. Thus, I think that if one is to include women in history, and by all means we should, we should do so in order to portray as accurate a picture of history as possible, NOT because we think women should have been more prominent in the history.

For instance, there are many prominent women in Viking and Anglo-Saxon history. King Ethelred II’s wife, Emma of Normandy, is one of them, and we know this in part because she had a biographer record her life. However, this text was written after Cnut conquered England, and thus it was just enough beyond my study of the Olavs’ reigns that I did not feel it was pertinent to include it. But here’s the thing: accounts of women’s lives in general in the Middle Ages are comparatively few and often written by men. That’s an inescapable fact. You are lucky when you get writings from women on women’s topics. Do I rage at the system because of this fact? No, that would accomplish nothing, and it would show my lack of understanding of Medieval culture. Rather than blame the past, we should instead look at it and say, “It is clear that Medieval society did not treat women as equal to men. Yet, despite this, we see accounts of women and know what women were doing during this period. So what does that say about how they thought of women, and how women thought of themselves? How did women break barriers in order to be seen and heard? What has been lost to history that we can infer from the writings we do have?” These are the sort of questions we should be asking, and I think when we do ask them, we can gain a lot of useful information about medieval society as a whole, which in turn helps us understand why historical events occurred as they did.

For example, from reading early conversions narratives of the Frankish kingdoms and what became England, it seems that in several cases it was the queens who converted to Christianity first, and then convinced their husbands. Were they the ones making the decrees for mass conversion? No. But they knew that their husband could, and so worked through them to enact social change. That phrasing, however, turns the king into just a physical object (something that normally is done to women), so let’s change the wording a bit, shall we? Yes, the queens often converted first, for innumerable reasons not told to us by the authors at the time, and perhaps unknowable to all but the individual herself. Then, after multiple factors such as seeing their wife’s faith, hearing the missionary speak, and thinking over the political ramifications of the act, etc., the king too converted. Of course, we do see cases where popes would send goodies to the queen in order to help convince her to convert her husband, so we know that some people were trying to use others like objects. But we also have mixed evidence of the effectiveness of such tactics. Because women know when they’re being used as tools, and I bet you that a powerful women would have understood the political ramifications of converting her husband to Christianity as much as her husband did. But do you see? Even in parsing out this idea of how these kings and queens converted, we’ve gained a nuanced view of the role of women while still acknowledging that men still had more political power than their wives did.

I could go on and list to you the number of women we do know of in medieval history and literature who kicked major ass and took names despite the fact that socially and politically men were more powerful. There are quite a number of them. We see it over and over again. But I think to judge the Middle Ages because of its male-dominated society is to not understand that the world is rarely as black and white as “men all-powerful, women all-downtrodden”. Factors such as culture, wealth, status, education, ambition, and opportunity all play in a role in the way anyone, man or woman, becomes someone that history remembers. But acknowledging these factors does not diminish this history or the people who were in it. Rather, it helps us understand how these people were able to do what they did and how their society functioned. A good historian does not judge the past, because then the historian is placing his or her societal norms on a completely different culture. A good historian sees the history for what it is and helps bring out a clearer understanding of that history through his or her writing. Perhaps being objective then, is a theory, but I would prefer to call it a methodology. I can use certain theories to help me think in new ways about the history I’m reading, but when I neglect the history itself for the theory is when I go astray from my purpose.

 

That’s all for now! Feel free to have courteous but invigorating discussions in the comments.

-The Valkyrie

Leif Erikson Day and the Man Behind It

Greetings and Salutations, dear readers. And, Happy Leif Erikson Day! Yes, this day, October 9, is when we Americans celebrate the famed Icelandic explorer who discovered America in 1000 AD.  I had the great honor of speaking to a Sons of Norway Lodge last week for their celebration of Leif Erikson Day, and in preparing for that speech I found out some very interesting things about our friend Leif.  And so I will now share them with you!

  1. Google it! 

The internet never ceases to amaze me. If you type in “Leif Erikson Day” into the Google Search bar you get three glorious things: the Wikipedia article for Leif Erikson Day, which has some little known facts; the US President’s yearly proclamation of Leif Erikson Day; and images or videos of the Leif Erikson Day episode on SpongeBob Squarepants (and I think I’m dating myself when I say that I remember when that episode aired).

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  1. The Origin of Leif Erikson Day

According to Wikipedia, the idea of a Leif Erikson Day was first championed by a man named Rasmus B. Anderson, who had written the book America Not Discovered by Columbus in 1874. His work supported the theories of several earlier scholars, such as Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen, but Anderson was the one who helped create the holiday in Wisconsin in 1930 (not a big surprise there). Minnesota followed suit a year later (again, no surprise). However, it was not until 1964 that Leif Erikson Day became a national holiday in the United States, and Congress required that the president make an annual proclamation of the holiday. So every president after LBJ has had to proclaim Leif Erikson Day in writing. I find this to be pretty hilarious.

  1. Leif Erikson Day is a strictly American holiday

This means, therefore, that Leif Erikson is a strictly AMERICAN holiday, created by Norwegian Americans to celebrate their heritage. Yeh,‘Murica!

  1. The President’s Proclamation

And it gets better. The President’s yearly proclamation is nothing short of amazing to read. I’ll include this year’s proclamation for you, in case you’re interested. I guess we can’t actually have Leif Erikson Day if the president doesn’t announce it, so here’s your proof. Go eat Lutefisk now.

  1. The Date

According to the president’s proclamation, October 9th doesn’t have anything to do with Leif Erikson! It was chosen because it was on that date in 1825 that the ship Restauration arrived in New York City from Stavanger, Norway – which the first organized immigration of Norwegians to America. The nineteenth century saw a huge influx of Scandinavian immigrants to the United States, many of which settled in the Midwest in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. For the descendants of these immigrants, Leif Erikson was and is an important figure to them, which is why they lobbied for it to be a national holiday in the United States.

I take back my sarcasm earlier. That is actually pretty cool.  Go Norwegian Americans!

  1. COLUMBUS WAS NOT FIRST

I really hope this blog is not the first place you are hearing this, but it bears repeating: COLUMBUS WAS NOT THE FIRST TO DISCOVER AMERICA. Leif Erikson found the coast of Canada in 1000 AD, about 500 years BEFORE Columbus. We suspect the place that he landed was current day Newfoundland (ingenious name), and he called it Vinland because of the grape vines growing there (the global climate was warmer back then). Indeed, archaeologists have found remains of a Viking village in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland which dates from the same period. So we have proof that Vikings were in Canada long before Columbus could toddle by and mistake America for India.

Also, while I’m on the subject, one of the reasons Norwegian Americans wanted to create Leif Erikson Day was to help raise awareness that he was the first to discover America. So tell me again why we have still have Columbus Day in the US, and why we get a day off for it and NOT for Leif Erikson Day? Have we learned nothing?!

  1. Leif was not Norwegian (sort of)

Despite all the Norwegian-American hoopla over Leif Erikson Day, Leif wasn’t actually Norwegian – well, it’s complicated. To make a long story short: in the Viking period we really can’t assign nationalities because it was during and after Leif’s lifetime that we see stable kingdoms begin to form in Scandinavia. Furthermore, most historians would balk at the idea that Vikings had a sense of nationalism and specific cultural identity before the formation of these kingdoms. That aside, many Scandinavians still like to take credit for “X Viking” or “Y Viking” who came from their homeland (e.g. Sweden, Norway, etc.).  So was Leif from what is today Norway? Well, no, he wasn’t. Leif was born in Iceland. HOWEVER, Iceland was founded by Norwegians during the Viking Era who fled their homeland for various reasons. So the original inhabitants of Iceland were really Norwegians. Technically speaking, both Iceland and Norway could claim Leif Erikson. But perhaps I’m splitting hairs a little too much.

  1. A Simple Accident

According to accounts from the period, most notably the Heimskringla, Leif found North America by accident!! Yep, that’s right. He got lost on his way back to Greenland!

“King Olav (in the year 1000) sent… Leif Eiriksson to Greenland.

He found men on a shipwreck in the sea and saved them. Then he discovered also Vinland the Good, and came that same summer to Greenland. He had brought with him a priest and other learned men, and went to Brattahlid to his father Eirik, in order to live there. Thereafter people called him Leif the Lucky.”

From the Heimskringla, quoted in The Norse Discovery of America, vol. 2, by Helge Ingstad, pg. 78.

I guess he wasn’t that different from Columbus. If nothing else, it should make us all glad we have GPS nowadays.

  1. He came with priests!

As it turns out, we Americans have popularized only half the story. According to our lovely Heimskringla (see above quote), Leif Erikson traveled to Norway in 999, where he was baptized at King Olav Tryggvason’s court and stayed the winter. The next spring, King Olav I sent Leif back to Greenland, with several priests, to convert the colony to Christianity.

For a brief bit of context here: Olav Tryggvason had come to power in Norway in 995, and had united most of Norway under his rule in about a year. His campaign of conversion and unification would forever change Norway, as he was the first Norwegian king to successfully unite all of Norway under Christianity and a single king.  One way he was able to unite Norway so successfully was by using Christianity to cement ties of loyalty with local leaders (for more on this, read Anders Winroth’s The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and the Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe). He would baptize local chieftains and act as their godfather, which would create a familial relationship between them. The lands ruled by those chieftains then became Olav’s, even if each chieftain still ruled directly over his lands. By accepting baptism at Olav Tryggvason’s court, Leif brought Greenland into Olav’s Norwegian kingdom, and became Olav’s vassal. Before this, Greenland was an independent colony, ruled only by its founder and chieftain, Erik the Red, who was Leif’s father. So Leif’s return to Greenland was a very significant event in the history of Greenland and Norway. And when he accidentally ran into North America on his way home, it became a historical event for America too.

  1. Chieftain of a Colony

Thanks to the Heimskringla, we also know that Leif became chieftain over the colony in Greenland after his father’s death, and that he remained in contact with the kings of Norway for the next 20 years. And by 1024, Greenland was conformed as a Christian kingdom. Not bad for one Viking explorer.

And there, now you know a little bit more about Leif Erikson, and the day on which we celebrate his achievements.

-The Valkyrie

PS: Just for fun, here’s that episode from SpongeBob!

A Brief Update from the Valkyrie

Greetings and salutations dear readers!

Forgive me that I disappeared for months. No, I didn’t go to Avalon. I made up my mind to go to graduate school next fall for Medieval History, and thus I was very busy getting research completed for that process. It was really a decision of WHEN, more than an IF, because this has been a dream of mine for a long time. But once that decision was made I then had to find  the right programs at the right schools. Let me tell you the process has not been easy, but a very rewarding challenge nonetheless. I’m so excited to begin this new chapter! Dr. Valkyrie here I come!

I also started taking classes in French and German (the former for review, the latter as a beginner) for grad school as well. So between applications, language classes, and work, I have been quite busy of late. Indeed, I may be spotty on this site until at least January, but it’s for a good cause, I assure you.

In other news, I finished a period accurate Viking gown, including leather shoes, and I will be posting a blog about that shortly. However, I have two lectures on Viking history to give this week, so bear with me while I prepare for that. But soon my description of that project will be up, with pictures!

That’s all for now. Thank you to all of you, following or not, who have visited this site in the past few months! You are the reason I write this blog. I hope it continues to be beneficial for you.

-The Valkyrie

Viking Clothing: A Brief Overview

Greetings, all! Sorry to be a bit late with this one.

Last weekend I had the privilege to attend a lecture on medieval clothing by Gale Owen-Crocker, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Manchester and is an expert in Anglo-Saxon clothing and literature. She has become famous among the reenacting and historically minded communities for her research, and it was through my connection to that community that I heard about the event.  It was just fascinating and I learned so much from her about medieval clothing production and dress. Coincidentally, I recently finished reading a book called Silk for the Vikings by Marianne Vedeler, who is an Associate Professor in Archeology at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. I very much enjoyed the book and I recommend you buy it if you find this post, Viking trade, or Archeology at all interesting. With these two recent events in my mind, and with the number of questions I am asked at the Field Museum about my spinning, I thought I would share what I know about Viking clothing and textile production.

Now, as a small disclaimer, clothing and textiles in the Viking period is not my primary area of research, though I do research and practice period hand crafts like spinning and historical garment construction. I will be drawing primarily on the work of Professors Gale Owen-Crocker and Marianne Vedeler for this article.

Viking Clothing: Form, Function, and Production

Clothing. It’s what keeps us from running around naked. But more importantly, it serves as an outlet for personal identity. Clothing, or rather fashion, serves as a marker of socio-economic class, culture, and status. Perhaps many people in the US will throw on a pair of jeans and a shirt and think nothing of it, but most of us understand the importance of dressing nice for a job interview or that someone wearing a fur coat is most likely very rich. We can identify on sight the difference between a businessman, a movie star, and a hipster. As well, people from different cultures and faiths have different standards as to what is appropriate and not appropriate to wear. While past people and cultures clothed themselves in different ways than today, they too wore certain items to denote status, wealth, gender, and personality.

The main problem with studying Viking clothing, as with many other aspects of Viking history and culture, is that we know so very little about it.  Viking art depicts few images of human beings in common clothes of the day, and what images we do have were not drawn with a sense of scale or anatomical accuracy. Similarly, few Viking clothes survive except for fragments behind broaches or large “cakes” – piles of fabric buried in graves which over time became fused together as the fabric decayed. Placement of jewelry, pins, and other items on human remains in graves give some indication for how the Vikings dressed, but not a lot. Gale Owen-Crocker indicated that portions of her reconstructions of Anglo-Saxon garments were entirely speculative – such as the backs of garments or the length of skirts. Were there laces in the back of dresses? Fancy designs? How baggy were their pants? What did their underwear look like? Because of the lack of archeological evidence and the style of drawing in the medieval period, we just don’t know how aspects of their clothing looked, and by extension, how they were patterned, sewn, fastened, and worn.

The written evidence for clothing in the Viking period is equally sparse, from what I’ve read of the literature. This lack of evidence can be explained by several factors. First, the majority of the written evidence we have about the Vikings was written by foreigners or Scandinavians who lived after the Viking period, and these authors seemed more concerned with deeds than dress (did I mention they were all men?). Only the exceptional was considered worth recording, such as a particularly fine garment or a rather strange one. The fact that Ragnar Lothbrok was called “Lothbrok,” or “Hairy-Breeches,” means that most people did not wear pants like he did. Now and again we will hear of someone wearing an especially beautiful garment, or wearing lots of precious silk, but there is nothing indicating HOW the garments looked or how they were constructed.  But then again, if you were to record a very important event now-a-days, it would be weird to mention clothes in great detail unless what the person was wearing was exceptional. For instance, you would not say “the President spoke on the TV tonight, and he was wearing a suit.” We all know that a president in Western European culture is supposed to wear a suit. But you might point out that he was wearing a bright poka-dot tie because that is not what you normally see a president wearing. Similarly, if he was wearing a gold plated tie, you would note the wealth he is displaying. It’s not quite the same analogy because we display wealth and status slightly differently in today’s world, but I hope the general idea makes sense. The chroniclers and saga writers did not write down the specifics of clothing because to them it was normal, everyday fare.

Similarly, there is not a lot that we know about clothing production and design in the Viking period. This fact may be due in part because women were responsible for the majority of clothing production. Historian and editor Nanna Løkka points out that women stand at the margins of saga literature and historiography, and that because of this fact much of women’s contributions to Viking life has been lost. I have not had the chance to read the anthology that Nanna Løkka coedited called Kvinner i vikingtid (“Viking Age Women”) – because it’s in Norwegian – but from what I could glean about the book’s contents it seems to be a very informative work about Viking women’s contribution to history and daily life. I feel very strongly about including daily life in the study of historical cultures, and that aspects of history like religion, warfare, and politics cannot be fully understood without knowledge about how the average man and women lived, ate, dressed, and produced products. So with that in mind, let’s look a little at what we know about clothing and textile production in the Viking Age.

How Clothing Was Made

The majority of what the Vikings wore was wool and linen cloth – especially wool.  According to Gale Owen-Crocker, medieval sheep shed wool year round, which could be picked off the sheep the way we pick hair off our dogs. The resulting fibers are softer because they are not cut like modern sheep hair. From there, the wool is combed to prepare the fibers for spinning. Spinning throughout the medieval period was done on a drop-spindle, which is at its most basic level a stick with a stone attached to it which acts as a fly-wheel and makes it spin faster. Spinning wheels were not introduced until after the Viking period and even then they never fully caught on. In the Viking period, therefore, all of the threads needed for weaving were twisted – aka spun – by hand. This is a long process which requires teasing out the wool fibers to the right thickness so that they catch the spin of the spindle. From analysis of wool fibers in Viking burial finds, fabric had single and double warp threads (which means two threads were spun together, or triple the work), depending on the thickness and strength required. It takes many many hours to make a decent amount of thread, as I know from experience as a spinner. Spinning flax into linen is the same process as spinning wool fibers, but turning the flax plant into fibers that one can spin is a much more labor intensive process. My understanding is that it involves soaking the flax plants to separate out the fibers desired for cloth making, but to be honest I am much less of an expert on the subject. As for silk, we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Here’s a video from an expert spinner and researcher, Lois Swales, who is demonstrating Viking spinning techniques:

After the fibers are spun out into yarn, they are then woven into garments. Viking looms were warp weighted looms, meaning that the warp (or vertical) threads were tied to doughnut-shaped stones so that they would hang taught for weaving. Weavers then took weaving swords and moved another thread horizontally through the separated warp threads. Different designs could be made in the weaving by adding several bars to the middle of the loom to separate out the warp threads in different patterns. For smaller ribbons and border trims, weavers would use small tablet looms, in which the threads were pulled through holes in square cards and then the weaver twisted the cards to open different pockets in the warp threads (like what the bars did on the larger loom). In this way the weavers made complicated patterns, some of which have been found in remaining textile fragments.

To get a scale of how much time and effort textile production took, here’s a small excerpt from an interview with Viking Historian Nanna Løkka on Viking women (quoted in an article by Cathinka Dahl Hambro):

“The textile production was probably organised hierarchically, where women supervised other women in extensive collaborative work. Løkka adds, ‘The larger Viking ships used 100 square meter sized sails. In order to produce that, the women needed 200 kilos of wool from approximately 2000 sheep, and it required hundreds of working hours. We are talking about more than just a small-scale family business.’”

Main article: http://www.medievalists.net/2015/04/15/the-viking-women-who-disappeared/

Therefore, because of the effort, cost, and availability materials for textile production, of most of what the Vikings wore would have been made at home or in the community with products which could be produced locally. Linen, made from the flax plant, worked well as undergarments and clothing which directly touched the skin, because it was easy to wash. Wool contains oils which make the textile slightly waterproof, and it is also harder to wash (like today, right?). Therefore, wool would be worn for outer garments the way that we wear coats or sweaters today. Silk cloth was reserved for the wealthy, since it was produced abroad and was extremely hard to make. I will not go into the details of silk production, but from what I gather from Vedeler’s book and other sources silk worms can be very finicky creatures.

Vedeler’s book, Silk for Vikings, discusses her analysis of the silk artifacts in Oseberg ship burial, which was one of the richest Viking burials ever discovered. She also discusses the silk trade and silk production in the Viking Age, and how it related to the silks found in the Oseberg burial. Silk is as especially interesting find in burials, although relatively rare. According to Vedeler’s analysis of silk burial finds, silk was sold in Scandinavia both as wholecloth and as thread, which was then tablet woven by local Scandinavian artisans. One way she could identify the relative location of the silk textiles was by the patterns on the fragments, since some were Scandinavian while others were reminiscent of Zoroastrian or Middle Eastern designs. She determined therefore that the majority of the silk products that were found in Scandinavia were produced in the Middle East, although a few finds in Sweden came from China. As well, silk cloth fragments found in burials were of varying qualities of silk, with several different types of weaving and spinning techniques.  This cloth, however, was not cut into whole garments, but were cut into thin strips with no regard to the original pattern. These strips were then sewn onto the main wool garment as border decoration, as there was evidence of sewing holes in the remaining  silk fragments (the thread and original fabric having disintegrated). While this treatment of the fabric might seem strange to us today, they used silk in this manner because it was so expensive. They could not afford to waste fabric trying to match the pattern, let alone make a garment from it. The fact that the Oseberg noblewomen were buried with cases of silk, not just fragments on their garments, means that they were very wealthy indeed.

So with that all in mind, what did the Viking’s wear?

The basic garment design for men and women were pretty similar, as it was designed using basic rectangles, squares, and triangles. Modern clothes today are shaped so that they fit tight around the body, but cutting out these weird designs wastes fabric. By using simple shapes, more fabric is preserved. Researchers speculate that the front and back of Viking clothes were made using a rectangle of cloth with a hole cut for the head in the middle. The sleeves were another rectangle, and gores (or fabric to widen the space between seams) of squares and rectangles were used for the armpits and sides of the skirt. Women wore a full length underdress and a tube shaped outer dress that was either pinned to the undergarment at the collarbone or hung from straps which were pinned in place. (They didn’t have buttons). Men wore a shorter version of the women’s dress, which made it tunic length, and then either baggy or straight pants depending on regional fashions. Men also wore leg wraps made of woven wool which made the lower leg have a fitted look of modern skinny jeans. Shoes were made of leather, and socks were made of wool that were knit using the nålebinding technique (the precursor to knitting). They also wore over-cloaks which were pinned to one shoulder, and they even wore a special cloak pin which had a different design from the pins used to hold up their main clothes. Leather belts from which they hung basic items completed the ensemble, along with jewelry, which women hung from the pins on their dresses and men in the form of pendants or torques. I presume they wore linen tighie-whities under everything, since these were the same people who had ear spoons and fine combs that they carried with them constantly. And there you have it, simple Viking dress.

(Sorry, I really could not find any good pictures of Viking garments. Google betrayed me.)

Now this is only a brief premier into Viking dress, so forgive me if I did not fully cover a particular aspect of the textile production process to your liking. If you want to learn more about anything I covered here, please check the links I list below or message me in the comments and I could write more on the subject. For now, I hope you enjoyed this post!

-The Valkyrie

For more information:

Vedeler, Marianne. Silk for the Vikings. Ancient Textile Series Vol. 15. Oxbrow Books, Oxford: 2014.

The Viking Answer Lady on Clothing: http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/clothing.shtml

The article I quoted about Kvinner i vikingtidhttp://www.medievalists.net/2015/04/15/the-viking-women-who-disappeared/

Fact, Fiction, and Faith: Thor in Viking and Modern Culture

So today, in honor of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” coming out in the US and in honor of C2E2 Comic Convention which I went to last week as Lady Thor, I wanted to write a little bit about Thor, the God of Thunder.  Now most of us know about the new Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise and thus have been introduced to the Superhero Character “Thor.” For those of you who read the comics before they became big blockbuster movies, then good for you.  I will preface right now that I have not read any of the comic series, I have merely watched the Marvel movies. So I’ll be coming at this from the prospective of a historian and of a fan of the movies.  Today I would like to take a little look at Thor in the sagas, in Viking Culture, and in current Marvel Universe, and to examine what elements of “Thor” as a character have stayed consistent through the ages. Since Marvel Thor, and some of the other characters associated with him, are based on the gods of Norse Mythology, I think it only fitting that I discuss the two together on this blog.

Superhero? Or a god?

two thors

The image on the left is a Viking image of Thor. Kinda disappointing compared that hansom guy on the right.  

Now, as a start, I have always found it a little odd that Norse Mythology has been turned into a superhero series. I mean, it is an actual religion. I have never seen a comic done about any other ancient or modern religion. It would sort of be like making a comic series about the Hindu gods, or about Jesus.  I am making these references not to offend anyone, I am simply saying that when you look at it from that prospective, it seems a little weird to make a comic about a set of gods that some people believe.  Now, some may say I’m taking this too seriously, but I wanted to put it out there.  Even for those who do not worship the old gods as their faith, there are still many others who are Scandinavian and for whom Norse Mythology is part of their cultural heritage. I count myself in this second category.

But to be clear, I am personally not offended by the idea of Thor as a Superhero. One of the things I find very interesting about Thor in the Marvel movies is that in some respects he acts a lot like Thor in the original Norse Mythology. Both characters are a little over-bold, loud, and prone to fighting. But both characters also fight for good, protect the Earth, and carry the hammer Mjolnir.  Of course, Marvel makes Thor their own character, so while Thor the superhero has some tangential link to the older god of Norse culture, there are some differences. And those differences aren’t bad. But since Thor the superhero is an American cultural icon, perhaps we should look at the difference between Thor the superhero and Thor the Norse god in order to better understand the original culture and faith which inspired the current comic series.

From what I’ve read of the Eddas, it seems that Thor is at once a heroic and comical character. Now this may sound a little strange, but if you think about it, so is Marvel Thor.  Thor isn’t comical in the sense that he’s stupid. You don’t think any less of him because he sometimes gets hit by a car or smashes a coffee cup. He’s funny because he’s a little bit too war-like and manly for his own good. Similarly, Thor in the mythology gets himself into sticky or comical situations partially because he just doesn’t think things through, and I think we all know someone like that.

My favorite story about Thor involves the time that Thor goes to the giant realm, and the giants decide to play a game with Thor. Thor often fights and kills giants so this sort of trickery is nothing new. But the king of the giants gives Thor three tests to prove that he is actually as strong as he claims. This provocation, of course, angers Thor, and so he agrees to the three tests. The first is to drain the giant’s drinking horn in one drop. Any giant could do it easily, the king tells Thor.  But just as Thor finished drinking, the horn would fill back up. After a time the giant took pity on him and gave him another test. In the second test Thor had to wrestling the giant’s old nursemaid, but despite his best efforts he could not. So, finally, the giant told him to go and lift the giant’s cat, since Thor was clearly too weak to do anything else. Thor tried to lift the cat around the middle, but as much as he tried to pull on the cat, it would not lift off the ground. At last, the giant revealed that he had tricked Thor on purpose, and that he was actually quite impressed with him. On the first test, the end of the drinking horn was in the ocean, that’s why it could never be finished. The old nursemaid was Old Age, which can never be beaten. The cat was actually the Midgard Serpent.

In that story, Thor is embarrassed and humiliated because he let his pride get to him. He had to prove himself as the best and strongest fighter. But even in his humiliation, he also proves that he is a formidable warrior, because he almost beat the tests despite the fact that they were rigged against him. So in one sense, it’s really comical to think of Thor struggling to lift a cat. On the other hand, it’s terrifying and impressive that he could actually lift the Midgard Serpent!

Of course, the Eddas are just one version of what must have been innumerable stories about the gods. There is so much that we don’t know about Norse Mythology and their religion, but what we have from written sources gives some indication about how Thor was viewed by Viking culture. Historians speculate that Thor was most revered by the regular freemen – the farmers, fishermen, and traders – rather than by the nobility. His popularity can be seen in many ancient place names in Scandinavia and Germany. Thor was considered a protector god who fought for the average man and kept away evil creatures. In fact, there is speculation that local people started wearing Thor’s hammer more after Christianity began to become popular in Scandinavia, because they wanted to protect themselves from the new faith and to show their allegiance to the old gods. However, archaeological evidence of Scandinavians wearing hammer pendants predates the conversion period in the tenth and eleventh centuries, so to some extent it’s hard to determine if they used the pendant deliberately to protest against Christianity. But this “battle” between Christianity and Paganism was sometimes referred to as a literal battle between Jesus and Thor.  For instance, in Njal’s Saga, an old woman taunts a priest by saying that Jesus refused to fight a duel with Thor. From that and other evidence, it seems that Thor became the champion of the common people’s culture against the new and invading force of Christianity, just as he protected them from evil men and frost giants.

To some degree, Marvel Thor has continued this legacy. He blunders into fights because he wants to prove himself. He is loud and boisterous. And he fights giants and the Hulk with his hammer. But when I was rewatching the Avengers the other night, I was struck by a line that Thor says to Loki after Thor captures him in the beginning of the movie. Thor says that he is in charge of protecting Earth and that Loki does not understand how to properly rule humans.  His words in that scene struck me as being very characteristic of the god the Vikings worshiped for hundreds of years. Thor looks out for the welfare of humans when all other creatures in the many realms want to destroy them.  For a set of movies that I was perfectly inclined to enjoy for entertainment’s sake and not for accuracy, this scene really interested me.

Now, that being said, there are some aspects of Marvel Thor that are not drawn from Norse Mythology and that I feel it necessary to mention here. One important difference is Thor’s relationship with Mjolnir. To my knowledge there is no magic on Mjolnir which dictates that “whoever is worthy shall possess the power of Thor.” In the mythology, the hammer is powerful on its own, and sometimes it is stolen by other powerful creatures. But that creature never gets to take the name of Thor or replace him as god of thunder. In Norse Myth and culture the hammer and Thor are synonymous, just as other magical weapons and artifacts are possessed only by one god or goddess. For instance, Odin has the spear Gungnir and Freya has the necklace Brisingamen.  I think Marvel took this idea of Mjolnir’s power and ran with it, as in the newest Lady Thor comics. In a sense, Mjolnir gives the writers of the comics and movies a nice plot device to add tension, add humor, and in the case of the newest comics, even change some of the fundamental elements of “Thor” as a character. Now, in case you’re wondering if Thor could change gender, only Loki could do that. That’s not to say that I don’t approve of the comics gender-bending Thor to perhaps inspire young women to be badass, but strictly speaking Thor never changed gender and never willingly gave his powers to another being. Mjolnir is only for Thor.

Another little deviation from the mythology is that Loki is Thor’s adopted brother. I like the adopted joke in the “Avengers” movie as much as anyone, but honestly Loki is never called Thor’s brother in the mythology, adopted or otherwise. Loki is simply a trickster god who messes with ALL of the gods, not just Thor and Odin. Thor just happens to be one of the most powerful gods, so Thor is against Loki and often fights his children (the Midgard Serpent being one of these.  Yes, it’s weird). However, I like the character dynamics of Thor and Loki as brothers in the Marvel franchise, and I think the writers make their relationship very compelling. But it is Marvel writers who created that idea.

So, when comparing Thor in the mythology and Thor in Marvel, it’s probably best to look at the two characters as one influencing another. Thor for the Marvel comics and movies is a fictional character just as Black Widow and Iron Man are completely fictional. It just so happens that the writers for Marvel drew a lot of inspiration from Norse Mythology. So while there are comparisons between the two characters, that’s only because the Marvel writers made it that way.  The Thor of Norse Mythology has much older roots in history and culture which can still be felt today. I find it interesting to look at both characters together, but also to accept that they are also completely separate entities locked within completely different fictional and historical settings.

-Valkyrie

As a bonus, here are some fun facts about Mythology Thor:

  • Thor rides a chariot pulled by goats.
  • Thor also possesses a belt named Megingjörð and an iron glove named Járngreipr, which he uses to lift Mjolnir.
  • Mjolnir was created when Loki made a bet with some dwaves, and its handle is extra short because Loki made the dwarves mess up when they were making it.
  • Thor is described as having red hair.
  • Thor has many brothers, and Loki is never considered one of them.
  • In modern Norwegian, Thor is written as Tor, and the word for thunder is torden. Thursday is Torsdag, or Thor’s day. This is also where we get the English word “Thursday.”
  • At Ragnarok, the end of days, Thor kills the Midgard Serpent just as it also kills him. For prospective, Odin is merely eaten by Fernir the Wolf. Thor actually kills the thing that kills him.

World Building – Making Tolkien Soup

Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo!

Today we’re going to take a little detour from our usual discussions of history to take a trip down into the realm of fantasy, specifically Tolkien’s fantasy. Now, at least to me, this isn’t that big of a detour, because 1) Tolkien often drew from history and historical literature to write his works, and 2) I myself am a novelist who does the same thing (I am not comparing myself to Tolkien, it’s just that I also get most of my inspiration from my research). In the future I will be analyzing lesser known works of Tolkien as well as reviewing modern fantasy writers who fall into a particularly  “historically inspired” genre, what I like to call “Historical Fantasy.” But today I will be looking solely at Tolkien’s literary style and his views on “world building” in an effort to ascertain why Tolkien’s works are so well written and so widely accepted. For other fantasy writers out there, I hope this is an informative little essay that perhaps gives you inspiration to write. And for the Tolkien lovers out there, I hope it’s an entertaining study into the mind of Tolkien.

For this particular discussion, I will be drawing from portions of Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” which is a really excellent read. But for starters, I thought I would quote from the opening of his essay:

‘I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash venture. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I  may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer…’ (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”  in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, 109.)

I love this. For all those out there who have ever felt that they cannot write down the ideas in their head because they are not qualified or they don’t know how, here is Tolkien saying that he feels unqualified to discuss fantasy literature!  So what can we take from this statement, and from the essay as a whole? Well, to use an adage I heard once: some of the best writers are not English majors. Now, I do not mean to rain on the parade of the English studies community. I have quite a number of friends who were and are English majors and are great writers, and I myself toyed with being an English major for a time. And honestly, Tolkien discusses at length in “On Fairy-Stories” about what he has read and what he learned about literature from reading those works. What I am really trying to say here, is that perhaps Tolkien’s genius was not that he was well read on all of the “great” works of literature and literature theory, but that he drew on his extensive knowledge of the things he loved reading (Norse and Anglo-Saxon primarily) to create the fantasy world that HE wanted to write.

Tolkien is an excellent example of an amateur writer who made great fiction in part because he was an expert in another field, namely linguistics. But despite the line I quoted above about not having to be an English major to be able to write fiction, I have to admit that you have to know something about literature in order to write. In order to make a story recognizable and relatable to an audience, there are certain structures and tropes you should follow. (And for those avant garde types out there, how do you break tropes if you don’t know what they are?) However, to a fair extent we are taught our cultures literary tropes in childhood, starting with – you guessed it – fairy tales. Tolkien discusses in some detail what defines the typical fairy tale, or “fairy story” in his usage, and how this genre has come to be geared largely to children. Tolkien argues, however, that children have no specific monopoly on fairy stories, dismissing the argument that they are better able to “believe” fantasy than adults. Rather, Tolkien argues that “believing” a story has as much to do with the skill of the writer as it does with the listener. So, going by that argument, the quality of the world being described in the story has an enormous influence on the reader. The structure of the world has to be believable, i.e. something which makes sense to the mind of the reader, even if there are certain unbelievable premises like magic or imaginary creatures. If the magic fits into a logical framework, then the reader can believe that the world is “real” because it seems close enough to their understanding of reality. What makes the story good, therefore, are the elements placed into the work which makes the world vibrant yet internally consistent.

So, very basically, one of the things you need for a great fantasy story is a well thought out world in which to set it. And to make a good world, according to Tolkien’s style, you need to have inspiration from other literature and a structure to the world which has an internal logic.

Let’s look at these two basic elements of world building each in their turn.

World Building

World building is arguably one of the hardest things for a beginning writer, at least it was for me. This is especially the case for those writing fantasy, as unlike the Literary Fiction genre, fantasy writers are creating an entirely fabricated world which only has tangential relations to the modern world. We may relate to characters who are cold, hungry, happy, or tired, but most people cannot relate to wearing armor, being in a dark magical forest, or meeting a hippogriff. But we have experienced these worlds through the works of other authors. Tolkien arguably is the father of what we consider modern fantasy genre, or as I like to call it, the “elves, dwarves, swords, and magic” genre. This is important, because I think he has shaped what people feel that fantasy HAS to contain. But honestly there is no one right way to create a world. But looking at how Tolkien created his universe might help decipher what made it work well.

Tolkien describes the creation of a fairy story as making soup, in that later fairy stories printed in childrens’ books were based on older stories which were thrown together into a metaphorical pot and then certain elements were taken back out to suit the particular author’s taste. You can see this with the host of Arthurian stories which have come out in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We have the medieval narratives of King Arthur, which themselves were basically fantasy stories, and then later works which watered down or tried to update Arthur’s story for different audiences. Will you go the “Mists of Avalon” rout and add in some modern pagan elements with historical research to the original legends, or will you go the “Sword and the Stone” route and do a purely kinds version which takes your most favorite and recognizable story from the vast collection of Arthur legends and waters it down for kids? In each case, there’s the historical meat in the soup, the older legend potatoes, the modern pagan belief carrots, and the children’s ideas of magic and stories celery. The author picks which kind of meat, vegetables, and combination that he or she wants. I’m sorry if this takes away from the idea of originality, but if we keep the cooking metaphor, one chicken soup can be original or unique because of the specific way your mother makes it. Thus, Tolkien took many elements for his work from older Norse and medieval literature, but he wrote it in such a way as to make it fresh and interesting for his audience. And that was Tolkien’s great skill.

For instance, let’s look at the character “Gandalf” from Lord of the Rings. The name Gandalf is actually another name for Odin. As well, Odin is described in the Norse Sagas as wearing a gray cloak and big floppy hat. He comes mysteriously, spouts wisdom, and leaves without explanation. In fact, it seems that the only difference between Odin and Tolkien’s Gandalf is that Odin has one eye!  But is that really the case? Well, perhaps what make Tolkien’s  Gandalf different is his warm heart. Odin in saga literature was not portrayed as a particularly loving or affectionate god, quite the opposite really. He was respected and feared, for his loyalties could shift on a whim. Odin is not necessarily your friend, even if he can be a helpful aid at times.  Gandalf, on the other hand, is a kind and caring soul who looks out for the less fortunate. He has a sense of right and wrong and fights for the side of good. He is honest, if secretive. And above all he’s intensely loyal. He’s the kind of guy I would invite in for tea any time he came to my door. (Or second breakfast, if he came early enough.)

In fact, Tolkien drew, consciously or unconsciously, from his knowledge of Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature to help create the world of Middle Earth (which itself is taken from the Norse term for Earth, “Midgard,” or Middle Yard). He placed dwarves, elves, giants, dragons, and trolls into his stories because he was familiar with them from Norse myth, and clearly liked them as literary devices. And his choices, to some extent, have shaped the genre. But from what I’ve seen of the fantasy literature that has followed Tolkien, there seems to be this idea that authors HAVE to put dwarves, elves, dragons, and such into their world to make it “fantasy.” Really, when you sit back and think about it, why is this so? It is YOUR world, you can make up whatever creature you want to put into the story and still make it fantasy. There is no rule which says you have to put any of the creatures Tolkien did into your story, and I would perhaps advise not to if you don’t know the literary history of these creatures (i.e. how they were used in other stories).

For the sake of using a bad example to make a point, let’s compare Tolkien to Christopher Paolini, who wrote the Inheritance Cycle (aka Eragon). Now I know this series is a widely acknowledged as being subpar, but I read 1.5 of his books in high school so I can use it as a point of analysis. It was plainly obvious from reading book one and two that he was trying to imitate Tolkien (and others), as he even used the same letter accents in his created language. He has talking dragons, magic wielding beings, and dwarves – all the elements which should mark the work as a fantasy novel. But why did the work fall flat? Well, besides the terrible writing (sorry, I know he was fifteen when he wrote it, but I call it like it is), it lacks originality. Great, your dragon can talk, so do they in Tolkien and many other stories. Great, your dwarves are unfriendly and make jewelry – they do that in every other story.  Now, you may be thinking: that’s just tropes 101. You use typical themes and ideas to help the reader orient himself or herself in the world. What I’m saying is that you can do this without adding to the repeated beatings of the literary dead horse done by many an average writer.

Let’s take the idea of dwarves as an example. Tolkien probably got his idea for the dwarves from Norse Mythology – I mean, the names of most of the dwarves in the Hobbit came directly from dwarven characters in Norse tales. In Norse sagas dwarves play a major role as the makers of magical items. In the case of the Volsunga Saga, the dwarves make a magical ring of great value and an incredibly strong sword, Gram, which Sigurd uses to kill the dragon Fafnir and steal his dwarven gold. Does this sound at all familiar? It got a little muddled in the retelling, but it is clear that one of the items in Tolkien’s soup was the Volsunga Saga. But what makes Tolkien’s world a bit different is that the dwaves cannot change into dragons or otters, other creatures (i.e. elves and orcs) make impressive weapons too, and sometimes the dwarves befriend men and fight in a coalition of magical beings against evil. These things are all unique to Tolkien’s soup, even if the elves and dwarves can be found in other stories. The problem I see with Paolini and other average writers is that they throw the soup together without understanding where the ingredients came from or how to use the ingredients to make a new and interesting stew. Thus, they get a run-of-the-mill chicken soup.

This particular problem, I think, is also what may determine the “believability” of the fictional world. For me at least, if I see too many overused tropes in a story I instantly think, “this author hasn’t thought about what these tropes really mean.” And why does that matter? Well, if your dwarves make all the weapons, then that must affect the larger world and culture. Is the coinage named after famous dwarves? Does the dwarven maker’s mark on a sword denote quality and thereby the status of the wearer? Are weapons really rare and thus do most people fight with sticks instead? Honestly, you can do so much with a simple idea, that just plugging in a common trope really sounds boring now, doesn’t it? That’s not to say that you can’t put a carrot into your chicken soup, I’m just saying that maybe you could mash the carrots, or put in purple carrots, or add a few new spices to your carrots. And making sure that the carrots really marinade in the soup, rather than throwing them in raw, helps make the soup as a whole taste better. So – by following the metaphor that I may have now stretched beyond its usefulness – if you take elements you like from other places and then mix them thoroughly into the world, then these older elements will fit more uniformly into the world. This creates a better overall consistency in the world you’ve created, and therefore it has better “believability.”

Now, to be fair, as an author you can do whatever you please. If you don’t want to read all of the Norse cannon to write like Tolkien, that’s fine. Odds are that even If you read all of Norse literature you would not write like Tolkien – you would write in your own style with perhaps more Norse tropes. What I am saying is that Tolkien wrote the way he did because he was familiar with medieval and Norse literary styles and tropes, and his understanding of the past usage of certain elements allowed him to bend these older ideas into new elements for his fictional world. Perhaps if other modern authors knew where the idea of dwarves being able to make good weapons came from, or where the idea of elves being tall and beautiful came from, then they could mix and match ideas from other stories to make more original ideas of their own. As I learned from a famous trombonist of the LSO who I met once: if you like what someone better than you is doing, steal it. But I’m saying that you should do it in such a way as to make that older idea your own. That’s what makes the story intriguing to an audience.

I already feel after finishing this post that I have so much more to say, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future. But for now, I’ve met my word limit and probably your attention span. So, farewell for now! Namárië!

-The Valkyrie

The Importance of Preserving the World’s Cultural Heritage

Goodday Everyone!

First, I’m sorry for not posting last week. My schedule has been getting steadily busier of late and thus I may not post EVERY Thursday. But there should be a post up this Thursday. However, for something completely different, I felt inspired to write about this topic today, even if it’s a bit off from the usual material I cover. And, as a preface, I was not asked to write this post by anyone, I am writing simply because I felt moved to write on this topic.

Mesopotamia, Iraq, and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

So this morning I was walking through the Field Museum’s second floor on my way to my volunteer work when I spotted a new, if small, exhibit that I had never seen before. (I’m here all the time now so I KNOW it wasn’t there last week.) It was, in short, a few display cases of Mesopotamian artifacts from the Field Museum’s extensive collection and several signs describing the objects. There were also several signs which discussed the destruction of cultural artifacts and archeological sites in Iraq, which was the reason why the exhibit was created. And it inspired me to write this post.

20150414_115106Many of you know about the destruction of several historical sites and objects in Iraq, including the artifacts at the Mosul Museum and the Nimrud Archeological Site, by a terrorist group known as ISIS (who give a terrible name to peaceful Muslims everywhere). Starting in January, many priceless artifacts have been smashed or sold on the black market to fund ISIS’s continuing operations in the Middle East. In March, ISIS began irreversibly destroying the Nimrud Archeological Site, including the beautiful seventh century winged bulls. This destruction has continued into April. For context, we’re talking about THE Nimrud, one of the major cities in Ancient Assyria, which was one of the oldest civilizations in the WORLD. This city dates from as early as 1250 BC! The Assyrian Empire is known as the “cradle of civilization,” and the Mesopotamian region has a rich and extensive history which extends from prehistory to the modern day. Nimrud is an immensely important site, not just for Iraq but the WORLD!

In response, the Field Museum placed this sign within an empty case in the main hall of the museum in March, which is now placed in front of this exhibit.

20150414_094805It reads:

Imagine of all out display cases – like this one – were empty.

As custodians of one of the great natural history museum collections in the world, the Field Museum is heartbroken by the recent destruction at the Mosul Museum and at other cultural heritage sites in Iraq.

I do not know a lot about Mesopotamian history, but I remember when I visited the British Museum several years ago I was absolutely awed by the winged bulls which were on display in the museum. It deeply saddens and troubles me that Mesopotamian objects such as these beautiful sculptures at Nimrud are now destroyed. When I first learned about the destruction on the news, I felt as if I was watching the Library at Alexandria burn down. What is happening to these sites in Iraq is just awful!

I’m not writing this post as a call to action. I will not shove politics down your throat. Rather, I am passing on the eloquent words that the Field Museum has written in protest to the destruction of these artifacts and archeological sites. As a sign on this small exhibit in the Field Museum reads, “Iraq’s cultural heritage is everyone’s cultural heritage.” It is indeed a loss for us all. We cannot get these objects and sites back. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Think about that. Think about all the knowledge that has been irreversibly lost. And honestly, should we stand by and let more objects and sites be destroyed (or let more people be horribly murdered)?

It is truly a shame when bigotry and ignorance is allowed to run rampant and ruin things for the rest of us, but this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened, and it certainly will not be the last. But I hope it gives all of us pause. Furthermore, I hope it makes us better appreciate the objects that are preserved by the Field Museum, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the British Museum, and many others. I have been known to joke that the British Museum is full of all the stuff the British Empire stole from everyone else, but in light of recent events I am glad that other museums like the British Museum have Mesopotamian objects preserved in their collections. They allow us to view objects from world cultures that we may never have been able to see otherwise, and hopefully through that experience we can better understand the people around us.

So, next time you are at a museum, take the time to appreciate the objects you see on exhibit as being unique and fascinating pieces of history – a history we all share. Objects connect us not just to the past, but to the shared human experience which transcends time and space. And if you’re in Chicago, be sure to check out the Field Museum and this small exhibit that has been set up to remind us of how precious these museum objects are.

And ISIS, go to hell.

– The Valkyrie

Potions, Swords, and Farthingales – Living History and Why it Matters

So I read an article that will BLOW YOUR MIND. Prepare yourself.

Seriously it’s so cool.

The title of the article was: “Anglo-Saxon cow bile and garlic potion kills MRSA.” That’s right, an Anglo-Saxon expert recreated a medical recipe found in a tenth century manuscript and researchers at Nottingham University found that the recipe could kill MRSA. You know, the super bacteria that normal antibiotics cannot kill. Yes, the Anglo-Saxons had an antibiotic that’s more potent than our modern drugs. Mind blown? Mine sure was.

Although, for me, I think I was more surprised by the fact that scientists actually tried to recreate the recipe, and that it worked so well. From my passing research into Medieval medicine, it seems that they had a mixed bag of effective and ineffective recipes. But I genuinely applaud the scientists who decided to try out this medieval salve. They were making a big leap to put time, money, and effort into trying the recipe the “authentic” way, and their success can inform not only the historical community but hopefully the scientific community as well. The success of this experiment may even open the door for a wider acceptance of older “remedies” as having actual merit.

It’s one of my long held pet peeves that the modern world generally dismisses the Middle Ages as the being a time of ignorance, rather than appreciating how much the early achievements of our ancestors have shaped the modern age. It was in fact the “great” thinkers of the Enlightenment who coined the term “Dark Ages,” thinking that their time was the best, or most advanced. This kind of thinking has tainted our modern view of the Middle Ages. But it was not dark at all. Sure they were not as advanced as the Romans before them, but even as early as the Viking Age Scandinavia we see exquisite artwork and impressive ship engineering. In England in the same period we see the first proto-state with a monetary system ahead of its time. Scandinavia was a downright democracy until Christianity came around.  The “Twelfth Century Renaissance” – when universities were first founded in France, Germany, and England – ushered in a new era of education and study of the older Greek and Roman texts which paved the way for the more famous fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance. And huge cathedrals were built which are so high tech that we’re still trying to figure out how they made them. So why is it so surprising that the Medievals knew what they were doing in the realm of medicine? They weren’t stupid. They were as intelligent as we are today.

So, having read this article, and having just come off of a three day medieval sword fighting conference, AND having just gotten my period accurate Viking drop spindle, I thought I would discuss the current trend of “living history,” and how this differs from the perhaps tainted term “reenactment.”

So what’s all the fuss about?

I’m going to start this discussion off by saying straight out that I am very much a part of the living history/reenactment world. I worked at the Bristol Renaissance Faire for two summers, I go to Civil War reenactment events, I sew period garments, and I now am part of a Medieval Italian sword fighting guild. Like, real medieval longsword fighting. I just spent a weekend learning how to use a spear and medieval short sword, as well as how to fight in armor (I didn’t have armor but the instructors and several of the upper level members did).

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(The dress on the left is a 1540’s Tudor gown that I made entirely myself. The second photo is me as a servant at Bristol Renaissance Faire, 2012. *Photo credits Dennis Zernite and Merry Gardner respectively.)

The big debate about any of these sorts of events is how “authentic” it is. You’ll here certain people scoff that “x” outfit is “farby” (i.e. not authentic) or that “x” thing would not have been said then or that the port-o-privies really take away from the atmosphere. Okay, yes, that person at the Ren Faire dressed in fairy wings isn’t authentic. Fine. But it’s a Ren Faire. And that’s a mixed bag. But I think a lot of people when they hear “reenactment” think of that mix of “stitch Nazis” and chainmail bikinis and dismiss the whole thing as being a purely recreational activity without educational merit.  In actuality it depends on where you go and what you want to get out of it. But there are certain individuals, communities, and living history centers who genuinely try to bring history to life, whether its through clothing, warfare, or hand crafts. These people really do their homework, and I don’t just mean that they read a ton. That’s an important element. But they also live it. They make the clothing they wear to look and feel as close to the original as possible, even sewing it entirely by hand. They learn how to sword fight in the armor or shoot a bow from horseback. They get the most period looking drop spindle so that when they spin they know they’re using the real thing. And if you think this is just an amateur hobby, then you’d be wrong.

Sure there are awesome people like “Curious Frau” who does youtube videos on how to fold a linen headdress, or “Missingspindle” who will show you how to use a Viking drop spindle and then sell these spindles to you. But there are also people like Mike Loades, who is a Military Historian and also an expert horseman and archer. He recreates the weapons and studies medieval techniques in order to learn more about ancient warfare. (He worked with the History Channel to make “Going Medieval,” a show which actually lives up to the original mission of the “History” Channel. Go watch it if you have the chance.) There are also historians, archeologists, and other experts in Scandinavia who recreate sea-worthy Viking ships in order to test their capabilities and to make copies of the extant ships which have been found in burials. I got the chance to talk with a few of these recreators in Tonsberg, Norway, who were working on a copy of the Oseberg burial ship (the cover image of this blog is a photo I took of the ship). They told me that the ship was made exactly to scale so that if the original decays experts can still have the copy to study. When I was there this past summer (2014) they were still making the small life boats that came with the large Oseberg ship, and were testing animal dyes like blood and various animal urines to see what worked best for the ship’s sail. They were also making a waterproof coating for the sail made out of tar and sheep fat they got from their own sheep! They were just lovely people and I was glad my cousin was able to translate for me so I could chat with them.

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(There they are, painting the tar onto the sail.)

We, in fact, learned about this group when we visited the Midgard Historic Center in Børre, where they had recreated a Viking longhall based on the size of the post holes of a hall they excavated nearby.

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And if that’s not impressive enough, there’s some really skilled costumers out there. Two of them are Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila of Tudor Tailor, who I got the chance to meet this fall when they came to Chicago. Their books are top notch and they’ve based all of their work on period inventories, statuary, and extant textiles. Another site for great costuming is the Globe Theater in London, whose costume designers create all of the costumes for their Shakespeare productions as they would have in Shakespeare’s era. Meaning that both the Globe Theater and Tudor Tailor make their costumes BY HAND. Can you imagine how many hours that must take? I actually got to try one of the outfits during a demonstration at the Globe and let me tell you it felt authentic as hell.

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(Both photos were taken during my trip in 2012.)

But what do I mean by “authentic”? Well, from my research, I knew that the Elizabethans wore several layers of clothing, wore stiff corsets, pinned on their collars and cuffs, and used certain fibers and fabrics. Since the costumers at the Globe did all of these things (and presumably have done far more research than myself), then from an academic standpoint we can say that it is as close as we can possibly get to how they would have dressed. Same for the Oseberg recreation – or any of the other Viking ship recreations that Scandinavian museums have sponsored in recent years – which was made in order to have an exact copy in case the original decayed. Same goes for the York Mystery Plays that are held every year in York, England, or the many medieval music groups who play the original manuscripts on recreated instruments, or the medieval martial arts groups who read the medieval fighting manuals and then go out there and actually fight with metal weapons and armor.

These people are not just making copies of historical artifacts, or making new objects based on what we know of ancient techniques, but they are LEARNING about history through doing this work. Mike Loades has learned how to shoot like a medieval archer, and so he can tell you what their capabilities might have been in battle (I mean, he can shoot an arrow up into the arrow slot windows of a castle from the ground below!). Remaking the Anglo-Saxon eye salve showed modern scientists how effective their medicine was at killing bacteria. Fighting with a sword has taught me why armor was made the way it was, and how sword fighters then learned to work around the advantages and limitations of armored combat. And wearing 1500s gowns has taught me so much about daily life in the Elizabethan Era (like, you can’t do anything productive with your arms in the 1540 double sleeves.)

This research also informs and engages the general public who otherwise would not be able to relate to history. Queen Elizabeth’s reign may seem very remote to most people, but see a few people in costume at Hampton Court Palace in England and you can start to envision how the palace used to be used. Walk through Plymouth Village in the States and you get the similar sense of what life was like for the Pilgrims.

With this in mind, it shocked me when I learned in a Material Culture class this past semester that there are some academics who scoff at “hand knowledge” – that being things you learn by doing, not just by reading. For example, some Material Cultural historians would argue that the knowledge a man learned through carving wood as a hobby is not applicable to the study of Victorian chairs. Why not? He knows how to carve wood, how can he not look at the chair and say “Ah, they used this technique! How did this technique help them make a better chair? What can we learn from their past knowledge?” As a sewer, I found I noticed so many more details in the Victorian garments I handled as part of my work at a local museum. I could see where they had altered the original gown and speculate why they may have made those changes. In some cases, knowing how they wore the garments helped me figure out whether the piece I was holding was right-side up or not (some clothes look very different when they’re not on a person)!

Now, would someone who had just read about Victorian clothing have the same eye for detail? Maybe. But as for me, I think that no amount of reading would be able to help me understand how hard it is to create an antique chair, or paint a renaissance masterpiece, or how to sword fight. I learned how to use a longsword not just by reading a book, but by standing there day after day, month after month, hitting people with the sword and getting hit in return. I gained an appreciation for the daily life of women in the past by spending literally hours and hours knitting, sewing by hand, spinning with a drop spindle, and embroidering. And I don’t do it just to pass the time at reenactments; I do it because I feel it helps me connect with the past in a visceral way. Then, when I see a spindle whirl in an exhibit, or hold a Victorian gown, or see a piece of armor, I can say “they used it like this!” And that’s just as informative as reading a book!  Learning about daily life in the past is still learning about history. That’s how more people in the past experienced “history” than the few people we know by name. There were far more farmers than bishops, tradesmen than knights, fishermen than kings. So why ignore them? And why ignore the people who are trying to study them and bring awareness about them to the general public?

Of course, the historical accurateness of any reenactment can be debated. We cannot fully recreate the past, no matter how much research we do. And do some reenactors have their facts wrong? Sure. But so do some people at universities. Sometimes we don’t have time to do all the homework necessary. And sometimes we will never know if they used “x” thing at that specific time or wore “x” color or “x” garment in that exact way. Like I have said in other posts, sometimes we’ll just never know. I think the great value of reenactments and living history is that we can make as best an approximation as we can, and that this effort can engage an audience in the study of history. It makes history fun while still making it educational. So what if a little boy wants to see the cannon get shot at a Civil War event? Can’t he also learn about how cannons were made and how they were used in battle? That’s all a military historian does! And why in the world does physically practicing the sword techniques found in medieval manual not help you understand something of what it was like to fight in the Middle Ages? I certainly think it does. And I know a whole community of people who would agree.

Anyway, that’s today’s rant. I know I have a lot more to say on this topic, but for now I’ll leave you with this little taster. If you want to know more about this topic or anything specific I mentioned here, please feel free to leave a comment below. As for now, here’s a picture of my new Viking drop spindle, which is super pretty and is based off one found in the Oseberg burial. (Spindle made by Lois Swales, missingspindle on Etsy.)

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-The Valkyrie

For more information:

For the original article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11504166/Anglo-Saxon-cow-bile-and-garlic-potion-kills-MRSA.html

The Tudor Tailor: http://www.tudortailor.com/

The Curious Frau: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCottAiHUgOCGsbJ79N2sgsA

Viking Spindle: http://missingspindle.blogspot.com/

Also the Viking Spindle Etsy site: https://www.etsy.com/shop/missingspindle?ref=pr_faveshops

The York Waits, a great late medieval/early Renaissance band: http://www.whitecottagewebsites.co.uk/york/

Mary Arden’s Farm, a British living history museum: http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit-the-houses/mary-ardens-farm.html

On the Globe Theatre: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/exhibition

The Museum where I saw the recreated Viking Hall: http://midgardsenteret.no/en/

Mike Loades: http://www.mikeloades.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/mikeloades?fref=ts

“The Vikings” Breakdown #3: Norse Religion and the Portrayal of the “Other”

Sad to say, the “Vikings” show on the History Channel has been going downhill of late, and I am currently a bit embarrassed to say I enjoyed the show. So rather than go on an unproductive rant about why I am upset with the show, I will spend a little bit of time discussing an important aspect of Viking culture which the show struggles to portray correctly: Norse Paganism.  Also, I promised you all I would discuss Viking religion in greater depth and I am a woman of my word. So without further ado, here is what the “Vikings” show gets right and wrong about Viking religion.

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Seriously who are these guys? Why are their lips blue? Why are they bald? Someone explain this to me! (From “Vikings” Season 1)

Thor, Odin, and… Blue-Lipped Priests?

My recent docent work at the Field Museum has brought me into contact with a lot of really interesting folks who are curious about Viking history, and I sometimes feel  bad that I cannot answer every question that they have about the Vikings. But one thing that plagues me and every student of history and culture is that sometimes the answer to a very simple question is “we don’t know” or “it varied by region,” or “we don’t know what happened everywhere but we have one account that’s probably biased but it said this so here you go.” None of these answers are very sexy, or even very informative, but technically they are the most accurate thing we can say. I, like you, want solid answers, solid data. But this problem is especially the case with Viking religion and so I have had to wrestle with it many times.

The Vikings were a primarily oral culture before the arrival of Christianity, so the only written documentation that we have to rely on for knowledge of Viking religion are accounts written by Christians about a foreign faith or by Christian Scandinavians writing way after their people had been converted. So what we think we know about Viking belief and practice is really just a few accounts of what was a complex belief system. It can be compared, as a way of example, as if the only record historians in 3000 AD had of Christian beliefs in 21st century America was a couple of books written by one American Lutheran believer, or rather an American writing in 2215 who followed another faith but was aware of what Lutherans believed. Future scholars would know that Evangelicals, Episcopals, Baptists, Catholics, and all manner of other Christian groups existed, but they would have no idea what these people believed in comparison to Lutherans. So yes, Medieval Scandinavian scholars have a very vague idea of just how the Vikings practiced their faith, and there could have been many variations and many stories about the gods of which we are utterly ignorant. But such is the nature of the sources. (Archeological evidence can help fill in the gaps somewhat, but as I am not as familiar with this material I will not discuss it in great detail in this post.)

With the above in mind, dear reader, we have to give a little bit of credit to the “Vikings” show. The writers are working with pretty scanty material, and yet for much of the show’s run they have tried to integrate Norse beliefs into the lives of their characters and have even gone so far as to show debates between characters over belief and conversion. And while I am impressed that they are making an effort, there are some things that they do really wrong. Really really wrong. I might be a little picky because this was the topic of my thesis, and thus an area of my expertise. More than that, however, I think in an effort to show Viking religion the writers have inadvertently made the Viking characters into the “weird other” and done a disservice to Viking culture. Let me explain.

The few writings we have left about Viking rituals were put down by Christian authors, one of them being Adam of Bremen, who wrote a history of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen in the late eleventh century. To Adam of Bremen, who was a Christian in an area that had been Christian for hundreds of years, the practices of the Scandinavian pagans were at best completely foreign and at worst completely contrary to everything he believed. So his descriptions of pagan human sacrifices at Uppsala were most likely written with a certain amount of shock value, like “here fellow Christians, look at this terrifying pagan problem we need to fix. Isn’t it good work that the archbishopric is doing converting these poor barbaric sinners?” Here’s the problem with the fact that our sources about Norse paganism came from a Christian author: Adam of Bremen’s perspective completely neglects to include how the Scandinavians felt about their beliefs and practices. Instead, he made them this inhuman, barbaric other, when they were actually people with a similar faith to what Adam of Bremen’s culture USED to believe.

I see the “Vikings” show doing almost the same things wrong with their portrayal of Norse beliefs as Adam of Bremen. In fact, they decided to depict the sacrifices at Uppsala in season one just as Adam of Bremen did in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Here’s the problem with that: the sacrifices at Uppsala were a very rare event. The show even says they happened every nine years, and this is true. For people who on average lived to thirty years of age, that kind of time span between ceremonies was a lot. But it also means that the sacrifices were not typical. That was not weekly church. Going to Uppsala was more like going to Rome on a pilgrimage (before the age of cars and airplanes). And yet Bremen and to some extent the “Vikings” show treat the Uppsala ceremonies like they were more typical events. On top of that, Uppsala is in Sweden, and thus the account ignores the practices which occurred in Norway, Denmark, and Iceland in that period. Not everyone who believed in Norse Paganism went to Uppsala, or for that matter even wanted to. That was not in their cultural mindset. So while the scene in season one of “Vikings” was a nice bit of theater, I see it as being created for shock value in the same way that Adam of Bremen included such lurid tales in his writings. And by making an overly dramatized and gruesome depiction of Viking religion without any explanation and context, the show turns the Vikings into a cruel, primitive other. For their time the Vikings were not that unusual. To put it some context, until the Romans started to invade Gaul pretty much all of what was today Europe believed either a Celtic pantheon or a Germanic-Norse Pantheon, aka either a Mother Goddess/Cernunnos/Morrigan pantheon or an Odin/Thor/Freya pantheon. And it is known with some amount of certainty that both of these religions sacrificed humans and animals as part of their religious practices. Did they kill people for the gods all the time? Not at all. But it was part of their culture and to make it seem as though the Vikings were a weird outlier does a disservice to their culture. By the eleventh century they were a hold out when everyone else had gone Christian, but they were not “weird” or “unique” in a broader sense. Furthermore, the “Vikings” show is set in the late eight century, when even portions of German were still pagan, so the Vikings were not weird at all in that period.

My other issue with the show is that they over dramatize some aspect of Viking faith, like sacrifices, and then try to make the Vikings “relatable” by injecting Christian elements. Case in point: the blue-lipped priests. From my research there were NO priests in Norse paganism, at least in Norwegian beliefs, and since finishing my thesis I’ve heard of some cases of priestesses who solely worshiped Freya. But by in large, the people who oversaw important ceremonies were the local chieftains, not some individual whose only job was to preform religious services. As much as we know, the gods did not need constant offerings or constant attention. Services were held to ask for the gods favor or to signify important times of the year like the harvest. In the Heimskringla, St. Olaf was asked by other local nobles to preside over a sacrifice in order to signify his new position as king of Norway. Kings could even offer themselves as a sacrifice if a harvest really went bad.

So for the “Vikings” show to add these strange looking men as “arbiters” of religion both makes the Norse look foreign and at the same time struggles to make Norse practices relatable to the audience. It’s like they’re saying “oh look, here are priests to make this scene look like a religious service but let’s make them look weird so that people know they’re supposed to feel uncomfortable about this religion.” The Vikings did not have strangely dressed priests or oracles with no eyes. They had kings and oracles who looked like Scandinavians do today. If anyone has seen “Thirteenth Warrior,” this movie does a much better job at representing Norse belief. In one scene, the Vikings lead an old woman into the communal space, where she then proceeds to cast bones on the ground and shout prophesies about their upcoming voyage. She was not disfigured or overly different from the norm, she simply had a connection to the gods and could read the signs better than others. Does a Christian priest look different than you or I? No. So why does the “Vikings” show put such emphasis on making Viking religious people look grotesque?

That much I do know the show is doing wrong. The truth is that Viking belief and practice varied widely by region. Some areas buried their dead, others burned them. In some places wearing Thor’s hammer was very common, in other areas it seemed to crop up only after Christianity began to threaten the older faith. Still others saw no problem making pendants which showed both the hammer and the cross, or burying their Christian dead beside pagan dead. Sometimes, like in the “Vikings” show, they had carved humanoid idols in buildings. Other times they had the icons in open groves. In very rare cases they sacrificed a human being, or several human beings (as in Uppsala). Most of the time they would sacrifice a horse to Odin and then eat the horsemeat in a big celebration. The worship of specific gods also varied by region. While it is generally understood that the Norse acknowledged all the gods, it is believed that the nobility favored Odin because he was the god of poetry and wisdom while the farmers favored Thor as a protector god. Linguistic analysis of town names in Scandinavia also indicates that some gods were more favored in certain regions than others. And even then, it is believed that the distinction between the Aesir gods (Odin, Thor, etc.) and the Vanir gods (Njord, Frey, and Freya) shows that there were once two different beliefs in Scandinavia which were combined together into one faith. And maybe some places preferred the Vanir to the Aesir. We don’t know!

Even then, the mythology of the Eddas, which were written down by Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century, are just one version of the many possible stories that could have existed about the gods. There are some things that are constant across the Eddas and sagas, such as the fact that Odin often comes in disguise and is not always your friend, or that Thor fights giants with his hammer, but there is so much that is lost. I do not have time here to go through the entire Norse pantheon or their belief system, but what I want to stress is that Norse Paganism did not have a strict dogma like Christianity, and did not rely on written texts. Instead, it was open to many forms of belief and practice, even Atheism. They had a cosmology that helped them understand the world, but they were willing to add the Vanir to the Aesir pantheon, and then even Jesus and the saints when the Christians started coming around. From my knowledge they did not have the same sense of “blasphemy” as Christianity does (despite what the “Vikings” show may claim). Breaking the idols or refusing to preside over the sacrifices if you were a chieftain was definitely bad, but as far as we know what one Viking believed in his heart was his business. He went to public ceremonies because it was a cultural imperative, but in private he could do what he wanted.

Okay, so why am I so worked up about this? Why does it matter that the “Vikings” show takes a few creative liberties? First, the Vikings are my culture and my people. Most of us don’t believe in Norse paganism anymore but our ancestors were certainly not weird, primitive, or “other.” I grew up hearing stories about Thor on his goat chariot and learned how to pronounce “Mjolnir.” I knew about Yggdrasil, Hel, the Midgard Serpent, and trolls before I knew how to read. As I’ve explained in other articles, much of modern Scandinavian folklore stems from these older pagan beliefs, and many people still take these stories and beliefs seriously like I do. Furthermore, there are a growing number of Norse pagans who truly believe in the All-Father and the other gods, and their beliefs should be represented respectfully.  Also, it’s just bad history the way they are representing Norse religion in the “Vikings” show. Do your research show writers.

While I grant you that the show is trying to fill in the gaps on a religion we know very little about, and that they are doing a good job in certain instances of describing Norse beliefs and attitudes, I think on the whole their representation of Norse religion is very disappointing. I hope this post has been a helpful discussion of what Norse religion actually was, and I encourage you to check out this post if you want to see what else I have written on this topic. But for now, the Valkyrie has spoken!

-The Valkyrie

Reinterpreting Beowulf

In May 2014 J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf hit the shelves, and I grabbed my copy soon after I graduated. I am still going through his notes. Yes, the 200 something pages of lecture notes on the translation that Tolkien had just lying around his house and his wonderful son Christopher compiled for the book. I got Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf in part because it’s my desire to read everything that Tolkien has ever written, but I also because I was curious to see how Tolkien interpreted the text. These two points go hand in hand, because in the act of translating Tolkien adds his own style to the original work. Namely, what I noticed about his translations of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and Beowulf is that Tolkien tried as much as possible to capture the flow of the meter of the original poem. Seamus Heaney’s famous edition of Beowulf flows more like modern literature, but until I read Tolkien’s translation I did not realize how much of the soul Heaney had gutted from the text. Tolkien put the same ancient, magical soul into his translation as he did into Lord of the Rings, and thus lets the story transcend time. He made it accessible not through mere words, but through its gripping narrative. So if you have not read this translation, I would highly recommend that you do.

But why am I discussing an Anglo-Saxon poem you probably read in English class on a blog devoted to the Vikings?  And why, furthermore, am I discussing Tolkien? Well, for starters, Tolkien was obsessed with Norse Mythology and culture. This was, in fact, how he and CS Lewis became friends, since CS Lewis was also a Norse Mythology fan, though not as big as Tolkien. Tolkien could read Old Norse, along with Old Irish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and many others. If you know enough of these languages, you will see how they influenced the languages and world of Middle Earth. Elvish looks a lot like a cross between Old Irish, Welsh, and some others, and Dwarven Runes are just slightly modified Norse Runes. The Rohan peoples live in Edoras, and “edoras” in Anglo-Saxon means “outer fence,” which is how they referred to the world as well as the wall around the city. (Tolkien, Beowulf, 225) As it turns out, the more you research the cultures of early medieval Scandinavia and the British Isles the more you will see how “unoriginal” Tolkien was. Or rather, how extremely well read and inventive he was.

Secondly, Tolkien was an impressive linguist and Oxford professor, who taught Anglo-Saxon and in particular Beowulf. He wrote numerous articles and translations on interpreting “The Battle of Maldon,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and Beowulf, all early works in the English literary cannon. According to Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to his father’s translation, Tolkien completed his translation of Beowulf in 1926, when he was 34 years old!! Seamus Heaney, whose translation is probably more well known, was 60 when he completed his translation in 1999. To my knowledge, Tolkien is one of the first to translate the entire poem into modern English, and he did this soon after accepting a professorship at Oxford. He then went on to be a professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, and he tweaked parts of his translation while he taught the poem. (Tolkien Beowulf, vii-viii.)  So why is it that he is known among many circles more for his fiction than for his contributions to modern historical scholarship? Well, most people probably do not want to read incredibly dense and at times dull academic papers, and I can completely understand that. I have tried to read his academic work myself and it is sometimes a struggle to get through them. But why have historians in Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture, whose job it is to know the past scholarship on the topic, often neglect to mention Tolkien and his work on Anglo-Saxon literature?

I learned about Tolkien’s scholarship through an English class at my alma mater, which put his work context with the medieval literary scholarship of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While Tolkien has earned a place in the corpus of English literary scholarship, he has contributed a great deal to the history and linguistic community as well. For me, at least his work has profoundly affected how I understand and interpret the Beowulf text. In his translation I saw for the first time just now Norse the Beowulf story actually is, to the point that I am now inclined to call it a lost Norse Saga. Of course, Beowulf is almost always presented as an English text because it is written in Anglo-Saxon. Those who refute Tolkien’s interpretation, I would gather, would argue this point, and say that Tolkien injected Norse elements in his translation because he was already familiar with Norse culture. While it is undeniable that Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon poem, I believe that it can be seen as well as a shadow of an older Norse story that was passed to the Anglo-Saxons and written down by that culture.

To add a small twist to the analysis trouble here, Tolkien wrote in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that he does not believe Beowulf should be analyzed purely for its historical content, as many of his contemporaries were apparently doing. He instead preferred to think of Beowulf as an epic poem of great beauty, and that looking for historical truths in it should not distract the reader from appreciating its poetic artistry. (The Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien, 5-12). As I slowly have chewed through Tolkien’s 200+ lecture notes on his translation of Beowulf, I have found that, despite Tolkien’s above protest, he relied on a great deal of historical and cultural data to figure out how to interpret and translate the Beowulf text. Does this make Tolkien a hypocrite? To the contrary, I think the point he was trying to make in “The Monsters and the Critics” was that we should never see a medieval text as being 100% factual as we would a news article today. The Beowulf Poet meant for Beowulf to be an entertaining story. However, despite some of its fictional content it contains some historical truth about Norse prehistory which can be corroborated by other texts and archaeological evidence. As well, the text itself reflects the time in which it was written, which is why Tolkien needed to know a great deal about Anglo-Saxon culture to even understand what he was reading.  In today’s academic community, the view of Beowulf has swung much more towards Tolkien’s idea of it: as a work of art and literature rather than a historical text. And I think there can be a middle ground here. In particular, I feel that students of Old Norse literature and culture can gain as much from reading Beowulf as students of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. So here below is my reasoning for calling Beowulf a lost Norse Saga.

tolkien beowulf

1) The Setting

Despite being a text written in Anglo-Saxon in approximately  the eighth century, the poem’s tale is set in approximately fifth century Denmark and Sweden. According to Tolkien’s notes, the poem describes the land of the setting as “Scedeland,” which is the Old English origin for our term Scandinavia. It comes from the Old Norse “Skadinaujo or Skadinawi = ‘the isle or peninsular of Skađin’” (Tolkien’s Beowulf, 148). King Hrothgar is a king of one of the more powerful lands in Denmark, and Beowulf comes from a ruling family of Geats. “Geatas” is an Anglo-Saxon form of the Old Norse word “Gautar,” from which we get the word Gautland (207). This means that Beowulf was from Gautland, Sweden. Beowulf comes to Denmark because Hrothgar is being attacked by Grendel, which Tolkien describes as a ‘troll.’ All this, to me, sounds more like a Norse Story than an Anglo-Saxon one

2) The Two Trolls

The term “troll” in Old Norse meant any magical creature or any creature that is possessed by a magical spell, i.e. “troll-spell” – two terms which Tolkien uses in his translation. In the case of Beowulf, all that we know about Grendel and his mom is that they come from the moors, are roughly humanoid (since Grendel can be wrestled), and they are larger than humans. I struggled for years to figure out what Grendel looked like, since Seamus Heaney’s translation wasn’t that descriptive on this point. The minute I read Tolkien’s translation, which referred to Grendel as a “troll,” it all made sense. Now I see Grendel and his mother looking like every Norwegian troll I read about as a child. And if you don’t think there can be troll women, you haven’t read that many stories. Troll women, and even pretty good looking troll women, appear in Grettir’s Saga as well as Norse Mythology. (Fun fact, a troll woman can look just like a human woman. Check to see if she has a tail.) A lot of other trolls look like the ones in the movie Trollhunter, like this guy:

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So trolls are kinda a big deal.

As Christianity took hold in Scandinavia trolls became associated with magic, and thus were considered evil creatures which could smell the blood of a Christian man. In Beowulf, trolls are apparently decedents of Cain. However, a lot of other myths about trolls vary by region, with some trolls being nice and protective spirits and others being dangerous killers. Sometimes their humanoid, other times they are more animalistic. But I think the biggest point to gather here is that trolls are a Scandinavian specific creature, and to have them mentioned in Beowulf suggests that the story has Norse origins.

3) The Culture

This particular point I will admit is a little fuzzy, since it can be reasonably argued that Beowulf shows both Norse and Anglo-Saxon culture. To this I say that Anglo-Saxon culture, especially in the fifth century when they first traveled to Britain, had a very similar culture to the Norse. Norse Mythology, or basically belief in the Odin pantheon, was shared by a lot of Germanic groups, including the Angles of Denmark and the Saxons of Germany who came over to England and turned into the Anglo-Saxons. It is probably no surprise then that a Danish story found its way into the literature of the Anglo-Saxons. In Bede’s description of the Anglo-Saxons during the conversion process, they lived in longhouses and had small idol alters to the Norse gods in these communal living structures. That sounds a lot like how Scandinavians lived in that period. So was the Beowulf Poet referring to his culture as well as older Norse culture? Probably. But as I said before, the story is set in Scandinavia, so the elements of Anglo-Saxon culture which are present in the story could equally come from the Poet and from the mutual heritage that the two cultures share.

Nevertheless, many elements of the story reminded me more of Norse culture and saga literature than Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf is known as an impressive swimmer, as are several other saga heroes like Grettir the Strong. Hrothgar gives out costly gifts such as torcs to Beowulf and his men when they successfully defeat Grendel – a common practice known in early Norse as well as Anglo-Saxon culture. (Tolkien, Beowulf, 183). This practice is mentioned in “The Wanderer,” an early Anglo-Saxon poem, as well as in pretty much every Norse saga. Because Scandinavian societies were introduced to centralized government structures rather late, they continued the practice of “gift exchange” far into the eleventh century, which is why it is more often associated with Norse culture.  Many scenes in Beowulf also show feasting, which was a common pastime in Norse, and probably Anglo-Saxon culture. And those are just the few most prominent examples that I care to list here.

4) The Story Itself

Here’s where it gets super interesting. I recently picked up a Norse saga book called the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. I mention it in this blog post. In the introduction to this text the translator remarks that the story of Hrolf Kraki has some striking similarities to Beowulf. While the story we have today dates to the fifteenth century, it is based on a manuscript from the thirteenth century which is now lost. The events of the narrative originate from fifth or sixth century, and tells the history of the dynastic house of the Skjöldungs, which ruled Denmark and parts of Sweden in that period. Does this sound familiar? The opening of Beowulf talks of Scyld Scefing, who, according to Jesse L Byock and Tolkien, is the originator of the Skjöldung/Scyldings dynasty.

The Beowulf text goes into some detail about the lineage of the Scyldings, which is Hrothgar’s lineage. Tolkien explains in his notes that Healfdene, one of Scyld Scefling’s decedents, is the English form of a common Norse name: Halfdanr. From there, Tolkien speculates that the Beowulf text is referring to “Healfdene the Old,” who according to the medieval historian Saxo Germanicus ruled in early Denmark and died of natural causes. Jesse Byock states in his introduction to Hrolf Kraki that another text, the Icelandic Saga of the Skjöldungs, traces twenty generations of that kingly line, ending with Gorm the Old, who died in 940 AD (Byock, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, xv). He goes into much greater length on this topic than I can here, but he makes a good claim that there is some historical basis to the lineage outlined in Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki.  However, Tolkien admits in his analysis that much of this is clouded in pseudo-historical Norse and English traditions. (Tolkien, Beowulf, 154-5).

Jesse Byock further states that several names in the Saga Hrolf Kraki also roughly match to Beowulf. Hrolf looks a bit like Hrothgar, and Healfdene like Halfdan, who we learn more about in  Hrolf Kraki’s saga.   Beowulf is a little harder to decipher, but Byock suggests that his character is similar to Bodvar Bjarki, Hrolf’s champion. The name “Beowulf” can be translation as “bee-wolf,” which could refer to a bear who likes honey, or as a compound of “beorn-ulf” = “bear-wolf” (xxv).  Bodvar Bjarki could change into a bear when he fought, so the connection there is tenuous. However, both characters are of Geatish decent and they travel to Denmark to fight for the Danish king, so there is some connection between the two characters there. Furthurmore, Bodvar defeats a dragon which was attacking Hrolf’s hall, just as Beowulf defeats Grendel when he attacks Hrothgar’s hall (and then later a dragon).

Another point of comparison which has a germ of historical basis is the feuds between the Danes and the Swedes. In the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, Hrolf fights the antagonistic Swedish king Adils throughout the saga.  Tolkien discusses Hrolf/Hrothgar’s dynastic history and the feuds between the Danes and the Swedes at great great length in his translation notes. Beowulf is the nephew of the ruling king of Gautland, and his relatives are related to the great enemy of another king names Onlea, who is married to Hrothgar’s sister. By that notion Beowulf and Hrothgar should be enemies, but the story contrives a friendship between Beowulf’s father and Hrothgar that Hrothgar cites at his first meeting with Beowulf around line 300 in the poem. Furthermore, it is hinted in the text that Hrothgar’s nephew Unferth threatens Hrothgar’s son’s claim to the throne, and that his name symbolizes his treachery both to Beowulf and to Hrothgar’s throne (213-217). Beowulf’s presence in Hrothgar’s kingdom causes tensions in the court to heighten because he could also make a claim to Hrothgar’s throne, since he is of noble stock. Beowulf is held up as a paragon of virtue because he does not seek to claim Hrothgar’s throne, but instead wants to help Hrothgar and his sons keep their throne. (And you just thought it was about killing monsters, didn’t you? I certainly did the first two times I read it.)

Tolkien’s analysis of the dynastic struggles in Beowulf are eerily similar to the stories in Hrolf Kraki, which to me shows that the stories could have a common origin. Tolkien also suggests that there is some historical evidence to support the feuds between the Danes and the Swedes, meaning that both Beowulf and the Saga of Hrolf Kraki have a germ of historical truth. So while the stories are not identical, they seem to discuss the same dynastic history of the fifth century kings in Scandinavia.

Conclusion

Of course, historians know very little of the history of fifth and sixth century Scandinavia. The two texts we have left, the Saga of Hrof Kraki and Beowulf, are heavily mythologized stories which are perhaps based on history, or at least a common myth about the historical Skjöldungs dynasty. Archeological evidence has found what we believe to be Hrothgar’s hall in Denmark, or at least evidence that rulers like the fictional Hrothgar did have a powerful hold on that part of Denmark. So that, combined with literary evidence, adds some validity to the claim that Beowulf contains historical truths.  More broadly, I think we can learn a great deal from these texts about early Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon culture, if not the actual history of fifth century Scandinavia.

Unlike previous eras, we now have Tolkine’s complete translation and commentary on the Beowulf text, which opens up a whole new line of scholarship to be pursued on this ages old poem.  Tolkien’s manuscript and notes have so much to offer historians, anthropologists, and linguists alike, and I hope that in the coming years more work will be written on interpreting Beowulf.  But for now, I have said my piece.

-The Valkyrie

If you want to learn more about this subject, I encourage you to pick up Tolkien’s Beowulf, as well as the Saga of Hrolf Kraki, translated by Jesse L. Byock. The other articles and poems I mentioned in this post are worth a read too, so happy reading!