Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Defending the Vikings

Until recently, my mental image of a Viking was pretty similar to the one that exists in popular culture.  Barbarians who wore horned helmets and sailed the seas in long boats.

But thanks to my daughter’s 6th grade assignment, I have been enlightened.

For History Day, we encouraged K to do something about Ireland or the Isle of Man since she has roots there.  She finally settled on researching the Viking impact on the Isle of Man.  Everybody had to research how something impacted something else.  Impact & change--that was the theme.

We checked out as many books as we could on the topic, although the libraries around here were woefully short on books about the Isle of Man.  Can’t imagine why.  So we bought a few that would round out her research.  She had a little trouble sifting through all the information in the books geared towards adults, so I started thumbing through them to help narrow down the relevant parts for her.

And I got sucked in.  Totally and completely.

So I’m going to share some of what I learned.  Whether you want me to, or not.

I learned some very surprising things.  The first of which is the unconfirmed fact that I might possibly have Viking blood coursing through my veins.  My mother, who is much more into genealogy than I am, came across an ancestral line which leads back to William the Conqueror.  This line has yet to be confirmed.  But it turns out that this William, Duke of Normandy, also happens to be the sixth great-grandson of Rollo (formerly Hrolf), an honest-to-goodness pureblooded Viking.  Rollo spent a good deal of time raiding the coasts of England and France.  Nice guy!  But then he and his men overran some wonderful countryside near Frankia, after which Rollo somehow convinced the Frankish king Charles to cede to him the land later called Normandy.  Rollo became the Count of Rouen, but the title was later changed to Duke of Normandy as the holdings were expanded.

This surprised me.  Maybe I’m slow, but I never made the connection between Normandy and the Norsemen.  OK, I am slow.  But here was this state which was to become VERY formidable and a huge influence in the development of Europe.  And it was founded by a Viking.  A smart one at that.

Maybe it’s my possible Viking ancestry, or the certain Viking ancestry of my husband that prompted me to write this post.  Vindicating our ancestors and all that.  Who knows.

I also learned that there are a huge number of English words which come directly from Scandinavian ones.  Window, husband, sky, ugly, wrong, happy. Just to name a few.  The Vikings didn’t just raid churches and coastal cities.  They immigrated and settled, bringing their wives with them.  Women who raised their children with Scandinavian words and participated in the local culture enough for those words to become entrenched into the mainstream English language.  This language infiltration didn’t necessarily happen in Normandy, where they were fairly quickly assimilated into French culture, but it certainly did in another area of England known as the Danelaw.

The Scandinavians also brought with them their laws and their law enforcement.  Turns out they weren’t as barbaric as pop culture would have us believe.  They were a civilized, law-abiding culture.  Well, for the most part.  Like us, they had their share of bad guys.  But they looked to courts to settle their legal disputes.  Courts consisted of 12 men who swore on holy relics that they would basically be impartial in listening to the dispute.  Sound familiar?  This is the first example in English law for majority rule and for trial by jury.  That was certainly surprising.  I never imagined that we owed our legal system to the Vikings.  Certainly both trial by jury and majority rule existed in other countries throughout history, but from the Vikings to the English to us seems the most direct course.  I can’t see how ancient Greece or Rome would have had a more direct impact on English law than the Vikings.  Until I come across evidence to the contrary, this is what I’ll believe.

It’s indisputable that Vikings carried on fierce raids along the world’s coasts.  And they killed pretty much anyone who got in their way.  But in their defense, this type of violence wasn’t uncommon.  The Vikings weren’t the only ones with a tendency toward slaughter.

And one reason Europe, in particular, was so terrified of them, was that they had no respect for the holy places of European culture.  But honestly, why should they?  They weren’t Christian.  They held no love or respect for Christ or His servants.  They saw churches and monasteries as rich and easy targets.  They housed the greatest treasures and riches of Europe . . . and they weren’t guarded.

The Vikings were pagans.  They worshiped an entire family of Gods.  Among them, beings who rewarded fierce warriors and legendary deeds.  The Vikings believed open plunder was actually honorable.  They did, however, believe it was a rather serious crime to steal something from behind a locked door.  Maybe Europe’s monasteries just needed some big padlocks and this whole bloody affair could have been avoided.

Yeah . . . probably not.  Because Viking raids, contrary to popular opinion, weren’t necessarily caused by the simplistic explanation of overpopulation.  They had been emigrating for centuries.  They were well known traders, even in Europe, before they began raiding.

A more plausible explanation for the violent Viking expansion was the increasing centralization of power in Scandinavia.  Warriors emerged as an elite class.  Local kingdoms were swallowed up by regional kingdoms.  Eligibility for kingship only required one parent with royal blood.  Illegitimacy didn’t matter.  So Scandinavian society was faced with huge numbers of men who COULD aspire to rule, but the diminishing CHANCES to rule created extremely fierce competition for those positions.  Raiding provided these men with the opportunity to gather riches and reputation enough to return home and fight for power.

Once Scandinavia began adopting the Christian European model of governing, with more secure royal authority, and local sources of income such as tolls and taxes, raiding declined.  Fortunately for the warrior elite, they weren’t left to drift aimlessly through life, they were able to join the oh-so-respectable crusades.

How’s that for ironic?  After bemoaning the ferocious and barbaric ways of the Vikings, Europe turns around and sanctions the crusades.  Somehow seems even more indefensible than the Viking age.  At least in my opinion.

Oh, and guess what?  The Vikings weren’t all that crazy about horned helmets.  Maybe on rare occasions for special ceremonies, but certainly not in battle.  Can you imagine what a horned helmet would do for you in battle?  Hasten your death, if anything.  And if there was ANYTHING these Viking warriors were good at, it was battle.

But wait, wasn’t this post supposed to talk about K’s project?  How the Vikings impacted the Isle of Man?  Oh, yeah.  So they raided Man, most likely, before they conquered it.  Then they ruled and brought their version of parliament which is still in effect today, making Tynwald the oldest continuous parliament in the world.  And they intermarried with the local population, bringing their customs, language and ideals into mainstream Manx culture.  Then they converted to Christianity.  And after a while, they lost Man to other countries.

K built a viking ship out of popsicle sticks, a model of Tynwald hill out of cardboard and warhammer terrain.  Tynwald is the place the Manx still gather each year to hear the laws read.  And she made a viking memorial stone out of clay.

She opted for the museum display category.  Everyone else in her class did a poster.  And none of them followed the instructions enough to go on to compete in the county history day.  Except for K.  You don't think we have an overachiever on our hands, do you?  Or maybe it's just her Viking blood urging her to seize power . . .

She painted the Manx flag on construction paper.  I happen to think the Manx have one of the most inspiring mottos ever--withersoever you throw me, I shall stand.  Maybe the Viking spirit permeated so far into their consciousness, that it just never faded away.

But if there is one thing I will remember about the Vikings after reading so much about them, it is that they affected so much of the larger world around them--affected it profoundly and in ways that are only rarely recognized.  Amidst all the death and mayhem they caused, they also did a lot of good, or so it seems to me. 

Maybe it’s not a bad thing to have Viking blood in my veins.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Tell K "Congratulations" from Grammy on an A+ project!!! Way to go, K! I'm very proud of you. And thanks for sharing all the info you gleaned on the Vikings. Very interesting! I'll try to confirm that Wm. the Congueror connection one of these days.