Alright everyone, listen up. It’s time for yet another Rerun, and you know what that means: I will spend the next few hours slaving over a hot keyboard trying to bring a little knowledge and historical perspective to my ultra-modern, technology-, television-, and pop-culture-obsessed friends and countrymen. So here it is, today’s episode!
Everybody’s Favorite Heathens
Starring: Bjorn, Alrik, Alfgeir, Harald, Gunnar, Floki, Leif, Ingvar, and of course…Bjorn (the other Bjorn)
[Cue music] Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (of course!)
[Fade in] on a scenic, small tidal island off the coast of Northumbria, England. The island is surmounted by a small abbey, founded roughly 150 years prior by an Irish monk named Aidan. Despite the fact that the island is located off the northeastern coast of Britain, today the sky is blue and there is a fair wind from the east. Summer, such as it is in these parts of the world, has arrived. The other thing that has just arrived is, or rather are, several long wooden ships with square sails, many oars, and fearsome dragons carved into the prow. Bearded, fierce-looking men walk the decks, fingering axes and surprisingly long swords. Round wooden shields are slung at their backs and mounted to the sides of the ships, affording the oarsmen some protection from archers. Their conical iron helms are significantly lacking in any sort of curved, horn-like objects.
[Cut scene] to a nearby beach, where one of the longships has just landed.
[Enter, stage right] Bjorn, Alrik, Alfgeir, Harald, Gunnar, Floki, Leif, Ingvar, and Bjorn.
Bjorn: Hurpdee flurdee blurn, de florgen blorgen bjørg! (subtitle: “About time we found some dry land. Now let’s get to the raping and pillaging!”)
Gunnar: Flurn diggen blurn durn! Ingvar skjurben me fergin. Scør mergin vjergin! (subtitle: “I agree! Ingvar’s starting to give me funny looks. He needs a women!“)
Ingvar: Ee skurgee vurgee Viking, ig de flurg! Bork bork bork bork! (subtitle: “Maybe if you grew a beard like a proper Viking, you wouldn’t look like a woman to me! Ha ha ha ha!”)
Bjorn, Alrik, Alfgeir, Floki, Leif, and Bjorn: Bork bork bork!
Harald: Fjor bjorgen! De alfgar skivarg blorgen bjørg, i Valhalla flargen blarg! Vjergin i florgen me skrogar! (subtitle: “Shut up, you men! We’ve got some killing to do, and Valhalla take any of you bastards that fall in battle! More loot and English women for me!”)
[Exit, stage left] Bjorn, Alrik, Alfgeir, Harald, Gunnar, Floki, Leif, Ingvar, and Bjorn.
It is anno domini DCCXCIII to the monks in the abbey, which to you and I is 793 AD. The date, as you may have guessed, is June 8th.
Now before any of you Scandinavian scholars out there get all pissy about my fake Old Norse, let me sum up everything I know about Scandinavian languages:
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can get on with the rest of this post.
As I said, it’s June 8th, 793. A raiding party from Scandinavia has just landed on Lindisfarne island (or the Holy Island, as it was called at that time due to it’s well-known abbey) just off the coast of Britain, ushering in what has since come to be known as the Viking Age. Certainly there had been seagoing raiders in the past, from Ireland, Scotland, and the Orkney Islands, continental Europe, and possibly even as far afield as the Mediterranean, but nothing of this magnitude. These Norsemen were well-armed, well-organized, and utterly ruthless. And pagan, to boot. And whereas before most of the earlier raiders were just in search of quick loot, the Vikings were just as apt to set up seasonal or permanent settlements (from which they could raid the surrounding countryside in the months and years to come) as they were to pillage and plunder a village or monastery and then leave. Fortunately (relatively speaking) for the Northumbrians, this particular party were of the latter type, looking for quick loot and then sailing back to Norway. Alcuin of York, a scholar in the court of Charlemagne and himself a Northumbrian, described the sack of Lindisfarne thus: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. . . .The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.” As I said, fortunately these guys weren’t planning on sticking around for long.
Of course, what we see here, in the eyes of modern history (and from a generally Anglicized viewpoint) can be more or less depicted by the fine gentleman to the right. Note the blood dripping from his axe, smoke and flames in the background, the manic grin and savage eyes, and the generally unkempt, disheveled appearance. Quite different from the civilized, prim, proper, and altogether much better looking citizens of Anglo-Saxon (pre-Norman) England (“Oh Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down ‘ere!”). But anyway, it’s perfectly easy to picture a boatload of dudes just like our friend here tooling around the North Sea, landing somewhere on a drunken whim, and causing much havoc, murder and mayhem among the bountiful fields of Bonny England, all the while grinning like lunatics and waiting to take their pick of fine English women. The only sure defense against such invaders was, apparently, to own a specific type of credit card. Even then, I have my doubts…
This is, you’ll no doubt note, quite a skewed way of looking at things, for several reasons. First and foremost being the fact that, most of what we know about the Vikings (and by we, I mean us non-Scandinavian types) comes from eye-witness accounts of, well…people they f#%*ing invaded! There’s just the slightest, tiniest, teensiest chance those accounts are a little bit biased. Furthermore, there’s the additional bias in that the accounts were generally written by Christians, who grew up with a good and healthy dose of “fear the Godless heathen” in their daily diets – and twice on Sundays, of course. Compound this with the fact that, generally speaking, the history and culture of the Norse people was primarily an oral tradition, which means that if you didn’t speak their language (i.e., you weren’t Norse yourself), you just had no access to or understanding of their culture, other than when the worst of the worst (think the gangs of Compton got boats and decided to go f- some shit up somewhere else for a change) came knocking on your door. Generally speaking, the vast majority of Norse people were farmers, just like most everywhere else in Europe at that time. The term “Viking” itself wasn’t actually applied to the people or a culture as a whole, but only to the raiders, pirates, and invaders that went sailing with the intent of conquering new lands or stealing something that didn’t belong to them. The long and short of it is that the Norse people had (and have) a rich, varied, and sophisticated culture which was completely unknown to 99% of the people they came in contact with during the so-called Viking Age. The study of this, however, is well beyond the scope of this article. For those eager little students out there (or those of you with exceedingly brown noses), further reading can be found in the list below, all of which I highly recommend.
And of course, Ye Olde Wikipedia
Damn it, I spent too long writing this damn thing; it’s now technically June 9th. Just pretend I didn’t write any of this, I guess. Oh look, a Capital One commercial…!