The Diaspora and the Tyranny of the Primary Source. A Review of Judith Jesch’s THE VIKING DIASPORA

Beginning sometime during the late eighth century, people left Scandinavia in large numbers to raid, trade, and settle elsewhere. The Viking world, as we now call the area across which this movement of people took place, ended up reaching from North America in the west to the Caspian Sea in the east, the Arctic Ocean in the north, and the Mediterranean in the south.

The people who settled in different places across the Viking world are the subject of The Viking Diaspora (Routledge, 2015) by Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham. Jesch is a trail blazer and a giant in the field of Viking Studies, being one of the first to work in the field as it developed during the final decades of the twentieth century.

The Viking Diaspora investigates whether the term “diaspora” can be applied to the Scandinavian settlements throughout the Viking world. This in-depth analysis of the term still reverberates across the field of Viking Studies today where “diaspora” and “the Viking world” have become nearly interchangeable.

Although I still agree that “diaspora” is a term that can be applied to the Scandinavian settlements that appeared between the ninth and eleventh centuries, I found myself being more convinced of its usefulness before reading this book than I am after. There are several reasons for this.

First, the term “diaspora” itself, and how it is defined as a theoretical term. To start the discussion about there having been a Viking diaspora, the nine criteria set up by sociologist Robert Cohen are listed, most of which are identified as applicable to the Viking world. The first two criteria on Cohen’s list define what a diaspora is as opposed to mass migration: a diaspora is migration caused by a traumatic dispersal from an original homeland, or an expansion from a homeland where large groups of people leave “in search of work, in pursuit of trade, or to further colonial ambitions.” (p. 70).

The discussion immediately gets into trouble here, because to be able to determine whether or not the migration from Scandinavia qualifies as a diaspora we need to know why people left. That is to say, we need to know why the Viking Age happened. Scholars have wrestled with this question for more than a century without reaching an answer, and, as can be expected, this book doesn’t answer the question either. It declares the traumatic event of people leaving Norway for Iceland in response to the repressive reign of Harald Fine-Hair as myth (which it is), and in the case of leaving the homeland in pursuit of opportunities and ambitions, it only manages to prove that raiding, trading, and settlement were the results of Scandinavian travels, not their cause.

Second, even though the research that the book presents is substantial, it is entirely focused on Scandinavian migration and settlement in the west. Scandinavian migration and settlements in the east are mentioned once in a while and in passing, even though there already in 2015 were enough evidence and available research of the same kinds of activities that are identified in the west.

The counterpoint to this counterpoint is one of scope. If the book were to have included the east in as much detail as it discusses the west, the book would have been too long and it probably never would have been finished. I think the problem here is that as scholars we tend to place ourselves under the tyranny of the primary source. Primary sources are important, obviously, but when we write syntheses, or present theoretical arguments like here with the term “diaspora,” too much focus on primary sources bog us down and prevent us from seeing the forest for the trees.

Third, the book declares that the Scandinavian settlements of the North Atlantic and the North Sea qualify as a diaspora because they fulfill Cohen’s criteria of collective memory, myth, and idealization of the homeland; a return movement; ethnic group consciousness maintained over time; troubled relationship with the society where the group has settled; co-responsibility for other settlements; and a distinctive creative life in the host society.

I do agree that the Scandinavian settlements in the west fulfill these criteria, but the question that the book never addresses is: What role did the kingdom of Norway and the Archdiocese of Nidaros play in this?

The Scandinavian settlements in the west were Norwegian tax lands (skattland), and their bishoprics belonged to the Archdiocese of Nidaros, which during the High Middle Ages was the largest archdiocese in medieval Europe. When reading the discussion about the Scandinavian diaspora, how and why it happened, you get the impression that the various western settlements, apart from Iceland after 1262, existed outside of any political or religious contexts, and any connections and exchanges between them happened because of individual initiatives.

The book mentions the kingdom of Norway once in its final chapter, and in doing so, it puts into question its entire argument: “This North Atlantic community was held together by the rule of the Norwegian king and then gradually fell apart.” (p. 198–199) The examples provided to illustrate how the community fell apart reveals a correlation between the retreat of the Norwegian kingdom from the North Atlantic and the collapse of the diaspora, which leads to the question: Was there a diaspora at all, or did it all hold together for as long as it did because of the kingdom of Norway?

Meanwhile in the east, neither the Swedish kingdom nor the Archdiocese of Uppsala ever reached into what is today Russia and Ukraine, and still, the Scandinavians who raided, traded, and settled there became part of society while maintaining a Scandinavian identity and connections to the homeland. Which leads to the question that perhaps there was a Scandinavian diaspora after all, but in the east? However, that is a different book.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Update on the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible Book Project

Bookend of the Devil from the Devil’s Bible, purchased at the National Library in Sweden. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

On this day, July 15, in 2015, I published a post on Book Riot that would take my life in a new direction. The post was titled 10 Things You Should Know about the Codex Gigas/Devil’s Bible. I chose the Devil’s Bible and the listicle format because I had problems coming up with an idea for a post, so I used to a simple format to write about something I already knew and that fascinated me.

Three years later, in 2018, my listicle about the Codex Gigas was one of the evergreen Book Riot posts that drew traffic to the site. If I remember correctly, that post alone drove about 90,00 views to the site during the year of 2018. When I left Book Riot in June 2019, the post had already racked up more than 50,000 views during the first six months of that year.

In the late summer of 2018, I received a cold email from one of the producers of the TV-series The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. They had read my post on Book Riot and wondered if I would be interested in filming a segment about the manuscript. I of course accepted and spent an amazing 24 hrs in the Czech Republic. We filmed the segment about the Devil’s Bible at the Broumov Monastery using a life-sized replica of this fantastic manuscript as our prop. The segment would later become part of the first episode of the third season of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, and aired on the National Geographic Channel in March 2019.

All of these things put together made me realize that there is a bigger interest in the Devil’s Bible than I had thought. I also realized that there was no book about the Devil’s Bible available in English.

So I decided to write one.

I have been working on this book about the Devil’s Bible since the spring of 2019. During this time, I have researched the manuscript’s history and the medieval history of the Czech Republic. I have learned about medieval book production, the history of monasticism, the history of evil, the history of Heaven and Hell, and the history of the Devil. I have gone through the digitized copy of the Codex Gigas and taken notes on every single page of the manuscript to get to know it and its creator better. This task alone took me almost nine months. I have written a first draft, which made clear to me that there were parts of my book project that needed additional research. This additional research took me another six months to complete.

Finally, this week, I started writing the second draft of my book, a draft I thought I would have started a year ago.

My book about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible is currently a work in progress. I expect to finish the second draft sometime early next year. I would be surprised if I finish sooner, considering that the university fall semester starts again in August.

When I finish the book, there is still no guarantee that it will be published. The journey towards publication is a different type of journey from writing with other forces at work. It could very well be that no agent or publisher is interested in picking up my book. It is a reality I must be ready to face.

But even if the book never gets published, researching and writing about the Codex Gigas/the Devil’s Bible has already been fulfilling and rewarding because I have learned so much in the process. Not only that, I have created a university course about the history of Central Europe based on what this project has taught me. If that turns out to be the only outcome of this project then that is a good one.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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When It’s in the Walls… A Review of Nell Irivin Painter’s THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE.

From letters of recommendation for college applications to buying insurance, scratch the surface of any American institution and you will find racism, antisemitism, or both. Over the past number of years, voices have been raised in shock over the increase in American society and political discourse of overt White supremacy, the racist belief that White people are superior to all other races. This is not who we are! these voices exclaim. It’s un-American to be a racist! But as Nell Irvin Painter demonstrates in her book The History of White People, being a racist, and being a White supremacist, is as American as apple pie.

Though published already in 2010, Painter’s history of the White race in America is as relevant as ever. Flipping the coin on the historiography of race, Painter, Professor Emerita at Princeton University, puts the White race under the microscope to investigate how the group seen as the default in American culture invented itself.

Painter’s findings are as fascinating as they are revolting. Over and over, Painter demonstrates how scholars, intellectuals, philanthropists, and others turned themselves into intellectual contortionists in order to build pseudo-scientific arguments that prove why they, because of their pale skin and Protestant Christian beliefs, are superior to all other groups, especially Jews and Blacks. Particularly interesting to read is how these labyrinthine discussions over time created a contradictory, yet clear, origin of White Americans in Scandinavia.

As racism turned into race science, scholars made use of eugenics, genealogy, phrenology, anthropology, and history to create an internal hierarchy within the White race in America where Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, and Caucasians are the top three best groups to belong to. These three groups are intellectual products with no connection to reality, either in the United States or Europe, but as we have daily proof, the belief in them and the violence that this belief provokes is very much real. As Painter so convincingly demonstrates, even those of us who refute the ideas of racism and White supremacy can’t escape them, because racism and White supremacy are built into the walls of that shining city on a hill we call America.

The History of White People is essential reading to understanding racism, antisemitism, and White Supremacy in the United States today.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Book Review Round Up Part 4: Foreword Reviews

It’s time for another round up of the books I have recently reviewed for Foreword Reviews. This round up contains books about fairy tales in a small town in the Midwest, travels around the Black Sea, and an mixed-race family struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.

These are all books that I enjoyed reading. Hopefully you will find them enjoyable as well.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews. The reviews can be read in full on Foreword Reviews’ website and in the May/June 2022 issue of the Foreword Reviews magazine.

Scott Russell Sanders, Small Marvels (Indiana University Press, 2022).

“Midwestern magic abounds in Scott Russell Sanders’s fairy tale short story collection Small Marvels. In Limestone, Indiana, Gordon Mills is a jack of all trades whose big family lives in a dilapidated house that only remains standing because it doesn’t know which way to fall. His wife, Mabel, keeps the family together. With their respective parents, Gordon and Mabel work to make ends meet. Even though money is short, there is always food on the table and plenty of love to go around. But while, on the surface, the family’s hometown seems to be an ordinary place, and the Mills to be an ordinary family, these linked stories reveal that there is more to both than meets the eye.”

I enjoyed this short story collection because I enjoy stories about the fantastical among the ordinary. There is story telling to explore where these two worlds crash up against each other, and it shows that what we take for granted might just be magic.

Jens Mühling, Simon Pare (transl.), Troubled Water. A Journey around the Black Sea (Haus Publishing, 2022).

“Jens Mühling’s colorful travelogue Troubled Water captures the history and cultures on the shores of the Black Sea. The Black Sea has been a crossroads for warring and colonizing societies since human civilization began to take form in the Fertile Crescent. Along its contested shores, empires have risen and fallen, and people are constantly on the move, either voluntarily or by force. Against a backdrop of demographic, political, and environmental change, the civilizations of the Black Sea are examined by looking at every situation from more than one angle. Simon Pare’s vibrant translation from the original German brings out the literary qualities of the prose.”

As I wrote in last week’s post about the interview I did with Jens Mühling, before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Black Sea as a region was generally overlooked in popular history and contemporary politics. But as recent developments in the region have shown, and which Mühling brings forth in his book, the Black Sea has played a crucial role in human civilization for millennia. And not only is this a great book, look at that book cover! I love it.

Jennifer Dance, Gone But Still Here (Dundurn Press, 2022).

“Jennifer Dance’s based-in-truth novel Gone but Still Here follows a tragedy-scarred multiracial family as one of its members is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Mary feels herself slipping. Despite her career as a published author, her words don’t come to her the way that they used to, she has forgotten how to use a can opener, and time passes without her noticing. To preserve her memories before they completely disappear, she begins to write a book about her husband, Keith, who died when their children were very young. Told from Mary, Kayla, and Sage’s points of view, as well as using multiple storytelling elements, from text messages to prose, the novel does a beautiful job of portraying the joys and sorrows that follow from a life-altering diagnosis. Gone but Still Here is an emotional novel about a family faced with the challenges of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.”

I enjoyed this book because of the love and warmth that exuded from its pages. Books rarely make me cry, but this one did.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Interview with Jens Mühling for Foreword Reviews

In May of this year, I sat down with German author and journalist Jens Mühling to talk about his latest book Troubled Water. A Journey around the Black Sea for Foreword Reviews.

When I signed up to review the book in January this year I did it out of my own personal interest. The Black Sea is a body of water that is generally overlooked in today’s West-centric geopolitical debates, but for thousands of years, the Black Sea has been a nexus for human communication. I encounter the Black Sea no matter what type of history I study. The Ancient Greeks colonized the shores of this sea. Constantinople was founded by the Romans as a lock on the sea. The Goths migrated from the shores of this sea and changed the face of the European peninsulas during late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia went up against each other for supremacy over this sea, a fight that went on for centuries.

Map of the Black Sea. Source: Jens Mühling, Troubled Water/Amazon.com.

In May, when I sat down to talk to Jens, the world was in a different place than back in January. The Black Sea was at the center of the world’s attention because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s modern southern border stretches along the north shore of the Black Sea, cut short by Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Click here to read my interview with Jens. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Click here to read my review of Troubled Water, which was given a starred review in Foreword Review’s May/June issue of 2022.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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