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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Mending the Tapestry. A Review of Cat Jarman’s RIVER KINGS.

This review is based on the paperback edition.

In the parish church of Svinnegarn in the Swedish region of Uppland there is a Viking Age runestone fixed inside a wall. The runestone was placed there when the church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, serving as something similar to a mural. Decorated with a large Greek cross at its center, it reads:

Þjalfi and Holmlaug had all of these stones raised in memory of Banki/Baggi, their son, who alone owned a ship and steered to the east in Ingvarr’s retinue. May God help Banki’s/Baggi’s spirit. Áskell carved.

Known as U 778 in the registry of the Swedish National Heritage Board and dated to c. 1010–1050, this runestone is one of more than twenty that mention a Viking raid to the east, possibly as far as the Caspian Sea, led by a man named Ingvarr and which ended in disaster. When news of the expedition’s violent end reached the families at home, they raised runestones to commemorate their dead family members.

Meanwhile further south, another family raised a runestone to commemorate a family member who never returned. Standing at the edge of a field on the Gillberga farm in the Swedish region of Östergötland, the runestone known as Ög 104 is also dated to c. 1010–1050. Decorated with a snake wrapped by its own tail, it tells the following story:

Rauðr raised this stone in memory of Tóki, his brother, a very good valiant man, who was killed in England.

U 778 and Ög 104 are only two examples of the thousands of runestones that were raised and remain standing across the Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian countrysides. These stones are invaluable because they are the only written sources where the Scandinavians of the Viking Age speak for themselves. The practice of raising runestones lasted for a short period of time, but the fact that they are found not only in Scandinavia, but also in places where the Scandinavians traveled and settled, such as England, the Isle of Man, and Ukraine, demonstrates that it was an important custom.

U 778 and Ög 104 are also examples of how far the Scandinavians of the Viking Age traveled, and that they traveled both east and west. Traditionally, the idea has been that people from Norway and Denmark traveled west and people from Sweden traveled east. As a scholar, you studied either one direction (west) or the other (east); most often the west because the other direction was the Soviet Union. But as time progresses after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the modern geopolitical split that cut the Viking world in two is healing, contacts between Viking Age scholars on both sides of what used to be the Iron Curtain continue to be established and nurtured, and the Viking world is re-emerging as even larger and more complex than we could ever have imagined.

In her excellent book River Kings, archaeologist Cat Jarman takes this re-assembly of the Viking world to its extreme when she launches an investigation into how a carnelian bead from India ended up in the grave of a Viking Age Scandinavian warrior in Repton, England. Written like a true crime story, Jarman draws on her expertise and immense knowledge to tell a story that is a real page turner. To find the answer to her question about the carnelian bead, she takes us on a journey where she travels both in person and through history. She takes us to the early medieval emporia of Kaupang in Norway, to the mass grave on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, to the cities of Kievan Rus, to archaeological excavations in Ukraine, to Baghdad, Constantinople, and finally, to India and the last existing workshop that makes carnelian beads the way they would have been made over a thousand years ago.

River Kings successfully adds new weft where the tapestry of the Viking world was torn asunder. The book is beautifully written, the story is masterly crafted, the research solid and deep. The only complaint I have is Jarman’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” instead of “early Middle Ages” in English history. The origins of the term “Anglo-Saxon” have been exposed as white supremacist and racist with no connection to the time period it purports to represent. Jarman acknowledges that the term is modern, has no connection to history, and that it has been “misused” by racists and extremists. By not mentioning the origins of the term, she is able to continue using it because it “remains a widely understood frame of reference for the communities and kingdoms of England between the fifth and eleventh centuries.” (p. 23) It is an interesting conservative choice in an otherwise groundbreaking book. But then again, Jarman also slips in the term “Dark Ages,” which too is outdated.

River Kings by Cat Jarman is a groundbreaking book. Alongside Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm, River Kings is charting new territory in Viking studies and as such is essential reading for anyone serious about the Viking Age.

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

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Marvel’s Thor and the Appropriation of a Cultural Heritage

On March 11, 2015, I published a guest post on the comic book site Panels.

Marvel’s Thor and the Appropriation of a Cultural Heritage

Photo-Oct-01-7-32-28-PM  250px-Thors_Battle_Against_the_Jötnar_1872_by_Mårten_Eskil_Winge

In the fifth issue of the gender-swapped version of the Marvel comic Thor, Marvel responds to critics of the god of thunder now being a woman by having Thor punch a man who ridicules her for being a woman. In spite of this, the debate on Marvel’s decision to turn Thor into a woman will likely continue. Personally, I’m still not sure…

If you would like to read the rest of the article, please click here.

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

Beginning of Time Is Not Beginning of History

In his essay “Farther Away”, Jonathan Franzen discusses how he, during his life as a writer, has come to experience his own life as a story. The way he expresses his relationship to his own story made me think about how we, as human beings, relate to history. It made me ask the question: When does history begin?

Franzen writes as follows:

Even at fifteen, in Idaho, I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it, and now, all the more so, the stories that mattered to me were the old ones – selected, clarified – in retrospect. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

What Franzen discusses is his relationship to the past, in this case his own past. For him to relate to his past, Franzen states that a certain time has to pass before stories can be told based on his life experiences. Franzen’s relationship to his past is similar to the relationship of the historian to history.

Simply put, history consists of all events that have occurred in the past. However, although the terms “history” and “past” are used more or less interchangeably, they do not refer to the same thing. The past consists of events that have already taken place. History is the interpretation of those events.

If history and the past are different things, the consequence of such a statement would be that only sections of the past are included in history.

History is the academic research discipline that interprets and organizes the past with the purpose of increasing our understanding of it.  Swedish historian Göran B Nilsson has called history “retrospective process analysis”, which indicates that for history to be written, a course of events in the past needs to have been finalized so that the process as a whole can be interpreted. In the words of Franzen: “[…] selected, clarified – in retrospect.” Put together, the statements of Nilsson and Franzen would indicate that the answer to the question when history begins would be that a period of time needs to have passed between the present and the completion of the process of which the event was a part.

In other words, history seems to begin in the near past. However, such a conclusion can only be reached if one writes history backwards. Here on this blog I have argued for the necessity of writing history forwards. Consequently, the search for the beginning of history needs to be undertaken at a different place in time.

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Rune stone at Botkyrka Church, Diocese of Stockholm, Botkyrka kommun.
Source: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa)

The academic discipline of history interprets and organizes the past using written documents. Therefore, the beginning of history is connected to the introduction of writing, but the introduction of writing is not equal to the beginning of history. For history to happen, society needs to be literate. In other words, society needs writing to function. Furthermore, enough written material needs to have survived to the present day for the historian to be able to perform a systematic analysis of its contents. This is the reason why the Scandinavian Viking Age with its runic scripture is not considered part of history. Viking society was based on an oral culture and the writings that have been left behind for us to read are mostly short statements, for example on rune stones or weapons. These messages tell us about the people who inhabited Scandinavia during the seventh through tenth centuries, but they do not convey enough information for a process analysis to take place. Consequently, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, when literacy is introduced through the conversion of the region to Christianity.

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Scroll for Zhang Dong (c.1100).
Current location: Princeton University Art Museum

If history begins when a society can be said to have become literate, it would mean that history begins at different points in time in different parts of the world. As stated above regarding the Scandinavian Viking Age, history in Scandinavia begins with the Middle Ages, in this case dated to the middle of the eleventh century. Compared to, for example, China, Scandinavian history is short, due to the fact that China has been a literate society for so much longer.

In conclusion, history can be said to begin both in the distant past and in the near past. It begins in the distant past when a society turns to literacy to function. It begins in the near past because for a process to be interpreted, that process, or at least parts of it, needs to have reached some kind of conclusion. Or as Franzen said:

[…] I had written from within my despair but only after I was safely over it […]. (Franzen, 2012 p. 27)

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

Sources:
Jonathan Franzen Farther Away (Picador, 2012)
Göran B Nilsson “Historia som vetskap”, Historisk Tidskrift 2 (2005) pp. 189–207

Note:
Images of the Botkyrka run stone and the scroll for Zhang Dong have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Al Gore and the World’s Oldest Corporation

Earlier this year, Al Gore published The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013), his latest book on what the future holds for planet Earth. In it, Gore outlines what he believes are the processes that will determine the future course of human existence. It is an interesting, as well as dystopian, read.

The reason for this post, however, is not for me to comment on Gore’s views on climate change or global development. As an historian who was written a dissertation and a number of research articles on Scandinavian medieval and early-modern history, one statement made by Gore gives me reason to discuss, from a Swedish perspective, the historical development of what dominates the world today. I am talking about the historical development of corporations.

In The Future, Gore states:
“The longest running corporation was created in Sweden in 1347, though the legal form did not become common until the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands and the United Kingdom allowed a proliferation of corporate charters, especially for the exploitation of trade to and from their new overseas colonies.”
(p. 105–106)

From an historical point of view there are three points in this passage that need to be discussed.

First, the statement that a corporation was founded in Sweden in 1347. When I first read this I was genuinely confused. If a corporation had been founded in Sweden in 1347, I would have known about it since the king of Sweden at the time, Magnus Eriksson, is a person whose reign I am very familiar with. What on Earth was Gore talking about? I went to the notes section of The Future and discovered a reference to an article published in TIME Magazine in 1963. The article in question discusses the copper mine at Falun, Sweden (Falu koppargruva). To find out about Magnus Eriksson’s part in the foundation of the mine, which during its peak-production years was responsible for two-thirds of the world’s copper extraction and is the reason why most buildings in the Swedish countryside are painted red, I then consulted the online database of medieval documents published by the Swedish National Archives. The result of that consultation showed that in 1347, Magnus Eriksson issued an official letter stating the terms for the labor organization among miners in the area. This letter is not a corporation charter. It is a ratification of local mining activity that can be traced as far back as the 11th century. Moreover, this is far from the first time the mine is mentioned in Swedish medieval documents.

Overall, during the Middle Ages it is not possible to speak of the type of corporation here implied by Gore. In the city states of Northern Italy there were financial organizations that displayed traits that would later appear in corporations of capitalist societies, but in Sweden at the time, the economics of society were not sophisticated enough to reach even to that level. Moreover, the information that is available regarding the economic system of medieval Sweden is too scarce for us to be able to say anything valid regarding financial organizations and enterprises. Even the existence of guilds, seemingly the most medieval of all organizations, is being debated.

The second point that made me react when I read Gore’s statement was the phrase that this kind of corporation, of which Falun Copper Mine supposedly was one, did not become common until the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. What Gore is referring to here are in fact companies, which were common-place during the economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, called mercantilism. Gore is correct in stating that the geopolitical entities today referred to as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom issued charters for companies in order to exploit colonies all over the world. For example, the first English colonies in North America were founded and run by a chartered companies.

However, these realms were not the only ones to issue colonial charters. In Sweden, the royal government issued several charters to various companies. The New Sweden Company (chartered in 1637) founded a short-lived colony on the Delaware River. The Africa Company (chartered in 1649) engaged in slave trade in present-day Ghana. The East India Company (chartered in 1731) traded with China and the West India Company (chartered in 1786) ran plantations on Saint-Barthélemy. However, Falun Copper Mine did not become a chartered company. Instead, the mine answered to a government department dedicated solely to mining, called Bergskollegium, which existed between 1637 and 1857.

The third point that needs to be discussed is the source of Gore’s information. Gore refers to an article with the title “Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, published in TIME Magazine on March 15, 1963. The article states exactly what Gore says, namely that Falun Copper Mine is the oldest corporation in the world and that this corporation was set up in 1347. However, the article states that the corporation in question was a “corporation of master miners”. In other words, a guild, which, as I pointed out above, regarding their existence in medieval Sweden, are being debated.

The greatest problem with the article in TIME Magazine is that it is hopelessly outdated. It was written exactly 50 years ago. At the time of publication, the information contained within the article was correct: Falun Copper Mine was one of the largest and most profitable mines in the world and had been so for centuries. Despite this, in 1992 Falun Copper Mine was decommissioned due to depletion of the ore. In 2001, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the site is a museum with guided tours.

Sources:
Nationell Arkivdatabas Svenskt Diplomatariums Huvudkartotek: http://www.nad.riksarkivet.se/SDHK
Bishop Peter of Västerås, June 16, 1288, SDHK-nr:1406
King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden, Norway, and Scania, February 17, 1347, SDHK-nr:5394
Nationalencykopledien:
http://www.ne.se Falu gruva
http://www.ne.se Bergskollegium
“Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, TIME Magazine, March 15, 1963
Al Gore, The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013)
Thomas Lindkvist & Maria Sjöberg, Det svenska samhället 800–1720 (Stockholm, 2013)

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