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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