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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The Age that Never Existed. How Museum Bureaucrats Created the Viking Age.

As Robert Egger’s epic The Northman hits the movie screens today, the eternally intriguing Viking Age is once again in the spotlight. Based on a story from Gesta Danorum by Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus (1160–1220), The Northman follows a man named Amleth on his journey for vengeance after his uncle murdered his father and married his mother.

Dubbed by its publicity campaign as the most accurate Viking movie ever made, The Northman shows the Viking North in all its cold, damp, dark, and messy glory. It taps into the strong sense of honor and vengeance-based vendettas that make stories like Njal’s Saga such a compelling read.

Scandinavia of the Viking Age was a fascinating world and a vibrant high culture. A sophisticated oral-based legal system, technically-advanced poetry made up on the spot, beautiful craftsmanship, state-of-the-art ship building, worldwide travels, rune stones where art and literacy (or perhaps better said, runacy) meet, and a religion that straddled the natural and supernatural and bent gender roles out of shape.

The Vikings attract such attention because we can project onto them our own anxieties and beliefs. Apart from the brief messages left behind on the runestones that litter the Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish countrysides, the Vikings left no writings behind. Everything we know comes from people who met them, or people who wrote about them centuries after they were gone. Because the Vikings do not have a historical voice of their own, we can make them say and do whatever we want them to.

The most striking example of molding the Vikings into an image in which we can reflect ourselves are the Vikings themselves. Why? Because the Vikings never existed. And the Viking Age never happened.

Historical time periods are at the foundation of all history writing. Historical time periods are the sine qua non of history. The historical time periods of western history are based on the Julian and Gregorian calendars, invented in Rome and medieval Europe, respectively. Based on how these calendars divide up time, intellectuals and historians across the centuries have identified what they believed were important historical events, and from these events, they organized the past into historical time periods. For example, the Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because during the Renaissance they were in the middle of the time of the Renaissance writers and Antiquity, and by Antiquity these writers meant Rome. The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages because the one thousand years they lasted were considered to be of lesser value and interest than what came before and after.

A time period begins and ends with turning points. Scholars decide what those turning points are. This is not to say that all time periods are made up out of the blue and have no connection to events in the past, but a time period begins and ends depending on what scholars deem to be important.

In traditional history writing, the turning points were precise. The Roman Empire in the west ended in 476 CE when chieftain Odoacer deposed the western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus and declared himself king instead of emperor. The Middle Ages ended in 1492 when Christopher Columbus reached present-day Bahamas. Or in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittemberg. Or in the fourteenth-century when Petrarc discovered the letters of Roman consul Cicero. Wait… I’m confused…

Today, scholars have mostly abandoned the idea that time periods begin and end on a dime. Instead, we acknowledge that there are transition periods when one type of society morphs into another. This is why different scholars can study Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages and still talk about the same time period. It all depends on what questions the scholars want answered.

Which brings us to the Vikings.

History is considered to have begun in a region of Europe when Latin literacy is introduced. For Scandinavia this happened around the eleventh century. The combination of the introduction of Latin literacy, the introduction of Christianity, and the early formation of kingdoms rather than chieftancies is enough of a convergence of turning points to say that the eleventh century is when Scandinavian history, and also the Middle Ages began.

Before the Middle Ages in Scandinavia was the Iron Age. The Iron Age is not a historical time period; it belongs to archaeology. The Iron Age is the final stage of the prehistoric time periods known as the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Iron Age in Scandinavia lasted between 500 BCE and 1050 CE. The Scandinavian Iron Age can be divided into subperiods: the Early Iron Age, which consists of the pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman Iron Age, and the Later Iron Age, which consists of the Vendel Age and the Viking Age.

In the nineteenth century, when archaeology and history became professionalized and museums were invented, bureaucrats needed to label and categorize all the artifacts that became part of the collections housed in these new museums. At the same time, during the course of the nineteenth century, a change in the masculine ideal took place in Scandinavia.

As demonstrated by Anna Lihammer and Ted Hesselbom in their book Vikingen. En historia om 1800-talets manlighet (Historiska Media, 2021), in moving away from the emotionally oriented masculinity of the eighteenth century with its wigs, powdered faces, and high heels, a new type of masculinity was found in the Icelandic and Norse sagas, one of physical strength, honor, and endurance. This new type of ideal man was given the name “Viking,” after the part-time job of raiding and trading that some men participated in during the later years of the Iron Age. In the 1870s, when museums began cataloguing the archaeological finds dated to the late Iron Age, what they saw were artifacts from a high culture that stood out. They named this time period after the new type of ideal man. Thus, the Viking Age was born with a life span from 800 to 1050 CE.

Helmet excavated at Vendel, Sweden. Source: Wikipedia.

The Viking Age as a distinct time period ran into problems pretty quickly. In 1881, elaborate and rich graves were discovered in the village of Vendel, near Uppsala north of Stockholm in Sweden. What the archaeologists found at Vendel were massive ships graves with swords, helmets, shields, horses, drinking vessels, and board games, to name a few of the many fantastic artifacts.

However, the graves at Vendel were dated to between 550 and 800 CE, that is to say, they predated the Viking Age. But since the Viking Age already existed and instead of extending the Viking Age further into the past, yet another time period was invented: the Vendel Age.

Because of the similarities between the two, there is reason to argue that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age could have been consolidated into one and the same time period.

Here you might say that the Vendel Age and the Viking Age should be different time periods because the Vikings had ships with sails and they used those ships to go abroad and loot, trade, and be hired as mercenaries. Just look at what happened in England!

Yes, but, there is evidence in Scandinavia of close connections with the European continent and the British Isles well before either the Vendel Age or the Viking Age. Artifacts have shown that men from Scandinavia enlisted with the Roman army as early as the 4th century CE. Archaeological similarities show connections between early medieval England and Vendel Age Sweden. And then there is the eternal puzzle of Beowulf, considered the quintessential Old English poem but which takes place in Sweden and Denmark of the Vendel Age (also known as the Late Germanic Iron Age in Danish archaeology). Excavations at Uppåkra, today in southern Sweden but during the Vendel and Viking Ages part of the Danish realm, further reinforce the Vendel Age as a high culture with extensive international contacts.

If the beginning of the Viking Age is in flux, so is the end. In their teaching materials for grade schools, the Swedish National Museum dates the end of the Viking Age to c. 1100, thus pushing the transition to the Middle Ages another 50 years into the future. What we see here is how definitive dates have been replaced by transition periods. There is even a case to be made that the Viking Age ended in the thirteenth century when Iceland became part of the kingdom of Norway and the Icelandic Free State came to an end.

To further demonstrate how the Viking Age never existed, in European and North American history writing the Viking Age is considered part of the Middle Ages. This makes sense from the European point of view because the Vikings appear in the historical sources of medieval Byzantium, England, France, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. Interpreting the Vikings within a medieval context makes sense when you study how these societies reacted to the Scandinavian presence. But to say that the Viking Age in Scandinavia was medieval and that it lasted between 793 (the raid on Lindisfarne in England) and 1066 (the battle of Hastings, also in England) is to apply an interpretation and periodization to a region where none of this has any relevance.

So what about the Vikings themselves? What time period would they say they lived in? Well, they wouldn’t have said that they lived during the Viking Age, that is for sure. They didn’t live during the Middle Ages, either. And they wouldn’t have called themselves Vikings. To be a “viking” is to travel abroad to raid and trade and come back with riches and a reputation that precedes you. For the people who lived in Iron Age Scandinavia, the word “viking” was a job description, and not the name of a people nor the name of an ideal type of masculinity.

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

Additional sources:
Anders Winroth, The Age of the Vikings (Princeton University Press, 2014).
Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir, Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020).
Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm. A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020).
Cat Jarman, River Kings. A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavian to the Silk Roads (Pegasus Books, 2022).

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Valkyrie. Excellent New Book on Women of the Viking Age.

Sometime during the second half of the 11th century, a Swedish woman named Gerlög went to Torbjörn the Skald and asked him to do something for her. Gerlög’s daughter Inga had recently died, and as Inga’s only living relative, Gerlög came to inherit her own daughter. To avoid any accusations of having come into her inheritance by unlawful means, Gerlög needed to make a public statement of the course of events that led up to her inheriting Inga. Torbjörn the Skald was knowledgeable in runes, and this is the message that Gerlög hired him to carve into the bedrock.

U 29 Hillersjöhällen

The Hillersjö Hill where Gerlög explains how she came to inherit her daughter, Inga. Source: U 29, the Swedish National Heritage Board.

Interpret, you! Germund was given Gerlög as his wife when she was a maiden. Then they had a son, before he (Germund) drowned. And the son died after. Then she was given Gudrik as her husband. He… this… Then they had children. But only one girl survived; her name was Inga. Her Ragnfast in Snottsta was given as his wife. Soon after he died and then the son. And the mother (Inga) came to inherit her son. Then she was given Erik as her husband. Soon after she died. Then Gerlög came to inherit Inga, her daughter. Torbjörn the Skald carved the runes.

9781788314770This inscription is known as the Hillersjö Hill (Hillersjöhällen) and is included in Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s new book Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World (Bloomsbury, 2020). Valkyrie is a history of the Viking Age that places the women of the time at the center of the story.

The Viking Age is commonly viewed as a time dominated by men where women are barely visible, but Viking society couldn’t function without a tight relationship between men and women. To run a farm, both men and women were needed, which means that women participated in those supposedly all-male Viking expeditions that invaded and settled all the way from Newfoundland in North America to the shores of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia. Because without both men and women working together, those settlements wouldn’t have survived and the iconic Viking ships wouldn’t have been able to set sail.

Jóhanna’s contribution to the study of Viking history and society is immense. In her book, she successfully views the Viking Age from the point of view of its women and in doing so, she refreshingly and unapologetically pushes Viking men to the side.

Her use of source material is broad. In addition to using the sagas, she also uses rune carvings, grave goods, and other archaeological artifacts. Personally, I appreciate the inclusion of the rune carvings seeing as they are the only texts where the Vikings speak to us directly, many of them women like Gerlög. Rune carvings are mainly found in Sweden and using them as source material broadens the view of the Viking world, which all too often ends up focused on the British Isles, France, and Iceland in translation.

Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir’s Valkyrie. The Women of the Viking World provides a new perspective on old knowledge by letting Viking Age women take center stage and speak to us in their own voices.

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

 

Dr337 The Valleberga Runestone

On this Brexit Day when Great Britain is officially leaving the European Union, I give you Dr 337, also known as the Valleberga Runestone (Vallebergastenen). The inscription on this runestone shows that we are all connected in what is today Europe, and that we have been connected for over a thousand years.

Dr 337 Vallebergastenen | The Boomerang

Dr 337, the Valleberga Runestone (Vallebergastenen). Source: Riksantikvarieämbetet, Kulturmiljöbild (http://kmb.raa.se/cocoon/bild/show-image.html?id=16000300013212)

The inscription on the stone reads:

Sven and Torgöt made these memorials after Manne and Svenne. God help their soul well. And they lie in London. (My translation)

Sven och Torgöt gjorde dessa minnesmärken efter Manne och Svenne. Gud hjälpe väl deras själ. Och de ligger i London. (Raa translation)

Swen auk Þorgøtr gærðu kumbl þæssi æftiR Manna auk Swena. Guð hialpi siöl þera wæl; æn þer liggia i Lundunum. (Old Norse transcript)

The style of the runic inscription is interesting. The text looks like the RAK style, which consists of bands of runic text that meander across the surface of the stone. But, the RAK style is not known to include any decorations, and this runestone has a cross carved on it. The RAK style has been dated to c. 980–1015, but because of the cross, the dating of this particular runestone has been pushed forward to c. 1050.

We don’t know the exact identity of the men mentioned on the runestone. However, there are some clues that we can glean from the inscription.

First of all the runestone was made in memory of two men who lay buried in 11th century London. The two men who commissioned the runestone, Sven and Torgöt, were Christians. Manne and Svenne were probably Christians as well, but we don’t know that for certain. Runestones were commonly raised over family members or very close friends. Some runestones explain the relationship between the commissioner(s) and the person(s) commemorated. This is not the case with Dr337.

The runestone was made in and currently stands in the south-Swedish region of Scania (Skåne). At the time of the stone’s creation, Scania was part of the Danish sphere of influence. Based on this evidence, scholars believe that Manne and Svenne were two of the warriors who made up the Scandinavian defense force of England created by Danish king Cnut the Great after he became king of England in 1035. England’s close ties with Scandinavia were severed after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

We need to keep in mind, though, that the story of Manne and Svenne as Scandinavian defenders of the Danish kingship over England is based on circumstantial evidence and conjecture. It could very well be that they were Viking raiders who sailed to England and died in London, either in battle or from some other cause.

Regardless of who Manne and Svenne really were, the Valleberga Runestone demonstrates the close ties between the different parts of Europe that have been ongoing for more than a thousand years.

Sources:
The Swedish National Heritage Board/Riksantikvarieämbetet, Kulturmiljöbild, Dr 337 Vallebergastenen.
Vallebergastenen.
Runstensstilar.

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

 

 

12 Surprising Facts about Viking Runestones

On October 24, 2019, I published the following post on Mental Floss.

12 Surprising Facts about Viking Runestones

12 Surprising Facts about Viking Runestones | Mental Floss

Runestone Sö 106. Source: Riksantikvarieämbetet/Swedish National Heritage Board.

Vikings. The word evokes ferocious warriors, swords, battleaxes, and bloodthirsty raids. Most of what we know about the Vikings, however, are exaggerations written by people who encountered them. There is a way for us to hear the Vikings speak for themselves: by reading messages carved on runestones…
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.