Thursday, 14 January 2021

Northmen: The Viking Saga (AD 793-1241), John Haywood (2015)

I bought this book at an independent bookstore during the house move. I don’t remember which one it was, but I tend to gravitate to independents because they have better stock than other types of bookstore. That’s not to disparage chains like Collins – as many of them are franchises, so have their own purchasing policies independent of a central office.

Compared to the other book on Vikings I read recently – Neil Price’s ‘The Children of Ash and Elm’ - Haywood’s book is more restricted, being mainly about the politics of Viking civilisation. It’s a bit of a misnomer to use that label, to be frank, as they didn’t have much of a civilisation to speak of, being largely illiterate. I think it’s fair to say this, especially given the Vikings’ predilection for robbery, extortion, and slavery. 

They weren’t “nice” people and, as Haywood points out near the end of his book, it was Europe that changed the Vikings as much as it was the Vikings changed Europe. In fact, he doesn’t say this. What he says is that Europe changed the Vikings. But the Vikings gave the world their method of government – the “thing”, roughly comparable to a parliament – and that’s quite an achievement for a group of criminals. Sort of like a meth cook winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

If I was going to be asked to choose which of these two books could best be read to provide a solid overview of Viking history, I’d equivocate and say, “Read both.” Price’s book is better in a way because it gives more information about the Vikings’ religion. Haywood’s provides more information however about actual religious practice, as he includes a visitor’s account of an X-rated Viking funeral where Price elided events and glossed over this part of the story – and it’s an important item to be cognizant of if you want to fully understand (as far as that’s possible at this remove) the Viking mind.

Because they were different from us in significant ways. A prehistoric pagan society. It reminds me of the words of the character Kurtz (unforgettably played by Marlon Brando) in ‘Apocalypse Now’. 

This is the flipside to complaints about Christianity. It’s incontrovertible that Christianity helped the West to civilise, and not just in terms of morality. Priests also helped with state-building since, while rulers used to be – in pagan societies – at the head of the religious cult, under the God of Christ a literate, specialised class of individual was charged with administering to the spiritual needs of the community. This literate class of people – priests, bishops, and other office holders – brought a specific set of qualities to bear on the project, which enabled emerging nation states to negotiate the sometimes rocky path to peace.

Old habits died hard, and converting people to the new religion often required more than persuasion using words. Often, not surprisingly for a people so wedded to violence in their politics and economic life, it required more severe methods, such as murder, torture, and dispossession. Though “required” is not quite right, too. In any case, the process took time and was sometimes rocky in its proceeding.

To illustrate how politics and religion combined around 1000 years ago in Scandinavia, a request from the king of the Danes to Rome for a bishop based locally was for many years ignored. Up until one was ordained – as, eventually, he was – the head of the Danish church was based in northern Germany. So you can see how political leaders viewed the church: not just as a source of solace for their people, but also as a part of the cognitive and practical infrastructure used for state building. The Church (and it was, of course, the Catholic Church) was integrated with daily life in a way that, now, seems absurd. 

As we know, this role would not diminish as the centuries rolled by, and it was again the people of the “thing” – northmen and Germans – who would lead the push for revitalisation of the Church that, 500 years later, resulted in the establishment of entirely separate denominations which we now call Protestant.

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