Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Building a Norse Persona--Winroth vs. Short--Part I

As a participant in the Society for Creative Anachronism, my persona is an Icelandic woman from around 1000 AD.  I picked this persona to honor Blessi.  To better understand a woman's role during this time frame, I sometimes read a book on Norse history and/or culture.

My most recent foray involves two books:
- The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth
- Icelanders in the Viking Age by William Short

I highly recommend both books for different reasons.

Winroth provides an excellent discussion of the violence inherent in Norse Society, even though the Norse were also traders and explorers.  During the years of the Vikings before the consolidation of power under the Scandinavian kings, chieftains maintained power by giving away riches and exotic items (I never thought of a Walnut as an exotic item) to ensure the loyalty of their followers.  To ensure a steady stream of booty, the chieftain was reliant on organizing successful raids by ships, which because possible due to technological advances in ship building.  Traders also brought home considerable silver and gold traded for  slaves, furs, ivory, walrus skin ropes, etc, and Winroth does an excellent job tracing the economic impact of this transfer of goods and the rise and fall of Norse market centers across Europe.  Those who choose not to go a vikingr and remain on the farm were also subject to the possibility of random violence.

When discussing Norse politics, art, religion, and home life, Winroth makes the decision not to use the Icelandic sagas,  arguing that they were written some 200 years after events occurred so they are biased by the beliefs of the post Christian conversion people who wrote them down.   Instead he used contemporary Arab accounts,  archaeological finds, rune carved stones commemorating various events, skaldic poetry  such as Beowulf  and Vellekla dating from this period.

His discussion of the interpretation of rune stones is fascinating.  He provides a detailed breakdown of the multiple layers of  meanings of the Karlevi runestone on an island off Sweden carved as a memorial to the chieftain Sibbi in the late 10th century.  On a superficial level to a passerby who is slightly conversant in reading the runes, Winroth explains that the monument "screams 'Danger!  Ghosts!" to a potential grave robber but a more sophisticated reader would pick up the lavish praise for Sibbi (I have just condensed 5 pages of extrapolation to 1 sentence.)

Winroth also argues against some of the most popularly held beliefs of Norse behavior--the blood eagle (a horrify way of executing somebody), berserkers as fighters crazed by drugs or blood lust, and the sacrifice of large numbers of men and beast by hanging in the pagan religious center at Uppsala in Sweden (where are all the bones and/or ashes of these sacrifices if they were so prevalent?).

My only quibble about this book is I wonder if all of Winroth's archaelogical data is strictly accurate.  At one point in the book, he states that the height of the feast halls cannot  be extrapolated from post holes (discolorations in the ground marking where posts were set into the ground).  I remember from my archaeology class in college that the height of a pole could be determined if there was remnants of the wood remaining in the post hole since different types of wood have different weight bearing properties; therefore a general height of the original pole can be  estimated. Woodroth may have meant that all of the wood had rotten away so there was no way to estimate the height.  I went looking for review of this book by scholars and found an article by Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide, University of Bergen in The Medieval Review :

Nordeide argues that a number of Winroth's statements are based on outdated literary resources and old archeology."I must point out that some of the literature cited is extremely old, such as in the case of Viking-Age decorative styles (68-71). Sometimes this leads to serious errors in the book, such as in the case of the Gokstad ship burial, which is dated to "some point soon after the middle of the ninth century" (44), and to "the early ninth century" (76). However, since 1993 the date of this grave has been known to be from c. 900. "

Dr. Martin Rundkvist points out another series of errors and redundancies in his Science Blog found at:

Rundkvist points out that some of the examples of Norse art are not categorized correctly and some of the sources that Winroth uses are dated.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this review.

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