Thursday, March 5, 2015

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

In comparison to Anders Winroth's The Age of the Vikings, William Short in his Icelanders in the Viking Age concentrates more on the minutia of day to day living in Iceland. He describes the settlement, government and law, feuds, gender roles, religion, exploration, technology, etc., of  Iceland.  Short also considers the Icelandic sagas as a useful resource with the understanding that the sagas were written down several hundred years after the events occurred.  He also provides archaeological data to back up his descriptions.

 Last summer, I read many of the Icelandic sagas after decades of putting off exploring this branch of World literature.  I have to admit that I was fascinated by the content and variety of styles.  There were lying sagas (similar to Tall Tales of US literature), mysteries, psychological drama, comedy, and political machinations and bribery that could be played out in US politics today.  There are endless scholarly dissertations analyzing these sagas from various academic disciplines.

One aspect of the sagas that I found very hard to relate to was the attitude toward violence and killing and how it related to honor.  As Short points out, Egill Skalla-Grimsson  in Egils Saga takes men on a raid on a farm off the Baltic Sea.  The farmer and his supports capture Egill and the raiders and tie them up for the night.  After escaping during the night and stealing the treasure, Egill re-evaluates the situation and considers it shameful behavior for a warrior.  He and his men go back to the farm, kill the inhabitants, re-claim the treasure that they now deserve, and return to the ship with honor full filled.

Violence was often the only acceptable response in certain situations.  How we react to the violence in the saga's is more determined by how we define honor rather than how the Norse defined it.  As Short explains:

"The feud revolved around the concept of honor.  The English word utterly fails to express the depth and complexity of the concept in the saga age.  Honor was a measure of the social credibility of an individual.  Honor was earned by the person who possessed it, granted by the community around him who observed and judged his behaviors.  When traveling, a man's honor was conveyed by his reputation and good name, and by his family' reputation." (p. 40)

Short goes on to explain that a man preserves his honor and his family's honor by meeting every challenge no matter how minor and regardless of the cost.  The Norse concept of fate is intertwined with one's sense of honor since one's time of death is preordained by the Norns, goddesses of fate, but nobody knows one's fate so it was better to be bold and adventuresome than cautious.  Bold behavior by men,  women and children was well regarded in public opinion.

"A drengr (honorable man) was brave, honest, fearless, with a sense of fair play, and a respect for others.  He always kept his word.  Strength, although admired, needed to be moderated so one did not become ojafnathr (unjust)."  (p. 42)

A nithingr or man without honor was subject to scorn and ridicule and was not likely to receive support from others.  "Typical causes for such disgrace included: cowardice, treachery, breaking one's oath, and killing kinsmen or defenseless people.  When a man betrayed the trust of another man, he became known as a nithingr."  (p. 43)

So when I look back at some of the behavior that appalled me in the sagas--killing a man for riding a horse dedicated to the gods, threatening to kill a man for dropping off a gift weapon when the warrior is not at home, a child killing a playmate for a perceived insult--is more understandable viewed within Norse culture. A man (or child) would have lost honor by acting any differently and to lose honor was to be vulnerable.  I also think that the Norse sagas suffer by their realism.  When compared to the medieval romances such as the tales of King of  Arthur and his knights, the sagas seem so much more violent.  However the medieval tales of knightly behavior were idealized behavior among the noble social caste.  I bet there were many medieval peasants, serfs, Saracens, and tradesmen who would have of very different definition of knightly "honor."

To summarize, I would recommend both books because they provide different sorts of information about Norse life--Winroth more macro and Short more micro.

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