Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Brief History of the Vikings. By Jonathan Clements

Jonathan Clements’ A Brief History of the Vikings chronicles the rise and fall of this seafaring culture. He begins in the 5th Century as the Romans are abandoning Brittania and Gaul. At that time, many Northern European tribes, including the forebears of the Vikings, were asserting themselves by raiding the edges of the beset Empire. He ends with the Viking defeat by Godwinson at Stamford Bridge in Northumbria, in 1066; followed three weeks later by Godwinson’s loss to the Norman descendents of Vikings at Hastings.

It is understandable that the author should begin and end his Viking narrative with their maritime roving and predation; particularly beginning and ending in Britain: Clements was born in the United Kingdom. Despite family genealogy connecting him with Scandinavia, he has views of one raised outside of that region. The traits that he and non-Scandinavian Europe associate with the Vikings involve pillage of their territories. But what of the culture itself? What of the unique internal qualities and creativity that distinguish a culture? Clements does describe their ship-building and their sagas. He does credit their navigation and exploration; their establishment of far-flung trading posts and colonies from the rivers of Russia to the shores of North America. However, most of the book is a chronology of pillage, wars and conquest.

Like most civilized scholars, Clements struggles with his perspective on Viking violence. He resists the efforts of “Latter-day apologists” and “some museum curators” to “soften the image” (Clements p. 11). But then, one is left only with the violence and a lot of explaining. Why does a set of tribes from one area become the pillagers of Europe? Clements’ explanation, that those who sailed from their homes “were the rejects of Scandinavian society—forced to travel further afield to make their fortune” is not entirely satisfying (Clements p. 12). The label “rejects” and the description of them separating from the rest of society, makes a pretense that the pillagers were different from the decent folk of Scandinavian settlements. However, the fact that slaves and goods, captured in Ireland and Brittania, were traded through Scandinavia, down Russian rivers, to the Muslims, indicates that the pillagers were part of the Scandinavian economy. Also, many of the marauders had families at home whom they were supporting. Finally, many voyagers returned to their homelands to settle, and some even became rulers. Clearly, these plunderers had little or no stigma attached to their actions which might prevent them from leaving, communicating or re-settling. It was a job, and one that profited their people. They were integral to their societies.

Perhaps one would not take such a dangerous job under circumstances where one was prosperous in situ. Clements points to population growth as a pressure that made jobs, land and inheritance scarce. The author’s later comment, is uncomfortable to accept but closer to a reasonable conclusion: “Almost everyone was atrocious back then…The Angles, Saxons, Irish and Scots were just as bloodthirsty with each other, and with their Scandinavian foes” (Clements p. 12). The only differences between the Vikings and these other tribes were that ability, geography and technology, offered them better opportunities to exploit their enemies. Scandinavians had better ships and navigation skills with which to invade distant lands. Angles and Saxons lived next to each other and raided mutually. If population pressures had forced the Angles to develop long distance navigation skills and raiding ships, perhaps they would have taken the risks associated with marauding far from home.

Clements deserves credit not only for facing the brutality of early medieval life, but also for his straight-forward approach to the historical record. He cuts through the hyperbole of the sagas where a lesser historian would simply quote from them for narrative color and leave their claims untouched. So when the saga of Floki Vilgerdason states that he cast ravens from his ship and observed their flight to find land, Clements points-out the suspicious similarity to the biblical Noah myth (Clements p. 140). The author also employs modern science to de-bunk claims. For example, he exposes the legend that skin from murdered Danes covered the doors of Westminster Abbey, citing that modern forensic evaluation of the “Daneskin” found it to be “perfectly normal leather” (Clements p. 167).

Clements’ book provides some important perspective on the Vikings. His anglocentric approach does go too far in portraying the Vikings as invaders and outcasts among their own people. This prevents him from seeing their contribution to their society and prevents him from examining the culture of their settlements. His information on Viking art, innovation or other contributions is limited. But there are no romantic elegies to a vanished fraternity of seafaring adventurers singing heroic sagas. His skepticism, and his unvarnished approach to the darker elements of human nature, are useful traits in this context.

Clements, Jonathan. A Brief History of the Vikings. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2005.