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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

April 3rd and the letter C

Which is possibly the worst letter for my Old Norse motif, because there is no C in Old Norse. I mean I guess I could stretch my definition to talk about things like clichés about the Vikings, or the climate of Viking age Scandinavia or the Clothing that they wore. Archaeologists find coin hoards from the Viking age a lot. The Norsemen valued craftsmanship and courage and disdained cowardice. They traveled to Constantinople, but they didn't call it that. Canute the Great was probably the greatest Scandinavian king of the Viking age, but that's just how you spell his name in English; and England was merely part of his vast Scandinavian empire. Christianity came during the Viking age to the north too.

Clichés about the Vikings? Everyone knows by now that the whole horned helmet thing was a total myth, what else have we got? They were essentially an outlaw biker gang of blond barbarians from the north intent on nothing but blood and plunder? Not really, raiding surely happened, but the Norsemen were actually pretty canny traders too and lived with the rule of law, at home anyway. They all fought with huge axes and war hammers. Not so much there either. While axes were pretty common, because they were also useful on the farm; your well equipped Norseman would have preferred a sword.

So, the weather was warmer during the Viking age. It's getting warmer again now, but dramaically faster than it cooled. I am not here to start a climate change debate, just pointing out that Oranges used to grow in southern England, and both Iceland and Greenland were more inviting places for settlement. As to their clothing, it is not terribly dissimilar to ours, although they were big fans of layering. They didn't dress like the fur clad barbarians you see in movies mostly, they wore a tunic and trousers combo. I have some Viking style clothes I wear for SCA stuff, it's comfortable and familiar to wear. I fight in it or wear it to hang out.

Coin hoards are interesting because they tell us about where the Norsemen went and who they traded with or raided. There is a lot of Arab silver in Scandinavia, presumably from the sale of Slavic slaves to the Arabs, but Baltic Amber would have been a fairly valuable commodity so far away too I would think, and small and easily transported.

Craftsmanship was a valuable commodity in and of itself, being an able craftsman was certainly an honorable thing and could make you a wealthy man. They don't mention a lot of different types of craftsmen in the various Sagas, but Ship Builders and Weapon Smiths get mentions that I can recall off the top of my head, and it's pretty clear that Jewelers were highly sought after too. Norse craftsmen put a lot of artistic flourish into otherwise utilitarian designs, so there is more than just simply being an able craftsman at work here, you must also be an artist to be a master craftsman.

Courage is an obvious positive trait for a Norseman. One of their proverbs states "Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for any many who puts his nose out of doors, the length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.", obviously this is pretty much telling you that it doesn't matter what you do to preserve your life, you won't live one second longer than you are fore ordained, so you might as well face life like you own it instead of trying to hide from fate. Cowardice is the opposite of Courage, now this doesn't really mean you should always fight against the odds and throw your life away without meaning, that's just stupidity. They also understood that discretion was the better (smarter) part of valor sometimes, dead is just dead.

Constantinople I am going to save for when I do the letter M, because the Norsemen called the city Mikligard.

Canute the Great I am going to skip for two reasons. First his name is spelled Knut in Old Norse, and second, because he post dates the beginning of my "Vikings of Dvergrholm" B/X D&D Campaign and this A-Z April is Norse themed partly to help make my players more familiar with the Norse world that their characters inhabit.

Which brings us to Christianity. Christianity is always a prickly subject in the context of RPGs and D&D in particular. We had to suffer through the groundless lies of the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s, which I never really understood. I mean, just based on the fact that the two best D&D classes are clearly inspired by Christianity (Cleric & Paladin), and the existence of Demons and Devils was there clearly to give a greater antagonist for your games, I would have thought that most Christians would have seen D&D for the clearly Christian allegory that it originally was. I guess it was the Sword & Sorcery inspired art that confused them. I don't mean to be insulting, I was raised Christian, and my parents are still very Christian. I am not.

But my religious views aren't really relevant when discussing Christianity's influence on the Viking age. It has been suggested that the Viking age started out as "pay back" for Charlemagne's assault on Germanic Heathenry, particularly the massacre of the Saxons that refused to convert to Christianity and the destruction of the Irminsul, the holiest site in Saxony. Arguments in support of this theory include the fact that it was primarily Christian holy centers that were targeted at the beginning of the Viking age and the building of the Danevirke, a line of fortresses across southern Denmark built to keep the Carolingian Franks at bay. Arguments against this theory include the fact that it seems unlikely that such a disunited people with no established priesthood could effectively wage a holy war and the fact that it's possible we only know about monasteries being destroyed and not, say coastal villages, because monks wrote all the records.

Christian or Heathen, atrocities were committed by both sides. Eventually Christianity gained the upper hand by being both more politically and economically expedient. On the political side of things, it helped to unite the various Scandinavian countries into the unified kingdoms they are today, under strong monarchies. Previously Norse kings were merely the first among equals, after the introduction of Christianity, he became an anointed sovereign whose word was law and against whom rebellion was both treason and mortal sin. Economically Christianity became more and more important as the Christian kingdoms of Europe became more valuable as trading partners, they would not trade with non-Christians. Heathen Norsemen became marginalized economically and politically over time, the Heathens kept moving west to new colonies, but the economic and political realities kept catching up to them. Iceland peacefully converted to Christianity to avoid a civil war. Norway and Sweden both saw bloody conversions. Greenland probably saw the last open worshipers of the old Norse Gods, but even they were all Christian before the colony finally died out, a victim of global climate change, cooling in this case.