21 October 2009

Research: Primary Sources and the Vikings

By Michelle Styles

Iris Murdoch in her novel The Nice and The Good stated about early Greek history, 'It sets a special challenge to the disciplined mind. It is a game with very few pieces, where the skill of the players lies in complicating the rules.' The same could be said for the Viking era.

There are very few primary source written documents from actual Vikings and what little we do have from them is inscriptions on stones, rather than long passages which give insight into what they believed or how they live. These stones are also mainly concentrated in a few areas of Scandinavian so how representative of the Vikings as a whole is open to debate. Equally much of the wood and textiles date from the Oseburg ships and the early Viking era rather than the later period. We know about the beds, the sleighs, the bone ice skates and the buckets, but not necessarily what they symbolised to the Vikings.

The contemporary writing about the Viking tends to be from monks who had no reason to be sympathetic to the Vikings and sometimes it is hard to discern if the events actually happened or if indeed the Vikings were convenient scapegoats for other raiders or disaffected warriors. To the monks, it is clear from their tirades that the Vikings with their pagan ways were the Antichrist sent to punish. They were responsible for plundering, raping and pillaging the countryside, particularly as they had no respect for the Christian church and its teaching. Amongst other things, the monks condemn the Viking habit of bathing.

To accept the monk's view of the Vikings are face value is to ignore the very real contribution the Vikings made. For example the founding of various cities and towns including Dublin and Kiev as well as any town ending in the suffix "--by" in England. Their street names which often in "--gate," meaning street, still are used in London and York. Recent excavations in York and other places have revealed small scale industrial craft making including jewellery, combs, tools and the like. The quantity of feign items Vikings did engage in trade as well as plundering.

The other major contemporary source is various travel writing from Muslim travellers in particular The Travel book of Ibrahim ibn-Jakub. But how much was real and how much was fantasy for consumption back home is open to debate. For example, one Muslim traveller describes human sacrifice in a Viking settlement in Russia. The only problem is that nowhere else is such a thing described.

The other major source of written information about the Vikings--the Icelandic sagas--were composed after the Viking age ended. And it is possible they reflect the concerns of medieval Christian Iceland rather than the Vikings. The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson which purports to give all Norse mythology and thus providing our only knowledge of Viking religion and religious practices was composed in the 13th century. With its emphasis on the destruction of the world and volcanic imagery, The Prose Edda does speak to the Icelandic experience rather than necessarily the Scandinavian.

Sturluson is also responsible for the History of the Kings of Norway, also known as The Great Orb for its majestic opening lines. Again because the history was oral tradition until the mid-13th century and the Viking age ended for all intents and purposes in 1066, one must question its accuracy. How much can it actually tell about what happened and how much is coloured by Christian perception and nostalgia for a vanished world?

Adding to the complications is the Victorian rediscovery of the Icelandic texts and how they reinterpreted to suit the author. For example, do the sagas show heroic leadership or proto-socialism? Equally as Tolkien used many of the sagas as a basis for his Middle Earth, can readers believe in a king called Gandalf?

However, the problems with primary source documentation is part of what makes writing about the Vikings exciting. It means that you can go searching for nuggets and seeing how they stack up against the archaeological sources. But really the skill comes from using the meagre sources to create a vivid and believable world.

Michelle Styles has written three historical romances set in early Viking times. Her latest, THE VIKING'S CAPTIVE PRINCESS, will be published in December 2009.