Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Viking World - Lecture 1: The Vikings

I spent most of yesterday battling my way through 'Wolf Hall'. It seems my brain has to get used to reading under pressure again after the summer in which I had all the time in the world. I also went to a kick-boxing lesson in the evening, which meant I was ruined for the night. But here I am, with a write-up for yesterday's lecture and later there will be a post about my lecture today.

The first thing our lecturer did was dispel the myth that Vikings had horns on their helmets This was introduced in the 19th century and made popular through use in performances of the operas in 'The Ring of the Nibelungen' by Richard Wagner.  The Viking Age, also knows as the Vendel Period, ran from 793 to 1066 and was followed by the Middle Ages. This time period was established as being 'Viking' because in 793 the first recorded Viking raid in England took place, on Lindisfarne in Northumberland. 1066 spells the year of the Norman Conquest and the decreasing influence of the Scandinavian people. It is also said the end of the Viking Age is rather around 1100, from when the earliest writings in Scandinavia are found. 

The Viking Age was very much a period of social change. The Vikings had the advantage of sea fare  which was crucial in Scandinavia since the distance from the top of Norway to Oslo is further than from Oslo to Rome and can only be traveled by boat. They spread across most of the world, discovered America, traded with China and there are even Islamic/Spanish accounts of them. An example of this is Rusland. 'rus' means rower' in Swedish, I believe, and that name was given by the Vikings who traveled there and it has stuck. Indirectly, the Vikings also led to a unification of people into some sort of states, such as England for example, because they formed the 'other' against which they could unite. (Map shows where they traveled and their territories)

In itself, the term 'Viking' is to vague a term to describe the Vikings. It comes from the word 'vikingr' which means as much as 'thug' and has mainly negative connotations. Later on, again in the 19th century, this term was romanticized into becoming what it is to us now. At the time they were rather called 'heathen', 'Northmen' or 'Danes. They came from across Scandinavia and therefore 'Viking' doesn't even describe a certain area of origin. The term is used usually to denote certain qualities that modern media attributes to them, describing them as purely masculine and aggressive. Yet they often took of to eventually settle. For them, travelling was a much bigger operation then now. Household were moved, which included cattle, weapons and....women.

Female Vikings was another major point in the lecture. Because the image of the Vikings is so manly and violent that not a lot of people know about their women. According to the lecturer, a friend of hers at the museum was once asked whether there even were Viking women. Yes, some people are that dim. Viking women traveled alongside their men. Proof of this could be a spindle that was found in North-America, which could only have been used by a woman since spinning was a female occupation. This leads to the further knowledge that women had jobs and roles in society and weren't bound to their domestic homes. Women, surprisingly, also had quite some rights. For example, they were allowed to divorce their husbands if they lost status (a marriage was between equals, so if he lost his status she could leave) or if he no longer satisfied her. Yet men and women weren't quite equal since, just like slaves, women weren't allowed to vote in the 'þing', the assembly where law was spoken.

What was most important to the Vikings was a reputation that would remain long after they had died. They certainly achieved this and I will leave you with this, my favourite line from this lecture:
'I have a liking for a Viking!'

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