When you think of the Northmen, what do you think about? Their famed longships, the drakkars? Swords and shields, perhaps? Maybe some of you think about the small farms that we’ve been speaking about. And hopefully none of you think about horned helmets and Chris Hemsworth.
But I would wager that a good number of you are thinking about material things when imagining the Northmen. Stuff you can touch.
It’s a funny thing that we associate culture so heavily with material goods. And yet many people are ready to draw broad conclusions about an entire culture based upon, essentially, what bits of clothing and other stuff we have found in their garbage… And what does that /really/ tell us?
For example, right now, as I sit here putting this episode together, I’m wearing a pair of Lucky Brand jeans, a black button down shirt, and a pair of black rimmed glasses.
What does that tell you about my life, though? What do those objects on their own tell you about my values, my goals, my beliefs, my worries, or any of the myriad things that make up who I am?
Not much, right?
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Now broaden that issue… Could you reliably impart a value judgment upon American culture because men wear t-shirts in a situation where a Brit would probably wear a polo or a button down shirt?
Some of the more stuffy people might say “yes, it shows that Americans aren’t serious or professional…” but those people probably aren’t familiar with both American and British culture because if they were, they likely would have met highly educated and professional Americans who dress down all the time… and they also likely also would have encountered more than a few well dressed lads who pass out drunk in a pile of sick at least once a week.
The fact of the matter is that fashion and material goods aren’t a cultural lodestone.
I mean, if we were doing a fashion podcast, I would probably tell you that the clothing choices made by American men demonstrate a non-performative form of sexuality (ie, that to demonstrate your masculinity in some circles of American culture involves a deliberate lack of flare and an attempt to appear disinterested in fashion… hence the t-shirts, the 3 day old beard growth, and that sort of thing). But the only reason why I’m even able to posit the non-performative aspect is because I have a deep knowledge of American culture that informs this behavior, I’m a part of it so I have an insider’s view, and of course because I have a sociologist co-producer.
But the point is that sort of analysis requires a tremendous amount insight. Insight, by the way, that we lack when talking about Scandinavian culture during the Viking age. And yet, far too often people seem to be tempted to look upon the Viking age and draw massive motivational conclusions.
If they were doing it today, they would probably conclude that American men don’t care about their appearance or attracting a partner… and fail to understand how that scruffy look is often quite deliberate.
The truth is that material goods don’t always reflect a set of values. Yet for some reason, when we look into the past, we’re tempted to pretend they do.
We do the same thing with professions, actually. A very small percentage of people went aviking, but the whole region gets painted with that brush… and then, to make matters worse, we add in our modern assumptions of what sort of values might have been held by someone who did that sort of work. And all the while, people forget that it was an incredibly small group of people, and their reasons for going into that line of work would have been greatly varied… as would their values.
The way many people approach the Viking Age is a bit like having someone 1000 years from now reading the lyrics of a couple UB40 songs and assuming that everyone in the UK was a Brummie, and that Red Red Wine was a good distillation of the cultural values of the island.
Pushing back against that is pretty much the entire point of this series… and honestly, it’s the point my show… because it would be wrong to judge all of the UK for the sins of one reggae band.
You have to look at it in context. You have to say, what happened in British culture that gave rise to UB40? What pressures were placed upon them that made them think that remaking Can’t Help Falling in Love was acceptable? What sort of efforts were made from within the community to stop it?
And most importantly, how many people in the UK weren’t in UB40… and how many of them actively resisted the frog-like vocal stylings of Ali Campbell?
Thus far in our series, we’ve been speaking a great deal about what the domestic and daily life of the Northmen was like, and that does help shed light on the culture. Frankly, the reason why this series is so front loaded with things like domestic living is because I want to give you at least a degree of cultural foundation before we start talking about some of the nitty gritty material goods that we can get into.
So lets talk about how they structured the basic building blocks of their society. I mean, sure, we have a basic idea of how their homelife was arranged… but class? Class hasn’t really been discussed all that much yet.
Now the basic structure of society appears to have been divided between three groups. The unfree… basically the slaves and bonded men. The freemen. And the nobility.
And I really want to dive into these groups… and in particular I want to talk about the slaves and how insanely difficult it is to study ancient slavery in many situations (for example, how hard it is to study it in the Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon kingdoms). But before we do that, I thought you’d like to hear a myth that gives us a potential window into how they viewed the class system. A small window, granted… and it’s a window that is filtered through a christian perspective because that’s who wrote it… so basically, it’s a stained glass window. But it’s one of the best windows we’ve got.
So in the Rigsthula, the Lay of Rig, we are told of how the god Heimdall basically went on Spring Break to Midgard. And he was walking along the seashore when he came across an old married couple named great grandmother and great grandfather. They lived in a shabby hut and lived meager lives, but they saw that he was a traveller and so they offered him some rough food and shared their bed with him for three days. Afterwards, Rig continued on his journey.
But after getting Rig-rolled, Great Grandmother was pregnant, and nine months later she gave birth to a dark (presumably dark haired) son named him Thrall… which means slave. He was ugly, short, and had rough thick hands. He grew up to marry a girl named Slave girl and they had twelve sons and nine daughters who lived lives of hard manual labor. Each of the names they gave their kids highlighted their own children’s ugliness… apparently they were great parents.
But Rig wasn’t there for any of this, because he had already moved on, and his next stop was at the Hall of a couple named Grandfather and Grandmother. Grandfather kept his beard and hair well maintained, and when Rig arrived was currently whittling crossbeam. Grandmother was similarly well groomed, and she was hard at work spinning thread.
They werent rich, but they tmade due with what was available to them and they had an inviting fire on the floor that kept them warm.
When Rig approached them, they offered him food and allowed him to share their bed for three nights.
Apparently, this was Rig’s thing…
Anyway, so after three days he left, and predictably Grandmother was pregnant. She gave birth to a redheaded, ruddy son named Farmer. Farmer built houses, tamed oxen, drove the plough, and was a hardworking member of the community. He ended up marrying a woman named Daughter-in-Law and they had a large number of children. The names of their children all emphasized their attractiveness.
But Rig had already moved on. The man had needs.
And those needs lead him to the hall of Father and Mother, who immediately served him a lavish meal and then shared their bed with him. And once again, after three days Rig left the hall… and predictably Mother was pregnant. Frankly, Father was lucky that he wasn’t pregnant as well. Rig was a machine.
Nine months later, Mother gave birth to a handsome blond son who was named Jarl. When he grew up he became skilled in warfare and riding. Many years later, Rig returned and acknowledged the boy as his son, taught him how to read runes, and gave him his name… he was now Rigr.
Rigr was a mighty warrior and, by conquering other lands, he became wealthy and the lord of 18 homesteads. He then married a girl named Brisk, and they had twelve sons back to back. No daughters. And the youngest was Kon, also known as Konr ungr, who was a major figure and starting point for other legendary dynastic trees.
So that’s the story…
And you might be wondering what the point was for telling you about the 50 shades of Rig?
Well, despite the fact that it was written after the Viking Age had come to an end, and it was recorded by a Christian, the story of Heimdall’s Summer of Sin does give us a little bit of a window into multiple aspects of how their society might have been arranged. We get hints of a hospitality culture, we get hints of how their class system was organized and how they may have seen it as part of the divine system set up by Heimdall himself.
And we also may have gotten hints of how they approached sexuality and monogamy… maybe… /maybe/… though, it’s entirely possible that this is entirely just myth and storytelling and we should be careful to keep that in mind. I mean, it is very tempting to say “oh, they practiced non-monogamy” but then again, if we read Greek myths with the same level of gravitas we’d be lead to say “oh, grecians had sex with swans and all manner of other animals” and I can’t even imagine what the story of Mary would lead us to assume about sex lives in Galilee.
So maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that part. But the acknowledgement of multiple classes is striking.
Something else that is striking is the tone of the poem. The poet is very complimentary when speaking about Grandmother, Grandfather, Farmer, Daughter in Law, and their children. The way he writes of them gives the sense that he sees the Freeman class as virtuous. And he is similarly complimentary when talking about the nobility. But of course he would be… talking trash about the wealthy is typically a dangerous path, especially in this era.
But my god… he’s a complete ass when he talks about the slave family. He doesn’t even try to hide his disapproval and lack of regard for them. And that gives us a little bit of a view into how their society, a society that could (and did) kill slaves as part of funerary celebrations, saw their bonded servants.
Assuming the poet’s views were representative, the slaves weren’t really even fully human… they seem to have been seen more like livestock.
And next time, we’re going to talk about those slaves… because, despite how little we hear of them, they appear to have been a pretty big part of Scandinavian life.[/s2If]