Disasters and the Mean Streak
Episode #2 of the course Vikings: History and mindset by Tom Shippey
Yesterday, we learned that before the Viking Age, things went quiet for a while.
The Pearl Harbor of the Dark Ages came on June 8, 793, when the longships came out of the north to attack the rich and defenseless monastery of Lindisfarne, off the north-east coast of England.
The famous English scholar, Alcuin of York, was utterly horrified. He wrote in anguish to the King of Northumbria:
“Never before in Britain has such a terror appeared as this we have now suffered … Nor was it thought possible that such an inroad from the sea could be made.”
Alcuin had forgotten his history. Over 350 years before, his own ancestors—the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—had been doing much the same thing. By 625, they had sailing ships almost as good as Viking ones.
What caused the lull before the storm?
The Fall of Hygelac
According to one archaeologist, Scandinavia “went down to hell” in the mid-500s, but we don’t know what caused it. Bad harvests caused by volcanic dust? Plague? The Vikings themselves remembered furious civil warfare, with no survivors. We also know of a major failed raid, also with no survivors. Both serious discouragements, for several generations.
The failed raid was launched by a man called Hugleik, or Hygelac. He was king of the Gautar, in southern Sweden, and he made a big Viking-style raid on what is now the Netherlands in about 525 AD. Theudebert, son of the Frankish king, intercepted him and wiped the raiders out.
The Old English epic, Beowulf, says that Beowulf, Hygelac’s nephew, escaped by swimming home! No one believes this. It’s likely that the Gautish kingdom was taken over by their hereditary enemies, the Swedes. One piece off the Scandinavian board.
The Fall of the Skjöldungar
At about the same time, the Danish royal family of the Skjöldungar (the “men of the shield”) wiped itself out in civil warfare. The Danish hero-king, Hrolf kraki (it means “pole-ladder,” because he was tall and thin) killed his cousin, Hraerek Ring-stingy (being stingy was not a survival quality for Dark Age kings). Hrolf was killed by another cousin, Hjorvarth, who was immediately killed himself. Another piece off the board.
The death of King Hrolf also gives us a lead into the Viking mindset: the fascination with death and the mean-streak sense of humor.
• Viking humor: One
Hrolf’s cousin, Hjorvarth, took Hrolf by surprise, so much so that one of Hrolf’s heroes, Hjalti, was off-base, sleeping with his girlfriend.
When he saw the enemy arriving, Hjalti—who knew straight away that he was going to die—asked his girlfriend if (when he was dead) she would prefer two 20-year-olds or a man of 80. She replied, the 20-year-olds, and he bit her nose off, saying she would now find that difficult.
Mean and cruel but not inexplicable. Even from Vietnam memoirs, it’s clear that fighting men don’t like people who watch from safety. What Hjalti means is, “I’m going to die, but I’ll make sure you are not unaffected.”
There’s a poem, “The Old Lay of Bjarki,” about waking Hrolf’s warriors on their last day. It was still being sung 500 years later.
• Viking humor: Two
Hjalti dies, Hrolf dies, his men die—all except one, a weakling called Vogg. He offers to swear allegiance to the new victorious king. Hjorvarth carelessly gives him his own sword to swear allegiance on. Vogg promptly runs him through, and that is the end of the Skjöldungar—and Vogg, of course, but that’s okay.
Vikings admired trickery. They thought it was funny. They especially liked people in a hopeless situation finding a way to turn the tables on the winners. They didn’t mind losing, because that’s when you showed what you were really made of. As long as you never gave up.
You could defeat Vikings. What was harder was daunting them.
In the next lesson, we look at the Viking move out into the Atlantic.
Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings by Tom Shippey
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