06 August 2010

Medieval Vikings--a Discussion

I wrote the following to the editor of Scandinavian Press after the release of the Summer 2010 edition of the magazine in response to errors I perceived in a featured article and a vitriolic bombast of the film industry's efforts to depict medieval Vikings.
We have much information about the weapons of the period, the extent of their depredations throughout what is now western Europe, their ships, crafts, and so forth, but little about the people themselves, given that all save the nobility were illiterate, without a written language, and more than 1000-years have transpired since they lived.
I thought perhaps my readers, or those who follow the medieval Vikings, might find the topics of interest.
Dear Editor,

The following is in response to two Letters to the Editor in your excellent Summer 2010 edition of Scandinavian Press, Summer 2010.
It’s the Viking Team, Ellen Boryen:
while realizing that your letter is a paraphrased summation of Dr. Hale’s presentation, there are a couple points I feel compelled to make on your conclusions. I will assume that your reference to the Swedish Vikings burning their ships as the reason we have no examples of those ships, to be a reference to the 10th century writings of Ibn Fadlan, specifically his portrayal of the funeral pyre of a Rus chieftain. The Rus are thought to be Swedish Norsemen. Rus may also be the term used by the Swedish Vikings to describe the locals of present day Eastern Europe. Either contention is argumentative in some circles. Like almost everything regarding these people, we do not know for certain. Actually, several Swedish ships and boats have been found, one 20 meter example as recently as last year at the bottom of Lake Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake. To say that ‘Swedish Vikings burned their ships in burial rituals’ may not be the whole story. As you write, there are many examples of ships that have been recovered throughout Scandinavia. Every large museum that I have visited has examples of these magnificent ships. The 98’ Sea Stallion, Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, DE, is a computer scale copy of one of them and at this writing the largest extant. From Sea Stallion’s voyages we now know that the square rigged Viking ship was fast and capable in all seas. You are correct in saying that the medieval Viking ships lacked a traditional keel, however; the huge steerboard, mounted on the right aft side of the ship, performed that function admirably and pivoted up and out the way to beach the ship, or row it up a shallow river. The Vikings never felt the need of a keel and as a result no ship that we are aware of constructed by them ever had a keel. The function of a traditional keel is to balance the thrust of the sail when sailing close hauled to the wind, otherwise the ship or boat would be pushed away, to leeward, from the desired course by the wind’s force, making little or no progress along the desired track. You correctly point out that the shallow, keel less hull design allowed them to sail or row over many of the rivers they encountered—that was not accidental. Their ships were also hauled overland, something that would be impossible with a keeled ship.
The Subject of the Vikings, a letter by John Houle:
The Vikings, 1958, MGM, is actually a classic film and the best contemporary rendering of the Viking era that we have. Certainly artistic license was taken with the script, it was a movie, you know, for entertainment. I would say to John, the author of the negative rant on the film, “do some research the next time your dander is up.” The movie locations were authentic: Brittany, Fort La Latte, Côtes d'Armor, France, Germany, Hardangerfjord, Norway, and Lim Fjord, Croatia, to name a few. You missed the entire reason for the axe throwing scene involving the ‘beautiful Scandinavian girl.’ It wasn’t a savage game; it was a test of fidelity, or the lack thereof. The medieval Vikings were a savage people, living in a savage time. To make contemporary comparisons is ludicrous. The nationalities of the actors are of no consequence--although the Norwegian people were well represented--they are portraying the elements of the script. To those of us who have enjoyed the film, they became Vikings for a time. And John, the Vikings were not cowering in the ship during a storm, rather they were fogbound, and unable to see their surroundings, or the way ahead. It was a terrifying event for them. Have you ever been at sea, blind in the fog, or ‘cowering’ during a storm, John? Well, I have. The crash of the surf against an unseen rocky shore gives pause to anyone. The film makers were not portraying ‘we Scandinavians’ in a bad way, they were not portraying us as a people at all. Rather, they were trying to depict an era--they did an admirable job--about which we know little or nothing.
So John, sometimes it is best if we keep our lack of knowledge on a particular subject private rather than formalize it with a public letter.

J. A. Hunsinger
Author--Axe of Iron novel series

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