Hollow Places

Hollow Places (William Collins 2019) is both the piercing dissection of a folktale and a thrilling rummage through the thickets of the English imagination. Christopher Hadley’s debut work of book-length non-fiction ostensibly concerns the story of how Piers Shonks slew a dragon, how that dragon dwelt in a cavern beneath a yew tree, and how Shonks was buried in the parish church of St Mary at Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire.

In the same way, however, that Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark, Hollow Places isn’t really a book about a dragon-slayer. Rather it is a book about how stories become knit into place-names and landmarks and the identity of communities; in the process it unearths myriad details of lost folk life – of rural work and tithes and festivals and the heroic, often unsung, labour of individual collectors and antiquarians (one of my favourite nuggets of information was that much of the work of recording English field names – before their loss to the hedgerow grubbing scourge of agribusiness and the collective forgetting brought on by urbanisation and consumer capitalism – was pioneered by a man named John Field).

In fluid and satisfying prose, Hadley succeeds in transforming a literally parochial subject into a means of illuminating the tangled roots of story-telling and lost rural life. It is a reminder that to study folklore is to study the way that people construct meaning and a sense of belonging in the world around them: there are few subjects more compelling.

The paperback edition of Hollow Places is out on on 6 August 2020.

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Norman haircuts and ‘Celtic’ tonsures

On page 95 of my book Viking London, I gave the following description of a group of Normans –

‘their hair long in the back, but shaved from crown to hairline -hardcore mullets, haircuts that led the historian Simon Schama to call the Normans “the scary half-skinheads of the early feudal world.”’

Striking thought his image is, anyone with a passing familiarity with the Bayeux Tapestry will have been puzzled. This is not the way that Normans wore their hair – quite the opposite in fact…

Norman hair was actually left to grow at the front, but shaved at the back – more like a reverse mullet than anything else, rather the opposite of what I described, though still entirely congruent with the idea of the ‘half-skinhead’.

How did I make such a basic error? I’m not altogether sure. It is an object lesson in how two contradictory pieces of connected knowledge can exist simultaneously in the mind. A warped image of the ‘half-skinhead’ had clearly taken root somewhere inside my head, remaining somehow uncontaminated by the real experience of actually looking at the Bayeux Tapestry…

But I think it wasn’t helped by the fact that, around the same time, I had also been thinking about the problem of the ‘Celtic’ tonsure, which has often (incorrectly) been reconstructed along the lines of my erroneous description above. In my current book I have the following to say on the matter (with quotations from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History):

‘British and Irish monks […] shaved the head in a way that was, in the words of St Ceolfrith, “abhorrent and detestable” because it reminded him of the hated figure of Simon Magus and other disreputable wizards. What the insular tonsure actually looked like, however, is hard to determine. The shaved area seems most likely to have resembled a D shape from above, with the straight edge running from ear to ear so that, from the front, it had a “superficial resemblance to a crown”. Only on going around the back would the full horror be revealed, “the apparent crown cut short” a cursed “characteristic of simoniacs and not of Christians”.’

Iceland: legends of the north

 

NOR Nordmennene lander på Island år 872

Oscar Wergeland (1877), The Norsemen landing in Iceland [not an archaeologically accurate depiction, but still rather wonderful]

According to the Old Norse Landnámabók – ‘the book of settlements’ – the first Scandinavian settlers to make their home in Iceland were Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother Hjörleifr. According to the legend, they left Norway in 874 after a violent feud, sailing west towards a land of which they had heard rumour. The story goes that when he first sighted land Ingólfr tossed his ‘high-seat pillars’ into the sea and followed them as they drifted towards the shore. They washed up in what is now known as Faxa Bay, in the south-west of the island, and there the family built their farmstead – the first settlement on Iceland, chosen by the tug of wind and tide. Ingolfr watched the smoke, risen from hot springs, drifting low over the water and named his farm Reykjavík, the smoking bay. Continue reading

The Tale of King Harald is a true story…

But what does it mean for a story to be ‘true’?

The first versions of this tale were written down in in the middle ages in a number of different hand-written texts. The oldest of these was compiled in around 1220 in a manuscript called Morkinskinna, which means ‘mouldy skin’ (the parchment it was written on was made of vellum, made from the stretched and dried skin of a calf). The most famous version, however, was written by an Icelandic chieftain and historian called Snorri Sturluson around 1230. Snorri was a remarkable man. As well as twice being elected to Iceland’s highest official post – Lawspeaker (Lögsögumaður) – he wrote a number of works about traditional Scandinavian poetry and mythology, but also a sprawling compendium of King’s Sagas (tales) called Heimskringla (the circle of the world). Harald’s Saga forms a small part of this great work. Snorri was very careful to present what he thought were true accounts of the lives of the kings of Norway. He made great use of earlier histories – like Morkinskinna – and often used fragments of poems (called skaldic verse) which were written during the lifetime of the Norse kings, and remembered long afterwards.

In the case of King Harald, we have a little more to go on. He was mentioned in histories written in the Byzantine Empire where he was described as a Varangian with a prominent rank in the Imperial army. His invasion of England is also described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So we know he existed, and the broad outlines of his life as presented by Snorri seem more or less accurate. However, poems in praise of kings are rarely even-handed, and some of the details seem improbable and are rather similar to folk-tales told about other kings. Most telling of all is that some of the stories sound very much like the boasting of a man in later life about the glories of his youth, at a time when no one could contradict his version of events. If this is so, we can expect some of these stories to contain a degree of exaggeration.

Audun

Audun and the polar bear in the hall of Harald Hard-ruler

 

The version of Harald’s story that is written in this book [The Tale of King Harald] is fairly true to Snorri’s account of Harald’s life in Heimskringla. In some places I have added details taken from earlier sagas, especially Saint Olaf’s Saga (the tale of Harald’s half-brother who died at the Battle of Stiklestad). The tale of Audun and the polar bear is taken from a short story written about Harald and preserved in Morkinskinna, and a few details have been added from other sources that mention Harald and the period in general. Much of the dialogue is adapted from the saga, but by no means all of it. The biggest changes I have made are to the length of various sections of the narrative. In Heimskringla, Harald’s time with Yaroslav is told on a single page, and much of chapter 2 has therefore been fleshed out with other details of the period taken from other sources. On the other hand, chapters 3 and 4 present a greatly compressed version of Snorri’s story-telling. In particular, the politics of Norway and Denmark during Harald’s reign have been simplified.

I don’t think Harald would have minded these minor changes. For a Viking, the most important ambition was to live long in memory; I am sure he would be pleased to know that his legend continues to be told.

[This post is an extract from The Tale of King Harald: The Last Viking Adventure, which is available from Amazon and The British Museum]

Vikings in Russia

Scandinavians traditionally do rather well at the Winter Olympics – for perhaps obvious reasons – but their Viking ancestors would have been no stranger to some of the delights of Sochi. Skis were used and valued in the North. Earl Rognvald I of Orkney boasted that (among several other skills) he could ‘glide on skis’, and the god Ullr was also associated with skiing. In fact, he has been taken as a sort of unofficial patron of the winter ski community, whose members often wear medallions depicting the god – there would no doubt have been a good number of Ullr talismans among the skiers in Sochi.

And, while the bob-sleigh may have been unknown, sledges of various kinds are certainly known from Viking burials, including a particularly beautiful example that was found in the famous boat burial from Oseberg in Norway.

What is perhaps most surprising of all – at least to those brought up with a Western European education – is that the Vikings (possibly even skiing Vikings) were working their way up and down the river systems of Russia and Ukraine more than a thousand years ago, at the same time that their kinsmen were raiding the coastlines of England, Ireland and France. Objects now on loan to the British Museum for the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend indicate the extent of Scandinavian settlement from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the far-flung contacts established by the eastern trading network, including glittering hoards of silver coins and jewellery from Gnezdovo and Lyuboyezha in Russia.

The last time the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Vikings was in 1980, and at that time the cold war meant there was little academic contact between east and west. It was simply impossible to secure loans from museums on the other side of the iron curtain, and many new discoveries were never reported in the west. This was compounded by the official Soviet policy on the origins of the Slavic-speaking countries of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that minimised the role of Germanic-speaking Scandinavians in the development of urban life in those nations.

Times have changed, however, and the role of the Vikings – particularly those from Sweden – is increasingly recognised as an important one in the development of a new culture in Eastern Europe, a people known in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world as the Rūs. Vast quantities of Islamic silver travelled up the rivers of Russian and Ukraine in exchange for amber, slaves and furs, leaving a trace in Viking-Age silver hoards found far from their eastern origins.

It wasn’t just objects that travelled the river routes. The exhibition will also display objects from the graves of men and women who died in Russia and Ukraine and who chose to identify with a Scandinavian heritage through the style of their clothing and the decoration on their weapons. Discoveries of amulets depicting small figures suggest that some even brought their gods with them to new lands.

Perhaps Sochi 2014 wasn’t the first time that Ullr had travelled to the Black Sea coast.

[this was originally posted on the British Museum website in February 2014]