Black Lives Matter

Like so many others, I found the murder of George Floyd – and many of the events that followed –  intensely distressing. As well as sadness, I have felt an anger that is difficult to express and a demoralizing sense of impotence. As a medievalist, however, I have also felt a sense of responsibility.

The Middle Ages – and in particular the Viking Age (and the history of early medieval northern Europe more generally) – are at the heart of white supremacy. It is the period from which white supremacists draw sustenance in their imagery and in their fantastical notions of social idealism and unfettered masculinity.

This is apparent in obvious ways, with Nazis (both original and neo) and modern racist groups like the Soldiers of Odin explicitly drawing on the symbols, names and stories of the Viking Age to promote their vile agenda. More insidious, and shockingly widespread, is the casual racism of re-enactment and ‘pagan’ internet forums, of bands who claim to be ‘non-political’ whilst using white power symbols in their artwork and fascist quotes in their lyrics, of Viking-themed businesses who only ever use white models to promote themselves, in sloppy talk of northern European ancestry and heritage as unsubtle code for ‘white pride’.

Academic study of the period has its own racist legacy. Its historiography, its assumptions, its lines of enquiry, its terminology and its overwhelmingly white body of students, teachers and researchers have created an environment that invariably reflect Eurocentric white concerns and answer Eurocentric white questions. Efforts to counter these issues have led to inexplicable resistance within established academia .

In my own writing about the Vikings I have tried to address aspects of this. Challenging the way that ethnicity is used and imagined in relation to the Vikings and the other people with whom they shared their world was one of the key themes that informed the writing of Viking Britain. It was my hope that the book would help steer those with a passing interest towards a healthier and more accurate impression of the period and challenge those with preconceived ideas to think again. I also hoped it would trigger the few white supremacists who bothered to read it – a goal which I’m happy to say it achieved.

In hindsight I don’t think I made the case as strongly as I could have done. I should have been more  direct, more challenging of white myths, less concerned about backlash. I intend to be more forceful about these issues in future and more intent than ever on reclaiming the period from bigots.

Aside from my own private support for the Black Lives Matter movement, I have 10 signed copies of the paperback edition of Viking Britain that I am offering for sale directly from me for £10 each (+ £1.50 UK postage). All proceeds will be donated to the Black Curriculum project: just drop me a line here.

Otherwise I encourage everyone to browse this list of resources and ways to contribute.

 

 

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”.’

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]

The Vikings are coming …

Several years ago I worked at the Tower of London. Spending long periods of time within a building of such age, I would often start to wonder about how the area would have looked before the castle was built. Every morning I would pass the remains of Roman walls at Tower Bridge station, walls that were repaired and refortified by King Alfred the Great in response to the very real threat of Viking raids from the river. Blotting out the great hulk of HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge and the modern office blocks that now crowd the banks, I would try to imagine the awe and the terror that a Londoner would have felt a thousand years ago, standing on the city walls, watching the carved and gilded prows of dragon ships silently gliding up the Thames. Viking fleets and armies raided and besieged the city on numerous occasions, and the river has given up dozens of weapons that might have ended up there as a result of those conflicts.

Exactly 1000 years ago, in January 1014, people living in England would have been looking to the year ahead with a great deal of uncertainty. A Danish Viking, Svein Forkbeard, sat on the English throne. He had taken it by force only a few weeks previously, having forced the submission of the English nobility and towns. He would die, suddenly, on the 3rd of February. But a fleet of Danish ships still lay menacingly off the English coast, and on board one of those ships was Svein’s son, Cnut, later to rule England as part of the greatest north sea empire the world would ever know.

This January, a Danish warship – Roskilde 6 – has returned to England and has taken up residence in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, my current place of work. Happily, the dark days of the eleventh century are behind us, and the team from the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) who accompanied the ship to London have not (so far) demanded any tribute or burned any villages. In fact, getting the ship here has been part of a long period of close collaboration between the BM and the NMD (and Berlin State Museums, where Roskilde 6 will head next on its travels).

The Danish team of conservators and technicians, led by Kristiane Straetkvern, have been responsible for the conservation and analysis of the surviving timbers of Roskilde 6 (approx. 20% survives of the original ship), and for constructing the extraordinary stainless steel frame in which the timbers are displayed. This is a breathtaking work of modern design in its own right. The frame has been precision engineered in dozens of individual pieces which can be loaded into a single container for shipment and reassembled under the expert handling of the NMD’s installation team. The timbers are packed flat in their own climate controlled container.

The finished installation is a wonderful marriage of modern Scandinavian design and engineering with one of the greatest technological achievements of the Viking Age: at over 37 metres long, Roskilde 6 is the longest Viking ship ever discovered and would have been massive even by the standards of around AD 1025, its probable date of construction. It would have taken huge amounts of manpower and raw materials to construct the ship, resources only available to the most powerful of northern rulers. It may even have been built by Cnut himself…

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

Back to the trenches: Bannockburn and battlefield archaeology on the BBC

This evening BBC Scotlandwill be airing the first part of a new series investigating the Bannockburn battlefield. The series is obviously timed to coincide with interest in the battle arising from the Scottish independence debate and coming referendum, but work to precisely locate the site has been ongoing for some time. The series promises to shine a welcome spotlight on a still emerging branch of archaeology and the challenges associated with locating (and protecting) locations that have a powerful resonance in modern political engagement with the past. If the site of Bannockburn can be identified with  security (and archaeological proof) then it will join the tiny corpus of pre-Civil War battelfields in Britain that can be identified archaeologically, alongside Bosworth (1485) and Towton (1461). The series is presented by Neil Oliver and Dr. Tony Pollard, director of the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University. The latter’s involvement should ensure that the series is sensible and insightful, and recalls the days when the pair presented the battlefield archaeology programme Two Men in A Trench before Neil Oliver’s ascent to the dizzy pinnacle of archaeo-presenting megastardom.

The website has lots of content, and several entertaining clips of people hitting each other with authentic looking fourteenth century hardware. Excellent.