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.

 

 

BBC History Magazine: the battle of Hengest’s Hill

The September issue of BBC History Magazine is still on news-stands, featuring my article on forgotten battles of the Viking Age. I was delighted to make it onto the cover:

Here’s an extract from the pre-publication draft:

The Battle of Hengest’s Hill, 838

‘King Ecgbehrt (Egbert) of Wessex was not a man to be trifled with. In 825, he had established himself and his kingdom as the pre-eminent power in Britain, crushing the Mercians at a place called Ellendun (just outside Swindon). It had been a memorably bloody business. A fragment of poetry recalled that ‘Ellendun’s stream ran red with blood, was stuffed up with corpses, filled with stink’. This, however, was only one front in Ecgbehrt’s campaign to subdue the other kingdoms and peoples of Britain. In 815, he had raided Cornwall ‘from east to west’ – a reminder to the still independent Cornish kingdom of the limits of their autonomy. In 838, however, the Cornish decided that the time had come to push back against West Saxon domination. This time they had allies – Viking allies.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that a ‘great ship-horde came to Cornwall’ which combined forces with the native Cornish and immediately set about challenging King Ecgbehrt’s power. Ecgbehrt led an army into Cornwall, bringing his strength to bear at a place called Hengest’s Hill (Hengestesdun). This was most probably Kit Hill, the massive prominence that dominates the valley of the Tamar, one flank of which is still known as Hingsdon (Hengestesdun). We know very little about what happened, except that the Vikings and the Cornish were put to flight. This, it would transpire, was to be the last gasp of Cornish independence. The people of Britain’s south-western peninsula would never again pose a military threat to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The same cannot be said of their erstwhile Viking allies.

Since the 790s, Viking fleets had been striking from the sea without warning, raiding monasteries and coastal settlements and capturing slaves and treasure. By the 830s, these attacks had become increasingly brazen, targeting substantial settlements like Carhampton in Somerset and defeating Anglo-Saxon armies. But this was the first time (that we know of) that Vikings had marched to war alongside a native people in Britain. Although (and sadly for the Cornish) it was not a successful experiment, it would certainly not be the last.’

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.

 

The Battle of Wesenberg/Rakvere: medieval warfare in the far north

(c) Milek Jakubiec/Medieval Warfare Magazine

I have just recently had another article published in Medieval Warfare magazine, this time – in a bit of a departure from my usual sphere of study – on a battle that took place in the context of the northern crusades that pitched the forces of Catholic western Europe and Scandinavia against the Pagans and Orthodox Christians of the eastern Baltic and beyond. In this case the belligerents comprised the armies of the Russian city states of Novgorod and Pskov (and elsewhere) pitched against a combined army of Danes, Teutonic Knights, Estonians and other crusading forces – perhaps from Germany.

The article is triumphantly illustrated by Milek Jakubiec. The scene depicts the single combat supposedly fought between the Lithunian-Russian Prince Dovmont (Daumantas) of Pskov, and the Master of the Livonian Branch of the Teutonic Knights, Otto von Lutterberg, during the rout of part of the Catholic army. This may or may not have happened, but it certainly makes for an exciting scene to illustrate the battle.

The magazine is full of interesting material relating to the life and times of Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod and hero of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film that depicted the Teutonic Knights as proto-Nazi invaders. Absolute propagandist bosh of course, but stirring stuff nonetheless!

Heroic Russians ...

Heroic Russians …

... wicked Germans

… wicked Germans