Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Vikings : Life & Legend - Some Thoughts etc.

I went to the British Museum this morning for a scoot around their new Vikings exhibition. What follows are some thoughts. They're the thoughts of a non-expert so if I make mistakes of historical phraseology and context then I'm terribly sorry.

Firstly I enjoyed it. It starts off rather slowly putting the Vikings into their context, showing how they interacted with the people's around them and how they lived. Since I was a school boy there's been a gradual retreat from the old school view of the Vikings as stone-cold killers towards a more nuanced view that they were as much about trade and settlement as they were raping and pillaging, although sometimes the line between the two is more blurred than it might seem to us in the 21st century.

This seems to be a similar approach to a lot of Dark Ages Europe. We seem to appreciate the complexities and interconnectedness of the races and places than we once did and certainly the degree of technical excellence involved in the production of some of the exhibits does imply a certain level of sophistication that perhaps we once failed to note.

Certainly you get the impression that the wealthy Dark Ages warrior would have looked pretty damn cool. In fact you might go as far as to say there ain't no bling like Dark Ages bling: silver and gold neck rings, broaches (particularly the enormous pennanular broaches), belt buckles, helmets and carrying weapons that had been exquisitely crafted and beautiful 'pimped'. These were not men afraid to display their wealth and power or to shower their own followers with similarly impressive gifts. Sometimes you think of the past in black and white, grey and brown but I suspect the actuality - certainly for the wealthy - was much more colourful and shiny.

The Vikings themselves are a ghost that haunts the British psyche as if they're imbedded in the race memory of all us Celts and Anglo-Saxons. In fact on the East Coast of England in particular you don't have to dig to deeply to find Viking roots: in place names and dialects. They certainly exercise a fascination on us in a way that their Norman descendants don't.

The second part of the exhibition revolves around the remains and 'reconstruction' of the Roskilde 6 ship and by Odin it's an impressive looking thing. I found myself thinking: 'bloody hell, that's big'. After a while I then started thinking: 'It might be big but it's supposed to have a crew of a hundred! A hundred!! Where did they all fit? How did they survive long sea voyages in that thing all cooped up together.'

It's worth going to the exhibition just for that but in displays around it are material covering the Vikings military and weapons and their belief systems. This was all the most interesting stuff for me. I'm afraid I'm still a sucker for the old-school Viking warrior stuff. However much I try and pretend otherwise. Fact of the day was found in that section, apparently Harald Hardrada's armour was called 'Emma'. Does anyone know why?

Oh and I liked the little line of cups and drinking vessels along the walls of the corridor as you walked to the ship. I particularly liked this quote: "It is not good as it's said to be good, the ale of the sons of men; for the more a man drinks, the less he knows his own intentions." Which comes from an anonymous 13th century Scandinavian.

 I would recommend a visit if you can fit one in. There's some interesting material on display and information to learn and it's excellent to see them attempt to contextualise the Vikings so that we get a picture of what their world was like and how they fitted into it.

I shall end this with my favourite quote, which is from The Book of Precious Records by Ibn Rusta (903-913) : "When a son is born, the father throws down a naked sword before him and says: 'I leave you no inheritance. All you possess is what you can gain with this sword.'"  Which, if true of course, is an interesting insight into how the Vikings saw themselves.