In The Vikings, Else Roesdahl provides a great description of how economic growth took place during the Viking era and how political development was both possible as a result and was simultaneously required for the growth to continue.
Early on men in an area would gather in “things”, local assemblies to resolve conflicts. Local yarls (rulers or strongmen, vaguely similar to a small city mayor) struggled, schemed, and fought to gain influence over larger areas.
Without a modest level of security and property rights, one dare not risk scarce capital in building a foundry or gather lots of goods for trading.
As regional yarls, or petty kings, gain influence, more stability developed.
The opening comments in all the books I read on the Viking Age explore the limits on our knowledge of the Viking era. Seems to me most of the reliable information has been developed in the last century or so.
Like my discussion of other books on the Vikings and Romans, this series of posts will describe some things I find particularly interesting. My hope is this will be interesting to others as well.
With the series on this book I will start bringing in other things I have learned from previous reading.
Researchers don’t really know that much of the Viking Era
Like other authors, in The VikingsElse Roesdahl points out most of what we know of the Vikings is from contemporary victims of the Vikings or from reports written long after the Viking era ended.
As a result, as the author says, it is difficult, if not impossible
“to distinguish pure fiction from an embellished version of an event…”
and to separate
“improvements and additions to make the story more coherent, from what was once objective reality.”
Newborns were valued only after they were accepted
The times were hard, as we see in so many ways.
One particular way life was harsh was that a new-born child could be abandoned to the elements if the baby was deformed or a family did not have the means to feed another mouth. This was socially acceptable.
A family accepted a baby by naming the child and having the mother nurse the baby. After a family accepted an infant, the baby was recognized by society and subject to legal protection.
If not named or nursed? The baby would be allowed to die.
Like I said, times were hard.
For some perspective, the economy was so lousy that another mouth to feed might make the difference between the family surviving the upcoming winter or much of the family dying from starvation. Life was that precarious.
The book describes life expectancy in a different way.
Will mention just a few particularly interesting thing I found noteworthy.
Book starts out reminding us the information on the Vikings is limited.
Without a contemporary written history, we can’t look at the non-metallic and non-stone artifacts, such as clothing and homes, because they have long since have disintegrated. Written accounts, even those that are contemporaneous, are by people who are not Vikings and would thus not understand the Viking culture or mindset. (paragraph updated for readability)
As mentioned by other writers, comments by victims of Viking raids may have a bit of bias in their comments.
Starting and ending point of the Viking Age is vague
Contemporary comments for the first raids, such as during the famed Lindisfarne raid referred to the raiders as being “from the north” or “from the land of robbers” which suggests the Scandinavians had a reputation in place long before 793 A.D.
Such a terrible, horrible person would first be dragged to the gallows by a horse. Then the condemned soul would be hung by the neck, but not until dead. No, the executioner made sure a lot of life was left for several additional steps.
The author concludes by pointing out that warfare was pretty much the same in 1100 compared to 750. Warfare throughout that timeframe would have been highlighted by a focus on raids, taking everything of value from the enemy territory, avoiding high risk set-piece battles, and operating with limited objectives.
Previous discussions described the limits of our knowledge and battle techniques. This discussion focuses on campaigns and sieges.
Size of armies, and their mobility depended on the quality of roadwork, which deteriorated after the decline of the Roman Empire. Poor road systems suggest there was more use of pack animals than of wheeled transports, which would slow down a mobile force.
Predominant leadership model was for a commander to lead from the front. In a time when loyalties were tied to the leader this was a powerful yet risky strategy. Troops would be willing to follow their leader into combat, but if he were killed, morale would probably collapse and the force could disintegrate quickly.
Lots of modern histories assert that a wedge was a frequent Viking technique, yet the author points out there is minimal evidence to support the statement. On the other hand, there is little evidence for much of anything in the Viking era.
Another feature of the medieval battle was the lack of reserves to reinforce breakdowns in the line or reinforce success. This means a collapse somewhere on the battle line could cascade to defeat of the entire line since there would not be any troops to fill the gap.