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The Vikings invented soap operas and pioneered globalisation - so why do we depict them as brutes?

A new exhibition at the British Museum shows how closely the world of the Vikings mirrors our own.

Vikings: Life and Legend
British Museum, London WC1

The Vikings are returning to the nation’s public attention with the opening of a major exhibition at the British Museum, “Vikings: Life and Legend”, and the simultaneous publication of Philip Parker’s history of the Viking world, The Northmen’s Fury. These are the latest developments in a relationship that has long been ambivalent – and especially so since the Victorian era.

On the one hand, the Vikings are part of us, because they settled in areas of Britain so densely and so permanently. Anyone who lives somewhere with a name ending in “-by” (or a headland with one ending in “-ness”, or calls their valley a “dale”, or the nearest hillside a “fell”) is living in a landscape that Vikings named, while our language is peppered with their words: “niggardly”, for example, is derived from the Old Norse for “miser”.

To the 19th-century British, the Vikings could seem like kindred spirits. These early-medieval Scandinavians were, like the Victorians, the greatest sailors, traders and explorers of their day. They embodied courage, enterprise and that most prized of public school virtues: manliness.

Their achievements were extraordinary. Between the 8th and 12th centuries (“the Viking age”), they became the first people to operate simultaneously in four continents and so tie much of the world together. They were the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic and reach North America (which they called “Vinland”); they settled in Iceland (permanently), Greenland (for centuries) and Newfoundland (briefly).

In the other direction, they founded the first Russian state, based in Kiev, while a body of them made up the personal guard of the Byzantine emperors at Constantinople. Becoming the paramount power in the British Isles, they gave Ireland its first towns, including Dublin, while their fleets penetrated as far south as the Mediterranean and the coasts of North Africa. Occupying a slice of France, they founded the Duchy of Normandy and, reinvented as Normans, proceeded to conquer England, Sicily and parts of Italy, Wales, Ireland and Syria. It is this tremendous story that Philip Parker’s book retells.

On the other hand, the Vikings were also the people against whom the British nations initially defined themselves. The early English had developed a sense of themselves as a people, with a language and as followers of a branch of the Church, but they were divided into different kingdoms. It took the prospect of conquest by Viking warlords to forge them into a single kingdom – one of the most intensely governed in the world – and this achievement became part of the country’s epic story. King Alfred became “the Great” by organising the national resistance to the Vikings. Though they came back a century later under Cnut and triumphed, by that time England was too strongly wrought to break: the Danish conquerors took it over intact and handed it, peacefully, back to native rule when Cnut’s dynasty died out.

Scotland was also a product of the Viking menace, as Picts and Scots joined forces against the invaders. The battle of Largs in 1263, an episode in the last attempt by a Norwegian king to assert control over the western Scottish seaboard, later became one of the milestones on the road to Scotland’s development as a nation. Followed as it was by the addition of the Hebrides to the Scottish realm, it eventually became the nautical equivalent of Bannockburn in Scotland’s historical imagination.

Above all, Vikings were not just viewed by the early-medieval British as enemies but as enemies of an especially dreadful kind: the epitome of barbarism and heathendom. All of historians’ source material for their early impact on Britain was written by the victims, who emphasised the wanton lack of restraint with which the Vikings plundered Christian churches and killed their clergy and the cruelty with which they ravaged settlements and farms. They flouted every rule of conduct that the European Christendom of the time had developed, precariously, to limit human savagery.

After a relatively short time, the Vikings adopted the culture of Christian Europe en bloc, with kingdoms, coinage, literacy and, above all, the full Christian panoply of churches, clergy and home-grown saints. At this point, however, the British historical memory just redefined them as no longer Vikings – linguistically, this is correct, because the term “Viking” originally meant a roving raider, not a Norwegian, Dane or Swede engaged in any other activity.

Victorian admirers of the Vikings pointed out in vain that they were wonderful crafts­people, especially in metalwork, and terrific poets and storytellers, inventing, in the form of the family saga, one of the world’s most enduring and popular genres of entertainment: the soap opera. A cursory glance at world history reveals that people are capable of making beautiful things while doing horrible things to their fellow humans. Some authors have pointed out that the Vikings’ settlements in foreign lands gave rise to important and dynamic new peoples such as the Normans but, on the whole, the 19th-century British settled for the view that they had been barbaric, even adding impractical and historically inaccurate horns to their helmets to underline their bestiality.

In this respect, the Victorian era in Britain lasted until the 1960s. Hollywood, as usual, reinforced older stereotypes, with actors such as Kirk Douglas and Michael York playing Danish warlords as savages who might ultimately be susceptible to redemption. A notorious television advert in the early 1970s for Super Soft shampoos showed the doe-eyed actress Madeline Smith being carried off as a sex slave, quivering with delight, by a flaxen-haired Viking warrior.

By this time, however, scholars led by Peter Sawyer were reacting against the dominant tradition. They condemned Viking atrocity stories as propaganda produced by monks who had been determined to blacken the reputation of their opponents, who happened to have the wrong religion. Such revisionists pointed out that early-medieval Christian Europeans were just as brutal in warfare, while the Vikings operated more frequently as merchants, settlers and explorers than pirates. They argued that the Vikings had brought clear benefits to the lands in which they stopped or settled, by founding towns, extending farmland, releasing accumulated capital and establishing enormous trading systems. When the last exhibition on the Vikings was held at the British Museum, in 1980, it joyously embraced this new, benevolent image.

Since then, the scholarly pendulum has swung again but only halfway back. It is recognised now that the Vikings were generally not much more badly behaved than their contemporaries; yet they still evoked a peculiar horror because they broke all the usual rules. Unlike other aggressors, they came from the sea and struck before resistance could be mobilised properly. Until their arrival, offshore islands had been natural sanctuaries, perfect for monasteries; in the Viking age, any settlement on one was like a goat tethered for a tiger. Although Christian Europeans sometimes attacked churches, they were aware that it was particularly wrong to do so, whereas the pagan Vikings made no distinction between religious and secular buildings, looting and burning both with an equal lack of inhibition.

Having conquered a region, the Vikings rebuilt its economy, society and political structures and adopted its religion and much of its culture – yet they generally did so after destroying all those things as they had existed previously. Sympathy today must depend on whether you prefer the before or after models.

They were raiders and traders by turns. An invading Viking army, having spent a summer looting and fighting, would settle down for the winter and establish a market in which they would sell off booty to local people and newcomers. In one commodity, the two aspects blended inseparably: they were avid slave traders. When scales for weighing goods are found in Viking settlements in the Hebrides, is this proof that they came as peaceful merchants? Or were they used for reckoning the value of chopped-up, looted bullion? Or did the scales have both uses?

 

The exhibition at the British Museum was conceived in very high places. Most such events are proposed by curators, who then persuade their directors to authorise them. This one was produced by the museum’s charismatic director, Neil MacGregor, with his opposite number at the National Museum of Denmark. It is a joint venture between the two museums and one in Berlin and its complexion will vary slightly between the three institutions. Much of its form in London is the work of Gareth Williams, a lifelong Viking enthusiast who visited the 1980 exhibition as a boy and remembers its impact on him.

A number of factors have changed significantly since 1980. The first is that there is less money for anything; as a result, objects have to be selected with more care. The second is that the perceived centre of the Viking world has moved eastwards. Until recently, the Anglo-American view placed that centre in the Atlantic, which was the focus of the last major museum exhibition about the Vikings (at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in 1999).

This is, however, historically skewed. In Viking times, North America was still in the Stone Age and the Atlantic was seen purely as a source of raw materials, while Arab states were the most highly developed civilisations. The entire population of early medieval Scandinavia could probably have fitted comfortably inside Baghdad.

On this, the new exhibition has benefited from the opening-up of Russian collections to the west. In the Soviet era, the Iron Curtain stood in the way of collaboration; meanwhile, where Russian nationalism was based on a Slavonic identity, western scholars portrayed the Viking contribution to the foundation of Russia as pivotal. (Both views are correct.) Since the end of communism, the two sides have been able to work together, resulting in a substantial and valuable Russian component in the exhibits.

The displays as a whole, which mostly consist of grave goods (an inevitable bias of the surviving evidence), illustrate every aspect of early medieval Scandinavian life, at home and abroad, with two emphases. One is on the central role of ships in life and in the imagination. They made the Vikings’ achievements possible – they were the best vessels in the world, equally able to cross oceans and penetrate far up rivers. As such, they feature as children’s toys and in graffiti. The exhibition’s pièce de résistance is the display of the longest Viking warship ever found (one of the largest that could have been built), discovered at the Roskilde fjord in Denmark in 1996. Measuring more than 37 metres in length, it was almost certainly a royal vessel – it is several feet longer than the ship portrayed in one saga as the biggest ever known – and forms a terrific climax to the displays.

The other emphasis is on the multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan nature of Viking culture and its geographical sweep, from what is now New England in the US to the Silk Road of central Asia (here, the themes converge with those of Philip Parker). Arab wealth poured into Scandinavia along the trade and raid routes in the form of coins, more than 150,000 of which have been found at former Viking settlements. As a result, the most common inscription found in the Viking world was not one in the native runes but “There is no God but Allah”, engraved in Arabic on the currency that jingled in pouches and chests.

Some displays emphasise the reality of multiculturalism. In the tenth-century hoard of coins and ornaments found in the Vale of York, there are references to places as far apart as Ireland and Uzbekistan. The Hunterston brooch, found in Ayrshire, is a glorious Celtic confection of gold, silver and amber made in pre-Viking times and owned subsequently by a noble with the impeccably Gaelic name of Melbrigda; but he wrote his name on it in Old Norse, using Viking runes. The objects with religious or magical significance reference the familiar northern gods, known from Wagner’s libretti as much as from books of mythology, but are also now connected in the exhibition with shamanic practices that echo tribal customs found from Greenland to Siberia.

The exhibition implicitly proclaims the importance of globalisation, the value of technology (in this case ships) in bringing peoples together, the power of fashion in forming identities and self-expression, the ability of consumer goods to unite people regardless of language or ethnicity, the benefits of keeping good relations with the new Russia and the need to respect Islam. It is a snapshot of the preoccupations of the intellectual British psyche in 2014.

The show strikes the current scholarly balance, acknowledging that Vikings could be greedy, violent and brutal – but also creative, adventurous, generous and accepting of new ideas and cultures. This is the view taken by Philip Parker’s book, which combines texts long familiar to historians with the latest scholarship. Parker has a traveller’s eye for landscape and a storyteller’s sense of events and character; The Northmen’s Fury is probably the most lively and well-informed introduction to the subject available today.

Both sides of the Victorian equation remain. The Vikings were noble savages: at times more noble; at others more savage. More important, however, is that their culture is currently appreciated more than ever before as not only rich and complex but as an ever-developing meeting point of styles, concepts, artefacts and stories from most of the northern hemisphere. As such, the Vikings have become message-bearers and mirrors for the concerns of a new century, remaining as adaptable and expressive long after their time as they were in life.

“Vikings” runs from 6 March to 22 June
“The Northmen’s Fury” by Philip Parker is out on 6 March (Jonathan Cape, £25)
Ronald Hutton is the author of “Pagan Britain” (Yale University Press, £25)

Image: a scene from Wagner’s Norse Ring Cycle, illustrated by Arthur Rackham Bridgeman Art Library

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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