Saturday, 23 March 2019

Dragon Lords

And now, long-suffering reader, for something completely different. I do not always read either ancient or early modern history. Nor do I always read military history. Occasionally I branch out, as the more astute among you might have noticed, into broader history, philosophy, philosophy of science and theology. Even so, the next work is still a bit of a departure for me, but it is good to stretch one’s horizons and ponder things anew.

The book in question is this one:

Parker, E., Dragon Lords: The History and Legends of Viking England (London: I B Taurus, 2018).

Now, Vikings are something I know little about, apart from the obvious that they came from Norway and wore helmets with horns on them. Unfortunately, neither of those two facts are actually true. Vikings have been traduced much as Boudicca’s chariot with the nice knives on the hubcaps and African history.  Vikings in England, at least, mostly came from Denmark, and the horns on the helmets are, well, shall we say the product of over-active historical imaginations and a few misreadings of the little evidence we actually have.

That said, Parker’s book has very little wargaming information, and is, I suppose, a bit more like a ‘reception history’ of the Vikings, perceptions of the Vikings and the sorts of Vikings the Middle Ages would have liked there to have been. Then as now, of course, history is hijacked (one might say kidnapped) to serve particular points of view, desires for the present and so on. Thus, for example, post-Norman Conquest Vikings could either become freedom fighters from oppression, or foreign oppressors. It depended, it would seem, on the writer.

There are a few other things in Parker’s book which are of interest. The question of sources presses. Who wrote what and why is the first one, but the complex genealogy of the later works, that is, how dependent they were on earlier chronicles and accounts, is a live and tricky question. Some authors had a good deal of information and chose to select it in ways which served their purposes, others had less information and either relied on oral sources (which may or may not be historical), legends, myths or simply made things up.

Overall, then, the book is about how historians used other historians. Its focus is on the Vikings and the perceptions of the Vikings. As England was regionalised, this, of course, depended on where you were. North and east of Watling Street, your view of Vikings might have been a bit more positive than to the south. On the other hand, your view of Vikings may well have depended on the view of your patron. After all (and this is a factoid that I was vaguely aware of, but had never come into focus), after Hastings the Normans did not have a particularly easy time, with various rebellions and or revolts (or resistance efforts), some of which were supported by Danish ships, men, and money. Hereward the Wake (of whom I had heard by dint of my grandparents living in range of Radio Hereward) was only a part of it.

The other thing that comes clear from this whole tricky historiographical mess is that there was really no such thing as a Viking, or even a Dane or Anglo-Saxon. While the languages may vary, all sorts of people got together and fought together. I, therefore, have come to doubt if a Danish army of the period, at least deployed in England, would be all that ‘Viking’, even minus the horned helmets. While an early era raiding party would, presumably be more Danish, the later armies, from before Cnut, would, it seems to me, be much more of a mix of types, arms and enthusiasm. Cnut used the rhetoric of conquest of an earlier age to legitimise Danish rule of England. So far as it can be true in any early medieval setting, not many objected to either the rule (once the opposition was deceased) or to the use of a partially imagined past.

Furthermore, England was even more parochial than it is now. Communications between the different bits was difficult and slow. The stories of different regions reflected local legends, people. places and events and were not necessarily part of any ‘national’ story. For example, the stories around (the mythical) Guy of Warwick centre on the Midlands and Winchester; such tales are not found in the north.

Incidentally, the Guy of Warwick stories solved a decade's long puzzle that the Estimable Mrs P and I had. As residents of the aforementioned burgh, on one of our walks, we passed a cliff with a ruined manor house on top of it. A perusal of the local OS map indicated that this was called ‘Guy’s Cliffe’, and much puzzlement was expressed as to whom this Guy was and why he had a cliff named after him. Parker explains that Guy of Warwick retired as a hermit to a cave in a cliff just outside Warwick after his heroic deeds had been performed. The cave was a nice little money earner for someone in the Middle Ages, even though the stories were legends.

I do rather digress, however. The book is an excellent one, and the lesson of it is more general than just the Vikings or early Medieval England. All sources in history are, to some extent, secondary. It is a fairly rare early historian acknowledges their sources and distinguishes written, oral and magical information. The situation is further confused, potentially at least, by subsequent authors. For example, Parker notes that the sixteenth and seventeenth-century antiquarians and historians, who first investigated the sources and translated them, had their own slips and misinterpretations. Hence, by one misreading, the Vikings were portrayed as drinking the blood of their enemies from those enemies’ skulls (or, possibly wine – I may be misrepresenting the misrepresentation, of course).

Recent work on DNA suggests that the conquests were neither as complete nor as bloody as history usually represents them. For the state of the North of England, William the Bastard is picking up much of the blame these days. I am not entirely sure about that – deindustrialisation also has its effects. But then the histories I’ve read are dependent on their sources and they might be misrepresenting or misunderstanding. Overall, it is a bit of a wonder that we know anything about the past, or, perhaps, we don’t….


  1. 'the conquests were neither as complete nor as bloody as history usually represents them'. This rings true. Doesn't DNA evidence collected in fairly recent surveys suggest that far from being Anglo-Saxon-Danish, the population of England is still at least 50% 'Celtic'?
    Years ago, I think in 'In Search of England', Michael Wood said that the estimate numbers of Anglo-Saxon invaders over a couple of centuries would only add up to 10% of the population if they had all arrived at the same time, and that with early Medieval weapons it was not physically possible to wipe out the population as portrayed traditionally in 'history'. After the first few massacres the population would have been able to band together, and even the disparity of skills and weapons would not have been great enough for the invaders to finish off the locals.

    1. I suspect that you are right. And of course, the whole thing could be represented as a sneaky take over of the Bre*it thing by determined Europeans.

      The serious point is that we only see some stuff (i.e. the mongrel nature of the English population) when we look for it. Also, I suppose, we could ask what being half Celtic means. I mean, which half. It reminds me of walking to a lecture with a scholar at a conference, who remarked that he worked at the University of California that had 100,000 students. We have 99% of our DNA in common with chimpanzees, he said, so, on average, there should be 1,000 chimpanzees on the rolls. So far as he knew, not one of the students was a chimpanzee....

  2. Apparently, when assessing dna and foreign occupations one has to take into account the ability of males with "power" to "share" their dna with multiple women and thus over represent themselves in the record.

    Anyway this relatively straight forward matter of Saxon & Viking invasions, traditions, etc starts getting relatively complicated once you go North of the Wall.....

    1. All sorts of things get complicated when you look into them, of course. Quite how widespread multiple partners in Viking England was is unknown and never will be, although the power of the church (OK initially Vikings were pagans) might have rather dented abilities to spread DNA.....