Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Year 1000; Three points, point 3

Did you know that the Vikings settled in Canada? For many years, scholars knew the the Vikings spoke of "Vinland," a place of green vines, frightening Skraelings, fierce people who lived in the woods, and good fishing. Many refused to consider those stories as anything more than publicity for the Danish colonies in Greenland. It wasn't until the 1960s that archaeologists began excavations at L'Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland, uncovering cookpits, boathouses, houses, and evidence of vine cultivation.

Actually, three thoughts are being inspired by this one point; that the Vikings were seafaring ramblers, much like the Phoenicians.

The first, vines were being cultivated in Newfoundland. Grape vines, really. The kind of vines that need some good weather to flourish. Newfoundland doesn't seem the likely climate. But, at this time, England was also growing wine grapes. When we think of English climate, we think of London fogs; cool, wet weather. A thousand years ago, though, it seems the climate this far north (England, Newfoundland) was of the warmer, drier type which helps grapevines to thrive. Many think that the weather underwent a change at the end of the Middle Ages, becoming wetter and cooler. Here is a good place to read about some of that. But this would be speaking of weather going through natural cycles of warming and cooling, and, in this fascinating modern age, we can't be thinking that way. No, Man the Destroyer must be somehow responsible, and must have been then, too. After all, the diesel engines of the Viking longships gave off much in the way of greenhouse gases.

Yes, I like me a little sarcasm.

Second point; as they sailed and voyaged, the Vikings did, from time to time, come to land. They really preferred sleeping onshore every night, rather than on the decks of their ships, for example. Some were even out rambling because they were looking for new places to live. If you read the other posts about this book, you read about the Normans being Vikings who settled in northern France. Well, would it surprise you to learn that that band of Vikings was not the only one to cause trouble for other leaders? No? Well, think on this.

Ethelred, king of England at the end of the 10th century, was plagued by Vikings. They would pillage and plunder, annoying his subjects to the point of forcing them to complain to him. Well, Ethelred decided to do what some before him, including the famous King Alfred, had done; buy off the raiders, most famously, Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark. He would pay them money to go away, or pay bands of them to serve as defenders against other bands. The payments became known as Danegeld. I thought of them the other day, when Mary and I watched Hamlet. Hamlet's stepfather/uncle sends him to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These worthies are carrying letters asking the English king to kill Hamlet; Hamlet, no fool, finds the letters, and substitutes letters asking that Rosie and Stosh be killed instead. But why was Hamlet going in the first place? Well, yeah, to allow things to die down after he killed Polonius. But also to pick up the Danegeld that the English owed them.

So the Danes collect money from the English, who count on the Danes to disappear. Now, if you were receiving concessions or even payments from a government, would you just go away? Would you give it up to just find another place to go? Or would you continue to take and take, reserving the decision whether to go elsewhere for another day? Now, I would suggest that there is a large, happy country, much like England, in today's world, giving payments and benefits to people who are foreign to this country and its inhabitants. Some in this country want to help, to be charitable, and see this as a way. Some, however, look at the Danes of the past and wish they payments and benefits would stop. We know what happened to England.

From 994 to 1000, and then on for another dozen years, Sweyn's forces kept returning to England in ever better organized expeditions. His goal was now total conquest...Ethelred tried every angle...he concluded a diplomatic marriage...He called for a national fast...he gathered the largest navy that England had ever raised, only to see it turn against itself...It was all in vain. In the summer of 1013 Sweyn disembarked...and the whole of Danish England immediately accepted him as king...(further areas of the country surrendered to him) and Ethelred withdrew into exile in Normandy.

My last thought is just that, a thought. In the past, I've been told lots of stories about the backward people of Columbus' time. Superstitious people who believed the world was flat, and that, if you sailed too far, you'd fall off the edge. Well, there may have been some who thought that. I've even heard it told that the people of the East were always aware that the earth was not flat. That it wasn't until the sack of Constantinople, and the subsequent migration of the learned and their books to the West, that the West became aware. Anyway, it seems that these Western people were not the backward fools spoken of. Lacey and Danziger make this point somewhere near the end of chapter 7; remember that Alfred was king in the 9th century, long before the sack of Constantinople in the late 15th century.

It suited some thinkers in the eighteenth-century Age of Reason to look down on the Middle Ages as a primitive and backward time when men believed that the world was flat, and that venturing too far away from Europe might entail the risk of ships dropping over the edge. But King Alfred's explanation of the solar system in one of the classical translations which he commissioned, and may even have carried out himself, talks in unambiguously spherical terms, comparing the earth to "the yolk in the middle of an egg which can move about [within the confines of] the egg"...the idea of the revolving heavens argued for similar roundness in the earth...When Charlemagne and the emperors of the time wanted to symbolize their earthly power, they put their hands upon an orb...Bede compared the earth to "the ball that boys play with"...

Not such superstitious people, after all.

Yeah, I've been thinking. Reading can do that to a person. This Medieval Bookworm Challenge has been that...challenging.

Italicized quotes from The Year 1000, 1999, Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger.

1 comment:

Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake said...

On the climate changes note, I was really struck by the bizarre cognitive dissonance on display at the glaciers on the west coast of NZ's South Island. At both of the big tourist glaciers they have little plaques along the approach roads, pointing out where the glaciers were at various points in history. It's a nice way of illustrating their steady withdrawal, which has been mostly continuous for at least a thousand years, until the 70's, when they began growing again at a dramatic pace (by glacial standards, that is). Does any of that keep the curators from working in the standard anthropogenic global climate change dogma into all the signage? Nope. We're supposed to believe that whatever benign natural change was causing them to shrink for 1000 years suddenly ceased its activity c. 1930, when dastardly human activity took over. And the growth since the 70's is just an exception to prove the rule, I guess. Sigh.