“White Rus”: A History of Belarus

For this week in our alphabet of History, will be (pun intended) looking at the History of Belarus. The history of Belarus is a narrative of invasions, wars, unifications and atrocities, but is of great value to any whose interests involve History. Because Belarus’ history is so encompassing, to avoid making this blog seem like a small essay, I will be focusing on Belarus from the earliest days of Human occupation, up until the late medieval period – pre-modern Belarus essentially. I may finish off Belarus’ history in a future blog, but here is the first half!

Continue reading ““White Rus”: A History of Belarus”

Nu History Podcast – Episode 4: Beowulf and the Anglo Saxons

The fourth episode of our podcast is here!

For this episode Lilly and Alex are joined by Elton, a historian and “nerd guy about Beowulf” (his own words), who is here to talk about some of his recent work and projects, mostly relating to Beowulf of course!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Nu History Podcast – Episode 2: Vikings and Slavs

The podcast returns for episode 2!

Lilly and Alex are joined this time by Natalia Radziwiłłowicz who is currently working on a PhD on Scandinavian and Slavic interactions during the Viking age around Pomerania/the southern Baltic coast.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

Olga of Kiev: Queen of the Rus

Vikings here, Vikings there, Vikings everywhere…! So today I take us back to one of my favourite women in history: an absolute kick ass queen who manage to take rulership of an old Norse state to a different level. Today, I bring you Olga of Kiev – or rather a summary of the things we know about Olga, because, as you know, I love me nothing better than dark characters and subjects in history that no one else seems to care about…Or that have hardly any research published in English…Oh Well!

So… Who’s Olga?

Good question! As far as we understand, Queen Olga of Kiev, ruled the realm after the death of her husband Igor, in the first half of the tenth century. Olga and Igor had only one son who was at the time of the death of his father, an underaged infant, which meant Olga acted as his regent…And the rest that we know about this incredible woman, is patchwork – at best. On a further note about the issue with the secondary sources- there is more availability of materials in other languages, mainly in Russian and other Eastern European languages. Even though, it is surprising how little in general has been written about her despite she was the first member of the royal family leave paganism behind and adopt Orthodox Christianity. Despite there are not many secondary sources about her, there was an increase in the amount of research done about her related to her conversion to Christianity and the millennium anniversary of her baptism In fact, Olga was the first member of the dynasty that became Christian; an event that had repercussions for the entire kingdom in the following years. This event was exposed in different ways in contemporary sources, which allowed the historical debate to begin.

According to Moseley, there are extensive materials for the study of middle- and upper-class women, such as personal correspondence and diaries; nevertheless, this does not apply to the Early Middle Ages where it was commonly the monks who recorded most events. Moreover, it was uncommon for women to write for it was seen as ‘exceeding society’s expectations. Apart from a few exceptions, like Christine of Pissan, the limited chances a woman had to influence written work were through patronage, as seen in the Encomium of Emma of Normandy. No sources written by Olga have been preserved or are known, although it has been suggested that the two Slavonic contemporary sources that remain could be based on a lost Encomium. Zemon Davis states that there are plenty of materials for research on European women, despite these might sometimes be under represented. However, we cannot be certain this applies to women that were not from mainland Europe. One of the very few sources we have availale that talk at lenght about Olga is the Russian primary Chronicle (which is super epic by the way, and if you have the time to read it, I thoroughly recommend it). Written in the twelfth century, this is nonetheless a controversial source: The text is meant to be a compilation of earlier manuscripts as well as oral traditions, although it is not disregarded it could just be the product of propaganda: both from the state and the Church.  Jesch defines it as an “apocryphal” and “legendary” text where the events are clearly manipulated by the author, but on the contrary Riha thinks that despite the religious bias it is the only remaining source of the early Russian past, so it cannot be disregarded. Thus, this source explains how Olga tricks the Derevlians, killers of her husband, and then leads the army to avenge the death of Igor and impose her rule over the neighbouring land .

According to Stafford, Olga was no exception as others like Aethelflead or Gerberga took active roles in siege and town defence. Furthermore, she states that ‘the struggles surrounding succession were often accompanied by propaganda wars’, a fact that fits in with the circumstances of Olga’s son’s minority and the political instability after the death of Igor. Moreover, it also reflects the Viking literary heritage presented in the sagas of the warrior maiden, that shows the perceptions of contemporary women by society. Finally, this source does mention other affairs related to the administrative power of the queen, like the economic prosperity reached since c.947 due to the building of several trading posts and the imposition of a tax on the goods transported through the Russian rivers. But, this does not say much about Olga’s personal life or experience of queenship. There is a passage of the Russian Primary Chronicle that perhaps reflects on this issue or maybe is just a remain of how she wanted to portray herself as a ruler. According to the events described, the Byzantine emperor fascinated by Olga proposes her marriage, for it is what she requires to be baptised. As he performs the rite, she eludes the proposal because of the formula used by the emperor, which calls her his daughter and therefore the incestuous controversy stands in Olga’s favour. It is interesting to know, though, that this is the only source that mentions this event. There is much debate amongst scholars regarding the truth behind this passage. Some consider that was the reality, some others that it never did happen. In addition, there are some that think that even if it happened it would not have been recorded elsewhere as it would have been a humiliation of the Emperor and, thus, too favourable for Olga, who after all was a widowed queen from a “lesser” kingdom. Perhaps that was her way to reinforce her position of widow, the one moment when women enjoyed more freedom and respect.

Related to that episode is the most celebrated part of Olga’s life: her baptism and conversion to the Christian faith. She was the first Russian Christian ruler who was the most inspiring figure for later tsar’s wives ‘who manipulated her image as intercessor for her people to legitimize their own roles as spiritual mothers of the realm and independent rulers’, according to Schaus. The importance of religion in life reaches its peak with her later beatification and sanctification. Interestingly, Schulenburg’s research shows how in the first half of the tenth century the number of female saints, all the clear example of piety, devotion and morality, increased by 20 per cent. Indeed, it is known women were a key part in the conversion process and spread of Christianity, and one of the few subjects where queens could get involved and develop their own affairs. Specifically, Norse women seem to have used this new opportunity that Christianity gave them to acquire more influence within their communities, just like Olga. Furthermore, women, and queens in particular, were the ones in charge of the spiritual protection of their families, which was very important for the well-being and prosperity of a dynasty. The importance of such matter is partially seen in a passage of Adalbert of Magdeburg’s Chronicle of Regino of Prüm that includes information regarding missionary work agreed between Olga and the court of Otto I. This is odd considering she was on good terms with Byzantium and she was converted to the Orthodox faith. However, it has been suggested that one of her multiple visits to Constantinople was intended to get a bishop for her realm but due to internal issues within the Byzantine administration this never happened, which may have made her get in contact with the Holy-Roman Empire.

 However, the German mission failed and with it the developments of Christianity in the Rus. Certainly Olga did not manage to convert her own son to the new faith, but the influence spread, reaching even a more important figure than the heir to the throne: Vladimir, Olga’s grandson. It was with Vladimir’s rule that Kiev became officially Christian, two decades after Olga’s attempt. Poppe suggests that this shows how important it was for female rulers to have support in different spheres and how religion was a way of gaining control and allies at the same time. Related to this, is the general question about status being so prominent and relevant in the study of these figures. There is one last source that deals with this subject, De Caeremonis: the book of ceremonies from the Byzantine court which provides details on the ceremonies Olga attended in Constantinople, and her dinners with the royal family, evidence of her high status and diplomatic abilities. Finally, Jesch mentions the large number of females from her family that had an active role in Olga’s court, perhaps suggesting a sort of female agency, and most definitely establishing the importance of household and family support for these individuals.

So, this is what we can comfortably talk about Olga. There is a very important issue that I need to address here which is something that Schaus points out and is the issue of romanticism with figures like Olga. There are extra difficulties to investigate characters like this due to the pagan-Christian controversy. After all, Kievan women suffered from the romanticism of the sources and their personas due to the Romantic and Nationalistic movements Kievan scholars experimented. Therefore, perhaps what we know about her must be taken with a pinch of salt? I am a little reluctant to believe it is all a fantasy or apocryphal. However, the lack of access to sources in different languages make this a very biased discussion.

Regardless, I still think that Olga is a well interesting figure that did a lot of great things for her people and that is still very under represented in her field.  

And here is the bibliography from where I pulled most of this research…So you can see it is archaic…However, I would like to point out that a few things have come out recently which will be worth examining…I just haven’t had the chance to get my hands on to them.

‘The Russian Primary Chronicle’, ed. T.Riha, Readings in Russian Civilization, Vol. 1, (Chicago and London, 1964), pp. 20-30.

Featherstone, J., ‘Ol’ga’s Visit to Constantinople’, Harvard Ukranian Studies, Vol. 14, No 3-4, (Dec., 1990), pp. 293-312.

Jesch, J., Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, 1991).

Jewell, H.M., Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c.500-1200 (Basingstoke and New York, 2007).

Moseley, E.S., ‘Sources for the New Women’s History’, The American Archivist, Vol. 43, No. 2, (Spring, 1980), pp. 180-190.

Poppe, A., ‘Once Again Concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’, Dumbaton Oak Papers, Vol. 46-Homo Byzantinus: Papers in Honour of Alexander Kazhdan, (1992), pp. 271-277.

Schaus, M., Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: an Encyclopedia (London, 2006).

Smith-Rosenberg, C., ‘The New Women and the New History’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1-2, (Aut., 1975), pp. 185-198.

Stafford, P., Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages (London and Virginia, 1983).

Zemon Davis, N., ‘“Women’s History” in Transition: the European Case’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3-4, (Spring-Summer, 1976), pp. 83-103.

Ancient and Medieval Board games

Board games have been a part of human society for thousands of years, and although most of them have been lost to the ages, there are still plenty that have survived either in some physical form, or described. Archaeological finds of various game boards and pieces that we may never know the rules to can be an interesting if frustrating source, but the combination of games that have survived to the modern day, written sources and artwork can often reveal how many of these old games are played. There is evidence to show that all levels of society would have enjoyed gaming in various forms, be you rich or poor, educated or not, old or young.

There are many examples in recorded history of people playing board games, such as Romans sitting in the forum playing Ludus Latrunculorum, Monks in Gloucester Cathedral playing Fox and Geese in their cloister, or even Queen Elizabeth I entertaining her courtiers by gambling with dice games. With all these games, we may know who played them but unfortunately there is little to no word on who designed them. Game design is a very commonly discussed and recorded topic amongst gamers today, but there isn’t really anything of this sort to look at in Historical games. But it is interesting to think how some of these very unique games came to be. A modern game usually undergoes a long process of design, starting with the creator’s first ideas and knowledge of game mechanics, and then going through rigorous testing and redesign. These historical games must have undergone a similar process, as games that are well balanced and play so well don’t get made by accident.

Roman Board games
Throughout the Roman Republic and Empire, there is evidence to suggest that Romans had a culture rich in board and dice games. Game boards have been found scratched into surfaces and pavements, and fragments of ceramic and even wooden boards have survived. Ludus Latrunculorum or Latrunculi is the ‘game of little soldiers’. This appears to have been a well-respected game in the early Empire. Unfortunately the game in its Roman form hasn’t really survived, so instead we must look at those related to it such as the Greek game Poleis, which was played throughout the 1st millennium AD in Asia Minor and the Near East. There is also the North East African game Seega, which appears to preserve some of the Roman game’s characteristics. It would be nearly impossible to fully recreate this game now, not least because a game that existed across an area the size of the Roman Empire was bound to have more than a few variations and houserules. Some Roman authors do give some information though, and these can usually be confirmed by the archaeological finds. Varro (116-27 BC) writes that the board was marked by orthogonally intersecting lines where the pieces moved on the squares between those lines. This sounds like a simple grid as you’d expect. Boards of this type that have been found from the Roman period appear to have varying sizes. For example there was a stone block of 9×10 squares excavated in Dover, 8×8 squares discovered in Exeter, as well as on the steps of the Parthenon in Athens and the Basilica Julia in Rome. And a roof tile from Mainz shows a 9×9 grid. So it appears that the number of squares on the board, and perhaps the number of pieces would have varied. Among other writers to mention the game, one anonymous author wrote a poem dedicated to Roman Senator Cnaeus Calpernius Piso, supposedly a famous player of the game. They mention that the pieces used by the two players would be of two different colours such as black and white, and at the beginning of the game “the pieces are cunningly disposed on the open board”. This suggests that the initial placing of the pieces requires some strategic thought, similar to nine men’s morris, and unlike a game such as chess which has fixed starting positions. An isolated piece was captured by flanking it on two sides, but as philosopher Seneca wrote it was still possible to find a way “the surrounded stone could go out”, before it was removed from play.

Another example of a popular Roman boardgame is ‘Five Lines’. It is one of the oldest known boardgames from ancient Greece where it was known as Pente Grammai. The poet Alkaios mentioned the game in one of his poems, and boards in terracotta with five parallel lines typical of the game have been found in graves of the same period. There are also similar boards to be found scratched into the surfaces of marble floors in temples the ruins of other Greek sites. In the time of the Roman Empire we can find more information about the game. Pollux in the 2nd Century AD wrote that “each of the players had five pieces upon five lines” and that “there was a middle one called the sacred line”. Based on other descriptions and archaeological finds, it appears that there would have been larger versions of the game as well.

Anglo Saxon and Viking Board games
As we go further through history, we can see some different games appearing. The Anglo Saxons and Vikings of the early Medieval period both played ‘nine men’s morris’ extensively. The game is much older though, and is one of the longest surviving board games to this day. There are Roman Examples, with boards carved into pavements and clay tiles, and the earliest dated example is a clay board dated to around 100 AD from Mycenae, but there are other boards resembling these from Egypt that may go back as far as 1400 BC. The game also spread through the Roman Empire and even ended up in 9th century India. Examples from the Viking world include those from the 9th century Gokstad ship burial in Norway. The game was also incredibly popular through the medieval period, as such it was recorded in Alfonso X’s ’Book of Games’ in 1283, and many carvings of it have been found in the cloisters of Cathedrals such as Canterbury, Salisbury, and Westminster Abbey. The origin of the name ‘Nine Men’s Morris’ is somewhat of a mystery, but it was possibly first recorded as such in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. The most plausible theory for the name is that ‘Morris’ is not actually related to the English folk dance, but comes from the latin merellus, which means gaming counter. The game itself is a fairly simple two-player strategy game where each player attempts to capture their opponent’s men by making rows of three counters. A key aspect to the game is that it is played in two phases, with the first phase being about each player taking turns to strategically place all their men before the main phase starts. There are also many variations of the game with varying rules, inevitable for a game that has lasted thousands of years across multiple continents. Some versions differ in size, such as the smaller three men’s morris, or the larger twelve men’s morris.

Tafll Pieces found in a 9th Century grave in Birka, Sweden

One game that is most commonly associated with the Vikings is the Tafl family of games, most notably Hneftafl. There are many variations of this game, usually of differing sizes, and many examples come from England and Ireland, as well as Scandinavia. Most games date to the typical dates of the Viking period, from around 800 AD, but it could have originated much earlier. All Tafl games are asymmetrical, which is what makes it fairly unique when compared with most other historical games. It is a grid of an odd number such as 13×13, 11×11 or 9×9 squares. This allows for a central square on which a ‘king’ is placed. The concept of the game is that a king and his bodyguards are in the center, and a greater number of attackers on the opposing team surround them on all 4 sides of the board. The Goal for the attackers is to capture the king by surrounding him with 4 pieces, whereas the king’s team instantly wins if he reaches one of the 4 corners of the board. There are two particularly important writings about Tafl games, the earliest being a 10th century Irish gospel book which shows the starting positions for a game called Alea Evangelii, which is an 18×18 variant of Tafl. The second is a Welsh writing from the Tudor period which explains the rules of an 11×11 variant. Other variants of the game include Fitchneal which as a small 7×7 variant taken from Irish written sources, and with some physical examples such as the Balinderry peg-board, which is now at the National Museum of Ireland. Tablut is a 9×9 version which has a written observation of it in play from 1732 by Carl Linnè while travelling in Lapland. Hneftafl is the example that appears frequently in Norse literature and discovered in Viking Age sites. It is a 13×13 board with 32 attackers facing 16 defenders and a king.

Later Medieval Board games
Related to nine men’s morris, which would have still been popular at the time, is a game that is first named in 15th Century English documents, and that is Fox and Geese. Physical evidence for this game goes further back, as there are some carvings of the board in Gloucester Cathedral from the 14th Century. It may be even earlier, as it is also referred to as Marelles, which is related to the other name for nine men’s morris. The name ‘Fox and Geese’ itself is first found in 1633. It is also around this time when the game seemingly saw an increase in popularity. The basic rules are that there is a single ‘Fox’ against a gaggle of thirteen ‘geese’. Players take it in turns, with one moving a single goose at a time, and the other moving their fox. The geese have to trap the fox and prevent it from moving to win, whereas the fox has to remove all the geese, which is done by jumping over a goose if there is an empty space the other side. This means the geese must surround or corner the fox in multiple ranks before they have too few left. Variants of this game mostly include more geese, which may have been an attempt to balance the game. There are also double and triple size versions of the board that come about in the 17th century that increase the number of geese and foxes as well. An offshoot of the game is Asalto from the 18th century, which replaces the old theme for a more military emphasis, it being about two officers facing off against multiple enemy soldiers.

There are many many other board games that I could go into here, not least of all is chess, but that is perhaps the most famous board game of all time, so I needn’t explain it here. I will simple say that chess was originally a 6th Century Indian game known as Chaturanga. It reached Europe by the 10th Century. From the 13th century onwards there were many variants that would seem bizarre to us now such as four-seasons chess, which is a four player version, and there is also courier chess, which is played on a rectangular board, uses more pieces named the courier, counsellor and spy that move differently, and moves are taken in turn but four at a time. From the late 15th Century onwards we begin to see what would become modern chess, and it was fairly recognizable by the 17th Century.

Burial Practices in Early Medieval Northern Europe

Today we are going to talk about something that my archaeology friends find fascinating, and most other humanist consider as particularly gross – the dead. Death is a key moment in anyones existence – dare I say The Most Crucial? But it can be quite a nasty and blunt topic to discuss. Nevertheless, in the medieval period, the dead were still important for their societies, in a way or another. And burials could create a great deal of tension in certain communities. After all, we have to consider these people were far more influenced by religion and belief than perhaps our modern society – or so we think…Anyway, strap on your seatbelts and jump on the cart…(trying really hard not to make a Monty Python joke here…too late!).

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The world of the early middle ages was one of religious diversity. Both pagans and Christians coexisted for some centuries, each of them with different practices related to the veneration of their deities and the rituals this implicated. Like in many other cultures, just like nowadays, death was another step in life. However, death involved the reunion of the deceased with his ancestors and even with the Gods, therefore it is understandable that burials and other practices related with death represent religious connotations of these individuals.

Starting with a classic the account of Ibn Fadlan on Viking burials on the other hand provides details of the actual Scandinavian rites of death; from the moment in which the corpse was temporarily buried to the burning of the funerary ship. If you have seen The 13th Warrior , you probably get the idea: human sacrifice, chanting, party, the Angel of Death and her spooky predicaments…Nonetheless, there is a major problem in relying on this type of sources – Fadlan I mean, not the movie – religious bias, judgement and exaggeration.

The situation is slightly different once the archaeological records are approached. Think of the Ogam stones from Ireland or the Pictish Class I stones. Even though they provide us with key information about the practice of burials (the disposal of the bodies, the grave-goods they used, etc.) there are still problems in understanding the religious convictions of the different individuals interred. It is usually assumed that if the orientation of the grave is east-west and has no grave-goods then the burial is Christian, while if it is flexed and presents irregularities it is most likely to be pagan, but it does not always work like that. In addition, it has to be considered that throughout time graves have been re-used or even robbed, leaving both archaeologists and historians without their original context – and as you know I am a fan of context, because contact is crucial.

One could easily assume that interments within a churchyard with no grave-goods are most likely Christian burials, as the members of the Church would not let a non-Christian disturb their eternal place of rest. Moreover, we have the reassurance that certain type of graves and markers are most certainly Christian, due to a prolonged and consistent use of these. For example, head box graves at least from the 7th century onwards seem to have a clear Christian connotation. These and similar types of graves would be decorated or marked by the sign of the cross, or the chi-rho symbol which is the most explicit  form of identifying Christian iconography. In addition, it seems likely that the Ogam stones of Cork and Kerry with the ANM inscription are related to Christian individuals as well, as the language used in them is Latin, or Latin influenced, and usually contain the depiction of the cross. The same could be said about the stones marked in their wider face with Maltese crosses, which have been dated from sometime between the 6th and the 8th century from Ireland to the Hebrides and that have clear parallels in the continent.

In the same way, certain practices could be considered, and have been considered pagan per se. Cremations have been regarded as pure pagan practice and have not been questioned by historians for a long time. Primary Frankish sources refer to this burning of dead men´s bodies as pagan rites and such practice was retaliated by capital punishment. In addition, the burials with grave-goods, especially horses, or horse related artefact, are usually considered a pagan practice which was particularly prominent in the Germanic speaking areas. In Frisia unlike anywhere else both cremation and horse burial practice carried on as late as the 9th century. There are other odd burials that are commonly regarded as non-Christian: human sacrifices. This seems quite prominent in Scandinavian and Germanic lands – remember Ibn Fadlan and the 13th Warrior? We even references to human sacrifice in the Carolingian capillary regarding Saxony. It states that “if anyone shall have sacrificed a man to a devil, and after the manner of the pagans shall have presented him as a victim to the demons, let him be punished by death” (in P.E.Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, p. 67). These sort of practices would be unacceptable for the Christian Church as only God has rights on someone else’s life and therefore they should be regarded as purely pagan, with certainly no room to even consider malpractice.

But what seems non sensical, is the fact that we seem to want to establish this very clear-cut between what was pagan and was not. The idea that both religious beliefs shared time and ground with no interaction or exchange of any kind might seem reasonable to some, but highly unlikely. Approaches by imitation might have taken place before the conversion of these people, and for sure once Christianity installed itself in these new lands, lending and borrowing would have happened in order to provide the lay population with an easier transition. In Ireland, for example, there was an old pre-Christian custom to make lamentations or ‘keening’ for the deceased. There are reference to such practice in both the Bigotian and the Old Irish penitential. The first one seems sympathetic towards the subject as long as the lament is made for a good person, imitating therefore practices of Jacob from the Old Testament.The other, on the other hand, condemns such a practice by fifty nights of penance. Possibly the reason why this source is more strict, without totally prohibiting such a ritual, is to promote proper praying for the soul in religious mannerism rather than folk practice. These weird ideas and performances regarding the dead and religious ritual, reach their peak with generally considered to deviant burials: those in which the ritual has been altered as due to the unorthodoxy of the burial itself.  S.L.Fry suggests that usually this deviation is caused in order to dishonour the dead. However there seems to be a pattern: murderers, suicides, unbaptised children, women who died during or shortly after childbirth, as well as strangers. In any of these cases Christian burial was denied, and so it is possible that many deviant burials might have been identified as pagans when they were not such a thing. A similar case can be appreciated especially in the Cillin burials in Carrowkeel from the 9th to the 11th century, which present even more issues as the orientation of the graves was east-west, but the corpses were flexed and in odd positions. Nonetheless, this coincides with a well-spread tradition performed by Anglo-Saxons – to have a separated area for the disposal of child burials, like in Rands Furnells, Northamptonshire, and even other place in Northern Europe such as Norway during the 9th and 11th century like in the cathedrals of Trondheim and Hamar.

So what can be said about these practices? Where they Christian or pagan, or none? If one looks at Scandinavian rune-stones it could be argued that these memorials were mainly used for Christian purposes, in the same way a grave-slab would be, however they were developed from a pre-Christian practice and contained pagan elements. Even when their use was purely Christian, especially in Denmark, odd inscriptions can be found in these stones in the shape of curses, spells, and even invocations of Thor. The same sort of thing could be said about both Ogam and Pictish stones; all of them most likely started being a pagan symbol, changed slightly, but carried out with pejoratively the same purpose throughout the Christian era. It is true that certain aspects of burial practices and their associated rituals can be identified as being from Christian faith or pagan belief but unfortunately the matter cannot be answered in too a simplistic manner. There are issues like the nature of certain deviant burials that religion cannot explain. The fact that more than one person was interred in the same grave does not necessarily mean pagan. Maybe the grave was simply re-used, as it commonly happened, or it was rather a cultural marker for multiple deaths that would have seem exceptional for such small populations and therefore was reflected in the odd features of their death rituals. However, and leaving on the side all the scepticism this subject might cause, one could definitely argue that there was a level of religious consciousness that affected people’s choices when proceeding to death rites. And perhaps it was selfishness, and the reassurance that life after death was obtainable. It is quite possible that the desire for saving the soul of the deceased – as well as that of those performing the ritual –  made them incorporate elements from both Christian and pre-Christian traditions so they could have all the guidance needed in death in the same way it would have been when they were alive.

 

Twice a Queen: Emma of Normandy

Much is known of England’s powerful queen consorts, from Eleanor Aquitaine to Elizabeth Woodville to Anne Boleyn but little is known about the woman who arguably was one of the first of England’s powerful queen consorts, along with her mother in law Ælfthryth. Emma of Normandy was queen consort of England twice, first to Æthelred the Unready and secondly to Cnut the Great. She was the mother to two kings of England, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor.  Her continued hold on power was due to her determined will which saw her survive the death of both husbands and several sons. The Encomium Emmae Reginae written in honour of her recorded her as a central figure during this period and is one of the major sources. Her position as a daughter of Normandy has also led to her marriage to Æthelred being considered as one of the main events leading to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Born to Richard I, Count of Rouen, and his wife Gunnor, Emma was born sometime during the 980s. Her brother Richard was Duke of Normandy and another brother Robert was Archbishop of Rouen. Her family’s position was what led to Emma’s marriage to Æthelred in 1002 as a result of an arrangement between the two territories against Viking raids. Emma dutifully provided 3 heirs for Æthelred but her power was limited during her marriage to him. While she seems to appear more during Æthelred’s reign compared to his first wife, such as appearing prominently on witness lists of Æthelred’s charters, William of Malmesbury reported that the pair never got along. Emma was forced to return to Normandy with her two sons in 1013 after her husband lost control of England to Swein Forkbeard and was only unable to return upon his death the following year. By 1016, Æthelred himself had died and Emma had been unsuccessful in convincing him to pass over his sons from his first wife in favour of Edward.

Æthelred’s heir Edmund Ironside however did not survive long, dying at the end of 1016 after struggling to hold off Cnut. Emma soon married Cnut in a mutually beneficial marriage. She retained her position as queen as well preserving the life of her two sons while Cnut benefitted from Emma being seen as symbol of continuity and quelling the threat from Normandy. Emma was afforded a far greater position as Cnut’s wife than she was during her marriage to Æthelred. Sources refer to the couple as pair and Emma also appears in royal imagery such as in the Liber Vitae which includes an image depicting Emma and Cnut presenting their gift of a cross on the altar of the New Minster of Winchester. The Encomium Emmae Reginae also comments that while the marriage began as one for political means, that the marriage became affectionate. By the time Cnut died in 1035, the marriage had provided two children, including Cnut’s heir Harthacnut.

Upon Cnut’s death Emma did not cede her political power. She focused on ensuring that her son with Cnut, Harthacnut could maintain power. Harthacnut however was in Denmark and made little attempt to come to England. Emma was forced to appeal to her sons from her marriage to Æthelred, Edward and Alfred, to come to England to help support her against her opponents. However upon their arrival they were betrayed by allies leading to the death of her son Alfred who died after having his eyes gouged out. Emma was forced to flee to Flanders as her stepson Harold Harefoot took control of England. Upon Harefoot’s death in 1040, Harthacnut had finally joined his mother and the two set sail to England to reclaim the throne.

Harthacnut’s reign was not popular according to the C and E texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Emma is believed to have convinced Edward to return to England to help reduce tensions but to also strengthen her position. It was during Harthacnut’s reign that she commissioned the Encomium Emmae Reginae, to present her version of events and create a lasting legacy of her life. Emma firmly places the blame for her son Alfred’s death on Harold the Harefoot. Despite the work’s biases, it is considered an important source for 11th century English and Scandinavian history.

Upon the death of Harthacnut’s in 1042, Emma’s power began to decrease. Despite having helped secure Edward’s position, perhaps as a result of her favouring Harthacnunt as heir, their relationship soured. Edward came to Winchester seizing the treasure held there, if it was Emma’s own or the royal treasury is not clear, as well as her advisor Bishop Stigand who was stripped of his office. While Emma would later return to court, and Stigand would also be promoted, it was the end of her influence. In her place the Earl Godwine gained her political power, despite his probable role in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred. Emma would see him become exiled before she died in 1052 but after her death he returned to power and his son became the ill-fated Harold Godwinson.

When Emma died in 1052, she was buried at Winchester next to Cnut and Harthacnut. She had been queen consort of England twice over, as well as when married to Cnut, queen consort of Denmark and Norway. Two of her sons had also successfully obtained the English throne. In the case of her second husband and her two sons she had been instrumental in their success. Despite not being of English birth and being a woman, Emma navigated the dangers of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish courts in securing a position for herself. For a queen consort with such an interesting life, Emma deserves much more than a footnote in the history books.

The Viking Ships in Oslo

On our recent trip to Oslo in March we probably spent the majority of our time in museums (you can see the first few in this post). One of the highlights for us definitely has to be the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy. The museum itself is pretty simple, as it mostly just consists of a large hall with three quite different viking ships inside. As the starting point and the centrepiece is the magnificent Oseberg ship. After probably spending quite some time staring at this first ship in awe you’ll find the Gokstad ship and Tune ship behind and to the left and right. Finally at the back of the hall you’ll see the wealth of artifacts that came with the ships and another ship find at Borre. There are plenty of grave goods, as the Oseberg and Gokstad were burial ships.

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The Gokstad is slightly larger than the Oseberg, which is slightly larger than the Tune, but all three appear to be the same type of ship known as ‘karvi’ from the sagas which were relatively small vessels meant for the private use of chieftains and their followers for cruising along the coasts. The Oseberg appears to be more in the style of a pleasure vessel for use in good weather on closed waters, whereas the other two are more in the nature of sea-going vessels.

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The excavation of the ships in this museum took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the latest being the Oseberg in 1904. For a long time since then these three examples were to remain the only full remains of the Viking Age shipwright’s craft. However, this eventually did change when in 1962 a significant finding was made in the Roskilde Fjord in Denmark where five ships had been sunk as part of a blockade of a channel that led to Roskilde. These ships are now restored and on display in the museum in Roskilde. In 1970 another addition was made to the Viking Age ships that exist today when remains were recovered from an excavation at Tjølling in Vestfold. This ship has also been preserved and restored, and is now on display at the Vestfold County Museum in Tønsberg. Thus in the course of a few years the number of known and more or less preserved ships from the Viking Age has increased threefold. This has added considerably to our knowledge of the building and use of ships in the Viking Age. These finds give a wide range in terms of geographical location and time, and there is now known to be far more variation in methods of ship-building and types of ship than previously found in written or artistic sources. Hopefully with the increasing interest in ancient ships and improving techniques in modern underwater archaeology there will be more Viking ship finds in the future, despite the rare conditions required to preserve a ship in any state.

The Oseberg Ship
The excavation of the Oseberg find took place during the summer of 1904 on the Oseberg farm at Slagen near Tønsberg. The archaeologist leading this work was Professor Gabriel Gustafson of the University of Oslo. The ship and its burial chamber had been covered by a very large grave mount of 44 metres in diameter and 6 metres high. The amount of tightly packed turf and clay that formed the soil around the ship was fairly air-tight and kept the wood and organic material of the ship in a remarkable state of preservation for more than a thousand years.

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However, the ship and its contents had not gone entirely undisturbed all through time, as is common with large barrows. At some point, probably early in the Medieval period, robbers had broken into the mound, made a hole in the bow of the ship and made their way into the burial chamber. The grave itself was therefore found greatly disturbed and most of the contents were found in the entrance made by the robbers. The ship itself was also in a poor state when first excavated. At the time of its burial it had been filled with a large quantity of stone, the weight of which had pressed the ship into the ground and eventually broken it into thousands of small fragments of wood. This meant that the entire ship had to be taken and practically rebuilt from all these parts.

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The ship and burial chamber contained a large amount of goods still. First there were the ship’s accessories and equipment including oars, a gangway, a bailer, and various tubs and pails. There were also some richly decorated pieces such as a cart, three sleighs and a sled. There were four finely carved animal head posts, three beds and two tents. Inside there were the skeletons of at least ten horses, and several other horses and an ox outside the ship. In the entrance made by the grave robbers there lay the remains of two human skeletons, both women, that were most likely laid upon the beds to begin with. There were large quantities of textile remnants and down and feathers that must have come from the bedding. There were also a number of chests and personal objects of the dead such as implements for textile work. It us unusual however that there were no traces of jewelry with the dead, especially considering that this is the richest grave of its kind to be discovered. It is almost certainly the jewelry that the robbers would have been seeking, so they most likely took it.

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The ship itself was reconstructed once it was fully excavated, and was eventually in a more or less finished state by 1926 with some new material being necessary for its completion. The ship is made entirely of oak, along with some of the other objects in the find, and thus they could all be preserved using the same methods. It’s full length is 21.58 metres, it measures 5.10 metres at its widest point, and its depth from gunnel to keel is 1.58 metres in the middle. Apart from a full height of the mast, the ship now appears in this complete condition at the Viking Ship Museum.

The Gokstad Ship
The Gokstad sip was excavated in the summer of 1880 on the land of the Gokstad farm in the borough of Sandefjord. Like the Oseberg it had also been covered by a very large barrow of 50 metres across and 5 metres in height, and thought to originally have been larger. Archaeologist and antiquarian Nicolay Nicolaysen was responsible for this excavation. The mound had been made of a mix of clay and sand, and the ship was filled with clay, meaning a similarly excellent condition of preservation as the Oseberg find. Some parts of the ends of the ship that were not fully covered by the clay did completely decay however.

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The burial chamber of this ship contained a fair amount less than the Oseberg. There were some good remnants of wool and silk, probably from clothing of the dead and part of the remains of a bed. There was also a gaming board with one antler gaming piece, some leather which may have been a purse, a socketed iron point, the clasp of a casket and three iron fishing hooks together with a large number of harness mounts in iron lead and bronze. Outside the chamber were a number of objects such as buckets and pots, a cauldron and some timbers. A strange find was the remains of a skeleton and some plumage of a peacock. Outside the ship itself were the remains of several horses and dogs, the ship’s equipment such as oars, tiller, rope, the rusted away remains of the anchor and some kitchen utensils. Some of the larger objects were the remains of six beds, three small boats and one sleigh. Finally some of the metal objects included a large copper cauldron, and some iron implements including two augers, a palstave and a small axe blade.

This burial appeared to be for a man by the remains of the one human skeleton found inside the burial chamber. However, this grave had also been subject to plundering, but probably closer to the time of burial than the Oseberg, so presumably more appears to have been taken. Usually a Viking Age man’s grave, especially a large ship burial, would contain plenty of weapons, as well as some jewelry.

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As said before the Gokstad is slightly larger than the Oseberg. This ship was built for 16 pairs of oars whereas the Oseberg was built for 15. It’s length is 23.24 metres, its maximum width is 5.20 metres, and depth from gunnel to keel is 2.02 metres. The weight of the hull when fully equipped is estimated to be at over 20 metric tons based on an exact copy made of the ship in 1893. In addition to the larger dimensions the Gokstad ship also has a more study construction than the Oseberg, making it more seaworthy, demonstrated by the sailing of its copy across the Atlantic.

Like the Oseberg, along with the other parts of the exhibition, this ship can be found in a complete state at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. If you ever find yourself near there, then I definitely recommend you go see them!

 

Icons of Danish Heritage (pt.2) – Trelleborg

This is the continuation of https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/icons-of-danish-heritage-pt-1-kronborg-castle/ . As you may remember, October 2015 was the time when I went off to Denmark and consumed history and culture with every meal of the day – quite literally. So, today we are off to pretty much the other side of Zealand. We leave lovely Copenhagen, to take an hour train journey, followed by a 20 minutes bus ride that will leave us in the middle of nowhere – for real – to go down some country roads for half an hour, up until the moment we reach the incredible site that is Trelleborg.

Entrance to the historical center
Entrance to the historical center

Now, if you remember the point of this update is to highlight this site as an icon of Danish heritage and history, but more importantly, a site of power. Trelleborg, like Kronborg, was in its day a Viking Age fortress. There are only 3 others in all of Denmark, and Trelleborg is, by far and large, the best preserved of the lot. There are no contemporary written sources that mention these fortresses, so the most accurate way to date them, is by archaeological methods, as well as by using dendrochronological dating of the wooded remains found on site. The results suggest that these date back to the 10th century, which is crucial for the recognition of Trelleborg as a sign of power. Why you ask? Well, this is the time when Harald Bluetooth, King of Denmark was trying to establish his authority over his lands. Potentially, one could argue that these ring-shaped bastions were used by the king as means to keep the locals under control, therefore avoiding struggles with neighbouring magnates, or rather sending a very clear message: here be a Norse lord of might. Certainly, the message was not received with arms wide open…We all know that his own son Sweyn Forkbeard decided he did not like his father’s attitude much and led a rebellion to overthrown him. Sweyn thus succeeded and Harald was killed in battle. now, I realise that this may leave the story in a fairly gloom tone and it may seem defeatist, but I think it does nothing but reinforce the point. Trelleborg was a commendable effort for a great king to show, that even in an area full of quarrels and tension, one could establish some order, even though temporary. More importantly – and this is something your should be able to admire in the pictures – this site left a very visible mark in the landscape. Harald’s legacy was to stay put as if carved in stone.

There are maps dating from the 17th century and later periods in Danish history, where the fortress is clearly delineated. The excavations and investigations on site begun in 1934, lead by Poul Nørlund. The work carried for 9 years, where the completed the full rehabilitation of both the inner and outer circle. They left cement markers as well for the original standing place of the buildings and wooden structures that would have been visible a thousand years earlier. Then, in 1942 the proceeded with the recreation of the long house that still stands today and that is currently used by the re-enactors that populate the historical center.

The reconstructed long house from 1942
The reconstructed long house from 1942

This construction is highly regarded amongst academics in the field as the first accurately and scientifically built structure from the distant past. I cannot emphasise enough how the work in Trelleborg is not only conservation, but preservation and perpetuation of living history, within its original context – and still in the middle of nowhere. I would like to point out that the house was restored in the 1980s, and has been considered to be now not as accurate as originally thought, but for a first effort, I think we will let that one go.

So what does currently happen in Trelleborg? Essentially they have turned it into a reenactment park. Therefore you have the interpretation center, where the hold a small but very informative and well presented exhibition of the fortress, the archaeological excavation, its finds and the its context.

Displays of the exhibition contestualising Viking Age every day life - as an example are the garments
Displays of the exhibition conceptualising Viking Age every day life – as an example are the garments

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They also have one of the most amazing finds of all Denmark – the only preserved Viking shield from Denmark. This completely round wooden shield was found during the excavations of 2008. The results suggest that it was made in Norway during the 900s. I was amazed of how remarkably similar this was to Alex’s shield – wooden plate made out of different layered planks of pine wood and dimensions of the artefact (85 cm of diameter). Interestingly enough, the oxide they found on the surface of the shield suggest it would have been painted white and red, and evidence of a boss in the middle of the planks, suggest this would have been used in battle and not for ceremonial or decorative purposes.

The shield preserved and exhibited at the Trelleborg interpretation center
The shield preserved and exhibited at the Trelleborg interpretation center

Outside in the grounds of the site, you find the reconstructed buildings where a Viking community lives, and where they let you explore different aspects of everyday Norse life. There I bought some Viking coins and went to try to be a Viking.

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Here is where I found out I would have been an awful archer and I ate some porridge inside the long house in the way it would have been traditional for the locals at the time of Harald Bluetooth. I also had the chance to see the recreation of a shield wall – after my archery failure, I decided to just document the wall rather than to participate.


In addition, I saw the villagers crafting Nålebinding to keep themselves warm, as well as different embroideries to decorate their garments.

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Finally, I took a long moment to walk through the fortress. It was pretty magical.

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The cement posts visible from every angle really help bringing things alive in your head. The two roads that give the ring the shape of a cross are recreated from the original wooden paths that would have helped moving goods, people, cattle and men at arms. Just so you get an idea of the dimensions of the place, the inner circle has a diameter of 136 meters, with an inner rampart that is 17 meters wide by 5 meters high.

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The fortress would have held 16 houses in this ring. Access to the inner fortress is provided by a timber bridge stopping you from falling into the 4 meter deep ditch that encircles the moat. This was the most essential defense mechanism the fortress depended on. Then in the outer circle we would have found 15 extra houses, with more space between them.

Recreation of the fortress from the interpretation center
Recreation of the fortress from the interpretation center

We also find here the funerary site, where the archaeologists unearthed 135 graves, containing a total of 157 individuals. In total, the estimates advise that a total of 500-800 warriors could have been garrisoned in the settlement in bellicose times. If we think that Kronborg could have provided for 1000 soldiers standing siege for 6 weeks, some 500 years later, I think that can be considered as remarkable.

Recreation fo the fortress defense
Recreation of the fortress defense

How the garrison would have worked
How the garrison would have worked

Now, what is even better is that, if you go during the summer, and not in the middle of the low season like I did, you can enjoy Trelleborg at is best due to the Viking festival. Re-enactors of all over Europe come for the festival, where the amount of people and activities to take part in triplicate. Moreover, you can even camp in the grounds of the site, and feel just a little bit closer to 10th century Viking Age Denmark.

Yet, I must now depart. But we will have more of Denmark soon, for Denmark was not powerful only because of its fortresses…If you want to find out more of the history of this country, and explore more of it with me, then keep your eyes open for my upcoming post on the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum and the Domkirke!

Viking Raiding in Iron Maiden’s ‘Invaders’!

For music month I decided to go with a song about Vikings, which isn’t very surprising. This is another one from Iron maiden after Ellie’s look at ‘Aces High’, which you should also check out here!:https://nu-history.com/2014/11/19/ironmaidenww2aceshigh/

‘Invaders’ is the opening track on Iron Maiden’s third studio album ‘The Number of the Beast’, released in March 1982. The reception of this song was fairly mixed, as many reviewers thought that this was one of the weaker tracks on the otherwise excellent album, and it was a poor decision to use as the opener. On the other hand, others have felt that this song has been overly criticized, saying that Invaders kicks things off to a great start with a fast pace and its collection of riffs. Some also think that while the pace and mood of the song are not to their liking, or they perhaps consider it dull, the epic tone of the lyrics about Norse warfare was approved of. Whatever the fans and reviews might say, Steve Harris himself, the writer of the song and the band’s bassist, has stated that the track was not good enough, commenting that it “could have been replaced with something a bit better, only we didn’t have anything else to replace it with at the time. We had just enough time to do what we did, and that was it.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H_bKap7EL0

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