Mists of Time: The Viking Age

As a reader, the most important part of any novel is the story. A character or two for whom I can feel some sort of emotion (other than complete loathing) comes a close second in the list of priorities for choosing what to read.

As a writer, that story and those characters can come from anywhere.

I tend to find History to be full of both. There have been many, excellent, stories over the centuries. Leastways, I think so, and given the number of historical novels, apparently so do quite a few others. Anyway, as a step along my path, rather than just reading history and occasionally making notes in one of my many notebooks, I’m going to start sharing some of those stories here.

But first, I shall explain a little about the Viking Age. I’ve been doing that quite a bit recently – part of explaining my CV and background as a Viking Studies graduate.

The Viking Age is a very specific period. It is usually taken to begin with the attack on Lindisfarne at the end of the 8th Century, in 793, and the normal end-date of the period is 1066, with the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the death of the Last Viking, Harald Hardrada, at the hands of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England Harold Godwinson (well, OK, his army). Harold didn’t last much longer, dying at Hastings a few weeks later, leaving England in the hands of William of Normandy.

Actually, the Viking Age lasted a bit longer in the peripheries – in Scotland and Ireland – and had long since ended in mainland Europe and Byzantium.

After a bloody Ninth Century, Charles the Simple of France signed a treaty with Rollo the Viking in 911, offering him land in northern France in return for protection from other Vikings. Rollo said thanks, and proceeded to spread his wings a bit further along the French coast, with the Duchy of Normandy being established a couple of generations later, under Richard the Fearless (942-996).

In Byzantium, Vikings went from occasional raiders to Imperial guards, when Basil II formed the Varangians in 988. He decided he couldn’t trust his own people and recruited from the Northmen. Before he became King of Norway, Harald Hardrada was a very successful leader in the Varangian Guards.

To go ‘a-viking’ was something of a rite of passage for young male Scandinavians. Norwegians and Danes tended to west, towards the British Isles and mainland Europe; Swedes went east, down the rivers of eastern Europe towards Byzantium. Along the way, they also helped to establish Kiev and Russia – they were known as the Rus.

And that’s it briefly. I’ve glossed over it, and not talked much about Ireland and Scotland, but there will be more details when I’m talking about more specific people and not simply being brief.

Land Ahoy! Real World Sighted!

Hej hej! Me again! Back from my sojourn in Medieval Europe. Was quite a nice holiday, really, all things considered. Lots going on, what with kings, popes, power and the need to defend Christendom. I have now reached that happy island which exists between the end of exams and receiving the results (I’m taking it as a good sign that my university has allocated me my tickets for graduation).

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Flourless Chocolate Cake

So anyway, now I must turn my attention to the Real World and what I wish to do now that I have Grown Up. I’m not one of those super-organised people who’ve known what they wish to do since they were five and have been driven by burning ambition ever since. Instead, I changed my mind on pretty much a yearly basis, probably more frequently. I signed up to do Viking Studies because, quite honestly, I was interested. I like history, especially medieval history, and I’m something of a Wagner obsessive. (Yay for it being his bicentenary and the BBC doing the entire Ring Cycle at the Proms this year!) So I went to learn the sagas. I gave practically no thought to what I would do after my degree. I was off to study and learn!

Although, right now, my mind is probably still too full of Vikings and Crusaders, kings and popes, warfare and gold, to be of much use. I still think that one of the best crusaders was one King Sigurd of Norway, quite apart from the fact that whenever I hear the name ‘Sigurd’ I think ‘Dragon-slayer!’. In 1107, having belatedly received the memo from Pope Urban II (dated 1095) about there being an expedition to the Holy Land to retrieve Jerusalem from the Muslims, Sigurd gathered ships and set sail. Norway, by the way, was a new Christian country, converting in a bloody fashion during the eleventh century. Sigurd, we are told by Snorri in Heimskringla, won every battle he had on his crusade, defeating several pirate ships in the Mediterranean. Upon reaching the Holy Land, he was received by King Baldwin I of Jeruslam (previously Baldwin of Boulogne) and presented with a splinter from what was considered to be the Cross of Christ. Because, you know, what better present is there, than a chip of wood from a torture device? But anyway. Sigurd and his men returned home to Norway via Byzantium and that was his crusade. The First Crusade had ended in 1099, so he was only a few years late…

Anyway, while I have a think about What to Do Next, I thought I’d spend time productively making cake. I choose, at random from my collection, my Hummingbird Bakery recipe book, Home Sweet Home. OK, it wasn’t that randomly. I haven’t used it before.

I still think flicking through a recipe book is probably one of the best parts of baking. All those pictures and scrumptious sounding goodies! The only suggestion made by my flatmates was “Chocolate, please!”. So I meandered a pleasant route through the book, with lots of stopping and starting as pictures and recipes caught my eye.  I settled on, because it intrigued me, a recipe for Flourless Chocolate Cake. I’ve made gluten-free things before. That is not what intrigued me. What intrigued me was the complete lack of any flour substitute. Previously, when I’ve made gluten-free things, I’ve used ground almonds instead. But this recipe had nothing like that; just chocolate, butter, sugar, water, and eggs. Intriguing. A baked mousse…

From this...

From this…

It’s straight-forward: the eggs and just over a third of the sugar get mixed together. This was tediously slow until I discovered that the whisk I thought was broken, wasn’t. So that sped up the process a bit. The rest of the sugar was made into a syrup, and then the butter and chocolate was melted into the syrup before being added to the eggs. Mix mix mix. It fills the tin better than most of the Victoria sponge mixes I make do. Only once I’ve shut the oven door do I remember that the recipe said something about sitting it in a roasting pan of water to make a bain marie. Never mind.

...via this...

…via this…

Fifty minutes later, it somehow managed to rise. I’m impressed. It smells like a chocolate cake ought. It squidges a little when I press the top, and the crust crumbles. The recipe says it shouldn’t be firm, so I’m not unduly worried. I leave it on the side to cool in the tin, as the recipe tells me. When I come back to remove it from the tin, the centre has sunk. It looks like a kladdkaka – a Scandinavian brownie-cake.  Very unexpected. Tastes like it too. Just perfect with a dollop or two of sour cream.

...to this! Ta-dah!

…to this! Ta-dah!

Tea with Frigga

Hejhej! I’m a (sort of) Viking. I’m not really a Viking, obviously, but that was my degree course and I got into the habit of introducing myself as a Viking, mostly because there were so few of us on the course. We even have our own collective noun: a Clump of Vikings.

Anyway, come in, come in; sit yourself down. There’s plenty of tea in the pot and cake on the table. Help yourself; it’s there to be eaten, not to look pretty. There are only a few rules in my house:

  •   Firstly, please dress according to the code: elegance and grace should be your watchwords (think old style Hollywood glamour), not that which is fashionable (unless of course it should happen to be elegant and graceful). Clothing should be well-made, fit and suit and, if necessary (for women), show either (not both) legs or cleavage;
  •  Secondly, you may talk about anything you like, but I would ask you to avoid the subjects of Faith (I am here making the distinction between Faith, what one believes, and Religion, the organised and official version of a set of beliefs), Politics, and Money. I also ask you to refrain from using unnecessary obscenities and insults. We are not here to be trolls or controversial; we are here for light-hearted conversation;
  •   And finally, no smoking, thank you: it makes my cushions and curtains smell and you won’t be able to taste the cakes and chocolates properly, and that really would be a shame.

Now, do you have tea and cake? Then we shall begin properly.

You may be wondering about the connection with Frigga. You may know her as one of the Norse Goddesses; you may even know that she is considered as the Norse equivalent to the Greek Hera or the Roman Juno, the Queen of Heaven, as it were. Frigga is the guardian of hearth and home and is married to Odin. She is also a guardian of marriage and she really doesn’t like it when people make a mockery of it (like breaking marriage vows). She shall be our hostess.

So gather around. We shall discuss recipes and ingredients, cloths and clothing, books and stories, films and music, and anything else which takes our fancy, but bear in mind Rule 2, please. I reserve the right to remove or edit anything which I consider to contravene Rule 2.

I suppose I should begin by explaining about the Vikings and why I’m (sort of) a Viking. Basically a Viking is a raider, and I’m clearly not (or you’d have heard of me before now), and I read Viking Studies at university because I like mediaeval history. I’m not even Scandinavian…

The Viking Age is those three centuries or so prior to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, usually it is understood to have begun with the attack on Lindisfarne in AD 793, which, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, was foretold by omens including whirlwinds, lightning storms, and (my favourite) fiery dragons. The Normans, by the way, were so called because they were “Northmen” – Vikings. William the Conqueror’s great-great-great-grandfather was Rollo the Viking, who was requested by the King of the Franks, Charles the Simple, to settle in Northern France to protect the coast from the Vikings…Over time, and especially after the death of Charles, Rollo decided that the bit of land wasn’t big enough, and, goodness gracious me!, built up the Duchy of Normandy.

The Vikings weren’t just raiders though, although when they were merchants or farmers or even just explorers, they weren’t really Vikings. I expect you know that Erik the Red and Leif the Lucky were the first known European ones to reach North America; the ’Rus (Scandinavians who largely came from Sweden) also made it, potentially, as far as Baghdad. We aren’t quite sure – they got to somewhere known as ‘Serkland’, which we believe is somewhere around Baghdad. It was a bunch of these ’Rus Vikings who gave their name to Russia, although the first Russian state was centred on Kiev.

Vikings were also mercenaries, and one of the best opportunities an adventurous young Scandinavian had for winning fame and fortune was by travelling off to the Byzantine Empire and joining the Varangian Guard, which was almost exclusively Scandinavians and which was the Emperor’s personal bodyguard. Apparently he didn’t trust his own men, just those whom he had paid to guard him…Harald Hardrada, him of Stamford Bridge fame, was one such man and it enabled him to win enough gold that he was an eligible suitor for Yaroslav the Wise of Novgorod’s daughter, and then for Harald to raise enough of an army to persuade his half-nephew Magnus of Norway to share the throne with him, if he wouldn’t, you know, just hand it over. Magnus didn’t last very long after this agreement, and look! Harald had Norway to himself. He then died in battle in 1066 against Harold Godwineson, who died a matter of weeks later at Hastings.

So that, in a very simplified manner, is a brief explanation of the Vikings.