March 8, 2013, by Fraser
Why study Vikings?
Nottingham’s Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, has always loved and will always love Vikings — and that’s why she studied them and continues to do so.
Why do I love the Vikings? Let me recount the reasons. They were bold and heroic. They built and sailed efficient and beautiful ships. They crossed the Atlantic half a millennium before Columbus. They told amazing stories about their gods, and about feuds between the farmers of Iceland. They believed in the rule of law. They gave us the word ‘they’.
Well, all that is true. But most people know all that, and I knew it too, before, or at least soon after, I started studying them. Now, after a lifetime devoted to Viking Studies, I have other, secret little reasons for loving them, reasons which have only surfaced to my consciousness gradually as a result of that lifetime’s devotion, reasons which are often to do with the Old Norse language and how they used it.
People in the Viking Age enjoyed a form of poetry in which summertime was called ‘relief of the valley-fish’ (can you work that out?), ice ‘the roof-shingle of the salmon’s hall’ (perhaps a bit easier) and a cat ‘the dark betrayer of the wood-bear of old walls’ – these are known as kennings (spot the mouse-kenning embedded in that last one). Poets got paid in gold arm-rings, ships or valuable cloaks for coming up with stuff like this, by the kings whom they praised for their prowess in war and sailing, through ice and seaweed, ‘the heather of the field of the cod’.
The Vikings had cool, if not always flattering, nicknames, so Þorbjörg ‘with a bosom like a cargo-ship’ and her father Gils ‘with a nose like a warship’ are immortalised in our imaginations, but even the Norwegian king who later became a saint had to put up with being called Olaf ‘the fat’ in his lifetime. Humans could be likened to animals as well as ships, as poor old Helgi ‘seal’s testicle’ or the Irish Viking Domnall ‘seal-head’ discovered.
Poetry and nicknames helped preserve memories of people and their lives in a largely oral culture. So did the stones carved with serpentine forms and brief information about the dead in runes, the alphabet used by the Vikings before Christianity gave them roman letters. Granite preserves a name forever, a point made by one inscription in a kind of poetry: ‘The stone proclaims that it will long stand here; it will name Valtóki’s cairn’.
How did I get to this stage of being so fascinated by the finer details of complex poetry, or runic inscriptions? You can blame Tolkien. Though I don’t like him so much any more, reading Lord of the Rings four times in the year I was fourteen made me want to study his subjects of Old and Middle English and Old Norse at university. There, I found that, for me, Chaucer and Beowulf just couldn’t compete with the breath of fresh air coming from Norse and the North.
Having completed my degree in English Language and Medieval Literature, I went to live in Norway for a while, before coming back to England to do a PhD on medieval Icelandic literature. Over the years I have maintained my interest in that literature while gradually learning more and more about the Viking Age culture that not only preceded it but also enabled this barren and thinly-populated North Atlantic island to produce a world-class body of literature, in both poetry and prose.
I am privileged to have spent my career teaching and studying this vibrant culture which in the Viking Age spread from the Scandinavian homelands to Newfoundland in the west and Byzantium in the east. The advantage of such an interdisciplinary subject is that you can learn a lot about history, geography, archaeology, language, literature and many other things, while still focusing on the discipline you like best. Everything you always wanted to know about Vikings – don’t be afraid to ask!
You can follow Judith on Twitter @JudithJesch.