This week on the reading rest I have an anthology:

Dimitrios Jordanoglou & Johannes Siapkas: G(l)ömda historier: Klassiska normer och antik kritik (Hidden/(Forgotten) histories: Classical norms and antique criticism). Crossroads to knowledge 18, Skrifter från Centrum för genusvetenskap Uppsala universitet 2011.

And I read a chapter by one of the editors: Johannes Siapkas:
Nakna greker—från ädel enkelhet till svettiga spartaner (Naked Greeks—from noble simplicity to sweating Spartans)

Being indigenous comes with a price: the majority must consider you a pitiful minority – mistreated and thus worthy of some kind of support and acceptance.

Some years ago people in a small village about to be run through by a motorway protested. They argued that the road should be moved because it would destroy their century old community.
Unfortunately they lacked the support of an endangered species, i.e. something indigenous, which the majority would per chance define as a pitiful minority. In the eyes of the majority therefore, referring to a meaningful past, they trotted out a special interest that nobody wanted to buy. Instead of indigenous they were categorized as cantankerous engaged in writing letters to the editor and contacting their MP – i.e. Losers.

Gated community

Their village was duly excavated and investigations showed them to be wrong about it. They had been living there continuously for 3.000 years or more! Not just a couple of hundred years. They should be proud and happy, the living roots of our dynamic society forever raised above indigenousness. None the less, we are all indigenous inasmuch as we were born the endpoint of one of the never interrupted chains of reproduction occurring naturally in our environment.

And it all began with the Greek.

Johannes Siapkas’ (JS) chapter belongs in a vast tradition of wondrous texts, the ones that inform and reward while teaching you – their own novel ideas and our own, i.e. the ones we deduce from what we read. This blog has already touched upon such authorship.

Alcuin (Vikings in Latin Poetry, Jun 13), although rather dull after 1200 years, still has the odd point, e.g., when he’s letter-schooling King Ethelred in the autumn of 793 CE telling him that as long as the English upper classes continue to follow the fashion of pagan Danes, in ostentatious non-Christian dress and beards, terror such as befell Lindisfarne will continue. His has a point, albeit a small one, and well-placed Biblical references too if you care for them.

William Paton Ker

Willian Paton Ker’s teaching text about the literary history of the Dark Ages is much more of a paragon of inspiring instruction: overview, introduction, explanation and synthesis again and again summing up a vast debate of critique in a few pages — everything structured by a few cardinal points. Ker teaches and prompts the reader to think in new ways. Having done so successfully, his texts fell into oblivion when he died, but today a 100 odd years after the publication of the ‘Darks Ages’ the book is a splendid example of a 100 year old text gaining ground.

Choosing the naked Greek, JS makes a didactic point matching the perspective of the anthology. It gives him a tool first to sketch a history of Classical Studies, the academic discipline, where the aesthetic idealised Greece/Athens, which dawned in the middle of the 18th century, gives way to the anthropological view upon Mediterranean/Greek culture introduced in end of the 19th century.

Meet Apollo Belvedere 1832

JS shows that the discipline founded by Winkelmann, 18th century, saw Athenian nakedness as bodily perfection crowned by the head expressing the unifying mind, in order eventually, inspired by Taylor, 19th century,  to view Spartan nakedness as bodily perfection corrupted by the head expressing an immature discrepancy in the mind. The Athenian is a paragon, the  eternal aesthetic ideal. The Spartan is an anthropological icon, a primitive and bygone otherness. As JS points out, people took an interest in the classical antiquity long before Winkelmann, but we gather that this interest is a pre-disciplinary one – antiquity as a toolbox.

JS’s argument doesn’t seek to establish a three-step additive typology: toolbox → universal ideal → cultural stage – adding up to ‘Us in history’ and JS is thus not interested in building a Polanyian typology:  reciprocity → redistribution → market – adding up to ‘Us in economy’. Instead he turns around and tells us that the strength of his analysis is in the mind of his more or less educated (West European) reader who has been trained to think in dichotomies and polarization when it comes to analysis – also of history.

Meet the Spartans 2008

In the last section therefore JS turns to the concept of ‘blending’ – Äkta blandningar—(True blends) and argues that the new understanding of culture is dynamic, deliberately blending the seemingly well-defined and static aesthetic and anthropological categories. Concepts such as ‘nakedness’, and ‘body’, once con(s)t(r)ained in two well-defined categories, blend and become the sign of dynamism in culture, and dynamics thus an integral part of culture. The actual physical body, denoted by the word ‘body’, blends with the connotations of its own contextuality, i.e. the wider meaning of the word, and thus the body changes because we must perceive it differently.

Makes a reader think!

By and large, or vaguely, modern majority cultures are aware of the pattern sketched by JS, but nevertheless the toolbox is often used naïvely, the aesthetic ideals die hard, and most likely we  evolve. Today, oddly enough, this predicament in majority cultures come to the fore in a didactic conviction which stipulates that those cultures which the majority finds it appropriate to point out as indigenous and thus threatened, must still use some of the tools in the original box, adhere to their ancient aesthetic ideals and follow in the footsteps of the majority when evolving.

If an indigenous people do not understand this, i.e. if it doesn’t understand itself in history, then its members may become like the Greeks in the 18th century, who didn’t understand because they were uprooted by the Orthodox Church and Turkocracy. The Greek had lost their original heritage, but we gave it back to them because it happened to be ours too. Something we understood to be the case when, by means of enlightenment, we started to liberate ourselves in the 18th century. As soon as the majority culture had defined the Greek as indigenous we could help them.

The Greek were our first indigenous people – defined by the majority as a pitiful European minority.

Vikings in Latin poetry

13 June, 2011

This week on the reading rest I have a book:

Leszek P Słupecki & Jakub Morawiec (eds). Between Paganism and Christianity in the North. Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Rzaszowskiego. Rzeszów 2009.

But I read only one of the volume’s 14 articles:

Przemysław Kulesza: Vikings in the Latin poetry of the Carolingian Period, pp 57-75.

Variations on the theme

Von Fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) is an oddly neutral label on the score of a piece of music as sad and sentimental as Schumann’s, i.e. the first 1:30 of Kinderscenen[1]. But a feeling of alienation similar to Schumann’s music runs also in the vein of Przemysław Kulesza’s (PK) ‘Vikings in Carolingian Latin’, either when he quotes W. P. Ker, in English, translated from Polish:

The retreat to the 9th century is the expedition to the quite different world, not only the language is archaic different is also creative imagination different sound of this poetry[2]

or when W P Ker formulates the notion himself:

Early medieval poetry on account of its specific literary form, rooted in ancient times, and the world of symbols and metaphors, fully understood only by the barbaric audience of the time, is the very charming and demanding research material, p 57.

Compared with most researchers Schumann expressed himself exceedingly well, and we must not expect that in a text most likely lost in translation from Polish to English. None the less, confronted with the past we share the foreign-land-and-people experience, and as researchers belonging to a generation of archaeologists or historians, considering ourselves mature rather than childish, we add a biographical (Menschen-)perspective to the way we see the past.

PK writes about ‘Vikings’, but in his quotes there are none. His poets refer to Danes or Norsemen and once to pirates (a prose letter by Alcuin on Lindisfarne 793) as if they had never heard of Vikings. PK on the other hand refers to Vikings on every page until eventually, page 65, he turns to the period of divide et impera, supported by baptism, i.e. the policy introduced by Charlemagne. Still today, this successful strategy transforms pagan Vikings, for some reason passing off in poetry as ‘Danes’, to ‘Christian Danes’ the subjects of Kings, i.e. the denotation of an analytical concept of progress.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a historian in possession of a good pre-understanding is never in want of sources.

PK is interested in poems as sources to the history of Vikings, in effect poems addressed to individuals or a small community of readers and in poems addressed to Kings and their public audience. In essence this is the difference between poems read in private and poems recited at court, but the grey zone between public and private is vast and varied.

Promoted by Alcuin (in the middle), the monk Raban Maur dedicates his work to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabanus _Maurus

Violent men from the North were always a public nuisance and an issue, but a public matter only when dealt with by Kings and later on the emperor and his court. Until the likes of Danes become a political issue they don’t surface in public poems. When they do, the public poems (especially the extant ones) will understand them correctly. Even if we don’t agree.

The great value of PK:s article is the quotations he brings forth and their translation (never mind the English, check with the Latin notes and a dictionary when in doubt[3] and you will get the drift). His collection is interesting because it makes it obvious how the understanding of Danes grew in tandem with a wish to make them a public matter.

There are several layers of Danes adding on in this process towards the final product. (1) the murderous terrorists, (2) the greedy thugs (3) the revolutionary brutes, (4) the militarily competent, (5) the politically acceptable. These layers correspond to poems and audience; the first two belong to the private poems and last three to the public ones. This is not surprising because monk poets will start by giving firsthand evidence and only later come to think of the moral aspects of greed, thus moving the issue towards a political level by means of moving the actions out of the hormonal rage of fight and violence into the character-based premeditated and immoral.  Having done so, the poets can go on to define Danes as a political problem worthy of solution using poetic and rhetorical technique.

PK quotes several examples of murderous terrorists  such as Walafrid Strabo’s Danes furiis armata malignis—armed with spiteful fury. The abbot of St. Riquier introduces a slightly moral ring to their behaviour asking God’s help. Fredegar is quoted as one of several references to Norse greed. Abbo’s official poem of the siege of Paris sums up these primary characteristics and continues to describe the revolutionary ‘Viking ways’ as well as their brilliant tactics.

The shocking habit of turning the world upside-down breaking fundamental rules is especially revealing:

The bondsman was set free, while the freeman was made a bondsman;
the slave was made the master, and the master became the slave.[4]

 Abbo makes two points (1) the political will, needed to intervene when social order is under attack, and (2) the qualities it takes to tackle the problem. As PK points out, the answer is Odo, the Duke of Paris. The quotations from Sedulius, lastly, introduce baptism and the adoption of Danes prepared to help the Carolingians wage war against Danes.

It would have been possible to arrange the poems in a series, albeit not strictly chronological, stretching from the individual fear of Danes to their employment as obedient subjects – from the rage of murderous rapists to the actions of a  loyal taskforce. To some researchers, in this case PK, this double moral is not possible without introducing the spiteful Viking who in due time is converted to an (almost) civilized Dane in a royal setting. In Carolingian times poets were not able to imagine such metamorphosis because, witnessing the atrocities, they were unaware of the real grandeur of the Christian project of civilization. From the 19th century and onwards, disciplines such as History and Archaeology have nevertheless been able to grasp the beauty of this paragon of progress.

Today, the paradigmatic ‘Viking redeemed’ belongs to the foreign lands and peoples of 19th century Europe.


[2] The polish title of Ker’s book(printed 1977) is Wczesne średniowiecze. Zarys historii literatury, which may be translated: The Early Middle Ages. An Outline of its history of literature. And that in its turn sounds like Ker’s book from 1904 Periods of European literature. 1, The dark ages. In his own English Ker wrote:

To go back in the ninth or tenth century is to find a different world. Not only are the languages of a more ancient type: the ways of imagination are different, the tunes of poetry are different; and there are still older things than those of the ninth century with which the traveller has to be acquainted (Ker [1904] 2nd ed 1955 p 17).

Ker’s point reflects his opinion that during a few generation in the 12th and 13th century modern literature began with Walther von der Vogelweide and Chrétien de Troyes. It is in view of this breakthrough that the 9th and 10th century stand out as different. Ker was in no way baffled by 9th century literature, and we can quote him for making fun of the poet Ermoldus Nigellus, whom he likes: ‘It may seem unjust that a poet who begins a verse: Sed quid agam iam iam?  Should have more space than the courtly poets (Ker 1955 p 155).

(My comm: Sed quid agam jamjam?—‘but how now will I move on?’ is naively inelegant, but witty too, because the miserly Euclio in Plautus Aulularia knows (very well) how he will proceed: Sed quid agam scio)

[4] This is Nirmal Dass’ translation. See Nirmal Dass: Viking Attacks on Paris: The Bella parisiacae urbis of Abbo of Saint-Germain-des Pres. Peeters 2007