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

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