Category Archives: Europe – General
The Vikings are more popular than ever. TV shows such as Last Kingdom and Vikings have added dramatic license to particular historical accounts, while new archaeological finds are guaranteed to make headlines. Recent coverage includes the discovery of a new Viking ship burial, and the possibility of Viking women participating in warfare. But when we talk about the Vikings we often repeat familiar narratives of warriors, ships and battles. Certain activities and spaces – often those traditionally associated with men — are seen as shaping the course of history. The home – traditionally associated with women – is seen as mundane and politically insignificant.
But the Viking house was not an apolitical, neutral space. It was a primary stage for legitimising hierarchies in which some people were enslaved and left to dwell with cattle in the byre, while others presided in a high seat. It was a foreign world – we have rare, but repeated evidence for infants being buried by hearths, magical artefacts placed by doorways, and women lifted over thresholds so they could speak with the dead.
I want to radically shift our approach to this pivotal period of European history. What happens if we see the Viking Age from the point of view of the house?
Houses as political spaces
For all their visibility in pop culture, everyday life for the Vikings is rarely seen, and settlements are often approached as familiar, harmonious — and perhaps a bit trivial. Now a wave of research is raising new questions about the everyday social and ritual lives of the Vikings.
Gathering together the archaeological remains of longhouses from Norway in research for my book, Architecture, Society and Ritual in the Viking Age. Doors, Dwellings, and Domestic Space, revealed something stranger and more powerful than traditional narratives may suggest.
The Viking household, while varied, did not conform to the idealised nuclear family of Western modernity. The largest households could be composed of a couple, concubines, subordinates, farmhands and warriors, animals, itinerant workers, guests, and a range of “mine, yours, and our” children. Although they lived under one roof, everyday tasks and the architecture itself created thresholds between groups and made people different from each other.
“Slavery” is a complex institution, and a universal definition is difficult. But there was an unfree population among the Viking household (“thralls”) who had no legal rights, whose children were owned by the household leaders, who it was not a crime to kill, and who could be sexually exploited by their owners.
Scholars have argued that the thralls dwelled in an extra room with a hearth in the byre (cowshed) end of the longhouse, spatially and socially belonging with the animals. Indeed, one of the known thrall names is Fjosnir, “of the byre”.
In these ways and more, Viking houses generated contrasts between owners, free people and thralls – and such differences formed Viking society.
Dwelling with the dead
The Viking house was not exclusively the domain of the living. In the sagas of the Icelanders, we encounter the malicious man Hrapp. On his deathbed, Hrapp demands to be buried in the doorway to the fire hall: “Have me placed in the ground upright, so I’ll be able to keep a watchful eye over my home.” The agency of the dead did not necessarily dissipate at death and the sagas are full of tales of people receiving prophecy from the dead, the dead singing in burial mounds, or haunting their old houses.
Archaeological material supports the idea that the dead had a presence in Iron and Viking Age houses. Throughout the first millennium, human bones were sometimes embedded within the house, including infants buried in hearths and postholes. It must have been meaningful for people to place body parts of their dead under the threshold or in the postholes of the longhouse, or to inter the dead in the house when they abandoned the settlement.
There is a clear ambiguity to dwelling with the dead. On the one hand, people sometimes kept the dead close, embedding them in the living space. Infants and ancestors may have helped protect the house, anchor it in local histories or empower its residents. On the other hand, Hrapp’s story and other sources suggest that the dead could be objects of anxiety. If they became malevolent, they could threaten the household – and so the threshold to their world needed to be controlled.
Portals to the otherworld
Different parts of the house likely served as points of contact between living and dead, perhaps also among the past, present and future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the foremost was the actual threshold to the house.
Two written sources tell the narrative of a woman being lifted over a door to see into a different realm. One is an eyewitness account of a ship burial on the Volga River, where a slave woman is lifted above a freestanding portal (much like a doorframe). This allows her to speak with the dead chieftain. The other is an obscure text about a ritual gone wrong, where the lady of the house asks to be lifted “over hinges and door-beams, to see if she can save the sacrifice” — perhaps to see into another realm or into the future. The door could thus be a portal to other powers and beings. Perhaps for this reason, freestanding portals were sometimes erected at Viking burial grounds.
Archaeologists also find things – such as pots, knives, and iron rings – buried in or near doorways. Perhaps these objects guarded the house from powers and beings from outside. And the depositing of artefacts simultaneously forged and embedded a link between people’s daily lives and their houses. It is even possible that artefacts would come with new inhabitants from older houses, for example when they were married. These would be placed in doorways or postholes to empower the house and tie people and houses together across time and space.
Viewing the Viking Age from the house
Taking everyday life seriously opens up new possibilities to understand how and where history happens: it is not only on the battlefield. Architecture and the house mirror, as well as shape, social and spatial order. In Viking Age Norway, people were made to be different – owners and thralls, men and women, with different kinds of power and different things to fear or hope – through byres and high seats, feasts and rituals, doorways and deposited items.
Viking houses were spaces of politics, and also social worlds that were very different from our own. When the Vikings engaged with the wider world through raids, trade, and settlement, their understanding of the world was anchored in their everyday experience in the home from childhood onwards. The time is ripe to broaden the topics we associate with the Viking Age, and to discuss the unfamiliarity and strangeness, as well as the role of inequality, in this pivotal period of European history.
Some political catastrophes come without warning. Others are long foretold, but governments still walk open-eyed into disaster. As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looms, most analysts agree that there will be severe economic and political consequences for the UK and the EU. And yet a no-deal Brexit still remains an option on the table.
The July crisis in 1914 that lead up to World War I, which I’ve analysed in a recent paper, provides a timely case study of how politicians chose a catastrophic path. World leaders knew that that a European war would most likely bring economic dislocation, social upheaval, and political revolution – not to mention mass death – but they went ahead anyway. Far from thinking that the war would be short – “over by Christmas” as the cliché goes – leaders across Europe shared the view expressed by the British chancellor, David Lloyd George that war would be “armageddon”.
So why did European leaders not swerve away from catastrophe in 1914? A toxic mix of wishful thinking, brinksmanship, finger-pointing, and fatalism – features currently increasingly evident in the Brexit dénouement – conspired to make the risk of catastrophic war appear a legitimate, even rational, option.
First, a small number of leaders, mainly generals, believed that war would cleanse society of its materialist and cosmopolitan values. The more terrible the consequences, the more effective the war would be in achieving national renewal. War, they argued, would bolster the values of self-sacrifice and cement social cohesion. Instead, material shortage led to military defeat and social disintegration in Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Second, some politicians believed that the prospect of catastrophe could be used to lever their opponents into concession. Kurt Riezler, adviser to the German chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, had coined the term Risikopolitik, or risk policy. He predicted that, faced with the possibility of a European war, the great powers with less at stake would back down in any given crisis. But this logic broke down if both sides considered their vital interests in danger and if both sides faced similarly catastrophic consequences from war. This led to absurdities in the July crisis, such as the comment from Germany’s Kaiser William II that: “If we should bleed to death, at least England should lose India.”
Third, politicians framed the crisis as a choice between two catastrophes. If they backed down, they feared the permanent loss of status, allies, and, ultimately, security. For Austro-Hungarian leaders, compromise rendered them vulnerable to further Serbian provocations and the slow disintegration of the Habsburg empire. War became the lesser of two evils, a highly risky strategy that might, but probably would not, avert certain ruin. As states began to mobilise, military and political leaders feared that whichever side moved first could gain a significant military advantage. Waiting too long risked the dual catastrophe of being at war and suffering an initial defeat. This logic was particularly important in the spiral of mobilisation on the eastern front, between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany.
Fourth, as war became increasingly likely, leaders began to deny their own ability to resolve the conflict. Politicians began to allocate blame for the coming conflict on their opponents. Lloyd George, who went on to become prime minister in 1916, later famously claimed that Europe had “slithered” into war. The denial of agency encouraged the sense of fatalism that facilitated the outbreak of war. If leaders perceived war as inevitable, this inevitability made it psychologically easier to accept the appalling consequences.
Fifth, individual decisions, such as allies assuring their unfailing loyalty to their partners, were often intended to avoid war by forcing the other side to back down. Yet, instead of making concessions, states doubled down on their demands and stood full-square by their allies, without urging compromise. The outcome was the rapid escalation of the crisis into war.
Seasoned diplomats at the helm
Most of the key diplomats in July 1914 had recently resolved major international crises, notably during the Moroccan Crisis in 1911 and the remaking of the Balkans during regional wars in 1912 and 1913. They had the diplomatic skills to avoid disaster.
Yet, by framing the July crisis in terms of an existential test – of status, territorial integrity, and the value of alliances – leaders in all the great powers trapped themselves in a spiral of escalating tensions and decisions. This meant they began to rationalise war as a possible option from early July.
Although the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be much less terrible, there are similarities in certain patterns of thinking and political behaviour, from the few who embrace disaster to the systemic pressures which prevent compromise. Avoiding disaster in 1914 would have required framing the stakes of the July crisis in less zero-sum ways and refusing to rationalise a general European war as an acceptable policy option. It required leaders with enough courage to compromise, even to accept defeat, and for states to offer rivals the prospect of long-term security and future gains in exchange for accepting short-term setbacks.
Toadbollock, Dustiberd and Lytillskyll: historian on what names can tell us about everyday medieval life
Let me take you for a stroll down the high street of 12th-century Winchester – one of the great cities of medieval England – and introduce you to a few of the locals. Here’s Alberic Coquus, the cook, and over there is Ainulf Parcheminus, the parchment-maker. They are chatting to Luuing Scalarius (he builds ladders). Godric Softebred, who has his shop just down the road, is a baker – but his neighbours giggle behind his back and give his wife pitying glances.
You can’t miss Robert Crassus (“big, fat”), but I would hesitate to introduce you to Alfred Taddebelloc (“Toadbollock”) and you probably won’t want to stand too close to Radulf Scitliure (“shit-liver”, evidently cursed with chronic diarrhoea or some other stomach complaint). And perhaps we should simply cross the street to avoid me having to mention Godwin Clawecuncte (use your imagination) at all.
We know these names – with the intriguing clues they give about the people who carried them – from the two 12th-century surveys of Winchester property collectively known as the Winton Domesday. So, what’s in a medieval name? What can they tell historians about long-forgotten lives and individuals in the past? And why won’t you find anyone with the surname Toadbollock today?
These names don’t work in quite the same way as modern surnames. These (usually non-hereditary) medieval bynames add further detail to personal names, noting where someone was from, what job they did and even what they looked like or how they behaved.
Bynames often reflect physical attributes, such as those of Winchester’s Alestan Hwit (“white”), who probably had a fair complexion, or Alimer Longus (“tall”). You wouldn’t want to see Winchester’s Peter Agnell (“little lamb”) get into a fight with Godwin Bar (“boar”).
Many medieval historians have their own favourite names they’ve discovered during their research: Professor Anthony Bale of Birkbeck, University of London, mentions Tom Dustiberd (“dusty beard”) and the likely somewhat dishevelled Adam Charrecrowe (“scarecrow”), as well as Walter Boltuprith (“bolt-upright”).
Other bynames indicate trades and occupations. Richard Farrier was keeper of the king’s horses at Chester in the summer of 1283. Records show that he purchased cut grass for 20 horses, including that of the queen, and also for ten “great” horses arriving from Caernafon. He bought horseshoes, bridles, long ropes of hemp to make reins, as well as plenty of horse salve.
Other occupational bynames hint at less happy vocations. John Pynchware and his son worked as shoemakers in 15th-century Chester. But with a byname like that, how well did their shoes fit? Professor Matthew Davies of Birkbeck points to an apprentice tailor in London, 1486, named Rowland Lytillskyll. He doesn’t seem to have made it in his chosen career.
Bynames can also tell us about ethnic identities. Several people in 12th-century Winchester were called “Iudeius” – members of what would become the city’s thriving medieval Jewish community. Godwin Francigena, with his English personal name and byname meaning “Frenchman”, reminds us what a cosmopolitan, multicultural European city this was.
But sometimes bynames point to political and social tensions. Dr Adam Chapman, at the Institute for Historical Research, shares the example of the 14th-century Welshman known as Madog Drwgwrthgymro: literally “bad to Welshmen”, but translated by the historian Robert Rees Davies more provocatively as “Saxon-lover” – a smear based on perceived disloyalty and ethnic betrayal.
Another Welshman, William Cragh, features in medieval records as an outlaw –- or freedom fighter, depending on your viewpoint – who rebelled against Norman rule and was hanged, but came back to life (that’s another story. He cuts less of a romantic, heroic figure when we translate his Welsh byname – perhaps “Scabby William” had suffered some kind of disfiguring disease as a child. Still, he was more likely known by his fellow Welshmen by the patronymic “ap Rhys” (“son of Rhys”).
Somewhere in my own ancestry, someone probably worked as a clerk. Adam Chapman’s forebears possibly worked in a shop (“ceap-man” meant merchant, from the Old English “ceapan” meaning to sell or buy). Some bynames just stick around: Delia Smith doesn’t work in a forge, and Mary Beard doesn’t have one. But others, unsurprisingly, don’t outlast their original owners.
We see similar revisions when it comes to less appealing place names: just as William Cragh probably preferred being called William ap Rhys, the place where he was hanged in Swansea was renamed, in the late 19th century, from Gibbet Hill Road to the more estate agent-friendly North Hill Road.
So, why are medieval bynames so useful and engaging? For a start, some of them are hilarious – and they give us a humorous way into a seemingly remote and distant historical past. But, more than that, they offer a sense of connection with a real individual and a characteristic which defined them within their own, contemporary local community.
These medieval names also give us glimpses into something the big chronicles, charters and official history books often don’t tell us much about: ordinary people and their ordinary, colourful lives.