Tag Archives: homes

Viking homes were stranger than fiction: portals to the dead, magical artefacts and ‘slaves’


Marianne Hem Eriksen, University of Cambridge

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.

The usual obsession.
Fotokvadrat/Shutterstock

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.

Shared spaces.
Jorvik Viking Centre

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.

Excavation of Viking village in York in 1980.
foundin_a_attic/Flickr, CC BY

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.The Conversation

Marianne Hem Eriksen, Research Fellow, Marie Curie/Research Council of Norway, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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A home for everyone? Property ownership has been about status and wealth since our convict days



File 20170908 9573 1gprv4p
A house and land on the River Derwent, Tasmania, 1822.
National Library of Australia

Imogen Wegman, University of Tasmania

While Australia has an egalitarian mythology, where everyone has a chance, the roots of problems with access to housing lie in our history. The first land grants were given to former convicts as a way to control an unfenced prison colony. As free settlers arrived in Australia, priorities changed, land ownership gained prestige, and smaller landholders were pushed out of the market.

When Governor Phillip stepped onto Australian soil for the first time, in 1788, he carried with him a set of instructions to guide him through the early days of the newest British colony. Included was some authority to grant land, and the number of acres each male convict could receive at the end of his sentence. Eighteen months later, the colony received further instructions from Home Secretary William Grenville, permitting soldiers and free settlers to receive parcels of land if they chose to stay in the colony.

Grants given to former convicts at Norfolk Plains, northern Tasmania, 1814.
G.W. Evans, held by Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office, AF 396/1/1325

Grenville’s instructions also set out the pattern of land granting that would dominate the colony for the next two decades. Groups of grants were to be placed at the edge of a waterway, with each individual property stretching back into the land rather than along the bank. These rules had a long history; the American colony of Georgia received almost identical phrasing in 1754, but other versions had been in place since the early 18th century.

The rules had two specific purposes in Australia: to foster productivity; and to maintain surveillance over the landholding population, which consisted largely of former convicts.

Initially, all land grants were required to conform to these instructions, and status was shown by the amount of land received. Former convicts started at 30 acres, while free settlers got at least 100 acres.

Under this scheme everyone would receive a mixture of good and bad soils, access to a navigable river and the safety of a surrounding community – important in an unfamiliar land. These grants would reduce the colony’s reliance on imported provisions. Instead, it could feed excess produce into the ports that restocked passing ships.

Colonial exploration and expansion could then continue to stretch to the furthest parts of the globe. But the rules also kept the grantees contained and within a dayʼs travel of a centre of governance (Hobart or Launceston, for example).

Free settlers’ arrival changed the rules

In 1817, the Colonial Office began to encourage voluntary emigration to the Australian colonies, and ambitious free settlers arrived. People complained about the failings of the former convicts, as they practised a rough agriculture that did not fit British ideals.

At the same time the management of convicts in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) moved towards the harsh penitentiary system today associated with convicts. Using land grants to pin the former convict population to specific locations, while permitting them the freedom to live their lives, conflicted with free settlersʼ aspirations for the colony.

It is no accident that Bothwell, in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, was not directly connected to Hobart by river and was dominated by free settlers. The spread of Europeans across the land resulted from the mix of an expanding overland road network and the reduced need to keep these higher-status settlers within armʼs reach.

Grants at Bothwell were given primarily to free settlers.
Surveyor and date unknown, Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office, AF 396/1/338

Land granting policies that excluded poorer settlers (most of whom were former convicts or the children of convicts) were introduced. Only those people with £500 capital and assets (roughly A$80,000) would be eligible. The minimum grant would be 320 acres.

One writer, the colonial surveyor G.W. Evans, asked at the time whether this was intended to drive those without means to the United States of America instead. Even if they scraped together the money, the sheer quantity of land would be beyond their ability to cultivate.

Average grant sizes, taken from specific representative regions to eliminate duplicates in the records.
Author, 2017

Locating former convicts on the rivers ensured productivity and the reliable transportation of goods, but these grants also kept them under close observation. As the penal system became more punitive convicts lost the hope of gaining a small piece of land after their sentence.

The ConversationBut before this, far from being intended as any kind of reward or enticement, the first land grants given in Australia represented ongoing control over the lowest class of settlers – those who had been “transported beyond the seas”. Since the beginning of our colonial history, land ownership in Australia has been intricately connected with role and status.

Imogen Wegman, PhD candidate, History and Classics, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: 20 March 1760


USA: A ‘Great Fire’ of Boston

On this day in 1760, the greatest fire up to that time (in Boston) destroyed a large area of Boston in the United States. Some 349 buildings, including homes and shops were destroyed, and over 1000 people rendered homeless. Though a great tragedy for Boston, this great city suffered from many like disasters, as can be seen in the article linked to below.

For more, visit:
http://massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=86
http://www.kellscraft.com/GreatFireOfBoston/GreatFireofBostonCh02.html
http://www.archive.org/details/godshandproviden00mayh

For an account of the Great Fire of Boston in 1872 (November 9  10), visit:
http://www.archive.org/details/historyofgreatfi00conw
http://www.kellscraft.com/GreatFireOfBoston/GreatFireofBostonContentPage.html

 


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