Vikings raided cos they were desperate single men?

When the Vikings landed at the holy island of Lindisfarne in 793AD, it marked the beginning of hundreds of years of terrifying raids, which would earn the Norsemen a fearsome reputation as murderers and pillagers throughout Europe.

But the reason why groups took to the seas in the first place continues to divide historians, some blaming over-population in Scandinavia, and others seeing it as a preemptive strike against the seemingly unstoppable march of Christianity.

Now a new theory suggests that the Vikings actually had matters of the heart on their minds.

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9th-century ‘Doomsday stone’ found at Lindisfarne

 

Dr Mark Collard, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen and currently the Canada Research Chair at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, along with colleague Ben Raffield and Neil Price, Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University , believes that changes in society had led to a desperate shortage of marriage partners.

The growth of polygamy and social inequality in the late Iron Age meant that richer men took many wives, or concubines, causing an inbalance in the male-female sex ratio.

Suddenly young poor men had little chance of securing a wife unless they became rich and well-known quickly, says Prof Collard. And raiding was a shortcut to heroism and treasure, he believes.

“What is clear is that the sex ratio would have been substantially biased and increasing through time, and even small amounts of bias can have a big effect,” he said.

“In a population where just a few powerful older men are able to have multiple concubines you end up with a large number of young single men quite rapidly.  Some men would have two to three wives, but the Norse sagas say that some princes had limitless numbers.

“So raiding was away to build up wealth and power. Men could gain a place in society, and the chance for wives if they took part in raids and proved their masculinity and came back wealthy.

“Because polygynous marriage increases male-male competition by creating a pool of unmarried men, it increases risky status-elevating behaviour.”

Surprisingly the idea was first put forward by the Norman historian Dudo of Saint Quentin who argued in his 10th century work, The History of The Normans, that the Viking raids were sparked by an excess of unmarried young men.

Similarly the English antiquarian William Camden in his 1610 work Britannia suggested that the ‘Wikings’ were selected from areas of overpopulation after they “multiply’d themselves to a burdensome community”.

Vikings disembarking in England during the second wave of migration (vellum)
Vikings disembarking in England, from a 10th-century Scandinavian manuscript

But in recent years the theory has lost support from historians with many believing that raids were a quest for retaliation against Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to force Scandinavian pagans to convert to Christianity – killing those who would not be baptised.

However Prof Collard believes new research into psychology, and other ethnographic studies of tribes, now make the new theory more plausible.

Recent studies found that aggression rises when there is a shift in the male-female sex ratio and where the percentage of unmarried men is greater, the rates of rape, murder, assault, theft and fraud also rise.

New research has also shown that Yanomamo tribes in South America resort to inter-village raiding for polygamous marriages.

Norse sagas such as The Saga of the People of Laxardal and the Saga of Harald suggest that by the time of the raids polygamous behaviour was normal in Scandinavia while the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal speaks of concubines.

And the archaeological evidence of the graves of Viking raiding parties also suggests that  sailors were young males, rather than seasoned soldiers.

“Acquiring portable wealth seems to have been the major objective of raiding groups. Undefended monasteries away from settled areas would have been ideal targets,” added Prof Collard.

“By the end of the 8th century a number of regional polities and petty kingdoms had developed in Scandanavia.

“It is possible that the combined effects of polygyny, concubinage and social stratification simply reached a tipping point that led to a surge in raiding.

“With elite men monopolising an increasing percentage of women, many low-status men would have found it difficult to marry unless they were willing to engage in risky activites to improve wealth and status.”

The new paper was published in the journal Evolution & Human Behaviour.

Source.

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How to drink like a Norman

“The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking.” observed John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres from 1176-80.

But whatever they thought of the English reputation for drunkenness, the Normans appear to have had no problem with joining in our frolics…

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Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Almost every Anglo-Saxon village had an ale house, also known as a ”Gild-house”. It was the heart of the community, where all important meetings took place, from business transactions to wedding celebrations. An ”ale” was the term used for a social gathering, and just about any event would merit an ale.

These could range from bride-ales (which is where the word “bridal” originates) to lamb-ales. Church festivals in particular were a good excuse for a knees-up. By the 13th century some bishops were so fed up with their parishioners’ bawdy behaviour that they tried to ban ales. Their pleas for decorum fell on deaf ears.

Scot-ales were particularly disliked by the clergy. ‘’Scot’’ means payment, and at a scot-ale that meant contributing a flagon or two of beer (an early form of ‘Bring Your Own’), or its money equivalent. In fact, many scot-ales were a means of raising cash for the host, and a lord of the manor hosting a scot-ale could insist on your attendance. Certain members of society could avoid scot-ales, such as the foresters and beadles who were exempted from compulsion in the Charter of the Forest of 1217.

A toast to your health

A common practice at any ale was to toast your fellow drinkers with a hearty ‘Washeil!’ (health be to you!–which later became ”Wassail” as in some Christmas carols) to which they would reply ‘Drincheil’ and duly drink. After a while the toast became a good excuse to get your drinking buddies to drink even more.

Gerald of Wales, Archdeacon of Brecon (1146–1223) recounts the story of a Cistercian abbot who challenged a weary traveller to a drinking game. Instead of the customary toasts of Washeil and Drincheil, the abbot changed them to ‘Pril’ and ‘Wril’ respectively. The pair continued toasting each other into the small hours of the morning. Unbeknown to the poor abbot, his drinking companion was none other than King Henry II. Fortunately, the king saw the funny side, greeting the abbot with “Pril” the next time he met him.

The staff of life

After bread, beer–or rather ”ale”, since at this time it was made without hops–was the staff of life. Because possibly polluted water was rightly considered too dangerous to drink, everyone drank beer, from small children through to grown men and women. For the common people, this wouldn’t change after the Norman Conquest.

Many different kinds of beer were available, from bright ale (which as the name suggests was clear, because the dregs had been allowed to settle before consumption), through mild ale (or ”small beer”) to extra strong twice-brewed ale. Sometimes herbs like rosemary, yarrow, betony, gale or bog myrtle were used to flavour the beer. Kent was particularly famed for its beer. Even the French were said to admire English ale, reputedly saying it could rival wine in colour and flavour!

An apple a day

Apples had grown in England for countless centuries, but it seems the Normans were chiefly responsible for introducing us to the joys of cider. William the Conqueror may have brought casks of cider with him when he invaded in 1066.

By the middle of the 12th century cider was being made in Kent and Sussex. It was said to rival beer in popularity, with the 12th-century guru of etiquette, Daniel of Beccles, declaring it to be the ‘Englishman’s drink’. If you had a choleric temperament, cider was thought to be good for you as it was cold and moist, and thus counteracted the warm and dry characteristics of a choleric drinker.

However, cider was not a drink embraced by all. In the 16th century, the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot claimed that people in cider-making areas were pale and wrinkled despite being young!

In vino veritas

Wine was considered to be the most prestigious drink during the middle ages, and under the Normans our wine consumption increased. Although Daniel of Beccles would warn “Beware of drinking wine greedily like Bacchus”.

The Normans, and particularly their monasteries, planted vines; by the time of Domesday Book (1086) there were nearly 40 vineyards in southern England. The slopes below the monastery at Ely were even known as the isle des vignes.

Although the Normans had some success with wine production in England, English wine was still considered inferior to French wine. Fortunately, if the grapes were rated as being not ripe enough for wine they could be turned into verjuice, a sharp vinegar which featured heavily in medieval cuisine. The vineyards in Ely were particularly renowned for the production of verjuice. Cheap wine imports from Gascony would eventually cause the English wine industry to go into decline during the reign of Henry II (1154-89)

Medieval wine was considered past its best after a year, irrespective of where the wine had come from or its original quality. Wine travelled in barrels–bottling was a long way in the future–and once these were tapped the wine would begin to decline. ‘Gone-off’ wine could either be sold cheaply or perhaps spiced and sweetened to make it more palatable. One version of the latter concoction was known as Hippocras, which took its name from the bag it was strained through, the ‘Hippocratic sleeve’ reputedly invented by the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates to filter water.

If selling bad wine wasn’t an option, or spicing it failed, you could try the following recipe from Guillaume Tirel ( known as Taillevent), 14th-century chef to Charles V of France:

To Cure Ropy Wine, 
or Wine that has Taken on the Smell of the Cask,
or a Musky or Musty Taste.

Beat two pennyworth of ginger together with two pennyworth of zedoary [white turmeric] and set this powder to boil in two quarts of wine, skimming well, then pour it while it is hot into the vessel and stir it right to the bottom, them stop the vessel up tightly and let the mixture sit until it has settled.

SOURCE

The Ides of March and The assassination of Julius Caesar

Spurinna was a haruspex. His calling was vital, if a little unusual, requiring him to see the future in the warm entrails of sacrificial animals.

At the great festival of Lupercalia on the 15th of February 44 B.C., he was a worried man. While priests were running around the Palatine Hill hitting women with thongs to make them fertile, Spurinna was chewing over a terrible omen.

The bull that Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, had sacrificed earlier that day had no heart. Spurinna knew it was a terrible sign: a sure portent of death.

The following day, the haruspex oversaw another sacrifice in the hope it would give cause for optimism, but it was just as bad: the animal had a malformed liver. There was nothing for it but to tell Caesar.

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La Mort de César (ca. 1859–1867) by Jean-Léon Gérôme

In grave tones, Spurinna warned the dictator that his life would be in danger for a period of 30 days, which would expire on the 15th of March. Caesar dismissed the concerns. Although in his scramble for political power he had been made the chief priest of Rome (Pontifex Maximus), he was a campaign soldier by trade, and not bothered by the divinatory handwringing of seers like Spurinna.

The Ides of March

As the 30 days passed, nothing whatsoever happened. Yet when the 15th of March dawned, Caesar’s wife awoke distressed after dreaming she held his bloodied body. Fearing for his life, she begged him not to leave the house. His dreams, too, had also been unsettling. He had been flying through the air, and shaken hands with Jupiter. But he pushed any concerns aside. The day was an important annual celebration in Rome’s religious calendar, and he had called a special meeting of the Senate.

His first appointment of the day was a quick sacrifice at a friend’s house. Spurinna the seer was also there. Caesar joked that his prophecies must be off as nothing had happened. Spurinna muttered that the day was not yet over.

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The sacrifices proceeded, but the animals’ innards were blemished and the day was plainly inauspicious. Caesar knew when to call it a day, and agreed to postpone the meeting of the Senate and to go home.

Later that morning, his fellow military politician and protégé Decimus called round, urging him to come to the Senate in case his absence was seen as mocking or insulting. Persuaded by his friend, soldier to soldier, Caesar agreed to go in person to announce the meeting would be postponed.

Shortly after, a slave arrived at Caesar’s house to warn him of the plot against his life. But he was too late: Caesar had left. A short while later, a man named Artemidorus of Cnidus pushed through the jostling crowds and handed Caesar a roll setting out details of the plot. But the crowds were so thick he had no chance to read it.

The conspiracy and assassination

The main Senate House was being rebuilt on Caesar’s orders, so the meeting was instead at the Curia behind the porticoed gardens attached to the great Theatre of Pompey. Another round of animal sacrifices before the start of the session was unfavourable, and Caesar waited outside, troubled. Again Decimus spoke with him. Unaware of his friend’s treachery, Caesar allowed himself to be led towards the chamber by the hand. Decked out in his triumphant general’s reddish-purple toga embroidered in gold, Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, entered the Senate’s meeting room, and ascended his golden throne.

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The end came quickly. A group of Senators approached the dais. Daggers were produced from the capsae document chests the slaves had recently brought in. The metal flashed. In a frenzied attack, the most powerful man in Rome was stabbed 23 times. He fell, still clutching the unread scroll warning him to stay away.

In the English-speaking world, we know a slightly different story, thanks to Shakespeare. He lifted Caesar’s dramatic dying words, “Et tu, Brute?” from an earlier play by Richard Edes, and made them a part of the assassination mythology. In reality, most Roman writers state that Caesar said nothing, but merely pulled his toga up over his face. They do note, however, that some people were spreading the story that Caesar had gasped, “καὶ σὺ, τέκνον?/You too, my child?” to Brutus. (Many Romans of all classes were bilingual, with the more educated frequently preferring to speak Greek.)

Most famously, however, Shakespeare does away with Spurinna, the venerable entrails-gazer, and instead invents a soothsayer in a crowd, who shouts the famous prophetic warning to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” It is, perhaps, one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and, as a direct result, “the Ides” has come to mean a date of doom.

The Roman calendar

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In fact, it implies neither good nor bad. In Rome’s impossibly complicated calendar, every month had an Ides. Although Monty Python spelled out many of the Romans’ achievements, a user-friendly dating system was not among them.

In the mists of time, the early Romans began each month at the new moon. They called that day the Kalends (Kalendae). Two weeks later came the full moon, which they named the Ides (Idus). Midway between the two was the half-moon, which they referred to as the Nones (Nonae). For some inexplicable reason, they then chose to refer to every other day in the month in terms of its relationship to the next one of these coming up. So they would say, “five days before the Kalends of March,” or “three days before the Nones of June”.

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Fragment of an imperial-age consular fasti, Museo Epigrafico, Rome

The Kalends was always the 1st of the month. Over time, the others came to fall on set days. In March, May, July, and October, the Nones was the 7th and the Ides was the 15th. For the remaining months, the Nones was the 5th and the Ides was the 13th. Therefore the 4th of July was IIII Nones July (ie four days before the Nones – the calculation is inclusive, so both the 4th and the 7th are counted).

Although every month had an Ides in the middle, the date chosen by Caesar’s murderers was nevertheless significant. Traditionally, the Roman year started on the 1st of March, meaning the Ides was the first full moon of the year. It was a major celebration, and the festival of Anna Perenna, the goddess of the cycle of the year. Her special gift was to reward people with long life. Caesar’s assassins clearly thought they were giving long life to Rome (and their own political careers) by removing the dictator they believed was blighting it all.

A world changing aftermath

As it happens, the murder of Caesar did turn out to be a key moment in history.

Caesar may have brought Rome glory in his conquest of Gaul. He may have started and won a civil war that eventually vested absolute power in him. He may have begun highly popular social and political reforms, and even had time to abolish the chaotic ever-changing calendar and bring in his “Julian calendar,” which lasted a millennium and a half until tweaked by Pope Gregory in 1582. But in his muscular assumption of power, and his popularity among the citizenry, he threatened the deep vested interests of the patricians, who had run the Republic and the Senate for so long. It was enough to seal his fate.

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Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome.

With Caesar gone, Rome spiralled into another cycle of civil wars, which resulted in one of the most significant constitutional transformations in history. The Eternal City abandoned its trademark republican system of government and became an empire. In place of the Senate electing two consuls each year as joint heads of state, they transferred power to a largely omnipotent emperor. Ever since, people have argued which system was better.

Supporters of the Republic point to how it threw off the tyrannical king Tarquin the Proud and introduced elements of democracy, with power held by the patricians and the plebeians: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus. They note how it found fame and glory in conquering almost all the Mediterranean basin: Italy, Spain, France, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, spreading its influence far beyond ancient Latium.

Advocates of the Empire, on the other hand, highlight that the Republic was in reality a hereditary oligarchy in the hands of the wealthy patrician families who ran the all-powerful Senate with no genuine voice for the plebeians, women, or slaves. They also point out that the Republic was too weak to govern effectively at home or abroad, instead relying on “bread and circuses” to keep its citizens happy amid endless civil wars. They note that Rome only truly became a great power under the might of the Empire, which lasted even longer than the Republic, and in the East until A.D. 1453.

Caesar himself remains equally as contested a character. He embodies the conflict between Republic and Empire like no one else. He was a military colossus, original thinker, compelling writer, magnetic orator, dynamic reformer, and magnanimous politician. Yet he was also manipulative, narcissistic, egotistical, sexually predatory, shockingly savage in war even by Roman standards, and monomaniacally obsessed with acquiring absolute power for himself.

Little did Spurinna the haruspex know, as he pored over the succession of hot entrails in early 44 B.C., that the man who teased him about his dud prophecies would, within two years, rise from the tomb as “the Divine Julius” (Divus Iulius), Rome’s first resident to be declared a god. Far from heralding doom, the Ides of March, in fact, finally brought Caesar the hallowed immortality he always craved.

Source.

Bored medieval boy

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This 15th-century doodle is found in the lower margin of a manuscript containing Juvenal’s Satires. This classical text was a popular device to teach young students – kids – morals. The medieval teacher Alexander Nequam stated: “Let the student read the satirists […] so that he may learn even in his younger days that vices are to be shunned” (quote here). Spoken like a true optimist, because this page shows what young school boys like to do with rules: disobey them. And so in stead of studying the student who used this book drew a funny doodle in the lower margin: a figure with a flower in one hand and what appears to be a pipe in the other. Could it be his teacher? Doodles are of all ages but those produced by bored school kids are the most entertaining.

Pic: Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 368 (here). Here is another example of school kids doodling.

Catacomb saints in all of their splendour

From DM:

A relic hunter dubbed ‘Indiana Bones’ has lifted the lid on a macabre collection of 400-year-old jewel-encrusted skeletons unearthed in churches across Europe.

Art historian Paul Koudounaris hunted down and photographed dozens of gruesome skeletons in some of the world’s most secretive religious establishments. Incredibly, some of the skeletons, said to be the remains of early Christian martyrs, were even found hidden away in lock-ups and containers. They are now the subject of a new book, which sheds light on the forgotten ornamented relics for the first time.

St Benedictus

Thousands of skeletons were dug up from Roman catacombs in the 16th century and installed in towns around Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the orders of the Vatican. They were sent to Catholic churches and religious houses to replace the relics destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Mistaken for the remains of early Christian martyrs, the morbid relics, known as the Catacomb Saints, became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife. They were also symbols of the Catholic Church’s newly found strength in previously Protestant areas.

St Luciana

Each one was painstakingly decorated in thousands of pounds worth of gold, silver and gems by devoted followers before being displayed in church niches. Some took up to five years to decorate. They were renamed as saints, although none of them qualified for the title under the strict rules of the Catholic church which require saints to have been canonised. But by the 19th century they had become morbid reminders of an embarrassing past and many were stripped of their honours and discarded.

Mr Koudounaris’ new book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, is the first time the skeletons have appeared in print.

St Valerius

 ‘I was working on another book looking into charnel houses when I came across the existence of these skeletons. As I discovered more about them I had this feeling that it was my duty to tell their fascinating story. After they were found in the Roman catacombs the Vatican authorities would sign certificates identifying them as martyrs then they put the bones in boxes and sent them northwards. The skeletons would then be dressed and decorated in jewels, gold and silver, mostly by nuns. They had to be handled by those who had taken a sacred vow to the church – these were believed to be martyrs and they couldn’t have just anyone handling them. They were symbols of the faith triamphant and were made saints in the municipalities. One of the reasons they were so important was not for their spiritual merit, which was pretty dubious, but for their social importance. They were thought to be miraculous and really solidified people’s bond with a town. This reaffirmed the prestige of the town itself.’

He added: ‘It’s impossible to put a modern-day value on the skeletons.’

More images here.