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Eaters of the Dead(2)
Author: Michael Crichton

Modern scholars recognize that such bloodcurdling accounts of Viking raids are vastly exaggerated. Yet European writers still tend to dismiss the Scandinavians as bloody barbarians, irrelevant to the main flow of Western culture and ideas. Often this has been done at the expense of a certain logic. For example, David Talbot Rice writes:

From the eighth to the eleventh centuries indeed the role of the Vikings was perhaps more influential than that of any other single ethnic group in Western Europe. ... The Vikings were thus great travellers and they performed outstanding feats of navigation; their cities were great centres of trade; their art was original, creative and influential; they boasted a fine literature and a developed culture. Was it truly a civilization? It must, I think, be admitted that it was not. ... The touch of humanism which is the hallmark of civilization was absent.

This same attitude is reflected in the opinion of Lord Clark:

When one considers the Icelandic sagas, which are among the great books of the world, one must admit that the Norsemen produced a culture. But was it civilization? ... Civilization means something more than energy and will and creative power: something the early Norsemen hadn't got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it.? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. The wanderers and invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn't feel the need to look forward beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn't occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books.

The more carefully one reads these views, the more illogical they appear. Indeed, one must wonder why highly educated and intelligent European scholars feel so free to dismiss the Vikings with no more than a passing nod. And why the preoccupation with the semantic question of whether the Vikings had a "civilization"? The situation is explicable only if one recognizes a long-standing European bias, springing from traditional views of European prehistory.

Every Western schoolchild is dutifully taught that the Near East is "the cradle of civilization," and that the first civilizations arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia, nourished by the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates river basins. From here civilization spread to Crete and Greece, and then to Rome, and eventually to the barbarians of northern Europe.

What these barbarians were doing while they waited for the arrival of civilization was not known; nor was the question often raised. The emphasis lay on the process of dissemination, which the late Gordon Childe summarized as "the irradiation of European barbarism by Oriental civilization." Modern scholars held this view, as did Roman and Greek scholars before them. Geoffrey Bibby says: "The history of northern and eastern Europe is viewed from the West and South, with all the preconceptions of men who considered themselves civilized looking upon men whom they considered barbarians."

From this standpoint, the Scandinavians are obviously the farthest from the source of civilization, and logically the last to acquire it; and therefore they are properly regarded as the last of the barbarians, a nagging thorn in the side of those other European areas trying to absorb the wisdom and civilization of the East.

The trouble is that this traditional view of European prehistory has been largely destroyed in the last fifteen years. The development of accurate carbon-dating techniques has made a mess of the old chronology, which supported the old views of diffusion. It now appears indisputable that Europeans were erecting huge megalithic tombs before the Egyptians built the pyramids; Stonehenge is older than the civilization of Mycenaean Greece; metallurgy in Europe may well precede the development of metalworking skills in Greece and Troy.

The meaning of these discoveries has not yet been sorted out, but it is certainly now impossible to regard the prehistoric Europeans as savages idly awaiting the blessings of Eastern civilization. On the contrary, the Europeans seem to have had organizational skills considerable enough to work massive stones, and they seem also to have had impressive astronomical knowledge to build Stonehenge, the first observatory in the world.

Thus, the European bias toward the civilized East must be called into question, and indeed the very concept of "European barbarism" requires a fresh look. With this in mind, those barbaric remnants, the Vikings, take on a new significance, and we can reexamine what is known of the Scandinavians of the tenth century.

First we should recognize that "the Vikings were never a clearly unified group. What the Europeans saw were scattered and individual parties of seafarers who came from a vast geographical area - Scandinavia is larger than Portugal, Spain, and France combined - and who sailed from their individual feudal states for the purpose of trade or piracy or both; the Vikings made little distinction. But that is a tendency shared by many seafarers from the Greeks to the Elizabethans.

In fact, for a people who lacked civilization, who "didn't feel the need to look ... beyond the next battle," the Vikings demonstrate remarkably sustained and purposeful behavior. As proof of widespread trading, Arabic coins appear in Scandinavia as early as A.D. 692. During the next four hundred years, the Viking trader-pirates expanded as far west as Newfoundland, as far south as Sicily and Greece (where they left carvings on the lions of Delos), and as far east as the Ural Mountains of Russia, where their traders linked up with caravans arriving from the silk route to China. The Vikings were not empire builders, and it is popular to say that their influence across this vast area was impermanent. Yet it was sufficiently permanent to lend placenames to many localities in England, while to Russia they gave the very name of the nation itself, from the Norse tribe Rus. As for the more subtle influence of their pagan vigor, relentless energy, and system of values, the manuscript of Ibn Fadlan shows us how many typically Norse attitudes have been retained . to the present day. Indeed, there is something strikingly familiar to the modern sensibility about the Viking way of life, and something profoundly appealing.

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