The Viking Diaspora

Diaspora is a concept, which carries with it a sense of displacement of people. A new book by Judith Jesch explores the way in which this concept might help us to understand what might broadly be termed the “Viking-phenomena”.

The Viking Diaspora
By Judith Jesch
Rutledge 2015
ISBN: 9781138020795
ISBN: 9781138020764

The Viking Diaspora by Judith JeschAround mid-8th century, the Scandinavians began to set sails to their fast and very manoeuvrable clinker-built ships. This opened up for a wave of migrations, which continued well into the 12th century and which resulted in a spat of Scandinavian colonies and later nations covering most of the Northern hemisphere known at that time. From Russia in the east to Newfoundland in the west, Vikings went to raid, to trade and to settle.

The amazing thing, though, about this movement of people and cattle, was not so much the migration in itself; rather, it was the formation of the Viking World as a cultural diaspora. What we know is, that these people did not just move to shores far away. They kept contact with the homeland and faith to their cultural heritage, which they to some extent have continued to tap into even today (as witnessed for instance by the British people, who in the 21st century search for their “Viking DNA Ancestry” on the internet). Judith Jesch is modest and only claims that traces of a diasporic mentality may be found up until the reformation ca. 1500. Present reviewer will claim that the reinvention of this particular tradition continues; and not just in the Viking-reenactments so popular at summer markets, but also in for instance modern literature, music and poetry (eg. the Icelandic novels of Einar Már Guðmundsson, Jón Kalman Stefánsson and not least Thor Vilhjalmsson).

In a new book, Judith Jesch, has set herself the task of telling the story of the Vikings from this perspective. Given that migration is a physical movement of people and diaspora is the consciousness among these people of being connected to the traditions of their homeland and to fellow migrants, the question she asks is to what extent it makes sense to explore the cultural climate among the migrating Vikings from ca. 750 – 1100 as diasporic?

To end with the conclusion first: Yes, there is no doubt that the migration of the Vikings was fundamentally diasporic in character. And two: it makes immense sense to explore the cultural history of the time and the place from this perspective. We might add, that it probably also makes sense to explore the wider political history of the period with this in mind; however that is not really on the agenda here. Nevertheless, it may be pertinent to point this out to all those historians, who consider cultural history as something, which should be relegated to an appendix. Inspired by this book, one might hope they would begin to try and fill in this particular blank space.

The way in which the story is unpacked is as follows: First Judith Jesch presents the Viking world from a geographical and environmental perspective. Who were the people, how many were they, where did they come from, where did they end up and which marks – physical as well as toponomic and onomastic did they set upon their surroundings and themselves. For instance: did they name their “new world” by transferring “old” names? Or did they zoom in on natural features trying to get their bearings? Or did they simply orient themselves in their new world by conflating their own personal names with that of their farm? (It appears they did variations on at least all three things).

On this background we get an outline of the actual diaspora as it unfolded. Here is an overview of how people seem to have moved back and forth (evidence of DNA), artefacts which marked them – steatite goods, jewellery, a special diet (fish) – and the linguistic traces, which may be found in words and literature.

Does it make sense to understand this complex and interwoven world from a disporic perspective? Was it the result of a traumatic dispersal from the original homeland? Was this complemented by migratory expansion caused by people in pursuit of work, trade and a better life? Was there a collective memory and myth about the homeland? Can we detect an idealization of the supposed ancestral home and continuing conversation with it? Did this foment into a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time? These are just some of the characteristics of the diasporic Viking world, which are touched upon here.

With this in mind, Judith Jesch moves on to look upon a selection of themes – gender, and family, cults, beliefs and myths, networks and identities – and how it makes sense to try and understand them in a diasporic framework.

It is obvious that here we move to the home-turf of the author. This results in a very rich fare of up-to-date presentations of the latest research into such diverse subjects as clothing, oval and other brooches, swords, Valkyries, cult leaders and cult buildings, deities, the use of runes, skaldic networks and much more. As a conclusion we are presented with two lengthy essays on Scandinavian identities in northern England and the migration, diaspora and identity formation in Iceland.

This is an enormously inspiring book and should be recommended as obligatory reading among students of Viking archaeology, Norse language and literature and Viking history. The strength is that it takes a wide variety of evidence serious and demonstrates how the interweaving as seen through the diasporic lens, presents us with a much more rounded picture than we usually get from overviews of the Viking age as written from the perspective of these different scientific disciplines involved in the field.

Nevertheless, although this is a very generous interdisciplinary exploration, it is obviously a first attempt at seeing the Viking world from this new perspective. At some point, this simply means we lack the proper specialized studies, like for instance the grand project of integrating a study of both words and objects in the broader Viking Age as is outlined in the conclusion (p183). At others, it means material or cases have been carefully sifted and parts have been discarded. One glaring omission, which obviously represents a conscious choice, is the diaspora of the Vikings, who went to Normandy. Here is a rich field, which is in dire need of an interdisciplinary approach as the one outlined here by Judith Jesch. Another theme, which has been only stepmotherly treated, is the study of law, which might yield further insights into the formation and construction of the diasporic identities of Vikings.

However, these comments should not be seen as anything but an instance of “more will apparently have more”. This is a thoughtful and very inspiring book and personally I cannot wait to read it once more from cover to back. This is rich fare.

Karen Schousboe

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Judith Jesch is Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her previous publications include Women in the Viking Age (1991), Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age. The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse (2001) and The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century: an ethnographic perspective (2002).

FEATURED PHOTO:

The Hylestad stave church was located in Hylestad (now Valle municipality), Setesdal district, Norway. The church was estimated to have been built in the late 12th to early 13th century and was demolished in the 17th century. Some of the intricate wood carvings from the church doorway were saved and incorporated into other buildings. They are now on display at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. The carvings show the part of the legend of Sigurðr Fáfnisbani, where the hero roasts the heart of the dragon and sucks his thumb; a myth which is dealt with on one of the case studies in the book (p. 151 ff). Source: Wikipedia