THE VIKING AGE.*
HAVE historical theory-makers come to an understanding to compensate the Scandinavian race for its present insignificance, by discovering, or failing that, inventing for it a splendid past ? It really looks like it. Quite a number of scholars, both German and English, have recently placed the original home of the Aryans in Scandinavian lands ; and now M. du Chaffin comes forward with a theory that the English are the descendants of Scandinavian wanderers whom the Romans mistook for Saxons. We have nothing to do at present with the new theory of the home-land of the Aryans ; those who take an interest in the subject will find an admirable statement of the case for Scandinavia in Mr. Rendall's recent volume, The Cradle of the Aryans. We cannot say as much for M. du Chaillu's defence of his not less startling theory, which is so lacking in completeness, and even in intelligible arguments, that it is hard to assail it. On the question of language he is silent ; but it is surely of the first importance to determine what was the speech of the people who succeeded the Romans, if there is any doubt about their race. Whoever they were, they spoke a language which, as far back as our knowledge reaches, was called " Englisc ;" and in spite of its many vicissitudes, the English language preserves to this day the closest relations to the dialects of the Low German mainland, to the Frisian, and to the Low Saxon. Does M. du Chaillu's theory require any further answer?
Having spoken our mind thus freely of the value of M. du Chaillu's unfortunate historical theory, we are free to praise the other parts of his book. He has read with care the Eddas, the Sagas, and the Law-Books, and his quotations give an admirable popular account of Norse life and literature. The interest of the volume is greatly enhanced by the numerous illustrations, made from existing remains, all of which the author has personally examined. M. du Chaillu's pictures of the domestic life of the early Scandinavians should correct the common misconception that they were simply savage pirates and complete strangers to civilisation. Apart from the pro- fession of " Vikingry," as M. du Chaffin naively puts it, they were a very honest people. When they went forth in their war-ships and hoisted the war-pennon, they plundered their neighbours without mercy ; but when they went on trading voyages—and they made such voyages to Western lands and to the Mediterranean—they were peaceable men of business, and any member of the crews who committed robbery on shore, was punished and expelled from the ship. At home, justice was fairly administered in the Things ; even Kings had to obey the laws ; property was strictly protected, and the thief promptly punished. Only in one case did he escape punishment. A man who gets no work to live by, and steals food to save his life for the sake of hunger, this theft must not be punished at all! Property was also protected by means of what M. du Chaillu calls insurance companies,—an arrangement by which exceptional losses of cattle by disease, or of buildings by fire, were partially borne by the community.
The Norsemen were in constant intercourse with the other lands ; and they made trade expeditions through present Russia to the Black Sea, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, and as far East as Samarkand. Traders also came North with their wares, and were treated with respect and justice. This intercourse with other countries had a favourable effect upon Norse customs, introducing comfort and the rudiments of art into their homes. The houses of the rich were adorned with carvings on the walls, representing the deeds of national heroes ; beds, chairs, and other articles of furniture were similarly ornamented. Wealth was especially lavished upon the halls in which they feasted their friends, and listened to the songs of the Scalds. "The walls of the halls," writes M. du Chaffin, "were hung with tapestry, made by the wives and daughters of the family, often representing the deeds of their forefathers, or those of their lord; the carvings on the walls were occasionally very fine. Some walls were adorned with shields put so closely together that they overlapped each other; many were inlaid or ornamented with gold and silver, which must have added to the brilliancy of the scene." Like all people in the early stage of civilisation, the Norsemen were devoted to songs and tales, and Scalds were held in high honour among them. Their Sagas reflected the character of
• The Viking Age : the Early History, Manners, and Customs of the Ancestors of the English-Speaking Nations. By Paul B. dn Chaillu. With 1,366 Illustrations and Map. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1889.
the people, being filled with wild adventures and hard fighting ; and when the winter weather made it impossible for them to go forth on their adventurous voyages, their story-tellers cheered the long hours by telling of the exploits of gods and heroes. Early Norse poetry likewise contains examples of moral and didactic verse whose prudential and prosaic view of life contrasts strangely with the heroic exaggerations of the poems of adventnre,—a contrast which is likewise visible in Greek poetry ; for in the early periods of literature the counsels of prudence seem to refuse to blend themselves with the dreams of imagination, and the moralist is generally a proser. M. du Chaillu gives a translation of " or "Song of the High," a number of homely counsels put into the mouth of Odin. The god recommends virtue and prudence in a fashion that sometimes reminds us of Solomon and some- times of Hesiod, not hesitating to refer to his own rather unedifying experiences. For example :—
A man carries not on the road Than great good sense ; No worse journey provisions Weigh him to the ground Than too much ale-drinking.
He is called heron of Oblivion, The one who soars over ale-bouts, He steals away men's senses ; With the feathers of that bird I was bound In the house of Gunnl6d."
It is plain from early Norse literature that the people were less proud of their quiet law-abiding life at home, than of their lawless exploits during Viking expeditions. The Eddas and the Sagas are literally ablaze with the spirit of fight. The battle is known as " Odin's storm," "the song of the
spears," "the storm of war-kings," and by a multitude of like names. The warriors are named "servants of the High One," "feeders of the wolf," and " reddeners of eagles' claws." Ships, swords, spears, and all implements of war are called by names that show the Norsemen loved and honoured the judgment of the weapons far above their more peaceful occupations. In no race, perhaps, was there ever such joy in fighting for its own sake. The terror which the appearance of their ships caused on the coasts of England and France was fully justified by the cruelties which they practised; and the hatred between the races was increased by religious fanaticism ; for the Norsemen directed their fury especially against churches and churchmen, whom they regarded as evil magicians, whose curses did them injury.
The same cause which rendered the Norsemen a terror to their contemporaries, gives them a special interest for us. At a time when the rest of Europe had settled down to the demure ways of civilisation, the Norse pirates retained their heathen faith and practices, and Teutonic paganism is known to us chiefly through the Norsemen. It was at one time the custom to assume that the paganism of Continental Germany was identical with that of Scandinavia ; but later investiga- tions have proved that Norse paganism as we know it, had been modified by intercourse with Christian peoples. M. du Chaillu takes no notice of this branch of his subject ; but a
full discussion of it can be seen in the introduction to the Corpus Boreale Poeticunt of the late Mr. Vigfusson, who made
so many important contributions to a better understanding of early Norse literature.