So ripe a modern scholar as Professor Rhys of Oxford has said “Few of the states of modern Europe have not had their history profoundly modified by the Scandinavian conquest of the Viking period.”
Every man or woman of European descent living today is, in some degree, an heir of the Scandinavian North. Especially is this true of all of us who have French, English, Scotch or Irish blood in our veins. For us it is almost as strikingly true as for a pure-blooded Norwegian, that every day of our lives we are drawing on legacies from Norway. The very existence of American civilization is the result of forces in which Norse energies directly or indirectly played a large part. An eminent American scholar, the late John Fiske, says on this question : “The descendants of these Northmen formed a very large proportion of the population of the East Anglian counties of England, and consequently of the men who founded New England. The East Anglian counties have been conspicuous for resistance to tyranny and for freedom of thought.” The forms of many words we use today in talk at the family breakfasttable a multitude of now common-place details in our every day experience we owe in part to the energetic service of Norse folk, generations ago, when the civilization of today was slowly, gradually taking shape out of the crude ways and means of the Middle Ages.
If we had not the plain record of history to declare the facts, it might seem improbable that Norway could ever have made great and persistent contributions to the growth of civilization. True, it is a land of marvellous natural beauty, but it is so small ! so poor in comparison with sunnier realms ! Its total area is but a trifle more than that of Labrador. Its southern-most shores reach only as far south as the middle of Hudson’s Bay. Its North Cape peers into the Arctic Ocean only twelve hundred miles from the Pole. More than a third of all its area is two thousand feet or more above sea level, and, of the remaining two-thirds, so much is given over to lakes or thick forests or barren heaths, that there remain barely thirty-five hundred square miles of land (half the space of Wales) wherefrom a farmer can coax the earth to give him food. Outside the only three large towns Christiania, Bergen and Trondhjem the population to-day averages less than fifteen persons to a square mile.
More than a thousand years ago this little North-land had developed a civilization distinctly advanced for those times, and developed it to a considerable extent without outside help, through the innate energy and creative activity of her own children. Investigations made during the last hundred years among old Norse burial mounds have brought to light an amazing array of partly destroyed property belonging to chieftains who lived from ten to fourteen hundred years ago swords, daggers and shields of excellent workmanship ; rings, bracelets and diadems quite worthy of a great lady’s wearing; dishes of silver and gold ; carved drinking horns, cups and platters ; woven and embroidered stuffs and other belongings that indicate a relatively very high standard of intelligent living.
A glance at Map 2 shows how deeply the coast-line of Norway is ‘cut by the sea. Long, narrow fjords (inlets) reach crookedly up into the mountainous land, thirty, sixty, in one case (the Sognefjord) one hundred miles. The old-time Norse people were brought up to be as much at home on the water as on the land. Vik (pronounced veek), in the Norse tongue, means “inlet” or bay ; the men who lived along the fjords came to be known as “bay-men” or Vik-ings hence the naive Viking. The word has come down to us with a somewhat misleading pronunciation (Vi-king) that seems to imply a suggestion of social rank not at all in the original.
Green, in his Conquest of England, says:
“It was the hard struggle for life that left its stamp to the last on the temper of the Scandinavian people. The very might of the forces with which they battled gave a grandeur to their resistance. It was to the sense of human power that woke as the fisher-boat rode out the storm, as the hunter ploughed his lonely way through the blinding snowdrift, as the husbandman waged his dogged warfare with unkindly seasons and barren fields, that these men owed their indomitable energy, their daring self-reliance, their readiness to face overwhelming odds.
“Courage indeed was a heritage of the whole German race, but none felt like the man of the North the glamour and enchantment of war.”
At least as early as the eighth century perhaps even earlier adventurous Vikings began to extend their summer voyages beyond the home fjords and the fringing skerries (islands), sailing as far as Denmark and Germany, Great Britain and France. At first these exploring and marauding expeditions were concluded each in one season, the adventurers returning home for the winter, rich in tales of wonder and in convincing stores of booty. We have access to both sides of the story in regard to some of those old voyages one side in the form of ancient Norse Sagas, and the other side in the chronicles of the foreign settlements where the Northerners were dreaded as pirates. In regard to an expedition of the year 846, for instance, the Norse story sounds almost like a fairy-tale how the men sailed and sailed to a strange, far-off shore; how they explored a long river and came to a curious island town, unlike Norwegian towns, but rich in treasure ; how a thick mist enveloped everything and a terrible pestilence fell upon them so that they had to come away, leaving the mist-veiled city to its mysterious fate. Yet the travelers’ tale was perfectly true, standing proven today by existing French chronicles. The shore was that of France. The alluring river was the Seine ; the strange town was old Paris on its island, where now flower-sellers offer their wares almost in the shadow of Notre Dame ; the thick mist and the pestilence must have been a heavy fog, and an attack of that too well-known scourge of the Dark Ages, the so-called “plague.” The pious Parisians believed it was sent that time by high Heaven, on purpose to confound their pagan assailants !
Norsemen who had adventurously knocked about the coast towns and river towns of Germany, France, Great Britain and Ireland, could not afterwards be content to fit into small places in the overcrowded home land. This was especially true after the executive genius of Harold Fairhair (860-930 A. D.) had broken down the local sovereignty of previously independent Norwegian nobles (jarls), and forced hitherto independent districts to become parts of one united kingdom. The outgoing Vikings began to stay abroad for longer periods, not simply snatching and sailing away from a little English village or an Irish monastery, but demanding proprietorship rights from their unwilling hosts and settling down on the new soil. As early as 835 they had occasionally wintered in Ireland, and this began to be a more common custom. Read any history of England or of Ireland, and one finds the same thing happening over and over Norse assaults and victory Norse occupation of disputed ground. (The English and Irish chroniclers frequently call the newcomers “Danes,” but scholars agree that that name meant people from Norway oftener than it explicitly meant natives of Denmark.) Before Harold Fairhair had got the home kingdom into permanent unity, i. e., before 872 A. D., men of his race had already won more or less of a footing in eastern England (Northumbria and Kent), in Caithness, the Shetlands, Orkneys and Hebrides, in Ireland, in Frisia, in the lower valleys of the Seine, the Loire and the Garonne, and at various points on the Atlantic seaboard of Spain. About 874 they made settlements in Iceland, which have continued to the present day, and in the latter part of the tenth century founded two colonies on the southwestern coast of Greenland, that lasted for about five centuries. As has already been noted (page 41), they even reached the shores of the North American continent. Leif Erikson, a doughty member of the Greenland colony, who had been on a visit to the king of Norway, hit upon the new land in the year 1000, and in the year 1003 Thorfinn Karlsevne and wife, Gudrid, with three vessels and 140 men, undertook to establish a colony there. On account of the hostility of the natives, however, they remained but three years. But during this period a son was born to Thorfinn and Gudrid, who was called Snorre the first white child born on the American continent.
The attitude of those Norse conqueror-emigrants was that of direct, matter-of-fact good sense. They kept loyally to all that seemed distinctly worth while in their inherited manners and customs ; they adopted as frankly whatever seemed distinctly preferable in the manners and customs of the strangers in whose land they had settled. In the natural course of events they married their neighbors’ daughters, and so, after the lapse of a few generations, their children were as much at home in the adopted land as if it had been the land of their ancestors. For two hundred years Dublin was ruled by Norse monarchs. On the lonely island of Iona, off the west of Scotland, the Atlantic rains still beat on the graves of old Norwegian princes.
It was almost exactly a thousand years ago that a certain Norse leader named Rolf (Rollo, equivalent to our “Robert”) sailed away from his home near Aalesund (Positions 87-88) and voyaged along the coast and up the same French river (Seine), that his countrymen had explored fifty years earlier. He and his followers captured the little town then standing where Rouen stands today. Finding the country fair and fruitful, and appreciating a good thing when they saw it, they made up their minds to stay. The Rouen people did not want them, neither did the countryfolk round about. The French monarch, Charles the Simple, would have expelled the uninvited guests if he had been strong enough, but he was not strong enough, and he knew it. King Charles, therefore, made the best of the situation, and, so doing, builded a thousand times better than he knew. Making a policy of necessity, he granted to Norse Rolf a great tract of Northern France lands on both sides of the Seine made him Duke of that region and gave him Princess Gisela for a wife. The fact of this Norse occupation is registered to this day in the name “Normandy” (Northman’s land), as applied to a large district between Paris and the English Channel.
Rolf’s action was one of the great, decisive turning points in the development of the western world. Free-man says, in his standard work on the History of the Norman Conquest of England.—
“The settlement of the Northmen in Gaul, and their consequent change into Normans, is the great continental event of the first half of the tenth century. It affected the later history of all Europe. The Scandinavians in Gaul embraced the creed, the language, and the manners of their French neighbors, without losing a whit of their old Scandinavian vigor and love of adventure. The people thus formed became the foremost apostles alike of French chivalry and of Latin Christianity. They were the foremost in devotion, the most fervent votaries of their adopted creed, the most lavish in gifts to holy places at home, the most unwearied in pilgrimages to holy places abroad and they were no less the foremost in war ; they were mercenaries, crusaders, plunderers, conquerors.”
A son of this Rolf (Rollo) was William Long-sword, Duke of Normandy. He had a son known as Richard the Fearless. To Richard the Fearless was born Richard the Good, and to him in turn Rollo, or Robert the Magnificent. And then, about the year 1027 or 1028, there was born to Duke Robert a son of his own. The old Norse chroniclers speak of this son in later life as Viljalm Jarl (Earl or Duke William). We know him best as “William the Conqueror” a man destined to make mighty changes in the map of the whole world, and in the lives of millions of men still unborn.
Carlyle, writing of the adventurous voyages of the older Vikings, says:
“No Homer sang these Norse sea-kings, but Agamemnon’s was a small audacity and of small fruit in the world, to some of them to Rolf’s of Normandy,. for instance ! Rolf or Rollo, Duke of Normandy, the wild sea-king, has a share in governing England at this hour!”
Freeman comments on the significance of the Nor-man element in European life:
“(Norman) conquests brought with them the most opposite results in different lands. To free England, he (the Norman) gave a line of oppressors, to enslaved Sicily he gave a line of beneficent rulers. But to England he gave also a conquering nobility, which, in a few generations, became as truly English in England as it had become French in Normandy. The indomitable vigor of the Scandinavian, joined to the buoyant vivacity of the Gaul, produced the conquering and ruling races of Europe.”
The story of the influence of the Norman Conquest in the social and political life of England is too long and too complicated to be treated here. It should be remembered that Norman ideas and customs were not arbitrarily imposed on the English folk, as the customs of the conqueror are often imposed on the conquered. That was not the Norse way of doing things, The political and social life of later England for the most part simply grew out of the gradual union of the old and the new, partaking of both characters as a child might inherit traits and tendencies from both parents. Where Norman influences proved the more persistent and dominant, the case was not that of en-forced conformity to the command of a stronger party, but rather the survival of something that had proved itself practically acceptable to a majority.
At the time of the Norman invasion, the speech of England’s people was mainly a growth from Saxon forms that had been carried there by earlier Germanic invaders and immigrants “Anglo-Saxon” it is called ; i. e., Saxon as spoken on English soil. But the in-coming Normans, constituting, as they did, after the decisive battle of Hastings (1066), the rich, aristocratic and dominant class, gradually made their neighbors familiar with a host of new words and new expressions, while, at the same time, they were learning their neighbors’ own tongue. Thus in time there came to be combined with the plain, homely Anglo-Saxon vernacular more and more of the French which they or their forefathers had been using for a century and a half over at the other side of the Channel. The result is that the English language as spoken to-day by well-educated people includes even more Norman-French and Latin than Anglo-Saxon. When we say “Good morning,” we go back to the Anglo-Saxon and use words of old Teutonic origin; “god morgen” was the ancient Saxon form. When some-body remarks, “The newsboy was an hour late in delivering the journal,” we are drawing largely on our Norman-French. “News” comes from the French “nouvelles” ; “hour” is the Norman-French “heure” “deliver” is the Norman-French “delivrer”; “journal” is the French “journal,” a derivative from the Latin “diurnalis” (daily).
As a rule, the short, common words used by plain folk in speaking of simple universal human feelings, needs, and acts, and of the relationships of plain, daily life, are oftenest of Anglo-Saxon origin. Expressions pertaining to literature, science and art, to exact analytical thinking on any special subject, to abstract ideas, or to subtile variations and complications of thought, are more frequently derived from the French language, which the Normans imported into Great Britain, or from the Latin, whose use they encouraged and cultivated.
Freeman, whose History of the Norman Conquest of England is a standard authority on the subject, mentions that we are indebted to the Normans in England for the beginning of our system of hereditary surnames. Until after the Conquest such appellations as were added to a man’s Christian name to distinguish him from other men with the same name, belonged merely to him, being descriptive of him as an individual. The continuance of a “to-name,” as it was called, made it lose its explicit meaning; a youth named Black was not necessarily swarthy ; a boy named Farmer might actually be an artisan and not a farmer at all the name indicated not his qualities but his descent and so it is to this day.
Again, as Freeman states, the present English system of primogeniture, which puts the responsibilities and privileges of nobility on the shoulders of only one man in the familythat, too, is an inheritance from the Normans. Its practical bearing on British political conditions down to this very hour is only one of many legacies from the Scandinavian-French who insisted on becoming Englishmen away back in the eleventh-twelfth centuries.
The modern use of the old French words “county” for “shire,” and “mayor” for “port-reeve,” is a lingering trace of Norman-French influence in England centuries ago.
The Norse element in the great international movement known as the Crusades was an exceedingly vigorous and effective element. For more than a hundred years (1090-1194), while Christian Europe was making successive efforts to take the Holy Land from its Mohammedan masters, Norse and Norman-French knights took part in several of the religiomilitary expeditions. Quite as important to the world was the fact, that, during almost the whole period of the Crusades, the Normans were masters of the island of Sicily, having subdued its former Mohammedan rulers. It was at just that time of immense importance who should be master of Sicily, for Mohammedan energies exerted from that center could work immense damage to Christian fleets sailing through the Mediterranean on their way to Palestine. The fact of Christian occupation there at just that period contributed largely to the strength of the movement as a whole ; consequently, it had a good deal to do with bringing about the practical results of the Crusades. Moreover, the Christian government of Sicily at just that critical period was extraordinarily tolerant, and did a great deal to spread through Europe the special scientific knowledge and artistic culture of the Saracens.
Though all the hardship and strife and bloodshed of the Crusades failed to establish Christian possession of the Holy Sepulchre, Europe soon found results of a totally different sort transforming her own conditions. For instance, the home-returning Crusaders brought with them from the East various new ideas about the weaving and coloring of cloths, and about the use of heavy cloths to spread over stone floors and to drape over bare walls. Princes and nobles and merchants who had traveled and seen something of the East began to use such cloths (carpets and curtains) in their houses. Specimens of glassware made in Tyre were studied and copied in Venice, and the mistresses of grand houses aspired to own at least a few pieces in addition to their stock of less beautiful ware. Glass mirrors (to replace those of polished metal) were another luxury whose idea came from the Orient. Many new ideas about carving and painting, the construction of mosaic-work, the embroidering of silk and woolen stuffs and the setting of jewels were brought back to Europe by men who had seen and admired the marvellously superior craftsmanship of the East. Above all, the foreign journeyings of so large a number of the most alert and energetic men of two centuries opened the eyes of Europe to the fact that the world was a much bigger world, and human knowledge might have a much wider field, than Europeans had been in the habit of supposing. It set the studiously inclined to literary and artistic research, and so gradually led to the enormously important Renaissance movement the “re-birth” or revival of Art and Letters in Europe. It set the adventurous to dreaming and scheming about discoveries and explorations in distant lands, and so led to the great movement of world-voyagers –Marco Polo in China ; Columbus in the Atlantic ; Vasco Da Gama in the Indian Ocean ; Balboa on his “peak in Darien” ; the sturdy captains who planted in the far-away Spice Islands the magnificent commercial organism of the Dutch East India Company ; Raleigh and Drake and that gallant company of daring souls from Queen Elizabeth’s England. It would be interesting to know, if we could, how far the actual blood, as well as the heroic spirit of the old Norsemen lived again in the person of those voyagers whose cry was Westward Ho!
Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen, one of the most scholarly and distinguished of Norse-Americans in the nineteenth century, in his Story of Norway, summed-up his countrymen’s service to European politics as follows:
“The ability to endure discipline without loss of self-respect, voluntary subordination for mutual benefit, and the power of orderly organization, based upon these qualities, these were the contributions of the Norse Vikings to the political life of Europe. The feudal state, which, with all its defects, is yet the indispensable basis of a higher civilization, has its root in the Germanic instinct of loyalty of mutual allegiance between master and vassal ; the noble spirit of independence, which restrains and limits the power of the ruler, and at a later stage leads to constitutional government, is even more distinctly a Norse than a Germanic characteristic.”
We might discuss other influences of the great Viking exodus, but we shall merely allude to the literary impulse that came with the Northern invaders. Macaulay says of the Northmen that settled in France:
“They abandoned their native speech and adopted the French. They found it a barbarous jargon; they fixed it in writing; they employed it in legislation, in poetry, and romance.”
The skalds (bards) and saga-men of the North produced a great literature. Much has been done in recent years in the way of turning the attention of the English-speaking public to its rich treasures. Here are the words of a great English scholar,* appealing to Englishmen to study the old Norse poetry of the Elder Edda, and thus see back “into the Homeric age of our forefathers.” He says:
“Any real, however scanty, knowledge of these old Northmen’s finest poetry and noblest era of history is of solid value and interest. The men from whom these poems sprung took no small share in the making of England; their blood is in our veins, their speech in our mouths, their law in our courts, their faith in our hearts ; and if there be, as the sage has said, no ingratitude so base as self-forgetfulness, surely we of all men should look back to the great Viking-tide as a momentous era in the world’s history and our own,”