Another topic that falls: apparently those barbarians that devastated the European coasts were not as disheveled as they have led us to believe. Recent essays such as ‘Vikings’, by Neil Price, speak of men concerned about their appearance, their hygiene and everything that had to do with aesthetics.
The Saxon (and Frankish, and Galician) chronicles describe them as authentic crabs. Rough, wild and wild, very tall, with long hair and bushy beards, fierce eyes, scarred faces, tattooed arms, blood and ritual incisions in the teeth. Seeing them in action must have been an atrocious sight.
There is no doubt that the Vikings inspired fear in their victims. For the monks and peasants of western Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries, the incursions of these sea demons were eclipses of the sun, catastrophes of biblical dimensions. The invaders were a people with a very solid oral culture, but they did not write their own books, so the version that has transcended is that of their victims. However, recent essays like the extraordinary Vikings. The definitive history of the towns of the north (Attic of Books), of Neil Price, suggests that the alleged mastuerzos were actually much more refined than we used to believe. Not the epitome of barbarism and sloppiness, but a people who cared about their physical appearance and with a considerable sense of aesthetics, hygiene and clothing fashion.
Price dedicates a demystifying chapter to the elegance of those Germanic tribes established in the valleys and fjords of Scandinavia. In it, he insists that his was a highly visual culture, obsessed with appearance, and that at least part of its political and economic elite dressed in sumptuous imported dresses (silk was a treasure for them), exquisite designs, rich colors and fancy clothes. True, the everyday look of their pirates and looters usually consisted of a rough tunic, metal helmet (contrary to popular belief, no horns) sheepskin vest and chainmail. But the Scandinavians of the time knew how to dress well when they had something to celebrate or someone to impress.
Dressed to kill
They also knew about the not daily bath, but it was frequent, they had very high regard for handmade accessories such as tunic pins, rings or combs and their tattoos, more than crude ink stains, were intricate works of art on the skin with a ritual meaning that today, unfortunately, we do not know. This aspect of their customs and their material culture had gone unnoticed for centuries, amid so much chronicle of indiscriminate looting, ceremonial barbarism and bloodshed, but recent archaeological discoveries suggest that it was one of the most elegant societies in northern Europe in the transition period from the late Iron Age to the Middle Ages.
Jacinto Antón, a journalist who has always been fascinated by Vikings, wants to introduce a nuance: “If we speak of Viking elegance, we have to refer only to the top of the social pyramid in Scandinavian societies. The rest suffered from the material poverty of the time and dressed in twill, woolen pieces and cheap dresses, like the Frankish peasants, the Goths or the Saxons ”. It is true, however, “that they did not fit into the archetypal image of unkempt barbarians.” Theirs was a culture that highly valued hygiene and clothing: “Even the Muslim ambassadors to the Scandinavian courts or the Arabs who traded with them on the banks of the Volga or the Caspian Sea were struck by their bathing and paying so much attention to attention to body care and good dress ”.
This is something very credited also in the multiple finds made in warriors’ tombs, in which, according to Price’s account, combs, jewelry, masks and sophisticated garments abound. Antón interviewed Price and talked to him about an aspect that is especially attractive: “The Scandinavians had a certain fear of emptiness that they compensated by accumulating objects, drawing and decorating, hence their material culture is so rich. They were not illiterate, but they did not know the book. Even his writing, the runes, responded more to the desire to offer a visual spectacle than to construct a story ”.
In addition, they traveled a lot, “which made them masters of non-verbal communication.” In reality, “the fierce appearance they presented in combat, that tattooing all over their bodies, filing their teeth, bursting in by surprise smelling of humanity and covered in blood from head to toe, was part of a strategy of intimidation and war propaganda designed to instill terror to his adversaries ”. His tattoos, in particular, “were ritual ornaments to engage in combat not very different from those used by the Picts and Celts or still used today by criminal groups such as the Japanese yakuza.”
Pioneers of the androgynous
Price attaches great importance to recent discoveries that have helped transform our image of the peoples of the North. For example, a silver-plated figurine found in 2014 in the Danish town of Harby, near Roskilde, depicts a suspected warrior from the 800s dressed ambiguously (androgynously?), Wearing an ankle-length pleated petticoat and a Extravagant V-neck T-shirt, ornate cape, long waistcoat and a flirty skirt.
Apparently, garments like this, which today would seem rampant and fanciful to us, were worn above all by men of the warrior aristocracy, who were also very fond of wearing shawls, brooches, linen tunics, tiaras or delicate leather ankle boots. These warlords were usually buried or cremated as a paintbrush, in a deliberate display of elegance and material wealth that demonstrates the extent to which these would-be barbarians valued appearances. According to Price, at least two-thirds of the fortune of a deceased caudillo had to be dedicated to a funeral of very high pompadour, with a massive feast and an open bar of alcohol. The family inherited, at most, the remaining third. So that later they say that the business of death is a contemporary invention.
The wardrobe of the pirates of the north
Price also points out that the ancient Nordics were unaware of pockets, but instead had a wide variety of brocades, necklaces, jewelry, bone or metal buttons, silk or wool hats, and very colorful children’s clothing, usually nightgowns and tunics. They even developed pieces of clothing as extravagant as a kind of baggy pants covered with fur. A last cry on the 9th century Scandinavian catwalk popularized, it seems, by one of its most illustrious heroes, Ragnar Lothbrók, whose nickname meant just that, “hairy bloomers.” More than his warlike feats, his contemporaries highlighted about him the garment that he made fashionable, in a curious example of how very seriously (or how loudly) that these hardened sea wolves took elegance and elegance. good taste.
Anton highlights from Price’s book “the special attention that the author devotes to the most forgotten part of the Viking epic, the travels of the Rus, those Swedish merchants and warriors who opened the routes of Eastern Europe by navigating the great rivers of Ukraine , Russia and Belarus ”. The journalist highlights that all these deeds, those of the east and those of the west, “were the work of a minority, the properly called Vikings (that is,” pirates “). Most Scandinavians of the time were humble farmers engaged in a subsistence economy in a hostile environment, not very different from what the rest of humanity was at that time. Antón agrees with Price that it would not make much sense to swing the pendulum of historical valuations and begin to see the Nordics as enterprising and cosmopolitan merchants who valued good dress and good food: “There are recent books that point in that direction, I think me that in an unfortunate way. Okay, today we know that they were not bloodthirsty savages, or at least not only that, but we don’t want to make them the paradigm of civilization or good customs either. “
The Vikings may not deserve the bad press that their most bitter enemies tried to give them, but neither can they be whitewashed or vindicated from a naive and uncritical enthusiasm. No matter how spotless their robes, they practiced human sacrifice, attacked nations with whom they had previously traded, and trafficked slaves by surprise. Scandinavian women could divorce, inherit property and crowns, and go into combat, but they suffered from the rigors of a fiercely misogynistic, patriarchal society in which selective infanticides preyed on girls and where sexual violence was prevalent. “They were not saints or demons”, concludes Antón, “just a very peculiar people with values and a way of understanding life that we do not understand today.”
From the Baltic to Istanbul
The Viking Odyssey, as Price tells it, is the story of a people that took advantage of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent era of great migrations to open up to the great world, in a period when the entire northern third of Eurasia was it was globalizing by force. They practiced piracy as well as exploration and trade, and wove a dense network of contacts that led them to places as remote as Baghdad, Constantinople (modern Istanbul, then capital of the Byzantine empire) or the steppes of Central Asia, without forgetting corners of the map that they visited and devastated conscientiously, such as Brittany and Normandy, Galicia, the Cantabrian coast, the Balearic Islands, central Italy or the North of Morocco. On their voyages through the North Atlantic, they crossed the Arctic Circle over and over again, colonizing the Hebrides and Orkney, invaded Ireland, England and Scotland, and dropped anchor in such inhospitable and remote places as Iceland, Greenland, or the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
A recent series, Vikings (History Channel), by Michael Hirst, reflects this entire cycle of unusual adventures that occurred between the 8th and 11th centuries, closely following both the Icelandic chronicles (written several centuries later, well into the Middle Ages). ) as well as other historical and literary sources and the most recent archaeological finds. Other recent fictions, such as the British The Last Kingdom (Netflix), have settled for giving them a much more conventional view. “I like the Hirst series”, Antón tells us, “and I know that Price also appreciates it, considers it very solid and well documented”.
The journalist considers it logical that Hirst, whom he has also recently interviewed, took certain licenses to give the product a dramatic coherence: “Perhaps what convinces me least is how one of the essential characters of the Nordic sagas, Ivar, is represented Boneless, who was called that, probably because he suffered from a slight limp or a problem of sexual impotence. In the series, what he suffers is a serious handicap that forces him to crawl on the ground, and even so he becomes one of the greatest military leaders of his time, something very unlikely in a society that valued physical strength and good health above all ”.
Vikings, by the way, already shows how sharply pointed the Vikings wore on great occasions, those lavish banquets washed down with beer and spirits with which they celebrated the success of their expeditions across the ocean. Then as now, style was not at odds with effectiveness