Chivalry Year 1000-Style, ca. 989 and 1023

Which brings us to text number four. Whose idea was it that knights should not be murderous thugs?

Certainly not the Vikings. Okay, I know, I know, the blood eagle thing is a myth, which only goes to show that eleventh- and twelfth-century European Christians were just as capable of fabricating horrific stories about their ancestors as their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century descendants were about them (::cough cough droit du seigneur cough cough Iron Maiden cough::). But off the top of my head, I cannot recall any pre-Christian Viking texts celebrating how gentle a heroic warrior was. Of course, off the top of my head I cannot recall almost any pre-Christian Viking texts...oh, right, because there aren't any. Almost all the evidence we have other than archeological about the Vikings comes from sources written after they or their victims had converted to Christianity.

Okay, I know, I know, the Vikings were not just violent thugs either. They also engaged in sophisticated networks of trade spanning from central Asia to Newfoundland and were perfectly capable of settling down and making a home in the places that they had previously raided, like York. (That's my husband over there, when he was working at the Yorvik Viking Center as an archeological conservator, pretending to be one of the mannequins in the reconstructed village as the car carrying the visitors entered the room with the display. He would hold still until they were almost past and then move, just slightly, at which one of the kids would cry out, "That one moved!" Mum: "Don't be silly, they aren't real.")

But the thing is, as my father would say, shaking his finger over his flagon of mead...oh, wait...wrong memory...the thing is, even my colleagues who know a whole lot more about Vikings than I do admit that they were, in summer and when the winds were right, murderous thugs. And you know what? We celebrate them for it! Vikings--real pagan Vikings, not those wusses who converted to Christianity and got all crusadery and sh*t--were cool! Vikings rocked! Vikings knew how to sack a monastery, kill all the monks, and sell off the peasants as slaves! (Keeping, of course, the most beautiful women for themselves.) Vikings didn't mess about with being all noble (think James Woods as Hades here, talking about Meg going soft on Hercules), they just sailed in and took what they pleased! 'Cause they were rocking murderous thugs!

In Anders Winroth's somewhat more sober version of the same (p. 8):
We continue to be fascinated by the Vikings and stories about their exploits. Ferocious barbarians in horned helmets [another myth--FB] with gleaming swords and sharp axes, descending on Lindisfarne, Hamburg, Paris, Seville, Nantes—almost everywhere—to slaughter, raid, rape, and generally wreak destruction, toppling kingdoms and laying waste to Europe; the Vikings pique our imagination. We picture them killing and maiming without regard for age, gender, or status in society. We imagine them as super-masculine heroes, practitioners of frenzied violence for its own sake, devotees of strange pagan religions that required bloody sacrifices necessitating horrendous torture. Just as we as a society continue to have a fraught and complex relationship to violence, we are both spellbound and repelled by the Vikings. While we may sympathize with and grieve for their helpless victims and feel put off by all the mindless slaying, we can scarcely help admiring the strength, courage, and virility of the Vikings.
Yes, the Vikings had their more peaceful activities (farming, fishing, composing skaldic verse), but the Vikings were also violent, in Winroth's words, "even ferociously so." But here's the interesting thing: we don't blame them for it. One report of a Crusader raping a female captive (oh, wait, according to Andrew Holt, we don't have any such reports, at least not for the First Crusade, but never mind, we're telling stories of ferocious warriors here), and we have to pull out our fainting couches. But a Viking raping a beautiful woman and then setting her to make sail for him in his mead hall surrounded by warriors singing ribald songs? That's the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters and best-selling books. I understand there is even a  series about Vikings out on Netflix that is in its fourth season (I haven't watched it, the one scene I caught when I walked into the room and my son was watching it was too...ahem...violent.)

Why the double-standard? Why are we, couch-potatoes all, thrilled by the thought of watching "renowned Viking hero Ragnar Lothbrok...descendent of Odin, god of war and warriors" (I'm reading the blurb for Vikings here) battle his way to become King of the Vikings (was there such a title? I don't really think so, but, "King of the Vikings"?! Cool!), and yet, in more or less the same breath, repelled at the thought of Guy de Lusignan rousing his fellow Templars to take down Saladin with the great crusader cry, "God wills it!" Okay, that whole scene in the movie is pretty revolting (and I am not sure I am quite remembering who is who, there are so many historical oddities in Ridley Scott's film--if Guy is Sibylla''s husband, how can he be a Templar?), but that is precisely my point: why? Why is it thrilling to imagine Ragnar Lothbrok as a violent warrior, yet repellent to see Templars shouting for war? Because, of course, Christian warriors aren't supposed to be like that. Says who?

Actually, I have two texts to share with you on this question. First, a text describing a council held in the year 989 at the court of Charroux, where Gunbaldus, the bishop of Aquitaine had gathered together with his fellow bishops on the first day of June. The bishops, along with the clerics and monks of the region, "not to mention laypeople of both sexes," had come together to beseech "the aid of divine justice" in quelling the "criminal activity" that had been besetting their district. Convened together in the name of God, they issued the following canons (i.e. rules for Christians bound by the law of the Church):
That: (1) If anyone attacks the holy church, or takes anything from it by force, and compensation is not provided, let him be anathema. (2) If anyone takes as booty sheep, oxen, asses, cows, female goats, male goats, or pigs from peasants [agricolae] or from other poor people [pauperes]--unless it is due to the fault of the victim--and if that person neglects to make reparation for everything, let him be anathema. (3) If anyone robs, or seizes, or strikes a priest, or a deacon, or any man of the clergy who is not bearing arms (that is, a shield, a sword, a breastplate, or a helmet), but who is simply going about his business or remaining at home, and if, after examination by his own bishop, that person is thus found to be guilty of any crime, then he is guilty of sacrilege, and if he furthermore does not come forward to make satisfaction, let him then be held to be excluded from the holy church of God.
--Translated by Thomas Head, in The Peace of God: Social Violence and Religious Response in France around the Year 1000, ed. Thomas Head and Richard Landes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 327-28.
Okay, so the bishops at this point seem to have been mainly concerned with protecting the property and people most closely associated with the Church, but there is that second canon, where they also insist that the knights (a.k.a. "anyone who was armed," which wasn't usually the peasants) should not steal the animals of the poor without paying for them. But it's a start, right? Vikings didn't pay people back when they took their sheep, oxen, asses, and cows.

And then there were the kings, whence my second text: an oath written by Bishop Warin of Beauvais for King Robert the Pious of France in 1023. First, a little context. The year 1000 had come and gone and yet, the Second Coming of Christ seemed still to be on hold. Exactly how worried anybody was that Our Lord might show up on his cloudy throne on the millennial anniversary of his death--having missed his millennial birthday twenty-three years before, at least by Dionysius Exiguus's calendar which the Carolingians had adopted around Annus Domini 800 (Annus Mundi II 5999) following the example of the Venerable Bede because that way they could say that the end of the world was still a good 200 years in the future, but nobody thought to change the calendar before A.D. 1000 hit, so we've been stuck with Dionysius, give or take a few years, ever since--is a matter of some debate.* A.D. 1033 was a decade or so off, so potentially there was time to prepare, and if Christ didn't come then, well, he had promised he was coming sometime, so better to be safe than sorry. And when he came, even kings would not be let off the hook, at least not according to the bishops.

Here's the oath:
I will not invade a church for any reason.... I will not assault an unarmed cleric or monk, nor anyone walking with him who is not carrying a spear or a shield, nor will I seize their horse unless they are committing a crime or unless it is in recompense for a crime for which they would not make amends, fifteen days after my warning.... I will not seize villeins of either sex, or sergeants or merchants, or their coins, or hold them for ransom, or ruin them with exactions on account of their lord's war, or whip them for their possessions.... I will not burn or destroy houses unless I find an enemy horseman or thief within, and unless they are joined to a real castle.... I will not attack merchants or pilgrims or take their possessions unless they commit crimes. I will not kill the animals of villeins except for my consumption or that of my men.... I will not assault noble women in the absence of their husbands, or those who travel with them, unless I should find them committing misdeeds against me; and the same holds for widows and nuns....  From the beginning of Lent until the end of Easter, I will not assault unarmed horsemen or take their possessions, and if a villein should do damage to another villein or horseman, before I seize him, first I will make complaints about him and await fifteen days for satisfaction before punishing him, but no more than the law allows.
--Translated by Richard Landes, in The Peace of God, ed. Head and Landes, pp. 332-33.
Sure, there are lots of "unlesses" and odd exceptions here (what if the noble women's husbands are present?), but no Viking would agree to this kind of clerical nitpicking about when, where, and whom he could rape and pillage, would he? And yet, over the course of the eleventh century, it seems Christian kings and their warriors did, with so much sincerity that, again as Andrew Holt has shown, it seems that when in A.D. 1096 their sons and grandsons came together to take an oath to go to the help of the Christians under attack in the East, they took seriously the restrictions that the bishops had imposed on their grandfathers, at the very least with respect to how they would treat their enemies' women, whom, gruesome as it sounds to us, they killed by running through with their lances, but did not rape.

Their Viking ancestors (the Normans who made up a great part of the Crusaders were, after all, the descendants of Vikings) would have been appalled at their sissiness and self-restraint.

*If you think this debate over chivalry is knuckle-whitening, you should have been a fly on the wall at my tenure review, when my senior colleagues debated whether they would let me keep my job after I suggested in my tenure book that there was something to the apocalyptic fears of A.D. 1000, never mind A.D. 2001--the meeting was held in October that year, about a month after September 11. They told me afterwards that the debate had been intense and to expect a firestorm. Interestingly, I am still waiting on that one. Much as the Christians in A.D. 1016 were still waiting on Christ...

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