CHAPTER 16.—MORE FUN WITH BARBARIANS.
There have been some requests for a continuation of this history, and by coincidence, Dr. Boli was just finishing up this chapter when those requests came in. Here it is, as usual offered with no warranties express or implied.
The world (by which, of course, we mean western Europe) could have had a renaissance in the ninth century, but it rather brusquely declined the invitation. Instead, it decided that another two or three centuries of barbarism would suit it just fine.
The only difficulty was that Charlemagne had half-succeeded in civilizing the old barbarians. If they were not civilized, they were at least lazy, which is halfway to being civilized. Civilization begins when people develop a distaste for hard work and begin to look for easier ways to feed and shelter themselves. We vaguely recall having assigned some other cause to civilization in an early chapter, but we see no reason to restrain ourselves now for the sake of a foolish consistency. —At any rate, the old barbarians were used up, and what was needed now was a set of fresh barbarians. These were obligingly supplied, once again, by Scandinavia, which seemed to possess an inexhaustible fount or spring of barbarians, having already supplied Europe with more Goths than it knew what to do with. History calls these new barbarians the Vikings, from an Old Norse word meaning “terrorists with boats.”
It used to be supposed that the Vikings were ruthless and uncivilized savages, but modern historians snort with scornful snickers at the naivete of that idea. Vikings, they say, were accomplished gentlemen seafarers with a highly developed sense of honor. For example, it was considered very bad form in Viking circles to attack an enemy who was already fighting another enemy. As a corollary, it was considered quite all right to hack up an unarmed monk or brain a defenseless infant, since he was obviously not fighting another enemy. Dr. Boli suspects that these modern historians who have so much to say about Viking honor and civilization have not spent much time in bars where Vikings hang out, but he dutifully reports their opinion.
The Vikings first announced that they intended to bring the benefits of their gentlemanly code of conduct to the rest of Europe by destroying the monastery at Lindisfarne and massacring all the monks.
Lindisfarne was an amazing revelation to the Vikings. There were piles of treasure there, and no warriors at all to guard it! The Vikings’ accounting department ran the numbers and found that the risk-benefit ratio was just off-the-charts favorable. And there were undefended treasure hoards in monasteries all over Europe! With irrepressible glee, the Vikings realised that they had hit on a can’t-miss business model.
As soon as they had made that discovery, the Vikings began sending their longboats in all directions, looking for more of these unbelievably profitable monastery things. These longboats are often cited as marvels of naval engineering, but the truth is that they were merely adequate. The thing that made them such effective sailing machines was that they were stuffed with Vikings, the most adventurous and determined sailors in the history of the world. And the thing that made the Vikings so determined to press onward no matter what danger lay ahead of them was that what lay behind them was Scandinavia.
When we look at European history from Roman times on, we find that the most determined, persistent, and successful invaders have come from Scandinavia. Clearly there is something about Scandinavia that provides the strongest possible inducement to be anywhere else in the world. The Goths successfully dismembered the Roman Empire and set up a kingdom in Italy, as far south from Scandinavia as it was possible to go and still be on the same continent. The Norse (as we must respectfully call the Vikings when they begin to diversify their interests beyond the profitable massacre of monks) kept going until they discovered a continent no one in the world (that is, Europe) had ever suspected of existing before.
It may be that part of what they were escaping from in Scandinavia was the religion there, though that religion did possess some intellectual attractions. The old Norse religion was elegantly simple in its beliefs. It accounted for the past, the present, and the future. In the past, the Norse believed, there was a lot of fighting. In the present, fighting was the main purpose of life. In the future, everything would go to hell, no handbasket required. Unfortunately, the old religion was gradually replaced by Christianity as the Norse spread out from Scandinavia; but in the United States it retains millions of followers among the sort of teenage boys who do all their fighting with a mouse or joystick.
Eventually the Norse discovered that it was possible to live somewhere other than Scandinavia simply by killing the current inhabitants and moving in. This was an even more exciting discovery than unguarded monasteries. Up to this point, the delight of easily procured treasure had been mitigated by the necessity of hauling it back to Scandinavia. The discovery that the treasure could be enjoyed in the land where it was procured increased, if such a thing were possible, the attraction of leaving Scandinavia, and soon roving bands of Scandinavians were fanning out across Europe, conquering everything from England to Russia to Sicily.
In a moment we shall return to these bold conquerors, but it would be remiss of us not to account for the one group of hardy but chronically misguided adventurers who went off in entirely the wrong direction and managed to discover distant lands that were even more unpleasant than Scandinavia. Lacking both compasses and common sense, they set out in a northwesterly direction and discovered Iceland, an island whose name hints at only one aspect of its unpleasantness. Ice was, in fact, only half the story. The hardy settlers soon discovered that the whole island was built directly over the service entrance to hell, and infernal fires burst forth at intervals to incinerate everything that had not already frozen to death.
Finding that Iceland was not quite the balmy Mediterranean paradise they had promised themselves, some of these Nordic masterminds came to the conclusion that everything would turn out all right if they just kept going farther in the same direction. (They received some additional motivation from the fact that their leader, Erik the Red, had actually been kicked out of Iceland for making the place even grimmer than it already was.) Thus they eventually landed on an island even more unpleasant than Iceland, which—with an eye to marketing real estate to the unsuspecting—they rather humorously named Greenland.
At this point, some of the hardy adventurers gave up and settled down in Greenland, where they remained for a few centuries before finally fizzling out with barely a whimper. But the son of Erik the Red, Leif, came to the brilliant conclusion that perhaps the climate might be a little more inviting if he headed south. He set out yet again, and discovered a place where the climate was actually hospitable enough that grapes grew wild. They weren’t necessarily very good grapes, but having spent so much time in places where nothing grew but lichens, Leif probably thought he had found the original Garden of Eden. Grapes, after all, held the promise of wine, and wine led to drunkenness, which was the only thing a Viking liked as much as fighting. Leif called the place Vinland, after the grapes, and he established settlements there. These settlers were promptly exterminated by the locals, who thus bought themselves five more centuries of tranquility before the next meddling Europeans showed up.
This was the Norse discovery of America, about which Scandinavian immigrants boast so vociferously. No one can deny that the Norse discovered America, but it would be difficult to maintain that they did anything worthwhile with the place when they discovered it. It would be left to the Spanish to topple empires and exterminate whole populations. Massacre and genocide are the marks of truly successful discovery of a new world.
We must therefore return to western Europe, since it will be five more centuries before America enters proper world history. Here we find one especially successful group of Vikings setting up shop in northern France, where they soon learn to speak French like natives (though with funny accents). These are the Normans, who combine French language and law with the Viking instinct to steal anything that is not nailed down and a great many things that are. Setting out from Normandy as their base, they captured large parts of Italy, North Africa, and Syria. And if you think that is not an impressive accomplishment, you should try it some time.
It was England, however, that the Normans really coveted. Other groups of Scandinavians had long been colonizing England, and England was even combined with Denmark for a short time under Canute, famous as the king whom the tide refused to obey. (King Canute had intended to demonstrate his own limitations to his flattering courtiers by ordering the incoming tide to turn back; nevertheless, as a matter of policy, the tide was beheaded for its insolence.)
The problem with all these other Scandinavians, as far as the Normans could see, was that they were not Normans. Why should they have England’s green and pleasant land when it could belong to Normans instead?
But here we are getting into the high Middle Ages, so it will be necessary for us to take a step back and look at the state of European culture at the time. We will find western Europeans suffering under the absurd delusion that they live in a modern and civilized age, whereas any student of history knows that the Middle Ages are so called for being the lump of undifferentiated darkness between the Classical era and the Renaissance. So blind are we to the judgment of history when we live in the middle of it! We think of ourselves as standing at the pinnacle of human culture and development; but doubtless we shall find, in a few hundred years, that the twenty-first century lies smack in the middle of another Middle Age.
The chapters previously published:
FROM THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE TO THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION.
THE DEFINITION AND CHARACTER OF CIVILIZATION.
THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS, FURNISHING AND DECORATING THE AFTERLIFE SINCE 3150 B.C.
THE LESS MARKETABLE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS.
THE ISRAELITES DISCOVER MONOTHEISM AND SPEND MOST OF THE REST OF THEIR HISTORY TRYING TO BACK OUT OF IT.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS LIVE THE EXAMINED LIFE.
THE ANCIENT GREEKS INVENT HISTORY.
ALEXANDER RUNS OUT OF WORLDS TO CONQUER.
WHILE ROME CONQUERS THE WORLD, GREECE CONQUERS ROME.
CHRISTIANITY RUINS EVERYTHING.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE DECLINES AND FALLS FOR 1500 YEARS STRAIGHT.
CIVILIZATION DESTROYS CIVILIZATION.
NOTHING HAPPENS IN THE DARK AGES.
CHARLEMAGNE TURNS ON THE LIGHTS.