Margaret Clunies Ross

title.none: Jesch, Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age (Margaret Clunies Ross)

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.007 02.06.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Margaret Clunies Ross, University of Sydney,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Jesch, Judith. Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age: The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xiv, 330. ISBN: 085158269.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.07

Jesch, Judith. Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age: The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xiv, 330. ISBN: 085158269.

Reviewed by:

Margaret Clunies Ross
University of Sydney

This book, which will be both important and useful for specialists in Old Norse-Icelandic skaldic studies and for other specialist groups in Viking Studies, is the fulfillment of a project first envisioned by Peter Foote at University College London in the 1980s. His idea was to search the 'reliable' parts of the corpus of skaldic poetry (poetry in kings' sagas, for the most part, and definitely not poetry, however old saga writers claimed it to be, in sagas of Icelanders) for evidence of what he called the 'realia' of the Viking Age, and so to confirm--or deny--commonly held views of the nature of Viking Age society and material culture, at least those parts of it which were represented in skaldic poetry. His notion was that, as skaldic verse of this 'reliable' kind is arguably the closest witness to the people, events and lifestyle of Vikings of the Viking Age, what evidence it can provide of the society from which it was generated should be valued more highly than the contents of post-Viking Age Old Norse (mostly Icelandic) literature, which was composed some time after the period in question by medieval Icelanders who were not Vikings. The important point here is that much modern scholarly writing about Viking Age culture depends more heavily on these later sources, mostly prose sagas, than on the evidence of skaldic poetry, and so its conclusions may not be entirely reliable.

Judith Jesch, who was a doctoral student at University College London, has now published the results of such a study, though she has modified the original plan somewhat: she includes evidence from the Scandinavian runic corpus, provided it is in the younger futhark and dated to before c. 1100, and she confines her attention to 'reliable' skaldic poetry (as defined above) presumed to have been composed between AD 950-1110, that is, the period she calls 'the late Viking Age', the early Viking Age being regarded as not attested by reliable enough witnesses. Jesch focusses on "what might be called [?by whom] the typically 'viking' aspects of the late Viking Age...ships and sailing, voyages abroad for both trading and raiding, the organisation and hierarchy of ship's crews, and the military and social ethos which lay behind or even which resulted from such activities". (6) Much of her analysis depends on close linguistic analysis, and, as she states (loc. cit.), the book "is an attempt to write history through language".

The obvious questions for a reviewer are: how successful has Jesch been in writing, or rewriting history, following her stated approach? And, what are the strengths and weaknesses of her method? Her introductory chapter, "Rocks and Rhymes", makes it clear that she is very much aware that she has to define her corpus and her designated approach very carefully in order not to admit material that could be considered unreliable (i.e. composed either before or after the 160 years of her study period). This inevitably restricts the sample texts (though the sample is probably statistically sufficient) and, because of their frequent repetitiousness and thematic sameness, the subject matter investigated. The runic inscriptions, in particular, are highly formulaic, while the skaldic poetry, being confined largely to encomiastic verse in honour of kings and other leaders, inevitably treats the restricted set of topics she lists above. At best, then, we are dealing with a sub-group of Viking Age society, albeit--and certainly in the eyes of those who composed the texts--the most important social group, dominated by young and mature upper- class males who went 'aviking'.

The great strengths of Jesch's study lie in the details. She has an excellent command of the difficult primary material and has produced a multitude of insights into late Viking Age vocabulary and its relationship to what we now know, thanks to the continuing researches of archaeologists, of Viking Age material culture, particularly that relating to the Viking Age ship. She makes outstanding use of the latest archaeological information in her discussion of the meaning of a number of key terms in the nautical vocabulary found in both skaldic poetry and, to a much smaller extent, runic inscriptions. She also dispels a number of misconceptions that abound in the works of Norse and Anglo-Saxon specialists as well as in more popular writings; her discussion of the term 'longship' and its vernacular equivalents (pp. 120-3), for example, will put paid very firmly to the notion that this was a technical term among the Vikings themselves. Likewise, her analysis of various terms for crew members and warriors in Chapter 5, together with her discussion in Chapter 6 of the vocabulary of group solidarity and leadership, is worth careful study by Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon historians in particular. In addition, there are judicious discussions of a number of obscure terms, such as brandr (pp. 147-8), barth (pp. 148-9) and tingl (pp. 148, 210), which will be very helpful to skaldic specialists and archaeologists. And there is a useful Index of words and names at the end of the book, as well as two Appendices listing the sources cited in the study.

Some of Jesch's researches will be of considerable utility at a more general level. A case in point is her excellent Chapter 3, "Viking Destinations", which draws together a wealth of detail from the poetic and runic corpus to produce an overview, comprising both a mental and a geographical map, of all the places that Viking travellers visited in Scandinavia, Western and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and points further east, together with the names by which they knew them, all tied to specific skaldic poems or runic inscriptions. The inclusion of the runic material enables Jesch to give due weight to more commercial and exploratory Viking activities which the skaldic verse alone would not provide.

Even though I found this book both rewarding and informative, I was disappointed in the relatively small amount of general discussion it afforded, particularly for the reader who is not a specialist in runic or skaldic studies. Although English translations of key terms and Old Norse texts are provided, this book will be difficult for a non-specialist to get as much value from as it deserves. It ought to be read by, among others, Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon archaeologists, historians and literary scholars. It would have been very helpful to such readers to have the major points and conclusions, both positive and negative, collected together in a concluding chapter and highlighted, so that the reader could come away from the book with a good sense of what modifications to the standard view of Viking Ages society Jesch's analyses have supported. Instead, we have only a brief Epilogue of 10 pages, which does not draw all the important points together, nor does it in any sense write the 'history through language' that Jesch promised in her Introduction. There are a number of issues of social and cultural history that Jesch's material throws light upon, and, as she reviews her corpus, she comments upon them, but they deserve a more extended discussion. One example among many is the social function of runic monuments commemorating men who died abroad; Jesch argues plausibly (pp. 99-100, 257) that such monuments may often be as important, perhaps more important, in proclaiming the inheritance of living, stay-at-home family members from the deceased, as in praising the dead man.

Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age is plentifully illustrated with photographs of some of the 'realia' that Jesch's research explores, including a number of photographs of runic monuments taken by the author, some of which lack contrast and sharpness. In general the book is well presented and has few typographical errors, most of those I spotted being in the first part. I found one bibliographical idiosyncracy somewhat annoying: when Jesch refers to several publications by a single author in one year as 'Bloggs a, b and c' in her main text, these are not marked as such in the list of Works Cited at the end of the book, so that the reader has to make a mental note of which is which when checking the full bibliographical details.

To sum up: Although I sometimes felt that Jesch wanted her mostly poetic, material to offer up evidence of 'realia' too urgently (cf. her discussion of the dimension of place and time of battles on pp. 206-8), she is by and large careful in recognising the complexities of skaldic language that get in the way of referential precision of meaning. Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age is an excellent, linguistically accurate and well-researched book, which should certainly be on every skaldic and runic specialist's shelves and will be of great service (if they can light on the material in it relevant to them) to historians, archaeologists and literary scholars interested in the Viking Age, whether in Scandinavia or in the lands the Vikings influenced during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Historians of shipping and navigation are another group who stand to benefit from Jesch's meticulous work.