15.04.10, Bauduin and Musin, eds., Vers l'Orient et vers l'Occident

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Yulia Mikhailova

The Medieval Review 15.04.10

Bauduin, Pierre, and Alexander Musin. Vers l'Orient et vers l'Occident: Regards croisés sur les dynamiques et les transferts culturels des Vikings à la Rous ancienne. Publications du CRAHAM: Histoire Médiévale. Caen: Presses Universitaires de Caen, 2014. Pp. 500. ISBN: 9782841334995 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Yulia Mikhailova
New Mexico Institute of Technology

Recent medieval scholarship has been marked by an effort to liberate the field from the legacy of the grand, national narrative. National histories, shaped as they are by a desire to produce a unifying narrative of the past for the territory of the nation-state, homogenize diverse structures and communities that once existed within this territory. Conversely, they stress differences between those who lived on what is now the two sides of the border, seeking to show how ''they'' have ''always'' been unlike ''us''--or simply ignore the borderlands altogether, concentrating on the ''core'' territory of the future nation-state. Nowadays, to criticize the projection of modern national divisions back into the Middle Ages is to state the obvious. ''Across the boundaries'' has become a catchphrase in medieval studies, referring to a number of things: a realization that the modern political map is not a useful analytical tool for an understanding of medieval Europe; a need for collaboration between various disciplines; research on medieval frontiers and borderlands; comparative and cross-cultural studies.

The collection under review here, which grew out of an eponymous conference, represents all these aspects of the ''across the boundaries'' trend. Even the conference itself worked literally across the boundaries. It was part of the French-Russian project ''Two 'Normandies': Comparative Interdisciplinary Studies of the Scandinavian Foundations and Their Historical Destinies in France (Normandy) and in Russia (Novgorod Region),'' and it had several sessions meeting in St. Petersburg, Novgorod, Staraia Russa, and Caen. The geography of the conference reflects its subject: the Viking world stretching all over Europe, with particular attention to the two ''peripheries'' of this world: Normandy and what is now northwest Russia.

The quotation marks were applied by Pierre Bauduin who, in his introduction to the volume, calls for caution in using the term ''periphery'' in respect to a space, the center of which is hard to define (15). This introductory remark sets the tone for the collection, which is structured in such a way as to avoid privileging some areas--whether geographical, linguistic, or disciplinary--at the expense of others. Methodologically, the volume owes much to cross-cultural studies which were first developed by scholars of modern history, but which subsequently have attracted the attention of medievalists studying identity, ethnicity, ''otherness,'' and cultures in contact (16), all themes present throughout the volume. Genevieve Bührer-Thierry, in her conclusion to the French session (417-422), uses the concept of a cultural ''middle ground'' to describe the Scandinavians in northeastern Europe as mediators between diverse groups which lacked any unified structure. [1] In this area, the Scandinavians eventually helped to create such a structure, in contrast with the situations in Francia, where they assimilated (sont dissous) without having a profound impact on the local society, and England, the only region for which ''the phenomenon of the [Scandinavian] military conquest cannot be denied'' (422).

Bauduin discusses various theoretical approaches to cross-cultural and comparative studies and their relevance for research of the Viking world and, at the same time, describes the project that led to the publication of the volume as ''empirical'' (15). Indeed, the reader who expects overarching explanations for cross-cultural interactions in the Viking Age or far-reaching comparisons of the Scandinavian foundations in Western and Eastern Europe will be disappointed. In the opinion of this reviewer, such comparisons of different regions have been often based on too little evidence--not necessarily because evidence is insufficient, but rather because relevant scholarly knowledge is compartmentalized between different national schools. Not only do cross-cultural and comparative studies require investigation of primary sources written in different medieval languages, but also familiarity with scholarly literature published in different modern languages. Difficulties in integrating all these diverse multilingual materials are the main reason for why overcoming the projection of modern national boundaries into the medieval past is easier said than done. Viking studies, in particular, involve sources in Latin, Old Norse, East Slavonic, and Arabic, and secondary literature published not just in English, German and French, familiar to most medievalists, but also in Scandinavian and Slavonic languages. The reviewed volume makes an important step in overcoming these barriers by bringing together scholars from six countries (Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Russia), working across a range of disciplines. The contributions are in French and English. The publisher would do well to employ an English-language editor; many parts of this otherwise excellent collection would have benefited greatly from being revised by somebody with a better knowledge of the language.

The collection opens by Stéphane Lebecq's essay, ''Les Occidentaux dans l'espace baltique et scandinave aux VIIIe-IXe siècles. Qui? Pourquoi? Comment?'' (29-37), investigating the early contacts between the Scandinavians and Western Europeans. The eighth-century presence of the Westerners in the Scandinavian waters ''played a crucial role in attracting these very Scandinavians to the West and its riches'' (33). Even the famed longship has some features borrowed from the Frisian-type boats (36). The next essay, ''Danish Fleet-Operations at the Southern Shores of the Baltic Sea and Along the Elbe River during the 9th Century" (39-44) by Matthias Hardt, discusses the Viking activities in the southern Baltic, the region which appears to be attacked less than other Frankish lands. Attacks may simply have gone unreported because no annal-keeping monastery in the area was directly affected by them; alternative explanations are the existence of fortifications built earlier against the Slavs and the absence of rich cities. Indeed, northeastern Europe, which had no cities, saw a lot of Scandinavian activities, but no raiding. References to this area in skaldic poetry are the subject of ''Icelandic Skalds and Garðar'' (45-53) by Tatjana Jackson. Poetic strophes included in sagas are a relatively reliable historical source (48), and they provide valuable information on early Rus. Judith Jesch's ''Christian Vikings: Northmen in Western Europe in the 12th century'' (55-60) is also devoted to sagas; namely, to their accounts of two Scandinavian expeditions to the Holy Land, inspired by the crusading spirit of the time. Jesch shows that this crusading impulse was an important aspect of intensive interactions of Christianized Scandinavia with other cultures. Skalds of that time ''achieved the unusual feat of continuing...traditional modes while also being highly receptive to new concepts,'' such as courtly love (59, 60). Norse historians also fused the new ideas brought by Christianity with traditional values; Sverre Bagge discusses approaches of three medieval authors to this task in ''National Identity and Memory of the Origins: The Example of Norway'' (339-348).

While discussing the skaldic poetry as a historical source, Jackson points to an archeological corroboration of a reference to Rus-produced weaponry in a Norse poem (52-53). Archeological data take a place of honor in the volume, being the main subject of seventeen contributions. In ''Les Scandinaves en Rous entre paganisme et christianisme'' (311-326), Alexander Musin analyzes excavated amulets and figurines of gods as evidence of acculturation of the Scandinavian settlers in Rus, whose beliefs were deeply influenced by local Slavic and Finnic pagan practices. This disruption of traditional paganism later facilitated the process of conversion to Christianity. In ''Byzantine and Scandinavian Elements in Christian Devotional Metalwork Objects of Early Rus' of the 10th-11th Centuries'' (113-131), Anna Peskova compares crosses from Rus, Scandinavia, Byzantium, and the Balkans and analyzes the patterns of their distribution. Valentina Goryunova and Alexej Plokhov use pottery from the Novgorod region to investigate population movements in the Baltic and cultural exchange between Scandinavians, Slavs, Balts, and Finns (''Contacts of the Population of the Lake Il'men' and the Volkhov River Areas with the Peoples of the Baltic Region in the 9th-10th Centuries on the Evidence of Pottery,'' 133-153). ''Early Ladoga during the Viking Age in the Light of the International Cultural Transfer'' by Anatolij Kirpichnikov (215-230) is a review of archeological research of Ladoga (Aldeigja) described in the Primary Chronicle as the point of arrival of the first Rus'ian princes allegedly invited by the local population from Scandinavia. It is hardly feasible to take the legend about the ''invitation of the Varangians'' at face value, as Kirpichnikov appears to do, but Ladoga undeniably was an important site of early Slavic-Finnic-Scandinavian contacts. Another important place is Riurikovo (Ryurikovo) Gorodishche, the subject of the paper by Evgenij Nosov ''New Archeological Discoveries at Ryurikovo Gorodishche'' (231-244). These discoveries include the scull of a monkey belonging to the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, when Gorodishche was the site of a princely residence. Its occupants apparently shared the Western European vogue for pet monkeys (244), a small reminder that connections between Rus and the West were not limited to the Viking Age. For this age, evidence of the Scandinavian presence in Gorodishche and Ladoga is overwhelming. There are many fewer Scandinavian finds in what eventually became the most important center of the region, Novgorod (237). Lyubov' Pokrovskaia's investigation of the Novgorodian female jewelry also shows no Scandinavian influence, in contrast with the significant presence of Finnic and Baltic elements (''Female Costume from Early Novgorod and its Ethno-Cultural Background: An Essay on Reconstruction,'' 101-112).

The finds from Novgorod, which include two runic inscriptions (249), are the subject of ''Scandinavian Objects from the Excavations of Novgorod'' by Natalya Khvoroshchinskaia and Elena Rybina (245-256); evidence for the Scandinavian presence in the larger Novgorodian area is discussed in ''Stray Finds of Scandinavian Origin and Viking Hoards and the Lake Il'men' Area near Novgorod the Great: Topography and Composition'' by Sergej Toropov (257-279). An archeological survey of the region is completed with the papers ''Staraya Russa at the End of the Viking Age and Later: A Review of Archeological Research'' by Elena Toropova (281-295) and ''The Region South of Lake Ladoga during the Viking Age'' by Oleg Boguslavskij (297-308).

Making discoveries of Russian archeologists accessible to Western scholars was one of the goals of the project on which this volume is based (11). However, the archeologists represented in the volume are in no way limited to Russia. Sarah Croix, in ''De l'art de paraître: costume et identité entre Scandinavie et ancienne Rous'' (85-100), interprets the elements of oriental costume as mark of status for the Viking elite who controlled the trade with the East. Some of these elements were borrowed from the steppe Turks (94), showing that ''the other Europe'' of nomads not only participated in trade and cultural exchange, but could even be a source of prestige. [2] The multiethnic population along the routes from Scandinavia to the East was apparently more receptive to the Scandinavians than were the Western Slavs. A marked absence of Scandinavian establishments on their lands is seen by Søren Michael Sindbæk as evidence that such establishments ''depended...to a greater extent than often realized on local political organization and cultural attitudes'' (''Scandinavian Settlement South of the Baltic Sea,'' 167-176, at 167).

In ''Creating Identity in Viking-Age England: Archeological Perspectives on Funerary Practices'' (71-83), Dawn Hadley argues that the Scandinavians, even while pagan, deliberately buried some of their dead close to churches, a practice connected with the importance of the Church to the process of Scandinavian acculturation. A crucial part of this process, conversion to Christianity, is largely unrecorded; in the absence of written sources, Lesley Adams uses Scandinavian burials from Scotland, Ireland, and England to compare the process of conversion in the three regions and to show that the Christianized Scandinavians retained elements of their traditional culture (''The Conversion of Scandinavians in Britain and Ireland: an Overview,'' 327-337). Burial practices are also discussed in Felix Bierman's ''Early Medieval Richly Furnished Burials in the South of the Baltic--Symbols of Ethnic Identity or Expressions of Social Élites under Pressure?'' (61-69) and Patrice Lajoye's ''Le Rous d'Ibn Fadlân: Slaves ou Scandinaves? Une approche critique'' (155-163). Bierman rejects an ethnic Scandinavian interpretation of the unusual burials in the south Baltic region and sees their non-traditional features as a response of local elite to external threats. Lajoye's analysis of archeological, textual, and ethnographic sources questions the widespread identification of the ''Rus'' people, whose burial ceremony Ibn Fadlân describes, as Scandinavians.

Lajoye's essay exemplifies the fruitfulness of an interdisciplinary approach, which is also manifest in the two contributions by Vincent Carpentier, ''Dans quel contexte les Scandinaves se sont-ils implantés en Normandie? Ce que nous dit l'archéologie de l'habitat rural en Neustrie, du VIIIe au Xe siècle'' (189-198) and ''Du mythe colonisateur à l'histoire environnementale des côtes de la Normandie à l'epoque viking: l'example de l'estuaire de la Dives (France, Calvados), IXe-XIe siècles'' (199-213). Carpentier criticizes the historians and linguists who underestimate archeological evidence (190); he employs archeology, prosopography, and linguistics to dispel the ''myth of colonization'' of Neustria by the Scandinavians, arguing that they rapidly assimilated into this coastal Frankish region with which they had cultural affinities. Numismatic evidence, discussed by Jens Christian Moesgaard, also points to a rapid assimilation (''Les échanges entre le Normandie et la Baltique aux Xe-XIe siècles: La documentation numizmatique et ses limites,'' 177-188, at 184).

Myths often result from ethnocentric interpretations of medieval narratives which construct political, not ethnic, identities (Bührer-Thierry, 418). One such myth, the denial of a significant Scandinavian presence in early Rus, is examined by Leo Klejn in connection with modern political history (''Normanism and Antinormanism in Russia: An Eyewitness Account,'' 407-415). Adrian Selin discusses a seventeenth-century utilization of the chronicle narrative about the early Scandinavian princes ('''Invitation of the Varangians' and the 'Invitation of the Swedes' in Russian History: Ideas of Early Historiography in Late Russian Medieval Society,'' 397-406).

Several contributions show how linguistics and onomastics help illuminate questions of ethnicity and identity obscured by tendentious readings of narrative sources. Élizabeth Ridel examines Scandinavian influences on Western languages in ''Lanques et indentité dans les établissements viking d'Europe de L'Ouest'' (349-362). Elena Mel'nikova analyzes the interaction between the Slavonic and Scandinavian languages in ''The Acculturation of Scandinavians in Early Rus' as Reflected by Language and Literacy'' (363-375). Alexej Gippius uses onomastics to trace the Scandinavian origin of a prominent Novgorodian family (''A Scandinavian Trace in the History of the Novgorod Boyardom,'' 383-396; Gippius describes the family as ''feudal,'' in accordance with the idiosyncratic Russian practice of using this term to mean ''elite''). Fjodor Uspenskij examines Slavic-Scandinavian contacts through a choice of dynastic names in ''What's in a Name? Dynastic Power and Anthroponymics in Medieval Scandinavia and Rus' (the Case of Svyatoslav and Svyatoslava)'' (377-381).

One can only agree with Musin who, in his conclusion to the Russian session (423-434), shows how research represented in the volume dismantles ethnocentric myths which reduce complex medieval realities to a struggle between ethnic groups imagined as homogeneous entities directly linked to modern nations. Taken together, the thirty-three contributions create a rich panorama of the Viking world seen from multiple disciplinary and methodological perspectives.



1. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

2. Florin Curta, The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

Article Details

Author Biography

Yulia Mikhailova

New Mexico Institute of Technology