18.04.03, Peterson, Vikings and Goths

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Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 18.04.03

Peterson, Gary Dean. Vikings and Goths: A History of Ancient and Medieval Sweden. Jefferson:McFarland, 2016. pp. viii, 314. ISBN: 978-1-4766-6218-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Craig R. Davis
Smith College

"He left the name, at which the world grew pale, To point a moral, or adorn a tale." Samuel Johnson, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (1749), on Charles XII of Sweden

Scholarly readers may be a bit put off by the garish lettering of the title or the old iStock print, otherwise unidentified, of two Viking ships--their chieftains under winged helmets--about to clash on the front cover of this paperback. Yet its author, a retired American engineer, offers a substantial review with maps, charts and illustrations of what is known or surmised about early Sweden, not just during the Viking Age (ca. 790-1070 CE) or the earlier Völkerwanderungszeit (variously dated), when ancestral Goths, or some of them, supposedly left their homeland in Sweden for points south. Peterson picks up his story nine millennia earlier at the end of the last Ice Age with the purpose of answering a very specific question about much later Swedish history, a subject upon which he wrote in Warrior Kings of Sweden: The Rise of an Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (McFarland, 2007). The author's purpose in this "prequel" is to discover "how a relatively small nation (in terms of population), on the fringes of European geography, could evolve to become such an international power" in the early modern period (1). The author never answers this question directly, but discerns a pattern, that the inhabitants of Sweden had already displayed "aggressive outbursts" (2) of exploration and conquest before recurring once again to their traditional boundaries in kind of a systole and diastole of national expansion and contraction. His perspective on Swedish history, ancient or more recent, is rather old-fashioned in that Peterson unabashedly admires these moments of national militancy and seeks to justify, or at least explain, them by entertaining two tenuous propositions about the early inhabitants of Sweden: (1) that the Goths who occupied parts of the western Roman empire first came from that country, as described in a dynastic foundation legend promulgated at the court of Theoderic the Ostrogoth at Ravenna in the early sixth century CE and epitomized in the Getica of Jordanes in Constantinople ca. 550; and (2) that Swedes played a significant role in the Viking settlement of the North Atlantic islands, including England, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland, as well as in the Scandinavian conquest of parts of continental Europe and the Mediterranean. More persuasively, Peterson recapitulates the movement of Swedes to the east, in which process he suggests the nation established a memory of territorial reach that inspired the later imperial ambitions of their monarchs Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII. Charles is conspicuous by his absence from this volume, however, since the author chooses to end on the upswings of Swedish expansionism, celebrating its successes (unlike Samuel Johnson in the dismissive couplet quoted above) rather than its failures and retreats--the high-water marks of an "empire … that encompassed lands previously ruled by Goths and Vikings" (284).

Chapters 1-5 trace the post-glacial settlement of the Scandinavian peninsula in a sequence of prehistoric societies culminating in the Neolithic Funnel Beaker culture (ca. 4000-2500 BCE), which practiced cereal cultivation, animal husbandry and dairy farming in a climatic warming period that left a genetic footprint for adult lactose tolerance in the human population of the region. The language of these people was an incipient form of Finno-Ugrian, the author speculates, or an extinct "Old European" tongue. In the last centuries of this period (ca. 2900-2450 BCE), a Battle Axe culture spread westwards across Europe from the Pontic-Caspian steppes, featuring copper metallurgy, woolen textiles, corded ware pottery, domesticated horses, wheeled vehicles, alcohol consumption and single burials for males with a symbolic stone axe. Many features of this culture were adopted in southern Scandinavia without much evidence of immigration, but it is likely that features of Indo-European language and culture were introduced to the region during this period, disseminating along the coastal and riparian waterways of the southern Baltic and creating something like a Germanic-speaking lake during the Bronze Age (ca. 1700-500 BCE). Sweden lacks tin and its copper deposits had yet to be discovered, though many bronze implements and weapons of local manufacture have been found, since soapstone for molds was readily available. Water-borne commerce burgeoned during this period and a multitude of petroglyphs, many depicting boats of different sizes and purposes, though none with sails, illustrate the rising importance of trade and communication by water. There was also a movement from burials to cremations, many of the latter in burned funeral houses with remains deposited in stone ship settings, suggesting an ideology of fiery and/or nautical transport to the Otherworld, a mortuary symbolism that persisted in Sweden and regions under its influence throughout the Viking Age, as illustrated by an eye-witness account two millennia later of a Rus ship funeral on the Volga in 921 CE.

However, the archaeological record during the Pre-Roman Iron Age virtually disappears for almost 400 years until the first century BCE. Peterson explains this cultural and economic "depression" by three factors: (1) the decline of trade in tin and copper for bronze metallurgy, since Sweden had plenty of its own bog iron for the new technology, which nonetheless left few surviving traces in the ground; (2) a cooling of the climate, which limited agricultural production; and (3) the technological and military dominance of the Celtic-speaking peoples of central Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic islands, isolating Sweden from contact with the south.

Thus far Sweden has remained something of a backwater in Peterson's exposition, the recipient of cultural innovations, though not perhaps too many newcomers, from abroad. However, in turning to the Roman Iron Age in Sweden (ca. 1-400 CE), the author suddenly drops his systematic chronological narrative and leaps forward to end of this period to describe how Visigoths "defeated" the mighty Roman Empire and Ostrogoths built a new one (however temporary) of their own. These chapters are all premised on the as-yet-to-be-examined assumption that the Goths originally came from Sweden and retained their archaic ethnic cohesion through seventeen generations of migration and conquest over many hundreds of miles under the Amal clan. In Chapter 9 the author turns to the evidence for this Swedish origin of the Goths, a summary heavily dependent on the speculations of Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789)-- generously quoted--and of Herwig Wolfram in his History of the Goths (University of California Press, 1979) and The Roman Empire and Its Germanic People (University of California Press, 1997). Peterson is apparently unfamiliar with the more recent research and very active controversy over this "ethnogenesis theory" by Patrick Geary, Walter Goffart, Peter Heather, Michael Kulikowski and Walter Pohl, among others. He accepts the general authenticity of the Amal legend of the Goths, basing his confidence on later place-name evidence--Väster- and Östergötland in southern Sweden and the island of Gotland in the Baltic--as well as suggestive ethnonyms in various ancient authors writing of these northern regions. For instance, Peterson believes that the people whom the Roman historian Tacitus (98 CE) calls Suiones "might be the Swedes of Uppland," and that the neighboring Gotones, which Peterson spells Gothones, "could be the Goths to the south on the Scandinavian peninsula," although he admits that the Roman author's grasp of northern geography and its ethnic divisions is "confused" (74). Peterson acknowledges that the legend of a transmarine migration of Goths in three ships from "Scandza" under Berig as recounted by Jordanes must encapsulate a more complex movement of peoples not only from mainland Sweden, but from other parts of the southern Baltic, especially those associated with the Oksykwie, Wielbark and Przeworsk cultures of Pomerania and Poland, which sites have a better claim to an archaeological connection to the peoples later identified as Goths in the Ukraine, Crimea and Romania. Nonetheless, slipping from the subjunctive to declarative mood, Peterson concludes: "Though not proven as yet, the evidence strongly favors a Swedish origination for the Gothic nation, which eventually became the Visigoths and Ostrogoths of Roman and post-Roman history. This wave of people bursting onto the continental European scene was the first of three invasions launched by the peoples of Sweden. The other two were the Vikings and the Swedish military conquests of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" (77).

In chapter 10, "Sweden in the German Iron Age: Migration Period," Peterson returns to what is known or reported or afterwards sung of the Swedish people who stayed home from around 400 to 575 CE, suggesting a multiplicity of tribal groups in dynamic interaction on the peninsula, more generally divided into Svear to the north and Gautar to the south. He gives substantial credit to a tradition preserved by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson in his Ynglinga Saga (ca. 1225 CE) that a leader named Ingjald eventually united the Svear and Gautar "into a single nation, [....] though it is more likely that he united the Svear and annexed some Gaut lands" (89).

In chapter 11, Peterson sees the further unification of Sweden during the Vendel period (ca. 575-790 CE) as setting the stage for its later Viking expansion, noting the establishment of a trade and manufacturing emporium on the island of Helgö in Lake Mälaren along with advances in ship technology, like a stabilizing keel and introduction of the sail, both which would be necessary for more extended travel on the open seas. However, once again, Peterson leaps ahead, leaving Sweden behind and devoting the next ten chapters to other Scandinavian peoples--Norwegian Vikings in Ireland and western Britain; Danish Vikings in Anglo-Saxon England and Francia; a general excursus on Viking ships and navigation; the settlement of the North Atlantic islands and exploration of North America; the unification of Denmark and Norway; the maritime empire of Knut the Great; and the Norman conquests of England, Italy and Sicily--before returning to the question of Swedish participation these movements. The straws he grasps at are thin, but Peterson makes the most of them, estimating, for instance, that about 3% of the first settlers of Iceland may have had some association with Sweden, which would imply the presence of at least some people of Swedish ancestry among the Greenland colonists and first explorers of New World. He finds somewhat greater Swedish involvement in the settlement of the Danelaw in northeastern England and elsewhere, since he counts as Swedes an unknown number of crewmembers recruited from Skåne, despite the fact that this territory remained part of the Danish kingdom throughout most the Viking Age. However, since outside observers make no further mention of independent Gautar during this period, Peterson concludes that, internally, by the end of the ninth century Swedes had become "masters of the country" north of Skåne (169).

He next describes the life of ordinary Swedish people living on the land in somewhat idealized terms, asking "what incentive drove these farmers to leave their comfortable estates and farmsteads? Why would they trade a relatively secure home life for braving the icy seas and facing possible, even probable, death on a foreign shore or atop some hill surrounded by a strange people speaking an unknown tongue?" (188). Peterson rejects the explanation of poverty, overpopulation or landless second sons, since Sweden still had ample arable land, though yet to be wrested arduously from the forests to the north. His answer to this question comports with the theme of his analysis so far, that it is "the quest for glory and honor (ära)" that finally motivated Swedes to undertake their international ventures, "which could only be obtained by the sword. Dying in one's bed (the 'straw death') was considered a disgrace. The honorable death was to die in battle, thus making one eligible for a place in Valhalla" (189). If this was the Swedes' primary motive, their means was the new delivery system, "their magnificent dragon ships," which enabled them "to spread terror and trade to every corner of Europe and reach into the far crevices of Western Asia" (189). It is to this eastern reach of the Swedish people that Peterson now turns.

The author recounts what was later remembered of the Swedes' first expeditions to the east, the geography and peoples they found there, their establishment of the Rus Khaganate and general hegemony over a region known in Icelandic as Svíþjóð inn mikla "Greater Sweden" or "Sweden the Great." This account is heavily dependent on older scholarship--Gibbon again, but predominantly Gwyn Jones in A History of the Vikings (Oxford UP, 1984). Peterson examines evidence for the nature and extent of Swedish activity as preserved in inscriptions on the thousands of rune-stones erected in the country during the Viking Age, including thelast great expedition led by Ingvar the Far-Traveled, which ended in an unknown disaster, bringing the Viking Age in Sweden to an end.

The author devotes his last chapters to the complex history of relations between Sweden and its neighbors during the later Middle Ages, including Novgorod the Great, Lithuania and the rising power of Moscow. He also considers the impact of the Black Death and cult of St. Birgitta as a symbolic catalyst of Swedish national identity, concluding with the formation of the Kalmar Union of Denmark, Norway and Sweden under Queen Margareta, who was heir to "an empire that stretched from Lake Ladoga bordering Novgorod in the east to the west coast of Greenland" (283). This high point was undermined by her corrupt son Eric, leading to Danish dominance of the Kalmar Union in which both Sweden and Norway "were essentially occupied countries" (283), culminating in the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520. However, this event provoked a rebellion by Gustav Vasa, who as Gustav I would soon prove worthy of his Gothic and Viking ancestors, further extending the achievements of his nation's storied past.

This book represents the sincere and conscientious effort of an amateur historian. Thematically, it is almost a "period piece" in its reflexive patriotism, evincing an older view of national achievement and ethnic pride with which many contemporary Swedes might find themselves uncomfortable. The Gothic-speaking peoples of the southern Baltic shores cannot really be counted as "Swedes," who were more likely to be their tribal enemies to the north, even in Peterson's own account, even if such later ethnic extrapolations have any meaning at all. Nor can Swedes, simply as Scandinavians, be credited with the achievements of the other Norse-speaking peoples of the Viking Age, though their involvement in movements to the east seems clear. The author's approach is thus tendentious in spirit, but not necessarily so in practice. He draws distinctions at one point that he forgets, at least rhetorically, in another. There are smaller mistakes of detail and spelling as well, so that this book cannot be considered by itself a reliable and up-to-date scholarly resource. Yet its simple thesis offers a strong organizing principle, enabling a readable overview of the history of Sweden from which this reviewer learned many new things and was challenged to think harder about others.

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