Tuesday, February 24, 2015

From the fury of the Northman, O Lord, deliver us.

Although this exact phrase never appears in any surviving written document, the monks living the British Isles in the eight and ninth centuries likely prayed using similar words. The first Northmen (Norsemen) were searching for plunder, and the monasteries along the coasts of England and Ireland made ideal targets. Not only were these settlements poorly defended, but they possessed great wealth.

Christian artifacts made the ideal booty for these dark age pirates. Items such as crosiers (a staff), psalters (a prayer book), chalices and reliquaries (a cask for holy relics) were not only portable but “liquid”. The gold and silver of these objects could be melted down and reused in brooches or other jewelry, or they could simply be re-fashioned, like the reliquary that became a Norsewoman’s jewelry box. Sometimes the pieces were simply chopped up to become “hacksilver”, the currency of the time period.

The Norse raiders not only stole these precious sacred objects, they also dealt with the monks in brutal fashion, slaughtering them, throwing them into the sea to drown or taking them prisoners to face a life of slavery.

The written record of these raids accounts for much of the fearsome reputation of “Vikings” handed down to us today. A tenth century poet describes one Norse raider: "Blond was his hair, and bright his cheeks. Grim as a snake's were his glowing eyes."

But for all the brutality of these early raiders, they did not have much impact on history. It was the later waves of Norsemen who truly reshaped Europe. They weren’t seeking plunder and loot, but looking for places to settle and farm. As their homeland grew crowded, younger landless sons sought their fortunes across the seas.

As much as they were savage pirates and land-hungry farmers, the Norse were traders. That was really how they came to control a far-flung empire stretching from Ireland, England and Scotland to Russia and Constantinople. They traded ivory and furs from the far north for amber and gold from the Baltic. Wool, wheat and hides from the British Isles for wine and pottery from the Mediterranean. And slaves from almost everywhere.

Perhaps because they were traders, the Vikings didn’t seek to impose their culture on the territories they conquered. Instead, they tended to absorb the culture of the people they subdued. After centuries of despoiling Christian settlements, they become Christian themselves. Out of the priceless artifacts they stole, they developed their own artistic style, with fierce mythical animals and elaborate interlaced lines. It was similar to Celtic knotwork, but less symmetrical and static, as befitting their restless lifestyle. They used it on ships and buildings, carved into wood, rather than on stone or metal artifacts.  

When they settled on the coast of what is modern France, they eventually ended up speaking French and adopting the feudal system. Living in a realm where “land was power” only fueled their rapacious lust for more territory. It was a man of Norse descent named William who would lead his countrymen across the sea to seize control of England in what is now known as the Norman conquest.

From a distance, it is easy to admire and idealize the Vikings. We remember the “blond hair” and “bright cheeks” and forget the “grim eyes”. For a romance writer, these fair-haired giants make the ultimate alpha hero. My first Viking book, Storm Maiden, features a Norseman who is captured during a raid on Ireland. He is tall and fair, bold and fiery. But as the book progresses, we find that despite his ferocious exterior, he can be kindhearted and compassionate. And his real gifts are as a trader, rather than as a warrior.

The hero of Storm Maiden is based on my husband. In many ways he’s the quintessential Irishman. But there is something about his fine, narrow nose and deep-set eyes that seemed Norse to me. And so I wrote this poem about him, which became the preface to Storm Maiden:

He says he’s Irish
But I look into those eye
Blue as the North Sea
And know he’s an immigrant like all the rest.

I see him
A few centuries ago
Riding his bird boat
Seaspray halo
Gold-red hair glinting with the sunset
His bones are as white and strong
As the seafoam
His smile a bright, fierce
Sea monster of passion.

He’s come to plunder my heart
Ravage my soul
Take me away to sleep
In the Northlands
Where the gods still thunder
And we can dream in endless twilight.
Storm Maiden is on sale for 99 cents through March 8!