No, supremacists, the Vikings wouldn’t have put up with “Teuton” Donald Trump

By Keith Ruiter | (The Conversation) | – –

It has been suggested that Donald Trump “may get his assertive rather than passive manner from his alleged Viking ancestors”. Or so says Russian genealogist Aleksey Nilogov, who has been finding some traction for his beliefs on nationalistic eastern European news sites such as the Estonian World Review. The Conversation

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Leaving aside the issue of genetic predispositions, as a scholar of Viking-Age Scandinavia, I take issue with this claim. The Vikings were a product of their time and – in that context – were a much less objectionable bunch than these suggestions imply. Delving into the Old Norse language helps us to better understand some of the ways that medieval Scandinavians might have viewed the overbearing and isolationist rhetoric dominating the international stage of late. In fact, just such an analysis suggests that Trump would probably not have had a great time navigating the political intrigue presented in the Icelandic Sagas.

Despite popular depictions of medieval Scandinavians as gruff, aggressive raiders, the sources from medieval Scandinavia reveal a complex society possessed of nuanced understandings of morality, law and honour.

An overbearing man

The key to understanding these concepts in their contemporary context lies in the language of the early Scandinavian sources that survive to us. Sometimes, a single word can unlock a cluster of semantic and conceptual understandings.

Take, for example, the Old Norse word ójafnaðarmaðr. Broken into its constituent parts, the word could be rendered in English as “un-even-person”. But in the contexts of Eyrbyggja saga, one of the Sagas of Icelanders focusing on a locality in the north-west of the island, it’s clear that the unevenness being described is a disregard for fairness, equality, justice and the rights of others. This has led scholars to render the word as “an overbearing man”. An ójafnaðarmaðr, such as Styrr Þórgrímsson in Eyrbyggja saga, is fundamentally a social bully of the type who uses force and cunning to better their own position at the expense of those around them, save for a small group of loyal supporters drawn to their ruthless approach and success.

This certainly sounds like Trump’s infamous tactics: from his Twitter tirades, to his promises to bully Mexico into paying for a border wall, even to his ludicrously alpha handshake. His myopic focus on building himself up and cutting others down, even his vision of “America first”, certainly bear the hallmarks of the conduct of an ójafnaðarmaðr.

The problem is that the ójafnaðarmaðr was not someone to emulate or even admire in early Icelandic society, but someone to bring to heel. In the harsh, isolated climes of medieval Iceland, mutual aid from community and kinship were relied upon to rise to the challenges of the day. With no respect for reciprocity or the honour and rights of others, the ójafnaðarmaðr was fundamentally destructive to the fabric of their society – and their antisocial tactics, described in the sagas, tended to cut them off from their communities.

This most often ended up leaving them with precious few friends or allies to help when they inevitably got in over their head. This is certainly the case with Styrr, who needed to marry his daughter, who he loved more than anything, off to an old rival to help him get out of trouble with two berserkers (fierce Norse warriors).

Don’t bark at your guests

The condemnation of tactics used by ójafnaðarmaðr characters is also mirrored in the Old Norse poem Hávamál, “Sayings of the High One” (Carolyne Larrington’s translation quoted below). These verses conclusively deride such things as being disrespectful, overly aggressive, and lack of social engagement, even to those you might distrust.

In fact, Hávamál contains rebuttals for several of Trump’s early executive actions. As just one example, consider stanza 135 in the context of Trump’s adamant support of a travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations. The poem warns: “Don’t bark at your guests or drive them from your gate, treat the indigent well!” This seems to stand in stark opposition to Trump’s closed-door vision on immigration.

In a medieval Scandinavian context, this bullying bravado and disregard for hospitality and reciprocity was inherently isolating on a social level. And it is in relation to isolationism and responsible engagement with wider society that Hávamál takes a very clear stance. Stanza 50 says it best:

The fir-tree withers that stands on the farmstead,
Neither bark nor needles protect it;
So it is with the man whom no one loves,
How should he live for long?

Clearly antisocial tendencies such as isolationism or bullying were recognised as wholly unsuitable in the societies of the medieval Scandinavian milieu. Active social engagement was incredibly important. In no place is this clearer than in the early laws of Scandinavia, where outlawry – legally imposed exclusion from the community – was considered one of the gravest punishments a criminal could endure.

As the world continues to shrink thanks to modern technology, these old points of wisdom are worth revisiting in the global village of today to remind us of the importance of mutual respect, collaboration, conciliation and strong social bonds with all those around us.

One thing is clear. Any “Viking” ancestor that might be responsible for Trump’s personality would likely not have done that well in his own time.

Keith Ruiter, PhD Candidate in Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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8 Responses

  1. This is a great and scholarly piece — and it has a noble purpose, in its effort to refute a spectacularly stupid attempt to haul vikings into the characterisation of Trump as a fitting rival to Putin. But there’s a problem: the entire piece is really about Icelandic society in the thirteenth century. None of this really describes vikings and their habits, and indeed we know just enough about some of the real vikings of the eighth to eleventh centuries to know that some thoroughly unpleasant, aggressive, dominant figures did very nicely for themselves. To believe they would have been marginalised — on the basis of tales about Icelandic culture form several hundred years later — is simply to ignore the testimony of history.

    • Hey Jonathan,

      Thanks for your feedback. You raise a good point, the sagas are indeed sources from the thirteenth century that do reflect life as it was, yet set in a more distant past. However, anthropologists (such as Kirsten Hastrup), legal scholars (such as William Ian Miller), and historians (such as Sverre Bagge) have continually highlighted the intensely conservative nature of these normative concepts (law, honour, morality, etc.). The picture that arises from contemporary evidence is actually quite clear that these normative forces were vitally important in the Viking Age as well as in the thirteenth century, it’s just that they shifted to be viewed through a Christian lens.

      A few of the comments below pick up on the fact that it’s actually very difficult to have an organised society, especially in a particularly harsh and unforgiving environment) if that society has no concept of or respect for normative forces, and the Viking Age is no exception. The incredible shows of ritualization which are routinely found in Archaeology (consider assembly sites and cult-centre such as Uppåkra and Gamla Uppsala) demonstrate a keen interest in formal displays that cement relationships, not glorify egoist individual action.

      That having been said, absolutely, there were some deeply unpleasant people (by both modern and contemporaneous normative understandings) operating in the Viking Age (and the thirteenth century too for that matter, consider Sturlunga saga), and some of them did in fact manage to seize substantial power through some pretty aggressive means. However, in order to maintain their new position, they inevitably had to fall back on social protocols like reconciliation and reciprocity. This is clearly demonstrated in the earliest provincial laws of Norway and Sweden and we see it in contemporary accounts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the case of Cnut the Great seizing power in England. When he seizes the throne (by way of invasion) he goes on to promote key members of the Anglo-Saxon elite (even taking Archbishop Wulfstan II of York as one of his closest advisors) and produce some of the most prolific and tolerant legislation in the whole of the Anglo-Saxon legal corpus. Most telling is the fact that his laws actually intentionally reference the older laws of Edgar which were seen as representative of a legal ‘golden age’ which managed to balance Scandinavian legal traditions and English legal traditions, respecting both as mutually valid. This is also touched on below in Dennis’ comment. Aggressive and ambitious pursuits led many people in the Viking Age to all sorts of places, it was indeed a key aspect of the times in which these people lived, but inevitably pragmatism and compromise allowed those achievements to be sustained and that remains as true today as ever. The ‘testimony of history’ is too often over-simplified and spat out as caricatures of the past when, in reality, people have always been complex with heavily nuanced understandings of how to navigate their times. That’s the spirit of the article.

      I’m glad you liked it,

      Keith

      • I really did like your piece a lot — and appreciate your very thoughtful response! I’ve leaned heavily on the anthropological turn in West Norse studies in the past (partly because my own teachers were often so negative about the use of these sources), but have grown more suspicious of the position in my jaded and tetchy old age. It’s not every day one encounters a comment on current affairs steeped in Old Norse learning, and I hope there’ll be more from you. We’ll have to agree to disagree about the probable uniformity and continuity of social conventions, expectations and terminology over wide spaces, stretched chronologies, and contrasting spheres of activity — and about the amiability of Cnut the Gt. — but I look forward to encountering your further ruminations.

        • Hey Jonathan,

          Thanks for your reply and your kind words. I’m glad we could chat here and hope to contribute more in the future. I’m of course happy to agree to disagree on the matter of social conventions. This is actually an aspect of my current doctoral research, so perhaps we can revisit in further detail another time (like when the thing is finally done and dusted hahaha). As for Cnut, perhaps amiability is a step too far, but there’s actually a fantastic book by Tim Bolton, ‘The Empire of Cnut the Great: Conquest and Consolidation of Power in Northern Europe in the Early Eleventh Century’ (link to books.google.co.uk), which uses some great scholarship to help demonstrate the clever ways that Cnut used things like reconciliation and reciprocity to navigate the political and social intrigue of his time. Unfortunately, being published by Brill, the book is pretty pricey, however it should be pretty easily accessed through any large-ish library. It’s a really intriguing read if you’re interested. Thanks again for your comments.

          K.

  2. Oh I love this comment!!!! Though I am a mere sometime-reader of Scandinavian history, I know that you captured the salient features regarding how they would have viewed Trump. And how delightful to have someone write about Scandinavia on these pages! I might add that hospitality and reciprocity were key factors in many older cultures around the world, including here in the Peruvian Andes where I live.

  3. Wonderful piece. This is something I feel strongly about. My great grandfather was from Denmark. His family goes back much further in that country and Sweden, Norway, and Frisia. While they may not been Viking, per se, the idea is the same. Vikings blended seamlessly and easily with others. Some converted to Islam and lived amongst those that treated them as guests throughout Byzantium and the middle east. Racist isolationists would have never been so easily moved by the cultures of others. I attribute much of this to their religion. Each cultures gods were simply a part of a great universe. Their gods did not meddle in the affairs of humans and expected nothing but ones personal best in all endeavors. They accepted all, and treated all the same.

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