The Way of the Warrior
Vikings are here again, thanks to the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend (until 22 June). The problem for the exhibition’s organisers – and for Philip Parker, whose book The Northmen’s Fury seems designed to tie in with it – is that we know too much about Vikings already. We know what they looked like: big, hairy, threatening, wearing horned helmets as like as not. We know what they did: rape and pillage. Along with the Crusaders, King Arthur and Robin Hood, they form a major part of our medieval imaginary.
Vol. 36 No. 10 · 22 May 2014
The Old Norse sirklanti may not denote Saracenland, as Tom Shippey has it, so much as the Slavonic-speaking lands with which Vikings were very familiar (LRB, 3 April). Evidence for this is the Russian word for forty, which is completely anomalous in the Russian numeral system. The word is sorok, which is the East Slavonic variant of sork/serk and, as one of my former students pointed out to me, almost certainly denotes the number of small furry animal skins demanded as tribute by the Vikings as they travelled along the Russian river system on their way to and from the Black Sea. Forty is probably the most convenient size of bundle that could be handled. Serk/sark survives in Scots with the meaning ‘shirt’ and this could originally have been a garment made from that quantity of skins.
Shippey also mentions ‘superior small-unit cohesion’. Philological evidence for this may be the term which has come into English as ‘Varangian’, the Russian varyag (the ‘ya’ denotes a lost nasal sound) from Old Swedish varingr, which Russian etymological dictionaries define as ‘men who have taken a vow’ (var in Old Swedish). The English name Waring must be of the same origin. It is highly likely that the vow was to do with crew solidarity and security of passage out and back. The necessary boat-portages would have been very difficult without a certain number of crew.
My third comment concerns the alarm of classical authors (mentioned by Shippey) at the Vikings’ wasteful habit of taking neither booty nor slaves. Certainly by the time of the legendary ‘calling of the Rus’ (862?) described in the Russian Primary Chronicle, a major concern of the Norsemen in Serkland was the taking of slaves, mostly females, to be traded. In Germanic and Romance languages the term ‘slave’ is derived from a version of slav. The Slavonic languages, naturally, have entirely different words for ‘slave’ based on the word for ‘work’ (rabota) and similar terms.
Vol. 36 No. 11 · 5 June 2014
Andrew Jameson refers to ‘Slavonic’ variants of sork/serk (Letters, 22 May). ‘Slavonic’ refers to Slavonia, the eastern province of Croatia: it is a term with a precise and exclusive meaning. All the rest is ‘Slavic’.
Vol. 36 No. 12 · 19 June 2014
Branko Weiss asserts that the word ‘Slavonic’ is ‘a term with a precise and exclusive meaning’ – that is, as an adjective for things of or pertaining to the region of Croatia known in English as Slavonia (Letters, 5 June). That is incorrect: the word is an accepted synonym (if perhaps a slightly old-fashioned one) for ‘Slavic’. If Weiss were correct, it would make little sense for Cambridge’s Department of Slavonic Studies to boast of its ‘teaching in Russian and Ukrainian’, or for the Bodleian’s Slavonic and Modern Greek Library to have acquired a collection of books in Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Russian etc.