Vikings in Constantinople – Globalisation Then and Now

Globalisation is an interesting business, with positive and negative effects on all aspects of life in our contemporary world. Most of us tend to think of it as a modern phenomenon, when, in fact, the process has been going on since time immemorial. Polynesian migrants, originating in Asia, traversed thousands of kilometres of trackless Pacific Ocean, eventually finding their way to New Zealand, perhaps the last significant land mass in the world to be populated.
The territory currently occupied by modern Turkey, on the other hand, has long been at the focal point of mass migrations of humanity. Not everyone is aware, however, that Vikings, those widely wandering wayfarers, found their way down the navigable rivers of Eastern Europe to the Black Sea and the largest city of the Medieval world, establishing a presence there a thousand years before their modern descendents from Northern Europe flocked to the beach resorts of Mediterranean Turkey. I’ve always had a penchant for historical fiction. As a kid, one of my favourite writers was Henry Treece, whose ‘Viking’ Trilogy included a novel entitled ‘The Road to Miklagard’. Check it out! Not only did those hairy guys with the horned helmets discover America centuries before Christopher Columbus, they also had several goes at conquering Constantinople from the Byzantine Greeks, and if you can believe some sources, actually founded Russia in their spare time.
Longship in Viking Museum,
Ribe, Denmark
Like Turks, Vikings have tended to get a bad press over the years. Raping and pillaging seem to have been standard male activities for most of recorded history, so it is perhaps a little unfair to single out Vikings (and Turks) for special mention. On the plus side of the ledger, the Vikings had a pretty significant influence on much of Europe from the 8th to the 11th century, to the extent that that period of European history is often referred to as ‘The Viking Age’.  Certainly they propelled those distinctive dragon-prowed long-ships to some quite surprising places. Advanced shipbuilding techniques such as the development of the keel, and clinker-built construction, in conjunction with sophisticated systems of navigation, enabled them to travel regularly to Iceland, Greenland and the east coast of North America.
For sure, the Viking reputation for violent invasion of other people’s territory is not undeserved. They actually managed to lay siege to Paris for a whole year in the late 9th century – eventually having to be bought off by a couple of French Kings, remembered by historians as Charles the Fat and Charles the Simple. You can’t help wondering who would have given kings such unflattering epithets – their own disgruntled subjects? Or perhaps a gang of triumphant Vikings at a drunken after-battle celebration. Anyway, as a result, a significant chunk of north-western France became known as Normandy (land of the Northmen) whose inhabitants famously conquered the English in 1066, and may be said to have exerted a civilising influence on the local Anglo-Saxons. Certainly their monumental Romanesque architecture, and their idiosyncratic dialect of French left lasting impressions on English cathedrals and the language of English law.
Well, Leif Ericson’s achievement in crossing the Atlantic and setting foot in North America is no longer controversial. Some modern Americans apparently go so far as to commemorate his feat on 9 October each year. Modern Russians, however, are understandably reluctant to accept that the origin of their very name is Scandinavian; still less that they owe the foundation of their nation to the Vikings. Nevertheless, there exists a persuasive argument . . . 
The name ‘Rus’ referred originally to Swedish Vikings who, in the 8th and 9th centuries, found their way to Eastern Europe and what is now northern Russia. Needless to say, their practice of exacting tribute did not always endear them to the locals. Nevertheless, it seems that indigenous Slavic and Finnish tribes, unable to agree amongst themselves, actually invited a certain Viking lord by the name of Rurik, to come and rule them – this around the end of the 9th century. The result, according to some historians, was the establishment of a proto-state, Kievan Rus, which eventually evolved into modern Russia. Slavic historians, on the contrary, are not keen on this theory; and they have, on their side, an absence of signs of lasting linguistic or cultural influence remaining from the Scandinavian presence.
I have no intention of entering into the controversy, for the reasons that I’m not a historian and I don’t particularly care either way. However, it does seem to me that, from what we know of Vikings, they were not especially interested in, or temperamentally suited to, putting down roots and investing the kind of long-term energy required to enforce their language and culture on local peoples. Some small linguistic peculiarities do survive in modern English, from the time when Viking invaders made their presence felt on England’s eastern coast – but on the whole it seems that the Viking way was to move on to greener and more immediately profitable pastures. Those who remained behind tended to be assimilated into the local culture. We have already noted the Norman adoption of the French language – and it seems the Vikings who settled in what is now Russia, also adopted Slavic customs and language.
But getting back to Henry Treece, and the point of this post – the Vikings apparently referred collectively to the towns and forts they established in what is now northern Russia as Gardariki. From there, the more adventurous among them found their way down the Volga and Dnieper River systems to the Caspian and Black Seas, where they inevitably came into contact with the top dogs in that part of the world, the Byzantine Greeks. Undeterred by the size and reputation of the Byzantine Empire, the upstart Scandinavians apparently launched several attacks on the great city of Constantinople (which they called Miklagard) in the 9th and 10th centuries.
These attacks were unsuccessful, of course, but they did have the result of obliging the Byzantine Greeks to develop a healthy respect for these blond berserkers from the frozen north. It was around this time that the rising power of the Muslim Arabs to the south was beginning to pose a more serious threat to the Empire. With admirable pragmatism, the Emperor Theophilus began the tradition of employing Viking hatchet men in defence of his realm. Thus was founded the so-called Varangian Guard, which, in later years became the personal bodyguard of the Emperor Basil II and his successors. Evidently there was considerable too-ing and fro-ing between Scandinavia and Asia Minor, with Viking mercenaries sending at least some of their earnings home, before heading back to retire in comfort. It is said that this occupation was so enticing to young warriors that the King of Sweden felt obliged to pass a law preventing his subjects from inheriting property while working for the ‘Greek’ Emperors.
Once again, not much evidence has survived of the presence of these Norsemen in the Near East. There is, however, an interesting item of graffiti in the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, now the Aya Sofia Museum in Istanbul. Carved into the marble balustrade of one of the galleries is a runic inscription (dated to some time in the 11th century) recording the presence of a certain Halfdan – who, one assumes, was finding the ceremonial rites of the Orthodox Church a little tiresome. At the other end of the journey, two runestones, also dating from the 11th century, have been found at Risbyle in Sweden. The stones bear inscriptions to the memory of Ulfr of Skolhamarr, and one of them, it seems, includes an Eastern Cross, common in the Byzantine Empire at the time. To commemorate the international connection, the local Swedish municipality has apparently included such a cross in its official coat-of-arms.
As a final twist to this story, it seems that the Varangian Guard began to lose its Viking character in the 11th century. Around this time, the ranks of the Imperial bodyguard began increasingly to be filled by Anglo-Saxon warriors from England. Interestingly, however, the Vikings were also, albeit obliquely, responsible for this trend. Apparently the depredations of Vikings in England, and later, the conquest of the country by their kinsmen the Normans, led to considerable dispossession, redundancy and unemployment of the native English warrior class – many of whom, it is said, took their services elsewhere, namely, to the court of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople.
Now, if you are a follower of this blog, you will be aware that one of my major themes is the inter-connectedness of historical events. I have written elsewhere about the Crusades, and my feeling that Papal motives went beyond the normally stated objective of reclaiming the Holy Lands from the heathen Turks. As I was writing the above, it crossed my mind that there, in the 11th century, you had significant numbers of middle and upper-middle class guys from England and other parts of western Europe getting a glimpse of the wealth of Eastern civilisation, and returning to tell tales of its splendour to the folks back home. So, when Pope Urban II made his famous call, in 1095, to Western Christendom to unite in arms and make the 3000 kilometre journey to liberate the Holy Places, there may well have been thoughts of material as much as spiritual gain in the minds of those noble knights and true. Such thoughts could conceivably have added persuasive force to the Holy Father’s arguments.
Well, the more things change, the more they remain the same, as the French say. The US government is currently working towards a withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, as Britain also seeks to cut back its military presence abroad. You might wonder, then, why so many Americans and other foreign nationals would opt voluntarily to go to Iraq and engage in the kind of activities that normally only trained soldiers would carry out. The reasons, of course, are money and adventure. In August 2010 it was estimated that there were in excess of 11,000 ‘private security contractors’ (read ‘mercenaries’) in Iraq – and analysts expect that number to rise significantly as US military withdrawal continues.
So, the Vikings went to Miklagard, the Crusaders to Jerusalem (and Constantinople), and Americans will, no doubt, continue going to Iraq. The processes of globalisation, and its handmaiden, privatisation, are timeless and irresistible. But let’s not kid ourselves that they spring from altruism and benevolence towards anyone’s fellow human beings.
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