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Reviewed by:
  • Vikingernes Syn påx Militær og Samfund, belyst genem skjaldenes fyrstedigtning
  • William Sayers
Rikke Malmros . Vikingernes Syn påx Militær og Samfund, belyst genem skjaldenes fyrstedigtning. Aarhus: Universitetsforlag, 2010. Pp. 384. ISBN 9788779344976.

This volume comprises six essays in Danish, all published earlier between 1985 and 2009, with brief English summaries. Its principal historical subject is medieval Norwegian and Danish ship levies (Old Norse leiðangr) and its principal methodological question the reliability of skaldic poetry as a source for information on ships and naval warfare. The book is to a very great extent Malmros's one-sided dialogue with the Danish historian Niels Lund on the reliability of sources and on the conclusions that may be surely drawn.

The first essay, "Den danske ledingsforsknings historie" (Danish research in the early medieval leiðangr; the reviewer will have more to say of the translations below), provides an overview of Danish scholarship from 1756 to the present on the relative roles of kings, jarlar (magnates or the proto-aristocracy), and commoners in naval construction, the recruiting of masters and crews, and the assembly and deployment of fleets. Nationalist fervor informs all these early studies: ideals of a constitutional monarchy and democratic society flattered notions that the war fleets were a simple patriotic emanation of the will of the Danish people in support of the monarchy's foreign policy. Malmros's position, adumbrated here and developed in greater detail in the remaining essays, is that the medieval ship levy was an institution administered by the king through magnates supportive of the throne and that ships were manned by their men-at-arms and tenant [End Page 272] farmers. In this view, the author seems more swayed by recent reading in anthropological theory on the limited economic production of acephalous societies and by faith in the historical accuracy of a highly conventionalized poetic form than by conventional historical evidence for levies.

The second essay in the collection is the longest but also the earliest (1985), its datedness being a drawback of which the author is aware as reflected in a reference to a more recent study in English from 2002 (noted only in the English summary). After introductory observations on ship levies and skaldic poetry, the essay proper follows under the title "Leding og Skjaldekvad: Det elvte åxrhundredes nordiske krigsflåxder, deres teknologi or organisation og deres placering i samfundet, belyst gennem den samtidige fyrstedigtning" (Leiðangr and Skaldic Poetry: Eleventh-century Scandinavian military fleets, their technology, organization, and social significance, as analysed through contemporary court poetry). The basic perspective of the essay is that the oral skaldic poetry of the tenth to twelfth centuries that is recorded in the sagas of the Icelanders from the thirteenth century reflects a different naval architecture, sea-faring, and military deployment than those of the surrounding prose host texts as well as the sagas of the Norwegian kings and the Icelandic contemporary sagas (as conventionally designated). The former technology is that best known from the Bayeux tapestry, recovered wrecks, modern experimental replicas and also as reflected in Scandinavian law texts, Anglo-Saxon, Russian, and Byzantine sources: slim, light, flexible, fast craft with little freeboard, up to seventy oarsmen but averaging forty, and a single square sail. These speedy warships are most often called skeið and are seen in squadrons with the king's ship at the apex of a shallow wedge. In contrast, the later technology is reflected in the great ships such as the Long Serpent that are heirs to the cargo vessels of an earlier age: three to eight men per oar, a high freeboard, castles at stem and stern, and atop the mast. In this latter case, the author performs a useful service in gathering the dispersed descriptive comments.

Malmros holds that the complex metrics of skaldic poetry assure that a preserved poem that still satisfies such demanding criteria offers an accurate reflection of the ships with which the tenth- to twelfth-century poets were familiar. The praise of the skalds extends to the ship levy, which is portrayed as led by the Norwegian king and serving as a hedge-like defense for the country. Society as a whole...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2163-8195
Print ISSN
0036-5637
Pages
pp. 272-276
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-11
Open Access
No
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