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This issue’s cover features a twelfth century English miniature of Viking ships from a manuscript called The Life and Miracles of St. Edmund (Edmund was a ninth century King of East Anglia killed by Vikings). It illustrates ‘The Lure of the Vikings’ by Lionel Casson

 

It was not that that the Vikings were invincible in battle. Their favoured weapon, the battle-axe, had long been abandoned by less primitive nations, their swords were inferior to the Frankish swords (which Viking chieftains preferred to the local products), and they never got the hang of besieging a fortification. What made them so formidable were their superb ships and skilled seamanship. These gave them so total a command of the water that no force ever dared engage them there, and as a consequence they had unlimited mobility. They were able at will to make swift and sudden onslaughts and, if pressed, beat hasty and safe retreats.

Horizon caption – ‘Adding injury to insult, Vikings bind King Edmund, flog him, and drag him away. Later they used him as a target for archery practice and finally beheaded him. Ultimately he was raised to sainthood and his cult flourished at Bury St. Edmunds.’

 

The Danes and Norwegians, though active enough traders, preferred the pleasures of fighting and the quicker profits of plunder. The Swedes, on the other hand, were as much interested in trade as in fighting and found their best customers in the rich caliphate of Baghdad. As a result they were drawn deeper and deeper into Russia.

The Slavic population called the newcomers Rus – whence the name Russia. We think of Igor, Vladimir, Oleg, as typically Russian names. Not at all: Igor is a Slavic version of Ingmar, Vladimir of Valdemar, Oleg of Helge. As a matter of fact, many historians argue that it was Swedish Vikings who founded the first Russian state, although others, particularly Soviet historians, do not agree.

 

Casson extensively quotes a report of a full-scale Viking funeral by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, secretary of an embassy from the caliph of Baghdad to the Bulgars on the middle Volga , whose route took him through a community of Rus in 921.

Also in this issue:

In ‘The Rear Guard of the Avant-Garde’, part of the ‘Man of Ideas’ series, Roy McMullen describes French philosopher Roland Barthes:

Does pop culture make you morose? Have you stopped smiling at television commercials? Do you have the suspicion that we are all getting more and more phony? On the positive side, are you trendy enough to be fascinated by linguistics? If so, you qualify as a member of the growing public for the social and literary criticism of Roland Barthes.

 

 

…an écriture is for Barthes a manifestation of an ideology and to some extent a form of double talk. To adopt the écriture classique is to commit oneself, intentionally or not, to notions about common reason and the universal nature of man that reflect the bourgeois ideology that began rising to power in the late seventeenth century. To adopt the écriture of the traditional French novel, which is also that of straight historical narrative, is to commit oneself to notions of fate and causality that falsify, at least in the modern existentialist view, the reality of choice in human life. To adopt the Communist écriture is to…but there is no need to belabor the point. No écriture is innocent.

In ‘Waiting for the End’ Francis Russell writes about going to a poetry reading by the Sitwells at the Churchill Club in Dean’s Yard, Westminster during a V-1 attack in October 1944. Edith Sitwell was reciting Still Falls the Rain:

Now the roar had all but drowned out her voice. Air raid wardens on the roof had begun to blow their whistles. This meant a direct hit was imminent. People were getting down on the floor, trying to shield their heads with chairs. Edith kept on reading without the slightest change of voice or expression No one was listening to her. No one could.

The flying bomb must have all but skimmed the roof. Then the roar of its motor began to fade as it headed across the Thames. Some seconds later there was a dullish boom, all the windows rattled and several of them cracked. Edith read on until the end, immutable.

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man

Was once a child who among beasts has lain –

“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood for thee.”

Then, barely perceptibly, she winked at us.

In ‘Inflation’, part of his ‘In the Light of the Past’ Series, J.H. Plumb looks at the scourge that was rising again in the 1970s after the long post-war economic boom, and looks for historical parallels. In contrast to examples such as the post-World War I German hyperinflation,

…inflation can also be widespread and long-term – an intermittent fever that crests sharply from time to time but never dies away, lasting, perhaps, for a century.

It was this variety of the disease that afflicted Europe between 1540 and 1620, a variety more like our present circumstances than the dramatic inflationary spiral of Weimar Germany or the temporary, if sharp, inflation in France and England during the Napoleonic Wars.

Plumb notes that governments ‘attempt complex remedial measures that rarely have any effect except to intensify class bitterness on the one hand and distrust of government on the other.’

 

 

 

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