On 8 June, 793, the abbey of Lindisfarne, a beacon of learning and a bastion of Celtic spirituality, was brutally destroyed by a Viking incursion, thus marking the entrance of the Vikings onto the western stage. This event had profound shock waves that reverberate across time and have demonized the Vikings for centuries. The island of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island because of the saints who were fostered there -notably St Aidan and St Cuthbert- housed the monastery until 875, which rebuilt itself following the first attack but whose community finally left after waves of successive raids over the decades. Many lives were lost, buildings destroyed, and treasures plundered during those eighty odd years of barbarian molestation, but the Lindsfarne Gospels, one of the world’s great treasures, survived them all, a symbol of the tenacity of truth amid the worst trials. It was following the last onslaught in 875 that the dispirited monks finally upped and left, taking with them the body of St Cuthbert. The relics of the saint were not to find rest until the end of the following century, when they would not be moved from a spot on which a church was erected and this was the foundation of the city of Durham, site of my alma mater.
The ransacking of Lindisfarne was the beginnings of a campaign of expansion and colonialism that was to stretch over two centuries, yet what is absolutely astonishing about it is that the reasons for this aggressive Viking policy remain almost entirely mysterious. Some scholars have argued that it was because of the failure of Scandinavian agriculture, others have suggested that it was in response to the success of north-bound Christianization penetrating the southern parts of Scandinavia. If it was the latter, then there is a singular irony to be found in the fact that it was Christianity that was to neuter Viking expansionism in a definitive way; when the factions embraced Catholicism they had to renounce the practice of slavery while at the same time forge new alliances with their new co-religionists, both of which eliminated their modus operandi. While their attacks on monasteries such as Lindisfarne and Iona were for the purposes of pillaging precious items, the fact that the invaders had no real developed written system meant that it was their victims who were able to memorialize these events. The view in the photograph below was taken from my bedroom of the cottage my mother and I rented on the Isle of Iona last summer; she loved this island with all of her heart and was able to enjoy two weeks there not long before she passed. The sandy beach that is visible in the image is Martyrs’ Bay; in 806, sixty-eight monks were massacred on this stretch by Vikings after having fled the Abbey with relics, treasures, and, temporarily, their lives. Twelve centuries later, it is the violence of the Vikings that is remembered rather than any contribution to civilization.
The extent of Viking ventures is astonishing, as evidenced in the plan below. They made forays into and settled in four continents, including North America with a settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland, five centuries before Columbus’s trip. My own theory about Viking growth is that they quite simply were looking for two things: sunshine and respectability. The search for warmer climes is what similarly led the British to seek other places outside of their moist island. I’ve always been struck by northern Scandinavians’ absolute fetishization of the sun during summer. Everyone is outside no matter how hot it is, and it is unthinkable to retreat into welcoming air-conditioned interiors. It is impossible to think of Ingmar Bergman’s version of a road movie, the exuberant Wild Strawberries (1957), as taking place during any other season than summer (you never forget your first kiss or your first Bergman movie; this was the first film I saw by the director). Cold, merciless, and dark winter days explain this pining for solar light and warmth. I’ve already blogged on the Vikings’ quest for external acceptance in connection with the Norman in this post.
It is perhaps misleading to speak of any kind of Viking identity, since at no time did any of the Norse adventurers think of themselves as Vikings. The term derives from a Norse word, a feminine noun, denoting expedition overseas. The proper noun began to be applied to them during more recent times, and during a period of romanticizing this short era of Norse misrule particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, finding its pinnacle in the operas of Richard Wagner. Nazi ideology would take up this Wagnerian glorification of the Vikings and use it to justify its aggressive and expansionist underpinnings. A more realistic and fairer view of the Vikings, in the absence of their own literary voice, would be to feel some empathy towards their mass angst and identity crisis, a culture that was at a crossroads and whose form of invasive therapy has tainted it with a deeply negative brush. As I mentioned earlier, the destruction of the monastery that inaugurated their entry into history is a fitting one since the institution that they attacked would be the one to tame them. Mythology fuelled the Vikings and it would be destroyed without any mercy by the Church. At the same time, the attacks on the monasteries taught monks to be more resourceful, cunning, and tenacious than ever. It is generally recognized that Celtic monks preserved Western civilization after the fall of Rome and during the Dark Ages and the Vikings purified them for their greatest achievement in kick-starting the golden era of creativity during the Middle Ages.
Today’s cufflinks are made by the Finnish designer Jorma Laine. He worked with many metals but is most famous for, and perhaps most gifted in, bronze, the metal out of which these cufflinks are fashioned. They are undated but are typical of pieces that he was producing in the very early 1970s. Laine, who died in 2002, often used a ludic and nostalgic aspect to his work, paying homage to the Viking roots of his nation. The very virile yet non-threatening forms to be found in the brutalist design is gently warmed by the reassuring notes of the bronze base. The pattern is very reminiscent of Viking artifacts. To me, these cufflinks represent an acknowledgment of the past while not necessarily playing up its excesses, and in this Laine shows himself to be a master craftsman.