We often view the Vikings from the perspective of their victims as blood curdling, robbing, raping murderers. The terror from the North which, according to some, was a divinely ordained punishment for the corruption and moral laxity of Christendom. But what if we tried to understand the Vikings from their own point of view?
Alex (A) interviews Eleanor Barraclough (EB), Associate Professor of Medieval History and Literature at Durham University, on how she was first drawn to studying the Viking Age (traditionally c. 793 to c. 1066) and the many adventures this has led her to pursue since.
A: What drew you to studying the Vikings?
EB: Like most of the best things that have happened to me in my life, it was pretty random – a combination of happy serendipity and existential angst. I started off studying English at university but quickly realised that Wordsworth and The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy weren’t for me. So I swapped to a rather unusual degree called ‘Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic’, or ASNC.
I think I was initially attracted to the Anglo-Saxon side of things (it helped that our Old English lecturer was cute), but when I realised how far the Norse part of the degree could take me—quite literally—I was hooked. I spent the first summer holiday out in Iceland learning Modern Icelandic and exploring the extraordinary landscape, and since then I’ve taken every opportunity to travel as widely as I can for my research.
A: Whilst at Cambridge, as part of your PhD, you worked on the relationship between the Icelandic sagas and the geographical context of these stories. How much do you think we can use the landscape to understand the sagas?
EB: For me, understanding the physical landscape in which the saga stories were played out (historically, imaginatively, and often both) is a crucial part of understanding the sagas themselves, as well as the people who created them.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. I’ve got a friend and colleague, Emily Lethbridge, who travelled around Iceland in an old ambulance (or ‘Embulance’, haha) reading the sagas in their settings as she went. It’s a totally different experience to reading the sagas in a library – you almost feel like the events are unfolding again, like you’re bringing the characters back to life. Natural surroundings aren’t a passive backdrop to life, they’re an intrinsic part of how humans relate to the world, their place within it and their past. And landscapes have multiple layers – layers of history, of meaning, of memories, of superstitions, of knowledge.
That’s why I keep a place name dictionary in my car, for long journeys. As you drive across the country you can look up the meanings of odd sounding place names and discover the names of people who lived there hundreds of years ago, start to understand how people from centuries long past would have made sense of the physical world they were living in.
A: After studying at university, you briefly worked in advertising. What drew you back to the world of Eric Bloodaxe and Harald Hardrada?
EB: It was actually a pretty tough call – advertising was an exciting gig! I remember getting two job offers within a couple of days of each other. One was a permanent contract running an account for the advertising company. The other was a postdoc fellowship at Oxford – postdocs are only temporary positions, so it was a big risk since jobs in my academic field are pretty scarce.
I hid behind a bush on the posh balcony of the advertising agency, looking out over Harrods, speaking to my friend on the phone and agonising over which job to take. By the end of the phone conversation it was pretty clear that I was going to take the postdoc in Oxford, but I decided at that point to try take the skills I’d learnt in advertising into academia. I’ll always be grateful to the advertising agency. They were amazingly supportive, and even told me there would be a job waiting for me if I changed my mind.
A: In pursuit of the Norse you’ve travelled as far west as Greenland and as far east as Istanbul. What has been your most exciting, and perhaps, dangerous journey?
EB: There are so many exciting journeys to choose from! Riding round the fjords of southern Greenland on an Icelandic horse was occasionally a bit hairy, because the horse was typically stubborn and had ideas of its own about where it wanted to go. I remember at one point it tried to jump up an almost-vertical rock face, and then slid back down, comedy-style, with me clinging onto its back. I didn’t even have time to swear, I think I just shouted something very British like ‘oh golly’. Afterwards I thought how embarrassing it would have been if those had been my last words before the horse landed on top of me and squashed me flat.
Sometimes other people come along for the adventure, and often the dangerous things happen to them for some reason. My mum managed to break bones on the two occasions she came out to visit me in Iceland. It took years for her to persuade my dad that she wouldn’t break anything else on my watch, so she came with me to Arctic Norway. About a week in she tripped over a rogue stone and fell flat on her face. She was fine, but as she went down I thought, ‘oh no, if she breaks something else she’ll never be allowed to visit me again!’
A: Whilst travelling have you seen any the creatures which lurk in the corners of the sagas and haunt the nightmares of the Vikings?
EB: Sometimes when you’re in wild spaces and the sun is going down, your mind can definitely start to play tricks. Rocky outcrops can look like petrified trolls and scrubby forests can throw up some very strange shadows. No wonder there are so many folktales associated with the hidden creatures of the north…
A: Do you have any advice for budding history students?
EB: Enjoy it! Use it as a way to suck the marrow out of life, whatever form that takes for you. For me it’s about storytelling, about travelling to the weird and wild corners of the world, about meeting individuals from all walks of life, about making connections with other people—past and present—and celebrating our shared humanity. And, as far as possible, it’s about having a bloody good time while you’re doing it.
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