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Friday, 31 October 2014

Ethically-engaged Early Medieval History-writing. Why it matters and how (not) to do it ... or 'They was asking for it!'

Every year I do a session on 'History and Ethics' with the students on our Public History MA course.  As you know, this is a topic that matters a lot to me, and about which I have blogged before (see posts with the label 'the unbearable weight' and/or 'ethics of history'). 

I like to open these discussions with these two passages written by a well-respected and prominent early medievalist.(1)

The first comes in the context of a passage trying to minimalise the extent or severity of Viking attacks on ecclesiastical persons and property.

In 860 the monastery of St-Bertin was attacked but the community had plenty of warning.  According to the author of a translatio written a generation later ... all the monks fled save four 'intent on martyrdom, save that God had to some extent decided otherwise'.  ... [The Vikings] had been 'hoping to capture some monks' - after subjecting three of the four who were 'older', thin and wasted' to 'painful acts of scorn and mockery' (such as pouring liquid into the nostrils of one of them until his belly was distended) [they] tried to take away the fourth, 'more succulent than the rest'.  The idea was surely to take this one for ransoming.  He was the only one to be killed.  He refused to go quietly, throwing himself to the ground and insisting that he wanted to die on the spot, where he might be buried 'in the cemetery of his ancestors, and his name be entered on the commemoration lists of his brother monks'.  Apparently out of sheer vexation at his obduracy, his captors began to beat him with their spear-butts', then pierced him with spear-points' ... and the cruel game got out of hand.  [I have added emphasis.]

The second comment is in the context of alleged Viking 'pillage, plunder and rape':

Among all the Annals of St-Bertin's references to Viking plunder and pillage, there is no mention of rape, and this is significant, given these Annals twice mention the episodes when the followers of Christian Carolingian kings committed rape, in one case the rape of nuns.  It hardly follows that Northmen never raped: it does seem that they were not notorious rapists. [Emphasis added.]

The second passage in particular tends to shock the students; the first less so (though I think it is every bit as bad).

I am not concerned with the 'Viking atrocity' debate, within which this is situated and about which I have written before.  What concerns me is the ethical implications of this piece.  It is one thing to say that the Vikings were no worse than anyone else (an argument with which I would agree), but this goes far beyond that and into an ethical relativisation of violence, torture and rape.  That, as you might imagine, I find objectionable, offensive and irresponsible.

Let's look more closely at the first paragraph.  Here, above all, the blame is shifted onto the victims.  The monks allegedly had 'plenty of warning', so they should have got away.  Silly old monks!  It was after all the four monks' own 'decision' to stay behind.  Wouldn't they learn?  Then we essentially have the torture (including waterboarding) of frail old men passed over without any comment, other than to quote the description in the contemporary source, which in this passage is in any case explicitly being 'read against', of 'painful acts of scorn and mockery'.  Finally we come to the monk whom the Viking wanted to take away. 'Surely', says the author, this was to ransom him.  Why 'surely'?  If this intention was attested in the source, the term 'surely' would not have been employed.  Why was the intention 'surely' to ransom him, rather than - say - to torture him to death for fun, to rape him (he was after all 'more succulent than the rest'), or anything else?  [Note that rape is only envisaged in this passage in heterosexual terms, although 'painful acts of scorn and mockery' is a broad category.]  And then maybe ransom him?  That interpretation is the modern historian's assumption and that seems to me to be unwarranted.  Why, we are authorised to ask, make that assumption?  Anyway, the monk refused to 'go quietly' and this excuses the Vikings (driven 'apparently by sheer vexation at his obduracy'; why 'apparently?'  Again this begs serious questions) for their act of pig-sticking him slowly to death.  Just to add the icing on the cake, this lengthy and painful murder is described merely as 'a cruel game'.  Boys will be boys, eh?  What can you do?

The second passage requires little by way of commentary.  There is, apparently, rape and then there is 'notorious rape'.  We might call this the 'Ken Clarke view' of history.  Whether the relative mention of rape by Christians and pagans might have other explanations within early medieval textual strategies is not considered.  Here, frequency of mention equals relative notoriety.  Frankly, I don't think much else needs to be said.

So - why does this passage vex me so much (other than the fact that is written by someone who, one would like to think, damn well ought to know better)?

For one thing it raises the issue, which I have discussed before, of the historical 'statute of limitations': how far back in the past do events have to be before it becomes acceptable to write about them like this?  Let's leave the obvious 'limit case' to one side for now.  Would it be considered acceptable to consider the Austrian troops rather brutally occupying Serbia during the Great War in this fashion, playing down torture and rape because allegedly no worse than what the Serbians did?  At what point does it become acceptable to go beyond the sometimes necessary but nevertheless pretty vapid 'well they were no worse than anyone else' argument(2) to actively playing down violence like this - actively introducing victim-blaming and assumptions about (*relatively*) benign intentions to the aggressors?  When?  Those Serbian civilians: they had plenty of chance to escape you know.  If they didn't flee, well that was their decision.  If they didn't want to 'go quietly' who, I ask you, among us, can blame the Austrian soldiers for shooting or bayoneting a few of them?  At least they weren't 'notorious rapists'.  Transposed to that context, the nature of the writing really becomes apparent.  Don't ninth-century people (and these were, I assume, real people - at least the author assumes so) deserve better?  Don't they deserve the same respect?

When the historicising of violence goes this far - as far as to attempt to excuse the perpetrators - what is the logical implication?  The logical implication is that, in certain contexts (so, why only historical?  why not geographical, social or cultural?) violence - here, murder, torture and rape - can be relativized.  Whenever we are thinking of the public role of history, or of the socially-committed historian (something that the author of this piece not infrequently strikes postures about) it seems to me that implying this sort of thing is the very last thing a historian ought to be doing.  To call this irresponsible would seem to be saying the very least, but I would go further.  I will say, unapologetically, that I find it disgusting.  Why, therefore, we are entitled to ask, is this kind of writing considered unremarkable and acceptable in a book about the ninth century when it would more than merely raise eyebrows if found in a book on the twentieth?
(1) You can, if you are interested, find the passages on pp.28-9 and p.47 of this book.  I have not named names directly because, although there is certainly no love lost between me and the author, the point of this blog-post is the general issue of attitude and acceptable methodology - that this sort of writing is seen as generally unobjectionable by the historical profession - not an ad hominem/feminam attack.

(2) My own Viking piece was about why, when the Vikings did the same as everyone else, they got a worse press for it and had demonstrably worse effects.


  1. Interesting article. In news reports we see violence done by certain segments of the world downplayed like this all the time. Usually it is by media outlets that are attempting to protect or champion those doing the violence and make them seem less bad and emphasize the points that they like about these groups to achieve and agenda (political or otherwise).

    In the cases of historians doing this, could we be seeing it occur for similar reasons because these writers are in effect "fan boys" of the particular culture or group that they are studying? (Sorry for the term "Fan boy" but I could not come up with anything better)

    Vikings and 18th century pirates are considered cool. After all, they have all the fun TV shows and movies. Are we seeing a splash over into historical research or do you think that it is an intellectual sloppiness on the part of the historians doing this?

    1. Good question. For my part I think it is a bit of both, but no more excusable.

  2. Ugh. The remarks you quote are in the tradition of Moriuht.
    I'll point my students to this if I may? Currently teaching a course on modern perceptions of the Vikings, and this would fit in very well with the seminar on film.

    1. Go ahead. I think students need to think about this sort if thing.

  3. Certainly, the author is relativizing the actions of the Vikings. However, IXth Century was a brutal world. Murder, rape and torture was expected by everyone from invaders, regardless their race, origin or religious believes. Why would Vikings behave differently? Perhaps, what I find most annoying from those quotes is that by downplaying the violence inherent to Viking raids the author is effectively de-historizing them.


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