The ‘Other’ Paradox: Scandinavian Interaction with Slavs in the 10th – 13th centuries.

Natalia Radziwillowicz

Scandinavian Interaction with Slavs in the 10th – 13th centuries.

To write about and discuss the connections between these two groups, it is firstly important to make clear what is meant by certain terms. The word ‘Viking’ sees a lot of usage, particularly in the wake of popular TV shows such as the History Channel’s Vikings. The modern use of the word tends to stir up certain visual connotations – bearded, rugged yet handsome, entrepreneurial, violent – and somehow that visual is true for the word ‘Viking’ as both an adjective or the noun. There’s almost a sense that the Viking era was fictional, perhaps due to the success of stories influenced by it- from Tolkien to Assassin’s Creed and beyond. The ‘Viking Age’ is generally accepted to have lasted from the 8th through to the end of the 11th century, but where people are concerned, I will be referring to them as either Danes or Scandinavians. The other terms which need to be addressed are the names ‘Slav’ and ‘Wend’. The Slavic people occupy a large part of central and eastern Europe, but historically there have been different groups within this broad term, one of which were the Wends. It is believed that the Wends occupied the land between the Elbe and Oder rivers in particular, but different medieval authors were not always clear in their phrasing or understanding, and sometimes used the names Wend and Slav interchangeably. Nevertheless, it is fair to state that while all Wends are Slavs, not all Slavs are Wends. Both groups have a history of being identified as 'Other' by European, Latin sources, but as the Viking-Age came to a close, Scandinavians came to inhabit a new space within the world; Scandinavians were able to be considered distinctly separate from Europe, while fostering alliances and navigating successfully in European political and religious spaces. The Slavic population on the southern Baltic coast, who were also known for their sea-faring abilities, had had contact and communication with Scandinavians well before the 10th century, yet while their Scandinavian neighbours adopted Christianity, they still adhered to their pagan way of life. This had a wide-spread impact on the types of communication between the two groups, and on the way much of Europe viewed them. Whereas Scandinavian Viking Age history was re-framed as a history of courage, strength and prowess, the similar engagement in piracy by Slavs was decried as scheming, cowardly and anarchic. Written in the eleventh century, Adam of Bremen’s notable work, the History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, chronicled the history of the diocese from the Viking Age up to the events taking place within his own lifetime. Joining the bishopric at Bremen in 1066 he conducted various journeys which further informed his views on European contact.
The ‘Other’ Paradox: Scandinavian Interaction with Slavs in the 10th – 13th centuries.
Þeir tóku þar mart fólk ok fluttu til skipa sinna (‘they took many people there and took them to their ships’). Knýtlinga saga Manuscript AM 18 Folx , 33v.

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‘The Slavs possess the southern litoral of that sea; the Swedes, the northern.'

Concerning islands in the Baltic sea, Adam writes in Book 4 of his Gesta that most of the islands were controlled by Danes and Swedes, but that certain ones were the domain of Slavs, and goes so far as to divide the Baltic into two hemispheres, stating ‘the Slavs possess the southern litoral of that sea; the Swedes, the northern.’ This is suggestive of domination of the sea by Slavs and Scandinavians, who would therefore have crossed paths and developed different methods of material and cultural exchange. Adam notes that these islands are inhabited by cruentissimis (‘savage’) thieves and pirates. However, elsewhere in the Gesta, Adam also notes how aside from pirate activity, significant efforts are made to facilitate safe trade between Danorum vel Nortmannorum itemque Sclavorum ac Semborum (‘Danes and Northmen, as well as those of the Slavs and Sembi…’) One of Adam’s primary sources was the King of Denmark, Svein Estridsson, with whom he spent some time, learning about the north and its people. Adam clearly held some admiration for the king, and he was no doubt pleased to learn of the region from a Christian monarch, given his abiding interest – professionally, but perhaps also personally – in the conversions of Slavs and Scandinavians. Adam’s writing of this text was in aid of the Hamburg-Bremen diocese, where the Archbishop was responsible for the conversion of northern peoples, and the establishment of an Archbishopric within Scandinavia, which may partially explain his repetition of instances of paganism, and his keen interest in documenting religious (and thus political) details. His description of a pagan temple at Uppsala is extravagant in its detail and attention to ritualised sacrifices but was likely heavily clouded by his Christian sentiment, and the Christian sources on which he relied, as he had never personally visited the site. One theory contends that when Adam wrote of Uppsala he was examining and describing it figuratively, utilising a pagan religion to discuss and imaginatively distance political and religious opposition to the Church. This is not to argue that any and all mentions Adam makes of pagans or their practices are metaphorical, however setting himself and his allies apart from a sense of Otherness – whether pagan or simply different – could have allowed Adam to avoid difficult repercussions by any who took offence, while securing his position as a devout and devoted chronicler.
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The twelfth century Latin text Gesta Danorum is a history of the Danes

The twelfth century Latin text Gesta Danorum is a history of the Danes written by the Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus, who was a Christian. Saxo writes of Sclauorum (‘Slavs’), and throughout the text it is clear the he does not hold the Slavs in high regard. The Gesta was essentially ordered by the Archbishop of Lund, Absalon, and as such was written with a religious audience in mind – at least to some extent – as the purpose of the work appears to be to record, validate and praise the history of the Danes. Writing about the death, in 1182, of the Christian King Valdemar I of Denmark – who had ostensibly liberated Denmark ‘from the dread of pirates, and who made coastal and inland dwelling places alike safe from invasion by brigands’ – Saxo is quick to offer assurances that fate itself would not allow the kingdom of Denmark to fail – especially not against Sclavia (the Slavs). In Book 15 of the Gesta, Saxo makes it clear that the Danes consider the Slavs to be somewhat ignorant, easily outwitted, and lacking in the courage which Danes possess naturally. Decisions undertaken by them are portrayed as manipulative rather than practical, and an example of this is in Chapter 1.4, when Bugislav, a Wendish prince, sues for peace when faced with attacking Danes; this choice is presented as both scheming and foolish, although no reasons are given as to why such assumptions are made – none, that is, apart from his Slavic identity. The Slavs are then compelled to cede their lands to Danes and Polanis (‘Poles’), highlighting Danish power and authority, but also showcasing that Saxo is aware of different identities, noting that Poles are separate and distinct from other sclavi, perhaps because the Poles had largely accepted Christianity by this time. Knýtlinga saga is a thirteenth century Icelandic text detailing the history of the kings of Denmark, with a significant amount of space dedicated to the discussion of Danish interactions with Vinðr (‘Wends’). The author makes some efforts with regards to geography – both Danish and foreign, however it is often somewhat vague, with broad descriptors such as Þat er austarliga (‘that is easterly’). Throughout Knýtlinga saga the Wends are portrayed as a generalised mass. They are the antagonists to the Christian Danish protagonists, and while the battles and skirmishes between the two groups are many, the precise locations do not seem particularly relevant to the writer’s recounting of events. Perhaps this is due to the fact that much of the reasoning behind Danish attacks is the conversion of the Wends from paganism to Christianity – as such, the lands are of less consequence than the transmutations of a group from enemies to allies, and from faithless to faithful. Aside from which, many of the goods the Danes obtain from their offensives appear to be either people or material wealth such as gold or silver, rather than produce from the land which might have interested a writer (and Danes) in charting the areas more thoroughly for knowledge of which regions provided the best supplies of which resources. One instance of Danish – Wendish interaction showcases the complexity of the relationship between the two groups. The Scandinavians travel to Wendland on a spring expedition, where Archbishop Absalon is approached by the local leader of the Wends, Domabur, who suggests the Danes abandon their plans for raiding and warring with them, and leave without taking gísla (‘hostages’). This giving/taking of hostages seems particularly important in this chapter; although hostages are mentioned elsewhere within the saga, this Chapter is the only time where the community from which the hostages would be taken refuse outright to provide them and engage in face-to-face negotiation on the subject. The ensuing battle culminates with a Danish victory, and the defeated Wends ultimately provide four hostages- a show of humility to the victors. The Scandinavians return in winter of the same year and land við blótlund einn, er heitir Bǫku (‘at a sacred grove called Boku’), where they devastate the area, and take the people and cattle. This plundering is not written of in the same way as hostage-taking, and there is no mutual agreement. Here there is no mention of the word gísla, instead the inhabitants who are seized (tóku) are simply referred to as fólk. While hostage-taking is portrayed as normal and even practical, the continued problems with Wends throughout the saga does suggest that the taking of hostages was not always a particular deterrent to continued strife between the two peoples. The capture of people is different, however, and is more akin to plundering with the purposes of slavery than any kind of military/political understanding. There is no further mention of these people in the saga, and thus no further explanation as to what happened to them. At the time the saga was written perhaps it was an occurrence that needed no explanation, but this lack of information means it is unclear whether these people were ransomed, sold into slavery, or taken as slaves back to Denmark. Archbishop Absalon is not mentioned as taking part in this particular endeavour however slave-raiding and trading was still in practice, and permitted by the Church if the enslaved people were pagan. The saga mentions connections – friendly or otherwise – with various peoples and regions, including the English and Rome. Of the peoples mentioned, Wends occupy a large space within the text, notably with regards to Danish attacks on Wendish territories (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, from Wendish attacks on/aggression towards Danes). On the basis of Knýtlinga saga alone, one could argue that the subjugation and conversion of Wendish people and lands became a fixation for the Danes. It may be tempting to consider Scandinavian activity as somehow dominant to Slavic activity – they appear to have networked and engaged with European elites faster than their Slavic neighbours, partly due to their adoption of Christianity, and their participation in creating written culture is not only a powerful act for creating a legacy, it provided them with a prestige. The lack of written sources from Slavs of the time is a marked absence. Whether there was literature created by Slavs which has been lost to time, or whether it simply did not exist debatable, but the silence of their voices leaves a gap in knowledge, as well as a divide between them and their contemporaries. What seems evident is that both Slavs and Scandinavians engaged with one another in similar manners – sea-faring, trading, piracy – for some time, but the dynamics between the groups shifted significantly once Christianity had been adopted in Scandinavia.
The ‘Other’ Paradox: Scandinavian Interaction with Slavs in the 10th – 13th centuries.

Natalia Radziwillowicz

My name is Natalia Radziwillowicz, and I am a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham, where my research project focuses on cross-Baltic interactions between Slavs and Scandinavians. I graduated with a Distinction from the University of Edinburgh’s MSc in Medieval Literatures and Cultures, where my thesis examined the ways in which Snorri Sturluson and Dante Alighieri conceived of afterlives. I have contributed to blogs, conferences and podcasts and am happy to be contacted regarding collaborative work, or with any questions. My interests include: Ritual versus religion, folk history and tradition, Cross-European contact in the medieval period, mythology and notions of afterlives, queer and women’s history.
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