Today I taught a class on Viking art and costume. I talked about the agency of art in early medieval society.
So shiny, so intricate, so beautiful…
The graves, hoards, settlements and stray-finds of the late 8th to 11th centuries from the North Atlantic, Scandinavia and the British Isles have left us many accomplished, complex and intriguing artefacts. They come down to us and fill our museums. They survive in many media: wood, antler, ivory, bone, metalwork and carved stone.
As well as teaching the class, for the first time ever I decided to also warn the students of its dangers. I want to save them before they go down the same dangerous road to a life of crime as I have done. For them, there is still hope. They must turn back before it is too late!
My story began when I was a kid. I went to Jorvik, visited the British Museum. I remember my first Viking archaeology book: The Vikings and Their Origins by a certain D.M. Wilson. Then, by my teens, I bought James Graham-Campbell’s The Viking World and later still Roesdahl’s The Vikings and Fitzhugh and Ward’s Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga.
And so it went on…
I’ve visited many national museum galleries with this art: Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Douglas, Edinbugh, Dublin.Many other county museums in Scandinavia and the UK. None of it got out of control. I could just look, not touch.
Now in my 40s I have literally dozens of books with ‘Vikings’ in the title such as Brink and Price’s The Viking World and Richard Hall’s Exploring the World of the Vikings. Many are dull and grey, but some rich in precious things: coins, arm rings, pendants, brooches, weather vanes, sculpture, niello inlaid axes, sword hilts, amulets…
Image after image after image after image of riches and treasures beyond measure.
All this time, I’ve been able to handle it, keep the art under control and simply as a scholarly pursuit. I convinced myself it was fine and that I needed no help. Other, lesser men would be lured by its evils, but not me! I didn’t need to peek at it daily. I didn’t need to read about it. Just one more museum visit wouldn’t hurt.
Then… I cracked… It all started getting out of control. With the benefit of hindsight, things started going wrong last year. I ordered online James Graham-Campbell’s 2013 book Viking Art.
It was only a tenner. I needed it for my ‘research’ I told myself.
Superficially it seems the same as all the others, beautiful, richly illustrated and well written. It is part of the Thames and Hudson’s World of Art series and everyone owns books like this!
But there was just so many close-ups of every detail, so many assemblages, so many hoards. The style, the silver. Also, so much ‘style’. There was Broa, Borre, Jelling, Mammen, Ringerike and Urnes. Page after page of lavish wood carved wagons and ships, ivory boxes and metal caskets, harness bows and strap ends, beads and Thor’s hammer pendants, the rune-stones and the picture-stones. I guess it was just too much despite my years of experience consuming Viking art in small doses.
I knew then it was too late, I must own it all! It should be mine! It will be mine!
The symptoms developed slowly at first and then they advanced. I began to hate sunlight. I lost my teeth. I lost weight fast. I eat only raw fish and talk to myself. I have lost so much sleep gazing at the art books. I hallucinate treasures in my waking hours: I see everyone and everything through a mist of Mammen axes and Ringerike weather vanes. I starting hoarding the books; I hear them whisper to me of their rich treasures.
It then got even worse. For example, I began feeling violent towards those with similar copies of Viking art books and towards the museums where the artefacts reside. Last week I almost attacked a colleague for owning a copy of Bailey’s Viking Age Sculpture. It was my birthday present precious. The library have banned me from the Viking books section. Friends shun me, and others fear me.
I’m now go nowhere, unless it is a planned raid. I raid Bargain Books in my long boat weekly, but I covet greater prizes; to pillage my local museums and lay waste to Waterstone’s mal-arranged ‘history’ book section, to one day lead an army and over-winter in siege of Foyles. From there, it is setting up my own kingdom with a throne surrounded by my hoard of Viking art books….
If I get caught during a raid, one thing I know I’ll say for certain in my defence: Viking art books made me raid!