“How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore…”

Only one man in American history can claim to have been both a baking-powder revolutionary and a passionate medievalist, and nobody else is going to note this anniversary, so let me do the unasked-for honors: This week marks the 200th birthday of Eben Norton Horsford, the chemist and engineer who spent his golden years trying to convince a highly skeptical world that he had discovered hard, undeniable, multidisciplinary evidence of a thriving Viking city—in Massachusetts.

If your instinct is to laugh at the idea, please reconsider. As fond as I am of intellectual and architectural follies for their own sake, Horsford’s Viking fixation left us with a useful monument to the weird ways we work out what is or isn’t true, which are often a more subtle folly of their own.

Horsford helped popularize the notion that the Vikings had rambled higgeldy-piggeldy through New England. Evidence would surface much later that the Vikings had hung around Newfoundland, but no one has found proof of their presence farther south, despite its plausibility. Scholars didn’t buy into Horsford’s theories, but he did have his fans, perhaps because he had credentials any popularizer would envy. After Horsford studied civil engineering and taught mathematics, two years in Germany made him one of the first Americans formally trained in chemistry. He then spent sixteen years at Harvard putting his research to practical, profitable use. In the late 1840s or early 1850s, Horsford found that baking powder no longer needed to come in two separate packets of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar, the supply and price of which were erratic. Instead, he proposed replacing cream of tartar with calcium acid phosphate, invented a way to manufacture it, got a patent, figured out to how dry it and sell it safely pre-mixed, and became wildly rich. If you’ve baked anything this week, you can thank a Viking-obsessed Harvard chemist.

And so Eben Horsford—scientist, industrialist, education activist—apparently decided that since he had prospered in mathematics, civil engineering, chemistry, and business, then nothing else human was alien to him. And what were Vikings in America but the next laboratory puzzle to be solved? More than a century after its publication, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, Horsford’s book-length 1890 report to the American Geographical Society, is a remarkable read: Horsford is certain that the new scientific techniques of his era have helped him unearth evidence of Vikings in his own back yard. The implications beguile him:

As we all know, there have been before the world many scores of years, in some instances for as many centuries, certain grand geographical problems, challenging the spirit of research, the love of adventure, or the passion for discovery or conquest. They are such as these: Where was Atlantis? Where was the Ultima Thule? What is there at the North Pole? Was there a Northwest Passage? Where were the Seven Cities? Where were the El Dorado of Raleigh, and the landfall of Leif Erikson, of Columbus, of John Cabot, of Verrazano? And where were Vinland and Norumbega?

“Vinland,” of course, is mentioned in the Viking sagas. “Norumbega” has a later, legendary pedigree as a large and impressive city somewhere south of Nova Scotia, based on maps and travelers’ accounts from 16th-century Europe. Horsford is convinced it was a specifically Viking city, and he’s eager to convince you too—but first he reprints a response from Judge Charles P. Daly, president of the American Geographical Society.

“We have hitherto but inadequately appreciated the Northmen as a race—their adventurous spirit, their capacity, and the degree of civilization to which they had attained in an age when Europe was but emerging from the darkness that had enveloped it for many centuries,” Daly writes, invoking recent scholarship suggesting that the “Aryans” came from Scandinavia, “which would make the Northmen the progenitors of the Greeks, the Romans, and with the exception of one or two races, of all the nations of modern Europe; which, if further researches should establish to be fact, would make them the greatest race in the history of mankind.”

These 19th-century racial notions aren’t surprising, but they’re a good reminder to be wary when authoritative scholars in any age argue primarily from trendy thinking. Horsford isn’t content with his wealth, his impressive accomplishments in chemistry, or his legacy in the kitchens of the world. Driven in part by racial pride, he hopes to use his well-trained mind to disentangle the knotted mysteries of human civilization.

Delving into philology, Horsford is convinced that local place-names—among them Nanset, Naumkeag, Namskaket, and Amosheag—are of “Norse derivation.” He claims that a quirk of Algonquin speech accounts for the name “Norumbega”: The Algonquin, he explains, couldn’t pronounce the “b” sound without putting an “m” in front of it, so the ancient name of Norway, “Norbega,” became “Norumbega.” He bolsters his argument by pointing out that the “mb” quirk is common in African languages, and that plenty of cultures can’t properly pronounce the languages of others. By tinkering plausibly with proto-linguistics, Horsford writes Vikings into the history of Massachusetts. “I may say,” he declares, “there is not a square mile of the basin of the Charles that does not contain incontestable memorials of these people, that will presently be as obvious to others as they now are to me.”

Horsford the philologist is also Horsford the close reader of literary sources. He’s fascinated by an obscure object in the Saga of the Greenlanders: a húsa-snotra that Viking explorer Karlsefni refuses to sell for any price. Even now, nobody knows what a húsa-snotra is. At various times scholars have supposed that it was a carved ship’s ornament, a weather vane, or an astrolabe. Horsford thinks it’s the pans for a set of scales. Whatever it was, a húsa-snotra was said to have been made of North American mǫsurr wood, which Horsford believes is a wet tree with burrs or large warts—just like the trees he sees around the Charles.

Horsford the philologist and Horsford the literary scholar then cede the floor to Horsford the geographer and archaeologist. Using travelers’ descriptions, local history, and colonial sources, he deduces that the Vikings built a fort at the mouth of Stony Brook, which now separates the towns of Waltham and Weston: “I drove directly there,” he proclaims, “and found it on my first visit.” An area paved with boulders fascinates him, and his scrutiny of alluvial soil deposits leads him to believe that a colonial stone dam is the ancient handiwork of Vikings.

It’s really rather amazing: Everywhere Horsford looks, he sees the remnants of a Viking economy—specifically, a system of canals used to float blocks of coveted mǫsurr wood out to waiting ships. His belief in the existence of a thriving wood-block trade prompts him to theorize that every tributary of the Charles must have evidence of a Viking dam or pond either along it or near its mouth—and when he goes looking, he sees what he was predisposed to see. Centuries of Native American and European habitation notwithstanding, nothing along the Charles doesn’t make Horsford see Vikings: “The canals, ditches, deltas, boom-dams, ponds, fish-ways, forts, dwellings, walls, terraces of theater and amphitheater, scattered throughout the Charles, are the monuments I had in mind.”

And so Eben Horsford, profoundly invested in this imagined heritage and desiring to make it tangible, built the rest of us a tower.

* * *

Horsford donated so much money to Wellesley College that in 1886, they flattered him with the naming of Norumbega Hall, a rather un-medieval wooden building that hardly evokes a spirit of exploration or adventure. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a sonnet for the occasion, one that flatters Horsford’s romanticism while backing away from any promise of authenticity:

Not on Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires
Of the sought City rose, nor yet beside
The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide
Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,
The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew
The beautiful gates must open to our quest,
Somewhere that marvellous City of the West
Would lift its towers and palace domes in view,
And, lo! at last its mystery is made known—
Its only dwellers maidens fair and young,
Its Princess such as England’s Laureate sung;
And safe from capture, save by love alone,
It lends its beauty to the lake’s green shore,
And Norumbega is a myth no more.

It’s a curious poem, full of Wellesley girls re-cast as maidens from medieval romance, but not a single Viking.

The most lasting physical remnant of Horsford’s folly, though, is the Norumbega Tower, which he built in 1889 at the mouth of Stony Brook to mark the supposed site of the Viking city and fort. Architectural follies are usually their own justification, but Horsford gave more specific reasons than most people who build such things. In The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega he explains, at first graciously:

It will invite criticism, and so sift out any errors of interpretation into which, sharing the usual fortune of the pioneer, I may have been led.

And then rather less so:

It will help, by reason of its mere presence, and by virtue of the veneration with which the Tower will in time come to be regarded, to bring acquiescence in the fruit of investigation, and so ally the blind skepticism, amounting practically to inverted ambition, that would deprive Massachusetts of the glory of holding the Landfall of Leif Erikson, and at the same time the seat of Europeans in America.

Committed to the falsifiable nature of science, Horsford nonetheless hopes romanticism will encourage future generations to lean his way.

I get a kick out of discredited scholarly theories, but Horsford’s isn’t luridly presented, at least not in this book. He leaves us few nutty-sounding reveries and no McKinley-era equivalent of all-caps exhortations. A man of his time, he turned his polymath’s mind toward the credible techniques of “scientific history” as pioneered in European universities, and off he went on the trail of his preferred past. He found it, as he knew he would. Human prejudices are as consistent as chemistry, if not as quantifiable.

As the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage approached, a vocal minority of Americans, many of them New England autodidacts inspired by a popular 1837 edition of the Vinland sagas, cringed at the prospect of letting an Italian Catholic in the service of Spain get credit for the European discovery of North America. (My favorite manifestation of their protest: a replica of a Viking ship that floated past the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.) The racial assumptions of the day helped stoke Horsford’s efforts, but even though few scholars bought into his theories about Vikings on the Charles, contemporaries did consider him rather progressive for his support of women’s education. Horsford’s example just goes to show how ephemeral many social standards will prove, and also how wrong we’re all going to be about something, even the cleverest among us, in the fullness of time.

The man who literally gave us our daily bread longed for a more romantic legacy, one that would link him to his presumed ancestors and affirm their superiority. His 200th birthday is a chance for the rest of us to feel a link to the past, not to some silly racial or tribal forefathers but to anyone whose sincere disorientation humanizes him and humbles us. Let’s all then chase our theories, pore over books, and tromp along riverbeds chasing the boot-prints of phantoms. If your confidence in your own worldview is as unshakeable as Eben Horsford’s, than the Norumbega Tower is a warning: pray that posterity is no less kind to you.

“I’m so cool and calculated, alone in the modern world…”

It’s becoming a genre unto itself: the call by scholars of the Middle Ages to invigorate their fields by reaching out to new audiences. In the latest example at The Chronicle of Higher Education, medievalist and English professor Christine Schott asks an evergreen question—”[h]ow can literary scholarship make a claim for its value when its product reaches only the other members of its own narrow field?”—and writes with candor about her work:

Of course I have an interpretive argument about the marginalia I study, and I do not wish to abandon that side of the field either. I am reasonably capable of dressing up my theories about material culture, genre, and self-writing in fancy vocabulary, but I maintain that they are no smarter for being decked out in academic regalia. And when it comes down to it, I don’t want to write scholarship that my friends and nonacademic peers cannot understand.

Schott plucks a painfully abstruse passage from a 1993 book about literary theory and boils it down to a lovely, clear, informative sentence—a rare skill. I’ve considered the rebuttals by humanities scholars who claim that specialized fields need their own patois, and since my career isn’t at stake, I can say that I find those defenses bunk; you can dazzle your colleagues with rarefied terms without writing in a style that makes the rest of us laugh out loud. Schott is wise to be sensitive to outside perceptions:

When I talk to fellow scholars, I might frame my work as “the study of paratextual material in late medieval vernacular scribal culture.” Even I hate the sound of that sentence. Let me offer, instead, the version I gave my Aunt Bea, who once ventured to ask me what I work on. I told her, “I study the things that people wrote in the margins of books in medieval Iceland.” When I said that, Aunt Bea wasn’t exactly impressed, but she did understand exactly what I meant.

Actually, what she said was, “They give Ph.D.s for that sort of thing, huh?” A familiar response from anyone who, like my aunt, works in a nice, practical field like nursing. And yet I get excited by a reaction like hers, because that is a teaching moment.

Schott’s solution is “to write even our scholarly work for a popular audience.” That’s a great idea—but why be so conservative? After all, professionalism hasn’t smothered her joy:

I always launch into a litany of the wonderful things one finds in the margins of Icelandic manuscripts: poetry, proverbs, complaints (my pen is dull, I didn’t get enough fish to eat, my wife is mad at me and it’s not my fault — all real examples). Part of the value of my work as I see it, then, is simple translation: “nu kolnar mér á fingrunum” means nothing to most people. But “my fingers are getting cold” is both transparent and so delightfully human that people often comment on how un-foreign these complaints sound. I don’t think you should have to get an advanced degree to enjoy these little glimpses into long-forgotten lives.

Look at that: the enthusiasm that makes non-scholars light up, the humanism they crave but can rarely describe, and the simple eloquence of someone who is uniquely suited to give them both.

“When I suggest changing our target audience,” Schott writes, “what I’m really talking about is marketing, and we are rightly suspicious of treating intellectual pursuit as a commodity.” Those of us who’ve migrated from academia to writing and the arts understand those concerns. I get tired of hearing that we can’t be only writers anymore, that we need to become experts at marketing and branding. Call it advocacy, then; no one else is standing by to champion us, and clearly there are ways to do it that don’t cheapen your work. Heck, more than two million American teenagers have had a blast with poetry because a former Kool-Aid marketing executive knew when to stop taking and how to start doing.

And so my humble advice to medievalists is this: stop talking about hypothetical outreach and do something. Write a book for a trade press. Spin your scholarly insights into poems. Produce a podcast. Start a blog. Make YouTube videos or Vines or a novelty Twitter account. Stage a play. Lecture at your local Osher center. Pitch articles to trendy media outlets like NPR or The Atlantic. Translate texts for non-scholars. Give the good work of strangers the attention you wish your own were receiving. You decide where to draw your own line. After you stare down a few frowning peers, the way is less fraught than you think: You won’t make enough money to fret about your soul, and you’ll compromise your scholarship only if you pander to your audience or fail to beguile them with the promise of much larger worlds.

I’ve written before that if the circles of scholars, writers, and artists overlapped more than they do, we’d all benefit. Professor Schott sees that we’re in danger of entombment in our own narrow niches:

What is literary scholarship for if not to aid readers in appreciating, understanding, interpreting, and questioning the literature that they encounter? In writing for a tiny coterie of specialists, we may achieve great heights of intellectual pursuit, but we are generally preaching to the choir. If we are not content with our society turning into a post-literary world, then we have some proselytizing to do, to people like my Aunt Bea. That is not marketing, that is teaching.

Indeed it is, and I hope Schott will share her enthusiasm wherever she can. The right blend of scholarship and passion can hearten the rest of us with all the thrilling alchemy of art.

“So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

“[P]ioneering, erratic, and irascible”—that’s how scholar Andrew Wawn introduces a medievalist I’d never heard of, apparently because his spectre haunts only a few narrow stacks in Scandinavian libraries. Although George Stephens published more than 500 books, articles, pamphlets, translations, and plays, his Wikipedia entry is a sorry 120 words long, and it isn’t likely to be lengthened or annotated by legions of Tolkienesque fans. Even so, Wawn’s engaging 1995 article about him—“George Stephens, Cheapinghaven, and Old Northern Antiquity”—makes an amusing but sympathetic case for looking back at scholars of yore-days and seeing not pitiable caricatures, but weird, vivid, quizzical lives.

Wawn calls George Stephens “a fascinatingly marginal figure, an exile by choice, a rebel by temperament, cocooned in his book-lined Copenhagen study glowering across the North Sea at the (in his view) wretched condition of England.” Born in England in 1813, Stephens moved to Sweden in 1834 to teach English before taking a lectureship, and then a professorship, at the University of Copenhagen. (Hearken, jobless scholars! Three years earlier, the enterprising Stephens circulated an English-language pamphlet with the efficacious title Hurrah for Denmark.)

Stephens is one of many unsung souls who hammered out the cogs of the medieval-studies machine. He was an influential collector and classifier of folk tales, his work on runic inscriptions founded a sub-field, and he published the first translation of an Icelandic saga into English—albeit from Swedish. “He translated Icelandic sagas,” Wawn writes, “while contributing to their reoralization by writing saga-based parlor songs; he taught Shakespeare whilst himself writing plays on Viking subjects in Elizabethan style; and he contributed vigorously and unashamedly to popular polemics, finding it no mark of virtue to proclaim the virtues of a democratized literary-critical process in an impenetrable and robotic meta-language.”

He’s also easy to mock. Wawn devotes most of his article to Stephens’ virtually unread 1857 play, Revenge, or Woman’s Love, in which King Edgar of Mercia is waylaid by Vikings while on pilgrimage to Sweden, where he’s forced to summon his wife to be sacrificed to Odin. Wawn is patient with Stephens’ “pyrotechnic display of newly minted compounds, anaphoric elaboration, and (alas) syntactic congestion,” and I enjoyed picturing the climax featuring “the return of the cave-dwelling witch, accompanied by much smoke and many explosions,” but why snicker? “Notwithstanding its breathless and somewhat confusing denouement,” Wawn says, “there is much spirited and good-humored writing in the play, and it would be ponderously sobersided to miss the element of jeu d’esprit which helps to drive the whole work.”

What Wawn does here is humane. Seeing an eccentric medievalist rendered all the more comical by time, Wawn doesn’t “deconstruct,” “interrogate,” “negotiate,” or (good Lord) “problematize” him. Instead, Wawn peers into a bundle of contradictions—”the English Anglophile exiled in Scandinavia, the modern Christian fundamentalist fascinated by ancient paganism, the British Tory radical who translated a treatise in favor of an hereditary Danish monarchy”—and in 40 pages, reckons his humanity.

To my surprise, Wawn contrasts Stephens with another philologist whose life and work were shaped by Mercia. “George Stephens, it need hardly be said, was no Tolkien,” he admits, “and Revenge, it need hardly be added, is no Lord of the Rings. The play could number its nineteenth-century readers in tens, and its twentieth-century ones on the healthy fingers of a severely maimed hand.” I laughed at that line, because it’s tempting to see Stephens as a prevenient Ignatius Reilly bumbling around Copenhagen, crusading for influence, obsessed with tomorrow’s obscurities, repelling his colleagues with political rants. It’s harder, but kinder, to place this minor scholar alongside a famous one, in an article that’s more subtly and sensitively written than anything its subject could have mustered, and not lose him in the shadow.

“That one should succeed commandingly whilst another fails eccentrically needs (and finds) no explanation in the self-preoccupied world of modern literary theory,” Wawn concludes. “We might rather look to the chaos theory of real human lives.” In his choice of subject and through his own example, Wawn affirms something that isn’t always clear: there are people behind the scholarship we read.

“…and stained in the blood of a whole generation.”

In Icelandic sagas, it’s not an uncommon motif: Clinging to old ways, warriors flail as the heroic code that defines their lives gives way to something new and strange. Perhaps that’s how lifelong soap fans feel this week, as All My Children succumbs to cancellation after nearly 42 years, while its doomed elder sister, One Life to Live, glares anxiously into its grave.

Baby swaps, preposterous wealth, evil twins, travels through time—soaps are easy to mock, but their sheer continuity is remarkable. (Making All My Children and One Life to Live look like pikers, Guiding Light began on radio in 1937 and wasn’t snuffed out until 2009.) Most of us, medievalists especially, can point to the survival and adaptation of stories across decades and centuries and cultures—Arthurian legends, Icelandic sagas, the Song of Roland—but except for comic strips, I’m hard pressed to think of another example of continuous storylines unfolding five days a week for more than 40 years, sometimes pleasing their audience, sometimes not, rolling with the culture while aspiring, sometimes, to universality:

It starts on a quiet note with a group of people, neither particularly good nor particularly bad, who, because they are the way they are, clash with each other; not violently, but sufficiently hard to cause ill-feeling. This casual ill-feeling is transmitted to kinsmen and descendants, to friends and to allies. More and more people become involved, with fatal results…The early actors of the drama fade out, but the troubles they have started now seem to have a life of their own, until the action is galloping headlong, with brief tantalizing pauses where control seems to have been momentarily asserted, from minor mishap to major tragedy, until finally its inevitable impulse is exhausted in the last elegiac chapter.

That’s from Magnus Magnusson’s introduction to the 1959 Penguin Classics edition of Njal’s Saga, and it’s as fine a summary of the arc of a family saga, medieval or modern, as any you’re likely to find.

Even if the Cortlandts and the Chandlers never shed blood at the Law Rock, and although Erika Kane (who once faced down a grizzly bear) might quail before the ornery, resilient Hallgerd, there’s no harm in hearing outlandish medieval echoes in the death cries of a genre. The soaps’ own echoes carry on; they showed prime-time TV producers the potential of serialized rather than episodic storytelling, and early on, they crowdsourced plot twists to indefatigable fans.

Of course, the medieval/soap-opera connection has been common knowledge since 2009, when a courtly-love subplot on General Hospital showed that at least one of its writers has taken a medieval lit class. As such, we can only wish the citizens of Pine Valley a safe journey into the television afterlife, and hope that there, unlike in medieval Iceland, “face-lift” means something entirely kind.

“Twisting like a flame in a slow dance, baby…”

Although no less a folklorist than Kermit the Frog wondered why there were so many songs about rainbows, someone once pointed out to me that there aren’t many songs about rainbows, really. Off the top of my head, I know only one or two others; few people can name many more. Such is also the case with volcanoes in medieval Icelandic literature: Given the relative size of the corpus, you expect to find far more of them than you actually do.

Norse myths smolder with the threat of fiery doom. According to historian Oren Falk, the great Sigurd Nordal perceived enough lava-flecked glimmers in the prophetic poem “Völuspá” to see in its portrayal of Ragnarok “a distinctively Icelandic apocalypse.” Falk also finds mountain-bound giants in the 12th-century poem “Hallmundarkviða” who watch as “glaciers blaze . . . coal-black crags burst; the curse of wood [that is, fire] unleashes storms; a marvellous mud begins to flow from the ground.” So where there’s lava there’s volcanoes, right?

Nope—these distant poetic wisps vanish when scholars get too close. Falk spots only four anecdotes in Landnámabók, the Icelandic Book of Settlements, that hint at medieval Icelanders’ perception of volcanic activity. He scours the late medieval Bishops’ Sagas and finds only two mentions of volcanic eruptions, while “[t]he entire corpus of Family Sagas, thirteen thick volumes’-worth in the standard modern editions, seems to know nothing of lava and ash plumes.”

Even if Icelanders didn’t work many volcanoes into their poems and sagas, the medieval world nonetheless responds with a low, subterranean rumble every time a flustered news anchor tries to say “Eyjafjallajökull.” Its name may look weird, and its proper pronunciation baffles the non-Icelandic ear, but as a simmering reminder of the relationships between Germanic languages, this billowing Aschenwolke of a word is very nearly English.

The first element of “Eyjafjallajökull” is familiar to English speakers as the suffix -ey. You see it in place-names like Orkney and Jersey, and it’s the related Old English ieg that gives us the first syllable of its modern descendant, “island.” (Eyja was the Old Icelandic genitive plural.)

The second element, fjalla, has mostly disappeared from English, but the OED points out that you can see it in northwestern England at Bowfell and Scawfell—the names of hills.

Jökull, the Icelandic word for “glacier,” is the diminutive of jaki, “broken piece of ice,” and had a cognate in Old English, gicel. When Anglo-Saxon scribes needed a homegrown equivalent for Latin stiria, they translated it as ises gicel. The original word became ikyl or ikel in Middle English, and you can still see it frozen in time at the end a modern noun that fuses all of these pieces: “icicle.”

Jóhann Sigurjónsson, one of the first Icelandic poets to write blank verse, foresaw an apocalypse both personal and cosmic in which jóreykur lífsins þyrlast til himna, “the steeds of life swirl their smoke to the skies.” The plume of the “island-mountains glacier” will eventually dissipate, but even if we can’t now see the volcanoes, we can at least watch the ash settle into craggy, unexpected places, and patiently look for the relevant words.

“Walk without rhythm, it won’t attract the worm…”

When I was in Iceland in 1998, I stood where the locals chucked their pagan idols over the falls; I saw where Snorri Sturluson met his doom; and I got chased away from Hliðarendi by a dog. Five minutes later, Americans started visiting Iceland in droves; more recently, we all learned what happens when a nation that subsists on fishing and aluminum smelting decides to have a go at investment banking. I’m still abnormally fond of Iceland, but one of my sharpest classmates and traveling companions from ’98 has been busy indeed. He turned his passion into scholarship and became, to my delight, an expert on medieval Icelandic combat.

An award-winning acoustic engineer with a doctorate from MIT and nearly two dozen patents to his name, William R. Short made the sort of radical career change most people only dream of. Bill is now the Viking-in-residence at the Higgins Armory Museum and the author of Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques, a new book that reflects a decade spent researching, reconstructing, and demonstrating the fighting methods of saga heroes.

“Little in my academic training prepared me for life as a Viking in a museum,” Bill says on his Web site, but he’s being modest; his scientific background is exactly what makes Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques a valuable book. Rather than rush into the fray armed only with the romanticism that gives historical reenactors a bad name, Bill methodically defines his terms; he provides a taxonomy of Viking arms that extends even to such improvised weapons as rocks and household implements; and he surveys the written, visual, forensic, and archaeological sources, explaining their limitations and, most tantalizingly, pointing out where text and object disagree. Non-scholars and newcomers to the Viking arsenal will find this book quite readable, but medievalists in other fields will be intrigued by wonderfully trivial mysteries: For example, there’s no evidence for the chin-straps that surely held Viking helmets atop Viking heads, and nothing is known about several weapons named in the sagas but misleadingly translated into English as “hallberd.”

Already a useful reference work, Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques also documents efforts by Bill and his colleagues to rethink saga-era melee not as “two hairy men trading great blows with one another, almost as if they were trying to chop down trees” but as its own sort of martial art. Bill repeatedly stresses the conjecture and speculation that goes into reconstructing the combat techniques of medieval Icelanders, but the photographic sequences in this book convincingly show the versatility of a good, small shield, and also why a spear was no match for a sword.

I thought I had little interest in Viking combat, but the next time I pick up Njal’s Saga, I’ll be glad that Bill’s book has armed me with a whole new set of visuals. Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques is a concise but thorough handbook for scholars, saga readers, and even historical novelists; it’s the sort of work that puts a good face on independent scholarship and a worthy, bearded face on historical reenactment.

“Eating with a spoon, they don’t give you knives…”

Many English translations of the sagas mention “sour curds,” but Icelanders know the stuff by its proper name, skyr. Shortly before medieval outlaw Egil Skallagrimson got into a famous drinking-and-barfing contest at the home of Armod Beard, he downed a hearty bowl of skyr, and his descendants still enjoy the thick, sour, yogurt-like cheese curds:

When the farm laborer rises in the morning he expects his allowance of skyr as a matter of course, along with his black bread and coffee. And when the chance visitor from town drops in, he welcomes a plate of skyr, along with cakes and coffee, as the most satisfying form of refreshment. Nor is the taste unpleasant, but one needs practice in order to empty a soup-plate full of it with good grace.

One brand of imported skyr has been available in parts of the U.S. for several years, but I was stunned today to stumble across Siggi’s Skyr, every six-ounce cup of which is made in America by an entrepreneurial, homesick Icelander who refined the recipe in his TriBeCa apartment and set up a skyr operation on a farm in upstate New York.

Skyr is an acquired taste, and Siggi’s Skyr isn’t cheap—it’s around $2.50 for six ounces, as opposed to $1.99 for the same quantity of the imported brand—but it’s powerful stuff: no fat, 16 grams of protein (which makes it more protein-rich than an entire chicken thigh), 13 grams of carbohydrates, and the calcium of two-thirds of a cup of milk.

Of course, the American who wants to eat like a Viking faces hard questions: Should one buy the imported skyr and support Iceland’s cratered economy? Should one buy the domestic stuff and support a very weird small business? And for crying out loud, with flavors like “pomegranate and passion fruit,” why doesn’t it come in galangal?

“…hiding out in tree-tops, shouting out rude names.”

Medieval Icelanders may not have been able to charge $100,000 per second for advertising, but they too had their spectator sports, including the ball games that accompanied the two-day bout of feasting and drinking at the start of every winter.

In Gisli’s Saga, crowds gather to cheer on their favorite players of knattleikr, a sport sometimes described as a combination of rugby, hockey, cricket, and lacrosse. Gisli—widely acclaimed as the second-cleverest outlaw in the sagas—hits the ice against a background of family drama: Gisli’s wife’s brother, Vestein, has just been murdered, because Gisli’s sister-in-law, Asgerd, was making eyes at him, which made Asgerd’s husband, Gisli’s brother Thorkel, jealous. Thorgrim, who’s married to the sister of Thorkel and Gisli, is the likely suspect.

Get all that? Doesn’t matter. Here (from Martin Regal’s translation) are Gisli and Thorgrim working out their rivalry on the frozen gridiron, with Thogrim sort of confessing to the murder in skaldic verse:

The games now started up as if nothing had happened. Gisli and his brother-in-law, Thorgrim, usually played against each other. There was some disagreement as to who was the stronger, but most people thought it was Gisli. They played ball games at Seftjorn pond and there was always a large crowd.

One day, when the gathering was even larger than usual, Gisli suggested that the game be evenly matched.

“That’s exactly what we want,” said Thorkel. “What’s more, we don’t want you to hold back against Thorgrim. Word is going around that you are not giving your all. I’d be pleased to see you honoured if you are the stronger.”

“We have not been fully proven against each other yet,” said Gisli, “but perhaps it’s leading up to that.”

They started the game and Thorgrim was outmatched. Gisli brought him down and the ball went out of play. Then Gisli went for the ball, but Thorgrim held him back and stopped him from getting it. Then Gisli tackled Thorgrim so hard that he could do nothing to stop falling. His knuckles were grazed, blood rushed from his nose and the flesh was scraped from his knees. Thorgrim rose very slowly, looked towards Vestein’s burial mound, and said:

Spear screeched in his wound
sorely — I cannot be sorry.

Running, Gisli took the ball and pitched it between Thorgrim’s shoulder-blades. The blow thrust him flat on his face. Then Gisli said

Ball smashed his shoulders
broadly — I cannot be sorry.

Thorkel sprang to his feet and said, “It’s clear who is the strongest and most highly accomplished. Now, let’s put an end to this.” And so they did.

A modern reader can greet Gisli’s Saga with a sigh of relief, happy not to be living in those awful Middle Ages. After all, the days when star athletes might work out their personal issues on the field or throw tantrums, let alone murder someone, are clearly long behind us.

“Next time, la luna…”

On Monday, in the wake of its national banking meltdown, the Icelandic government collapsed, its demise hastened by a saga-era tradition: the angry mob. The Economist can do a better job of explaining the political implications than I ever could; I’ll only note that most photos of the protests in front of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, show crowds congregated in Austurvöllur, one of Reykjavik’s most picturesque public squares and—come on, surely you saw this coming—a place of symbolic interest to medievalists.

According to Landnámabók, the Icelandic “Book of Settlements,” the first permanent Nordic settler in Iceland was Ingólfr Arnarson, who put down roots in A.D. 874. Written centuries after the fact, Landnámabók may not be a perfectly reliable source, but Ingólfr’s legend is kind of fun:

That summer when Ingolf set out with his companions to settle Iceland, Harald Fairhair had had been for twelve years King over Norway. There had elapsed from the creation of the world six thousand and seventy three winters, and from the Incarnation of our Lord eight hundred and seventy four years. They held together until they sighted Iceland, then they separated. When Ingolf sighted Iceland he cast overboard his high seat pillars for an omen, and he made the vow that he would settle there wherever his high seat pillar came ashore.

Ingólfr’s foster brother, Hjorleif, settled west of where Ingólfr camped out, but he was killed by his Irish slaves. Ingólfr took revenge and killed them—supposedly naming the Westman Islands after the Irishmen in the process—while his own slaves, Karli and Vifill, searched the coast for his cast-off pillars. Karli, who came across the pillars three winters later, found the ritual anticlimactic. “To an evil end did we pass through goodly country-sides,” he griped, “that we should take up abode on this outlying ness.” Karli ran away—but when Ingólfr, his slaves, and the entourage he filched from his dead foster brother raised the recovered pillars, they were witnessing, of course, the founding of Reykjavik.

Austurvöllur is said to have been one of Ingólfr’s hayfields; today a statue of 19th-century independence campaigner Jon Sigurdsson stands in its center, with the Icelandic parliament and the country’s most venerable church in sight. I like the symbolism of Icelandic democracy playing out on Ingólfr Arnarson’s old property. Maybe there’s a certain pagan allure to the legend of the pillars, a plain case of casting your fate to the cold northern tides, as the British and the Dutch did with their Icelandic bank accounts, but the determination of the modern protesters also recalls lines from the Poetic Edda that Ingólfr Arnarson probably knew:

Erat maðr alls vesall,
þótt hann sé illa heill;
sumr er af sonum sæll,
sumr af frændum,
sumr af fé ærnu,
sumr af verkum vel.

Betra er lifðum
en sé ólifðum,
ey getr kvikr kú;
eld sá ek upp brenna
auðgum manni fyrir,
en úti var dauðr fyr durum.

“No man is wholly wretched, though he have ill luck,” these verses read in English. “One is blessed with sons, another with kinsmen, another has sufficient money, another has done decent deeds. Better to live than not to live; the living man gets the cow. I saw a fire blaze up for the wealthy man, but he was dead outside his door.” The wisp of smoke that passes for Nordic optimism infuses those lines, asserting that problems can always get worse. Ingólfr’s heirs, angrily milling about Austurvöllur with placards and flags, are raising their pillar on a much less medieval foundation: the notion that Iceland can also be better.

“She made you tea, asked for your autograph…”

In the wake of economic Ragnarok, as Icelanders contemplate years of subsisting on fish, failed banks such as Glitnir and Kaupthing are suddenly all over the news. We already know that “Glitnir” is a name from Norse mythology, but “Kaupthing” is also a name that’s of interest to medievalists—or to anyone who dabbles in languages.

During the heyday of the Roman Empire, neighboring barbarians apparently absconded with the Latin verb cauponari, “to trade,” and made it a part of their proto-Germanic language. The Vikings who spoke West Norse, a North Germanic language and the parent of modern Icelandic, adopted it for terms like kaup, “bargain, wages,” kaupa, “to buy, to bargain,” kaup-maðr, “trader, merchant,” and kaup-staðr, “market town.” These kaup-words are preserved almost perfectly in modern Icelandic, the language that puts the kaup in Kaupthing.

In East Germanic, kaup settled into Gothic as káupōn, “to traffic,” before the entire language shuffled off to philological Valhalla.

In the West Germanic languages, modern German cultivated Kauf, “a purchase or acquisition,” kaufen, “to buy,” and Kaufmann, “merchant”—with the latter shedding light on a familiar German surname.

Meanwhile, in Old English, the “k” became a “ch” sound in words like ceapian, “to bargain or trade,” ceapman, “merchant,” and ceapstow, “trading place.” Thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, now you know the root of the word “cheap,” you know that “Kaufman” and “Chapman” are basically the same name, and the next time you see English road-signs for Chipstead, Cheapside, and Chepstow, you can easily guess what went on at those places more than a thousand years ago.

All that from a failed Icelandic bank? Absolutely: a wealth of cognates derived from Latin’s token investment in proto-Germanic. Ach—if only you’d put your money in Germanic languages, just think about how rich you’d be today…