Thursday, April 22, 2010

Viking Wisdom

As you head north from Lübeck you start travelling through the Jutland Peninsula. Had you been wandering around this area some 1200 years ago you might not have survived for very long as it was the heart of the kingdom of the Danes, who liked to go viking (apparently, the word viking, as indicated by its gerund ending, is actually a verb, and refers to the act of piracy and plundering that was carried out by various Norse peoples, and not to the people themselves - but seeing as that's not how people know them let's just call them Vikings and be done with it). Even though their pillaging days are over you can see their legacy in place names: the further north you venture the greater the number of towns that end in -by or -lund.

The two greatest Viking cities of the time, Haithabu and Ribe, were both situated on strategic crossing points of the peninsula and controlled the burgeoning trade between the North and Baltic Seas (much like Lübeck was to several centuries later). Their halcyon days, sadly, are long gone. Haithabu was sacked by some marauding Slavic tribes, and, although it reformed as the Germanic town of Schleswig and enjoyed moderate prosperity, it was never to regain its former glory when it was the largest city north of the Alps; and Ribe? well it never lived up to expectations and remained on the periphery of Danish affairs, especially once the capital left Jutland and moved to Copenhagen.

The Viking past does, however, live on in other ways (and not just the museums that try and cash-in on the Viking popularity with dress-up actors with long hair, stick-on beards and uncomfortable looking woollen shirts) - not so much in military terms, but in the towns' mercantile natures and openness to the world, mirroring the days when Norse traders roamed as far afield as Baghdad and Iceland and even the shores of the New World. Both towns were centres of learning, punching above their weight in terms of literary sons, and both were home to many sailors and merchants as I discovered when ambling through the old streets of Schleswig, taking pictures of picturesque old buildings.

"So you like old knick-knacks?" demanded an older, heavy-set man with a pail as I was kneeling down to get the right angle for my composition. "You're not Chinese are you?"
When I told him that I thought the old town was very pretty and that no, I wasn't Chinese, but Scottish, he brightened up and launched, unbid, into a reminiscence of his seafaring days.
"Ah, I was in Scotland once. In Lewis. Didn't like it though - I got fined £25 for wolf-whistling this lady there. £25 was a lot of money in those days."
"Indeed," I agreed, as I thought it was better to just nod sympathetically.
"But at least you got somewhere with them, mind you, not like those French Canadian lasses; there was one nice one in Montreal but you couldn't get (and at this point he made a gesture with his fist where he held his thumb between his second and third fingers - I had never come across it before but the meaning was pretty evident). No sir. Not without a ring on her finger, being Catholic and all. No ring, no - (and once again the sign)"
Again I thought it best to nod and make a few acquiescing "mmmm" sounds, as I didn't quite know what the appropriate reply was.
"Do you like fish?" he asked, changing the subject (or at least I hoped he was changing the subject). "I'm off to get some herrings," he said, pointing at his bucket.
Sensing a possible escape route I truthfully said, "Sorry, I'm allergic."
"Too bad," he muttered, before trundling off to the quayside.

And as quickly as he came he was gone again, ready to bestow his worldly wisdom upon other needy youngsters.

1 comment:

erika said...

The hand gesture you mentioned is common is Java, so perhaps your seaman really did venture quite far...