Historical Imagination

For me, history is most exciting and rewarding when I can imagine, even if for a moment, the world as it appeared to those who inhabited it. I loved the first season of Vikings far out of proportion to its acting or writing precisely because it depicted the Nordic war band with such intimacy. History is so often chaperoned by powerful forces, Caesar’s armies, mass industrialisation, or thousands of slaves toiling on the Pyramids; Vikings was a refreshing myopia. The Viking raid on Lindisfarne, which marks the beginning of the Viking Age, was probably carried out by three long ships and 100 men.

I was all the more transported when I read Tom Shippey’s review of a new history of the Vikings in the LRB. In a discussion of the factors which made the Vikings successful:

Even worse, and better evidenced, were the volcanic eruptions of 536, 539/540 and possibly 547. The second, which originated from Ilopango in what is now El Salvador, threw around ninety cubic kilometres of dust, ash and aerosols into the atmosphere. The entire world suffered, but Scandinavia, with its short growing season and often marginal agriculture, suffered most. It’s thought as much as half the population died of starvation. At the heart of Norse mythology is the Fimbulwinter, three winters with no summers in between, which may once have been a fact.

The argument, similar in form to one’s made about the Black Death, is that this mass starvation enlarged and strengthened those remaining.

Imagine someone born around 525. From their earliest memories they would have known only perpetual winter. Beginning around their eleventh or twelfth birthday, had they lived, winter could have remained to their twenty third birthday. This is a literal child of winter.

Someone born in 525, who died on their twenty-first or twenty-second birthday, would have lived their entire life in perpetual winter. The entire universe of their subjective experience was informed by a world where the sun barely shone.

How would someone whose only knowledge of warmth and adequate food came in the form of stories from their elders see the world? With enough cultural memory to know that the world had not always been this way, how would they make sense of life in perpetual winter? I like to imagine the first summer.

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