Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time – The Volga Vikings

One of my favourite radio programmes is Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, where he brings together expert academics on subjects as diverse as gene therapy, the origins of the universe and this week’s subject The Volga Vikings. I receive the follow-up newsletter and thought this one interesting enough to post here for you. Our friends the Volga Vikings had a strained relationship with Byzantium for many years, attacking it at least twice and suffering at the hands of the Byzantine navy and its Greek Fire.

To listen to the programme and subscribe to the podcast visit the In Our Time website.


After a quick dash to the office in Poland Street, where I was met at the door by an extremely tiny and wet-through and exhausted puppy, whose owner had mistakenly thought he needed a little walk on a squally, rainy morning, I then wove through Soho and down Regent Street and around St James’s Park, headed for the House of Lords.

In the office we had sat for two minutes’ silence. It seems to me that this observance is growing in this country and I am one of those who think that’s a very good thing. The crowds outside Westminster Abbey, queuing to look at and go round what can only be called a garden of memorial crosses, was impressive and touching.

And now the poppies have come out everywhere.

The character of St James’s Park this morning was entirely dominated by the dead leaves, falling listlessly like huge brown snowflakes but mostly wet on the ground, ripe for skidding. And so with a certain melancholy peace of mind I went into the Lords to meet one extremely friendly lordship who said: “After listening to your programme this morning the first thing I want to do is to reintroduce ritual chieftain burials in this country. We could start with celebrities.”

The Muslim commentators did hit on some violent practices. They themselves, of course, were obsessed with ritual purity, with washing, often several times a day, and these Vikings, with their lack of lavatorial education and practices, which I mention only for the sake of passing on what was told to me after the programme, must have horrified these educated Arabic scholars.

It seems that in the morning the women, who shared the same hut as the men (the women were often slaves and were shared between the men who, according to Professor Montgomery, bonded through sharing their women), would bring out a bowl of water and go round the menfolk who, in the same bowl, would wash, spit and pee. They bonded through their effluvia. Sorry about that, but there is much worse that I will not pass on.

The women were under-represented in the talk on the programme. By the women I mean the wives. They often fought alongside their men in war and remains have been found of them in full armour. In Scandinavia women could take over the throne. They were also the walking safes of their husbands’ wealth. The typical silver necklace of a warrior’s wife would be worth two hundred times what a tradesman in Baghdad would earn in a year.

I think I mentioned a wonderful sermon preached by the Patriarch Photios of Constantinople in 860. He preached this after an attack on Constantinople by the Vikings, or Rus. He marvelled at how they had turned into a warlike people. “An obscure nation, a nation of no account, a nation ranked among slaves, unknown, but which has won a name from the expedition against us, insignificant, but now become famous, humble and destitute, but now risen to a splendid height and immense wealth, a nation dwelling somewhere far from our country, barbarous, nomadic, armed with arrogance, unwatched,
unchallenged, leaderless, has so suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, like a wave of the sea, poured over our frontiers, and as a wild boar has devoured the inhabitants of the land like grass or straw or a crop…” If that is given the right Churchillian intonation, it seems to me it comes very near out-Churchilling Churchill.

I got a tremendous letter about unicorn remains being found in Deia in Mallorca. Really. Honestly. I think I’ve said enough in this newsletter, but if anybody’s interested I’ll come back to this. This can be checked up in the museum in Deia. It is weirdly convincing.

These may be washed up bones, from a flash flood, of creatures seen by passing sailors in the Mediterranean and thus entering mythology from a root of truth.

So, pickled onions with lunch and a trip to oblige a friend and speak in a school, and then to a curious evening. Dinner in a London restaurant, which then turns into a theatre for a short play by Ronnie Harwood.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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