Fadlan has become known as one of the world most important historians although he did not start out that way. In 921 he was chosen by the Caliph of Baghdad, to be part of the embassy to the King of the Bulgars. He chronicled the journey and all that he observed during his time there. He must have felt very important and very proud to have been chosen for such an important mission for his country. No one really remembers him for his mission. It is his journal that has kept him alive for history. Upon reaching their destination in Bulgar he incountered the Rus people.
These people were from various Scandinavian tribes who had united and were running a large trading post near where Ibn Fadlan was staying. Ibn Fadlan recorded detailed discriptions of their appearance and customs. He describes them as being gigantic, with high cheek bones and blond hair. Always armed they carried daggers and axes. They were heavily tattooed and wore a cloak that left their sword hand free. Perfect specimens are one way he described them. Although he found them to be physically impressive he wrote extensively about their personal habits which he found repulsive.
Their bathing in particular seemed disturbing to him. The head of the household would wash his face and hair in a bowl then spit and blow his nose in the water. The bowl was then passed to the next man who did the same thing and so on. Ibn Fadlan was a Muslim who would have found this custom not only strange but down right filthy. A Muslim would only wash under running water or water poured over him so that the dirty water running off would not soil him. Another habit of the Rus that Ibn Fadlan found repulsive was that they did not clean themselves after having sex or defecating.
The personal habits of the Rus were not the only thing he found vile about these people. He describes in detail their moral customs which must have seemed shocking to him. Free sex seems to have been part of their daily life. In one incident he describes a Rus having sex with a slave girl in front of onlookers including his wife. This was all accepted behavior in the Rus village. Again, being from a sophisticated culture where sex was regulated and marriages carefully arranged, Ibn Fadlan viewed the Rus’s behavior by comparing it with his own morals.
He used the moral standards of his own culture to judge the Rus people. While observing a burial which involved killing a slave girl to be cremated with the dead man, Ibn Fadlan, found himself being negatively judged. One of the Rus men commented that Arabs were insane for buring their dead in the ground where worms and bugs would eat them. It seems they found his culture to be as foul as he did theirs. This assignment asked how are my judgments different from his. My great grandmother had a saying “Don’t judge the past by the present”.
I try to be objective but I think we all have cultural baggage both good and bad. From studying history we know that the cleaner a civilization is the better it is for the people. Bathing and controlling human waste is important to control disease, so I have to agree with Ibn Fadlan that I too find the Vikings habits to be dangerously dirty. As for their moral habits, I think that was their social norm and societies evolve differently. My own cultural upbringing makes me reject such a loose free sex society but it is not for me to judge the past.
The Vikings are known for their raids and brutality. They were pirates without anyone to stop them but they also set up large trading colonies. Their homeland became overcrowded and they needed more farmland so they turned to taking it. As they pushed out for survival they targeted monasteries for the wealth of silver and gold found there. Their new found wealth from both trading and robbing, allowed for them to advance in the development of new ships. They invented the keel, and better designed ships to go farther and steadier than ever before.
The eastern Vikings continued to raid Europe while the wastern Vikings went out into the Atlantic. They made it to Iceland and Greenland where they found farm land and started colonies. We know they also made it to North America but did not stay to establish colonies. The western Vikings pushed further than the eastern Vikings and established long distance colonies. They were the ones who ventured out into parts unknown. The Eastern Viking stayed mainly around what is known today as Russia. They went from Bulgar to Kiev, to Istanbul and into the Caspian Sea.
One description I read of the Vikings said their trading led to raiding, and sometimes the raiding led to trade. Looking back with a long term perspective I think the history of the Vikings shows both the good and bad. While they were dominant they made many advances in maritime technology, settled new land, and created many important trading colonies. Eventually they came to adopt Christianity which changed the way they lived and expanded. The conquered overcame their conquerors by converting them. Also Denmark, Sweden and Norway became their own states and became part of Christian Europe.
As for the brutal raids I can’t think of any perspective that would not have a negative view of these. Even Alexander the Great spared women and children during his ancient conquests. Again this is part of our cultural baggage we have to try and put aside when looking at history. In the future our children may read about the plight of Afghan families who feel the Americans raided their village and killed children. The only thing I can say is that our troops do not intentionally kill children during raids. They are sadly what we call collateral damage.
Even though they were not intentionally targets they are still just as dead. If we judge the past we might have to judge ourselves and that gets very painful. It is also better suited for a philosophy class. The Vikings did what they had to do to expand and ensure their success. Did they have to be so brutal about it? Did they have to intentionally kill children? Of course they didn’t have to, but I don’t think we study history to judge. We study to see how it shaped the world and what lessons can we learn for our future.