Friday, July 4, 2014

Danes, Varangians, and Nomads

Two weeks ago, I posted about my New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Bernard Cornwell. He’s a great conversationalist, and I was happy with how the interview turned out—especially after Marshall Poe, editor in chief of the New Books Network, managed to scrub all the Skype weirdness out of the files.

As usual during these interviews, I kept out of the way as much as possible and let Bernard talk. But there was one moment when he said something that surprised me so much that I forgot I was wearing my host hat and jumped into the conversation. Specifically, he said that the Danes invaded England in the ninth century looking for land.

Now I have no problem with this statement as it stands. It makes perfect sense. England was rich agricultural territory, and if you lived in Scandinavia and needed to feed your family—say, because the population was growing or the weather changing—England would look like a very appealing prospect. That England at the time didn’t exist as a single entity but as a set of warring kingdoms that skillful enemies could pit against one another just enhanced that appeal.

The part that surprised me was (a) my own prejudice, by which I mean that I had always subconsciously thought of the Danish raiders as freebooters and warriors, not farmers; and (b) the difference between these Danish invaders and their counterparts to the east, known to Russians and Russian historians as Varangians.

The Varangians invaded, too, and eventually established a state called Rus in Novgorod and Kiev, the nucleus of what would one day become the modern nations of Russia and Ukraine. Their subjects were agricultural Slavs—with whom, in time-honored fashion, the conquerors interbred and whose culture they adopted. But the Varangians themselves were not motivated primarily by a desire for land but by commerce. Corsairs had closed the Mediterranean, separating Europe from Byzantium and the riches of the east: spices, silk, perfumes, and luxury goods of all kinds—creating a lucrative market for anyone who could find an access point. The Varangians discovered a route through the eastern Slavic lands, collecting fur, honey, and slaves along the way and trading these goods in Constantinople for spices and silk. When the Italians reopened the Mediterranean and the more arduous Dnieper route died, the Rus settled in and dominated their agricultural empire, defending their lands from the nomads to their east until the Mongols arrived.

The Mongols, too, were not looking for land. They wanted to control the Silk Road and all the cities along it. Their success established what historians call the Pax Mongolica, guaranteeing the safety of merchants along the thousands of miles that separated Constantinople from Dadu (Beijing). Because of the Pax Mongolica, Marco Polo reached China during the reign of Kublai Khan.

The Mongols subjugated distant Russia and ruled it for the better part of two centuries, but they took no interest in its agriculture. Instead, they carted off its artisans to build pretty palaces in Sarai and Karakorum, taxed its people, and insisted that its princes present themselves for approval before they had the nerve to rule. Any failure to fulfill these requirements provoked devastating punitive raids, but so long as the money and furs flowed and no prince declared himself independent, the Mongols left the Russians more or less alone. They had richer lands to milk.

In time, the Russians learned to play the game, paying just enough deference to the rules to keep the Mongols, whom they called Tatars, out of their hair. In so doing, they strengthened and guaranteed their freedom—not as individuals, because the rich oppressed the poor, men oppressed women, and so on—but as a nation. Similarly, after fifty years or so of waffling, the English united under Alfred the Great and his descendants, conquered the would-be invaders, and settled in to rule their mixed Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Danish invaders. Until the Normans arrived, looking for land.

Meanwhile, the Tatars lost their ability to field a single, large, coordinated army and, with it, their control over their subject peoples. Some settled in cities, more or less permanently, managing their agricultural populations as the Varangians had before them. Others remained on the steppe, loyal to their pastoralist past, breeding vast herds of horses that supplied the Russian army. This period of division, as the Juchid dynasty (also known as the Golden Horde) disintegrated and the balance of power shifted, forms the backdrop to my Legends of the Five Directions series, especially The Winged Horse, which focuses on the Tatar side of things—or perhaps Tatar sides, since the fissiparous hordes saw their situation in many different ways.

All of which brings me, by a circuitous route, to Independence Day. Last year at this time, I wrote a post that explored differing concepts of independence. But freedom depends at least in part on political and economic power. Those who call the shots or control the available resources consider themselves free; those who don’t long for more independence and greener pastures. The downtrodden give rise to the raiders, the brigands, the pirates, looking for commerce—or land.

Image Credits
1. Viktor M. Vasnetsov, The Invitation of the Varangians (before 1913), via Wikimedia Commons; this image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. (Note that invitation, although the standard rendering, is something of a misnomer, since those “invited” probably would not have taken no for an answer.)
2. Grevembrock, Marco Polo in Tatar Dress (scanned from an 18th-century book), via Wikimedia Commons ; this image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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