And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 26. september 2016

With the milk of their mothers - the savageness of Norwegians, and of Huns

These days I am working on a paper which I will present at the NTNU medieval seminar, a series of talks organized by the department of historical studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. The lectures are held one at a time on the last Thursday  of each month, and I was myself among the organisers when I were a student at NTNU.

For Thursday's talk I will be focussing on a Norwegian chronicle in Latin from c.1180. The work was written by one Theodoricus Monk, whom scholarly consensus has agreed to be Tore Gudmundsson who became archbishop of Nidaros - i.e. Norway and its Atlantic tributaries - in 1206. Theodoricus titled his work as Histori antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum - "The Old History of the Norwegian Kings".

Although the main narrative of the chronicle is dedicated to the history of the kings of Norway from the late 9th century to 1135, the narrative is interspersed with a number of digressions and anecdotes where Theodoricus discusses Roman history, biblical history  and natural philosophy, to mention the most prominent topics. The purpose of these digressions are still a matter of debate among scholars, and it is the purpose of their function that I will engage with on Thursday.

In this blogpost, however, I will just present one of these digressions, which deals with the Huns.

Alexander encloses the nation of Gog in the land of Magog
BL MS Harley 4979, Roman d'Alexandre, Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

In the seventeenth chapter of Historia antiquitate, Theodoricus engages in a digression - or rather a series of digressions - starting with the nature of the whirlpool Charybdis and ending with a brief account of the Huns and their pillaging. Theodoricus arrives at this subject through a series of associations, yet he has obviously thought the Huns to be a useful - if not logical - conclusion to the chapter. As his source for this account, Theodeoricus gives the Gothic history of Jordanes - whom he calles "Jornandes" - and goes on to describe them in great detail. It should be noted that Theodoricus himself appears not to have been familar with Jordanes' Getica from firsthand reading, and from his account it is more likely that he draws on Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae.

Theodericus has this to say about the Huns and their appearance. (I am below quoting from Ian and David McDougall's translation from 1998.)

Isti Huni, ut scribit Jornandes in historia sua, erumpentes de Mæotidis paludibus, ubi eos fertur inclusisse Alexander magnus filius Philippi - gens semifera et a Deo alienissima, forma etiam turpissima, nam in capite pro oculis quasi bina foramina habebant, veluti nigerrima pice infusa, statimque puerulis secabantur genæ, ut cum lacte matris discerent et vulnera pati- Theodoricus Monachus, Historia antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum, printed in Gustav Storm, Monumenta Historica Norvegæ, Kristiania, 1880: 32

Those Huns, as Jornandes writes in his history, burst forth from the Maeotic swamps, where Alexander the Great, son of Philip, is said to have confined them. They were a half-bestial and utterly godless race, and extremely repulsive in appearance, for in their heads instead of eyes they had, as it were, two hles which seemed to have been filled with the blackest pitch. While still very small children, their cheeks were cut so that even while drinking their mother's milk they might learn to endure wounds.- Theodoricus Monachus, The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, translated by Ian and David McDougall, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998: 24.

As the title of my blogpost suggests, the important phrase to note here is the term "cum lacte matris". In Theodoricus' narrative, it has already emerged once before, and to a somewhat similar effect, as we shall see below.

The Huns sacking Orleans
 BL MS Royal 16 G VI, Les Grandes chroniques de France, Saint Denis, between 1332 and 1350
Courtesy of British Library

The first place in which the term "cum lacte matris" appears in Historia antiquitate is in chapter 11, in which Theodoricus gives an account of Olaf Tryggvason's (d.1000) conversion of the Norwegians to Christianity. When explaining the necessity of the king's missionary activity, Theodoricus gives the following description of the Norwegians.

Cernens namque effera corda barbarorum et a veterno squalore perfidiæ et quodammodo congenita cultura dæmonum, quam pæne cum lacte matris ebiberant
- Theodoricus Monachus, Historia antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum, printed in Gustav Storm, Monumenta Historica Norvegæ, Kristiania, 1880: 18

For he saw that the hearts of the heathen were savage, and that only a strong hand could free them from the age-old ingrained filth of faithlessness and the more or less inborn devil-worship which they had practically imbibed with their mother's milk
- Theodoricus Monachus, The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, translated by Ian and David McDougall, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998: 14

Again we see the phrase "cum lacte matris", used in different circumstances but to the same effect and talking about two peoples who are not that far away from each other typologically speaking: The pre-Christian Norwegians and the savage Huns.

The natural question here is whether Theodoricus intended this usage as a way of connecting these two peoples through typology. After all, the phrase is the same and the purpose of the phrase is also the same: to highlight the savageness of a non-Christian people. It is very tempting to suggest that Theodoricus had such a connection in mind, and that the use of "cum lacte matris" is deliberate. It is not a far-fetched idea, and it would make of the pagan Norwegians an antitype to the Huns in much the same way Christ is the antitype of Adam, and every saint is an antitype of Christ.

However, there are also reasons to be cautious about drawing such conclusions. First of all, in the narrative of Historia antiquitate, it is the Norwegians who appear first and who are described in this way to explain the hard manner in which Olaf Tryggvason performed his missionary activities. The Huns, the supposed type, only appear later as a digressing anecdote which has no salvation narrative in it, and whose function in the Historia is obscure. One might argue that the reason for the inclusion of the Huns is that it allows for this typological connection, but that still begs the question why the supposed antitype is presented before the type - and a type is that which chronologically speaking comes first.

There is also another counter-argument for a connection between the Norwegians and the Huns. While the phrase used in these two episodes is the same, "cum lacte matris", the meaning of this phrase need not be the same in both episodes. The problem here is that the Latin preposition "cum" has many meanings, including "with", "when" or "while".

In the episode of the Huns, Theodoricus says "ut cum lacte matris discerent et vulnera pati", which can be translated as "so that with the milk of the mother, they learned to endure wounds". This shows that two actions were done simultaneously, but also separately. The inflicting of wounds and the drinking of the milk do not depend on each other.

In the episode of the Norwegians, Theodoricus says "congenita cultura dæmonum, quam pæne cum lacte matris ebiberant", which can be translated as "the demon-worship they had from birth, which was almost drunk together with the mother's milk". Here, by the use of "paene" which means "nearly" or "almost", it is clear that Theodoricus indulges in a poetic exaggeration. Furthermore, here "cum" is taken to mean "with", making the infusion of demon-worship and suckling one and the same act, each dependent on the other. And since the phrase is not to be intended literally in this case, while in the other the meaning is completely literal, it would appear that the two episodes are not typologically linked.

Ultimately, we will never know whether Theodoricus intended his readers to connect the Norwegians with the Huns, but although there are compelling reasons to admit such a possibility, there are also strong reasons not to.


Theodoricus Monachus, Historia antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum, printed in Gustav Storm, Monumenta Historica Norvegæ, Kristiania, 1880

Theodoricus Monachus, The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, translated by Ian and David McDougall, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998

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