Reading, writing, rambling...

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Byzantium to Dunvegan?

It's a good time of year for reading, living as we do in a big cold house where, once you've got the bed warm, there's no incentive at all to get up. So I've been working my way through Tom Holland's latest book, Millennium, which is a dense but very readable account of European strife and dread around the year 1000.

It was a turbulent time, especially for those preaching the eternal verities. Emperor and Pope at each others' throats, pagan groves still flourishing in Eastern Europe, an ailing Islamic state in Spain forced to bring in jihadist Berber warriors to keep the Christians at bay, Italian cities growing rich by abetting Muslim corsairs with their slave trading, Vikings turning Christian for the enhanced access to plundering opportunities, the emergence of a knight class dedicated to war and rapine, churchmen worried about the ugly new trend of depicting the suffering or dead Christ on the cross, the monastery at Cluny as sanctuary and dynamo, and everywhere a call for purity and reform to face the last things - without, of course, upsetting the social order.

Given the poverty of the average early medieval life and its horizons, some of the lives described by Holland are astonishing in their scope. Once upon a time every schoolboy knew Harald Hardrada as the unwitting provider of an invasion window for William the Conqueror in 1066, by a diversionary (and doomed) landing in the North of England that King Harold had to deal with. But his life encompassed service under Prince Yaroslav in Novgorod, the making of a fortune in Byzantium as one of the famous Varangian guard, a marriage with Yaroslav's daughter and accession to the throne of Norway.

After the slaughter at Stamford Bridge, his surviving warriors and ships fled. But I'm reminded that, this summer in Dunvegan Castle in Skye, I saw for the first time in 40 years the Fairy Flag of the Macleods - a banner of extreme age and, it seems, eastern origins. One of the explanations offered of its provenance was that it was Harald's battle standard, come into his possession during the Byzantine days and carried away after his final battle to the outer isles of Scotland (long under Norse influence). To be investigated further!

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