Trivia Time: The Forgotten Crusades

When you think of the crusades, what comes to mind? European knights rushing to defend or conquer the Middle East most likely, Jerusalem, pilgrimages, deserts, etc.

What if I told you that not all the crusades went to the Middle East? There was not one, but three crusades in, of all places, Finland. They are mostly forgotten, a tiny footnote in history.

Who were these crusaders and how did they end up in Finland?

In the Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, southern Europe was increasingly a patchwork of kingdoms and nation states. But in Scandinavia there was still a huge stretch of land in the far north, and between the Kingdom of Sweden and Novgorod (present day Russia) that was no man’s land, a wild place of Sami reindeer herders and loggers.

Lapper og Reinsdyr

Image source: Wikicommons

Author

Eric the IX of Sweden wanted that land. So he got his bishop to petition the pope for the right to crusade to, ahem, “Christianize” those lands. I use quotes because despite the explicit purpose of the crusades, the Sami people wouldn’t be Christianized until the 18th century (some are not Christian to this day) and the Finnish Epic poem, the Kalevala records pagan mythos still being told in Finland in the 19th century. The first Swedish crusade was in 1150 and there were two more, in 1248 and 1293. The third crusade blended into the Swedish-Novgorod wars, which became a political struggle rather religious one.

Solid historical information about the Swedish crusades is sketchy. Archaeological evidence is completely lacking for the first crusade and researchers aren’t sure where exactly the second crusaders ended up, Hame castle or Haikonen.

Legends of the Finnish and Sami people record the crusades in their land as being a precursor to western colonization elsewhere in the world. It was a time of oppression, genocides and hardship for those colonized. Despite being a progressive country in so many other ways, the Sami people still struggle with the Swedish government to this day, over autonomy and land rights.

Books Everyone Talks About but Almost No One Reads

There are books that everyone has heard of, are frequently discussed in various circles and yet almost no one has ever actually read. Here is my list.

1. The Bible


When I was a young person, the Lutheran church gave every kid, upon reaching a certain age, a copy of the Bible. Being an avid reader even then, I plowed through it from start to finish. Chapter upon chapter of so and so begat so and so. All the disjointed stories of the old testament, the list of rules in Leviticus that make almost no sense to the modern reader, you name it. I only recall a fraction of it now, but I read it once upon a time.

It is not my intention to get into a religious debate. But there is something that has always bothered me about a lot of fundamentalists. If you believe this one book is the actual written word of God, shouldn’t you read it? But in many churches, this is not how it’s done. Instead “Bible Study” is largely learning a few choice phrases out of context and very little actual reading of whole books in context.

And yes, I know, a lot of people have read the Bible. Still it belongs on this list because the number of people who have read it pales to the number of people who claim it as the holy testament of their religion.

2. The Big Book


Sometimes called the blue book or even the big blue book (not the one you find car prices in) because the dominant cover is a light blue. Written in 1939 by Bill W. one of the founders of AA, the Big Book is a long rambling testament, laying out the twelve steps, peppered with lots and lots of anecdotes about people who have been helped by them.

As AA has grown to become the predominant treatment for addictions of all kinds, the Big Book has undergone many editions and printings. It is handed out in meetings, sold in bookstores and passed from hand to hand by many people.

The quintessential symbol of what the Big Book has become was a recent TMZ photo of actress Lindsay Lohan entering a nightclub clutching the Big Book, as though it were a talisman to prevent relapse. Perhaps her recovery would have gone better if she had stayed home and actually read the damn thing.

I work in mental health and our unit always has a half dozen copies of the big book floating around. One night I got curious enough to crack the Big Book and see what it’s all about. And I have to say, I tend to agree with the non-readers on this one. It’s long. It rambles. The twelve steps are pretty well known by now, and explained more concisely in other books. The Big Book remains important as a testament to the history of the movement.

3. The Constitution


The Constitution of the United States of America is not really a book. I include it in this list because it shares so much in common with the first two books on the list. It’s often held up as a symbolic emblem by people who haven’t read it and are often arguing against it.

I won’t open an ugly can of worms by discussing politics here. However, in my school days every student had to read the Constitution and at least attempt to understand it. Judging from the state of politics today, I doubt many people have done either.

4. Atlas Shrugged


Love it or hate it, Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, Atlas Shrugged in one of the most important works of the twentieth century. A large chunk of the Neo-libertarian Republicans in politics today swear by Ayn Rand’s philosophical world view.

If you want to appear intellectual and hip among that crowd, you must have a passing familiarity with Atlas Shrugged. But if you try to engage such people in debate you will find that it often ends at a passing familiarity.

Honestly I am not a fan of either the philosophy or the book. Judging the book solely on its literary merits, it’s long, dense and stilted. The characters are flat and spend most of their time espousing Ayn Rand’s philosophy rather than interacting with each other. I tend to agree with reviewer Dorothy Parker, who said, “This is not a novel tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” And all the pseudo-intellectuals that quote Ayn Rand should be forced to read her entire collection for themselves.

5. Anything by James Joyce


“For this, O Dearly Beloved, is the genuine Christinne: body, and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, Gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.”

James Joyce is the great grandmaster of the modern novel. Stream of consciousness? He practically invented it. He revolutionized novel structure. He wrote in his own Irish accent and voice, and in doing so championed a new literary form. His work is some of the most scrutinized and studied in all of literature.

The literary snobs of the world will sneer their contempt at anyone who suggests that they would prefer to read something, well, a little more readable than most Joyce. Which probably explains why literary aficionados everywhere tend to agree with the snobs, mutter an apology for not having “gotten around” to Joyce and quickly change the subject.

6. War and Peace


Tolstoy’s great masterpiece about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia is a giant of a book. Everyone knows its a masterpiece and one of those books you ought to read. But they never seem to get around to it, put off by the size of the book or the long Russian names.

It’s too bad, because it really is one of my favourites. How I finally got around the size of the book was to realize, it’s not any longer than many of the fantasy series I read regularly. If you have read all seven of the Harry Potter books you’ve devoured more pages than War and Peace. So grab a copy and get cracking.

7. The Communist Manifesto


Karl Marx’s short little book, The Communist Manifesto belongs on this list because it’s influence far out reaches it readership. It has spawned revolutions, been the primary influence on numerous communist, socialist and marxist governments. But how many people have actually read the manifesto?

8. The Tao Te Ching


The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese classic, penned by the sage Lao Tsu. The book is second to only the Bible in terms of the numbers of language it’s been translated into. It has been enormously influential in the east. It has been seeping into western thought since it’s translation in the mid eighteen hundreds.

Carl Jung was influenced by the Tao Te Ching. Many of the new agers, from Wayne Dyer to The Secret, will quote freely from the Tao Te Ching.

But reading the book is another story. It’s an ancient spiritual text and it tends to be dense and obscure at times, not what you would call light reading. Which explains why so many people talk about it, own it, but few have actually read it.

That’s my list. What books would you add?

Shield Maidens, Bell Curves and Strong Women

The recent discovery that half of Viking warriors were women has shaken a lot of people’s world view. Of course, it has also already led to a backlash of why “that’s not what the study really said.” As someone who read The Prehistory of Sex when it first came out in 1997 and who has followed this debate for some time, it’s another in a long string of studies that shows the same two things. Trying to determine the sex of remains by the type of grave goods found with them reinforces gender stereotypes and is highly inaccurate. Secondly, whether the ratio ever hit fifty percent or not, women warriors were not as uncommon as many would like to think.

The assumption of our sexist society is that our view of gender is rooted in ancient history and in practical concerns of those times. In the rugged kill or be killed world of ancient times, men were hunters and warriors and women mothers and gatherers. This is not, we have been taught, because of sexism. Men are simply stronger than women and that makes them better warriors. And yet the Vikings seem to fly in the face of all that.

Are men stronger than women?

The best answer is yes, but…

1. The Bell Curve

Statistics don’t lie, but they are a great way to mislead. Nowhere is there a better example than the relative strength of men and women.

For starters it depends a lot on how your measure strength. Men have broader shoulders and that gives them better leverage. On measures of upper body strength men tend to outperform women by a wide margin in many studies. Measures of lower body strength tend to be much closer to equal.

Men tend to be larger than women, so the average man has more muscle mass. Again this leads to men being stronger in many fitness test. But pound for pound, muscle is muscle. There is no male muscle or female muscle. If you test two people who are equally fit and have the same lean body weight, the difference evaporates.

Back in 1994 Charles Murray and Richard Hernestein raised a lot of controversy by using the statistical method known as the Bell Curve to prove their sexist and racist assumptions about America. I have always found the title somewhat ironic, since the bell curve also shows the real problem with their assumptions.

If we plot a bell curve showing the average strength of men and women, we find the two curves overlap significantly. What that means is that while the average score for men might be higher, a significant percentage of the female population is stronger than the average man.

This is pretty much true of all gender based distinctions. They are true in general but the exceptions make up such a significant minority that it throws the result into question.

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

When people say things like men are x% stronger than women, many of us have this image of lining all the men and women up side by side. And the men will all lift x% more than the woman next to them. But that’s not how it works. Some of the men will be stronger than the woman next to them and some of the woman will be stronger. Once you’ve tested everyone and regrouped them according to strength, you will find more men in the stronger category, but a fair number of women as well. Do you tell this minority of women they must stay home from the war because their sex is, on average, weaker? If you are a smart Viking captain the answer will be no. Take the strong, leave the weak, regardless of gender.

2. Practical differences

The second problem with the notion that men are stronger than women is that no one questions to what extent this statistical difference translates into a practical one. According to this post on the average joe, the average man can bench press 145 pounds and the average woman 60 pounds. That’s modern Americans and that’s a pretty big difference. They can squat 165 pounds for men and 105 for women. There are a number of reasons why ancient Viking men and women were probably much closer in strength.

How important is this strength difference in combat? That’s a fair question.

Here is a list of medieval weapons with their size and weight listed. Looking at the list we see that a scandinavian sword from the ninth century was 30 inches long and weighed just under three pounds. The largest two handed sword on the list runs about 14 pounds. The common fantasy trope of a woman picking up a man’s weapon and staggering under the weight is an exaggeration at best. None of these weapons are too heavy for the average modern female to lift or swing, let alone a shield maiden.

Swing: I am transgender. I am also a hippy. I used to live in the country. We chopped wood and heated our trailer with a woodstove. I got good with an axe. I still own that land and we still go out there on the weekends. Now that I have transitioned and I don’t have the testosterone I once had, I don’t have nearly the same upper body strength. My sixteen year old son is probably stronger than me, but I can out chop him with the axe because I have more experience. The secret is to use the momentum of the axe, rather than brute force.I have no idea how I would fare on a Viking battlefield, but the same dynamic applies with swords and battle axes. It’s not always the one who can throw the most brute force behind an attack that’s going to win. A weaker warrior, with better skill and timing can bring down a stronger one readily.

People who really want to make the argument that stronger (male) is better than the weaker (female) can always look to the late medieval period, when plate armor and heavy sword and shield combinations were common. But to argue that a relative small difference in strength made women unfit to wield a Viking axe or sword is difficult at best.

Stab: So what if women’s upper body strength does translate to a disadvantage on the battlefield? The idea of two Viking men dueling mono a mono with swords is largely a myth, one they themselves perpetuate in their saga literature. Those duels were major events of the sagas, but a minor portion of their battlefield tactics. Many Vikings fought with spears. Spears are a thrusting weapon. It relies much more on lower body strength, especially in a charge. Even if you don’t have them wielding axes and swords in combat, a group of shield maidens charging with spears is just as effective as a group of men.

Shoot:  The Viking bow had a draw strength of up to 90 pounds. The average modern American woman might struggle with that, but a conditioned woman wouldn’t. And shooting a bow is a matter of skill, not brute strength. Here is another place where men and women have a practical equality even if men are statistically stronger.

Think: There is a lot more to fighting and war than charging blindly into battle. A crafty warrior often defeats a bigger, stronger one. Strength is but one factor on the battlefield. If you think women can’t be as crafty or devious as men, you don’t know many women.

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Girl in armor with a sword knight

Survive: History buffs will know this already, but in ancient times it was not uncommon for armies to lose more men from starvation and disease on the way to the war then in battle. Life was difficult in the best of times. For soldiers in the field it was brutal. They marched for weeks on near starvation rations. Poor hygiene led to epidemics of disease. Poor sanitation and no knowledge of infection meant that many of those injured in battle died of infections between battles.While statistics almost invariably show men to have greater brute strength, they just as consistently show women to have greater constitutional strength. In natural disasters women tend to have a higher survival rate than men. (A lot of this can be chalked up to simple estrogen and body fat. Higher body fat gives women a bigger cushion against malnutrition.) If you are considering who to take on a long campaign with you, this might figure into your thinking. The point of all this comes to this: being able to lift more weight over your head doesn’t necessarily translate into being a better warrior, or having a better chance at survival. There are many factors and brute strength is just one of them.

3. Outliers and Modern Athletics

If the difference between men and women are insignificant, why do men outperform women in almost every athletic field today? Doesn’t that prove that the difference is significant?

Not really. The problem is the highly competitive nature of most sports and outliers. Outliers are people that fall outside the statistical norms. Because of the competitive nature of most sports, professional athletes are all outliers, people who score well outside the normal range on any number of physical measurements.

The practical issue is that even a small difference of mean scores can translate into large differences at the end. For example a bench press weight that puts you in the top 5% of men might be the top 1% of women. For a real life example, Becca Swanson, the strongest woman in America can bench press 600 pounds. The number of men who have achieved that extraordinary feat numbers about 58. Becca proves that some women can compete with men even in the arena of brute strength, but she also shows just how outnumbered the women are at that level of competition.

When you are dealing with professional athletes you get a statistical double whammy because the events and results are also at the very edge of the statistical norm. Tiny differences in conditioning and training can equal much larger differences in the end result. The fastest marathon time by a man is twelve minutes faster than the fastest time by a woman. A marathon is over 26 miles, so that man ran about 46 seconds faster each mile. Meanwhile if you compare Usain Bolt’s men’s world record 100 meter dash to Florence Joyner’s time for women, the difference is just a hair shy of one second.

And, yes, at that level of performance biologically driven difference between men and women probably plays a role. Men are larger, on average, and have bigger ribcages and that means more capacity to move oxygen (critical to running). Men have more testosterone and other androgens, which play a critical role in conditioning. However the more research I do, the less conclusive the results seem. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that pound for pound, a conditioned female athlete is equal to a male athlete, there’s just fewer of them around.

 

What does that have to do with shield maidens?

Nothing, and that’s my whole point.

If King Haakon is picking the biggest, strongest warriors in all of Norway to be in his bodyguard, there is a good chance that it will stacked with more men, because men tend to be bigger. But if the average chieftain is deciding who gets to carry a spear and defend the village at need, there is likely to be a more even mix. A one second difference in rushing speed isn’t going to make a big practical difference when both runners are carrying spears and trying to spill your blood.

Conclusion

While this new finding may have shocked many, those familiar with Norse history expected as much. A generation of archaeologists and palaeontologists have been questioning the age old practice of sexing remains based on burial goods. It has created self reinforcing gender stereotypes. We assume that only men are warriors and only warriors would be buried with weapons. Then we assume any grave that contains weapons must be a male grave. As forensic science and DNA testing becomes more important tools, we are discovering these assumptions wrong.

Those of who have read some of Iceland’s great saga literature will know that it was a far more egalitarian society than later medieval Europe. Shield maidens, women warriors  and strong independent women in general abound. Those who doubt that Viking women were as tough as their men, might find an axe buried in their chest.