« PreviousContinue »
were of Gothic origin, bear a strong resemblance to those of our sailors.
In their mode of lodging, the natives of the northern peninsula had still more of rudeness. Having little of comforts and even conveniences, of ornaments they were entirely devoid, except such as they gained by piracy or on foreign service. In the primitive times, like all semi-barbarians, they dwelt in scattered huts, roofed with the skins of wild beasts or the bark of trees. But, when religion taught them to erect temples to the gods, the concourse of people who came to offer prayers and sacrifices, induced them to build round about these holy places, for convenience and protection; and thus towns insensibly arose. The same took place, and for the same causes, in the environs of the castles of kings and great lords; as in the rest of Europe, in the feudal times, a strong baronial fortress or a monastery formed the nucleus of a town or village. The houses, of which the towns of the Danes were composed, were, for the most part, mere cottages supported by thick clumsy, mis-shapen posts, joined by boards and covered with turf, the light being admitted from the top; for the use of windows was then unknown. The lowest ranks were lodged not even so well; wretched cabins, ditches, or clefts of rocks, served as retreats in the rigour of winter. There couched on the bare ground, and half covered with skins tacked over their shoulders with thorns, they passed days in a kind of stupor, till their ferocious and rude youth, aroused by some call of war, started forth from their holes and caverns, to conquer a nation of conquering warriors, to fire the palaces of Rome, and to tread under foot so many fair monuments of luxury, arts, and industry.
But it was only the masses, or the dregs, of the people, that lived in such absolute ignorance of all the conveniences of domesticity; between them and the grandees was as great a contrast, as between the denizens of England's luxurious metropolis, and the wild cottiers of Connemara, nestling in their mud-built cabins. For, the Grandees distinguished themselves, at an early age, by their sumptuous edifices.' They prided themselves upon having them of very spacious dimensions, and adorned with elevated towers. A Danish writer* assures us, that the most wealthy of
(3) Mallet, p. 219.
(4) Anagrim Crymag. p. 57.
those Norwegian lords, who settled in Iceland, erected mansions of extraordinary extent. The palace of Ingolph was 135 feet in length, and others were not inferior to this in magnitude ; but it is probable, it was only a sort of inclosure for the accommodation of slaves and cattle. The most valuable ornaments of these palaces were the cielings, on which were carved some memorable exploits of the master of the house or of his ancestors. And the mountaineers of Norway and Sweden have, to this day, remarkable dexterity in the art of sculpture. But the Northern adventurers, who settled in richer countries, soon adopted the luxury of their new fellow-citizens, and emulated them in the erection of costly and tasteful buildings.
But, though this people inhabited a peninsula, abounding with convenient harbours, and were consequently skilled in navigation, their commerce appears to have been at a low ebb. Piracy was the end of their naval expeditions. Enterprise, excitement, and disdain of acquiring, by slow and honest industry, what could be won instantly by the sword, was a constant check upon commercial pursuits in their own, as well as in other regions subject to their visitations; which making property insecure, rendered industry unavailing. But whatever mercantile dealings these military nations may have had, were confined to commerce, or the exchange of commodities; for money was not coined in the three kingdoms of the north before the tenth century; and there is reason to believe it was Canute the Great, who first carried over English workmen into Denmark, and that they struck those small tokens of copper, of which some are still extant, and which bear generally the impress of a cross, sun, or star, without any lettered inscription ; others, however, bear letters on both sides on the extreme circle. Of the latter a specimen may be seen in Speed's History of England. With regard to the pieces of coin, which have been occasionally found in those countries, these are doubtless the remnant of booty, which these plunderers amassed in their predatory excursions.
From their skill in navigation the Danes must have been very studious of astronomy; for a science so indispensable to this art, before the invention of the compass, was numbered among the accomplishments of youth. Thus, in ancient Chronicles it was common to find young warriors vaunting to their unkind mis
tresses, that they could play at chess, skate gracefully on the ice, swim, make verses, and number the stars. In the history of Charles and Grymer, Swedish kings, the gallant Grymer is thus described as an all-accomplished warrior : “He was early distinguished in arms; he knew how to dye the sword in the blood of his enemies, to run over craggy mountains, to wrestle, play at chess, trace the motions of the stars, and to throw far from him
heavy weights. By the time he was twelve years old, no one i could contend with him either with the sword, the bow, or in
wrestling. He frequently showed his skill in the chambers of the damsels, before the king's lovely daughter. Desirous of acquiring her regard, he displayed his dexterity in handling his weapons, and his skill in sciences. At length, he ventured to make this demand: Wilt thou, O fair princess, if I can obtain the king's consent, accept me for a husband ? To which she prudently replied, I must not make that choice myself, but go thou and offer the same proposal to my father.”
For the study of astronomy the clear sky, that glows for the greater part of the year, is very favourable; and had the Northmen been, like the Babylonians, an inland people, they would like these, have turned their minds upwards to the contemplation of the glories of the heavenly host. This science, too, appears to have been all their own, and that they borrowed nothing from the older nations of Asia, is probable from the names greatly different, but equally fantastical, which they gave to the constellations. Thus,
the greater Bear was denominated the great Dog; the lesser Bear, 1
Charles's Wain; the three stars in Orion's belt, Friga's Distaff ; Cygnus or the Swan, the milky way, the road of winter ; &c. But whether they used the knowledge of the stars, only to guide them over the seas, without attempting to read their destinies in them,—whether they debased the noble science of astronomy by the delusions of judicial astrology,—is questionable ; although they pried into futurity with no less ardour and curiosity, and by means no less silly. However, this may be advanced with certainty, that these maritime nations were very exact in regulating the times and seasons, whether it was that religion prescribing certain periodical sacrifices and ceremonies, rendered such regulations necessary, or whether it was from the taste which they
had for the science of numbers. And it is singular, that they counted the unities up to twelve, instead of ten; and this mode is preferable to ours; twelve being a more perfect number, we mean, more easily divisible. But in their division of the year into quarters, months, weeks, days, and hours, they followed the same custom, as the rest of Europe ; with the slight exception, that in their computations they used the word, night, instead of day;' the former being deemed antecedent to the latter; as among the Hebrews : “the evening and the morning were the first day.”. And a relic of this fashion, derived to us from the Saxons, still lingers in England in the phrases of Se'ennight, Fortnight.
That the Scandinavians, till long after the Christian era, were unacquainted with alphabetic writing, is confirmed by two reputable authors, Ælian and Tacitus. The former says that “neither the Thracians nor the other barbarians established in Europe are acquainted with letters, and that they look upon the use of this art as dishonourable, whereas the use of it is known to the barbarians of Asia ;”, the latter historian, that “the men and women are equally ignorant of the use of letters.” 10 But at length their use became common in the north, in the latter ages of Paganism; ' we find kings, celebrated captains, and in general all persons educated with care, writing letters, epitaphs, and inscriptions. The common materials, upon which they wrote, were wood, the bark of the birch-tree, or skins;' the two former being applied to the like purpose by the Romans in the infancy of their republic, as the words Liber and Codex intimate ; and Horace expressly says that ancient laws were carved on wood:
-Leges incidere ligno. Mallet assures us,' “ there are still extant some Runic epistles, and even love-letters, written on pieces of board or bark. Renheilm, a learned Swede, in his notes on the Icelandish Chronicle, entitled Torstein's Wig Saga, cites an ancient billet-doux, contain
(6) Dalin, Hist. I.
245. (7) Non dierum, ut nos, sed noctium numerum computant. Tacitus. (8) Genesis, c. I. (9) Hist. VIII. 6.
(10) Litterarum secreta viri pariter ac fæminæ ignorant. Germ. c. 19. Consult also Pelloutier I. c.10. (1) Verel. Runograph. p. 21.
(2) p. 235.
ring these affecting words : ‘I would rather, young maiden, repose on thy bosom, than possess the riches of the three Indies.” And, e as for those books in the Runic language, they were composed in those times when Christianity began to be prevalent in the north, E as may be easily determined by many proofs, and especially, be
cause Romish characters are found intermixed with the Runic.” Thus far Mallet. The term, Runic, it is scarcely necessary to add, is applied to the language and letters of the ancient Goths, Danes, and other Northern nations.
After what has been said of the character and manners of the Scandinavians, we cannot form a very high opinion of the beauty and harmony of their language. As men invent words, as they acquire ideas-for words are but an embodiment of ideas,- it must have been rude and barren, wholly unfitted to express subtle and abstruse notions. But the people, who spoke it, being free and independent, warlike and empassioned, could not fail of imparting a similar spirit to their language. And in such a tongue there are always admirable points; for such a people, speaking without disguise or restraint, will express themselves with simplicity, freedom, and animation : their words come from the heart; and have energetic brevity, lively turns, and sincere sentiments, to which refined and polite people are little accustomed, from the constraints of education, the fear of ridicule, or of giving offence; in the one, their sentiments are the dictates of nature ; in the other, of art; in the one, all is spoken that is felt; in the other more is concealed, than is spoken. Speech has been bestowed by the Creator as the interpreter of our thoughts ; but by man it is too often perverted for hiding them.
It is beyond all dispute, that the people of Europe, from the farthest east even to the extremity of Spain, formerly spoke the same language, if we except the Sarmatians, that is, the ancestors of the Russians and Poles, who from the earliest times have had a tongue entirely their own; the Greeks, who borrowed many terms from the Orientals and Egyptians; and the Romans, who borrowed, in part, the language of the Greeks. And the Scythian or Celtic language, the parent of that spoken in the Northern peninsula, was preserved entire, in those countries only, of which the Romans never became masters; but even in those, which they occupied a long time, we find sensible traces of that general