Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.

I have written on this blog before about sensationalism and the kind of mixed reaction I have to it. I’ve had several conversations recently, though, that had me thinking about it again. As always, I’m just thinking out loud here — quite unsure how I feel.

So if we’re going to talk about sensationalism, let’s talk about berserkers.


So, if you’re like most people, when you think of the Viking period, you think of berserkers — fearsome warriors clad in bear or wolf skins who would go into an unstoppable battle frenzy! Everyone likes a good berserker, and they turn up in everything from the TV show to games about the period. You can see a few such characters I’ve painted up for wargames above, so don’t imagine that I’m immune to the fascination.

The berserker image is potent, and it’s potent because it’s simple — giving up everything and surrendering yourself to this overwhelming fury. It’s the simplicity that gives it its intensity, and the intensity that gives it its popularity. But like all very simple images, it’s an oversimplification.

I recently watched a video about berserkers by Nikolas “lindybeige” Lloyd, which I thought was very good, although in my view it comes to too sweeping a conclusion: “it wasn’t like this, it was like that,” instead of it “it wasn’t like this, we’re not sure what the deal was,” which I think is where the evidence points.

If you’re interested in reading more, I would check out Berserkjablogg, which I think (I should have written it down) is run by lindybeige’s source. In particular, the cited passages are in this post. Based on the literary evidence — and that’s a whole extra kettle of fish right there, of course, but since the literary evidence is largely where our berserker image comes from, it might as well be what we use to criticise it — it seems like we’re seeing much more complicated, some kind of understood social identity of being a berserk. This identity had something to do with animal qualities, but it doesn’t mean that some kind of unreasoning frenzy was a psychological reality for the Vikings particularly.

Now, to me, that’s actually much more interesting. But just like everyone else, it’s the sensational, romantic version of the thing that attracted me in the first place. And although I don’t hate to lose it — I can keep the fantasy version in my head with the real one with no problem — I do feel like on the one hand I want to deplore the way movies and games simplify everything while on the other hand I want to … revel in it?

Sensationalism, romanticism and all that stuff.

Sensationalism. Sensationalism never changes.

The modern media bombards viewers and readers with an image of Super-Action History, that period when everything was always exploding in slow motion and everyone was covered in filth. Popular history books are written to spark controversy in hopes that this will lead to sales. Ah, for the old days, when dignified dons issued thoughtful examinations of the works of the ancients —

cannibalcover cannibalback



Well, you know how publishers are always slapping crazy lurid covers on perfectly respectable books, maybe it’s like that  …

… well, kinda.

What author Garry Hogg appears to have done is an old pop-anthropology trick. He’s taken most of his info from various travel accounts, missionaries’ memoirs, and so on, and presents them with a pretty even-handed tone. So there’s a contrast between Hogg’s tone and the excitable tone of his sources. But he also writes things like this:

Broadly speaking, however, anthropologists are agreed that where cannibalism exists as a long-established feature of the social life of a community … it originated in one or other of several distinct forms. It may be connected with religious ceremonial; it may have magical significance; it may be the ultimate result of a temporary and unwelcome farinaceous diet which led to experimenting with human flesh as food. This last would be a catastrophic form of experiment, for it has been widely found that when the taste for human flesh is once indulged, such taste quickly develops into a fierce and eventually unappeasable lust for flesh which no mere animal flesh can ever satisfy; thus the stages of degradation in gluttony succeed one another inexorably.

Now, I suppose I have some kind of tribal obligation to sneer at anthropologists or something, but I am almost certain they don’t say things like “thus the stages of degradation in gluttony succeed one another inexorably.” I’m also pretty sure that anthropological research on cannibalism suggests that it’s often part of very complicated kinship or other social structures, rather than a diabolical hankering for vittles ye cain’t raise nor buy.

Anyway. The other cool part of this story is that there is a bookseller near my house. It isn’t usually open to the public, I don’t think, since it mainly does book fairs and online sales. They had an open weekend on Saturday, and I went along. Lots of discounts. I grabbed up some bargain books, and was about to leave when I saw this lurid little paperback for £1.50, so I grabbed it as well. When I took it up to the till, he gave it to me for free with the other books I was buying. So that was pretty cool. If there is another open day, I’ll definitely be back.

And another trashy post-war paperback goes on the shelves to be pulled out in some future hour of need.

Sensationalism. Sensationalism never changes.