When a Civilization Retreats

A Case Study of Norse Civilization and Some Reflections on the Methodology of the Study of Civilization

Usually when a civilization goes into decline, its geographical extent contracts at the same time as its social and political institutions lose complexity, so that contraction and loss of complexity are correlated for causal reasons. One could distinguish the cases in which territorial contraction (perhaps caused by aggression by a neighboring power) causes loss of institutional complexity, and those cases in which the loss of institutional complexity causes the loss of territory.

While the correlation of institutional collapse and territorial contraction is a common one of decline, there may be cases in which geographical contraction can be isolated from loss of institutional complexity, so that a civilization might experience geographical contraction without loss of institutional complexity, or loss of institutional complexity without experiencing geographical contraction. In the latter case of a loss of complexity without geographical contraction, the sudden, catastrophic failure of a civilization would fulfill this condition, as such a sudden and catastrophic failure would leave no time for the civilization to contract. The former case of geographical contraction without loss of institutional complexity is what I have in mind in invoking the idea of civilization in retreat.

If I can further invoke Norse civilization as a distinct historical entity, more comprehensive than Viking civilization, as it would have spanned both the Viking period and the period of early Christian Scandinavia, before the Scandinavian kingdoms were more closely integrated into continental European civilization, we could then speak of a period of civilization in northern Europe comprising almost a thousand years of largely autonomous civilizational development. The construct of Nordic civilization would also span the difference between the partially nomadic Viking civilization, with its central project to be found in voyaging, raiding, and trading, and the later more settled, Christian iteration, in which the distinctive mythology of Scandinavia was abandoned, as was the voyaging, raiding, and trading for the most part.

Norse civilization during the Viking period expanded west across the North Atlantic during the period that we now call the Medieval Warm Period (or the Medieval Climate Optimum), from about 950 to 1250 AD. These unusual conditions allowed Norse longships to cross the North Atlantic and to established colonies in Greenland and L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland, thus making it all the way to North America. The Norse presence on Greenland and Newfoundland was never large — we could say that it was not demographically significant, unlike, e.g., the Norse presence in Iceland — but the Norse settlements on Greenland endured for hundreds of years (from about 980 to 1409 AD), with several thousand residents and about four hundred farms identified by archaeologists. While the earlier warm period made travel and agriculture in the North Atlantic possible, the subsequent cooling known as the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1850) made both more difficult.

We can imagine an alternative history in which the climate optimum endured for a longer period of time, and Norse settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland grew into cities and eventually into a an outpost of Norse civilization capable of surviving through adverse climate conditions, and which could work its way down the coast to the bulk of the Americas, in the same way that the Spanish, and later the Dutch, British, French, and Portuguese explored north and south from Columbus’ first landings in the Caribbean. Norse civilization continued on Iceland, and one could argue that it entered its most brilliant period even as the territorial extent of Norse civilization was contracting, as most of the Icelandic saga literature was written during the 13 thand 14 thcenturies, after the end of the Medieval Warm Period, when we can infer that life and Iceland became more difficult than it had been in preceding centuries.

As with the later Homeric account of heroes during the Greek dark ages, the Icelandic saga literature was written hundreds of years after the fact to celebrate the deeds of earlier men, though the Viking protagonists of many of these sagas are only distantly related (in a literary sense) to the heroic paradigm among the Greeks. What is consistent is that the deeds and achievements of men during a period of marginal literacy were later recounted during an age of more established literacy, and that deeds of Norse warriors were celebrated in Skaldic poetry as the deeds of Greek warriors were celebrated in Homeric poetry.

The history of Norse civilization taken whole involves the submergence of its earlier form — we could say that the Christianization of the Scandinavians was a process of submergence that unfolded over almost five hundred years, and, after that process was complete, Scandinavia was fully incorporated into continental European civilization and no longer represented a distinct civilization. In other words, Norse civilization underwent a complete institutional transformation — the transformation of its economic infrastructure (from raiding and trading to manorial agriculture), its conceptual framework (from a framework inherited from iron age paganism to the template provided by post-Axial Christendom), and its central project (from Norse mythology to Christian mythology) — and, by the time that transformation was complete, Norse civilization had vanished. Either Norse civilization was then extinct, or it had become permanently submerged.

There is considerable evidence of the period during which ideas of Viking mythology and Christianity were both found in Norse society (i.e., the period of institutional transformation). There is a casting mould with spaces for two crosses and one Thor’s hammer (above), so that an enterprising manufacturer of jewelry could serve both the pagan and Christian markets (cf. Christianity comes to Denmark). Both headstones and grave goods have both pagan and Christian symbols. The earliest Christian art in Scandinavia is Viking in character, as in the Jelling stone depiction of Christ surrounded by elaborate woven motifs found in Viking art; such patterns are also found in the carved decoration of Stave churches in Norway, especially at Urnes. It has also been observed that some jewelry of the period can pass as either a cross or Thor’s hammer (cf. Thor’s Hammers Disguised as Crucifixes), which could constitute a subtle form of resistance against imposed Christianity (below).

The conceptual framework of Christendom that Viking civilization took over with Christianization was more complex than the conceptual framework of the Vikings themselves, so that the transformation within Norse society involved an increase in complexity of the conceptual framework. Christianity by this time already possessed a millennium of Christian-specific scholarship, as well as possessing a growing network of universities in continental Europe that were in the process of assimilating the intellectual heritage of classical antiquity, and synthesizing this with the Christian tradition.

The economic infrastructure of the Vikings was complex, with trade networks extending from Greenland to Constantinople; no trading network of this scope and scale could have survived over hundreds of years without considerable intelligent management. Whether the transition to manorial agriculture represented a decrease in economic complexity, once the Norse were no longer free to plunder from other Christian peoples, is a question that could only be answered by a detailed survey and comparisons of the economic institutions of these two phases of Norse civilization. However, it should be observed that, shortly after Christianization, Scandinavians were drawn into the trading network of the Hanseatic League, so that it is likely that native commercial talent and any remnant of trading expertise from the Viking period would have been funneled into this outlet with little loss of complexity. (We do not at present have a method for assessing the economic complexity of historical societies, though there are many possible measures that might be adopted; considerable research would be involved in the application of any metric chosen as a proxy for economic complexity.)

The central project of Viking mythology and Christian mythology are probably within the same order of magnitude of complexity. The considerable advantage that Christianity had in terms of an explicitly elaborated theology belongs to the conceptual framework rather than to the central project proper. That great distinction between the two is qualitative, rather than quantitative. Christianity belongs to the class of post-Axial Age religious traditions (like Buddhism before and Islam after) that emphasized the transformation of the individual moral consciousness upon conversion, and which actively invested resources in proselytization, in order to more effectively and widely attain that transformation of the individual moral consciousness, achieving a networking of the faithful through shared personal experience. Viking mythology belongs to a tradition of belief still continuous from the Neolithic, and, before that, continuous with the Paleolithic and indeed with the origins of humanity, in which the ordinary business of life is rendered sacred through ancient rituals of unknown origin. There is no conception of the transformation of the individual moral consciousness, and virtually no conversion or proselytization. The argument could be made that these traditions are incommensurable, but by objective measures it would be difficult to say that one mythological tradition is more complex than the other (though it could be argued that post-Axial traditions involve greater moral complexity).

Viking civilization was expansionary from at least 789 (with the Viking attack on the Isle of Portland) through the early years of the 11th century, when Christianization began the transformation of Viking civilization into Norse Christian civilization. Arguably, Christian civilization was expansionary from 312 AD (the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Constantine the Great came into complete control of the Roman Empire, until the late 19 thor early 20 thcentury (with the final efflorescence of expansionary Christianity being the “ muscular Christianity “ of the British Empire). While it is relatively easy to understand how the exhausted paganism of late antiquity gave way before a youthful and energetic Christianity, it is more difficult to understand the conversion of the Vikings by a faith already a thousand years old. The longer expansionary trajectory of a larger and more complex Christian civilization may explain why the vigorous paganism of the Vikings gave way to Christian conversion.

Viking civilization ceased to be expansionary at some time in the 11th century, and with the onset of the Little Ice Age the territorial extent of that civilization, now transformed into Norse Christian civilization, contracted. The final date we have for the Norse on Greenland is 1409, though it is believed that some of the settlements may have continued to about 1500 (cf. McGovern, T. H. 1980. Cows, harp seals, and churchbells: Adaptation and extinction in Norse Greenland. Human Ecology, 8(3), 245–275. doi:10.1007/bf01561026). In other words, records of the Norse in Greenland suggest that there were Norse still living in Greenland up to the time that Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World, inaugurating a new period in human history. I find it a remarkable reflection that as one era of European settlement of the New World was coming to an end, another era of European settlement of the New World was only beginning.

But there is more that can be gleaned from the experience of Norse civilization (if we allow such a construction) than its contraction simultaneous with Iberian expansion. I began this essay with the idea of using the example of the Norse retreat from Greenland and Newfoundland as an example of the retreat of a civilization from its territorial maximum, without loss of institutional complexity, but the history of the expansion and contraction of Norse civilization suggests lessons for the method of the study of civilization overall.

Of methods for the study of civilization Johann P. Aranson wrote:

“No representative author has ever suggested that civilizational analysis should develop a methodology of its own. There are no good grounds for attempting anything of the kind.”

“Making Contact and Mapping the Terrain” by Johann P. Arnason, in Anthropology and Civilizational Analysis: Eurasian Explorations, edited by Johann P. Arnason and Chris Hann, Albany: SUNY Press, 2018, p. xvi

Aranson’s point is not that we shouldn’t study civilization on its own merits, but the study of civilization is intrinsically inter-disciplinary and therefore no methods unique to the study of civilization need be formulated. I reject this claim. The most obvious example of a methodology specific to the study of civilization is the comparative method. Philip Bagby subtitled his Culture and History, “Prolegomena to the Comparative Study of Civilization.” Indeed, there is a journal specifically devoted to this, the Comparative Civilizations Review published by The International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC). A 1996 paper in this journal, “ Methodological Considerations for the Comparative Study of Civilizations “ by John Mears (Mears, John. 1996. “Methodological Considerations for the Comparative Study of Civilization,” Comparative Civilizations Review: Vol. 34: № 34, Article 2), highlights the concern for methodology. This would seem to be a paradigm case of civilizational analysis developing a methodology of its own, but the fact that there is so little communication between ISCSC and scholars who now use the term “civilizational analysis” to describe their work is typical of the extreme Balkanization of the study of civilization. The historians don’t read the sociologists, the sociologists don’t read the anthropologists, and the anthropologists only read those archaeologists who are counted as part of the “four-field approach” to anthropology.

One could argue that there is nothing about the comparative method that is distinctive about civilization; taxonomists have been discussing comparative anatomy for centuries. This is true. One also could make the claim that what is distinctive is that the object of comparison is civilization, and not some other object of knowledge. This is true also. But perhaps this is not a fruitful line of inquiry, so we will leave it for now, marked for possible consideration at a later date.

Whether or not the comparative method in the study of civilization is a distinctive methodology, and whether or not it is a distinctive methodology for the study of civilization in particular, and, as a distinctive methodology, constitutes a methodology specific to the study of civilization, my above exposition of the concept of Norse civilization, which is comprised of both Viking civilization and distinctively Norse Christian civilization, does suggest a methodology peculiar to the study of civilization.

We can distinguish two movements of thought in the attempt to capture the picture of a civilization, which I will call upward construction and downward analysis (not the best terminology, I will acknowledge, but hopefully the meanings will be intuitively obvious once explained). In upward construction, we ascend from the historical particularity of a given civilization to more comprehensive civilizational formations of which the civilization from which we started is a part, or an expression. In downward analysis, we descend from the formation of civilization with which we began to some civilizational minimum that represents one expression (usually one among many) of the formation with which we began.

In the spirit of upward construction, we have already brought together Viking civilization and Norse Christian civilization into a larger whole of Norse civilization of which both were a part. Continuing the constructive ascent, we would show Norse civilization as a part of European civilization, European civilization as a part of western civilization, and western civilization as a part of planetary civilization. At our present stage of development, upward construction terminates at the planetary scale, although if humanity becomes a spacefaring multi-planetary species, upward construction will expand into more comprehensive formations of civilization beyond the planetary.

In the spirit of downward analysis, we descend to the smallest units of civilization within Norse civilization (or any civilization so subjected to analysis), so that we might identify a Newfoundland Norse civilization or a Greenland Norse civilization. The Secrets of the Dead episode “The Lost Vikings” called the Norse settlements on Greenland a “once prosperous civilization,” so this is not unprecedented. While few would be likely to individuate a distinctive Newfoundland Norse civilization, probably there would be little objection to identifying a distinctive Icelandic Norse civilization. The details of our definition of civilization — specifically, the quantification of institutions — would determine the civilizational minimum by which we would individuate a distinctive civilization.

Formulating the ideas of upward construction and downward analysis within what I have called orders of civilization, constructive ascent is the passage from civilization of the zeroeth order to civilization of the fourth order (or some fragment of this passage, say, from civilization of the first order to civilization of the second order), while analytic descent is the passage from civilization of the fourth order to civilization of the zeroeth order (or some fragment of this passage, say, from civilization of the third order to civilization of the second order). The first movement of thought, upward construction, brings us to more comprehensive formulations of civilization, while the second movement of thought, downward analysis, brings us to less comprehensive formulations, and ultimately to formations below the threshold of civilization and therefore what I have called civilization of the zeroeth order.

These methods of upward construction and downward analysis, when formulated in terms of the orders of civilization (which is a conceptual framework unique to the study of civilization), constitutes a methodology distinctive to the study of civilization, and the grounds for this methodology are that we need a way to explicitly and systematically discuss hierarchies with any taxonomy of civilization.

In the Mears paper noted above, Mears begins: “Any discussion of comparative approaches to the study of civilizations should begin with the problem of taxonomy.” I have implicitly followed this imperative, but I have also recognized that we cannot construct a systematic taxonomy without a consistent definition of civilization. I have defined a civilization as an economic infrastructure joined to a conceptual framework by a central project. Given this definition, I can produce a taxonomy of civilizations, and, given a taxonomy of civilizations, we can work our way up or down the taxonomy by means of upward construction or downward analysis. I have employed these methods to distinguish formations of civilization as it has appeared and developed among the Scandinavian peoples, from Neolithic proto-civilization through Viking civilization, Norse Christian civilization, and its eventual submergence within western civilization. The submergence of Norse civilization within western civilization could be called Norse para-civilization (which serves to give further content to the idea of para-civilization). This conceptual framework and its associated methods can be similarly employed in the analysis of other traditions of civilization.

Originally published at http://geopolicraticus.wordpress.com on August 20, 2020.

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