Architecture as mirror of an ambiguous society

Therefore everything, like moral, faith
and power struggles shall be expressed here:
political murders as well as goodness;
humanity as well as divinity;

life as well as death

Frands Herschend

 

 

Vikings were a breed of sailors, explorers, warriors and plunderers, but it wasn’t always like this. At the beginning of their era, Vikings were a quiet and flat society, and their dwellings were anonymous as well. Langhus type construction consists indeed of a long, proportionately narrow, single-room building with a simple structure made out of wooden plank walls, stout four-sided posts and very light or no foundations. This multi-functional type, with its almost infinitely repeatable structure, housed every functional and ideological need. It was at the same time residential, religious, commercial, political and even, in its Trelleborg type composition, military building. Constructed with a traditional building style, the langhus originally represented a way of expressing the single as a member of a collective, mirroring a symmetrical and homogeneous society with few hierarchies and no clear distinction between the sacred and the profane.

However, around the 6th century the Viking society went through a linguistic, religious and technological shift due to an increased focus on war and thus to the emergence of a new warrior élite and the associated comitatus structure, the reciprocal mechanism of chieftain and retainers. These much more complex but at the same time more dynamic power relations would characterize the future Viking feudal structure.

In this fusion between the military and the economic power, individuality became a public social concept embodied by a more representative architecture that lead the langhus type to grow in dimensions and sophistication. Here the origins of what would later be the medieval hall. Once established this social hierarchy, architecture was the main means for showing the hall owner leadership, allowing comparison with other competitors. Therefore the position in the landscape and the outer appearance were meant to reflect the primus inter pares, turning a multi-functional type into a competitive architecture.

The hall as an institution soon became the interface between the private and the public. But the extremely democratic res publica of the Late Iron Age society could not be satisfied solely by the hall, denying the free men assembly influence. Since the leader’s prestige was closely related to the gifts he could distribute, feasts became a fundamental political instrument to achieve a consensus of the people. This struggling between the individual and the collective is clear in the way the type tried to represent both the traditional building style and the aspiration towards individuality. This ambiguity became evident in structural, functional and flows compromises.

The general tendency for more and more spacious buildings with fewer posts and higher walls led to construction issues that found answer in the curved long walls and the outer sloping supports posts needed to bear the much heavier roof and to stabilise the all structure. The monumental posts were perhaps anchored in the ground but they were also holding up the sky metaphorically establishing the hall centrality in the village.

This radical social change is reflected as well in the addition of several entrances to the original two access scheme. Entrances are fundamental to understand spatial and social hierarchies, because they regulate access to the different spaces, marking the status of the entrant by the mode of entry. The hall’s spatial ordering was therefore an instrument for exercising power and enhancing differences with the dramatic result that some inhabitants were an extension of the household in the same way as their space was an extension of the classical langhus.

Contrary to the entrance pattern, the arrangement of the hearth came from the traditional dwelling quarters and it couldn’t be changed despite the fact that the hearth in the hall was not meant for cooking, but solely to provide light and heat. Hearths turned then from social centre for all to political centre for few.

Displaying simultaneously tradition as well as change, the deformed langhus type did not hide the ambiguities that were necessary to implement and euphemise the ruler’s power and the hierarchy’s apparatus.

* * *

sources:
_Tom Christensen, Lejre beyond legend, Copenhagen, 1991.
_The idea of the good in Late Iron Age society, Uppsala, 1998.
_VVAA, Borg in Lofoten, Trondheim 2003.
_Marianne Hem Eriksen, Between the real and ideal, Oslo, 2010.

_www.viking.ucla.edu

drawings:

_author