Interview with Vicki Ellen Szabo

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Vicki Szabo is an Associate Professor at Western Carolina University.  After receiving her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from Cornell University, Dr. Szabo continued her research on the medieval North Atlantic, the history of whaling, and environmental history.   Her latest book is Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea: Whaling in the Medieval North Atlantic.

1. You begin your book by noting that until now medieval historians usually saw whales and whaling as a kind of fringe sideline activity, and thus not very important, but you argue something very different. Could you give us an outline of what you are writing about?

For my first paper in graduate school in Anglo-Saxon history / archaeology, I chose to work on women’s literacy and authorship. I was looking for examples of the aforementioned and came across a weaving sword with two inscriptions of a woman’s name – the author contended that one hand was fine, the other rough. He thought the owner of the sword had practiced writing her name. But what stunned me was the material of the object – it was a whale bone weaving sword. I had never before thought about the use of whale bone in the Middle Ages, and I was hooked. What I found thereafter on this subject was minimal and largely assumption – whales were used when stranded but not sought out. I wanted to know how and why we knew they were not hunted and sought out.  So the project began. I compiled all references I could find, focusing on northern Europe. The greatest body of information came from Iceland – laws, sagas, etc. Not archaeology, though – the most whale bone objects I found were in Norse settlements across Scotland. So – my project came into existence. I decided to pursue an interdisciplinary project that sought to somehow quantify or explain whale use, beyond those very simple assertions that whales were just opportunistically used. That was my dissertation. I focused on five archaeological sites in the Orkney Islands as a case study, from which I tried (tried… Not sure how successful that was) to say a little something more about how whales were acquired.

The book was an extension beyond that. Not only were whales used and used in patterned and legislated ways, but whales occupied medieval minds in similar ways as other animals. Whales were conceived of in complex ways from antiquity through the Middle Ages. So – I needed to put whales both in natural and human contexts, conceptual, material, economic, etc.

The end result was what I hope is a fairly holistic and rounded approach to one resource in one corner of the medieval world…..

2. Your work on this project took you into several fields of research - art, archaeology, ecology, ethnography, literary, legal, and historical sources – how did you go about working with all these approaches?

Gradually. It was a blessing to be able to switch fields when I got fed up with bone analysis or textual analysis, but I tried to tread lightly and consult peers in other fields when approaching new information and disciplines. I was pretty broadly trained as an undergraduate, having studied history at college, but having spent summers on various archaeological sites in northern Michigan (colonial fur-trading fort Michilimackinac) or Scotland (Whithorn monastery, and a Norse site on the island of Westray). When I came to grad school at Cornell, I already approached the Middle Ages in an interdisciplinary way and I took courses in art, anthropology, history, literature, etc. My committee also consisted of a historian, a Maya archaeologist, an Anglo-Saxonist, and an Arctic archaeologist. While this is an approach that makes employment tricky (what dept. does an interdisciplinary scholar belong in???), it is a really sound and holistic way to approach the past, I think.

In practice, this approach involved a LOT of reading and the bibliography reflects some of that. One of my readers for my dissertation complained that my bibliography was padded – it wasn’t. I had to read really broadly to prep so many fields. One of my own Masters students here at Western Carolina made the same comment as she defended her thesis – she was shocked that her research on comparative Greek / Medieval prostitution took her to so many pottery studies, funerary studies, etc etc.

3. You write that for medieval peoples whales “were not just part of nature, they transcended it.”  Could you tell us a little more about how medieval (and ancient people) saw and imagined these creatures?

I think today we are mystified by whales – medieval folk were certainly no different. The immensity of some species is just mind-blowing. Imagine even bigger whales, though – which we we think swam the oceans in much greater numbers in the Middle Ages. The largest whales were hunted out of existence during industrial whaling, so imagine massive great Sperm whales maybe washing ashore. Medieval responses would have been in some ways the same as ours – awe and fascination especially. However, they would not possess the same sadness perhaps as we do. I conclude my book with an example of the Thames whale – the bottlenose whale that stranded a few years ago. I think that’s perhaps the best example of different responses. While we tried to save the whale, they would have scrutinized it. They would have wondered whether it was a good or bad whale. Most likely they would have simply butchered it, fought over the bones and blubber, and then eaten it. It’s tough to reconstruct theory and practice, I think. Theory – whales are invested with all kinds of meaning, as all animals were. They could be symbols, they could be divine or demonic, they could also represent submission to man’s dominion (except of course when you’re in their turf, so to speak on the sea and then they were clearly masters). But, in practice, did those ideas impact the way medieval people used whales – maybe, maybe not. Most people would have seen meat and fuel, whereas we see a smart, social animal that we have, as a human culture, largely anthropomorphised with human sentiment.

4. One of the challenges for you in your research was to estimate the population of whales in the medieval North Atlantic.  How did you approach working on this problem, when it is even difficult today to estimate current whale populations?

This is not an especially eloquent response, but I simply used the extrapolated figures provided by the governing body of the international whaling commission (IWC). Whale population estimates are so controversial – whaling states (Japan, Norway, others) have their own data that is often, as you can imagine, extremely different that figures provided by the IWC. I typically defer to the IWC. But this raises an interesting question, which leads to my next project, which is called ORCA, the Online Resource for Cetacean Archaeology. A research partner in Wales (yes) and myself are trying to organize a working group consisting of us, ancient DNA specialists, biologists, zooarchaeologists, etc., to create a database of modern cetacean skeletons to use in reconstructing ancient populations. The real goal is to have a database to use for identification of species from archaeological worked bone, but we realized that once we identify those ancient species, we may be able to contribute something to preindustrial demographic reconstructions, too. I’ve applied for some grants to get this project started. It’s another long term project, but would allow archaeologists not only to identify their materials, and maybe ascertain patterns in species acquisitions on sites, but also to contribute to a much greater project site by site to help reconstruct those early populations.

5. You got asked once, ‘So what will you work on when you’re finished with whales?’ Your answer so far is that you still have a lot more work to do – can you tell us what your future research plans will be?

I’m working on a couple of projects – the first, I describe above – ORCA. The second is brand new. It is in some ways an extension of the whale study, in that a case study from the whales led to the question I’m asking now. There is a famous case of a whale stranded in southern England that becomes a struggle between Anglo-Norman sheriff and church versus local Anglo-Saxon blokes. The rabble claim ancient right to the whale, whereas the Normans cite legal right. It’s an interesting case which led me to ask how indigenous folks made due when traditional rights to coast and forage and field and river and forest were redistributed by colonial powers. I’m studying Orkney, Shetland and Ireland as case studies in periods from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. I also ask whether there is any evidence that leads to a sensibility that colonists don’t use the land properly – whether ideas of “moral ecology” are at play in the Middle Ages. It’s something of an environmental / social history.  The working title is “Colonized Environments, Rural Resistance, and Moral Ecology in Medieval Europe.” I’ll be presenting some of these ideas at the world environmental congress in Copenhagen in August.

We thank Professor Szabo for answering our questions.

Sharan Newman