Account of the Viking Siege of Paris offers new insights into the early Middle Ages



 
 By Peter Konieczny and Sandra Sadowski

The chance to work on an amazing and unique story was the reason behind Nirmal Dass producing a new edition and translation of a ninth century text that described Viking and Frankish warfare. His recent publication of Viking Attacks on Paris: The Bella Parisiacae Urbis of Abbo of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, is an eyewitness account of the Norsemen’s seige of Paris in the years 885 and 886. It is the first complete English translation of this text.

The poem offers vivid descriptions of warfare in the early Middle Ages and offers scholars interesting insights into the events as well as early medieval French kingship. Dass, who teaches at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada, finds that Abbo also wanted his readers to draw moral lessons about the meaning behind these events. “Behind every event, there is meaning and value,” he said in an interview with Medievalists.net. For the medieval man, “when events happen there is always a reason for it. There are divine and cosmic forces at work.”

While some historians have dismissed Abbo as a “hack poet”, Dass explains he believes the writing was pretty good. The poem is written in a heroic style and metre; this was Abbo’s “Aeneid” with the Frankish defenders portrayed nobly and the Vikings likened to animals. Dass added that they were described as ‘a swarm of bees’ by Abbo.

When asked why he chose this topic, Dass mentioned his love of the early Middle Ages and interest in translation. He holds a Phd in Translation Studies from York University, Toronto. He feels that “translation is one of the most essential vehicles to the study of the past. It’s the foundation to our knowledge…the bedrock of knowledge”.

What surprised Dass most in his research? ‘The ease with which Vikings and Franks conversed. The concept of language was fluid and not pinned down to ethnicity. Communication at this time depended upon the notion that language didn’t have borders’ He stated that, ‘Ethnicity and identity is a modern imposition. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner. This book teaches us that human beings are about ideas. In the Middles Ages, ideas about ethnicity were weak. Franks did not see themselves as related to the Germanic Vikings but viewed themselves as Trojans. Human beings are a construct of ideas. The book is ultimately about civilization and barbarity.’

Dass is now working on translations of several other medieval texts, including accounts of the first and fourth crusades, which although have been translated before, are in need of updating for modern readers and removing the old biases of previous translators. He is also working on a new edition of the Encomium Emmae reginae for Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations, which he describes as “a wonderful history of a wonderful woman” – the 11th century Anglo-Saxon Queen Emma. Dass is also working on a historical fiction novel.