Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Going Berserk

When we hear the expression that an individual has “gone berserk” we instinctively know what that term means and therefore can visualize a man or woman losing control of their emotions. The name Berserker (ber for “bear” and serkr for “coat”) was given to an ancient Norse warrior who, rather than wear the standard chain mail attire into combat, instead wore a bear skin coat and therefore became known as Berserkr. And, as this particular warrior was renowned for his rage and fury during battle, the term berserk quickly became identified with anyone who behaved in a frenzied or crazy manner.

During the 7th and 8th centuries Vikings often invaded England because there was little resistance from the villagers and the island was easy to reach across the North Sea. Their prime targets were churches because the Vikings knew this was where they would find gold or silver candlesticks and other valuables. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a contemporaneous account written by monks, and includes 1000 years of English history, describes in detail when and how the Vikings invaded England. The monks describe how the beautiful monasteries were burned to the ground by the Vikings and that, “… they made that which was very great such that it became nothing.”

The Vikings were soldier-sailors and highly skilled oarsmen. Their callused hands allowed them to row for long periods of time. The rhythmic pull of 16 or more professional warriors on each side of the boat allowed them to stealthily approach a village and then, attack, loot and withdraw without loss of life. While traveling, their wooden shields hung on the outside of the boat like badges of victory. When they attacked, they wore a kind of chain mail, conical steel helmets and wielded terrifying iron axes that were capable of inflicting mortal wounds.

The church of St. Botolph’s nestled in the quiet countryside of Essex, England, was perfect a target for Vikings attacks, but it seems that it played a part in the tragic end of at least one Viking. The centuries-old legend of St. Botolph describes the capture of a Danish pirate by the men of the village. The pirate blasphemed and ridiculed the village folk and the monks for their belief in Christianity. Legend has it that the pirate was flayed alive, and his skin was nailed to the church door. A few years ago, the church door at St. Botolph’s had to be removed for repairs. To the amazement of the workmen, they discovered a substance under the hinges of the door. It was collected and sent for analysis, and was found to be of human origin. Was there some truth to the ancient legend? Was this the skin that of the Danish pirate who was accused of heresy? The skin is now displayed at the museum at Saffron Walden, Essex.

St. Botolph’s Church in Hadstock, Essex, England is mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records and holds the record as being the oldest constantly used church door in England (circa 1020).

Extraordinary Places...Close to London. ISBN 0-8038-2031-3