The Viking Toilet at Lille Storfjørd
Climate change is not a simple, linear development. These days each summer is not warmer than the last, although the slow motion of the extremes is visible in the graphs for the past hundred years. And as the Little Ice Age slowly clenched its fist around the Europe of the 15th century, it went for the most part unnoticed. So the winter was bad? There had always been bad winters, and better ones to follow. And did your great-grandfather grow wine here? Well, the land is better suited to wheat, and my Lord prefers his wine French. There were no graphs then to show the slow shift, but the extremes could be felt, where they met other extremes:
As the winters grew harder the rich took to fur, and far to the east Novgorod enjoyed its golden age, growing rich on its trade in the pelts of Siberia through the Hansa to the West.
The reindeer of the north now followed the snow to the south, and those who would hunt them followed. They came under the sway of the Kings of the south, and turned from hunting to herding to pay their taxes.
And far to the west, in a land whose very name was a joke, the laughter died. In some fateful winter of the 1430s, in their land of more ice than Iceland itself, the final stunted and diseased descendents of Eric the Red's settlers slaughtered their breeding animals, ground their seed corn, and succumbed to the ice they had defied for so long.
But some had escaped in time. In the Spring of 1428 (or possibly 1435) Stig Erikssen shook the ice of his home from his feet and lent his considerable strength to the crew of a visiting ship, one of the last to call before the final disaster. He was strong of arm and hot of temper, and was generally known as Stig Halfear because of an incident involving a neighbour's daughter, large amounts of beer, frostbite, and more than a little luck. The neighbour's son had been a foot shorter and considerably less lucky, and Stig had his reasons for leaving.
When he braved the ice to return ten years later in his own ship, not even the bones of his family were to be found.
A man could still live from trading and raiding, but he needed a place to come home to, a hall to drink in of a winter evening and to sing and tell stories before the fire. Stig Halfear had no home to come back to, and seems to have fled the winters over the next few years, trading the treasures of the north in the south in the winter and the luxuries of the south in the northern summer. There are tantalising glimpses of him in the sagas, chronicles and ledgers that have survived. We see him paying wergeld after a fight in Laxdæl, trading in exotic cloths in Dublin, and selling 'the gold of the Baltic' to pay a fine for disorderly conduct in Constantinople. There is even a reference in Rashid al-Rahmen al-Baghdadi's account of his journey to Tana of a "great strong barbarian merchant who is missing half of his right ear, who speaks Arabic as well as he speaks Greek, and both as well as he can sing, which he does loudly and often, and is as charming when sober as he is foul when drunk, and of whom it is said that to suffer a blow of his great fist is less painful than to bargain with him, but neither is as hard as his heart towards the maidens he seduces."
There is no confirmation that this is Stig, but by all accounts the description would have fit him. In the end, however, his heart was softened, and in 1455 his children start to fill the parish records of the beautiful stave church of Bøby, where we read that he and his wife live in Storfjørd, which he owns. No more do we hear of drunkenness and fighting; he seldom leaves his home, and then does not go far. The last account we have of him is from the pen of one Alfredus of Erfurt, a Saxon missionary who made his way up the Norwegian coast in the summer of 1463 searching for left-over pagans to convert. He found none, and when the winter closed in unexpectedly early, it found him in the shelter of Storfjørd and delivered him to the hospitality of its lord. He has this to say in the letter he sent to his bishop the next spring:
The Lord of this Bay is a great man with the strength of two common men, but of uncommon gentleness and hospitality. I was much surprised to hear him converse with his wife, for the language he spoke with her was Greek. When I enquired of her he told me that she was of Constantinople, but would tell me no more. Of appearance she is pale, as are the people of Scotland, but of their language she knows nothing, or does not admit it. It may be that her descent is of slaves and he therefore is unwilling to speak of it. His devotion for her is touching to behold, and would draw forth the scorn of the rough men hereabouts were he less strong or she less comely, although she is a matron and no longer young. And I have indeed heard secret laughter concerning the matter of her privy…
We can only guess what it was that led Stig Halfear to choose to settle in Storfjørd. It is clear that he was a rich man and knew the world, and could have built his hall and raised his family anywhere he chose between Damascus and Reykjavik. Instead he chose this isolated fjord on the northern edge of the cultivable zone of Norway. Was it a love of extremes? Or some resemblance to his long-lost home? We do not know. But by a strange quirk of fate, it was the choice of this location coupled with his 'touching devotion' to his wife that left us with the one lasting monument to his life.
Off the southern side of Storfjørd there is a small inlet, carved out during the last ice age by a tributary of the glacier that created the 'great fjord' (that being the meaning of its name). With typical Nordic logic it is named 'Lille Storfjørd. The main fjord curves to the north, and the fields and village at its end are sheltered from the bitter winds blowing in from the sea. The southern inlet is more exposed, but a field at its far end grows enough grass in the short summer to fatten a cow or two. These days a local farmer harvests hay there once a year. In Stig Halfear's day the growing season was shorter and a single bullock was taken there around midsummer to graze for a couple of months before being slaughtered. The animal was killed and butchered on the spot, and Stig threw a big barbecue party for his considerable household. One year his wife mentioned the beauty of the place and joked that with the boats pulled up on the shore it had everything needed for civilised life except a lavatory. One year later, the lavatory was there. And what a lavatory it was: the closest thing to a civilised Byzantine commode north of the Empire, taking advantage of a small stream to provide the amenities of running water.
Stig and his wife aged and died, the climate continued to cool, the growing season grew ever shorter, and the summer cows and their funeral parties were a thing of the past. But there was still a party once a year on the thin soil of Lille Storfjørd. To maintain their presence and uphold their claim to the land, Stig's descendants came once a year to 'My Lady's Privy,' made any necessary repairs, and encouraged the young girls to use the facility to gain a share in the beauty and good fortune in life and childbirth that had characterised its original owner. To the accompaniment of good honest earthy rural humour, of course.
Some time in the 18th century the tradition died out, possibly under the influence of the long-time pastor of Bøby, a dour Dane by the name of Larssen who was responsible for the souls of the widely scattered congregation from his arrival following on the heels of an unidentified scandal in Copenhagen in 1725 until his death in 1782, and whose assiduity in visiting even the most remote sheep of his flock to ensure they did not stray was matched only by his hostility to anything that smacked of pagan folkways, country superstition, Norwegian tradition, or even good clean fun. By the mid 19th century 'My Lady's Privy' was little more than a ruin, and it would by now have merged entirely with the landscape were it not for the rise of Norwegian nationalism, the invention, codification, or standardisation (the reader may choose) of the Nynorsk language, and the scholarship and ambition of one Stig Erikssen, who claimed to be, and may even have been in truth, a descendent of his colourful namesake.
Erikssen's life stands as a monument to the indomitability of the human spirit and its ability to rise above the adversities of fortune and fate. He was a fervent nationalist, an avid scholar of the traditions of his people, an enthusiastic proponent of Nynorsk, and the author of one of the first major works to be written in that language. All of this despite his complete lack of any scholarly integrity, linguistic capacity or indeed literary talent. His Magnum Opus, the 'Storfjørda Saga' belongs to that mercifully small literary genre of the 'failed epic', the gap between its ambition and its achievement being of far more heroic dimensions than any of the supposed great deeds it relates. His model and inspiration in writing it was the Kalevala, which he read more or less as soon as it became available in a language he could read, that language being Swedish. This may explain why some of the least clumsy passages of Storfjørda Saga have a rather Swedish feel to their rhythm and phrasing, and are indeed not dissimilar to passages relating similar events in the Kalevala. Another possible explanation is that Erikssen in fact had a better command of Swedish than of Nynorsk, a language he learned relatively late in life, and in his efforts to keep his semantic distance from Bokmål (or 'Oslodansk', as he called it) was as likely to plant his linguistic feet on the eastern side of the Scandinavian mountains as on the west.
Hidden within the monstrous tangle of bowdlerised legends, creative geography, and cheerful anachronisms that make up Erikssen's saga is a passage referring to Lille Storfjørd and to the building to be found there. Of course, it is nothing so profane as a lavatory! The following passage is set in the 10th century, in the supposed early days of the Christianisation of the area. Stig(!) is the current protagonist, who is having a spot of bother with a tiresome dragon. The woodenness of the original is difficult to duplicate faithfully in translation; any lightness or facilitity of expression in the following is entirely the fault of the translator:
Then great Stig, wearing his helmet
And carrying his sword, whose name was great
– Swift was his dragonboat, over the water –
Came to the waters of Lille Storfjørd
Whither he had gone, to seek the holy man
To ask his advice, to deal with the Worm:
The Worm of the mountain, the spawn of the Devil.
Grey was the water and grey were the stones
On the sides of the fjord, coming down to the water.
The hermit came out of his small dwelling
– The hut by the stream, flowing down through the fjord –
Wise were his words, and powerful his prayers.
… and the poor dragon's days were numbered!
Amazing as it seems to us now, at least one local of Storfjørd must have read the Saga before it fell into well-earned obscurity, for this brief mention of 'the hut by the stream' was enough to revive the midsummer tradition of repairing 'My Lady's Privy'. There were some half-hearted attempts to have its rededication as a hermitage respected, but there were too many grandmothers who had heard the truth from their grandmothers for them to have much hope of success. The redating of the building to the Viking era was successful however: the oral tradition had ever a tenuous grasp of chronology. Thus it was that as over the years Stig Halfear's wife's privy slowly developed into one of Northern Europe's more implausible tourist attractions, it was under the name of 'the Viking toilet'.
Tourists are a strange breed. To paraphrase the old adage: 'tourists are folk, and there's nowt so strange as folk.' They will undergo great hardship and expense to visit spectacular antiquities in remote locations, only to return and claim in all sincerity that the highpoint of their trip was a conversation in a malodorous café with a young man carrying an overripe goat. Or they will arrange to be transported far beyond the bounds of what passes for civilisation, there to revel in the splendours of untamed nature, only to be fascinated by some small trace of humanity on which they would never deign to cast a glance if it were closer to home. Few tourists make it to the far northern coasts of Norway, on the boats of the Hurtigruten, and they come to be enthralled by the splendour of nature and the vast incomprehensible beauty of the fjords in the magical light of the low-lying sun. So it was probably inevitable that a visit to the Viking toilet at Lille Storfjørd would come to be one of the indispensible excursions offered to the tourists booking the standard tour. The numbers are not enough to support a gift shop, but there is a small beaten path from the wooden jetty to the 'hut by the stream', which these days is blessed with explanatory signs in four languages, financed by the village of Storfjørd, for whom the visitors are a welcome, if modest, source of extra income.
What would Stig Halfear's reaction have been if he had known that his name would live until our days, and that because of his wife's toilet, the object of the 'secret laughter' of the 'rough men' around him? I like to think he would have laughed out loud, taken a great draught of beer, and sung a rough loud song of tender love to his Lady and to her privy.
Update: since May 2008 the Viking toilet at Lille Storfjørd has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.