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The Varangian Guards

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Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

An elite unit of the Byzantine army from the 10th to 14th centuries, the Varangian guard was mostly comprised of Viking and Anglo-Saxon mercenaries whose job was to protect the Byzantine emperors as their personal bodyguards, and they were renowned for their loyalty, ferocity and honour; one of the greatest offences one could give a Viking or Varangian was to either question their honour or their courage – it usually ended in bloodshed.  So many Swedish left for this elite position that there was a law passed that no one could inherit land in Sweden while “in Greece” (the Swedish term for the Byzantine region).  These guards were prized, and hired not only in Byzantine, but also in London and in east Slavic tribes referred to as the Kievan Rus [Russia got its name from the Arabic term for the Vikings, perhaps related to the Old Norse word of Roþrslandi, “the land of rowing,” in turn related to Old Norse roðr “steering oar,” from which we get such words as “rudder” and “row”.]

My personal connection with this information is a story from the Skylitzes Chronicle:  In 1038 the Varangian were wintering in the Thracesian theme when one of them tried to rape a countrywoman; in the struggle she managed to take his sword, and killed him.  But instead of taking revenge, his comrades praised her and rewarded her with his possessions; they then exposed his body without burial as if he had committed suicide (an act of cowardice, and the highest of insults).  This story fit perfectly within a novel that I’m just finishing, and preparing for publication this month, called “The Cardinal“, an epic fantasy set in around A.D. 800 Scotland and Norway, and modern Scotland.  More news of that will be following!  In this particular case, the woman in the chronicle becomes the woman in my own tale, and she tells this very account as she tells of her life.  It’s these kinds of tales that I come across in research that add rich details of history to my characters!

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About Trinity

A melancholic pragmatist with a wide streak of mischief and an active imagination that turns into novels.

4 responses »

  1. I’m trying to track down the original reference to the woman who killed her would-be rapist with his own sword in the Skylitzes Chronicle on Google Books. I don’t suppose you happen to still have the book, or recall a page number or some good keywords like a name?

    Thanks very much, and thank you for sharing such an interesting story!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Hi Kelly! The best place for source references online would probably be Wikipedia; the articles on the Varangian Guard and the Madrid Skylitzes have good links.
      There might also be ways of tracing it through Norse history sources, as the Varangian guards were basically hired Viking thugs… uh, elite soldiers. Perhaps the Heimskringla Chronicle, by Snorri Sturluson, mentions it – don’t quote me on that, as it’s been a couple years since I read it – but that can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/598
      I hope that helps in your search!

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      Reply

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