I was reading an article over at BJØRN ANDREAS BULL-HANSEN about what the Viking age might have sounded like. I have often wondered what the world sounded like at this and other points in history.
The world most of us live in today is rarely silent. The sounds of cars, jet engines, power tools and the like pervades the every day. Where I live I am lucky enough to have little of that, but there’s always the hum of the refrigerator or the sound of my furnace kicking in to break up the beauty of song birds, or the haunting sound of the loon. More rarely heard here are the sounds of people, neighbors going about their day or people greeting each other. I find that to be a little saddening. Even living in a populated farmland, it’s not the sound of life that’s mostly heard, but that of machine.
How did those that went before us hear the world, and how did that affect them?
I wonder, would it have been a bit like a campground? The sounds of people cooking at their fires, readying themselves for the day, the sound of paddles and boats being moved, chopping wood, of children playing and parents calling them to meals? Of course, in the campgrounds, you can’t ignore the more modern sounds, cars, flush toilets, airplanes.
When I am in the backcountry it is extremely silent. So much so, that when you return to civilization, the noise is at first deafening. I should mention that when you walk out of backcountry, it is generally into a campground. It’s overwhelming to the senses.
Amazingly, the walk into the backcountry can also be deafening. The sound of silence, true silence is quite loud. When you are sitting quietly in the middle of the woods, the sudden call of a bird or the shriek of a squirrel can send your heart racing. Sound can become an occupation of the mind. It becomes your entertainment. You can spend hours following bird songs, listening to bees buzz or if you’re very lucky, to the sound of a wolf pack howling or the more heart-racing sound of a black bear exploring your campsite at night. You yourself start to be quiet. You go about your time moving more and more silently, making less and less noise. Once I was in the backcountry for two weeks straight by myself. I hadn’t talked to a soul, I don’t think I’d even spoken aloud for several days to myself. When I first uttered a word, though it came out in a whisper, it was so loud and shocking to my own ears that I cringed.
Silence can also sound different in different environments. The silence of the Sahara Desert for example, is nothing like the backwoods of Algonquin. In the Sahara, it can be so quiet that you can literally hear the sound of the shifting sand. It’s a quiet rustling hum, hot and bright in it’s movement. In the night, there is absolute quiet. It feels like the world has stopped turning and the stars are wheeling overhead around you. You can hear insects crawling across carpet before you see them.
But the backwoods and the Sahara were not where most people lived in the past. Most lived in villages, towns or cities, in farming communities. Though these places were mostly smaller than their counterparts in todays world, it must have been a shock to people travelling from their homes on the outside of villages, into towns or cities. I remember once reading that the first time Laura Ingalls Wilder went into a town she found it impossible to believe what her eyes were showing her, all those houses and buildings and people together in one place. Was it equally difficult for her to believe her ears?
My travels have taken me to villages without electricity, with few motor vehicles. The sound was quite interesting. It was similar in ways to a campground. There was often a shuffle of feet, the sound of women doing housework and men gathering to drink coffee. You could hear farmers in their nearby fields and the sounds of donkeys braying, fowl chatter and other similar things.
When I think about Bjorn’s description of the sound of a Village in the Viking Age, I can close my eyes and almost hear those sounds echoing over the fjords and off the mountains. I can hear the clank of steel, the calling of animals, the crunch of boots on the hard packed dirt, and the sound of neighbors greeting each other. It sounds overwhelmingly human, and not like anything we can really hear today. I think some of us look into the past with a nostalgic longing, not for simpler times, for they were not necessarily, but for more human times. When humans were still a part of the natural world, and we lived and died by it and those sounds were just more attuned to our still-present biological makeup.
Is it possible to miss the sounds of a past we never truly knew?
Go check out what Bjorn had to say about sounds in the Viking Age: What did the Viking Age sound like?
When it comes to the Viking Age, most of the discussion and controversy seem to concern how they dressed, how their houses and ships looked like and so on. But how did it sound? What did life in th…