Let’s talk about Vikings!

As it turns out, my father has uninstalled Adobe Reader, and the freeware version he has on this computer appears to hate JStor files. Accordingly, I cannot print out and read Whitelock’s ‘Archbishop Wulfstan- Homilist and Statesman’, or anything else, and so instead, let us talk about Vikings.

medieval,Why the hell not?,nerd

Vikings can really spice up your century or three. The quick outline of English political history that I carry in my head, cobbled together from the battered copy of Carter & Mears’ A History of Britain (Oxford UP, 1937) which my father acquired when I was a teenager, and from Awesome’s introductory lectures two years ago, is quite light on chronology. I know there were two waves of Viking invasions, in between which, the descendants of Alfred had time to unite the kingdom and sponsor some monastic reforms, and I know a few details of kings or battles and religious politics, but all of these bits of knowledge float around on the loose. I can remember, more or less, what happens, but not the relationship in time, and this, as it turns out, is quite important if you want to think about things like the progress of Norse settlement in England.

Some weeks ago now, I sat in on a Norse Symposium at USyd, solely for the purpose of hearing one paper, entitled ‘The Viking Experience in Ninth Century England’. The presenter, Shane McLeod from the University of Western Australia (whaddya know, they have medievalists in Perth…), is a PHD student, working on applying something called ‘migration theory’ to the Norse invasions, and making deductions about the type of people who would have settled in England (apparently, not only the invading armies- ‘chain migration’ means that, as long as communication remained open with Scandinavia, those friends and relatives looking for a new start who could afford the journey would have been likely to come). Shane is also tracing links between Viking groups across Europe, England and Ireland, which suggest that not only did raiders pick up and head off to assist their fellows somewhere else, but that settlers are likely to have moved in and out of England and other occupied territories. I remember being taught by the formidable Margaret Clunies Ross that amongst the early settlers of Iceland were Norsemen who had previously settled in the Orkneys, and (in decreasing order of probability, as I remember it), the northern isles, Scotland, and Ireland, so this last suggestion fits in with what I already knew of Viking habits.

At the end of his presentation, I was wondering about two things:

1. What was the relationship between the Norse invaders and the local English communities? Did your bog-standard English farmer, over the process of a hundred years or so, start speaking Norse?
Migration theory in Celtic studies, as I learnt it from Lynette Olson, currently holds that, rather than a ‘wave’ of Celtic invasions across Europe, a phenomenon of successive ‘celticisation’ saw small groups of Celts setting up in a position of cultural dominance, replacing some ruling groups and allying with others, and the local peoples- both those now under Celtic control and those independent groups who saw fit to emulate Celtic lifestyles for political purposes- picking up Celtic language, religious customs and artwork. I’ve not made much investigation into it, but it seems logical that the same sort of thing would have come with the Anglo-Saxon invasions (aside from Dr Olson’s favourite genetic evidence, I’m thinking of those independant Celtic kingdoms which hang on for a while and then seamlessly dissipate into the surrounding Saxon kingdoms…)
It would follow, then, that any Norse settlement in England cannot have been wholesale replacement of the locals, and that said locals may have ‘Norsified’ (Vikingised?) under their new leaders/ more powerful neighbours. What happened to the local English under the Norse? And what’s more, what happened to those Englishmen when, after a generation or so, they found themselves under English rule again?

2. Along the same lines- what happens to the Norse settlers, the farmers and craftsmen, the women and so on, in the period between ‘invasions’? Presumably they can’t have all turned around and gone home- so what happened to them when the new Viking invaders turned up in the late 10th century? Did they still identify as ‘Norse’? Or had they settled into their new home?

Well, I now have my hands on both Carter & Mears, and Edward James’ excellent textbook Britain in the First Millennium. Coming next on the Naked Philologist: Highly sorts out her chronology, and learns some basic facts of Anglo-Saxon politcs, which will provide a sketchy answer to question 2, and perhaps some thoughts on question 1 as well.

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10 Responses to “Let’s talk about Vikings!”

  1. goblinpaladin Says:

    So exciting! You have to keep us updated!

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    This is not an answer, even though I should be able to come up with one having taught some of this stuff. Nor however will I do what any real academic would do and prescribe secondary reading you can’t get. Instead I will say, that if you have a look at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of which an old translation is online, and Asser’s Life of Alfred (ditto), firstly this may help you get the chronology a bit straighter, and secondly, you will find this. To our Wessex writers, once the Danes are settled, they are Anglians, Northumbrians or whatever. Ethnically they can’t have been, and all the questions you raise above must have been being solved at tiny levels all the time. But when the heavily-Norse-settled areas of the Danelaw rise against Wessex, the ASC and Asser see it as the East Anglians or the Northumbrians breaking their pledges, not the Danes, even though some of those pledges were made by Danish lords fresh off the boats. And you know, you have to sometimes assume that the sources know what they’re talking about. Now there’s several ways that could work out: do the Danes keep the military power and keep the English away from the weapons, so that when these places rise it’s a military settlement of incomers under a new lord leaving their farms and going a-Viking again just like old times? Or are the new lords taking over the fyrd and do you then have men of both extractions from each hundred/wapentake, learning the new words both ways and serving in village groups or similar?

    Either way, it looks from outside like a single functioning people, whoever the leaders may be, which suggests that the organisation is pan-ethnic, even if they group below that in separate villages or whatever, or if they don’t and new settlers move into existing English settlements. So if you start thinking of these kingdoms as political territories with a shape that will hold anyone, if they want to be in it rather than against it, you’re at least working in harmony with the sources. I realise that only leaves a load more questions unanswered, but that’s because we haven’t answered them yet 🙂 I have Viking reading matter at the moment, I must blog about it if there’s going to be an audience.

  3. highlyeccentric Says:

    That’s *really* interesting about the Chronicle. Would you believe I’ve never actually looked at any of it? I do so much hagiography and so little actual history, I wind up forgetting about the key sources.

    Also, your thoughts, they are wise. I am impressed by your superior learnings.

  4. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    As long as you realise nonetheless that I am not a valid source to footnote in your essay 🙂

  5. highlyeccentric Says:

    This isn’t an essay, it’s just me poking at stuff and making blog posts of it.

    My interest in the period is as background to The Thesis, but it should only come into it tangentially, if at all.

  6. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Oh well in that case I might recommend you some light reading I once crafted for the lay Vikings enthusiast. Do bear in mind the disclaimer and title…

  7. highlyeccentric Says:

    an acquaintance who made enthusiastic noises at me when I foolishly told her I could tell her enough about the Vikings to give her a solid grounding in any pub conversation without really sweating. (As far as you can make enthusiastic noises or sweat in text, anyway. Let’s leave that sort of question for another forum.)

    I didn’t think other people found Vikings that exciting.. . 😛

  8. Sophist Says:

    I doubt that the Anglo-Saxon ever really started speaking Norse as there was no need when the languages were (probably) similar enough for them to understand one another without much trouble.

    And I don’t know about Anglo-Saxons, nor Danish as such, but Norse men at least were at least into family and ancestry although probably not ethnicity as such. The names mattered, not the places, so probably to the ‘Danes’ of uprisings described by Jonathan did consider themselves Englishmen of Danish lineage. Even if the historians describe them as Englishmen, the Danish will have seen themselves not from the point of the land as much from the point of their families.

    Or so I think, at least.

  9. highlyeccentric Says:

    Sophist- interesting point. You’re right about it not being worth a wholesale shift to Norse- would it have been worth the Norse shifting to English?
    There are such a high incidence of Norse words in Anglo-Saxon of this period, though- I wonder if it is an equal cultural exchange, or if certain types of words are adopted? I’m thinking of the significant use of ‘lagu’, Norse for Law, along with or in place of, Old English ‘ae’, in legal and homiletic writings of the period.

  10. Sophist Says:

    Lagu is not a proper word Norse word after Proto-Nordic time, as the u-umlaut and the great syncope should have already made their mark on on the it, making it log (“buckled” o, a becomes rounded), as it appears in Old Icelandic. Hrm. Laog.

    Anyway, what period are you talking about, because those would have had to been some very early and old vikings, and are you sure that this is not just an ordinary Old English word?

    As for an equal exchange, I don’t think so, or at least not in vocabulary. The exchange was more subtle, as with the Icelandic adopting Old English characters, having Irish books from the beginning of settlement (as well as people able to read Irish books), and probably it greatly contributed to the Christening of the Old Norse world. Possibly Old Danish has some words picked up from Old English, but I know nothing about that. Old Icelandic at least has very few, and none that I can remember.


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