From the sources III: Sampiro on the not the eleventh-century Vikings

We all know that Vikings are the coolest thing in the Middle Ages, or at least, my teaching career thus far has repeatedly made this point about audience interest and others have told me they find similarly. Also, there’s the media attention they draw, which we’ve discussed here in the past and which Magistra had such an interesting take on, though now I look at it again I wonder about timing; Vikings have been news longer than that, I think. Anyway, I shouldn’t have been surprised when mentioning Vikings in Spain drew comment and a fistful of references from the indefatigable Neville Resiste and the unexpected Judith Jesch. And if you look back at that piece you’ll see I promised to check out the original source and to try and synthesise something about the state of knowledge, mostly for Jonathan Grove who, being local, was able to seek me out and interrogate me for knowledge in person.

I may yet manage this, but it is currently seeming more than a bit ambitious. Once there are four papers and a source on the reading list that starts to seem like a new project, and I have enough to work on already. But I will at least get the source out there, or at least one source, as there seem to be others. That source is the Leonese chronicler Sampiro, possibly the Bishop of Astorga of that name (fl. 1034/5) but possibly someone else. This is a continuation of the Chronicle of Alfonso III, and like that text manages to stop prematurely; Alfonso (if it was him, which I think is still arguable myself) gets to his own father but says nothing of his own reign, and Sampiro only got to 982. So we’re not looking at eleventh-century attacks in that source, and I guess that was my misreading of Fletcher. Therefore, I suppose that the first thing to do is get the Fletcher text and then go from there:

By Alfonso III’s day we do seem to be in an age when the Vikings were stifling such sea-borne communications as still existed. We know of raids on the Galician coast in 844 and 858; there may have been others of which we know nothing. Alfonso III was sufficiently worried by the threat of Viking attack to establish fortified strong points near his coastline, as other rulers were doing elsewhere. Perhaps the ‘heathen men’ against whom he fought (as his charters proudly tell us) were not always Muslims. The next big raid that we hear of occurred in 968: bishop Sisnando of Compostela was killed, the monastery of Curtis was sacked, and panicky measures were ordered for the defence of the inland town of Lugo.52 At some point early in the eleventh century Tuy was sacked; its bishopric remained vacant for the next half-century. A pathetic piece of family history recorded in a Portuguese charter of 1018 lifts for a moment the curtain which normally obscures the more humble human consequences of the Viking raids, Amarelo Mestáliz was forced to raise money on the security of his land in order to ransom his daughters who had been captured by the Vikings in 1015.53 Bishop Cresconio of Compostela (c. 1036-66) repulsed a Viking descent and built the fortress intended to protect the approach to the town of Compostela from the Atlantic which may still be seen by the water’s edge at Torres del Oeste. A charter of 1086 refers to this or another raid in the Nendos district.54


52. Sampiro, Cronica, in J. Pérez de Urbel, Sampiro, su crónica y la monarquía leonesa en el siglo X (Madrid, 1952), at pp. 340-1; Cronicon Iriense, ed. M. R. García Alvarez, Memorial Histórico Español 50 (1963), pp. 1-240, c. 11; Sobrado Cart. I, no. 137; AHN cód. 1043B, fo. 38v.

53. Printed and discussed by R. Pinto de Azevedo, ‘A expedição de Almanzor a Santiago de Compostela em 997, e a de piratas normandos a Galiza em 1015-16′, Revista Portuguesa da História 14 (1974), 73-93. It may have been in the course of this raid, which lasted nine months, that Tuy was sacked.

54. HC, p. 15, Jubia Cart., no. ix.1

So, actually the eleventh-century stuff all appears to be in the Portuguese article by Pinto, which leaves the question of his source or sources unclear. However, I said I would get the Sampiro reference and dammit, I have, and I’m going to put it here even if it doesn’t answer the question. There are two versions of the chronicle, one from each of its two manuscript families, and both have a whole bundle of complex problems, but just because it’s not tied up to the arch-forger Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo I’m using the version incorporated into the Historia Silense. There’s not that much difference between the texts—Pérez edited them in parallel so it’s easy to see—but the Pelagian recension does have some extra explanatory nouns, making it clearer who people are and so on. On the other hand, that means that the Silense is shorter, so! First the text, then a rough translation. Sampiro deals with the death of King Sancho [the Fat] and then continues:

Era MV. Sancio defuncto, filius eius Ramirus habens a nativitate annos quinque suscepit regnum patris sui, continens se cum consilio amite sue domne Geluire [Pelayo adds: regine], deuote Deo ac prudentissime, habuit pacem cum sarracenis, et corpus sancti Pelagii ex eis recepit, et cum religiosis episcopis in ciuitate Legionensi tumulauit. Anno secundo regni sui, centum classes normanorum cum rege suo nomine Gunderedo, ingresse sunt urbes Gallecie, et strages multas facientes in giro sancti Iacobi, episcopum loci illius gladio peremerunt nomine Sisinandum ac totam Galleciam depredauerunt, usquequo peruenerunt ad Pirineos montes Ezebrarii. Tercio uero anno, remeantibus illis ad propria, Deus, quem occulta non latent retribuit ultionem. Sicut enim illi plebem christianam in captiuitatem miserunt, et multos gladio interfecerunt, ita et illi priusquam a finibus Gallecie exirent, multa mala perpessi sunt.

Comes namque Guillelmus Sancionis, in nomine Domini et honori sancti Iacobi, cuius terram devastauerunt, exiuit cum exercitu magno obuiam illis, et cepit preliari cum illis. Dedit illi Domninus uictoriam, et omnem gentem ipsam simul cum rege suo gladio interfecit, atque classes eorum igne cremauit. Diuina adiutus clemencia

And in translation, very roughly and probably with many errors:

Era 1015 [AD 977]. Sancho having died, his son Ramiro, being five years old, succeeded to the kingdom of his father, securing himself with the counsel of his aunt, the lady Elvira, a deo vota and most prudently made peace with the Saracens, and received the body of the holy Pelagius from them, and with the religious bishops buried it in the city of León. In the second year of his reign [so, 978-979?] a hundred ships of the Northmen [lit. fleets, but I'm taking it to be metonymic here] with their king, Gundered by name, entered the cities of Galicia, and made many slaughters in the circuit of Santiago, they killed the bishop of that place, Sisnando by name, by the sword and devastated all Galicia, up until the point when they arrived at the Pyrenean mountains of ‘Ezebrario’ [?]. In [his] third year indeed, when they returned to their own, God, from whom they did not lie hidden, wrought revenge. For just as they dispatched the Christian people into captivity, and killed many with the sword, just so before they could leave the limits of Galicia, they endured many ills to the full.

For the count Guillermo Sanchez, in the name of God and for the honour of Saint James, whose land they devastated, came out with a great army against those men, and began to battle with them. God gave that man the victory, and he killed all of that same people with their king with the sword, and burnt their fleets with fire, aided by divine clemency.2

And then we get on into a merry little vignette about how the counts don’t like their eight-year-old king once he’s twenty, so raise another king against him, against whom he is fighting when he dies of sickness the next year.

So, the first thing I notice here is that Sampiro is a lousy stylist and apparently doesn’t know the pluperfect, but secondly that this is not really providential history, or else that association between the translation of Pelagius’s relics is very oddly associated with Viking onslaught. Pelagius was an odd and controversial martyr, but I think this is more likely just to be clumsy editing than to be a subtle hint that that cult was offensive to God, since it’s God who comes and ends the attack through the Santiago-loyal count. I’d like to know where that place-name is, since if they reached the Pyrenees they really ought to feature in more sources I know about. But that’s all I have for the moment. Hopefully of some interest…


1. Richard A. Fletcher, Saint James’s Catapult: The Life and Times of Diego Gelmírez of Santiago de Compostela (Oxford 1984), p. 23.

2. Justo Pérez de Urbel, Sampiro, su crónica y la monarquia leonesa en el siglo X, Estudios 26 (Madrid 1952), cap. 28.

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9 responses to “From the sources III: Sampiro on the not the eleventh-century Vikings

  1. Great blog. The Cebrario is the Montes do Cebreiro, which form the boundary inter Galicia and Leon. In times all the mountains which sepparate the atlantic lands from the central plateau were considered as part of the Pirenees.

  2. “We all know that Vikings are the coolest thing in the Middle Ages” Man, what about crusaders?

    • I think the problem with Crusaders, from the popular point of view, is that you have to know too much to understand what on earth they were doing. Vikings, you only need to know they were Scandinavian pirates and actually, you’ve got the beginnings of a historical grasp on at least the First Viking Age. First Crusade, not so simple…

      • Thanks for all that! I don’t know that piracy /completely/ explains the First Viking Age–although at least one notable authority thinks that it might (see the references to current work on Viking piracy at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/archaeology/staff/staff.php?id=neil.price). But if we’re going to get into a beauty contest, it’s worth remembering that Scandinavians didn’t stop causing trouble when they gave up trying to relive the good old days of the Viking age: Sigurd Jorsalfare (d. 1130) is supposed to have gone along on some of the last great Norwegian forays in the British Isles as a boy, but made his name in campaigns in Iberia, the Balearic Islands and the Holy Land in the wake of the First Crusade. So whichever way you look, the Scandinavians have got it tied up.
        The scanty surviving sources for a nasty history of Scandinavian activity in Spain and Portugal between your early C11th raiders and Sigurd’s eC12th expedition still look intriguing. It would be great if we could say more about those raids in the time of Cresconio, to which Fletcher refers. It’s interesting see that the times of florescence in so-called ‘viking’ interests in the British Isles in the C11th often coincide with a corresponding flare-up further south.
        The references to such activities in Spain at least as late as the early C11th seem to indicate that the sea-routes between Scandinavia and the Iberian Caliphate offered a counterpart to the eastern trade-routes along the Russian waterways. The brutal commercial aspect of the Scandinavian raids c. 1015–note that reference to slave-taking in your text–also seems to make the reference to the relics of Pelagius all the more pertinent. As regards that particular legend, its prurient imaginings of the fate of those enslaved by Muslims is more than matched by the impressively coarse eC11th Norman poem Moriuht, with its account of the alleged sufferings of an Irish poet captured by vikings.

        • Few do coarseness as well as the Normans! I’ll try and dig up the Cresconio references after the holiday: I mistrust anything in the Historia compostelana automatically (NB I don’t have a particularly good reason for this) but the charter reference Fletcher gave there may be interesting.

  3. Pingback: From the sources IV: following up the simonists and Vikings « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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