Seminar LXXXV: Viking metal for women

I realise this title may be misleading but I can’t resist it… I have been reminded that I promised to write up Jane Kershaw‘s paper given to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar on 9th February, and that time has come. I was reminded by Magistra’s own write-up of it, in which she says:

Jon Jarrett has promised to blog this paper as well, so if you want details from someone who knows rather more about both archaeology and Anglo-Saxon history than me (not difficult), you should probably wait for his take, because he can give a more considered view as to whether Jane’s argument actually holds up.

Aha, so you think, but quite apart from anything else I work with Jane, see her most lunchtimes in term, and need her to give a lecture for me on a course next year. The chance of my saying anything that might sound negative is thus pretty low, even if I had such a thing to say, and actually this is becoming more and more of an issue the more embedded I get in academia. I can still aim to be informative, though, and if you find yourself needing to know more Jane has a paper out that covers some of this stuff and you can read it yourself.1 So, OK, the reason for the title is that Jane’s paper, whose title was: “New Insights on the Viking Settlement of England: the small finds evidence”, was about brooches, and specifically metal brooches such as we now have far more of than we used to have because of metal-detecting.2 (Jane estimated that the corpus of Viking-period metal artefacts has multiplied by a factor of 22 or 23 since the last round of major catalogues was published, so we have a lot to synthesize.)

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay, image provided very kindly by Dr Kershaw to replace the less relevant one this post originally had here

The brooches that she was talking about were found in England, between the second half of the ninth century and the second half of the tenth, but were in a Scandinavian style. They are therefore Viking cultural indicators, showing not just Viking jewellery æsthetics but Viking dress styles, as the oval brooches especially only make sense worn on a dress with straps which was not the Anglo-Saxon fashion before the Vikings came. Once they’d come, however, we can’t really tell whether what we have is Danish women who’d been brought over getting stuff made in the style they’d grown up with, or English women dressing like Danes. We can be fairly sure that the brooches were not being traded, though, or at least, not made for export in Scandinavia, because the range of styles found is basically the same as that in Scandinavia, so our notional brooch-seller would have to be working very hard to scoop up a representative sample from all round Denmark… The finds don’t cluster round ports of entry, either, and their distribution is mostly rural, so what we obviously don’t have is someone with a stall in York—in fact, York has thrown up almost none of these pieces, despite being quite heavily dug—getting brooches shipped in by the crate from his contact back in Aarhus, it’s more genuinely popular and incidental than that.

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch, PAS ID NMS-56E967

On the other hand, they don’t really spread outside the Danelaw, and there are some odd patches of non-appearance within it. Distribution is an imprecise measurement, admittedly, but 500+ brooches is a lot, and as Jane wisely said when queried about arguing from silence, even if for some inexplicable reason (I had assumed detector bias, since lots of her sample was coming from Norfolk and Suffolk, much better territory for detectors than anywhere too hilly, but she was ready with a map that compared the brooches to all finds of detected goods and their distribution wasn’t typical) the finds are under-represented in one area, we still have all the others to explain.3 There can be fewer of something found in an area than we suspect there ought to be; but there can hardly be more of something than there should be! This is one of those obvious points that hit me hard in the brain as something I’d never before thought and marks Jane out as an unusually clear archæological thinker (and I’m not just saying that, honest).

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch, PAS ID NMS-9704F0

So that’s one thing that needs careful explanation, and then we start to find imitations, locally-manufactured versions, which are distinguishable by fastening a different way, the way of the Anglo-Saxon disc brooches that had been usual before these Scandy items joined them on the shoulders of the Danelaw’s women. (This is important: the Anglo-Saxon ones continue to be found too. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition to a cultural complex.) Whether this marks immigrant women dressing English-style or Anglo-Saxon women wanting to update their brooches to the nouvelle vague is not clear but whatever it is, it’s not clean assimilation; people wearing such items were expressing a new hybrid kind of dress style. Jane was scrupulous about not making easy leaps from clothing to identity, but at the very least, in these communities it’s not necessary to look traditionally English, if there were ever such a thing anyway. And then finally there are new Anglo-Saxon brooches made on a proto-industrial scale in the tenth century, indicating still another change, and it would be lovely to somehow connect this with the English reconquest (campaign buttons?) but somehow I think with this many real women involved it isn’t going to submit to a simple answer, and the fact of the matter is the distribution of these sorts of brooch actually spreads after the reconquest, not shrinks.

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration, PAS ID NMS-463627. I can't get more than four Anglo-Scandinavian brooches out of the PAS database and they all look really scummy, so I haven't used one of those.

So, are these items actually telling us about identities, or does it just tell us, as Susan Reynolds suggested, that the gentry of a certain area know a little man in Norwich who makes these darling things you just have to have, and so on in several other places?4 As Jane finished by pointing out, there are other regional mappings we can make that seem to show a similar story of regional distinctiveness. The province that’s thickest with these brooches is not simply East Anglia, but Norfolk and North Suffolk, as distinct from South Suffolk where, glorious detector land though it be, they don’t show up half as much. Now, this also fits, more or less roughly, said Jane, the distribution of common fields versus unified estates in the area in Domesday Book, the distribution of minor place-names (fields, boundaries and so on) and those major ones in -by and -thorp, classic Old Norse indicators. At that rate, it begins too look as if we’re talking about a cultural zone where being, you know, a bit Danish innit, was pretty much OK.

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk, PAS ID SF-DC3EA7

It also matches coinage zones, said Jane: inside the ‘Viking’ zone, the regular Anglo-Saxon coinage hardly runs, the favourite one instead being the enigmatic St Edmund pennies that anyone studying this are has to get their head round: coins minted by a Viking-identified government established by pagan warriors commemorating a Christian royal opponent they’d killed. It’s quite like how rapidly ‘Viking’ York starts minting coins with Christian symbols on, and indeed these are imitated at Lincoln and circulate in this zone too.5 In South Suffolk, by contrast, the stuff doesn’t get out and the royal coinage is found. Now, this is something you can check yourself, because some years ago a clever chap called Sean Miller whom I’ve mentioned here before put means for you to do so on the web, and I have to admit, when I do this with the St Edmund and St Peter coinages and then with the coins of Edward the Elder respectively from Norfolk and Suffolk, I get a distribution that is (a) too thin to be very revealing and (b) more or less the same for Viking and non-Viking types in the counties. So I don’t know if the money side of the comparison really holds up, and as to the rest of these zonal indicators I am mindful of a wise thing that I once heard said of all arguments made from distribution of objects or sites, that they should also be mapped against the locations of telephone boxes and see if that correlates as well. And we know that bad things can be done with this technique. All the same, I’m not convinced that this was one of them; we do have the brooches to explain, the trend has to come from somewhere, and a kind of proud-to-be-a-different-kind-of-English-with-friends-across-the-North-Sea cultural self-awareness fostered by a persistent local-level government established by a Viking territorial settlement and allowed to remain in place helps explain them and their distribution whereas not much else does. I don’t think we can stop looking for other possibilities just yet, but then I don’t suppose Jane was going to stop any time soon either…


1. Jane E. Kershaw, “Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia Vol. 5 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 295–325, doi:10.1484/J.VMS.1.100682.

2. Oh, I’m sorry, you were actually interested in Viking metal? In that case may I suggest Simon Trafford & Alex Plukowski, “Antichrist superstars: the Vikings in hard rock and heavy metal” in D. W. Marshall (ed.), Mass Market Medieval: essays on the Middle Ages in popular culture (Jefferson 2007), pp. 57-73, and if you do get it, and happen to have a PDF somehow, I wouldn’t object if it somehow wound up in my INBOX as Oxford don’t have a copy and I’m not sure I have the force of character to recommend it to any of the relevant libraries.

3. My stock reference for things you can get wrong with archæological distribution mapping is now available to you too, it being Mary Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

4. On Viking identities in the Danelaw more widely, as if you like the wave on which this work by Jane is one of the breakers, you could try either or both of Dawn Hadley & Julian Richards (edd.), Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Turnhout 2000) or James Graham-Campbell, Richard Hall, Judith Jesch & David Parsons (edd.), Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress (2001), or if you prefer a single synthetic view Dawn Hadley’s The Vikings in England: Settlement, society and culture (Manchester 2006).

5. For more on these coinages see Mark Blackburn, “Currency under the Vikings. Part 2. The Two Scandinavian Kingdoms of the Danelaw, c. 895-954″, Presidential Address 2005 in British Numismatic Journal 76 (London 2006), pp. 204-226, soon to be reprinted in the first volume of his collected papers.

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14 responses to “Seminar LXXXV: Viking metal for women

  1. Oh go on, do recommend the HFL buys a copy! COPAC says Cambridge have a copy in their UL…

  2. This is fascinating. I have nothing to say because I’m not in field, but it’s fascinating in itself and I’m fascinated for my own reasons (border identities, DK).

    • Well, a quick study of the related issues there might be Dawn Hadley’s paper, “Viking and native: rethinking identity in the Danelaw” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 45-70, which was in part a review of the work that gave to the two conference volumes I mention above but unlike them is available online for people with relevant subscriptions. If you should be interested in it but not be one of those people, I may be able to find something.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round-up 5 « Contagions

  4. I had actually already downloaded Jane’s “Culture and Gender in the Danelaw” paper, but I’m glad that the whole topic came up as it coughed up a few other references that had flown under my radar in recent years. Anglo-Norse things have always been interesting to me, and I think its a topic which is finally getting more attention (once again), as well as one that can be approached usefully from many different angles. (I’d actually considered doing doctoral stuff on Danelaw things, but at the time there was no one on hand in my dept to direct such stuff. But I get around to it in batting the development of the Scylding-Skjoldung legends about; I think that’s all about the Anglo-Norse thing. :))

    Oh, and while I could say many things about Viking metal, at this present moment I will say only: Grand Magus, Hammer of the North.
    Tack så mycket!

  5. Pingback: Seminars CI & CII: the modern Oxford Viking diaspora « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  6. Some readers may be interested to see her ‘Viking Metal’ blog, which she appears to have begun in the last couple of months. To clarify: the sort you wear.

  7. Pingback: Seminars CXLVII-CXLIX: Chroniclers, Kilwa and Vikings In Normandy | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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