The first Viking raid on England or Francia

Here’s a little thing that narks me every now and then. This comes up occasionally in teaching, where I can set it straight, occasionally someone is wrong about it on the Internet (which never ends well) but I was quite surprised to find a related version in a certain large book I’m still sporadically making my way through, and that has me worried enough to set out my thinking. The thing in question is a supposed fact, the dates of the first Viking attacks on the kingdoms of Western Europe.

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne (from Wikimedia Commons)

[Edit: a very cogent point from Julia Barrow in comments has meant I've seriously overhauled this paragraph and the next. Further edit: there has also developed in the comments a very erudite dispute about what exactly Alcuin was thinking when he wrote the letters I mockingly pastiche in what follows, and if that is likely to matter to you you should have a look below.] For England, canonically, it was Northumbria that was first to be attacked, with the sack of the monastery Lindisfarne in 793. Now, OK, let’s be quite clear, Lindisfarne in 793 was not a good place to be. However much the famous letter of Alcuin about it may work it up into eschatological froth, people surely died or were kidnapped and the monastery plundered.1 The only problem is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the first Viking attack was in the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex, which we put from 786 to 802, when a boat hauled up on Portland sands, the king’s reeve Beaduheard went down to tell them, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of “you can’t park that there” and they killed him. That, I grant you, could still put Lindisfarne first, but the Chronicle‘s compilers (working around 892) explicitly said the Portland attack was “the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race”.2 So, at the least, if you want to ignore what the Chronicle says you need to make that argument or one like it before you go and take Alcuin’s words (which have their own moral purpose, as no doubt did the letter that must have been his source) instead.

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now in fact that argument is not hard to make, because the earliest manuscript, known as A or the Parker Chronicle, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the sack of Lindisfarne. In fact it doesn’t have an annal for 793 at all. Notice of the sack only occurs in three later manuscripts (known as D, E, and F), all of which had, one way or another, incorporated parts of a set of northern annals that we no longer have, except via these manuscripts and the twelfth-century Historia Regum, written at Durham, whose author Simeon also seems to have had them to use.2bis Can it be that the Chronicle‘s compilers didn’t know Lindisfarne had been sacked, a hundred years on? It seems unlikely, so perhaps they were just keen to make sure that the real first attack clearly happened in Wessex, where the Chronicle was being compiled and where King Alfred was fairly keen on getting people on board dealing with the massive threat that Viking attacks had by that time become. In which case, of course, they may have adopted the vague dating for exactly the reason that they were aware that Lindisfarne was attacked first. But there are good reasons to suppose that if they thought that, even so, they were wrong.

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123)

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123), sadly not the right synod or charter but at least illustrative

You see, there’s a charter of King Offa of the Mercians (and also, he claims in it, now awarded the sceptre of government of the people of Kent by God), that he issued at a synod at Clofesho (which was apparently a vastly important place then and is now unknown) in 792.3 Offa seems to have been in generous mood, or perhaps really urgent to pacify Kent, as the document is a blanket confirmation that all the churches of Kent were to be exempt from various services and dues. There were however some things they still had to pay when necessary. This was a classic Mercian strategy, indeed since the 1970s it’s been thought of as one of the things that made Mercia great, but usually it extended only to providing soldiers on royal demand, repairing fortresses and maintaining bridges.4 On this occasion, however, the first thing these churches still had to stump up for was, “an expedition within Kent against seaborne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons if necessity compels”. Now, against this, it must be admitted that the charter as we have it is not an original. It was once preserved at St Augustine’s Canterbury but now survives in two thirteenth-century cartularies in London. So it could be, shall we say, improved, but if so, the bit about attacking Essex would be a very odd thing to add! Mind you, it looks odd in its day’s terms as well, it’d been a while since Essex had a separate political existence, but all the same I’m not inclined to dismiss it straight away. If it’s not some scribe’s over-active imagination, anyway, in 792 Offa was expecting pagan sea-raiders in Kent, which rather suggests that there had already been some. Once again the sources are awkward, but one has to at least explain why one trusts one and distrusts another before stating things as fact. There just aren’t any safe facts here.

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad, hit by the Vikings even more often than Lindisfarne

The same debate can be had about the Continent. On page 587 of that certain large book for example, we are told, “the first Viking raid on Francia, from neighbouring Denmark, was in 834, in the context of Louis [the Pious]‘s 833-4 conflict with his sons”.5 Now, I’m not going to say this is wrong, you must realise; I believe that if you stuck the word “documented” in there somewhere it would be cast-iron true, and the actual point, which is about how quickly enemies of a kingdom might capitalise on its political problems, is perfectly valid. But, as with Offa, we may suspect there was more going on already behind the scenes, because in 800 King Charles of the Franks and Lombards, as he still then was, spent some of the earlier part of the year touring “the coastal region adjoining the Gallic ocean; he created a fleet upon this sea because it was infested with pirates at that time [and] organised defences”.6 There’s really only one likely set of pirates out there at this time, and whereas the attack in 834 was a political one, we know that, well, by 802 and likely earlier there were also presumably-independent Danish raiders in the English Channel, see above.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

What we are facing here is that no-one realised this whole Viking thing was going to be the theme of the century when it started. Even Alcuin, who is all “OMG it’s like the sack of Rome all over again, nothing as bad as this has happened in English Christian history, are you really sure you guys weren’t being sinful because you know God does nothing by chance“,7 did not go on to say, “I bet this isn’t the last we see of this; run to Chester-le-Street!” and predict the First Viking Age. The people compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle however, with a century’s bitter hindsight, did know when they came across some note of the Portland attack, in whatever sources they had to build the Chronicle out of, that that was the story of which that attack should be seen as part, and so do we. But that doesn’t mean that whoever had written it down first recognised it as such, and that they knew it was the first such attack; it just means that the Chronicle compilers thought they could make the case that it was. The earlier attacks on Kent that Offa seems to have been providing against, likewise, were not recognised as the beginning of a centuries-long society-changing war; he made no special provision other to than ensure that the regular military response would not get smaller. How could they have known, after all? So the first Viking attacks, in either England or Francia, are almost certainly not recorded, but there is good reason to say that anyone who gives you the canonical dates for them without a crucial word like “known” or “recorded” or similar is, well, probably talking about something else really.


1. Alcuin’s letter is actually two letters, printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae nos 20 & 21 (pp. 57-59), one of about ten letters he immediately sent to people in England trying to drum up help and support for the beleaguered monastery. No. 20 is translated in full in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), pp. 72-73, whence repr. in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 123-125, probably in the first edition as well and I expect several other places, but those are the ones I have on the shelf so that’s the reference you get.

2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s. a. 787 for 789, here cit. from Michael Swanton (transl./ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).

2bis. A brief discussion of the manuscripts can be found ibid., pp. xxi-xxix, and a much more thorough one in D. Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979, repr. 1996), pp. 113-131, but I don’t know as I write how well that now stands up against the latest scholarship.

3. Now best ed. in Susan Kelly (ed.), The Charters of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters 4 (Oxford 1995), no. 15, but of course also available via Sean Miller’s ASCharters.net here, whence the Latin: “nisi expeditione intra Cantiam contra paganos marinos cum classis migrantibus uel in australes Saxones si necessitas cogit“. I would, of course, like to cite it from the supposed replacement for that site at King’s College London but as usual it’s down so I can’t. Plus ça change.

4. Discussed classically in Nicholas Brooks, “The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69–84, back when CUP still printed Festschriften, repr. in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700–1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47 and in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105.

5. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 587.

6. Royal Frankish Annals s. a. 800, printed in Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) VI (Hannover 1895); here cit. from P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), p. 92.

7. I paraphrase, obviously; this is not Alcuin’s style really. I realise he was a famous teacher and a moralist and theologian of the first order and so forth, and yes, at the same time as questioning his old acquaintances’ morality he was also trying to kick an international (or at least interregnal) relief effort into action, but I can’t help feeling that Alcuin was not very much fun, you know? I would have been in Theodulf’s camp, or more likely waiting for Walahfrid and Eriugena to arrive.

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70 responses to “The first Viking raid on England or Francia

  1. Bryan O'Sullivan

    Accounts of history need FAR more writing of this form: [...] the king’s reeve Beaduheard went down to tell them, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of “you can’t park that there” and they killed him.”

  2. In the last couple of years I’ve read, twice–in well-published, well-publicised texts–that Viking raids (the implication is ‘Viking raids on/in the British isles) began ‘in the seventh century’. (Most recently in Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order.) I grind my teeth. And I’m not a professional, just an interested amateur.

    I feel your pain.

    • Well, it could just be a telescoping of the increasing tendency among current archaeologists to stress the Scandinavian character and links of East Anglia in the sixth and seventh centuries and the similar stress on continuous maritime links across the North Sea into the Viking Age’s earliest roots around Hedeby and Ribe and so on… it could be. But it’s not, is it.

      (What on earth were you reading that for? You can’t say you weren’t warned…)

      • It’s not. Umph. Mutter.

        Why was I reading it? Because it was free. And because I needed something soothingly boring to read at night before bed to help me stop thinking about my novel-in-progress. (I can’t read fiction when I’m at the end stage of writing it.)

        But it turned out not to be soothing. He has a very confused notion of Britain after Rome.

  3. The Lindisfarne raid isn’t in the A version of ASC. It did later get into the DE versions of ASC because they took over a set of Northumbrian annals (also transmitted separately in the 12th c Historia Regum at Durham).

    • Blimey, it’s not either is it? No 793 annal at all. I had never noticed that. (I see it is present in F but that doesn’t really change the issue, does it?) That makes me wrong on the Internet. This is in fact the second time I’ve found out something I’ve taught people is wrong this week, oh dear. But I see how it can be worked in. An extra paragraph will shortly appear. Thankyou for the warning!

      • If you’re gonna be wrong, you may as well be wrong on the Internet. It’s practically rude not to be! ;)

        • Well, the other thing turned out to be part-right after all, so I have to defend this error with everything that’s left!

          • Sorry, catching up on posts here. The other issue no one likes to chat about is that D and E don’t mention the “Portsmouth” episode. That is, we only have A (B and C are dependent on A or A’s “sources”) for the Portsmouth episode, we have D, Alcuin, etc for Lindisfarne. it is interesting that isn’t until much later that both are mentioned in the same text. Or am I mistaken?

            • Um, I think you may be? I don’t have my Chronicle to hand just now (the worst of having a library divided between home and office) but the Whitelock translation in EHD I gives the 786 annal for all manuscripts and adds in a note, “‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘F’ add: ‘from Hôrthaland’ (in Norway).” I don’t like to differ from you, obviously, but I would prefer that to differing to Dorothy Whitelock without due care and attention…

              • Annal for 787 in B (ed. Taylor, p. 28) and C (ed. O’Keeffe, p. 50):

                ‘on his dagum coman ærest .iii. scipu Norðmanna; … þæt wæron
                þa ærestan scipu deniscra manna þe Angelcynnes land gesohtan’
                (‘and in his days there came for the first time three ships of ‘Northmen’ … Those were the first ships of ‘Danish’ men which came to the land of the English’)

                D, E, and F add the extra detail — supposedly confirming (as a matter of modern scholarly convention) that these ‘Danes’ came from Hörðaland, in ‘Norway’:

                D, ‘of Hæreðalande’ (ed. Cubbin, p. 16)
                E, ‘of Hereðalande’ (ed. Irvine, p. 41)
                F, ‘of Hereðalande’ (ed. Baker, p. 53)

                A and the copy in G have the episode but do not refer to them as Norðmenn:

                ‘on his dagum cuomon ærest .iii. scipu; … þæt wæron þa ærestan scipu Deniscra monna þe Angelcynnes lond gesohton’ (ed. Bately etc etc)

                I’m sure there must be a solid reason (isn’t there?) explaining why everybody agreed to stop worrying about whether these ‘Danes’ might have come from, say, Hardeland / Hardesyssel in northern Jutland (Hörð in saga-speak), just below the Limfjord — whence Danes threatened invasion as late as 1085.

                Hardeland and Hørdeland are always getting confused. Both places produced people you could have called Hörðar, and some references in skaldic poetry from as late as the early 1100s look like they mean the guys in Denmark, and /not/ the crowd further north.

                Peder Munch (a Dane, d. 1863) thought the term in the Chronicle must have designated north Jutlanders. So there /must/ be a good explanation why we all accept the view of Konrad Maurer (German, d. 1902) that the reference is to the Norwegian district.

                Surely the consensus since Maurer /can’t/ have hinged on the suppositions that (a) the accretion of extra detail reflects certainty rather than fuzziness surrounding an anecdote which, if authentic, had already been remade as a familiar 3-ships adventus-tale; and (b) that these northerners must have been Norwegian?

                Surely it can’t have anything to do with the modern fancy, stoked by Norwegian dynastic legends of the C12th and later, that a great Norwegian tyrant ’caused’ the Viking age (i.e. the Harald Finehair of the C9th century, rather than the better attested C11th bearer of that name, now known as Harald harðráði), and that in any case viking practically /means/ Norwegian? I’d love to be told if there are better reasons than that: there may be, but if so, I can’t remember them.

                • Frankly, what surprises me is that any chronicler was interested in pinning a more specific ethnic identity on these guys at all — regardless of whether it was some group from Jutland or Norway. I mean, English sources tend to be pretty vague on what flavour of Scandinavians they were dealing with, a situation probably not aided by a certain vagueness amongst what were likely often rather multi-ethnic groups of Norse marauders and suchlike. And, frankly, who’s taking notes when some berserk is rushing you with an ax? “Excuse me, but, where are you from? This is for posterity, you know — arrrrrrrrgh!” And then why is this deemed news for the chronicle? “Some guys showed up, axed the reeve, and took off. And it’s important that you know they were from place up north that won’t get a surviving mention in any other source from this period ….”

              • Comments are off in today’s bear story, but I relish the choice phrasing (in the English translation, anyway): it happened ‘by accident’.

              • Well, as I attempted to reply by email, I was wrong. The entry is obviously in DEF….something I assumed for years wasn’t there. Let that be a lesson to me. I have some additional thoughts but as the comments are getting complex and embedded, and so perhaps I’ll post on my blog and feed back to this one.

  4. Doesn’t Gregory of Tours record a raid led by a Danish king on Frisia in the late 6th century? I’m sure that’s somewhere in the Histories. Now is THAT the earliest ‘Viking’ raid?

    • Well remembered! No ordinary Danish king, either, if we accept that “Chlochilaich” could equate to Hygelac (LH III.3). And it does look quite like a Viking attack, too, in as much as it was for booty, or so Gregory’s report suggests. If he was an exile king it would fit perfectly…

      • Oh, don’t give me an excuse to get started on the ever popular Ch(l)ochilaicus and Hygelac (and the various other possibly more or less significant spelling variations)! :) Still, on whom, see most recently (to my knowledge) Arne Søby Christensen, “Beowulf, Hygelac og Chlochilaichus: Om beretningskronologien i Beowulf”, Historisk Tidsskrift 105, no. 1 (2005), 40-77.

        Still, moving away from the issues this topic spews up in relation to Beowulfiana … it is of course perfectly reasonable to assume Geoffrey was right about some Scandinavians having a go at the Frankish coast in the early 6th century. Which perhaps returns us to the point of “the first ‘Viking’ raid is more or less when whoever (whether in the 9th or 21st centuries) chooses to say it was. It would be a kind of curious madness to assume that the North Sea and its coasts were not reasonably rife with pirates and reavers of various sorts for about as long as their had been boats — and once there were sufficiently good boats (with a sufficiently good chance of getting to a sufficiently good reward at the other end) to make Scandinavia > Britain raiding look viable, people were doubtless going to have a go at it. This may have become increasingly feasible for more people towards the 9th century, but must surely have seemed feasible to some people much earlier (especially considering the likelihood that at least some of the “adventus Saxonum” included elements from southern Scandinavia or even Norway).

        And the idea that any given Scandinavian raider was or was not a “Viking” is inextricably tied to the concept of a “Viking Age”, which is a modern conception. So it may well have been an interest of various early medieval chroniclers (or modern historians) to say, “OK, so, the first official Viking (or at least Scandinavian) raid on Britain/Francia was at such-and-such a place, on such-and-such a date”. But it must very much be a definition after the fact(s), and probably obscures a situation in which the number of raids over time increased from “ignorable” to “big problem”, and only once it was recognized that there was a “big problem” was it interesting to try to fix a (semi-arbitrary) starting point for that “big problem”.

    • Just reading Des Antiquitez d’Aniov on p.62-63, talks about three ships (in this case full of german saxons arriving at Dorobernie) in times of Pharamond.
      The book is eminently mythical, but the text seems to link the jpg comment with a pre 8C context. Could anyone elaborate on this?

      • Good gracious, it’s Hengest and Vortigern, well out of their usual context! What on earth has this man been reading? You’re right to spot a resemblance, though, because that usual context is this same text, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, borrowing from [Edit Bede's reworking of the report of] the British chronicler Gildas in which, indeed, Vortigern (or [Edit: in Gildas], a magnussuperbus tyrannus, of which phrase the Celtic name Vortigern is a straight translation) invites Hengest and his men to defend Britain against its local barbarians and he arrives with those men in three ships. But it’s not just him, it’s basically every other Anglo-Saxon leader arriving in England in the fifth and sixth centuries. Almost all of these are also shown in the Chronicle arriving with a similarly small number of ships:

        477 Here Ælle and his 3 sons, Cymen and Wlencing and Cissa, came to the land of Britain with 2 ships at the place which is named Cymen’s Shore, and there killed many Welsh…

        495 Here two chieftains, Cerdic and Cynric his son, came to Britain with 5 ships at the place which is called Cerdic’s Shore and the same day fought against the Welsh.
        501 Here Port and 2 sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with 2 ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth, and killed a certain young British man, a very noble man.

        514 Here the West Saxons Stuf and Wihtgar came to Britain with 3 ships in the place which is called Cerdic’s Shore, and fought against the Britons and put them to flight….

        It’s as if, and Barbara Yorke has expressly said this, the Chronicle needed to make all the royal lines that went into the formation of its home kingdom, Wessex, of equivalent stature to the kings who were by now supposed to begin Anglo-Saxon settlement in Kent (this being well-established because of Bede’s use of Gildas). They must all be as legendary as Hengest and have arrived in the proper manner. So it’s a trope of which the chroniclers, pulling that information together at the same time as this reference to the first Vikings, was obviously aware and which they were ready to use wherever it might fit. I suspect that this attack is therefore another of these occurrences, in which the first men of a certain race arrive in three ships, meet an important local and kill him; the only difference is that Portland wasn’t immediately named after them! The question then becomes whether we can trust the report even slightly, or if life imitated art here…

        • The phrase in Gildas is “superbus tyrannus”, and Gildas makes no mention of Hengest, nor of Kent. Guy Halsall (who will correct me if I am misremebering) has recently argued (in his Barbarian Migrations book) that the “superbus tyrannus” is actually Magnus Maximus.

  5. Out of interest, have you read or seen John Hines PhD book, The Scandinavian Character of Anglian England in the pre-Viking Period? It may be a bit dated now in terms of the specific details – I’m not terribly up on the most recent archaeology – but still seems to me to make a very persuasive argument on the basis both of material culture and of historical evidence (not least Alcuin’s writings) for a much livelier set of contacts between England and Scandinavia before the ‘Viking Age’ than is often presumed.

    • I, er, know of it, and have used it as backup to such arguments, but without actually having read it I will confess. The power of reviews! But ther are extremely similar points made in the Sutton Hoo site report as well.

      • Carver’s “Age of Sutton Hoo” book, though also now lengthening in the tusk, has some useful views on this. As best I recall, he emphasized the idea that (still non-Christian) Anglian rulers might have been deliberately using Scandinavian (or Scandinavian-inspired) artefacts as a kind of way of distinguishing their status and ideological positioning from (now Christianized, and pulled into the Romanized Frankish world) rulers in southern Britain. “We’re not like those guys, we’re more like these other guys.” Such a situation would at least imply enough familiarity with Scandinavian stuff amongst the elite, at least, that such a display would be “readable”. There may be more on this sort of thing more recently, though I’m not as up-to-date as I would like to be.

  6. highlyeccentric

    So the first Viking attacks, in either England or Francia, are almost certainly not recorded, but there is good reason to say that anyone who gives you the canonical dates for them without a crucial word like “known” or “recorded” or similar is, well, probably talking about something else really.

    *nods madly*

    *frowns* should that ‘but’ be an ‘and’ or a ‘therefore’ or some such?

  7. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 15: Vampires, Vikings and Viruses « Contagions

  8. ‘eschatological froth’ is not an accurate characterization of Alcuin’s letters in the immediate aftermath of Lindisfarne. See my article ‘The Bible and Alcuin’s Interpretation of Current Events’, Peritia 16 (2002) for a demonstration that Alcuin’s views became more apocalyptic only after 796, when he also abandoned his prior Augustinian agnosticism about the meaning of the attack.

  9. Brenda Vinall-Mogel

    Bumped into your page today looking for current info on a paper I am working on about the Lindisfarne sacking since I have been away from universities for 10 years and was wondering if anyone has come to this conclusion yet. I ran it past LarrySwain earlier this week and have yet to hear from him….

    Knowing that Charlemagne was trying to decimate the Saxon pagans and we seem to have evidence of Saxons going to the Danes. Is it not possible since the Anglo-Saxon chronicals do not mention the sack of Lindisfarne and their first Danish raid takes place at Portland that we may have a Saxon Raid at Lindifarne that was sponsered by the Danes in terms of ships. The evidence to me is found in Alcuin’s desire to change the way Charlemagne treated pagan who would not convert. The law was finally changed about 3 years later — after Alcuin suposedly came out of retirement possible for just this issue.

    • I am not sure that I entirely understand what you suggest, but if it is that the Danes (as such) might have decided that targeting Christian centres might make sense in terms of “pre-emptive strikes”, this is I think not far from ideas that Bjorn Myhre has aired about essentially ideological conflicts playing a role in getting the “Viking Age” into gear. I think it’s hard to evaluate the concept, but equally it can be said that some Danish rulers were playing a rather risky diplomatic/military game with the Franks in the years around 800, and it’s hard to imagine that some factions among the Danes might have been eying the fates of the Frisians and Saxons at Frankish hands and thinking (positively or negatively) “we’re next!”. I mean, there may have been all sorts of conflicting political situations within the Danish area itself, but I just can’t imagine that anyone could have been living alongside Charlemagne’s Saxon Wars _without_ considering what it meant for _you_. Whether it’s possible to draw a line from there to anyone thinking (not least in, should we believe it, Hordaland!), “Hey, let’s go knock over one of those Christian places” is, though, perhaps still another story.

  10. Brenda Vinall-Mogel

    Actually I found a citation (that I do not have at hand right now talking about the Danes, for lack of a better title to give them) getting upset with the Saxons who had gone to them to get away from Charlemagne. They gave them ships and sent them on their way. As long as they came back with money to pay their way or buy followers they most likely would not be mentioned again. But others, actual Danes and those Saxons who then could marry into Danish families due to the money from the raid would no longer be called Saxons, but Danes by outsiders since wives tend to make the clothes; artisans and smiths the metal bits that were worn or needed to fight.

    The real question as you say is did the Saxons feel it was Charlemagne who they were fighting or the idea of conversion. If Clovis’ army could “despoil at that time many churches” because he was a pagan (Gregory of Tours: History of the Franks) why is it such a stretch for pagan Saxons to despoil Lindisfarne as they were being killed for not converting? Again, it is a change three years later in Charlemagne’s laws championed by Alcuin that ends a manditory death for pagan who would not convert to christianity.

    I have been reading again, not in translation, some of the Norse Sagas and other contemporary histories and biographies and I feel the part we are most missing is culture and history — we need to take things more literally as they were written in terms of culture then we like to do today. Example: When King Alfred needed a gentler hand to hold what were really hostages he set up his school and had reading taught in English. We do not really look at the fact that these students were hostages. We tend to say he brought a little renaissance of learning to England.

    • … actual Danes and those Saxons who then could marry into Danish families due to the money from the raid would no longer be called Saxons, but Danes by outsiders since wives tend to make the clothes; artisans and smiths the metal bits that were worn or needed to fight…

      The trouble with this bit, with whose views on the mutability of ethnicity I basically agree, is that it means that you have no way to test your single source for the idea. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s compilers thought the raiders of 793 were Danes and were even able to say where they’re form; they may, indeed, have been wrong, but the trouble is that we have no more – indeed we have much less – information than they did with which we might justify saying they were. So there’s that problem: how can this ever be more than a suggestion?

      I also have difficulties with the political structures of decision-making that this theory implies. There is of course a king in Denmark at the time, and he has a clear intent to damage the Carolingian Empire; it seems hard to explain to me that he would, if he had available Saxon soldiery, not turn them to that effort rather than diverting them to England. Surely, after all, it would be easier to motivate them in a campaign to recover their homeland than to take ship (and it’s centuries since the Saxons were known as seafarers by this time…) to attack England, and the furthest part of England from Carolingian Europe at that. How would this help Godfrid’s bigger aims? It would be an especially hard thing to make happen because we know, from Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and other later sources, that a sort of ancestral kinship between Old Saxons and Anglo-Saxons was recognised, at least by the learned. Not only does that seem to me to make an attack on one by the other less likely, it also should have provided Alcuin and other commentators with a perfect motif for the sorry state of affairs in the kingdom and world if kinsmen had attacked each other here. That would have made their eschatological points that much the stronger, and we see such rhetoric used later on in similar circumstances by Archbishop Wulfstan of York. If it’s not here, I think we have to conclude that these writers didn’t know of Saxons on this raid and the easiest explanation for that would probably be that there weren’t any, especially since information on the raiders seems to have been good.

      If it wasn’t Godfrid organising the attack, of course, the strategic objection goes away but then we have no clear agency to `send’ these notional Saxons to attack anyone. If these people were fugitives, they had at least the choice of whither to flee. They don’t have to wind up on campaigns for which they have no love. At that rate, how you could possibly divide Saxon from Viking, in its traditionally-received etymological sense I mean? They would be as pagan a Teutonic plunderer as the next Dane or ex-Jute, and their motives as individual.

      So I’m afraid I don’t find this theory credible, myself. It’s very hard to construct a scenario in which it’s to any major Danish political agent’s advantage to use secondary forces to attack Lindisfarne – why not grab the booty with your own men, if you’re going to attack it at all? And if those men included exiled Saxons who’d joined of their own accord, well, what difference does that make to anything, really, and how on earth might we ever test it? Sorry not to be more encouraging.

      • Brenda Vinall-Mogel

        As I believe you said above, only the raid on Portland is recorded as the first Danish raid. The other raiders are not identified by ethnicity at Lindisferne, but only as pagans. Everyone is ignoring the change in Charlemagne’s laws concerning the death penalty of pagans being changed only 4 years later to one of tolerance and championed by Alcuin. Charlemagne obviously has little problem with killing pagan Saxons as in 782, I believe he is reported to have killed 4500 Saxon prisoners (we needn’t get into the zero debate and scribe errors). Why the sudden change of heart? I believe there is something there. I just need a bit more time finding it. Thank you all for a good discussion.

  11. The bottom line must be that it’s pretty hard to build and defend complex stories about the almost entirely inscrutable interactions between small groups of prominent Danes and Saxons from the available Frankish sources.

    That said, I do think there’s good reason to look harder at what data we have for evidence of spill-over from the tumultuous circumstances in Saxony, northern Frisia and southern Jylland in the larger North Sea region in the decade or two either side of 800.

    To /this/ extent, I suppose I go along with Myhre, although I don’t think this necessarily matters a whit for understanding the trajectory of the far more significant bouts of Scandinavian raiding and conquest later in the ninth century.

    I’m not sure I buy the assumption that religious differences are at the root of everything. Leaving aside Saxons, popular discussions of the beginnings of the Viking Age in this vein seem to be acquiring a nobbly encrustation of Dawkins- and Hitchens-esque memes: we seem to be seeing the emergence of the C21st ideologically charged Viking, the Victim of Christian Cultural Imperialism Who Won’t Take it Lying Down. We’re in no position to make big claims on the basis of the archaeological evidence for a ninth-century church at Ribe — but it’s existence seems to offer one of many clear warnings (we already had more than enough) against assuming some kind of impervious cultural boundary or opposition between Christendom and the ‘pre-Christian’ north.

  12. Agreed. While it seems likely that ethnicity could have been (and perhaps often was) flexible, we have no way of evaluating the particular validity of this hypothesis. Moreover, I am not sure why Saxon/Danes would attempt to exact revenge on the Franks (or Frankish Christians) for the conquest of Saxony by attacking an English monastery. The logic seems forced, to me.

  13. Brenda Vinall-Mogel

    To Carl and jpg. What evidence do we have that Lindisfarne was sacked by Norsemen, Vikings, Danes (whatever term is being used this year)? Everything we have for documents of the sacking states pagans or heathens — Alcuin’s writing and then the specific year in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. These “heathens” didn’t really leave a calling card.

    It is a previous entry for 787 that we get Danes, Northmen, or Hordaland mentioned under an entry, which is prior to 793. Why not state Dane, Northman, or Hordalander again if it was them – they do not have trouble with mentioning Danes later in the chronicle or the Old Saxons when they are fighting the Franks. Not to put a modern spin on this, but when one has an embarrassing cousin that one shares a last name with; one usually tries to distance oneself from them by saying they were not raised right, a genetic mutation took place on that side of the family, they are not from my branch of the family, something that shows your character is somehow better. Here I believe we see the term pagan used for a reason. I do not believe the words “heathen” or “pagan” are ever used again in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles except in this one case. I do not remember seeing them used in conjunction with Danes ever. I know I have work to do on this, but please give me time.

  14. Didn’t mean to sound so patronising — I was being more positive than you think, but still cautious in regard to how much the early sources tell us.

    I think it’s always worthwhile revisiting unquestioned assumptions in the scholarship and giving them a good grilling. Its important to recognise the limitations and ambiguities of the sources — and in a way that seems to be exactly what you’re attempting to do. By the same token, one does need to be careful about pushing them too far in a new direction, but I certainly agree with you to the extent that there is far less certainty about the identity of these raiders than scholarship customarily implies. (BTW, I prefer the word viking, without a capital v-, since it seems to be to be the most potentially inclusive term available, which need not have strong ethnic implications, although it has its difficulties, as all the available terms do).

    As regards the language used to describe viking raiders, have you read Sarah Foot’s, ‘Violence against Christians? The Vikings and the church in ninth century England’, Medieval History 1.3 (1991), 3-16?

    On the 787 chronicle entry, see my own comments above.

    You’re quite right about the lack of references to northern raiders as heathens in the ASC (which prefers ethnic labels and terms for war-band etc): but the lack is not absolute. The annal for 871 famously describes the conquerors of England as se micel hæþen here (the great heathen army). Otherwise, the annals from the time of the great army only use the term to refer to the ‘heathen kings’ Bagsecg and Halfdan. In earlier annals, though, it occurs several times to refer to raiders in the south-east: e.g. the heathen men who attacked Kent in 835, 838, 851, 853, 855, 865. In 851, King Æthelwulf’s victory at Aclea is described as ‘the greatest slaughter of a heathen raiding-army that we have heard of up to the present day’.

    So the 793 annal is not quite isolated. The annal in the northern recension (represented most obviously in ASC-D and E) reads ‘Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people … and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne by looting and slaughter’. There’s a close correspondence here to Alcuin’s construction of the raid in his letter to Higbald of Lindisfarne, when he laments that ‘the pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of Saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street’. You’re right that Alcuin always refers to the raiders as pagani or gens paganorum: he appears not to have been interested in ethnic specificities, only in emphasising the opposition between Christian and heathen, or, in OT terms, Jews and gentiles.

    I’m /very/ much in favour of deconstructing the ideas about ethnicity that renders much of current discussions of vikings absurd, but I do think the evidence suggests that in these texts that Alcuin thought of these pagans as northmen: those who fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy that ‘from the North evil breaks forth’. I’m not sure that this is how Alcuin would ever have referred to Saxons. (I’d appreciate any evidence to the contrary.) Yet where these raiders /actually came from/ is another matter entirely. I don’t think any of the written sources help us very much with the details.

    Alcuin’s usage gets picked up later on. Asser famously uses the term pagani systematically to refer to the vikings, whom he opposes to the English christiani. Other texts from Alfred’s reign follow the same pattern, including Alfred’s will, and Fulk of Rheim’s letter to Alfred. A couple of other mid-C9th sources refer to the heathen raiding army and the troubles caused by the heathen peoples, c. 850, but it looks like Alfred’s court circle was particularly keen on presenting the viking wars in religious terms, them against us, Pagan v’s Christian. This doesn’t help with the specific problem with which you’re concerned — but it does at least tell us something about how later C9th readers responded to Alcuin’s first quite tentative suggestion that the men from the north might perhaps be seen as the rod of God’s wrath.

    • Without meaning to be overly picky – which I most certainly am being – Asser does not use ‘christiani’ as synonmous with ‘English’. Rather, as I am sure you are as well aware as I (if not more so!), one of the main reasons why he uses the term (in preference to ‘Dani’ as one might expect from the Chroincle) is that the religious rather than ethnic divide is what he wishes to emphasise. He is calling for cooperation between the Welsh and English against the vikings, after all.

      • Absolutely: and you’re quite right to pick me up on it. How easy it is to make careless errors when introducing ethnic categories…

  15. Oh yes: the other piece of essential reading on the changing religious tone of contemporary accounts of early vikings is of course Simon Coupland’s, ‘The rod of God’s wrath or the people of God’s wrath? The Carolingian theology of the Viking invasions’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42 (1991). This (the changing depiction of vikings in time, place, and textual genre) is a very rich area indeed in which a great deal more work could be done. There is no general lack of material referring to northern raiders in religious terms. Quite the reverse.

    • Mary Garrison

      See my article in Peritia 16 (2002) on the ‘The Bible and Alcuin’s Interpretation of Current Events’.
      Alcuin initially refused to say whether the attack on Lindisfarne was a punishment for sins–or whose, or not–in other words, maintaining the subtle orthodox view about current history held by Augustine, as delineated in Robert Markus’s Saeculum. He only moved away from this view later, retrospectively, after other, later events–a crucial turning point in his thought, and a turn away from Augustine. It is a mistake to skate over the complexity of Alcuin’s reaction. Remember that Alcuin was not writing for our benefit about the attack, but to contemporaries caught up in the messy, complex and ambivalent aftermath.

      • I have, finally, almost a year later, read this article, and can only apologise for my slackness on this front. Certainly, my views are changed. This is at least partly because now that I look back at my attempt to strains fears of the End Times from Alcuin’s Latin, below, I don’t find them anywhere near as convincing as I did in the heat of debate, but also because Dr Garrison’s article makes the important point that, while Northumbria and Mercia may have been heading into civil war and collapse, Vikings or no Vikings Carolingian Europe was doing pretty well, what with defeating the Avars, diplomatic approaches from Spain and Byzantium and a great many other successes. If one’s going to see that as signs of an approaching End, then it rather involves seeing the Empire as the City of God on Earth, which as Dr Garrison points out is something Alcuin did (once) suggest, but in flattery while trying to duck a summons to court. What seems instead to be happening is that Alcuin is giving up on the English, in several ways; where Bede had seen a chosen people of God in his gens, to Alcuin it is evident, tentatively in 793 and definitively by 796, that God has forsaken the English whereas he favours the Carolingian Empire with success after success.

        Now I still don’t like the way Alcuin finishes this letter (among a great many others, it should be said) by blaming the victims, and even as I say that I’m aware that it’s a very twenty-first-century response. I also do think that it betrays considerable distress and confusion in the mind of the writer, which is what I was getting at with the term `froth’. That may be unkind to the organising principles of the letter and the level of erudition used in writing it, or it may be that in time of trouble Biblical quotes flooded Alcuin’s brain more or less without bidding, I could believe that. Whether or not `froth’ is fair, though, I ought to withdraw the word `eschatological’. I now see that Alcuin was sure punishment was coming, but it was going to be aimed solely at the English, and he felt that he could see why. That still doesn’t endear him to me, but that’s hopefully not what this debate has been about…

  16. If I agree, it’s only because most of what I know about Alcuin I’ve learnt from you, Dr Garrison… But yes indeed: just trying to keep things simple (without veering too far into the simplistic).

  17. Mary Garrison

    The eschatological froth is still in the main text!
    Out out d* froth!
    Alcuin did not see the attack eschatologically until after 796. If you dismiss the one and only articulate contemporary spokesperson as a frother, there is little chance of nuanced understanding of the complex and ambivalent contemporary response.

    • I have been meaning to edit this post once I’d found time to read your cited article, Dr Garrison, and I humbly confess that I have as yet not done so, and I suppose that I might as well confess that my lack of energy on this front is also because I like to stay detached enough from Alcuin to continue to find him funny, but this renewal of your plea has at least made me look back at the letter in question. I think that what I meant initially was that Alcuin saw the sack as a judgement, on somebody (quite possibly including the monks), but I don’t think I necessarily meant that it would be the Last One, that was carelessness on my part, and I grant that the letter does not say that it’s the Last Judgement coming; after all, he seems to believe that there is hope of remedy. All the same, while I can certainly believe that continuing attacks (for all that they’re not documented—the whole point of the post is after all that they were going on already) hardened his conviction that this might after all be the Big One, even in the 793 letter to the monks it seems to me that he’s wondering about the possibility: “Aut hoc maioris est initium doloris, aut peccata habitantium hoc exigerunt.” One thing that does show me wrong about, of course, is that he didn’t anticipate further attacks, and I probably ought to go and change that bit (though I’m much more inclined to leave my mistakes as they are and simply add a note referring people to the comments, since I am certainly not the authority here; in fact I will do that, now). However, persuading me that ‘froth’ is not a fair though unkind description of that letter is a much harder task, and so the obvious room for negotiation is whether the froth is eschatological or not, as in, does Alcuin show concern at the possible end of the world coming. I would say, from a re-reading, that he was rather hoping that it was not, but that the idea had crossed his mind; he almost hopes the monks had deserved the sack because then there may be no more to come, it seems to me. I will obviously have to make your article more of a priority so as to see why this is wrong. For the moment, however, I’d rather let readers see you telling me so than to adapt the text as if I weren’t.

  18. It is a shame that most of the articles mentioned in this discussion seem to be behind paywalls, if available at all.

  19. It’s of peripheral interest, but I thought it might be worth noting here the discoveries at Salme on the Estonian island of Saaremaa in 2008-2010 of a pair of pre-viking ships containing mass warrior burials — possibly of Scandinavians –, excavated by Margaret Konsa and others. One of these (Salme II) is a sail-powered ship, most likely from the first half of the eight century, making it the earliest sail-powered ship from the Baltic and Scandinavia known to archaeology — perhaps a century older than the Oseberg ship.

    I don’t think a full scholarly discussion has yet been published, but artefacts (principally weapons) on the vessels suggest the occupants /may/ have been Scandinavian — and it’s still a crucial find for northern sea-faring history even if they weren’t. The find has been getting some press recently and there’s an open access account here (but be careful of the saga references!)

    The smaller of the two vessels is a sleek rowing ship, most likely from the late seventh or early eighth century, which contained the bones of 7 men. The really interesting one is Salme II, a 17.5m ship which probably had a sail, and contained at least 33 male skeletons piled in the centre of the ship. Of course the excitement is all to do with whether this find captures the move from oar-power to sailing power in the C8th on which, for instance, Peter Sawyer built his ideas about the beginnings of viking activity as it would be experienced in Christian Europe. It’s rather early in the day to place much weight on these Estonian ship burials, but it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on them.

    • That is fantastic, not just as a find but as a comprehending but still exciting write-up, and I say this as one who has spent much too much time with undergraduate exams just lately so appreciating someone who can make it work. Thanks for the link. How generally fascinating!

  20. There’s a Current World Archaeology write-up with better discussion and far better images of the Salme II artefacts: but beware, the link is to a 32 MB pdf.

  21. Cheers for the DIY! Hardly surprising I get spammed…

  22. Allan McKinley

    Just a thought about the East Saxons. There is evidence for East Saxon kings up to the early ninth century, and their assumed subservience to the kings of Mercia may just reflect they appear in Mercian sources – as with their East Anglian neighbours, they may have been more difficult to control than to oversee. So Offa may have been concerned about the need to campaign against the East Saxons even if they were not a direct threat to him. Think Charlemagne in Aquitaine on a smaller scale (indeed, Charlemagne amongst the Saxons might also be relevant – the East Saxons may not have been centralised, despite their admirable fixation on having kings whose names began with s…).

    Arguably we have another case of the period around 800 being viewed in light of the later history of the ninth-century, with a potentially more diverse situation being telescoped by the Chronicle narrative that had a clear interest in writing out the East Saxon kings (as Alfred held their land). Anyway, that’s that irrelevant diversion done with.

    • Morn Capper’s thesis actually goes into the survival of Essex as a unit in some detail. (Morn rarely does things in less than some detail.) One has to cope with them surviving as a kingdom somehow coinciding with Mercia’s evident control of London. I don’t want to pre-empt the book of the thesis too much but I don’t think it’s doing so too much to say that she thinks some kind of mutual agreement must be behind this, perhaps foisted on one of the simultaneous kings of Essex by Æthelbald in exchange for not backing a rival. But maybe by the time of that charter, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra might have put it, a Kentish thought had struck the incumbent East Saxon royal?

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