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What medieval sources reveal about the true nature of the Vikings

We’ve seen it all in documentaries and dramas. The Viking Age begins as hordes of Vikings leap ashore from their long-ships, in a lightening raid against defenceless clerics and lay folk, only to depart as swiftly as they arrive loaded up with slaves and booty. These hit-and-run raids are seen to have continued for decades before visitors from Scandinavia began to trade, negotiate and found settlements on English soil. While it can’t be denied that Viking raids were violent, the established narrative of first contact seems oversimplified in the light of contemporary evidence.

The founding narrative for popular portrayals is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which survives in different versions. The core text, or “common stock”, was first composed in Wessex around AD892 and reflects the interests of King Alfred the Great whose career was dedicated to battling Vikings. It retrospectively reports the first atrocity by Northmen who arrived in three ships in Dorset one day between AD786 and AD802, and who slew a royal administrator of the kingdom of Wessex.

“The Northern Recension” of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records heavenly portents before “heathens” descended on the monastery of Lindisfarne in AD793. Alcuin, a contemporary, wrote a letter decrying the blood of priests being spilt across the altar of that famous Northumbrian church.

The Northern Recension also records an attack the following year on a monastery at the mouth of the River Don. No further Viking activity is reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle until AD835 when a series of raids began along the southern coasts of England. It is not until AD851 that the chronicle records the foundation of a Viking base in England on the Isle of Sheppey.

Supernatural qualities

In the chronicle, the first Vikings are shrouded in mystery, presented as agents of supernatural punishment more than flesh and blood human beings. Neglected evidence from non-chronicle sources casts more light on these events. The famous scholar Alcuin wrote many letters, but only one of these relate to the start of the Viking Age (his response to the King of Northumbria about the sack of Lindisfarne mentioned above) tends to be quoted.

A depiction of Alcuin (middle) from a ninth-century manuscript. Wikipedia

In a letter to the Bishop of Lindisfarne, Alcuin says that he will seek help from the Emperor Charlemagne to recover the youths who had been seized in the attack. This suggests that the Viking group responsible could be identified and that diplomatic channels might have existed to secure the release of captives.

A few years later, in AD797 Alcuin writes to the clergy and nobles of Kent, urging them to be good Christians because “a pagan people is becoming accustomed to laying waste our shores with piratical robbery”. This dire view of events would have little currency if it did not reflect the experience of the Kentish elite. This suggests more early Viking activity took place than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports.

Challenging the popular story

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the chronicle comes in the form of a series of charters, administrative documents which have survived from Kent relating to events from AD792 to AD822. It seems miraculous that so many of these fragile documents have survived intact over 1,000 years to be consulted by today’s scholars. The texts of some have only survived through later medieval copies and more must have been lost.

The charters that have survived from Kent refer to grants of land and privileges but place an obligation on the recipient to raise armies, build bridges and construct fortifications “against pagans”. This suggests that Vikings were more active and better defended against than many historians have realised.

Lindisfarne: where the ‘heathens’ descended. Shutterstock

Intriguingly, charters from AD811 and AD822 also refer to an obligation to destroy fortresses, so Vikings may have been occupying defensive sites in Kent in this period. One charter of AD822 specifies military obligations against “pagan enemies”, which suggests that not all pagans were enemies, and some non-hostile contact may have developed.

The evidence is complemented by continental accounts relating to the capture of an English papal envoy, Aldwulf. He was carried off while attempting to cross the English Channel, but was ransomed in AD809 by an Englishman and eventually made his way back to Rome. Assuming that the pirates were Vikings (the term “pirata” was synonymous with Vikings in Frankish sources of the time), it indicates they had a base in Britain and could engage in high-level negotiations.

English historiography has tended to romanticise the Vikings, either as demonic heathen barbarians or as brave empire-building ancestors. Both narratives have fixated on the violent clash between cultures and fed into dramatic accounts replete with heroes and villains.

But reconsidered evidence shows Vikings were not bolts from the blue, their activities were planned by their military leaders and they were capable at an early stage of striking deals with communities and local leaders. The picture of early Viking contact is more complex, calculated and pragmatic than our traditional narratives have allowed.

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