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Payment for past crimes: 12th-century French cleric who called on Denmark to pay for Viking raids

Illustration of the abbey of St Genevieve in Paris.
The abbey of St Genevieve in Paris was destroyed during the French revolution. Nicolas Ransonnette (1745-1810). Dessinateur (illustrator) - Bibliothèque nationale de France

In 1188 Stephen, the abbot of the monastery of St Genevieve in Paris, who would become bishop of Tournai, wrote a series of letters to members of the royal family and church leaders in Denmark. He gave news of events at his monastery and attempted to calm frazzled tempers concerning rumours about the homosexuality of Peter Sunesen, a chaplain of the archbishop of Lund, who was later to become chancellor to the Danish king.

He also presented a remarkable demand. Needing money to pay for the restoration of the monastery, he demanded reparations from the Danes for the destruction of his church and the enslavement of numerous Frenchmen during Viking raids on Paris more than three centuries earlier. Both the attack on the church and the enslavement and slaughter of French subjects are attested to in the contemporary annals of St Bertin.

In the letters, which were to be read out in front of their recipients by his chaplain, Geoffrey, Stephen may have been the first European legal scholar to attempt to claim reparations for enslavement and war crimes. While he did not claim that the Danish king, Canute VI, was a direct descendent of these particular Viking raiders, he noted that Canute and his family had certainly profited from the raids of their Viking forebears.

Stephen was careful to praise Canute’s benevolence towards the church and emphasised the efforts of the Danish king to preserve its freedoms. But he also referred to the “extensive and powerful might found in the realm of the Danes by whose virtue your ancestors who until then laboured in pagan error, attacked Gaul with powerful arms and their full force”.

Coin showing head of Danish king Canute VI.
Canute VI could have sent some of these coins in reparation, but he didn’t.

Stephen suggested that Canute might want to make reparation for these crimes by putting pressure on the powerful White clan, who had fostered Canute’s father as a teen and whose members included Absalon, the current archbishop of Lund, and the two brothers Peter and Andrew Sunesen, who later became king’s chancellor and archbishop of Lund respectively. He wanted them to hand over the inheritance of one of their number who had joined the monastery of St Genevieve but had died before his inheritance had been transferred to the monastery.

It is clear from the letters that Stephen was aware that he was treading on thin ice in raising the issue of reparations for Viking misdeeds. In his instruction to his chaplain Geoffrey, who delivered the letters, he suggested that the letters be read “in a light manner and must not produce anger but appeal to compassion”.

But he didn’t pull any punches when describing the horrors of the Viking raids and how the invaders had destroyed French buildings and tortured and enslaved their inhabitants. The letter to Absalon, for example, describes how the Vikings:

… harried landscapes, villages and fields. Some people they took away as booty and into captivity, others they pierced with the points of their swords. They razed holy foundations to the ground with fire and destruction.

The impact of these actions was still felt three centuries later. As Stephen pointed out, the attack on his own monastery of St Genevieve had left “the walls of our church … damaged and destroyed by fire, and because of their great age and fragility threaten to collapse. They sigh to be strengthened by buttresses and be covered by a roof”.

Legal and moral

Stephen of Tournai was a leading scholar in church law. He taught law in Paris and wrote one of the first commentaries on the groundbreaking Harmony of Discordant Canons (circa 1140) attributed to the Bolognese teacher of canon law, Gratian.

Yet Stephen did not frame his argument in legal terms. Putting pressure on the Sunesens to send money to the monastery was the right and moral thing for the Danish king and church leadership to do, he argued.

17th-century painting of St Genevieve in front of Paris' town hall.
St Genevieve, patron saint of Paris is said to have saved the city from being sacked by Attila the Hun with a ‘prayer marathon’ in 451AD.

Since the Viking raiders were of course dead and buried, it was up to their heirs to make sure that reparation was made and that the walls of St Genevieve were repaired and strengthened to ensure that they once again provided a fitting and safe place to worship God and to venerate St Genevieve’s relics.

Never paid

The question of reparations for enslavement is of course a live one. No reparations have ever been paid to former slaves or the descendants of those involved in the Atlantic slave trade. The only reparations paid under the UK’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 were to British slave owners to compensate for their losses.

In 2006, the then UK prime minister, Tony Blair, expressed regret and “deep sorrow” over Britain’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade – although MP Oona King noted that he stopped short of a full apology “mainly because it leaves the state open to claims for reparations”.

The recent toppling of the statue of slave owner Edward Colston in Bristol and the Black Lives Matter protests have once again raised uncomfortable questions about the UK’s role in the slave trade. In July 2020 the Caribbean Community (Caricom) repeated its demands for reparations for native genocide and African enslavement from 10 European nations, including Denmark and the UK.

Read more: Edward Colston statue toppled: how Bristol came to see the slave trader as a hero and philanthropist

The issues relating to reparations for the Atlantic slave trade will continue to be debated in the US and Europe. As far as reparations for the crimes of the Vikings were concerned, Stephen of Tournai sent letters to, among others, Canute VI of Denmark, Bishop Valdemar of Schleswig, Absalon, archbishop of Lund, and Peter Sunesen – a canon of Lund and a former student of Stephen. But he received no replies and no reparations were ever paid.

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