New evidence which reveals how the Vikings successfully blended into British and Irish culture long before they were consigned to history as barbaric raiders is to be presented at a Cambridge University conference.
In a three-day event held from March 13th to 15th, leading scholars unveiled more than 20 cutting-edge studies which reveal how the Vikings shared technology, swapped ideas and often lived side-by-side in relative harmony with their Anglo-Saxon and Celtic contemporaries.
Together, the research further revises our standard image of the Vikings, who academics argue should be seen as an early example of immigrants being successfully assimilated into British and Irish culture.
"The latest evidence does not point to a simple opposition between 'Vikings' and 'natives'," Dr Fiona Edmonds, from the University of Cambridge's Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, said.
"Within a relatively short space of time - and with lasting effect - the various cultures in Britain and Ireland started to intermingle. Investigating that process provides us with a historical model of how political groups can be absorbed into complex societies, contributing much to those societies in the process. There are important lessons that can be gained from this about cultural assimilation in the modern era," her colleague, Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh added.
The conference, entitled "Between the Islands", has been organised by the University's Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and its Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).
Drawing on a combination of new archaeological evidence, historical studies, and analysis of the language, literature and coinage of the period, it aims to illustrate how between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Vikings became an integral part of the fabric of social and political life which changed Britain and Ireland far more profoundly than is often realised.
The evidence shows that there was widespread cultural hybridisation, with culturally-mixed groups of Vikings and Celts or Anglo-Saxons engaged in ongoing and fruitful cultural exchanges. Papers being presented at the conference will cover topics including:
• Research into Scandinavian settlement in Ireland showing it to have been much more varied than was once thought. Interaction between Viking incomers and Celts can be detected in many of the camps.
• An examination of evidence for Scandinavian settlement in North-West England including archaeological remains (such as furnished burials) which point to early Viking settlements on the Cumbrian coast.
• A new analysis of personal names in the Domesday Book which suggests that settlements established in Yorkshire, on the path used by travellers voyaging between Viking Dublin and Viking York, retained their Gaelic-Scandinavian identity until the Norman Conquest.
• Investigations into Irish nautical activity indicating that it experienced a flowering in the tenth century perhaps in response to Viking prowess in this area. The key product of this development is "Skuldelev 2", an impressive Viking long-ship built in Dublin in 1042.
• Recent studies of regional coinage from the period, which show that Viking rulers developed economies influenced by cultures they encountered on arrival. In East Anglia, for example, (where there had been a well-regulated coin economy), they adopted a similar system, but in other areas, where there had been only limited coin circulation, they introduced a bullion economy instead.
• Evidence that those responsible for Ogam and runic inscriptions may have mutually influenced one another, as indicated by such monuments as stone crosses at Kilalloe (Co. Clare, Ireland) and Kirk Michael (Isle of Man).
• Analysis of Old Norse literary works which shows that some of their features may have been borrowed from Gaelic story-telling.
"There have been significant advances in our understanding of the impact that the Vikings had on Britain and Ireland in the early medieval period, and this conference shows that the three worlds were inexorably intertwined for hundreds of years," Dr Ní Mhaonaigh said.
"We know that the Vikings were part of a much wider process of cultural cross-fertlisation that changed Britain and Ireland forever. This information changes the way we understand the early history of our own islands."
Further details about "Between the Islands: Interaction with Vikings in Ireland and Britain in the Early Medieval Period", including a full programme and abstracts of all papers, can be found by clicking here.
Rampaging hordes - or darlings of the Dark Ages?
By William Langley
15 March 2009
The Sunday Telegraph
"Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now... Behold, the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of its priests, despoiled of all its ornaments... given up as prey to a pagan people."
The religious scholar, Alcuin of York, writing in the late 8th century, had just experienced a bad case of the Vikings. Fiery dragons had been seen in the sky, followed by the arrival of raiders in longboats. For the next two centuries, the pattern of mayhem continued, and the caricature of the Viking as a kind of Scandinavian pillage idiot became thoroughly established.
Last week, a different picture of the invading Norsemen emerged from a conference of academics at Cambridge University. Far from disgracing themselves on our shores, the Vikings can now be seen as model immigrants, whose successful assimilation into British society holds lessons for our own time. Their image problem largely stems from their failure - what, with all that plundering to do - to find time to record their own history; meaning that chronicling their presence was left to those on the receiving end of their, shall we say, pragmatic approach to revenue gathering.
"Most people's image of the Vikings centres on their arrival and the disruption it brought, but that only continued for a very short time," says Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, a Cambridge professor of Celtic studies who organised the conference. "Afterwards they started building settlements and interacting with the locals and influenced them in many ways. They provide a clear example of how a particular group came into a sophisticated, established society and the resulting interaction was positive."
Serious historians have long nursed doubts about the traditional image of the Viking as a hulking, mead-swigging sea-raider with an axe over one shoulder and a maiden over the other, but it played well in the popular imagination, enlivening books and movies, and until recently there was little of substance to refute it. The new evidence suggests that most Vikings were simply looking for a better life and, once in Britain, quickly established themselves as farmers, craftsmen and traders.
"The Vikings weren't these big, hairy delinquents, they mostly came from the upper classes," says Ingmar Jansson of Stockholm University. "They were sophisticated and at the cutting edge of civilisation." Their big problem - the one that sent them forth - seems to have been the inhospitality of their native norselands. Arable land was scarce and the climate harsh. The Vikings' forays into other lands, say the Cambridge scholars, were more about survival than conquest.
They were also about the deployment of some remarkably advanced technology. Their longships were fast and seaworthy, and the crews navigated them with astounding precision. They reached North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In the 10th century, the bloodthirsty Viking chieftain Thorwald and his even more ferocious son, Eric the Red, having been expelled from their native Norway for a series of grisly murders, made their way by longship to Iceland, from where - after committing yet more murders - they were also expelled. This time they made it to Greenland, where, in the frustrating absence of anyone to murder, they founded a settlement from which Eric's bold and driven son, Leif Ericson, would later sail west to a place he called Vinland, almost certainly becoming the first European to sight America.
How did the Vikings, in open ships with minimal room for even basic provisions, manage such epic voyages? Yet more technology, is the answer. They had learned to preserve cod by drying and salting it until it had lost 80 per cent of its weight and could be neatly stowed in the hull. This breakthrough vastly extended their reach, and made possible the five recorded Viking expeditions to North America between 985 and 1011.
"The Vikings reconnected humanity and made the world a smaller place by travelling these huge distances," says the renowned Viking expert William Fitzhugh, of Washington's Museum of Natural History. "We can look back to the Vikings as the origin of human endeavour to find new horizons."
Terrific. Unless you happened to be living on the new horizon when they arrived. The first recorded landing of Vikings in Britain dates to AD 787, when three ships, probably from Norway, came ashore on the Dorset coast. According to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the historical annals compiled in the time of Alfred the Great, a reeve (tax collector) was sent to meet them. Apparently taking a dim view of the idea that they should pay mooring fees, the Vikings chopped up the taxman, leaving his body on the beach as a calling card.
So began the legend of Viking terror. The raiding parties struck wherever there was booty or slaves to be taken, and their strategic range covered all of Europe. Ireland was so badly hit that a few years ago the Danish government felt obliged to issue one of those fashionably belated official apologies (accepted). Congregations in western France still pray: "From the wrath of the Northmen, Oh, Lord preserve us."
Even allowing for historical exaggeration, there's no doubt the Vikings could be a tough bunch. Where, though, did the ferocity come from? Some scholars have suggested that they may have been using performance-enhancing substances - notably magic mushrooms that they collected on their travels. From this arose the myth of the "berserkers", the Viking super-warriors who, when in battle, would enter a frenzy, seemingly impervious to pain.
Yet, away from the obligations of pillaging and plundering, the Viking was - according to the Cambridge consensus - a very different creature. He was obsessed with good grooming, fashionable appearance and personal hygiene, and, in this sense, could be seen as the first metrosexual. One medieval chronicler, John of Wallingford, records disapprovingly that the Danes "combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday and changed their clothes regularly."
Nor did the comprehensive Viking wardrobe include a Hagar the Horrible-style horned helmet. This idea owes more to Wagner and the era of Teutonic romanticism than to anything the Vikings actually put on their heads. As far as archaeologists can tell, the standard headwear was a leather skullcap.
For those who survived the initial introduction, the Vikings proved surprisingly good neighbours. They brought skills, art, lore and substantial add-ons to our language ("Ahoy!" being the Viking war cry) as well as contributing hugely to our civic development. The Vikings had a highly developed legal system, a rudimentary form of democracy and rights for women.
Even so, they figured - wrongly - that they could do better. In September 1066, King Harald of Norway landed in northern England with 15,000 men, determined to complete a Viking takeover of Britain. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge, he was defeated, effectively ending the Viking Age. Not entirely, though, for they live on in our imaginations. And as an example of what even the most unpromising arrivals can achieve in time.
Historical rethink portrays Vikings as model migrants
14 March 2009
FROM the moment they ransacked a remote priory at Lindisfarne in 793, the Vikings have had a bad press. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry for the year says the raiders made "lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter", fixing the popular image of the Vikings for the next 1200 years.
New evidence suggests many of the Norse invaders were in fact model immigrants.
Historians were to try to redress the balance overnight, AEDT, at a conference at the University of Cambridge. They hoped to show that the Vikings who settled in Britain and Ireland were technologically sophisticated, swapped ideas and often lived in relative harmony with Anglo-Saxons and Celts.
"The latest evidence does not point to a simple opposition between Vikings and natives," said Fiona Edmonds, of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the university.
"Within a relatively short space of time -- and with lasting effect -- the various cultures in Britain and Ireland started to intermingle. Investigating that process provides us with a historical model of how political groups can be absorbed into complex societies, contributing much to those societies in the process. There are important lessons that can be gained from this about cultural assimilation in the modern era."
The findings are based on new archaeological evidence, historical studies and analysis of the language, literature and coinage of the period. Together they illustrate how, between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Vikings became an integral part of social and political life in Britain and Ireland, and changed both countries more profoundly than is generally realised.
Maire Ni Mhaonaigh, who has organised the three-day conference with Dr Edmonds, said: "There have been significant advances in our understanding of the impact that the Vikings had on Britain and Ireland in the early medieval period and this conference shows that the three worlds were inexorably intertwined for hundreds of years.
"There is an Irish text called the Book of Rights from the early 12th century where the Vikings are presented as just another Irish territorial group, and another from the later 12th century where they are called on as allies. Of course, there is a particular type of text where the Vikings are presented as bogeymen, but the writers do it for a reason, often to glorify their own ancestors for defeating them."
Studies of coins from the period show the Vikings were economically influenced by the cultures they encountered. In East Anglia, in southeast England, for example, they developed a coin economy similar to the previous system.
"There is a sense that the Vikings adapted to the existing social and political structures that they found," Dr Ni Mhaonaigh said. "There was intermarrying between Scandinavian dignitaries and their English and Irish counterparts and the sources tell us that some of them adopted Christianity by the mid-10th century, which also helped."