Post-classical history



Sometime in the fifth century AD, a group of soldiers had a farewell party. We have no record of precisely where it was held or what the menu may have been. There is no evidence of any remarkable after-dinner speeches or entertainment. But we still know the party took place, because they clubbed together and bought a token of their appreciation for their leader, Aurelius Cervianus. A local British craftsman was hired to engrave a bronze dish, its lower half showing a collection of exotic beasts, including a pair of peacocks and a somewhat boss-eyed lion.1 The upper half has a number of troops under Cervianus’s command, with their legion insignia and designations – XX Valeria Victrix, and II Augusta. Between them lies Cervianus’s name, and a message from the boys:Utere Felix, ‘Use this Happily’.

Valeria Victrix and II Augusta had long histories, but both had spent much of their operational lives in Britannia. Originally a frontier legion on the banks of the Danube and Rhine, the men of Valeria Victrix had garrisoned the British island for centuries. They had gained their title, ‘Valiant and Victorious’, after serving the empire well in the suppression of the revolt of Queen Boudicca.2 II Augusta was even older, with a regimental history that may have even stretched back into the days when Rome was still a republic. Both legions had formed part of the original Roman invasion force, and had made Britannia their home for many generations of service. Now they were leaving.

The Romans were deserting their farthest outposts. The soldiers were required closer to a ‘home’ which some of them had never even seen. We do not know what happened to Cervianus, but his hardwearing dish eventually turned up, intact, in what is now France.

Most books about the Vikings begin long after this time. The ‘Viking Age’, such as it was, is taken by most authorities to span the period from the infamous raid on Lindisfarne in AD 793, to the death of Harald Hardraada in 1066. But the dates were not quite so clear-cut as that. The Vikings did not spring fully formed on to the international stage; they were the inheritors of a long tradition.

There is much to be gained from ignoring such arbitrary barriers as the end of the Classical period, or the start of the ‘Dark Ages’ – students of the Vikings can learn much from what happened both before and after this historical watershed.

Scandinavia was one of the last places in Europe to be settled. The Ice Age lingered longer in its mountainous, northern regions, and much of its atavistic power can still be felt in a Scandinavian winter. In times of great plenty, when the climate was warm, a few hardy souls ventured further northwards. But when the weather took a turn for the worse, many of those northern explorers were forced back to their ancestral homes. Hardened by their harsh northern existence, they were often more than a match for their southern kinsmen – population overspill is a common factor in Scandinavian history. The first members of the society to head elsewhere were usually those with little investment in the place of their birth – the young men, deprived of land, wives and wealth, coalescing into gangs that sought new opportunities. If they had the means of mobility, horses perhaps, or boats, then their adventures would take them substantially further than the next settlement.

In the early Middle Ages, such periodic growths of population may have led to the Viking invasions that are the main subject of this book, and are dealt with in detail in subsequent chapters. But there were also many signs of earlier, less well-recorded incursions of Scandinavian settlers before the Middle Ages.

As early as a hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Roman Republic was threatened by an onrushing tide of northern attackers. The Cimbri, originating on the Danish peninsula, and their Teuton allies from the far north of Germany, threw the republic into a state of emergency and were only defeated a generation after their migration began, in a series of battles in what is now southern France. Roman navies also had to deal with tribes that travelled by sea and preyed upon imperial shipping. In 12 BC, a Roman fleet advanced along the northern coast of Europe, and reported a series of skirmishes with the seaborne Bructeri tribe. The earliest recorded circumnavigation of the British Isles was conducted not by the Romans, but by a group of the Usipi in AD 83. Deserting from their posting as Roman mercenaries in Britain, this group stole three galleys which were eventually wrecked on the coast of Denmark.3

Denmark was also the place of origin of the Chauci, who soon spread along the coast of northern Europe as far as the Rhine. Led by Gannascus, a tribesman of the Canninefates who had learned Roman tricks by serving in a Rhine legion before deserting, the Chauci preyed upon the coast of what is now known as Belgium in AD 41, before advancing in force up the river Rhine itself in 47.4 The Chauci were defeated by the Roman fleet which sailed up the Rhine to meet them in battle. But even this imperial navy seems to have relied heavily on barbarian sailors and seamen. A generation after the incursions of the Chauci, barbarian oarsmen in the same Roman fleet staged a revolt, stole 24 galleys, and fought their way down the Rhine towards the sea. The oarsmen, men of the Batavii, joined with river pirates from other tribes and attacked a Roman troop convoy in the English Channel.

The Romans were able to contain such marine assaults, but only barely. While records of Roman Britain are all but silent about the dangers, the archaeological evidence speaks for itself. During the second and third centuries AD, Roman legions built forts along the eastern coast of Britannia, designed to watch and warn against a mystery threat from the sea. Tribes from the north and east, making greater use of sails over oars, had begun periodic attacks on the British coastline.

By the third and fourth centuries AD, the coast of the Black Sea was ravaged by ships of the Goths and Heruls, originating from Scandinavia. Meanwhile, the northern shore of the European mainland was attacked by a confederation of many tribes, now combined as the Franks. The Franks had been pushed out of their homeland by the fiercer Angles and Saxons, themselves pressured by the Jutes to the north in Denmark. Taking advantage of a local revolt within the Roman Empire, the Franks plundered northern Gaul, also preying for a while on Spain. When order was eventually restored, the Romans consolidated their coastal defences – both sides of the Channel came under the same military command, and a series of fortifications attempted to deal with the problem of pirates and raiders approaching from the North Sea. These defences came to be known as the Saxon Shore-forts, and for a while, they kept the enemy at bay.5

Aurelius Cervianus’s farewell party and the evacuation it signified did not merely deprive the former colony of Britannia of its military occupiers. It also left the coasts wide open to invasion. Moreover, the pirate problem of the North Sea, once contained at Dover by the Roman fleet, could now spread all along the northern coast of Europe.

The tribes had an additional reason for their movements. The centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire saw a rise in temperature all over the globe, known as the ‘Little Climatic Optimum’. During this period, Europe was roughly one degree centigrade warmer than it is today. The warmer climate made it possible to have vineyards as far north as the River Tyne, and ensured rich harvests that helped the population of Scandinavia increase to levels that required resettlement. More ominously, it also caused more polar ice to melt than before. Sea levels rose, only by a little, but it was enough to cause floods throughout the homelands of many north European tribes. In the area now known as the Low Countries, numerous tribes struggled against the rising waters, clustering on high ground and building their homes on artificial mounds. After a few generations, they too gave up, and went in search of less flood-prone lands to settle.6 Saxon ships began appearing off the coast of Britannia in twos and threes; when they met with no resistance from the deserted forts, they returned in much larger numbers.

Little distinguishes the upheaval caused by the Saxons from that caused by the Vikings several hundred years later – the only real difference is the lack of contemporary reportage. Place names and archaeological evidence offer the only real clues to what happened at the end of the fifth centuryAD. A great wave of Saxon settlers, we assume, broke upon the eastern coast of Britannia. With the Roman defences unmanned, there was nothing to stop them. They took the land as their own and pushed the locals out.

Eventually, the locals rallied under a heroic leader, and fought the Saxons to a standstill.7 Accounts written decades after the event refer to him as Ambrosius Aurelianus, a name of suitably Roman origin to imply that his family, education, or background had something to do with the recently departed legions. It is not impossible that some legionaries remained behind in their adopted homeland – spending several centuries in the same place was likely to cause many families to develop local ties that they were reluctant to sever. Centuries later, this resistance was codified into a tale of twelve great battles against the invaders. The last was the one that really counted – Ambrosius, or someone like him, supposedly dealt a crushing blow to the Saxons at the unknown location of Mons Badonicus (‘Badon Hill’). The Saxon advance ground to a temporary halt, and the raiders slowly became part of the landscape. The original British, far from united among themselves, held on in Cumbria, south-west Scotland and the reaches of Wales and the West Country, telling tales about a mythical leader who held off the invaders – eventually, the twelve battles would somehow transform into a series of legends about a man called Arthur.8

With the passing of the Roman Empire, the map of Europe was redrawn once more. Gaul now bore a name derived from the tribe that had conquered it, Francia, later France. The island once called Britannia was now a patchwork of petty kingdoms – the ‘West Saxons’ in Wessex, the ‘East Saxons’ of Essex and the Angles of East Anglia, the Mercians of the Midlands and the Northumbrians ‘North of the Humber’. The eastern part of Britannia, home to the Anglo-Saxon settlers, came to be known as Angle-land, or England. Some Britons fled the Saxon advance by sailing for the area in north France that now bears their name, Brittany. The word Saxon became synonymous with foreigners and enemies throughout the Celtic realms: the Scottish Sassenach, the Welsh Saesnegand the Cornish Sowsnek.

The Saxons, once described by the emperor Julian as ‘. . . the fiercest of the tribes who lived beyond the Rhine,’9 largely developed into Christian farmers, traders and artisans.

Then, in the late eighth century AD, sporadic raids on the coast turned out to be the precursors of another forceful incursion from Scandinavia. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reported the arrival of these new enemies with utmost horror, loaded with tales of pillage and slaughter. To inhabitants of what had once been Britannia, their enemies were ‘Danes’; to the French, they were ‘Normans’, men from the North; the Irish called them Gall (‘Strangers’); the Germans named them Ascomanni (‘Ash-men’) after the wood of the ships that carried them. On the eastern edge of Europe, they were called Rus, Rootsi or Ruotsi, thought to derive from a Norse word for rowers. In Constantinople, they were called Vaerings or Varangians, ‘pledgers’ who swore an oath of service to the empire. In Baghdad, they were the Waranke or ar-Rus, and when they plundered Spain, the Muslim inhabitants called them Majus – ‘heathen wizards’.10

The term ‘Viking’ is thought to originate with the Scandinavians themselves, in the Old Norse nouns víking (a pirate raid) and víkingr (a pirate). But how those terms came to mean what they did remains a mystery – scholars still disagree over whether they have their origin in the verb víkja (to move swiftly), or the noun vík (an inlet or bay). In the latter case it may refer specifically to one bay in particular, the Vik, that leads to the site of modern Oslo. Or, the word may have a different root, leading back through the Anglo-Saxon wic to the Latin vicus, a place of trade.

Whatever its origins, the term itself was unknown in English until the nineteenth century – the Oxford English Dictionary does not record an appearance until 1807 – and remained little used for several decades thereafter.11 However, by the latter half of the Victorian era, we see a veritable explosion of Viking-related books resting heavily for their inspiration on translations of the sagas of Iceland, particularly Samuel Laing’s landmark Heimskringla, an account of the early kings of Norway, published in 1844, and reprinted with substantially greater success in 1889.

These Viking tales were publishing gold to the Victorians – lurid and violent, yet also somehow worthy and educational, they rode the waves of the emergent mass publishing industry, finding enthusiastic readers and rewriters in fields ranging from science fiction to music – it is a paper found inside a copy of Heimskringla that inspires Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), and Heimskringla itself that informs Edward Elgar’s Scenes from the Life of King Olaf (1896).

However, Heimskringla was not as accurate as Laing first purported it to be. Tellingly, his first edition was called the Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, while the 1889 reprint preferred the title Sagas of the Norse Kings – a shift in emphasis from the historically sound to overtones of the largely fictional. It was not Laing’s translation that was at fault, but his source material, that often revealed more about the thoughts and beliefs of thirteenth-century Icelanders than the ancestors they claimed to be discussing.

The century since this late Victorian Viking-mania has seen a slow but steady erosion of its vision, using evidence more compelling than tall tales from an Icelandic fireside. In recent decades, Viking studies have been characterized by the growth of archaeological evidence, and the steady dismissal of numerous accounts once taken as gospel. We now recognize that sagas are not necessarily true, and not all chroniclers are even-handed – that written documents need to be weighed against the evidence of archaeology, numismatics and, in more recent times, the findings from new disciplines such as dendrochronology.

What, then, was a Viking? As a schoolboy, I was led to believe that these fierce marauders had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, landing like flying saucers on the coast of England after perilous journeys across the North Sea – the shock-and-awe of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, imparted to a new generation. In fact, the earliest Vikings were very similar to their Saxon precursors, clinging to the coastlines of northern Europe, so that the only time spent significantly far from land was during the relatively short crossing of the English Channel, or from Norway to the Shetlands. And they did not magically appear, but were brought there by other forces.

The most significant contributions to the arrival of the Vikings had less to do with the rich pickings of undefended English monasteries, and more to do with the strengthening of sea defences elsewhere, and with earlier contacts formed through trade. When the Vikings attacked their victims, it seems that it was rare that they stumbled across a target by accident – they knew what they were looking for because they had been there before. They knew whom they were robbing, because perhaps only months earlier, they or their associates had been trading with them.

Between the eighth and the eleventh centuries, around 200,000 people left Scandinavia to settle elsewhere.12 These voyagers were primarily men with nothing to lose. The water-ways of the Baltic and the inlets of Norway turned them into fishermen and merchants, and the first of their ventures were undoubtedly trading ones.

In some parts of the world, this is how they stayed – their behaviour towards foreigners largely dictated by comparative strengths. Where a land was mainly deserted, such as Iceland or the Faeroes, the new arrivals simply settled and stayed. The dispossessed sons of Scandinavia found some land, bought some wives and slaves and, more often than not, fell back into the farming routine from which they had sprung. Such conditions prevented them, at least, from turning into bona fide ‘Vikings’, although there was no guarantee their descendants might not go in search of plunder elsewhere – even the relatively peaceful Icelanders occasionally exported their criminal element back to Europe.

Where voyagers encountered local inhabitants, their behaviour depended on what they could get away with. While Viking marauders feature in the local histories of England, Ireland and France, such tales are not so well known elsewhere. Encounters with the unquenchable menace of Greek fire, for example, put paid to most Viking attacks on the Byzantine world. In Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed generally positive relations with the men from the northern lands, and relied heavily on them as mercenaries. The Islamic community’s dealings with the Norsemen were also largely peaceful after a major conflict in the late tenth century. Viking ships were treated to a lesson they would never forget when they ran into a Muslim navy on the Caspian Sea in 943, while no less than 25 rune stones in eastern Sweden commemorate an ill-fated expedition to the Caucasus by one Ingvar the Widefarer, that ended very badly for many of its participants in 1041.13

Suitably cowed, the Vikings left the Muslim world alone, preferring instead to serve as mercenaries in its armies, or trade with it in valuable commodities such as slaves – they may have been raiders at the European end of the trade route, but at the Middle Eastern end they were merchants. Indeed, many of the spoils of Viking predations in Europe, including slaves, ended up traded to the Arab world, while the treasure hoards of many a Viking leader are rich in silver from Baghdad, obtained not on raids, but on trading missions.14 Similarly, the kidnap victims of the Vikings, peasants snatched from British or Baltic coasts, often ended their days in foreign climes they could never have imagined. When black slaves fell out of fashion in the Arab world in the late ninth century, traders increasingly turned north for alternatives, and the Vikings eagerly met the new demand for white slaves – Viking consignments were less troublesome for the Muslims to obtain than captives from wars with Byzantium on the caliphate’s frontier. One Eastern European girl, known only by her Muslim name of Mukhâriq, was plucked from her homeland by Viking raiders, found herself in an Abbasid harem and eventually became the mother of a caliph.15 The Muslim diarist Ibn Battúta, while staying in the remote Chinese port of Fuzhou after the Viking Age, reported that a friend of his was doing well for himself, with a household that boasted ‘fifty white slaves and as many slave-girls.’ Such was the eventual fate of many of the Vikings’ victims and their descendants.16

The Vikings, in their explorations and conquests, undoubtedly achieved much. However it must be admitted that the leading edge of their expansion chiefly comprised thugs, brigands and outlaws. Latter-day apologists have attempted to soften the image but, by definition, the word Viking refers to pirates. A Viking is categorically not a flaxen-haired maiden making attractive jewellery by the side of a picturesque fjord, no matter what some museum curators may imply. The Vikings were the rejects of Scandinavian society – forced to travel further afield to make their fortune. Some, of course, returned to claim their homeland as their own, applying their experience of foreign wars to internecine struggles.

It was a Viking who kept his retarded son chained like a beast outside his house, a Viking who attempted to skin a horse alive, a Viking who hacked off a live pig’s snout to prove a point.17 But equally, numerous claims made about Viking ‘atrocities’ need to be regarded in context. Almosteveryone was atrocious back then – it was a Christian, Saxon king who ordered the ethnic cleansing of all the Danes in England. The Angles, Saxons, Irish and Scots were just as bloodthirsty with each other, and with their Scandinavian foes.

The Vikings were often defined by what they were not. They were, to the contemporary chroniclers that hated and feared them, not civilized, not local, and most importantly not Christian. The so-called Viking Age petered out when these negative traits were annulled. Scandinavia was eventually Christianized, ironically in part through the experiences of its sons abroad, forcing the Vikings to rethink who constituted friend and foe. By the twelfth century, when Scandinavian crusaders converted Estonia to Christianity at the point of a sword, they were now not only raiding somewhere sufficiently out of the way of Western European consciousness, but doing so in the name of the Lord.

The Vikings were a group created by circumstance, not blood – they were not a ‘race’, nor did they have any patriotism, any sense of ‘Viking-ness’. Although they were predominantly men from the areas now known as Norway, Sweden and Denmark, there are mentions in the sagas of Finns, Sámi and Estonians among them. A Welshman supposedly sailed with the Jomsvikings; Scottish scouts accompanied Leif the Lucky in his explorations, and the man who discovered the ‘vines’ of Vinland was German. When the Vikings prospered abroad, they were swift to throw off their ties to their homeland. Perhaps because of the settlers’ reliance on finding local brides, they were notoriously quick to adopt the language and customs of their new lands, so that the legendary Viking vigour was not so much reduced as rebranded.18 In only a couple of generations, the conquerors of Kiev had taken local wives, and bestowed Slavic names upon their children. Now calling themselves Russians, they would jockey for a thousand years with their Swedish cousins over who ruled the area now known as Finland. Similarly the Norsemen who occupied north France were transformed in mere decades into the ‘Normans’ who claimed it as their natural home. Meanwhile, hundreds of square miles of the England that the Normans conquered had already been settled by Danes.

Why, then, do the Vikings continue to exert such fascination for us? During the the Viking Age, Western Europe was a backwater. The most powerful and cultured civilizations on Earth were China, Byzantium and Islam. As Christianity struggled amidst the ruins of the Roman Empire, yet another group of rough barbarians stole and murdered on the margins. Why do we still care?

For some, the tale of Viking expansion is one of incredible bravery and dynamism as, after centuries of timidly hugging the coastline, men in fragile wooden ships sail into a watery void, eventually discovering a New World. Then again, almost three millionScandinavians emigrated between 1815 and 1939.19 Such settlers are why Minnesota’s football team is called the Vikings, and why the Viking Age continues to interest a large proportion of the American populace – not all white Protestants are Anglo-Saxon. But although the Vikings’ landings in America are no longer disputed, the extent of their sailing skills still is. Were the Vikings pioneers of maritime navigation, or is it fairer to describe them as foolhardy blunderers, who made the majority of their ‘discoveries’ by getting lost and crashing into previously unknown coastlines?

For others, the Viking Age is a tale of supreme victory, not for the Vikings, but for the Christian world they sought to plunder. Within a few generations, the savage marauders were brought into the fold of Christianity, turned into respectable Europeans, vanquished in the war of the soul, even as they bragged of their physical conquests. Modern scholarship finds much to debate here, since the nature of famous conversions is still open to question. Were the Vikings savage beasts tamed by the love of God, or opportunists who paid lip-service to convenient local customs, while still keeping several concubines, owning slaves and killing their enemies?

As supposed rule-breakers, explorers and anarchists, they have injected a barbaric frisson on the cultures of the Europe their attacks helped create. Their martial prowess has become legendary, although their most humiliating defeats were at the hand of Finnish archers and Inuit fishermen. The Vikings have become symbols of all that is dangerous and exciting in the European soul – an attitude that gains even more credence in modern times as DNA tests establish exactly where they went. In many cases and many countries, our enemies did not go away. They stayed, and prospered, and eventually became part of us.

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