Friday, November 11, 2011
The Vikings in Ireland, Danelaw, Normandy and Russia
Colonization, Settlement and Trade.
The Viking- expeditions are a chapter in itself, and many have described the dramatic and brutal events from the first Viking attacks on Ireland and England. Scribbled in the margin of a manuscript, the words of a 9th century monk reveal some of the emotion: "The wind is fierce tonight. It tosses the sea's white hair. I fear no wild Vikings, sailing the quiet main." I have chosen to tell a little about the more peaceful time afterwards, where the Vikings established settlements and trade routes. The Norwegians in Ireland, the Danes in Danelaw , the Danes and Norwegians in Normandy and the Swedes in Russia. The Vikings in the desolate islands in the North Atlantic accommodated their new life undisturbed after a homely model, but where the various Viking nations were settling among foreign cultures - among equal or superior people - then it is interesting to know, if they succeeded in leaving their stamp on the foreign societies, if they made a historical contribution - or if it was just a transient superficial phaenomenon.
The Norwegians in Ireland
"The Tower", a Viking's tale:
We had been at sea for days now. At least the weather had been kind to us on this voyage. On the last trip to these lands we found rich pickings of silver and gold. We were hoping for more this time. May Thor look kindly on us. The boat was coming to shore now, and all hands were needed to row and keep us off the rocks. Looking up, I saw that a surprise attack was going to be difficult. We could see a round tower in the distance. The last time we were here there was no tower.
As we came near the shore we heard the bell in the tower ring. "Hurry, hurry here goes the warning bell. They will be waiting for us. They will have their valuables in the tower" I shouted. We rowed the boat into a small bay. We got our weapons and headed for the monastery. Suddenly horses came from behind a big rock. We were caught by surprise and soon we had to retreat to our ship.
Some of our men had been captured and we decided to wait and see if we could negotiate with the Irish. The next morning we sent three men with no weapons to the monastery to talk. Soon we agreed to make peace. We promised not to attack the monastery any more and to teach the Irish how to make better weapons out of iron. The Irish promised to give back the captured Vikings and to let us camp by the bay for the winter.
By the springtime ourselves and the Irish were good friends. The Irish now had very good weapons. Some of the us Vikings sailed back to Norway to bring our wives and families to our new home by the little bay in Ireland. Soon it grew into a town.
Meeting the Irish
The Norwegians met one of the small kingdoms of Ireland. The Irish kingdoms were a roughly made society, not able to organize any military opposition. The Vikings found a century old independent Christianity, independent of Rome, but with its own traditions and own spiritual power, committed to writings in several large klosters. And they met a population with a strange uncompromising temper, not at all disposed to live a peaceful common life with strangers. Since the Norwegians were some hard-bitten fellows themselves, who preferred violence to a long negotiation, there was no base for a fruitful colonization and a fusion of cultures. This seemed somehow to begin in the end of the Viking period, but in the late 1200s the Englishmen arrived (summoned by the Irish ) - and they began something else, namely their 800 year's supremacy of the island.
Although there wasn't a real Norwegian colonization with conquering and settlement of large territories inland, it is without doubt that the century-long presence of the Norwegian Vikings along the Irish coast had a significance in itself. Several fortificated harbours of East-, South- and West Ireland, places like Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, became gradually flourishing commercial towns, surrounded by Norse hinterland. The Irish coast cities became Norwegian trade centers. Dublin was a rich city, but not the only one. In 968 the Irish found during the looting of Limerick large stores of gold, silver and woven fabrics in every colour; satin, silk and cloth. And the Irish learned about ship building and navigation from the Norwegians. From the small colonies by the sea ports was occassionally a friendly contact to the Irish population of the inland, but nothing more came out of it.
The Danes and the Danelaw in England
Danelaw, the Danes and the English, an excerpts from the peace-document of king Alfred and king Guthrum:
"This is the peace that King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the witan of all the English nation, and all the people that are in East Anglia, have all ordained and with oaths confirmed, for themselves and for their descendants, as well for born as for unborn, who reck of God's mercy of ours.
1. Concerning our land and boundaries: Up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse unto Watling Street. "
- Alfred and Guthrum's peace, available at:
The Viking Farmers
Another picture than in Ireland was seen in the Danelaw (Danelagh), marked by the distinctive traces after a constant farmer- colonization. First of all an administrative classification, partly in "hundreds", partly in "vaabenlag". A "hundred" must have been a district, representing something, maybe a hundred warriors or a hundred ploughs, while "vaabenlag" refers to the thing, where the decisions of the gathering were confirmed by "taking the weapon". The men were swinging or clanking their spear and sword and shield. A "vaabenlag" was later the district of a thing-assembly. Maybe the term "hundred" is old Anglo-Saxon (common Germanic), while "vaabenlag" is Danish.
As for practical law and institutions there are traces of Danish influence in several places, like about fines. The size of the fine varied in Danelaw according to the rank of the killed mand, while this in other places of England was graduated according to the killed man's master. This first mentioned law was a Nordic view:"equal right of free men". Something indicates that the sworn jury,which was unknown in the Anglo Saxon law, origins from the Danes in Danelagh. The legal provisions said that 12 leading personalities (thegns) in each "vaabenlag" had to solemnly swear an oath that they would not accuse any innocent or protect any guilty man. It was further said in these laws (Danelaws, preserved in the so-called Æthelred II codex) about these 12 thegns that a majority of 8 was enough to make a decision. A prominent English historian, Stenton, points out that this was the first time in England that the opinion of the majority was confirmed as decisive.
Historian examinations have made it probable that poor, but mostly independent free men, formed the essence of society in Danelaw. These so-called "sokemen" belonged by duty to the big landowner of the district; they had to work for him and to give him money, but the land they had themselves was their land to own. These basic relations in the society-building of Danelaw was described as a peasant-aristocracy, which is seen clearly in William the Conqueror's Doomsday Book, where several Danish place names also are mentioned.
The Danish Viking came to England with his sword, but he came to stay, and he took over land and plough; he must partly have driven out the settled Anglo Saxon population, but there is no talk about any extermination. He brought his language, his way of life and his legal system, everything was wellknown and visible high up in the Middle Ages. His way of life and his old legal customs were basically different from the feudal system, which was on its way to England from Europe. The convergence and the assimiliation grew slowly during the Middle Ages.
The only thing the Nordic Viking gave up relatively quick - in spite of a few testimonies of the opposite - was the religion from his homeland. Either his old religion was too weak or the foreign religion was too strong. This goes for both the Vikings in Ireland, England, France and Russia. They annected Christianity, probably for convenience or from political reasons. Rollo let himself be baptized already in 912.
A century later Canute the Great, son of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard, is king in England and the famous scene on the seashore describes how Christianity had got a firm hold of the Viking warrior:
Canute the Great talks:
"Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey".
So spoke King Canute the Great, the legend says, seated on his throne on the seashore, waves lapping round his feet. Canute had learned that his flattering courtiers claimed he was "So great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back". Now Canute was not only a religious man, but also a clever politician. He knew his limitations - even if his courtiers did not - so he had his throne carried to the seashore and sat on it as the tide came in, commanding the waves to advance no further. When they didn't, he had made his point that, though the deeds of kings might appear 'great' in the minds of men, they were as nothing in the face of God's power.
The Danes and Norwegians in Normandy
The proud and arrogant Rollo:
So he sent a message to Rollo and proposed that they should have a talk about peace. Rollo agreed and accordingly they met. The king and his troops stood on one side of a little river and Rollo with his Vikings stood on the other. Messages passed between them. The king asked Rollo what he wanted.
"Let me and my people live in the land of the Franks, let us make ourselves home here, and I and my Vikings will become your vassals," answered Rollo. He asked for Rouen and the neighboring land. So the king gave him that part of Francia, and ever since it has been called Normandy, the land of the Northmen.
When it was decided that the Vikings should settle in Francia and be subjects of the Frankish king, Rollo was told that he must kiss the foot of Charles in token that he would be the king's vassal. The haughty Viking refused. "Never," said he, "will I bend my knee before any man, and no man's foot will I kiss." After some persuasion, however, he ordered one of his men to perform the act of homage for him. The king was on horseback, and the Norseman, standing by the side of the horse, suddenly seized the king's foot and drew it up to his lips. This almost made the king fall from his horse, to the great amusement of the Norsemen.
Another State System and the dominant Rollo:
After the transfer to Rollo, the leader of a Nordic army, Normandy was through the following 2-3 centuries a mixed Nordic Frankish duchy, and it was very different from England's Danelaw.
Normandy was a neigbour to the Frankish German empires in the West and Middle Europe. Here was the growing system of vasals, the feudalism. The Nordic Vikings came close to a state system quite different from their own, and it seems that they had to bow to the inevitable. From the beginning Rollo is the strong sole ruler in his new country, and his power as a duke remains the predominant feature in the future. In his and his successor's time nothing is heard about free popular assemblies at the thing - or much about a Nordic legal system. "Hundred" like in Danelaw was not known in Normandy. The duke and his magnates had all the power, which was inexorably centralized and militarized.
It's characteristic for the condition how the peasants in Normandy about year 1000 sent delegates to a common assembly, which they had summoned themselves. They wanted to rise a demand of free access to use the lakes,water streams and forests of the country. All the delegates were by Rollo's uncle, count Rodulf, captured and mutilated by cutting off one hand and one foot - then they could go home and tell, who had the rights of the woods and the waters! There is no information, if these peasants were the old Frankish inhabitants of the duchy, but it's possible that some Norse peasants were also learning ,who was in power.
Administrative assemblies did exist in Normandy, but they were only "herredage" = the assemblies of secular and clerical magnates around the duke's closest family. The feudalism was possibly not fully developed in Normandy in the 10th and 11th century, but it was no doubt in a very good start, and there was now a certain distance to the old Viking-saying: We are all equal!
The Viking in Normandy left memories about their presence like the Vikings in Danelaw - and place names too . The endings - bec, - bu, -digue and -toot are Nordic features (Danish: bæk, by, dige, tofte) like several others. The Nordic place names in Normandy are according to a filological decision mostly Danish. Rollo was either a Dane or a Norwegian, no one knows for sure. Late Norrøne sources say Norwegian, while earlier Frankish - like Dudo in 960 - says Danish. The Norman historian and cleric Dudo lived for a long time in Normandy by duke Richard 1's court Richards grandfather was Rollo, and his father William sent his young son to Bayeux to learn Danish. Rollo's famous great-great-great-great-grandson was William the Conqueror. The name William is still used in the royal English house.
The Swedes in Russia
Rurick settles in Russia:
In answer to this petition the Viking Rurick, with his two brothers, came to settle in what is now Russia. These Northmen were often called Varangians or Varingars. No one is sure how they got this name, but it is believed to be Arabian in origin. The Arabians, at least, called all the northern peoples Varangians, whether they invented the name or not. But the people who lived in Finland called them the Rousses, and soon the Slav subjects of Rurick came to be called Russians and their country Russia. Rous in Finnish today means a Swede. So it seems probable that the name of the greatest Slavonic people is of Finnish and not of Slavonic origin.
Rurick made his capital at Novgorod, and two years after his settlement there his brothers died, and he became sole ruler of the province. We know very little of his government or whether the people lived to regret having called a foreigner to rule over them. But it is said that after a time two Viking warriors, one named Askold and one named Dir, became discontented with his rule. So, taking several companions with them, they left Novgorod and set out to seek their fortunes at Constantinople. On their way they came upon a castle on the banks of Dnieper with a small town round it. "Whose castle is this?" they asked of the inhabitants. "It was built by three brothers," replied they, "but they are long since dead. We are their descendants and pay tribute to the Khazars." Hearing that Askold and Dir took possession of the town, which was called Kief.
They were soon joined by other Northmen, and thus a second Viking settlement was made in Russia. This second settlement soon increased, and then, with true Viking audacity and love of adventure, they made up their minds to attack Constantinople. Dwelling far inland although they now were, these Northmen had not forgotten their skill as sailors. Soon twohundred dragonheaded boats went sailing down the Dnieper and out into the Black Sea, and ere long the terrified inhabitants of Constantinople saw, for the first time, the gay sails and long narrow boats of the dreaded Northmen. The Greeks were paralyzed with fear. Nothing but a miracle, it seemed, could save them from destruction. The miracle happened, for a sudden storm arose which shattered the Viking ships, only a miserable remainder of which, like wounded birds, crept slowly back to Kief.
The Trade in a large Continent:
How did the Swedish Vikings behave in the East? These Viking expeditions had a special character. The main purpose was the trade. The Swedish Russia expeditions were not like the Danish in England based on the acquisition of large settlement areas, but based on a retention of long important trade routes. They can somewhat be compared to the Norwegian expeditions in Ireland, where the wish was to have supporting trade points with connected small colony areas.
To the Swedes Russia was a large continent with rivers. Both Novgorod, Smolensk and Kiev were Slavic cities with Swedish military power and garrison crew once, and a large burial site at Guezdovo near Smolensk indicates the presence of a Swedish military and trade-colony. There were no signs of farming societies like in Danelaw and Normandy; the trade lines were long and had to be taken care of - this left no time for farming, and the lands the Swedes had to pacify were enormous. The assimiliation and the fusion with the local population were difficult like in Ireland. All the people of those large land districts were of a foreign tribe, and they all talked a different language, some spoke a Celtic language, others a Slavic - it was easier in England, where the population was of a related German tribe.
In the end of the Viking period the assumption is that the long Swedish trade lines from the mother country to the Byzantic world had to be abandoned. The Kiev kingdom and the West Russian cities became more and more Slavic, and the Swedish activities in these far districts of Russia were soon only history. But in the northern Russia (Ladoga country), in Finland and in the northern Baltic the Swedish expeditions and colony work continued through the 12th and 13th centuries.
Johannes Brøndsted: Vikingerne, Vikingen ude - Vest og Øst. Gyldendal 1960.Politikens Danmarkshistorie, Da Danmark blev Danmark, Peter Sawyer, Gyldendal og Politiken, 1993; Barrie Markham Rhodes, From Viking warrior to English King, Viking network, 2004,