Blog

In this area we present our blog posts on a variety of Viking subjects from a variety of authors.  Please scroll down or use the filter to look at specific subjects…

Explore our blog posts...

Brooches, Pendants and Pins: Scandinavian Dress Accessories in England

Nowadays it is common to see people wearing various accoutrements such as earrings, necklaces, pendants, or rings. The Viking Age was no different and Scandinavian fashion, both female and male, commonly featured the use of dress accessories which served a practical purpose of fastening clothing but also as a way to display wealth and status. Below is a brief discussion on the use and place of Scandinavian brooches, pendants and pins in England. Brooches were a typical part of female dress. Scandinavian brooches came in a variety of sizes and shapes which included disc, trefoil, lozenge, equal-armed, and oval shapes. The different brooch types served a variety of functions in Scandinavian female dress with oval brooches typically being used as shoulder clasps for apron-type dresses and the rest being used to secure an outer garment to an inner shift. Anglo-Saxon brooches do not match this diversity of form with large disc brooches being typical of ninth-century dress styles with smaller ones becoming more popular in the later ninth and tenth centuries. However, since disc brooches were used by both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian women they are distinguished by their morphology. Scandinavian brooches were typically domed with a hollow back while Anglo-Saxon brooches were usually flat. Moreover, Anglo-Saxon brooches were worn singly without accompanying accessories. With some exceptions, pendants were generally worn by women as an accessory to Scandinavian dress. Pendants were a popular dress accessory in Norway and Sweden and sometimes were worn with beads between a pair of oval brooches. However, in England, pendants did not have the same popularity among Anglo-Saxon inhabitants. An unique style of pendant the existence of which was likely influenced by crucifixes worn by Christian individuals was the Thor’s Hammer pendant. These may have been worn to show devotion to the god Thor, or to secure the god’s protection, although there is little evidence to support this interpretation. Pendants like this have been found made of lead, copper alloy, silver and gold, showing that many different strata of society could have worn them. Pins were another form of popular dress accessory, though tending to be more practical , and mostly used for fastening cloaks. Once such pin, the ringed pin, was a form of dress fastener which developed as a result of contact between artisans in the Celtic West and sub-Roman Britain. The type became very popular in Ireland, being ultimately adopted by the Hiberno-Norse during the Viking period. In form it comprised a pin with a ring inserted through a looped, perforated or pierced head. Another style of pin has a solid head, round or cuboid, with ring-and-dot pattern ornamentation. These were common in Ireland and the western British Isles, and spread further afield under Viking influence.     Kershaw, Jane F. Viking Identities: Scandinavian jewellery in England. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 20-25

Read More

Two Languages, One Name: Hybrid Place-Names in the East Midlands

Resting in the Trent river valley are the small villages of Gonalston, Thurgarton, and Rolleston. You are politely asked 'Please slow down', whilst you drive through, but don't be fooled by the signs because Vikings lie in wait. Gonalston 'Gunnolfr's farm/settlement', Thurgarton ' Þorgeirr's farm/settlement', and Rolleston 'Hróaldr's farm/settlement' all belong to a group formerly called Grimston-hybrids where the first element of the place-name is a Scandinavian personal name and the second element of the name is Old English tūn 'an enclosure; a farmstead; a village; an estate'. These names were called Grimston-hybrids because the largest single group of these types of names consisted of places named Grimston 'Grim's village, estate'. However, not all Grimstons fit within a certain pattern and not all Grims are derived from from Old Norse. Therefore, the late Kenneth Cameron, formerly professor at the University of Nottingham, suggested that place-names with a Scandinavian personal name and Old English tūn be called Toton-hybrids. The name comes from Toton, Nottinghamshire, an Anglo-Scandinavian compound from the Old Norse male personal name Tófi and the Old English element tūn ‘farm, settlement’. There is continued discussion on the distribution of Toton-hybrids and why they exist, but it is likely that the personal names represent landowners, either Scandinavians granted land in the initial stages of conquest, or individuals with Old Norse names in the decades following. Alternatively, it is possible that these were formerly Old English place-names replaced and renamed by the Vikings. Another suggestion has been that the Vikings borrowed Old English tūn to use in new names because tūn's Old Norse equivalent, tún, is sometimes used in Scandinavian place-names, but is very rare in England (Gregory 2017, 60). Not all Anglo-Scandinavian compounds are Toton-hybrids, and some place-names appear to be simply the result of the combination of two languages. Sookholme, Nottinghamshire, for example, comes from Old English sulh 'a plough; a ploughland' and Old Norse holmr 'an island, an inland promontory, raised ground in marsh, a river-meadow'. Also, in Nottinghamshire is Eastwood which comes from Old English east 'east' and Old Norse þveit 'a clearing, a meadow, a paddock'.  Names of this type often indicate that an Old Norse word has become naturalised as part of the English dialect used in the region. Many other mixed-language place-names are part of the landscape of the East Midlands, perhaps one is just waiting around the corner. Rebecca Gregory, Viking Nottinghamshire. Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications, 2017. Kenneth Cameron, English Place-Names. London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1996.

Read More

Labels and Identities in the Viking Age East Midlands II: People

For part I of this post CLICK HERE Peoples, languages and cultures The Viking Age is clearly named after the Vikings, but who were they? Much scholarly ink has been spilled on what the word means and how best to use it. For a brief summary, see this separate blog post. On this website, we use the word as is common in contemporary academic usage for people of Scandinavian origin or with Scandinavian connections who were active in trading and settlement as well as piracy and raiding, both within and outside Scandinavia in the period 750-1100. The Viking Age was a large and complex phenomenon which went far beyond the purely military, and also absorbed people who were not originally of Scandinavian ethnicity. The word is thus inclusive of people of different origins and lifestyles, and speaking a variety of languages (many were of course multilingual), but they always have some kind of Scandinavian connection. Similarly, we use the term Anglo-Saxon as a general term to refer to the people and communities who were the dominant culture in what is roughly the area of the modern country of England when the Vikings arrived, at a time before England existed. It is precisely the interactions of these two groups, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, that this website explores and the terms make a useful distinction between the two groups, between whom there were otherwise many similarities: their languages were closely related and they had some aspects of their culture in common. One important difference between the two groups is that, at the time of the arrival of the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons were thoroughly Christian, whereas the Vikings were not. However, as time went on, one of the changes that they underwent after migrating to England was a gradual conversion to Christianity, and this process can be observed in quite a lot of the evidence we present here. We are aware that arguments have been made recently that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is inappropriate because it has in modern times acquired racist connotations. We deplore any racist or white supremacist appropriations of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, or indeed ‘Viking’, and stress that we use these terms here as modern descriptors of historical phenomena and to make a useful distinction which cannot otherwise be made without further anachronism. Both of these descriptors refer to cultures that were multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, and which were well-connected to the rest of the world. However, there were distinct differences between them which were recognised at the time and which we must also recognise. The umbrella terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Viking’ seem to us sufficiently general and the most useful to help us understand these differences, but where more precise terms are appropriate, we use them. The everyday  language of the overall group we call Anglo-Saxons is normally called Old English, which is an umbrella term for a variety of mutually comprehensible dialects. Old English is a member of the Germanic family of languages which includes the languages that later developed into German and Dutch, as well as English. The Germanic family also includes those languages that became Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish. In the Viking Age, there was little difference between these languages, and they are generally referred to as Old Norse, though sometimes we also use the term Scandinavian to distinguish them as a group from other languages. As well as surviving in place-names, this Scandinavian language also had a substantial influence on the English language as it developed into Middle and Modern English. Many words common in Present-Day English are derived from the Scandinavian language and were borrowed during the Viking Age. In discussing both the material culture and the linguistic evidence on this website, we also use terms like Anglo-Scandinavian which is intended to suggest the kind of hybrid phenomena that evolved as a result of contacts between the two groups of peoples. We also use the term Viking for certain kinds of evidence which are characteristic of the Viking Age but perhaps not obviously Scandinavian. As the Vikings travelled and migrated, they often developed new cultural forms which are not evidenced in the Scandinavian homelands (a good example being the grave markers known as ‘hogbacks’) but are still clearly associated with them. Occasionally, if evidence such as an artefact or a name is particularly associated with one of the modern Scandinavian countries, we will label it as Danish, Norwegian or Swedish, and if it is obviously Scandinavian but not restricted to one region we will use that term. We also use labels like Arabic or Frankish for objects that originated in those parts of the world, but which reached the East Midlands as a result of Viking activity. Groups, individuals and identities As today, people in the past had complex identities. Distinctions were made on the basis of gender, age and social status. People might also be identified according to a place or group of people or kin group to which they were connected, or on the basis of their religion, their role in society or their political allegiance. Nations as we know them today (England, Norway, etc.) were only just emerging in the early medieval period, so people were not commonly identified with these rather abstract entities, but they nevertheless had a good sense of geography and where people came from on a smaller scale. Many people were multilingual, but identities were also closely associated with their first or main language. Personal names might be indicators of someone’s linguistic and cultural identity, but such names can be misleading as some of them became popular across these boundaries. All of these complexities are hard to capture in the rather simplistic terms we have outlined above, but then we also know very little about how people thought about these things then. And finally, it is important to remember that people in the past were as varied as they are today. Individuals might follow the group in some things and not in others, and the groups were in any case constantly shifting. All we can do is see what patterns emerge from the evidence and generalise from those, which is what we have done with the terminology we use here, for the period when what we today call England emerged from this complex mix of peoples, cultures and languages.

Read More

Labels and Identities in the Viking Age East Midlands I: Place and Time

This website explores a period in the history of the islands of Britain and Ireland which was characterised by contact with, incursions by, and then the settlement of, groups of people whose origins were ultimately in what are today the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. We delight in showing some of the objects that these immigrants brought with them, as well as objects which were made here but to their taste or showing their influence on style and function. Other objects help us to track the places they visited and settled in, as does the less tangible evidence of language. The speech of the incomers is reflected in a wide range of names of the places the incomers settled in and which they named or renamed, or the personal names of individuals which are sometimes incorporated into those place-names. Some of this speech also survives in the present-day English language. All of this evidence not only records this early medieval episode of immigration, but most of it also demonstrates the ultimate integration of the incomers into the local community and in many cases the development of a hybrid culture. Yet other evidence in the form of stories and poems shows how communities of later periods looked back on this time which was no doubt fraught with both anxiety about change and excitement about new opportunities. Defining these groups and communities, and thus the subject of this website, is in many ways tricky, but the attempt to do so can be very illuminating. Finding the right words to explain and explore these topics is in itself a part of the process of understanding the evidence and working out what was happening back then. These words and definitions may involve some terms that were known and used at the time, but most of the terms we use were devised in more recent times as part of this process of understanding. Some of the terms are quite vague and therefore inclusive but not very precise, others are more precise but could be wrong, as there is still much we do not know. This blog attempts to set out what we mean by the terms that we use on this website, while recognising that all of them could be defined somewhat differently, or that in some cases alternative terms might be better. East Midlands Our definition of the East Midlands is not exactly that as used in 21st-century Britain, but is rather based on the concept of the Five Boroughs. This was an area under the political control of the incomers as recorded in an Old English poem concerning events in 942, which names the Five Boroughs as Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford. Four of these later became the county towns of the historical counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, which emerged as administrative divisions in the medieval period. This website is largely focused on these four counties, though with occasional glances both to neighbouring counties and to places further afield. Some county boundaries were reorganised in more modern times and we try to indicate this where relevant to help our readers orient themselves. Danelaw However we define the East Midlands, they are a part of an area known to scholars as the Danelaw, though what exactly they mean by it varies quite a lot. This term has been discussed in a separate blog post. It is used here in the general sense of ‘that part of England which was influenced by the activities of Scandinavians, whether they were the so-called ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the ninth century or peaceful settlers in the tenth’. The nature and extent of this ‘influence’ varied and that is precisely one of the things we explore in this virtual museum and our blogs. Viking Age Our chronological focus is on what we call the Viking Age, a period defined by the impact of the migrations of people of Scandinavian origin to other parts of the world. Scholars disagree over the exact dates to assign to this period, not least because there is variation in the evidence for this impact both chronologically and geographically. It seems easiest to operate with an inclusive date range and  there is some consensus for a generous definition of the Viking Age as 750-1100. Since the events of the Viking Age had in some cases long-lasting ramifications, some scholars also operate with a concept of the ‘long, broad Viking Age’ which extends until about 1500. This is useful when considering high medieval evidence such as the Icelandic sagas, or an English poem such as Havelok the Dane, which shed light on the Viking Age, even though they were composed in a later period. Such cultural phenomena reflect what some have called the ‘Viking diaspora’, a term which helps to explain the world created by the migrations of the Viking Age proper. The concept of diaspora draws attention to the continuing connections migrants have with their homelands and with migrants of the same origin in other regions, as well as their interactions with the peoples they encountered when migrating. This will be explained in more detail in a future blog post. This blog post has outlined the times and places this website is mainly concerned with. A second blog post looks more closely at how we identify groups of people who lived in those times and places.

Read More

Thorfast the Comb Maker

by Erik Grigg (with the help of Janine, Paige, Josh and Hannah!) In the Viking section of the museum of The Collection in Lincoln there is a reconstruction of a Viking comb maker's workshop. The comb maker is called Thorfast by the museum staff. This is because in 1867 a comb case was found in Lincoln with a runic inscription on it that reads 'Thorfast made a good comb'. This case is now in the British Museum (though it has been out on loan a few times). The learning team decided the area and the comb maker in particular needed a makeover: the display needed a good clean, some of the items had become damaged in the eleven years he has stood there and a few items in the display were rather dated. His costume consisted of a very long tunic that was later medieval in style and very thin with no footwear so we also chose him a new outfit. Now he leans nonchalantly proud of his new gear. On the shelves is his lunch (an apple and some Viking flat bread) as well as replica cooking pots and Stamford ware. When asked about his new look he just said "Thorfast made a good comb!"

Read More

What Does the Word ‘Viking’ Really Mean?

Late Viking Age Swedish rune-stone commemorating a man called Víkingr. Swedish National Heritage Board, Photo Bengt A. Lundberg, CC BY Judith Jesch, University of Nottingham We all know about the Vikings. Those hairy warriors from Scandinavia who raided and pillaged, and slashed and burned their way across Europe, leaving behind fear and destruction, but also their genes, and some good stories about Thor and Odin. The stereotypes about Vikings can partly be blamed on Hollywood, or the History Channel. But there is also a stereotype hidden in the word “Viking”. Respectable books and websites will confidently tell you that the Old Norse word “Viking” means “pirate” or “raider”, but is this the case? What does the word really mean, and how should we use it? There are actually two, or even three, different words that such explanations could refer to. “Viking” in present-day English can be used as a noun (“a Viking”) or an adjective (“a Viking raid”). Ultimately, it derives from a word in Old Norse, but not directly. The English word “Viking” was revived in the 19th century (an early adopter was Sir Walter Scott) and borrowed from the Scandinavian languages of that time. In Old Norse, there are two words, both nouns: a víkingr is a person, while víking is an activity. Although the English word is ultimately linked to the Old Norse words, they should not be assumed to have the same meanings. Víkingr and Víking The etymology of víkingr and víking is hotly debated by scholars, but needn’t detain us because etymology only tells us what the word originally meant when coined, and not necessarily how it was used or what it means now. We don’t know what víkingr and víking meant before the Viking Age (roughly 750-1100AD), but in that period there is evidence of its use by Scandinavians speaking Old Norse. Vikings came from a world of good stories. Shutterstock The laconic but contemporary evidence of runic inscriptions and skaldic verse (Viking Age praise poetry) provides some clues. A víkingr was someone who went on expeditions, usually abroad, usually by sea, and usually in a group with other víkingar (the plural). Víkingr did not imply any particular ethnicity and it was a fairly neutral term, which could be used of one’s own group or another group. The activity of víking is not specified further, either. It could certainly include raiding, but was not restricted to that. A pejorative meaning of the word began to develop in the Viking Age, but is clearest in the medieval Icelandic sagas, written two or three centuries later – in the 1300s and 1400s. In them, víkingar were generally ill-intentioned, piratical predators, in the waters around Scandinavia, the Baltic and the British Isles, who needed to be suppressed by Scandinavian kings and other saga heroes. The Icelandic sagas went on to have an enormous influence on our perceptions of what came to be called the Viking Age, and “Viking” in present-day English is influenced by this pejorative and restricted meaning. How to use it The debate between those who would see the Vikings primarily as predatory warriors and those who draw attention to their more constructive activities in exploration, trade and settlement, then, largely boils down to how we understand and use the word Viking. Restricting it to those who raided and pillaged outside Scandinavia merely perpetuates the pejorative meaning and marks out the Scandinavians as uniquely violent in what was in fact a universally violent world. A more inclusive meaning acknowledges that raiding and pillaging were just one aspect of the Viking Age, with the mobile Vikings central to the expansive, complex and multicultural activities of the time. In the academic world, “Viking” is used for people of Scandinavian origin or with Scandinavian connections who were active in trading and settlement as well as piracy and raiding, both within and outside Scandinavia in the period 750-1100. The Viking Age was a large and complex phenomenon which went far beyond the purely military, and also absorbed people who were not originally of Scandinavian ethnicity. As a result, the English word has usefully expanded and developed to give a name to this phenomenon and its Age, and that is how we should use it, without regard either to its etymology, or to its narrower meanings in the distant past. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Read More

Everyday Writing in Runes in Lincoln

Lincoln, in the first half of the tenth century: a time of intense political, social, and economic upheaval, with the English kings of Wessex battling to regain control of one of the last strongholds of Scandinavian power in eastern England. The late ninth century had seen the ‘Great Army’ of Vikings, which had arrived in England in 865, switch its energies from raiding to permanent settlement, the start of a process of colonisation that left a lasting imprint on the street-names of Lincoln and the place-names in the surrounding countryside. As the English gradually regained control of parts of the southern Danelaw in the early tenth century, drawing ever closer to Lincoln, the town’s Viking leaders looked to the North and the support of the powerful Norse dynasty established in York by Olaf Guthfrithson, who also ruled Dublin in the west. In the lower city, close to Brayford Pool and the River Witham, lie the halls and houses of the craftsmen and merchants who had followed in the wake of the first Scandinavian settlers, turning the town into an important and prosperous trading centre. In one of these houses, we might imagine a man, sitting next to the warm hearth, eating. Hungrily he strips all the flesh from the cattle ribs and, when finished, picks up his knife and starts cutting into the smooth, flat surface of one of the ribs, listening idly to the story that his brother is telling to the children, occasionally staring into the flames of the fire. As he listens, drinking ale from his leather cup, he fills the surface of the rib with the runic letters that had been taught to him by one of the men he’d worked alongside in Norway Less well known than the rune-inscribed comb-case also found in the city, this fragmentary inscription on a cattle rib – found in disturbed deposits in St Benedict’s Square, Lincoln – doesn’t contain a clear message that can be understood today. The rib is about 10 cm long and 3 cm wide at its maximum extent. It is fragmentary, missing its top half before the first word divider in the inscription, as well as the end of rib and possibly, therefore, the end of the inscription. The runes are inscribed from left to right along the length of the rib and say: (b) - - - - - l  x  h i t i r  x  s t i n  x As can be seen from the photograph above, the tops of the first few runes are missing because the bone is broken there. The brackets around the first rune indicate that the rune is incomplete, but enough survives for it to be identifiable. The hyphens indicate runes of which traces survive and which can be counted, but which can no longer be identified. The two complete words, hitir and stin, could both be read in a number of different ways, as some runes represented more than one sound in the spoken language (the i-rune could also be used for e and ei, for example, while the b-rune might be used for words beginning with both b and p in Old Norse). hitir might therefore be read as the Old Norse verb heittir ‘heats’ or as heitir ‘is called’, and stin might be the noun steinn ‘stone’ or the personal name Steinn, but there are other possibilities, especially given our lack of knowledge of the kind of everyday language that might have been in use in Lincoln at the time. In casual inscriptions like this, names are often the most commonly found element, so perhaps the most likely interpretation is ‘[someone] is called Steinn-’, even if we don’t necessarily understand why this might have been carved onto a cow’s rib. However, we only have to think of the kinds of random doodles that we might make with a pen when, say, bored or only partly concentrating (while on the phone or watching TV, for example) to realise that not all written texts necessarily have to be in complete sentences or indeed make sense! Carved on a small piece of bone that would most likely have just been lying around after a meal, the rune carver may simply have been amusing themselves or practising or even absentt-mindedly carving words that were being spoken at the time. This inscription is nevertheless valuable to historians, because it reminds us about the kind of everyday uses of language and writing which – more often than not – simply disappear from the historical record. Much of what survives from the past has been deliberately preserved and so represents something that was important or unusual or particularly valued, for whatever reason. Before archaeological excavations started to uncover hundreds of casual inscriptions like this across Scandinavia, it was thought that the Vikings mainly used runes for carving into stones and monuments to commemorate their dead, but now we know that this was not the case. Then, as now, often everyday texts and objects are discarded because they are so very common, and therefore considered unimportant or not worthy of preservation – think, for example, of post-it notes, shopping lists, or even school-work. This rune-inscribed rib from Lincoln therefore provides us with valuable evidence of the everyday use of runes in this part of the Viking world and, like place-names, is another reminder of the distinctive culture that Scandinavians brought with them to the East Midlands.

Read More

Havelok the Dane

The Middle English romance Havelok the Dane was written around 1300 for a Lincolnshire audience still aware of its Viking heritage. It tells the story of Havelok, the son of the Danish king Birkabeyn, who as a small child is imprisoned after his father's death along with his sisters. Their supposed guardian kills the sisters, but Havelok escapes through the help of a kindly peasant called Grim. This Grim eventually takes his whole family, including Havelok, to England, where he founds the settlement known as Grimsby. Havelok eventually marries an English princess called Goldboro and becomes king of all England. Written from a later medieval perspective, the poem's primary purpose is to celebrate the harmoniously dual Anglo-Saxon and Viking heritage of the English nation, and to acknowledge the full assimilation of the Danish-origin inhabitants into this nation. Havelok's trajectory from prince to pauper and back again is a common romance motif and the story should not be taken too literally. But it does plug into local memories of the Danish migration to Lincolnshire. As an explanation for this migration, the tyranny of the Danish ruler presented in Havelok parallels the role of Harald Finehair in Norway, whose tyranny is presented in the Icelandic sagas as having been the main cause of the emigration to Iceland. Even though Grim is a fictional character, the passage in the poem which explains how he arrived and how Grimsby came to be named after him has the ring of truth. It describes how he sailed into the Humber at the north end of the province of Lindsey. There he settled and built a small house. Because he owned the place, it took its name from him and has been called Grimsby ever since: In Humber Grim bigan to lende, In Lindeseye, riht at þe north ende. Þer sat his ship up-on þe sond, But Grim it drou up to þe lond; And þere he made a litel cote To him and to hise flote. Bigan he þere for to erde, A litel hus to maken of erþe, So þat he wel þore were Of here herboru herborwed þere; And for þat Grim þat place auhte, Þe stede of Grim þe name lauhte; So þat Grimesbi it calle He þat þer-of speken alle; And so shulen men it callen ay, Bituene þis and domesday. The stone plaque shown above, which is derived from the thirteenth-century town seal of Grimsby, depicts Grim as a warrior in the middle, with the crowned figures of Havelok to the left and his bride Goldboro on the right. Havelok the Dane Database of Middle English Romance Eleanor Parker, Dragon Lords. The History and Legends of Viking England. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Read More

A Poet Visits Grimsby

Grimsby is one of the few places in the East Midlands mentioned in an Icelandic saga. In Orkneyinga saga the Norwegian poet (and later Earl of Orkney) Rögnvaldr Kali Kolsson joins up at the age of fifteen with a group of Norwegian merchants for his first trip abroad. The date of this is uncertain, but it was probably around 1130. The saga says (ch. 59) that there were a lot of people there from Orkney, the Hebrides and from mainland Scotland. In Grimsby, according to the saga (and it's the only saga that has this anecdote), Rögnvaldr meets an Irish-Hebridean called Gillikristr who claims his real name is Haraldr and that he is the son of the Norwegian king Magnús Barelegs. It's a blind anecdote, since nothing comes of it, and Gillikristr is never mentioned again, but the two part on friendly terms. The real reason for the anecdote in the saga is to introduce one of Rögnvaldr's poems (ch. 60). He was an excellent poet - 32 of his stanzas survive and many of them are justly famous. Unfortunately, his poem on Grimsby does not present a flattering picture of the place, rather it expresses the poet's delight to be heading back to Norway across the refreshing waves after five weeks in a muddy Grimsby (text and translation from Jesch 2009): Vér hǫfum vaðnar leirur vikur fimm megingrimmar; saurs vasa vant, es vôrum, viðr, í Grímsbœ miðjum. Nús, þats môs of mýrar meginkátliga lôtum branda elg á bylgjur Bjǫrgynjar til dynja. We have waded the mud-flats for five mightily grim weeks; there was no lack there of muck when we were in the middle of Grimsby. Now it is the case that mightily merrily we cause {the elk of the prow} [SHIP] to boom on the waves to Bergen across {the marshes of the gull} [SEA]. Although unflattering, the poem is probably accurate. The coastal landscape around Grimsby is characterised by both mud-flats and salt-marshes and the town itself was virtually an island with only one road into it at the end of the Middle Ages. The stanza appears to describe the Norwegians’ daily journey across the mud-flats to the town from their mooring-place in the haven during their five-week business trip. The sea-kenning mýrar môs ‘marshes of the gull’ is ironic since the sailors have left the marshes behind and the contrast is underlined by the two descriptors in megin- ‘mightily’, which contrast the grimness of their weeks in Grimsby with their pleasure at setting off for home. Supported by the poem, the anecdote confirms that, even after the end of the Viking Age, the Scandinavian parts of England still had extensive contacts with other parts of the Viking diaspora, in this case merchants from Norway and Scotland. Finnbogi Guðmundsson (ed.) 1965. Orkneyinga saga. Íslenzk fornrit 34. Reykjavík. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards (trans.) 1978. Orkneyinga saga. Penguin. Jesch, Judith (ed.) 2009, ‘Rǫgnvaldr jarl Kali Kolsson, Lausavísur 2’ in Kari Ellen Gade (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 2: From c. 1035 to c. 1300. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 2. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 577-8.  

Read More

The Danelaw: a place or an idea?

The Danelaw: a place or an idea? This question was posed by Melvyn Bragg in a recent edition of In Our Time on Radio 4. The correct answer is ‘a bit of both’. But it’s a very good question and one worth a bit more exploration. As an area, the Danelaw is often thought to have been established in the treaty made at Wedmore between King Alfred and the Viking leader Guthrum in the 880s. While only recorded in later manuscripts, it is generally accepted as a true record of what was just one of several treaties between English rulers and Viking leaders at the time. The treaty is rather specific in being between ‘King Alfred and King Guthrum and the council of all the English nation and all the people which are in East Anglia’. It defines a boundary which goes ‘up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then straight to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street’. In this way the treaty delineates the area within which the provisions of the treaty apply but does not define who is in charge there. The provisions themselves are quite basic and are to do with the relationship between Danes and English, in cases of manslaughter, the purchase of men,  horses or oxen, and recruitment to either army. In all the treaty is a practical, and limited, agreement which makes no assumptions about who occupies or holds the defined territory, which is in any case quite vague about how far north it might extend. There is also no suggestion in the treaty of any difference between ‘Danish’ and ‘English’ law, in fact the treaty takes pains to assess the compensation for the manslaughter of an English or a Danish man at the same amount. The idea that there are two legal jurisdictions, in which that of the Danes, or of Danish-held territory, is distinct from its English equivalent, does not become clear in documents until the early eleventh century. In these, lagu ‘law’, an Old Norse word introduced into Old English by Archbishop Wulfstan, collocates with the ethnonym Dena to express the idea of the ‘law of the Danes’, but the term is not yet a compound as in ‘Danelaw’. For example, in Æthelred’s law code (VI) of 1008, Wulfstan distinguishes between on Ængla lage 7 on Dena lage be þam þe heora lagu sy. This might be translated as ‘in the jurisdiction of the English and in the jurisdiction of the Danes according to what their legal practice might be’ and there are several similar uses of the term around this time. What this shows is that there is an idea of a Scandinavian (or Anglo-Scandinavian, as argued by Lesley Abrams) legal province within the English kingdom. This province is presumably territorially defined, though this is not actually indicated in the legal codes themselves. An earlier code of Æthelred (III, from around 1002, known as the Wantage code), does not use the Danelaw term but does mention the Five Boroughs and makes extensive use of Scandinavian legal language in legislating for that region. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in a poetic entry for 942, makes a distinction between the Danes of the Five Boroughs (Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford) and the Norsemen who ruled north of them and from whose subjugation the Danes were freed by King Edmund. All this suggests that the Scandinavian legal province recognised in the law codes of the time reached only as far as the Humber, but that the legal distinctions between Danes and English were still important (and recognised) in the eleventh century, some 50-100 years after English rulers had conquered the Scandinavian-ruled areas during the tenth century. So, ‘Danelaw’ is not a term for the area defined in the treaty of Alfred and Guthrum. Also, as a legal concept it appears only to apply to an area south of the Humber, more specifically perhaps just the region of the Five Boroughs. However neither of these is how the term is most commonly used today. Despite its origin in the law codes of the early eleventh century, today the term is most frequently used in a more general way, without necessarily any reference to law, jurisdiction or even a well-defined area. Most commonly it is used to refer to that part of England which was, for want of a better word, ‘influenced’ by the activities of Scandinavians, whether they were the so-called ‘Great Heathen Army’ of the ninth century or peaceful settlers in the tenth. It is only after King Cnut became king of all England in the eleventh century that the distinction between ‘Danish’ and ‘English’ England becomes hard to sustain. The reign of Cnut and, briefly, his son Harthacnut brought new Scandinavian incomers to England, who often reached parts of England not otherwise thought of as falling within the ‘Danelaw’ and the overall picture is quite different. To use the term ‘Danelaw’ in this general sense is actually quite misleading. It implies that only Danes were involved in the Scandinavian impact on England, and that, whether idea or area, it is mostly about law and jurisdiction. But many scholars use the term in contexts where they are looking at the Scandinavians’ influence on settlement, culture both material and immaterial, and language, as well as their impact on church and society. Evidence for this influence and impact can be found in large parts of eastern and northern England, including regions far from the area described in the Treaty of Wedmore, or the Five Boroughs. Areas in the north-west, such as Cumbria, have plentiful evidence of Scandinavian influence in burials, metalwork, place-names, dialect, sculpture and runic inscriptions, yet there is almost no documentary evidence for how this Scandinavian influence came about. Is Cumbria part of the Danelaw? It was certainly part of the great Viking diaspora that affected much of England from the ninth to the eleventh (or even twelfth) century, yet the term ‘Danelaw’ does not seem entirely appropriate to describe that region in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Perhaps it is best to use the term ‘Scandinavian England’ (as in the title of an important collection of essays by F. T. Wainwright). Even better would be ‘Anglo-Scandinavian England’, since even the areas most heavily influenced by the Scandinavian incomers never completely lost their Anglo-Saxon inhabitants, material culture, customs or language. But although the term ‘Danelaw’ is inadequate, we should not completely forget it either. At the very least it reminds us that those supposedly lawless Vikings actually gave the English language its word for ‘law’, as still used today. References: Lesley Abrams, ‘Edward the Elder’s Danelaw’, in Edward the Elder 899-924, ed. N. J. Higham and D. H. Hill. London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 128-43. Lesley Abrams, ‘King Edgar and the men of the Danelaw’, in Edgar, King of the English 959-975, ed. Donald Scragg. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008, pp. 171-91. Katherine Holman, ‘Defining the Danelaw’, in Vikings and the Danelaw, ed. James Graham-Campbell et al. Oxford: Oxbow, 2001, pp. 1-11. Sara M. Pons-Sanz, Norse-Derived Vocabulary in Late Old English Texts, Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2007, pp. 70-72. Simon Trafford, ‘The Alfred-Guthrum treaty’, in Cultures in Contact. Scandinavian settlement in England in the ninth and tenth centuries, ed. Dawn M. Hadley and Julian D. Richards. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000, pp. 43-64. F. T. Wainwright, Scandinavian England, London: Phillimore, 1975. Dorothy Whitelock, English Historical Documents I. c. 500-1042. London: Routledge, 1996 [2nd ed.]. Early English Laws http://www.earlyenglishlaws.ac.uk/          

Read More

The Culinary Habits of Viking Age England

Though today we are well aware that food can be a luxury, a treat, a lifestyle, even a touchstone for memory, archaeologists looking at past diets have often seen everyday food in largely nutritional terms (in contrast to the focus given to the food of ritual, feasting, and assembly). Our experience in the contemporary world, together with information from historical and ethnographic account, tells us that food is central to the production of identity, having symbolic qualities, and often acting as a kind of social glue. In contexts of social change - such as urbanisation, religious conversion, migration and culture contact - we might expect it to play a particularly important role. The Viking Age, then, looks like a particularly promising context for a study of such phenomena. How did cooking and eating work to bring together the household? What were its social qualities in contexts of feasting and exchange? Perhaps most interestingly of all, what was the role of cuisine in the context of diaspora? What might the stubbornness or mutability of ethnically derived habits of cooking and eating tell us about relationships between natives and newcomers, or between migrants and their homelands? Such questions have proven difficult to answer using traditional archaeological approaches. The study of animal bones can tell us which animals were being eaten, how they were husbanded, butchered, and provisioned, but generally fall short of revealing much about the fine detail of food preparation or consumption. Fruits, vegetables, grain, nuts, seeds and spices are recovered from archaeological sites where preservation conditions allow, but their relationship with animal products is unclear. The sequences excavated in medieval towns rarely provide us with the undisturbed 'culinary contexts' that would allow us to reconstruct an individual meal. These environmental data thus provide us with information that is fundamental to answering the kinds of questions we are interested in, but are insufficient in isolation. We need a more high-resolution, interdisciplinary approach, that draws not only on this information, but also on inference drawn from a range of documentary sources, and from new insights that might be delivered through natural scientific approaches. In particular, there is considerable potential to explore the relationship between food and the material culture used to store, prepare, and present it, and how these phenomena varied in time and space. This is the task of Melting Pot: Food and Identity in the Age of Vikings. This AHRC-funded project has applied leading-edge scientific techniques to characterise the mode of use of different forms of pottery (patterns of sooting and burning can tell us about styles of cooking), and to analyse the contents of the pots (microscopic examination of burnt-on food crusts can reveal the presence of plant remains, fish scales and the like, while chemical analysis of the fabric of a pot can help us to identify the presence of now invisible fats, oils and waxes). Together, we are able to build something like a biography of a pot: what use was it intended for, how did it sit in the hearth, what was cooked in it, and how? We have undertaken the largest scientific survey of Viking-Age pottery to date; by analysing hundreds of identifiable sherds from well-dated contexts across England, we will be able to paint a picture of how the people of Viking-Age England were preparing and eating their food. How different were cooking habits in the commercial centres of towns like York from what we see on their peripheries? How does this urban picture compare with the situation in the rural hinterlands? To what degree is there a common urban diet in the towns of the Danelaw? How much does this differ from what we see in Saxon London? Is there evidence of change over time, and can these be related to patterns of migration, local politics, long-range economics, or urban development? How does the situation in England differ from what we see from contemporary sites across Scandinavia? Our lab work is complete, and we are now starting to find answers to these questions. A key element of the project is communicating its findings and significance with a range of audiences, and with this in mind, we have put together two exhibitions. The first, undertaken in collaboration with the York Archaeological Trust and A-level students from York College, is based on experimental cooking and biomolecular analyses undertaken by the students, opened at DIG, York on 1st February. The aim is to showcase the potential of science to answer archaeological questions. Later this month will see the launch of a parallel exhibit at The Collection, Lincoln, which will introduce the public to material from excavations in the city that has rarely been displayed, and discuss what these artefacts and ecofacts can tell us about Viking-Age cuisine. We have talks and workshops planned at both venues, starting with sessions at York's Viking Festival. In addition, we have put together a range of teaching resources for Key Stage 2 History, which we will soon be releasing. For more details on these, and all other aspects of the project, please visit our website: www.meltingpot.site, or follow us on Twitter: @foodAD1000.

Read More