Pirate Settlements in England

8 August, 2011

This week On the Reading Rest I have an article:

Kershaw, Jane. 2011. Vikingernes bosættelse i England – ‘Viking settlement in England’. Skalk, Nr 3, 2011, pp. 18-26.

Often the biased usage of a word or concept becomes obvious if we exchange it for one that ought to be its equivalent. Originally, the below quotation was about understanding women; changing it to target men, therefore, makes its prejudice against women apparent (and its obsessive ‘digging’  backfires):

Every woman I know is baffled by the amount of thinking and overthinking that men do. Why can’t things be straightforward and simple, the way they are in a woman’s brain? Women seem to ignore anything that doesn’t actively threaten the safety of their loved ones or their egos, but men dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, looking for reasons and answers that sometimes don’t even exist.

Similarly, exchanging ‘Viking settlements in England’ for ‘Pirate settlements in England’ makes prejudice against Vikings stand out. Is that fair? Are they at all equivalent pirates and Vikings? Yes and no!(1)

In the introduction to her article Jane Kershaw (JK) points out that Vikings in 9th and 10th c. sources were alternately called pagans or Danes rather than Vikings. And she is right.

Because ‘Viking’ most often means ‘Pirate’, i.e. something uncommon even among pagans and Danes, the word seldom finds its way into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (A-SCs) and when it does it seems that chroniclers try not to use it as a synonym for pagan, Northman or Dane. To be precise ‘Viking’ is used only at three occasions: two times in the 880s; once c. 920 and once in the 980s.

The presence of Pagans, Danes, Northmen and Vikings in the A-SCs

Pagans and Danes, on the other hand, are commonly referred to and tacitly implied in expressions such as ‘the army’ because they are invaders and a serious problem compared to pirates. Danes and Northmen see invasion as a means to promote external acquisition (going back home) and eventually to conquer land and power (staying abroad).

If we look at the usage in the A-SCs, ‘Vikings’ stand out as something different, a specific subset: pirates and at the same time pagans or Northmen or Danes.

Manuscript A 879:(2) 7 þy geare gegadrode on hloþ wicenga, 7 gesæt æt Fullanhamme be Temese—and that year Vikings gathered in a band (a hloþ was defined as  7-35 men), and sat at Fulham by the Thames.

Obviously it is not un-Danish behavior to sail up the river and attack, but at Fulham it is a matter of small number of pirates convening at a strategic point to benefit in whatever way they can. They are not many and they sit at Fulham in their pirates’ nest, on their naval base so to speak, overlooking the Thames and the ferry crossing between Putney and Fulham.

A-SC, Manuscript A, 885: 7 þy ilcan geare sende Ælfred cyning sciphere on Eastengle; sona swa hie comon on Stufe muþan, þa metton hie .xvi. scipu wicenga, 7 wiþ ða gefuhton, 7 þa scipo alle geręhton, 7 þa men ofslogon; Þa hie þa hamweard wendon mid þære herehyþe, þa metton hie micelne sciphere wicenga, 7 þa wiþ þa gefuhton þy ilcan dæge, 7 þa Deniscan ahton siges;—and the same year King Alfred sent a host of ships (a fleet) into East-Anglia. As soon as they came to Stourmouth, sixteen Viking ships met them. And they fought with them, and took all the ships, and slew the men. When they turned homeward with their booty, then they met a large Viking fleet (since it is a sciphere it is probably more than 35 ships), and they fought them the very same day; but the  Danes (i.e. Vikings) had the victory.

The situation at Stourmouth

Sheltering in creeks and bays, lurking in Wantsum and in Stourmouth, staging successful or unsuccessful ambushes, is typical pirate behaviour in waters similar to the ones in South Scandinavia and Denmark where Viking strategies were developed already in the Early Iron Age(3).

A-SC, Manuscript A year 919: … þæs ilcan hærfestes gegadorode micel here hineof Eastenglum ægþer ge þæs landheres ge þara wicinga þe hie him to fultume aspanen hæfdon— ... this same harvest, a great army gathered itself from East-Anglia, both of the land forces and of the pirates, which they had persuaded to support them.

The situation at Maldon

The text indicates that there is a difference between the East Anglian army and the pirates. The latter are reluctant to join the campaign, which aims at attacking Maldon. The attack fails and when army and pirates are killed at flight, the pirates are called sailors (æscmenn, lit. men who belong to a ship, but also glossed as pirates). This situation at Maldon, therefore, indicates that normally pirates, now running to reach their ships, belong to the maritime landscape of Essex. From this most suitable Viking zone they may easily operate in the Thames and in Wantsum or vice versa, i.e. in areas characterized by creeks, bays, and sounds.

Scandinavian Viking activities are mainly in the maritime zone connected with the Thames.

A-SC, Manuscript C year 982: Her on þys geare comon upp on Dorsætum .iii. scypu wicinga 7 hergodon on Portlande.—Here in this year three pirate ships came up to Dorset and plundered on Portland.

The situation at the isle of Portland

Since these ships ‘came up to Dorset’, they probably sailed north from Brittany or Normandy. There is no good reason to believe they were Northmen or Danes, on the contrary, in the late 10th century Danes and Northmen came in large armies often under named leaders. With three ships only, plundering the isle of Portland (6×2.4 km) having landed in the Northeast, seems a manageable albeit un-Danish task. To a limited number of pirates the island is nevertheless strategic, a  place to harbour and keep a good outlook.


The Viking quotations from A-SCs combine to explain Vikings to be pirates usually, but not by necessity Danes or Scandinavians. They are linked to maritime landscapes and sometimes they form smaller or larger bands occasionally joining the land forces. Chroniclers used the word with discrimination to designate just that and to separate pirates from non-pirates.

When JK draws attention to Danes rather than Vikings, she makes a much greater point inasmuch as her subjects are as non-pirate as they come – women in Eastern England who wore simple Scandinavian jewellery on their dress during the 9th and 10th century: before, during and after the area obeyed the Danes’ law.

Her corpus is the result the model work within the Portable Antiquities Scheme(4) and it consists of 500 odd artefacts retrieved mostly by the public and mostly by metal detector archaeologists and recorded mostly in recent years. JK looks at the material in several clever and source-critical ways that prevent her from jumping to favourite, albeit naïve, archaeological conclusion such as:

Those who wore Danish jewellery rather than Anglo-Saxon
were ethnic Danes and vice versa


If your bring a female Danish dress to England
and wear it, then we must expect exogamy.

Instead, being well-aware of the alternative patterns suggested by the written sources, JK finds rather a homogeneous expression of material female culture marked by heterogeneous relationships with Denmark, Scandinavia, jewellery production, dress code, trade, immigration, settlement, etc. In essence JK discusses expressions in England of originally Danish traditions which have given rise to imported, echoed and hybrid female dress codes. Since this has little to do with pirates and piracy, not even when they join forces with the armies of East Anglia, there is almost nothing Viking in JK’s discussion, just Danes, Danish and Norse.

Actually, Viking is written in inverted commas when conventionally the term is correct, but still obviously odd, such as ‘a handful of ”Viking female graves”’ or ‘traditional signs of ”Viking activities”—place names and stone sculptures’. Nevertheless, writing in a popular journal, the overall perspective of the past must centre on Viking Reformed – once horrible marauders slowly becoming civilized landowners, their farm hands doing the ploughing and the tilling, as pointed out by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles c. 876 CE, when the Danes’ law is about to be established(5).

This is the perspective of chronicles as well as poems(6), reproduced again and again in modern analyses even by some of those who use Viking as a practical and conventional modern term only. Viking Reformed is a story about integration and the development of prehistoric man from pagan barbarism to Christian order. But JK tells us about a century or more of non-integration of a foreign fashion, something non-Anglo-Saxon, now and then something hybrid – a story the chroniclers had no intention to tell us. She also compares the distribution of stray finds and place names.

Chronicles and place name distribution (despite all the problems with the latter material) suggest that Danes and Northmen took over the land they had occupied when it was safe to do so. In principle, this colonization is a Scandinavian landnám, a colonizarion in which a leader such as Halfdan (876) subjungates a region and distributes land among his followers. The result, in our case the place names, reflects a regionally centralized and urbanized power structure. These Danes did not turn to ploughing as a step in their development, they fulfilled their Scandinavian dream of becoming landowners with hardworking farm hands; not very different from the ones they left in Scandinavia.

To the left:Scandinavian place names (red/black), stray finds (white/yellow) and some important towns in Danelaw, scales equal 25, 50 and 100 km. To the right: the relation between Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon stray finds, after Kershaw 2011.

Comparing the stray finds, mostly simple female jewellery, to the settlement names, there are two things to point out: (1) Generally speaking the two distributions are similar, but the centre of gravity of the stray finds is situated southeast of that of the village names. It is also true that the fewer the Scandinavian place names the more frequent the stray finds. (2) Important towns, such as York and the five boroughs are often situated in the periphery of dense place name distributions or surrounded by a denser distribution (York).

Referring to Viking Reformed, we may explain these characteristics in the following way: Simple female dress has a tendency to preserve a kind of Scandinavian identity especially in Eastern England, i.e. in the immigration area. Valuable farms and villages are much more integrated in the society of the majority than females in Scandinavian Look. Thus the rich village or farm owners seem more smoothly to integrate themselves.

But is that really true?

Could the strength of the distribution of parish and farm names not be the sign of a very significant change in society – a reformed society rather than a reformed Viking – and a change in principle the same, but in practice different from the change signified by the dresses behind the stray finds? The farm owners are few, but important and they express their colonization of a new area by means of names. Those who happen to lose their jewellery are many especially in immigration zones. Probably they are poorer and thus more likely to lose their jewellery. Both, nevertheless, represent new structures in society rather than integration.

JK’s observations on Danish, Norse and hybrid settlements in England (there’s an impossible title for an article) opens up important new and Viking-free perspectives(7).

(1) When it comes to semantics and ‘Viking’ almost everything in this contribution is based on Christine Fell’s seminal article Old English Wicing: A Question of Semantics. Proceedings of the British Academy vol 72 1986 pp 295-315.
(2) The quotations from A-SC comes from http://asc.jebbo.co.uk/

(3) See The Early Iron Age in South Scandinavia pp 535-60. http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?searchId=1&pid=diva2:287406

(4) See for yourself at  http://finds.org.uk/

(5) The A-SC manuscripts express themselves in two slightly different ways:
Manuscripts A, C, D and E, 876 or 877 CE: 7 þy geare Healfdene Norðanhymbra land gedælde, 7 ergende wæron 7 hiera tilgende wæron—that year Halfdan divided the land of the Northhumbrians, and they were ploughing and they were their tilling.
Manuscript B, 877 CE: 7 þy geare Halfdene Norðanhymbra land gedælde þæt hie syþþan ergende 7 heora tilgende wæron—that year Halfdan divided the land of the Northhumbrians. That they (were) afterwards ploughing and they were their tilling.
‘Ploughing’ and ‘tilling’ (the preparing of land for the raising of crops, e.g. by ploughing and harrowing) are almost synonymous and used to clarify the situation in an accurate way striving to put two separate expressions: ergende wærontilgende wæron, next to each other thus by amplification making it clear that the new land owners, the Danes whom Halfdan gave each their lot, did no hard work whatsoever. The author behind Manuscript B felt that this situation ought to be clarified and stressed the fact that because of this division of land it fell to the Northhumbrians to work as farm hands.

(6) See One the Reading Rest, June 13 2011. Vikings in Latin Poetry.

(7) Except for the poem about the Battle of Maldon (991), in which we may expect the locals always to suspect the involvement of their neighbouring pirates when it comes to conflicts, and thus to use the word in a more general sense about anyone who attacks them from the sea, there is but one case in which ‘Viking’ is used in a more general sense. In a homily, no. xxxiii, Archbishop Wulfstan of York  (†1023) speaks of thralls who run away from their lords and Christendom to become Vikings. In this highly emotional text W wants to show his readers as well as listeners how violence, horror, blasphemy, abuse, cowardice, pestilence and indeed a distorted legal system signifies his and their day and age. W tells us that the thrall becomes thane and vice versa and one way of bringing about this awful situation is for the thrall to run off and become a Viking. This is outrageous because Vikings are such a despicable persons. ‘Viking’, therefore, is used metaphorically to designate society’s vilest enemy. W refers to the burning of Canterbury Cathedral in 1011 and probably wrote his homily in 1014. To his mind the enemies of society, ‘the wolfs to the English’ as the homily has it, are Danes, but there would be no point in saying that the thralls ran off to become Danes, which technically speaking they can’t (Moreover, in a matter of minutes, W will tell us that the English are such cowards that one Dane can put ten or more of them to flight). But thralls can run off to follow a pursuit as base as the mind of a thrall or a Dane. Vikings, Huns and Fundamentalists belong in the same rhetorical toolbox.

Nevertheless, things changed in 1016 CE when the war was over and Canute became King of England.


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