The Viking Hype is Hard to Escape

18 February, 2013

This week On the Reading Rest I have a book that try hard to escape what is expected of it. The expected is expressed by the Annals of Ulster, e.g. in the second entry for the year 798 CE: The burning of Inis Pátraic by the heathens, and they took the cattle-tribute of the territories, and broke the shrine of Do-Chonna, and also made great incursions both in Ireland and in Alba (U798.2): Shrine-breaking Vikings in the Irish Sea or Salafists in the Sahara – same Huns then as now – because a Hun is a Hun is a Hun and yet that may not be the whole truth.


Griffiths, David. 2010 (2012). Vikings of the Irish Sea. Conflict and Assimilation AD 790-1050. The History Press.

We learn a lot from Vikings of the Irish Sea. It is a good and interesting book and David Griffiths (DG) has written an introduction – a point of departure – in which he stresses the fact that viking – wicing in Old English – means ‘pirate’; that the actual word is uncommon; that the Irish spoke of foreigners sometimes dark or fair; that Vikings played a number of different roles in society. DG uses the label ‘Viking’ in the neutral conventional sense. Nevertheless we get the impression that as an ethnic heathen group they eventually dropped their barbarian identity. If we read the jacket blurb, which probably isn’t DG’s words, this misleading simplicity, Viking Reformed, makes us drift towards the general selling point, the Viking hype:


In part, the impression that although they are not Vikings the jacket-blurb way they still are, is due to the way DG introduces his investigation in the chapter following the introduction – Raids and Early Settlement in Ireland. He begins his analysis highlighting the earliest entries in the Annals of Ulster and similar chronicles simply by referring to them, seemingly taking them for granted. If we do so, we will have difficulties emancipating ourselves from their allegedly objective style and their skillfully constructed choice of events, the ostensibly important ones, which simply happened to take place in a certain year. Notwithstanding, we know that social chronology and the annalistic genre is never a simple series of events: the annals don’t lie; they are selective and imprecise to a fault.

Instead of highlighting the impression which the intruders made on the literate who lived by the coast or on small islands in monasteries amidst a material wealth ideologically attractive to any plunderer, the analysis must start before the Scandinavian colonists began what eventually turned out to be their not entirely successful project. The atrocities of heathen shiploads, al Qaida or salafist groups are ‘shameful terrorism’ to borrow an analytical term from Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, but they didn’t start at Inis Pátraic, in New York or Timbuktu. In the Viking case we need not know a lot about Scandinavia to understand the origin of Scandinavian behavior.

(1) In the 6th and 7th century, based on ownership of land, a new upper social stratum emerged, signified by magnate farms, and by landowners who need not live on their estates.

(2) The 7th and 8th century marked the end of a demographic crisis and the beginning of a growing population.

(3) Despite the demographic crisis, i.e. owing to social stratification and landownership, the landless, i.e. the pit-house population, couldn’t take over abandoned farms (cf. OtRR 21 January 2013).

(4) From the onset of the 8th century, if not before, larger boats and sailing ships (cf. OtRR 4 ebruary 2013) stimulated the political ambitions of the new upper classes inasmuch as new boat types renewed the logistics of communication and warfare.

Together, social structure, a population surplus, political ambition and new logistic possibilities paved the way for the formation of new political networks, plundering and colonization – in short a much enhanced revival of the dynamics of the 4th and 5th c. – around uniting seas. The magnates and their halls became the nodes in political networks. The waters of Central Denmark are the original uniting seas and they helped to define the colonial waters of The English Channel, and The Irish Sea. Since scale is important when logistics are crucial, the North Sea, albeit possible to cross, is too large to unite. On the other hand, the system may be modified to fit some coastal areas too, as well as fjords, the Trondheim Fjord being case in point.

Uniting seas

Since the model for this kind of political space came from Scandinavia as a geographical area, Scandinavians were among the first to engage themselves, but there was nothing particularly Scandinavian in the endeavor or in uniting seas. In the long run uniting seas could not sustain political units, except in Denmark where Øresund became a border in 1658 and in Sweden up and until 1809 when peace liberated Finland and made the Baltic a divide. Not surprisingly building bridges and tunnels are the most important communication projects in modern Denmark and indeed coastal Norway.

It is difficult to know when the Scandinavian model of the uniting sea became colonial, but it probably started as a small scale phenomenon following old expanded passages. This collonization or contact could be peaceful as well as violent. Similar to the situation in the 4th and 5th c. the journey would seamlessly combine acquisition, successful homecoming, emigration and death.

By quoting the annals DG emphasizes ethnic aspects rather than the model ones although he is often able to criticize ethnicity, e.g. when it comes to place names and the actual ethnic affiliation of a certain landowner. Language is not a perfect ethnic marker and must Scandinavian or non-Scandinavian landowners live on a farm with a Scandinavian respectively non-Scandinavian name? This is the basic question to which the answer is: No! DG’s critique is reasonable, but it backfires as criticism of the overarching ethnic perspective. This perspective, which is embraced as well as not-embraced by DG, stems from the inability to abandon the traditional Viking concept although we know that it is misleading.

Since the Viking concept is denoted by violent and pagan ethnic Scandinavians, it becomes difficult to uphold if the people involved cannot be defined ethnically, if myths could be embraced as narratives by non-Scandinavians, and if categories such as Norse, Native and half-breed were never exhaustively defined. Likewise it becomes difficult to uphold the concept if the intruders were no longer heathens, but Christians, which by the mid-10th century most of them were.

Grave finds lead to exactly the same problems as place names: it is impossible to maintain that Scandinavians were buried in a Scandinavian way. DG sums up the problem thus:
It is no longer acceptable merely to divide the practice of furnished and unfurnished burial along simplistic ethnic lines, with the latter being seen as an exclusive ‘native’ phenomenon. Just as people of non-Scandinavian origin may have been accorded pagan rites at their internment or cremation others who did have direct or familial Scandinavian backgrounds were probably buried in unfurnished graves, almost indistinguishably from those of the people they had settled amongst (p. 99).

DG nevertheless continues:
Science, particularly stable isotope analysis, promises to illuminate this question further. Nevertheless, the evidence from burials adds greatly to the picture of developing cultural hybridity around the Irish Sea … … (p.99).

Science in the shape of its current Deus ex machina, stable isotope analysis, obviously doesn’t tell us how people felt about their identity. Moreover, it stands to reason that amalgamation rather than hybridization characterized most identities, in which lineage were easily integrated. Vikings nevertheless are still there.

Even when they predate themselves, Scandinavians buried in Dublin before the first mentioning of monastery burners 795 CE, it is difficult to not to continue to believe chronicles and annals. DG accepts the possibility that Scandinavians settled in Ireland before 795 – somewhat reluctant to begin with and perhaps a little less reluctantly in Conclusions. Once again, a crucial point doesn’t really change anything – the annals are still trusted, albeit reluctantly. Because an unobtrusive start rather than full-blown terrorism is what we should expect, the early graves from Dublin, instead of being something perhaps possible, should have been the point of departure – trade before terror?

DG is not to be blamed for the obscurity that surrounds a series of early 14C-dates from graves in Dublin, Linzy Simpson is. How hard can it be to account for the results of a 14C-test? The central information is the name of the Laboratory, the number of the test, the year before present and the standard deviation, e.g. Xyz, 12345, b.p. 1250+/-45. Nonetheless, when the crucial dates were published in Medieval Dublin vol. VI 2005, that kind of simplicity and clarity was banned and readers were referred to a misleading ‘intercept date’ and supplied with the first and the last date of the +/- 2σ span. Only in the notes do we find the +/- 1σ, values, which do not figure in DG’s otherwise clarifying table (p. 76). It is difficult to find a 14C test result that will match the five figures given by Simpson: interception year, +/- 1σ and +/- 2σ limits, e.g. Grave F 196 South Great Georg’s Street: 770, 690, 790, 670 and 880 CE. Nevertheless a 14C-date such b.p. 1250 +/- 33 comes close. Since there are three burials with dates identical or very similar to F196, this implies that the probability that three of the dead were buried 795 CE or later is c. 25%.


The probability that all three are dated 795 or later is thus 0.25×0.25×0.25 = 0.015625. Consequently, the probability that at least one of the graves is earlier than 795 CE is 0.984375.That is a very high probability given that probabilities don’t come above one. The intention behind all this would seem to be a wish to obscure what would otherwise have been obvious: in Dublin before 795 CE, i.e. the first mentioning in the Annals of Ulster of a heathen attack on Ireland, people who felt it necessary to show affinities with the material culture of Scandinavia buried young men and at least one older woman, thus creating new burial grounds and consequently an element of a permanent new settlement inasmuch as graves make up an important element in a permanent and autonomous Iron Age settlement in Scandinavia.

The possibility that something similar to an 8th century CE Mesolithic diet would have caused a marine reservoir effect that made everybody look too young 14C-wise, is no more than a vain hope disguised as scholarly cautiousness, not least while the Annals of Ulster point out that the heathens took the cattle-tribute in 798. Reading the Annals as proof of the fact that heathens had not seen cows until 798 will not solve the problem of the early Dublin dates. In Dublin, beyond all reasonable doubt there is a pre-Annalistic heathen settlement with Scandinavian affinities — that is, a colony on a foreign coast.

If we trust the Annals of Ulster ‘heathens’ disappear in the early 900s and most Scandinavians, as we learn e.g. from DG’s discussion (143ff.), were Christians by 990s. In the Annals of Ulster, ‘Norsemen’ follow in the footsteps of the heathens. ‘Danes’ are rare and late and if anything related to the turbulent times in England from the 980s and onwards. This means that we can understands what happens between the 8th and 11th century CE in relation to a series of model stages:

(0) Small-scale immigration, sword in hand.
(1) A period of continued settlement and armed survey
(with a ‘crusade’ character, in search of booty, of little benefit for Heathendom)
(2) A period of further colonization and political formation
(3) A period of engulfment in local politics
(4) A period of international power struggle in connection with state formation

Vikings, i.e. pirates or sea robbers, probably existed up and until the third stage, but they were not labeled thus until the second model stage. Prior the Carolingian Iron Age (750-1025 CE), Vikings/Pirates were already an Iron Age Scandinavian phenomenon and we may argue that only when Scandinavians abroad started to look upon themselves as countrymen and players on the political scenes in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, did it become necessary now and then to label Scandinavians and other freebooters ‘Vikings’, thus denouncing them.


There are no Vikings in the Annals of Ulster, because Vikings are rare, but they may be fitted into the model by means of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Their intermediate status belonging to stage 2 and 3 can be corroborated if we look into a translation from the 990s of a text originally written in Latin in the 980s.

abboIn Abbo of Fleury’s Life of St Edmund (Latin late 980s CE) translated into straightforward Old English (and shortened) by Aelfric of Eynsham in the late 990s CE, we are told how Ivar the Boneless and his men killed King Edmund of East Anglian a hundred odd years earlier in 869 CE. Translating this Latin text into Old English must have been a good opportunity to use the word wicing in order to describe both Ivar and his men as negatively as befitting, but ‘Viking’ and ‘pirate’ are used only in modern translations. Abbo of Fleury’s original Latin text uses pirata—pirate, pirata truculentes—grim pirates, piratica—piracy and latrocinium—freebooting to describe the Danes and their doings. But Aelfric writes flot-man throughout loosing pirates and freebooters in translation. Flot-man means seaman and since some seamen are pirates and some pirates Scandinavians, Bosworth and Toller translate: Flot-man: (1) sailor and seaman; (2a) pirate; (2b) ravaging Scandinavian. In our Aelfric case we may proceed down this road and add (2b:1) ‘Danish marauder’. Flot-man none the less is a euphemism – an indirect and vague substitute for the blunt and offensive wicing.

Abbo, a French career monk (1), who was in England at the Abbey of Ramsey in East Anglia 985-7 organizing and teaching, a visiting professor brought in from abroad, heard of Edmunds fate and wrote his Passio Sancti Edmundi dedicated to Archbishop Dunstan (†988) before he went back to the Fleury, his monastery near Orleans, and a new step in his career. Abbo had no problems calling a pirate a pirate and in all probability his informants at Ramsey were the ones who gave him the impression that pirate was the right word to use when they told him about Edmund’s death. Had they wished they could have referred to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the mid-9th century and the three Viking cases in East Anglia to prove their point (cf. OtRR 8 August, 2011).

Aelfric, like everyone else, knew that wicing meant pirate, but he chose the inexact over the exact term and that is understandable since he calls Ivar’s army a fyrd and talks of his ships as a scip-here, i.e. a fleet. A fyrd is a large army and fleet a large number of ships, and thus not emblematic of pirates, who don’t come by the thousands. That kind of consequence didn’t bother Abbo, who knew a pirate when he heard of him and needed something rascals-like rather than lordly to murder his martyr. In the retrospect, and to the educated reader in the 990s calling Ivar a Viking—‘pirate captain’ makes no sense because he commanded a big army and conquered East Anglia, although he ultimately came from the sea. Aelfric’s prose is not unobtrusive, on the contrary, it is pointed – Ivar’s emissary to Edmund describes his master boisterously as a great King, but Aelfric prefers árleáse flot-man—‘honourless’ seaman, which points safely to Ivar’s moral shortcomings. His choice of words allows us, albeit silently, to read ‘infamous pirate’, and ‘honourless’ is a significant term to Scandinavians, to whom honour was all-important, if we are to believe Icelandic sagas. Compared to Aelfric’s translation, Abbo’s original is genuinely agitprop. He calls Ivar furcifer, an abusive term which means yoke-bearer. It is used when mocking someone, because it implies that he is a slave doing menial work. But the invective may also label a gallows rogue, hang-dog or rascal. Consequently when Aelfric criticizes Ivar, his language is much less abusive than Abbo’s.

Aelfric in AbbasAelfric lived in Cerne Abbas 10 miles from the extraordinary 10th c. mass grave at Ridgeway Hill with the 54 beheaded mercenaries, of whom, isotopically speaking, at least 10 had ‘grown up in a colder climate than Britain’ and another 10 miles from the very last Viking attack recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Portland 982 CE). Writing in the 990s, when not all Scandinavian lay beheaded in mass graves there may have be a point in not calling every Dane a Viking and any Danish petty king a hang-dog. In all robability, Christian Scandinavians were already part of society. In effect we may argue that what Aelfric achieved by translating Abbo so wisely, was to put an end to Scandinavian Vikings. In a way he succeeded since in the 11th century Viking became a metaphor for runaway thralls (Cf. On the Reading Rest: Pirate Settlements in England, 8 August, 2011; note (7) on Wulfstan’s Homily 33).



(1) This is what   has to say about Abbo (945-1004CE): Benedictine monk, taking the habit and coming of age at Saint Benoît-sur-Loire monastery, Fleury-sur-Loire, France. Studied at Paris, Rheims and Orleans in France. One of the great scholars of his age; we still have writings by him on astronomy, grammar, philosophy, mathematics, canon law, theology, biography, and other matters. Administered the abbey school and taught at Ramsey, Huntingdonshire, England from 985 to 987 at the request of Saint Oswald of Worcester, archbishop of York. Abbot at Fleury-sur-Loire, France in 988 where he instituted Cluniac observance; his election came into dispute, which was settled by the bishop who would later be Pope Sylvester II. Brought the abbey school to great renown. Fought for the rights of monks at the Synod of Saint Denis in 995. Ambassador to the Vatican where he became a close friend of Pope Gregory V. Peacemaker and negotiator between Pope Gregory V and King Robert the Pious of France. Worked to calm fears and reassure people who feared the end of the world or other problems with the millennial change to the year 1000. Murdered during a riot by monks he whose discipline he was trying to reform.

(2) Those who want to read about Edmund and the way Ivar made him a martyr will find a lot on the web:

Abbo’s Latin text at

Aelfric’s Old English text at

A translation of Aelfric’s text – with a pathetic introduction – can be found at:


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