What Is the Danevirke?

Anyone interested in the Viking Age should know about this hugely important edifice that served as both a physical border and an ideological one. The Danevirke is a series of ditches and fortifications along the southern border of the Danish peninsula, Jutland, and effectively separated what was once the kingdom of the Danes and the Carolingian Empire. Archeological research estimates the first sections of the Danevirke as having been built as early as the sixth century. Current scholarship theorizes that the building of the fortifications were encouraged by constant internecine warfare between the inhabitants of the peninsula and their southern germanic neighbors, the Saxons and the Franks. In fact, this same period of conflict is cited by scholars as a major cause for the exodus of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to Britain.

Theories for what the Danevirke was are many-from a simple wall, akin to Hadrian’s wall, to a canal that served as a shipping channel. Interestingly, a recent find has helped to further the idea that the Danevirke may have been an important shipping route before and during the Viking Age. In 2010, archeologists discovered a (the) gateway through the wall, about five meters wide, that correlates with written descriptions of the gateway that connected Jutland with Charlemagne’s empire, and is described as having had an inn and a bordello. (to read about the new discovery, CLICK HERE). The find helps to support the idea that the primary sources about the gateway through the Danevirke are, in fact, reliable.

Archeological evidence shows further fortifications began in the early 9th century, also described in the Royal Frankish Annals. They explain the Danish king Gudfred rebuilt the Danevirke specifically to repel a Frankish invasion. Archeological finds place more extensive construction in the time of Harald Bluetooth, and scholars disagree over which monarch was most responsible for the expansion of the more extensive fortifications that earned the Danevirke its later reputation as a symbol of the separation between the Danes and their southern Germanic neighbors.

During the Viking Age, the Danevirke was an important symbol for the Danes of Jutland, who felt the very real threat of invasion by the Frankish Empire. Although Charlemagne never materialized a full scale invasion, his son Louis the Pious sent frequent bellicose incursions in that direction, but he also never launched a frontal assault on the Danevirke. Luckily for the Danes, after the death of Charlemagne the Frankish Empire was plunged into repeated civil wars, which took pressure off of their border. This allowed them to begin their own foreign exploits in Normandy, Britain, and Brittany.

Historically speaking, the Danevirke was important because it helped to dissuade the invasion of Jutland by the Franks and allowed the Danes a measure of autonomy other tribes did not have. Ultimately, the Danevirke was powerless against the invasion that truly mattered, the christianization of Scandinavia during the 10th and 11th centuries.

Further reading:

McKitterick, R. (2008). Charlemagne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scholz, B. (1972). Carolingian chronicles: Royal Frankish annals and Nithard’s Histories. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.