Did the Vikings Raid in Spain? A Brief History of the Spanish Experience of the Viking Age.

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Did the Vikings Raid in Spain?

The Vikings traveled far and wide. No place in Europe with a coast or river, it seems, escaped their influence. While most media focuses on the English experience of the Viking Age–the Anglophone world tends to be anglo-centric, after all–we have a great deal more we can learn by looking at the other areas the Vikings roved. Spain’s experience of the Viking Age stands to teach us a great deal because Muslims occupied the Iberian peninsula and their chroniclers offer us a fresh perspective on the Vikings and their raids.

Spain During the Viking Age

Islam spread quickly across the southern Mediterranean Basin during the life of its prophet Muhammad and even faster after his death. Under the Umayyad Caliphs, their territorial expansion created an empire that bordered China in the East and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. The Abbasid Caliphs, who rose to power to replace the Umayyads, took a particular interest in the arts and sciences, with an immense fascination for Hellenistic (i.e., Ancient Greek) and Persian history and culture. Their infatuation led to a cultural revolution, which influenced the writings of the leading Islamic scholars of the day. Significant scientific advancements in cosmology and mathematics occurred throughout the 7th and 8th Centuries.

The Islamic empire had an advanced postal system to relay information across the vast expanses of their territory. It connected the empire’s furthest reaches with its administrative center, Baghdad. The Islamic world kept track of the lands they conquered through the postal system. One group of people, in particular, gave them cause for concern and feature prominently in the primary sources. These were the Vikings. Arabic writings of the time referred to the Vikings by two names: ar-Rus and al-Madjus.

The name ar-Rus described the Swedish Vikings who navigated the Dnieper and Volga rivers and whom the Muslims encountered on the shores of the Black Sea. The name al-Madjus described the Vikings in the West, those who terrorized the coasts of Ireland, France, and Spain. Arab scholars used the name al-Madjus to describe the culture of the Vikings as they perceived it: a culture of fire-worshipers. They likened the al-Madjus to the Persian Zoroastrians, both of whom cremated their dead. The thirteenth-century chronicler Ibn Said explained, “nothing seems more important to them than fire, for the cold in their lands is severe.”

The Muslim Sources and Some of Their Challenges

Contemporary Muslim sources present a similar challenge to their Christian counterparts. The sources historians have to work with are a mosaic of reconstructed documents written decades and centuries after the fact. The first chroniclers, such as the historian Ahmad al-Razi, his son Isa-ibn-Ahmad, and the scholar Ibn al-Qutyyia, have no surviving works to draw upon for study. We know their names and their stories because later chroniclers reference them. As historians must do with Christian sources with the same problems, they must cross-reference any referencing to the Vikings and their activities with other disparate sources.

The two most authoritative surviving works about the early attacks on Spain were written by the 10th-century scholars Ibn Al Qutiyya and Ibn Hayyan’s Al Muqtabis. Christian sources, chiefly the Annales Bertinian from the Carolingian Empire and the Asturian Chronicles from Galicia complement the Muslims’ testimony. Additional sources from Christians include Dudo of Saint Quentin, William of Jumièges, the Annals of St-Bertin, the Chronicle of Regino de Prüm, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Further complicating things, the Muslim sources lack the consistency of nomenclature in referring to the Vikings. The earliest sources tell us that the Muslims of the 9th and 10th Centuries understood that they were dealing with a single people, whether they encountered them on the shores of Spain, the Mediterranean, or the Eastern Steppes. The historian al-Yaqubi, for example, did not differentiate between the Vikings in the East and West. In one of his works, he claimed that “the Madjus, who are called the Rus,” attacked Seville. We know the Rus did not attack Spain, so the nomenclature mistake, while frustrating, is telling.

The First Wave of Vikings in Spain

Although some evidence suggests earlier incursions into Iberia by the al-Madjus, the currently accepted historical start of Viking raids in Spain date to the attack on Seville in 844 A.D. Using a mixture of Christian and Muslim Chronicles to track the Vikings’ movements, historians have pieced together a reasonably coherent narrative of the Iberian experience during the Viking Age. 

The sources tell us that a fleet of ships that had raided the Carolingian Empire sailed from the Bay of Biscay into Northern Spain. There they raided a few settlements before encountering a large force of Asturians under the command of King Ramiro I. The Vikings suffered a crushing defeat and retreated to an island base on the French coastline. There is much debate over the base’s location, but it may have been as close as Bayonne.

A few months later, a larger fleet of eighty ships appeared off the coast of Lisbon, where they fought and won three sea battles against Muslim ships. They then headed south to the mouth of the Guadalquivir, made their way inland, and sacked the city of Seville, which they occupied. The attack was so unexpected that Cordova, the administrative center of Islamic Spain, called al-Andalus, lacked a response. It took them weeks to muster an army to drive out the Vikings from the city. Following the Vikings’ bold incursion into his lands, Emir Abd al-Rahman II ordered the construction of a new fleet of ships to counter al-Madjus raids.

The Emir sent a Moorish ambassador, al-Ghazal, to learn about their new enemy. His account tells of his voyage to a splendid island with lush, flowering plants and abundant streams leading to the ocean. For years historians struggled to gather consensus on where he had traveled. Some believe he visited Ireland, while others believe he visited Denmark. The source for al-Ghazal’s embassy to Ireland is a document by Abu-l-Kattab-Umar-ibn-al-Hasan-ibn-Dihya, born in Valencia in Andalucia, about 1159 A.D. The facts and anecdotes in the story were derived from Tammam-ibn-Alqama, vizier under three consecutive amirs in Andalucia during the ninth century, who died in 896. Tammam-ibn-Alqama had allegedly learned the details directly from al-Ghazal and his companions. The only manuscript of ibn-Dihya’s work has d at the British Museum since 1866. It is titled Al-mutrib min ashar ahli’l Maghrib, which translates as An amusing book from poetical works of the Maghreb.

Al-Ghazal’s testimony offers a glimpse into how the Muslims viewed the Vikings. His story speaks of a vast moral gulf regarding sexuality, fidelity, and loyalty. During his stay, he claims, he had an affair with the chieftain’s wife, and he commented at length about her privileged position and power within the community, which stood in contrast to the Muslim view of how women should behave. Historians take his testimony with great caution–his evident bias undermines his credibility, and it is uncertain whether some of his remarks were inserted by later writers.

Al-Ghazal was not the only ambassador to travel north to meet the Vikings, although he is thought to have been the only Muslim ambassador to have launched from Spain. Others, such as Ibn-Fadlan, visited the Rus in the East and studied them in detail. Ibn-Fadlan’s account is one of the most universally known and well-studied documents about the Vikings produced by a Muslim.

The Second Wave

We have no record of any other attacks by the al-Madjus from 844 until 859, when an ambitious man named Hasting made an infamous incursion into the Mediterranean. With the help of his close friend Bjorn Ironside, a supposed son of Ragnar Lothbrok, Hasting sailed to Iberia on his way to the Mediterranean, hoping to gain fame and fortune by pillaging Rome. At first, the expedition did not fare well. The Asturians of Northern Spain fought them off, forcing the expedition to continue southward without loot. They successfully pillaged coastal settlements until they arrived at Gibraltar, where a storm blew them off course. They landed in North Africa and raided for slaves before resuming their original intended course.

According to the chronicler Dudo of St. Quentin, Hasting was ambitious and sought to sack Rome itself. So the story goes, the walls of the city were too tall and well-fortified. Thus he hatched one of the more notorious plans to take the city by creating a ruse to trick the “naïve” Christians. They arrived at the city and sent a messenger to inform the bishop that their leader had been mortally wounded and, in his dying moments, wished to be baptized so that he might reach salvation. The bishop took pity on him and organized the ceremony. The next day, the Norsemen returned to the city to inform the bishop that their chieftain had died and that he had requested burial in the city. Again, the bishop took pity on them and organized the funeral. They placed Hasting’s body on a bier and carried him inside the city. A gathering of noblemen and clergypersons joined them to begin the ceremony when Hasting rose from the dead, snatched the sword beside him, and cut down the bishop.

The ruse proved successful. They sacked the city and loaded their ships with loot. As they sailed from the city, they realized they had made a navigational error. The city they had sacked was not Rome but a smaller settlement called Luna, some two hundred miles north of their intended target. Nevertheless, Hasting ordered a return to his base on the Loire. However, as they attempted to sail past Gibraltar, a Muslim fleet intercepted them, destroying a significant portion of the Viking fleet with Greek Fire. Their chieftain survived and returned to his base on the island of Herius (today called Noirmoutier) with twenty ships, a mere third of the ships he had departed with three years earlier.

The Third Wave

Arabic sources tell of a third wave of attacks beginning in 966 A.D., over 100 years after the conclusion of Hasting’s expedition. Where this fleet came from is not entirely clear, but there is strong evidence to suggest they launched from Normandy after having helped Duke Richard I suppress a rebellion in his duchy. They arrived in Galicia and did what they are known best for: they pillaged. In response to the attack, the bishop of Santiago de Compostela, an important pilgrimage site, gathered an army to fend them off. By sheer bad luck, the bishop took an arrow to the neck and died during their second battle. Devastated, his troops retreated, and the Vikings continued terrorizing the surrounding countryside. For three years, they attacked and plundered Galicia. Historians disagree over why their long-term presence did not turn into a settlement as it had in Ireland, Britain, and Normandy. Nevertheless, in 972, they made one last major push for plunder, and returned home.

The Fourth Wave

Beginning in the year 1008, a new threat emerged from the north with its sights on Galicia. Again, regular seasonal raids struck terror in the hearts of the Spaniards. In 1038, a renewed raid struck the town of Tui, led this time by Olav Haraldsson, heir to the throne of Norway. They captured the bishop and held him for ransom, though the sources do not give us much detail on this interaction. Olav’s chroniclers, Sigvat and Ottar, heavily reference their patron’s successes in Galicia, earning him the name “the Galician Wolf.”

A Small but Significant Experience

Ultimately, Spain experienced the more minor brunt of the Viking Age compared with areas such as Ireland, Britain, and France. However, both the Christian kingdoms and Muslim territories in Iberia suffered terrible wounds from the raids. Arguably, the Viking attacks on al-Andalus encouraged the Muslims of Spain and North Africa to fortify their seaborne fleets, which helped the Islamic world maintain naval supremacy in the Mediterranean over Christendom until the high middle ages. This may have directly affected the course of the crusades and, indeed, the course of history in Europe. Spain is not often the focus of Viking Age events, but their experience is crucial to understanding the Viking Age.

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