Do You Use the Word Viking Correctly?

Language matters, and how a person uses language significantly affects their worldview and how they perceive people, objects, and concepts. It is no surprise, therefore, that there are a growing number of people who are dismayed by today’s liberal use of the word Viking to describe a great number of things that the word initially did not. Historians have fought pitched battles over the origins of the word, and many an unsuspecting Viking history fan has been on the receiving end of the ire of the word’s purists. Do you use the word Viking correctly? Yes, and no. Here I will attempt to clarify the origins of the word, its various uses across the ages, and the evolution of its modern incarnation, specifically in non-Scandinavian languages.

The Origins of the Word Viking

This much we know for sure: the word Viking is derived from Old Norse. While its origins are not well understood, and historians are divided over where precisely the word originated, we do know the word began not as a noun but as a verb. The Saga of Egill Skallagrimsson, one of the most famous of the Icelandic Sagas, offers us one of the most compelling examples of the word’s original use (keeping in mind that the Icelandic Sagas were written centuries after the Viking Age). In his opening passage, he describes a man named Ulfr as a man who, “lá hann í víkingu og herjaði,” which translates (roughly) to, “he was roving and fought.” In the context of the passage, the word víkingu, or viking, describes an activity – roving – rather than the man.

Egill Skallagrímsson in a 17th-century manuscript of Egil’s Saga
Egill Skallagrímsson in a 17th-century manuscript of Egil’s Saga

Later in the saga, the word is used in a completely different way:

“With bloody brand on-striding
Me bird of bane hath followed:
My hurtling spear hath sounded
In the swift Vikings’ charge.
Raged wrathfully our battle,
Ran fire o’er foemen’s rooftrees;
Sound sleepeth many a warrior
Slain in the city gate.”

Here the saga’s author uses the word as a noun to describe a group of people carrying out a specific action, which tells us the word may have also been used to describe the men whose profession it was to rove and fight. Jugglers juggle. Traders trade. Vikings viking.

Egill’s Saga may well be the last time the word was used in the medieval period. As the Viking Age came to a close, the profession of roving and fighting declined, and with it the use of the word Viking. Although modern Icelandic is the closest relative to Old Norse, Old Norse is considered a dead language. It evolved over the medieval period into the separate languages of Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic, and the word Viking did not make it into any of their lexicons.  It disappeared almost entirely for many centuries until it experienced a revival led by 19th Century historians from Western Europe.

Detail of a miniature from a 13th-century Icelandic manuscript.
Detail of a miniature from a 13th-century Icelandic manuscript.

The Revival of the Word Viking

The Romantic movement of the early 19th Century (1800–1850) developed an intrinsic fascination with the medieval period. Part of that movement saw a rapidly growing interest in a little-known, poorly understood element of early medieval history: the Viking Age. Historians flocked to the field with keen interest, seeking to shed light on this “dark” age. It is 19th Century historians who first demarcated the Viking Age between 793 A.D., the attack on Lindisfarne, and 1066 A.D, the Norman invasion of England. They were the first to study the sagas, search for writings about the Viking invasions of Europe, and begin to form a coherent narrative of the Viking Age. Through their efforts, Western Civilization rediscovered the long lost history of an enigmatic people who had plagued the early kingdoms of Britain and France, and whose origins they traced to Scandinavia.

During the romantic period, there had not yet been any ship burial discoveries and no archeological digs of any significance, so the primary sources they used had to be tracked down across Europe, many of them hidden away in age-old university archives, cathedral libraries, and private collections owned by Europe’s ruling class. Misconceptions about the Vikings abound in this early period of research, many of which persist to today. At the same time, a new political force took hold in Western Europe, one that would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in the following century: the concept of nationalism.

Beginning in the mid 19th century, the governments of Europe, both nascent democracies and established autocracies, sought to bend the narrative of history to suit their political aims and confirm their legitimacy. In France, for example, the official national story was that modern France was the product of the Carolingian empire, a holy Christian institution that helped to stabilize Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In England, the official historical narrative began with the Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Alfred the Great, to emphasize that the English monarchy had a long and rich history, one who had fought back innumerable invasions with the help of God. It is within the context of nascent national fervor that the study of the Vikings took shape. Not surprisingly, historians painted the Vikings as an enemy who threatened civilization and had to be defeated. The triumph of Christendom over “the ravages of heathen men”, as written in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, was regarded as a pivotal, divinely ordained achievement, exploited by the governments of Europe as a means to further prove the providence of their nations and to encourage national pride.

The fearsome enemy of Christendom, however, did not yet have a name. What then to call these invaders who attempted to thwart the Christian kingdoms of Europe? No one really knows where 19th-century historians, and later, society, picked up the word for use in non-Scandinavian languages. It may have been borrowed directly from the Scandinavians of the day, or perhaps taken directly from the Sagas of the Icelanders. Historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough explains in her book, Beyond the Northlands, that the first modern use in English of the word Viking was recorded in 1807. The word wasn’t reserved for the “men who roved”, but instead referred to the entire Norse world. It is, woefully, a product of the “us against them” mentality, and an unfortunate oversimplification and mischaracterization of a time and people we now know to have been far more complicated than previously acknowledged. From 1807 forward, the generalized use of the word dominated the histories and the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries and is by-and-large how most people use the word today.

Evaristo Vital Luminais - Pirates normands au IXe siècle
A 19th Century depiction of a Viking raid.

So, Do You Use the Word Viking Correctly?

It all boils down to effective communication. Who is the audience? What is their level of knowledge in regards to the Viking Age? Making clear your intent for the word is critical, and nowhere is this done better than in a recent book titled The Age of the Vikings, by historian Anders Winroth, in which he takes the time to make clear how he intends to use the word to his audience:

“The word ‘Viking’ is rare in the Viking Age sources, but in modern times it has become a ubiquitous but ill-defined label. The original sense of the term is unclear, and there are many suggestions for etymological derivations. In this book, I reserve the term ‘Vikings’ for those northerners who in the early middle ages raided, plundered, and battled in Europe, in accordance with how the word is used in Medieval texts. Otherwise, I refer to the inhabitants of Scandinavia as Scandinavians. The language they spoke is called Old Norse, so I have sometimes used the term ‘Norsemen.’”

Anyone who uses the word should be careful to define how they intend to use it, and to make clear the differences between its various usages. I, for example, use the word Viking more interchangeably because my intended audience is those people who are beginning to explore their interest in the Viking Age and who may not yet understand how its modern use differs from the past. However, in writing more in-depth histories, I focus my use of the word on the “men who roved.”

As always, for further reading, check out my selected bibliography.

 

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A Boat Within a Boat? A New Viking Age Burial Has Archeologists Scratching Their Heads

Archeologists from the Norwegian Institute of Arts and Sciences have discovered a curious Viking Age burial containing two ships interred more than one hundred years apart. According to the team working at the site of the discovery, it appears a woman of high social status died on a farm between the years 850 and 900. Today, the farm is known as ‘Skeiet’ in Vinjeøra, located southwest of the Trøndelag region in Norway. The woman’s clothes matched what one would expect from a high-ranking woman, with gold-plated bronze brooches and a decorated harness buckle likely made in Ireland.

At first glance, the burial appeared perfectly ordinary when compared with other Viking Age burials. The woman received offerings to accompany her on her journey to the afterlife, including a pearl necklace, scissors, a spinning wheel, and even a cow’s head. But what was discovered next turned the entire project on its head. Archeologists found the woman’s burial nestled within an older, pre-existing grave. Think Russian dolls, but with Viking ships. The older grave had contained a man, ostensibly a warrior, interred with his weapons.

“I had heard of burials with several pits, but never a boat buried within another boat,” said archeologist Raymond Sauvage. “Since then, I learned that in the 1950s, several sites with double-hulled boats in Kaupang and Tjølling contained similar finds in the Vestfold, but we can still say that it is an uncommon phenomenon.”

Who were the man and the woman, and why were they buried together? What does a double-hulled burial signify, or what did it mean to the people who built it? The team working on the project are hoping DNA analyses on the two skeletons will reveal some clues. Their efforts are not without challenges: the bones of both individuals may have decayed beyond the point where they could provide usable DNA. Says Archeologist Raymond Sauvage, “Let’s hope that it will be possible to extract the DNA from the skull, which will give us more information.”

The cross-shaped jewelry found in the woman’s grave gives us a good idea of who she was and the community to which she belonged. “We see from both the ornamentation and the design that the brooch likely came from Ireland and that it was once part of a harness,” says Aina Heen Pettersen, a researcher at the Department of Historical Studies of the NTNU. “It was common for the Vikings to detach such decorative accessories from harnesses and reuse them as costume jewelry.”

Archaeologists generally find such items in burial sites belonging to those who participated in or helped organize expeditions abroad. The woman buried at this site either traveled with or had a strong connection to those who left home to trade and to rove. Since these long journeys formed a central component of Nordic society at that time, any participation in this significant activity not only enabled them to acquire material goods but also contributed to raising their social status and that of their family.

Further research into the mystery of why one ship was buried within another is planned for the coming years. For now, the enigma endures.

Originally reported by gemini.no.

How Tall Were the Vikings?

There exists a peculiar perception among the general public that the Vikings stood taller than other Europeans of the Viking Age. Books, TV shows, and even some notable museum displays paint a portrait of tall and powerful men with above-average strength and skill at killing others. Are such portrayals accurate? Luckily for historians, the Vikings buried many of their dead in a way that preserved their bones and, through various osteoarcheological studies, we can say with some degree of confidence how tall Viking Age Scandinavians may have been.

How to Answer the Question, How Tall Were the Vikings?

As with everything to do with the Viking Age, nothing is guaranteed, nor is it likely written in stone (both figuratively and literally). The evidence for how tall or short the Vikings may have been can only be deduced from those pieces of evidence we can find. Written sources on the subject are unreliable for two reasons: first, they were penned by the victims of Viking raids (clerics) who often embellished specific details; second, the most detailed of the written sources were composed long after the fact, and thus have little chance of being accurate. Therefore, archaeology stands as the only sound method for determining the average height of Viking Age Scandinavians.

The question of height has been explored by historians and archaeologists alike since the beginning of Viking studies. Part of the interest in the subject stemmed from testimony in the historical sources. One account from the annals of Fulda describes a failed raid near Aachen after which the Carolingian fighters admired how large the bodies of the slain Northmen were. Anskar’s mission to Birka also fleetingly alluded to the Vikings’ size, as does the testimony of Ibn Fadlan who observed the Rus. As with every issue I attempt to tackle in my blog, the answer is not straightforward. We must first take into account that the Viking Age is a broadly defined period that spans more than 300 years. Also important to note in such an investigation is the fact that geographic distinctions, variations in weather and harvest, as well as plagues, warfare, and any number of other factors can affect a population’s height in a particular location at a specific time.

With all these in mind, the following is some of the research that has been done on the subject.

The Vikings in Iceland Offer Us Some Clues.

In 1958, Jon Steffanson composed an essay titled “Stature as a Criterion of the Nutritional Level of Viking Age Icelanders” in which he compiled known data about the heights of men and women found in Icelandic cemeteries that date to the Viking Age. Iceland is a fantastic place to do such research since the people who settled the island broadly qualify as Vikings.

To summarise his findings, Steffanson looked at the bones of 86 individuals who lived and died in Iceland in the 10th century (except for a select few skeletons that predate the others). He found that the average man of the time stood between 171 and 175 cm tall, and the average woman stood between 157 and 161 cm tall. Interestingly, when Steffanson compared these figures to 20th century Icelanders, he found that the average height of both men and women had remained relatively consistent. Icelanders only began to grow taller, on average, starting in the 1950s, which is precisely what we tend to find in other European nations.

EN EBOOK PROMO

Burials in Denmark and Sweden Offer us a few more Clues.

Viking Age Scandinavians in Sweden and Denmark do not appear to have been any taller or shorter on average than their Icelandic counterparts. In his new book, The Age of the Vikings, Anders Winroth explores the subject of heights not to answer the question of how tall the Vikings were, but how their heights fluctuated as a criterion for how healthy and well-fed these populations were (similar to what Jon Steffensen had done for Icelanders in 1958). To investigate the issue, he looked at the Fjälkinge gravesite in Sweden, and he writes of the Viking Age skeletons:

“In the Fjälkinge grave field, adult males were 160-185 centimeters tall while women measured 151-171 centimeters.” (pg. 163)

Concerning the averages, these heights are on par with those of the Icelanders of the same period. What’s more interesting is that the Fjälkinge contains graves of generations who were buried before and after the Viking Age. These graves show a slight dip in the average heights of men and women in the Viking Age. From this gravesite (and this site alone), it appears that Scandinavians were shorter during the Viking Age than before and afterward. What these findings indicate is that Viking Age Scandinavians may have experienced a period of hunger that stunted the growth of several generations. If the theory that climate change during that time caused food shortages that pushed the Vikings to raid in the first place, the results make perfect sense.

In Denmark, similar research has been done to find the average heights of men and women during the Viking Age. This research, as summarised by Mr. Winroth, found the following: “The average height of Viking Age skeletons in Denmark is 171 for men and 158 centimeters for women.” (pg. 163)

How Did the Vikings Compare to Other Europeans of the Day?

Looking at data from archaeological findings, Richard Steckel of Ohio State University, in his essay Health and Nutrition in the Preindustrial Era: Insights from a Millennium of Average Heights in Northern Europe, found that Vikings Age Scandinavians were no taller on average than people in other places at that time, including the British Isles and Mainland Europe. The data reveal a slight height advantage for Viking Age Scandinavians compared with the Anglo-Saxons, but the disparity between their average heights can be explained by the sample sizes used, where the Anglo-Saxon sample was much larger than the Scandinavian one.

Things to Keep in Mind About the Vikings.

It is important to note that Viking Age Scandinavia was a stratified society. Historian Neil Price recently proposed in an article for National Geographic that Viking Age Scandinavian society was set up more like the plantation system in the Southern U.S. states before the American Civil War than anything else.

“This was a slave economy,” Price explains. “Slavery has received hardly any attention in the past 30 years, but now we have opportunities using archaeological tools to change this.”

Due to the inequalities of Viking Age Scandinavian societies, the more prosperous and healthier members of the community would have grown taller than their servants and slaves. Also to note is the fact that the Vikings had to import slaves to meet the demands of their farming system, so there was a lot of intermixing of populations going on that could have affected heights.

Another point to note is defining what the word Viking means, what the word describes, and how that might affect how we interpret the findings. If we use the word Viking to describe all Scandinavians of the Viking Age, then the sources and evidence discussed above make sense and satisfactorily answer our question. However, if we restrict our meaning of the word Viking to only those who left and roved foreign lands, we will find the above discussion lacking in every respect.

The Takeaway.

We only have the evidence we have. Many factors can influence a population’s height, and considering the geographical dispersal of Viking Age Scandinavia’s people and the period separating the first Vikings to the last, it’s hard to say definitively what their average height was. What we can say through archaeological evidence is that Vikings were probably not taller or shorter than their southern neighbors. We can also say that, similar to other European countries, the men and women of Viking Age Scandinavia were shorter on average than the people who live there today.

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How Fast Were Viking Longships?

In The Two Lives of Charlemagne, by the biographer Notker the Stammerer, we encounter a deeply troubled Charlemagne who witnessed an unusual event in southern France. A fleet of Northmen sailed up the coast to raid but, seeing a garrison of Franks stationed where they had hoped to strike, they fled. The Franks sent a fleet to pursue them, but they could not match the Northmen’s speed. Notker tells us Charlemagne recognized the imminent threat of the Vikings on his empire when he said, “I do not fear that these bandits will do me any harm; I am sick at heart to think that, even in my lifetime, they dared to attack this coast, and I am horror-stricken when I think of the harm they will do to my descendants and their subjects.”

Already in his lifetime, we learn that the Vikings’ longships had a reputation for sailing much faster than those of the Franks. The longship was an innovation that struck terrible fear in the hearts of their victims, and it has become one of the leading symbols for the Viking Age. Yet, for all the contemporary testimonies about their speed, historians and archeologists struggled for a long time to determine how fast a longship might have sailed. Not until modern reconstructions put their theories to the test did they manage to estimate longship speeds, and even then there are factors that may have affected speed for which they cannot account.

The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, has built five reproduction longships based on those they have found in recent years, and they have put them all to the test. Theirs is one of the most educational efforts to assess the speed with which the Vikings might have sailed. Below are the four best longships among the five they’ve reconstructed, and the information the museum lists about them on their website:

Skuldelev 1 – The Ocean-Going Trader

Skuldelev 1
Ottar: Skuldelev 1. Photo Credit: The Viking Ship Museum.

Skuldelev 1 is a sizeable ocean-going cargo ship from Sogne􏰁ord in western Norway. The vessel is built of heavy pine planks and has a rounded form that gives it a high loading capacity and exceptional seaworthiness on the North Atlantic. It was repeatedly repaired with oak in Norway and Denmark. The ocean-going trader could have sailed all over the North Sea and the Baltic as well as in the North Atlantic. The ship and its cargo may have been owned by a chieftain or by a group of merchants sailing it on trading expeditions. The vessel had decks fore and aft as well as an open hold.

  • Age: ca 1030
  • Length: 15.84 meters Breadth: 4.8 meters
  • No. of oars: 2-4
  • Crew: 6-8 men
  • Sail area: 90 m2
  • Average speed: 5-7 knots Top speed: ca 13 knots

Skuldelev 2 – The Great Longship

Skuldelev 2
The Sea Stallion from Glendalough: Skuldelev 2. Photo Credit: The Viking Ship Museum.

Skuldelev 2 is a warship built to carry warriors at high speed from place to place. With a crew of 65-70 men, it was a ship owned by a chieftain or king, like those evoked in the sagas. Tree-ring analysis of the timber shows that the ship was built in the mid-10th century, and was likely used to ferry soldiers across long distances such as to England, Ireland, and France.

  • Age: ca 1042
  • Length: approx. 30 meters Breadth: 3.8 meters
  • No. of oars: 60
  • Crew: 65-70 men
  • Sail area: 112 m2
  • Average speed: 6-8 knots Top speed: 13-17 knots

Skuldelev 3 – The Coastal Trader

Skuldelev 3
Roar Ege: Skuldelev 3. Photo Credit: The Viking Ship Museum.

Skuldelev 3 is a small, elegant, and sturdy trading ship built for carrying goods across Danish coastal waters and throughout the Baltic. The vessel is the best preserved of the five Viking ships found in the Roskilde Fjord and was built with Danish oak. It had decks of loose planks fore and aft and an open hold with room for about 4 tons of cargo. The ship may have been used when the owner and his associates or family traveled to a market or meetings at the assembly.

The wind was the most important means of powering the ship, but the oars could be used when maneuvering or when traveling short distances in calm weather.

  • Age: ca 1040
  • Length: 14 meters Breadth: 3.3 meters
  • No. of oars: 5
  • Crew: 5-8 men
  • Sail area: 45 m2
  • Average speed: 4-5 knots Top speed: 8-10 knots

Skuldelev 5 – The Small Longship

Skuldelev 5
Helge Ask: Skuldelev 5. Photo Credit: The Viking Ship Museum.

Skuldelev 5 is one of the smallest longships and was likely used as part of a war fleet. It was ideal for sailing in Danish coastal waters and through the short, choppy waves of the Baltic. Unlike the other Skuldelev ships, it was built using both new wood and recycled timber. A few years before the ship sunk, it was repaired with both new and recycled wood. We do not know how old the ship is exactly, but researchers think it was likely used for a long time and repurposed many times over its life.

  • Breadth: 2.5 meters
  • No. of oars: 26
  • Crew: 30 men
  • Sail area: 46 m2
  • Average speed: 6-7 knots Top speed: 15 knots

Draken Harald Harfagre

Construction of the 35 m long Skeid longship Draken Harald Hårfagre
Construction of the 35 m long Skeid longship Draken Harald Hårfagre

The Draken Harald Hårfagre is the largest reconstruction ever made and has sailed across the Atlantic as far as New York. The project was meant to create a ship that adhered to the descriptions of the largest longships found in the sagas with the building techniques discovered in actual burial ships. The website for the Draken Harald Hårfagre warns, “Draken Harald Hårfagre is a clinker-built Viking longship. She is not a replica of a known ship, she is a reconstruction of what the Norse Sagas refer to as a “Great ship.” Knowledge of history, and especially the Norse sagas, archeological findings and Norwegian boatbuilding traditions combined created the world’s largest Viking ship sailing in modern times.”

It is essential to understand that this ship is not the best source for understanding the speed of the longships of the Viking Age because she is not a replica of a known ship, and is much larger than any of the ships ever found. However, the experiment has shown us a profound trend: bigger does not equal faster. The top speed recorded for the Draken Harald Hårfagre is 14 knots, a full three knots shy of the Skudelev 2’s top speed. While an impressive ship, its size negatively affects its top speed and maneuverability.

How fast did Longships sail?

C.J. Adrien in front of a Longship
Hey, that’s me in front of a longship!

How Fast Did Viking Longships Sail? While modern replicas offer us good evidence for the top speeds of Viking longships, it remains a debatable subject. Replicas have topped 17 knots in ideal weather, but most sail in the 8-12 knot range. Some historians have proposed ships built in the Viking Age may have reached 24-25 knots, but no modern replica, to my knowledge, has attained such speeds. Considering speeds of 24-25 knots are extremely difficult and rare even for modern sailboats, as well as sailboats with two hulls, it is highly unlikely Viking longships reached such speeds. 8-12 knots is not a slow pace, particularly when compared with the much slower Carolingian cogs. What we can say for certain is that longships were significantly fast than other ships of their day, and may have been comparable to modern sail boats in speed, but they would not have broken any modern speed records.

The Viking Raid at Lindisfarne: Who Attacked the Monastery?

It was an event that shook the Christian world to its core. So traumatic was its destruction that historians have agreed it should mark the official beginning of the Viking Age, even though it was not the first violence the British Isles experienced at the hands of the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records ‘terrible portents’ to the raid at Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. Located on Holy Island in the far north of England, it is written that the monastery saw powerful storms on the eve of the Vikings’ arrival.

Who Attacked Lindisfarne?

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes:

“793. Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were period flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs, and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter.”

The speed at which the Vikings are said to have arrived caught the monks completely by surprise. Reconstructions in past years have estimated that on a clear day a ship might only be seen as far as 18 nautical miles, a little over an hour’s journey for a longship with the wind at its back. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, the Vikings neither arrived on a clear day nor did the monks appear to have had an hour to flee.

The monk Alcuin, a leading theologian of his day who was from York but resided at the court of Charlemagne, wrote a reply to his colleague Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne to lament the event. The letter from Higbald to Alcuin, which we believe described the raid in detail, has not survived to today, so Alcuin’s reply is all we have to know what exactly happened. In his letter he wrote:

“We and our fathers have now lived in this fair land for nearly three hundred and fifty years, and never before has such an atrocity been seen in Britain as we have now suffered at the hands of a pagan people. Such a voyage was not thought possible. The church of St. Cuthbert is spa􏰀ered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishings, exposed to the plundering of pagans – a place more sacred than any in Britain.”

Alcuin’s description lends to the idea that the clergy at Lindisfarne did little to flee their attackers. It may have been that the Vikings arrived so suddenly that the monks had no time to prepare at all. That Higbald survived the attack, however, tells us the raid was not an outright massacre, and at least some of the monks escaped and survived. 

Alcuin’s letter, although useful in piecing together the events of the raid on Lindisfarne, offers nothing in regards to who it was who carried out the attack. Perhaps Higbald’s letter contained more information that may have given us more clues, but we are not so lucky as to have his letter. The question remains: who were the men who raided the island? Where did they come from?

Were the Vikings at Lindisfarne from Denmark?

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists an entry from the year 787 A.D., six years before Lindisfarne, describing ‘Danes’ who arrived at the port of Portland. It recounts a brief encounter in which the port authority was killed for attempting to levy a tax on “Danish men”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reads:

“A.D., 787. This year King Bertric took Edburga the daughter of Offa to wife. And in his days came first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers. The
Reve then rode thereto and would drive them to the king’s town; for he knew not what they were, and there was he slain. These were the first ships of the Danish men that sought the land of the English nation.”

The entry tells us the Danes had begun to eye the British Isles as early as six years before the raid at Lindisfarne. Given their proximity, and their relationship with Christendom, it would make sense the Danes attacked the monastery in 793.

The political climate between the Danes and the Carolingians may have also played a part in inciting the first raid. In 792 A.D. Emperor Charlemagne moved to suppress a Saxon rebellion under the leadership of a man named Widukind. His action was decisive and bloody. During the battle on the banks of the Elbe River, the Franks captured thousands of Saxon prisoners. As a means to send a message to the rest of the region, Charlemagne ordered the prisoners to be baptized in the river. There, the priests recited their benedictions as the Frankish soldiers held their victims underwater until they drowned.

The event, known as the “The Massacre of Verdun” was entirely in line with Charlemagne’s tactics to subdue pagan tribes. Widukind, the leader of the Saxons, was brother in law to the king of the Danes, Sigfred. News of the massacre undoubtedly reached the Danish court, and word of Charlemagne’s acts of violence would have spread across Scandinavia. It was yet another brutal, violent display of power by the Carolingians, the latest in a long series spanning decades.

From what historians can tell from the sources, Danish raids along the coast of Frisia intensified almost immediately after the massacre, leading to an infamous attack on Dorestad in 810, to which Charlemagne supposedly bore witness, if we are to believe the account given by the chronicler Einhart in his biography Two Lives of Charlemagne. Lindisfarne may have been a target during this time precisely because of its importance in the Christian world. A source about the attack by the twelfth century English chronicler Simeon of Durham, who drew from lost Northumbrian annals, described the events at Lindisfarne with precise details:

“And they came to the church at Lindisfarne, laid everything to waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasure of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fe􏰀ers, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea…

Some historians have taken this last passage to mean that the Vikings purposefully took priests to the water to drown them to make the point that they were retaliating against the encroachment of Christendom on Denmark. Other historians have disputed this as mere coincidence. If true, it might mean that the men who attacked Lindisfarne were indeed from Denmark.

Were the Vikings at Lindisfarne from Norway?

The evidence that leads historians to consider Norwegians were the ones to raid Lindisfarne resides in Alcuin’s letter to Higbald. In it, he writes that the raid was a product of, “a voyage not thought possible.” Danes had already traveled to the British Isles, and so the implication from Alcuin is that the heathens who sacked the monastery had traveled from much farther away.

A late 10th-century chronicler named Aethelweard, who drew from lost contemporary documents, added an additional clue to the mystery. He suggested the men who arrived at the port of Portland in 787 introduced themselves as men from Halogaland, in Norway. His suggestion contradicts the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which described the visitors in Portland as Danish men, but we must remember both histories were written long after the fact. Which chronicle is right? It is difficult to say, but Aethelweard is widely considered unreliable as a source due to the strange and often incomprehensible structure of his Latin. Therefore, most historians lean toward believing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle over Aethelweard’s Chronicon.

An Enduring Mystery

Although there is some light evidence to suggest it was either Danes or Norwegians who raided Lindisfarne, it is impossible to know for sure who carried out the attack. It just as easily could have been a church conspiracy – an inside job – to incriminate the ‘heathens’ for a barbaric act to spur more considerable efforts to convert Scandinavia. One could say that Alcuin’s inconsistencies, such as his assertion that “such a voyage was not thought possible,” despite knowing that Northmen had already visited Portland, point to a cover-up and overt effort to demonize them. Perhaps Alcuin, who was residing in Charlemagne’s court at the time, was the architect of a political hit job, and Lindisfarne was actually sacked by Frankish raiders under his orders – all so he could convince Charlemagne of the need to invade Jutland and force their conversion as had been done in Saxony.

Of course the ‘inside job’ narrative is ridiculous, but it’s useful insofar as it showcases the nature of the study of the Vikings. Many of the significant events that marked that time period – even well-documented and ubiquitously known events such as the raid at Lindisfarne – are based on extremely light evidence and sparse, often unreliable primary sources. Therefore, in answer to the question of who attacked Lindisfarne, all we can really say is it was probably Danes, maybe Norwegians, but ultimately we do not and cannot know for sure.

As always, check out my selected bibliography for further reading.