Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kings, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William the Bastard who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


Related links

Related reviews

Cnut: England’s Viking King by M.K. Lawson (1993)

In all, the scarcity of contemporary material is such that Cnut’s personality and many of his activities will remain forever unknown. (p.79)

This is a challenging book to read. Right from the first page of the introduction Lawson assumes you already know the outline of the historical events leading up to and during the reign of King Cnut of England and Denmark (1016-1035), and instead plunges into a very detailed discussion of the evidence from different sources, not only for the various events covered in the book but for the numerous issues and controversies about the period.

Thus the text overwhelmingly consists of very finely tuned assessments of conflicting sources for the period such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which survives in 5 significantly varying versions), contemporary documents such as Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Battle of Brunanburgh describing Athelstan’s victory of 937, The Battle of Maldon describing a Viking victory in 991), sermons notably by the fierce archbishop of York Wulfstan, writs, charters and legal documents, two letters from Cnut himself, slightly later historians in England (Henry of Huntingdon, John of Worcester, William of Malmesbury) in Germany (Adam of Bremen, Thietmar of Merseberg) in Normandy (William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers) in Denmark (Saxo Grammaticus, Swegen Aggeson), Norse poetry embedded in the much later Icelandic sagas (written down in the mid-1200s) and so on and so on – all garnished with a forest of notes which themselves reference other scholarly writings and discussions about each of these issues and cruxes.

Most histories present you with a fairly straightforward and smooth-flowing narrative, maybe mentioning one or two places where the sources disagree. This book takes you behind the scenes of history, as it were, to show you the jungle of texts, the wreckage of what happened to be written down, what happened to survive the centuries, which the conscientious historian has to wrestle with — almost all of them biased and distorted by their non-historical purposes – hagiographies to praise saints, various versions of the A-S Chronicle slanted to praise the scribe’s monastery or benefactors, the Encomium Emmae written to praise Cnut’s wife Emma and her sons.

We have a reasonable number of charters from the period – documents officially assigning land from the king or rich patrons, generally to a religious foundation – except that, as Lawson points out, many of them are probably forgeries concocted by the said foundation to justify rights to land which were customary or lost in the mists of time. (With characteristic thoroughness, Lawson has an appendix naming every one of the royal charters issued during Cnut’s reign, along with date and location, and a second appendix explaining in detail the format in which writs and charters have survived.)

So the sources not only routinely disagree about the most basic facts – like the year in which a battle took place – they are almost all biased, deliberately omitting major events or exaggerate minor ones, names even major names like Sweyn/Swegen/Sven are routinely garbled, a high percentage of the documents may be faked, and most of the reporting was based on hearsay, often decades sometimes centuries, after the event.

The result of Lawson’s detailed investigations is probably the definitive account of Cnut’s reign, but very unlike a normal history book: instead of a smooth and comprehensible narrative the text is entirely made up of scholarly detective work, of the subtle balancing of sources against each other, weighing their probable veracity or inaccuracy on each point against three or four or five other accounts, which are themselves suspect for reasons Lawson explains exhaustively.

And the conclusion of all this effort is quite dispiriting: Cnut’s reign is one of the worst documented of any king of England:

The inadequacies of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the surviving charters, even when supplemented by such other fragments as the skaldic poetry and the Letters of 1019-20 and 1027, make it impossible to construct a decent chronology of his reign. (p.79)

So this is not a popular history – although it sheds some unexpected lights on the period, I kept being surprised at the way he mentions what seem to be major events very casually, only in passing, as a side effect of his far more intense interest in the trustworthiness of this charter or that chronicle or the Icelandic poem on the matter, and so on. This isn’t a book for the general reader: I assume it is aimed at undergraduate level or above.

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae)

Queen Emma and King Cnut present a gold cross to the New Minster, Winchester (from the New Minster Liber Vitae). Note the angel crowning Cnut. Note his hand on his sword. Heavenly and earthly power combined.

Events up to and including the reign of King Cnut the Great

The Saxon kings of Wessex – Alfred the Great (871-899), Edward the Elder (899-924) and Athelstan (924-927), Edgar (943-975) – spent their careers trying to hold repeated waves of invading Danes/Vikings at bay. Despite setbacks, Alfred just about held on then pushed the Danes back and secured the territory of Wessex i.e. the west England, during the 880s. His successors through the first third of the 10th century pushed the Danes out of England, until Athelstan could pronounce himself – and be seen by his contemporaries as – the first King of All England by the 920s.

The reign of Athelstan’s nephew, King Edgar the Peaceful (959-975) is seen as the ‘high noon’ of Anglo-Saxon monarchy. But Edgar died aged only 31, leaving the nation to his son, Aethelred, who was only 11 or 12. Aethelred became known to history as Aethelred the Unready because he was totally unsuited to being a king, combining arbitrary cruelty against the helpless with craven cowardice before the powerful.

During his long chaotic reign (978-1013) the nobles of England were hopelessly divided and a new generation of Vikings made their appearance and ravaged the coastlines of England without pity. Unable to muster a strong army, Aethelred fell back time and again to paying the Vikings off with ever-increasing ransoms – the so-called Danegeld – bleeding the country dry to extract all the goods, silver and coin he could muster in order to fill the Danish ships which sailed home every autumn full of English goods, slaves and treasure.

Among the leaders of the new wave of attackers, which escalated through the 990s, may or may not have been Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark (this is the kind of academic question Lawson goes into in great detail – Lawson refers to Sweyn as Swegen thoughout), but Sweyn/Swegen certainly led an plundering raid in 1003, along with his teenage son, Cnut, and almost ever year for a decade. These temporary raids for plunder escalated until, in 1013, Sweyn embarked on a planned invasion, ravaging across the East of England before seizing London. Aethelred was forced to flee England, taking refuge with his brother-in-law, Duke Richard I of Normandy (Aethelred was married to Duke Richard’s sister, Emma) and Sweyn declared himself King. A surprisingly large number of English nobles were happy to acquiesce in his enthronement.

But then Sweyn died unexpectedly after just a year in power, in 1014. The Danish magnates acclaimed his son, Cnut, their king and ruler, but the English nobles asked Aethelred to return from exile in Normandy, although under strict conditions (which for some historians marks the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects). Aethelred landed and marched an unusually unified English force against the Danes, catching Cnut unprepared, who decided it was wisest to sail back to Denmark – not least to assert his authority there as Sweyn’s successor to the Danish throne. Aethelred was restored.

But in 1015 Cnut returned with a well-organised force to find Aethelred, as usual, in disarray, with his own eldest son, Edmund Ironside, having rebelled against him.

When Cnut began ravaging across the country in late 1015, Edmund rejoined his father to oppose the Danes, but Aethelred died in April 1016. Cnut then decisively defeated Edmund at the gory Battle of Assundun on 18 October 1016, in which large numbers of English nobles were slaughtered.

Cnut and Edmund made a peace treaty, the latter retaining kingship of Wessex, while Cnut took the rest of England (a carbon copy of the situation under King Alfred 130 years previously) but when Edmund himself died soon afterwards, either of wounds or illness later that year, Cnut declared himself King of All England. Since he was also King of Denmark and part of Norway, historians refer to this as the Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire.

Cnut ruled England from 1016 until his death in 1035. He married Aethelred’s widow, Emma, a shrewd move to consolidate an alliance with Emma’s brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, and also to deprive her sons by Aethelred of support for an invasion attempt from Normandy.

When he died, Cnut was succeeded by his son by an English woman, his first wife or mistress Aelfgifu – Harold I or Harold Harefoot – who ruled for five years until his death in 1040. At which point Cnut’s young son by Emma of Normandy, Harthacnut, having needed several years to establish himself as Cnut’s successor in Denmark, arrived in England and peacefully claimed his throne.

However, Harthacnut turned out to be a cruel and tyrannical king, even by the standards of the times, imposing ruinous punishments – for example ordering entire towns to be burned to the ground if they refused to pay taxes – and it was a relief to everyone when he died after only two years’ reign, and was succeeded by Edward, soon to be known as ‘the Confessor’.

It was during Edward’s reign that the earl of Essex, Godwin, and his son Harold Godwinson, asserted their power, along with his brothers becoming the most powerful family in England. Edward failed to have any children, and appears, while in exile in the Norman court, to have given some kind of promise to William Duke of Normandy that he would inherit the English throne. This was the tangled web which led – at his death in 1066 – to the open conflict between Harold Godwinson and Duke William for the throne of England, which climaxed in the Battle of Hastings – and the long, complex history of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England came to an abrupt end.

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

The combat of Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Dane (right) as depicted by the medieval author Matthew Paris

Issues

So much for the bare outline of events. In fact the reader of this book has to piece together a lot of this themselves because Lawson’s main interest, as I’ve explained, is much more a textual analysis of surviving sources, than in writing a spuriously smooth narrative. The entire 200-page book is divided into just five chapters and one of them is devoted solely to ‘The Sources’, but in fact the other four are just as scholarly, tentative, hedged around with reservations and qualifications.

But from the welter of notes and debates over the precise sequence of transcription of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C version, and so on, emerge some rather more comprehensible ideas.

  • Aethelred has a bad reputation for dithering, for not facing up to Danish attacks and for shamefully bleeding the country dry to pay off the invaders: but Lawson points out that the cost of raising levies and arming them might well have been more i.e. Danegeld was the cheapest option. Also, that it’s only in retrospect that we know that they kept coming back for more – at the time, it may have been hoped that a few payments and promises would make them go away for good.
  • I knew that Cnut’s kingship of England created an Anglo-Scandinavian or North Sea Empire. Lawson brings out the implication of this, though which is that, in an age of perpetual warfare of all against all, that meant he had not so much to rule a far-flung empire as continually worry about all the threats on the borders of that empire: i.e. he had to be aware of potential threats from the Scots, the Irish Vikings, the Welsh, the Normans, the Franks, the (German) Holy Roman Emperor, from Norway, Sweden, and from the Slavic peoples east of the Elbe including the Poles. Explains why both his grandfather Gorm the Old and father Sweyn took Slavic consorts, to protect their eastern flank.
  • In 1017 Cnut, settling into his domain, divided England into four parts, keeping Wessex for himself, giving East Anglis to the independent warlord Thirkell the Tall, Mercia to Eadric, and Northumbria to the Norwegian earl Eric of Lade, to reward these strong allies in his invading army and to impose a military government. The comparison with William the Bastard parcelling out England to his followers 50 years later is striking. Unlike William, though, Cnut seems to have embarked on the elimination of powerful native nobles, having Eadred (who had, incidentally, overthrown the father of Aelfgifu, Cnut’s English wife) beheaded, along – in some accounts – with a number of other leading nobles. Combined with the loss of life at Assundun this amounts to a little holocaust of leading figures. Poor England!
  • The Viking Age in England started with the attack on the remote monastery of Lindisfarne in 793 and only ended with the crushing defeat of the invasion force of Harald Hardrada, defeated by the mighty Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford bridge outside York in 1066. 273 long years of seemingly endless raids, ravaging, plundering and enslavement, which climaxed in the 20 year rule of a Danish king. Odd that this is so often overlooked in the long sweep of English history.

Ravaging and destruction

The scale of the ravaging can’t be imagined. The abbey of Tavistock was burned down in 997, Cerne destroyed, St Mary’s church Exeter was burnt down on 1003, the nunnery at Minster-in-Thanet was burnt down. Christ Church Canterbry was burnt down and the archbishop clubbed to death in 1012. Apart from the massacre of Saxon nobles at the Battle of Assundun, Cnut then executed a number of leading nobles along with their followers. The Danes spent 3 months in 1010 burning East Anglia, killing all the men and cattle they could get their hands on. the young Cnut, forced out of England at Aethelstan’s return in 1014, cut off the hands, noses and ears of the hostages the Saxon nobles had given to him. Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, incensed by the murder of two of his tax inspectors in Worcester, ordered his army to destroy as much of the buildings and kill every man they could find in Worcestershire in 1042. When you consider that Aethelstan repeatedly taxed the nation to within an inch of its life, to extract the repeated payments of Danegeld, combined with the ceaseless harrying, raids, plundering and murdering along any part of the coast, this was a prolonged period when the country was on its knees.

No wonder contemporary writers were so bitter, angry and think the world is coming to an end. Brihtferth of Ramsey in his Life of St Oswald, describes the Danes as accursed, and accomplices of Beelzebub. Archbishop Wulfstan’s famous Sermo Lupi (Sermon of the Wolf) paints a searing portrait of a society in complete moral and physical collapse, and the imminent conquest of the country with the reign of the Anti-Christ.

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned, from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066

Hic domus incenditur (Here a house is burned) from the Bayeux Tapestry describing the Norman Conquest 1066, showing men under orders burning a wooden house from which are fleeing a woman and her son. Could be Vietnam. Could be Syria.

England endures

The astonishing thing, though all this mayhem, is the point Lawson makes and so do Marc Morris and David Carpenter, which is that England didn’t fall into chaos, real chaos. Trade continued; taxes were collected; men were drafted into armies; church rents continued to be administered, charters issued and so on.

In fact all the charters, writs and tax returns which Lawson so scrupulously sifts through indicate the continuation of a large amount of central administration and legal writ. Deeper than the destruction is the underlying fact that England was a very wealthy country with an efficient and thorough administrative system before the Danes invaded – a system created by the Wessex kings Alfred, Athelstan, Edgar. This proved solid and resilient enough to survive thirty years of ravaging by the Danes (986-1016), the complete conquest by Cnut, the brief but intensely destructive activity of his son Harthacnut (1040-42), and then the systematic ravaging of the south-east by William the Bastard after his victory at Hastings (1066), followed by the horrific Harrying of the North to put down rebels in 1070, which left Yorkshire in ruins for a generation. But still it endured.

Conclusions

From Lawson’s conclusion, and from the book as a whole, three things emerged for me:

  1. Cnut was, by the standards of his day, the most successful of all pre-Conquest rulers in Britain‘ (p.196). Not only did he rule all of England with some kind of overlordship over the king of Scotland but he was lord of Denmark and Norway, too; and he married his daughter to the Holy Roman Emperor, creating a blood alliance only Aethelstan among his predecessors had managed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention the outlawing and beheading of a small number of really important nobles, but otherwise his rule doesn’t seem to have been marked by the kind of civil wars which blighted his predecessor and would mar the reign of so many of the Plantagenet kings a century later. Above all, he succeeded in what contemporaries considered the number one obligation of a king – he protected the realm from foreign invasion and raids. All this without the imposition of castles everywhere and the wholescale replacement of the English nobility with his own followers, which is of course what William the Bastard did. So whose conquest was more effective in its day, William’s or Cnut’s? Discuss.
  2. Contingency In fact, what Cnut and none of his contemporaries could have anticipated was that he himself would die relatively young (we don’t actually know his birth year, and Lawson – in his usual thorough way explicates several conflicting theories – but 990 is a popular calculation, so he was, perhaps, 45 when he died in 1035) and that all three of his sons – Sweyn (d.1035) and Harold Harefoot (d.1040) by Aelfgifu – and Harthacnut (d.1042) by Emma of Normandy – would be dead within seven years. Had Cnut lived to 60 like the Conqueror, and had his children reigned similar lengths as the Conqueror’s children (William Rufus 13 years, Henry 1 35 years!) i.e. a total of 48 years i.e. until 1083, then in all probability neither Edward the Confessor, nor Harold Godwinson, nor William the Conqueror would ever have ruled – the Norman Conquest would never have happened! But all three of his male children died in quick succession and the kingship of England reverted to the line of Wessex, to the Confessor, whose failure to have any children, let alone a male heir, turned out to be fatal.
  3. The Viking Age Lawson, like other historians says that the Viking Age came to a definitive end with the crushing defeat of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, by the army of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. But a section of his conclusion slightly contradicts this. For in 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to assist Saxon rebels against the Conqueror; in 1070 this force was joined by Swegen Estrithsson of Denmark, Cnut’s nephew, who was met by people apparently hoping he would conquer the entire country, as his uncle had. In fact William bought Swegen off (just like Aethelred) but another fleet, under Swegen’s son, another Cnut, arrived to support a further rebellion in 1075. They decided against an armed confrontation with William, withdrew and sailed home. But even as late as 1085 William was, apparently, making careful preparations to deal with another invasion Cnut was threatening but in the event never mounted. In other words, it sounds to me as if the Battle of Stamford Bridge didn’t really end the Viking threat, which continued, by Lawson’s own account, to be serious and taken seriously for another 20 years. So surely more as if it slowly petered out rather than abruptly and definitively ended.

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In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


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The Lewis Chessman by James Robinson

The British Museum published a dozen or so ‘Objects in focus’ books, short paperbacks (60 pages) focusing on one specific object from their vast collection (of some 8 million artefacts). Subjects include the Franks Casket, the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Rosetta Stone etc.

This one is devoted to the Lewis chessmen, 78 small (10cm high) chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory sometime in the 12th century. They were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and chapter one tells the obscure story of their discovery and sale in Edinburgh and London. The actual finder, supposedly a local peasant, is never interviewed, instead various collectors and antiquaries generated improbable and conflicting accounts of their provenance and discovery.

Number

What is certain is that there are in existence 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen (flat discs with a hole in the middle) and one belt buckle. 82 pieces are owned by the British Museum in London, and the other 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Origin

They’re Scandinavian in origin, but from where? The most popular theory is that they come from Trondheim in Norway because Trondheim was one of the centres of the essentially Scandinavian trade in walrus tusks from further north in the Arctic circle or from overseas in Greenland. As such it was home to a number of walrus-ivory carving workshops.

So what were they doing buried on a beach in the Outer Hebrides? We’ll never know, but an educated guess is that they were temporarily hidden there by a merchant taking them to sell in part of what was then the network of Scandinavian kingdoms and earldoms stretching from Norway across the mainland and islands of northern Scotland, to Iceland in the north and Ireland in the south.

The kings The eight kings all sit on square thrones, hold swords in both hands, have long braided hair and patriarchal beards although two of them, surprisingly, are clean shaven.

The queens The eight queens sit on similar square thrones, their hair covered by lace-like drapery, holding their chins in their right hand, cupping the right elbow with their left hand – is this a stylised gesture of throughtfulness and wisdom? Whatever it is, it’s not uniform as two aren’t i that pose, instead holding a drinking horn.

The bishops Sixteen bishops, seven sitting on thrones, nine standing. All the standing bishops hold croziers and their full-frontal depiction helps date the pieces to after 1150 when this way of representing bishops came in. Also, surprisingly, no earlier known representation of the bishop in the game of chess survives. The arrival of the bishop in the game coincides with a surge in worldly power of bishops in the real world, epitomised by the conflict between Henry I and Thomas Becket (martyred 1170) in England, and warrior bishops who fought in the Third Crusade (1189-92).

The knights The fifteen knights sit on shaggy little ponies and hold kite-shaped shields in their left arms. Apparently, the range of arms, armour and equipment they carry has been a useful source of information on 12th century warfare.

The warders There are twelve warders, or rooks, wearing conical helmets and holding shields in their left hands, swords in their right. Three of the BM warders are biting the tops of their shields in the gesture described in contemporary texts as characteristic of berserkers, Norse warriors who whipped themselves up into a psychopathic frenzy before battle. Grettir fights one in the Norse saga, Grettir the Strong.

The pawns The 19 pawns are simple geometric salt cellar shapes.

The book goes on to describe the spread of chess from its origins in India into Persia and on into the Muslim world which, in the early Middle Ages included not only the Middle East and north African coast, but Sicily and most of Spain. It was probably through cultural interaction in these centres that chess spread north through Spain and into France, and up through Italy and across the Alps.

The Indian game consisted of four pieces: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry. Rukh was the Persian for chariot, which morphed into our castle. The bishop, who first appears in these pieces, was previously known as the ‘prince’ and, in the original Indian game, ‘the elephant’.

The existence of chess in the West in the 11th century is evidenced by a number of texts, including the 11th century poem Ruodlieb, in which a knightly guest is challenged to a series of games by his king host. The book mentions wills in which various rulers left their sets to religious houses, but in fact the Church had a big problem with chess as a time-consuming distraction from religious contemplation and made repeated attempts to ban it. On the other hand some writers thought the ability to play chess as one of the skills necessary to the elegant courtier. The book quotes texts from the 1100s and 1200s to bring out the pros and cons of what seems to have been a burning issue of the day.

I also learned that the heyday of carving in walrus tusk was from the 11th to the 13th centuries. It expanded to fill a gap in the market caused by the decline of elephant tusk imports, no-one is sure why, maybe because of conflict with the Muslim world. So while it lasted, the walrus ivory trade provided economic underpinning to the Viking settlement of Greenland (settled 985, flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries). When elephant ivory again became accessible during the 13th century, the walrus trade fell off, possibly contributing the economic decline of the Greenland settlement which was abandoned in the 1400s.

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Vikings: Life and Legend @ the British Museum

This spring’s blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum is a massive one about the Vikings, the first show on the subject since 1980. It’s an international affair, mounted in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It is wonderfully comprehensive, covering almost every theme or element you can image including trade patterns, coins and precious objects, religion and idols, war and weapons, homes and domestic arrangements, and the legacy of placenames and language.

Background

My experience was heavily influence by two readings of Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross. What makes that book so pleasurable is his willingness to lay out the (often ambiguous and obscure) evidence, explain the different interpretations historians have put on it, and leave us to make our own minds up. Thus he shows that the start and the end point of the ‘Viking age’ depends which country you’re talking about and a number of other factors, for example defining at what stage Scandinavian leaders ceased to be raider-chieftains and became something like what we mean by ‘kings’ – a pretty grey area.

In England the Viking Age probably starts with the famous attack on the mainland, at Lindisfarne in 793, and lasts until the defeat of King Harald Hardrada (Hard-Ruler) who attempted to recapture the Kingdom of York and was defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 – a date generally more familiar from the battle Harold then had to fight a few weeks later down on the south coast, and which didn’t turn out so well. In Ireland they date the end to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In Normandy the start and end points are different again. And so on.

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. (Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark)

The exhibition cuts through these and other problems/issues/enjoyable quibbles by defining the The Viking Age as 800–1050. Similarly, they boldly define the word ‘viking’ – which Ferguson spends pages explaining is obscure and has a variety of possible meanings and derivations – in the traditional way as meaning pirate or raider.

I can see the practical need to define terms and set clear parameters, but the exhibition sometimes skims over issues. It is very broad, covering all aspects of life and trade and war and domestic arrangements and boat-building and burials and gods and farm design and building projects and politics: but sometimes feels a little light, lacking follow-up on themes just as you’re starting to get interested. Then again, that’s what the shop is for, providing plenty of resources to investigate further, including the  weighty catalogue and many history books like Ferguson’s. It can be seen as a very comprehensive taster.

Images

The exhibition largely consists of objects and artefacts, most of them small, many of them coins and brooches etc. By contrast with these small objects (which are frequently difficult to see because of the crowds – this exhibition is PACKED), the most memorable images for me were a series of stunning photos of the Vikings’ stomping-grounds and locations.

A wonderful video in an early room held me spellbound as it traced the routes of Viking expeditions across the North Sea, to Iceland and Greenland, round France to Spain, across the Baltic and down the Russian rivers to the Black Sea etc – and for each route brought up large and beautifully composed photos of, for example, a carved cross in Ireland, the site of the settlement in Greenland, the steppes of Ukraine, a beaver dam in Poland, which conveyed more than anything else the physical geography, and therefore the mental and imaginative terrain, these people inhabited. These photos are almost works of art in themselves!

Network and Empire

For one major emphasis of the exhibition is on the trading aspects of Viking culture, on the amazingly farflung nature of its communications and commerce, so that silver dirhams from Baghdad are found in ship burials in Iceland etc. Thus the Vale of York trove is displayed in its entirety (and the main affect on me was surprise at how small a space such a famous haul amounts to: it looked like it could all fit into a cereal bowl).

Photo of the Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver. (British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York. Copyright of he Trustees of the British Museum)

There’s another interesting thread running through the exhibition explaining how Viking artefacts show the influence of designs from Anglo-Saxon England or from the Frankish empire, explaining in detail how slightly differing designs can help both date and locate objects, scholars are now so expert in regional variations and styles.

Objects

Case after case displayed the kinds of objects you associate with archaeology: coins and brooches and pins and combs and pots (interestingly, in their home territory they had no pottery but used carved stone or wood), rings and bracelets and necklets made from silver or gold.

I particularly liked the objects which had runes carved into them – for example, the Christian reliquary which had runes naming the new heathen owner is evocative of raids and pillage and the great culture clash which Ferguson puts at the heart of the Viking story, between literate Christians and illiterate pagans.

Photo of a carved Odin figure

Odin or volva figure, 800-1050. Lejre, Zealand, Denmark. Silver with niello. (Photo Ole Malling. Copyright of the Roskilde Museum)

The boat

The exhibition publicity gives pride of place to a huge longboat which dominates the final, enormous room. That’s true and not true: certainly the exhibition leads through half a dozen normal sized rooms into a massive bay or airplane hangar of a space and fitting almost the entire length is the metal frame of a vast longboat.

Photo of the Roskilde 6 boat

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered. The thirty-seven meter long warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century. (Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.)

This warship is one of a series found at Roskilde in Denmark and now labelled Roskilde 6. A hundred and twenty feet long with forty oars to each side, you see it from a viewing platform slightly above, and then, as you walk along the side, it looms larger and larger, until you are on ground level next to its keel and experience a powerful feeling of just how strong the rowers must have been, how fast and sleek it must have moved through the water, how terrified anyone on the receiving end of its raiding must have felt.

However, I was slightly disappointed to realise that almost the entire object is made of modern metal struts, including both prow and tailpiece. No romantic carved dragon, just a modern steel strut. Only long rows of planks along the very bottom give you a sense of the clinker-building technique and looks, frankly, like a very long rowing boat. Nonetheless, the sheer length, as you walk along it, does give you a hair-raising sense of the mighty physical presence, of the fear and terror it must have inspired.

The Jelling Stone

As vivid and wonderful, for me, as the ship, was a replica in the same room of the famous Jelling Stone, a massive 10th century runestone located at the town of Jelling in Denmark. Ferguson tells the story that it was found on the beach and ordered dragged to its present location by the mighty King Harald Bluetooth who ordered one side carved with Heathen zoomorphic patterns, the other with a carved image of Christ, and runes inscribed along the bottom which read: ‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

As with classical statues, it is a dizzying shock to see the thing painted in bright day-glo colours and realise the world of these people of long-ago wasn’t as black and white and sparse as the few surviving relics often imply, but was as bright and colourful and decorated as their means allowed.

Audio commentary and price

The audio commentary was voiced by Sandy Toksvig who can’t really escape the comic tone which 30 years as a stand-up comedian and TV presenter have ingrained into her voice. A generation ago it would have been narrated by Magnus Magnusson, saga scholar and historian, pointing out depths and connections. Now, a comedian, making it more ‘accessible’.

The exhibition costs £16.50 to get in, plus £4.50 for the audio. If you add the transport and any merchandise you’re tempted to buy, it’s a pricey experience. But if you’re a fan, totally worth it!

Vikings: Life and Legend continues at the British Museum until 22 June.

Related links

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Sagas

The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson (2009)

Top Viking facts

  • Holy War There are numerous theories about what started the ‘Viking Age’. Bad weather. Poor soil. Population explosion. Development of sailing technology. Ferguson goes with the theory that Norse violence was a holy war, a hyperviolent response to Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to convert the heathen Saxons to Christianity in the 770s which climaxed in the massacre at Verden in 782. Saxon survivors fled north into pagan Denmark, taking tales of atrocities and it was only a few years later, in 793, that the first, ferocious assault was made on the coast of Britain, at the monastery of Lindisfarne, an attack which inaugurated 250 years of blood-soaked raiding, killing and enslaving. The other theories may be true as well – there may be multiple causes – but only the Holy War theory explains the excessiveness of the violence which is always associated with the Norsemen.
  • Slavery Who they didn’t torture and kill, the Vikings enslaved. Slavery was one of the most widespread and lucrative commodities of this era (800-1050) across Europe. Dublin was a major centre of the slave trade. Rouen became a thriving centre of the trade till past the time of William the Conqueror, who was petitioned by clerics to curtail the trade.
  • Slav slaves The English word slave ultimately stems from ‘Slav’ because throughout the Viking period so many Slavs were traded as slaves. Russian nationalists do not like this fact. Online etymological dictionary
  • The Great Heathen Army From the British perspective, there is a lull between the famous attack on Lindisfarne in 793, followed it’s true by persistent opportunistic raids – but it’s with the first army wintering on Sheppey in 835 that the threat becomes sustained and builds to the arrival, or invasion, of the Great Heathen Army in 865. They don’t leave and go on to establish a ‘kingdom’ across the east and north of England which endures over 100 years.
  • Russia was founded by Vikings Debate rages to this day about the origins of the ‘Rus’ who give Russia its name, basically the West taking the evidence at face value that it was founded by the Rus, meaning men who row, who were Vikings from Sweden. Russian nationalists take the ‘anti-Norman’ view that native Slavs were too culturally superior to be conquered by barbarians. The debate is summarised in this Wikipedia article. Ferguson goes with the Western view that Viking raiders/traders, predominantly from Sweden, explored the river systems which drain into the Baltic and realised, with a small amount of portage (carrying the boats), they could cross over into the river systems which flow south to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Rhos or Rus traders were reported by Greeks from Byzantium, by Arabs, in western chronicles and in the earliest Russian annals – they were Heathen, raided with savage violence, were strong and blonde like the other Scandinavians, held ship-based funerals like Vikings, and their most profitable commodity was slaves from the shores of the rivers they navigated which they sold to the Greeks. Kiev became the great trading centre half-way along the route, centuries before Moscow was founded, which is why Kiev and the Ukraine still hold such a place in Russian nationalist ideology.
  • Ireland’s towns were founded by Vikings The first attack on England was at Lindisfarne in 793. In 795 Vikings attacked and burned Rathlin island monastery. After a generation of opportunist raiding, just as in England, in the 830s and 840s the Vikings stopped disappearing after a raid and began to winter in Ireland and penetrate further inland. They established coastal settlements at Dublin, Waterford, Wicklow, Cork and Limerick. Dublin became a centre of the Viking slave trade.
  • Vikings had tattoos ‘Ibn Rustah also tells us that the Rus were covered to their fingertips in tattoos depicting trees, figures and other designs. This is of a piece with what Alcuin and that other anonymous Anglo-Saxon commentator noted concerning the personal vanity of the Heathens, especially their fashion for “blinded eyes”, which may have been a form of eye shadow. An Arab source leaves no doubt that eye make-up was common among the Rus: “once applied it never fades, and the beauty of both men and women is increased.” Tattooing was banned in 787 by Pope Hadrian because of its associations with Heathendom…’ (page 257) which sheds light on the general widespread of tattoos until very recently.
  • Throwing stones the sagas tell ‘of ships that return to shore to pick up fresh supplies of stones, the stone for throwing being the weapon of choice for the average foot-soldier or sailor throughout most of the Viking Age.’ (Page 214)
  • Starboard comes from the Norse for ‘steer board’, which was on the right-hand side of the longboat allowing it to be folded up to the side when navigating shallow water, unlike a rudder fixed to the stern.

Top Viking words

  • the Old Norse personal pronouns they, them and  replaced Old English hie, him and hiera
  • many words with an initial sk sound like sky, skill and skin
  • everyday words such as anger, husband, wing, thrive, egg, bread and die
  • Gil denoting a ravine or steep narrow valley with a stream eg Long Gill
  • by places where the Vikings settled first eg Selby or Whitby, some 600 such places in England. The -by has passed into English as ‘by-law’ meaning the local law of the town or villages
  • -thorpe eg secondary settlements on the margins or on poor lands. There are 155 place names ending in -thorpe in Yorkshire.

Top Viking characters

  • Ragnar Hairy-Breeches legendary figure whose campaign of violence comes to an end when he is thrown in a snakepit by Aella of Northumbria, which triggers the arrival of the Great Heathen Army in 865
  • Ivar the Boneless (d.873?) a son of Ragnar Lodbrok/Hairy-Breeches, Swedish Viking leader who ruled part of modern Sweden and Norway – one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army which invaded East Anglia in 865. Credited with the murder of king Edmund in 869, who quickly became revered as a Christian martyr.
  • Halfdan the Black (810-60) of the house of Yngling, king of Vestfold, a portion of Norway
  • Harald Finehair (850-932) son of the above, first king of a unified Norway
  • Erik Bloodaxe (885-954) the oldest of Harald Finehair’s sons, got his name for killing two of his own brothers, came a refugee to England where he established himself as king of York but was shortly driven out, and assassinated in flight, 954.
  • Ganger Rolf (846-931) also known as Rollo, Rollon, Robert, Rodulf, Ruinus, Rosso, Rotlo and Hrolf, Ganger Rolf or Rolf the Walker, conqueror of the area of north-west France which becomes known as Normandy, and so ancestor of the William who conquers England in 1066.
  • Erik the Red
  • Harald Bluetooth (935-85) king of Denmark and Sweden, converted to Christianity and erected the Jelling stones.
  • Sweyn Forkbeard (?-1014) son of Harald Bluetooth, he likely deposed his father who died wretchedly on the run. Sweyn or Sven went on to conquer England, becoming first of the Danish kings of England.
Vikings

Vikings

Related links

Sagas

A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)


Related links

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson (2010)

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings is a brilliant book. It is a scholarly, systematic and scrupulous investigation of the phenomenon of the Vikings. Roberts carefully weighs the evidence about every aspect of the farflung activities of the amazing men who discovered America, settled Greenland, invaded Britain and France, became the special guard to the Byzantine Emperor and – the biggest surprise to me – founded Russia!

The message repeated in chapter after chapter is that the evidence from the Dark Ages is so pitifully scanty that most of the subject is shrouded in confusion and uncertainty. Thus: nobody knows the origin of the word, which language it comes from or what it means; nobody can agree the date of the “Viking Era”; there is no agreement on the definition of the Vikings: was it an ethnic group, a racial group, men from particular countries, or was it simply a form of behaviour, that men from certain northern cultures would, as the Old Norse has it, fara i viking, which seems to mean ‘go a-viking’, as if viking is an activity or profession.

Or, alhough Viking trader-warriors from modern Sweden spent decades clearing the river routes south to the Black Sea and in doing so founded the city of Kiev, though they were widely described as the “Rus” and though this activity was the basis of the modern state of Russia, nobody knows what Rus means or where it came from.

Nobody knows what pagans did or believed. All the shrines were destroyed by Christians. None of htese people could write: they recorded absolutely nothing of their activities. Only one four line prayer exists anywhere, embedded in a long poem in the Poetic Edda. There are a pitiful handful of eye witness accounts of pagan Viking behaviour, none of which are very clear, there’s a number of runestones which barely convey anything, there is a handful of primitive picture stones. I understand better than before why, against the background of this pitiful lack of evidence, the Poetic Edda, the collection of poems and the Prose Edda – the synopsis of Norse legends – both set down in 12th century Iceland are so enormously valuable.

However, as the book progresses, an idea emerges which develops into Ferguson’s central thesis: this, like everything in the book, derives from a scrupulous weighing of the evidence, and it is that the Viking phenomenon was a religious war. The idea is broached in the chapter about the start of the Viking era (different in every country): in Britain it (notoriously) started with the brutal attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793. Ferguson links this to the extremely violent and intimidating campaign of Charlemagne to convert northern Europe to Christianity which got underway in the 780s and targeted the Saxons who lived south of Denmark. As Charlemagne’s forces invaded Saxony, burning pagan shrines, forcibly converting pagans and killing resisters, thousands fled north into Jutland and, Ferguson argues, this may be what lies behind the sudden eruption of revenge attacks by the pagan men from the sea who we call the Vikings. Wherever the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian attackers landed, they went out of their way to loot and destroy churches and monasteries and to torture, rape and kill priests, monks and nuns.

Those within converted Europe, the Christians who wrote what records we have about the Vikings, the victims who were attacked again and again and again from about 800 to about 1050, they disagree about where the Vikings came from, whether they were blonde or dark-haired, what language they spoke etc – but on one thing they all agreed – they were heathen, pagani, unbelievers, infidels, illiterate outsiders, fired by terrifying ferocity and anger against everything connected with Christianity, going out of their way to loot and desecrate.

Which led me to wonder whether this period shouldn’t qualify as the First Wars of Religion in Europe – preceding the 150 years of carnage sparked by the Protestant Reformation (1500-1650), a period we should perhaps now rename the Second Wars of Religion.

This is a marvellous book, all the more awe-inspiring and romantic for the scrupulous care with which every scrap of evidence and every conflicting theory or interpretation is weighed and assessed.

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (2nd edn 1968)

Chapter 8 – Teutonic Mythology (pp 245-280)

Almost without exception the legends which were told among the ancestors of the Germans and Anglo-Saxons have not been handed down to us. Hence in any account of Teutonic mythology the Scandinavian traditions must of necessity form a major part. (p248)

The Eastern Goths converted to Christianity on contact with Byzantine civilisation in the 4th century. Hardly anything survives of their language or pagan religion. The Goths of central/northern Germany also left few records. Believe it or not the most thorough account we have of their beliefs is in the ‘Germania’ of the Roman historian Tacitus from the first century AD. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain began converting to Christianity in the 600s and were so thoroughly Christianised that from the 690s they began sending missionaries to Germany, whose work was later reinforced by Charlemagne (742-814), very effectively obliterating any records of Teutonic pagan beliefs. Thus it is in Iceland, at the remotest furthest point of Europe, only settled by pagan Norsemen from the 870s and only Christianised as late as 1000AD, that a relatively free, surprisingly well-educated population lovingly preserved all the stories, myths and legends stretching back centuries of their ancestors from the Continent, as well as composing numerous sagas of more recent Scandinavian and Icelandic heroes. This astonishing abundance of material, of sagas, poems, histories, directly or indirectly gives us a wealth of information about the beliefs of the various tribes and cultures who inhabited north Germany, Anglo-Saxon Britain and Scandinavia in the so-called Dark Ages.

The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology explains all this very lucidly before embarking on a detailed anthropological account of the Teutonic gods, pointing out the sociological and economic origins of different deities, referencing their counterparts in Roman or Greek or Indian mythology, but also telling the main adventures in straightforward narrative. The illustrations are good. I can’t find anywhere in the internet pictures which show in their entirety the narrow tall porch reliefs showing scenes from the adventures of Sigurd from the wonderful stave church at Hylestad in Norway.

Creation

  • In the beginning was the yawning void, Ginnungagap: vast glaciers and ice lakes from which crystallised a giant frost ogre named Ymir
  • Ymir slept, falling into a sweat, and under his left arm there grew a man and a woman, the first of the Frost Giants
  • Thawing frost then became a cow called Audhumla. The cow licked salty ice blocks. After one day of licking, she exposed a man’s hair in the ice. After two days, his head appeared. On the third day the whole man was there. His name was Buri and he begot a son named Bor, and Bor married Bestla, the daughter of a giant.
  • Bor and Bestla had three sons: Odin, Vili and Vé. These three brothers promptly murdered the primal giant Ymir. From his wounds came such a flood of blood that all the frost ogres were drowned except for the giant Bergelmir who escaped with his wife by climbing onto a tree trunk (the Norse avatar of the universal myth of a few survivors of a world flood). From this couple sprang the families of frost ogres.
  • The sons of Bor carried Ymir to the middle of Ginnungagap and made the world from his corpse. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes; from his flesh the earth; from his hair the trees; and from his bones the mountains. They made rocks and pebbles from his teeth and jaws and those bones that were broken.
  • Maggots appeared in Ymir’s flesh and came to life. They acquired human understanding and the appearance of men although they lived in the earth and in rocks. They are the dwarfs.
  • From Ymir’s skull the sons of Bor made the sky and set it over the earth with its four sides. Under each corner they put a dwarf, whose names are East, West, North, and South.
  • The sons of Bor flung Ymir’s brains into the air, and they became the clouds. Then they took the sparks and embers that were flying out of the fire region of Muspelheim and placed them in the midst of Ginnungagap to be the stars and sun and moon.
  • The earth was surrounded by a deep sea around which coiled an immense serpent.
  • To protect themselves from the hostile giants, the sons of Bor built for themselves a stronghold and named it Midgard or Middle Earth.
  • While walking along the sea shore the sons of Bor found two trees, and from them they created a man and a woman. Odin gave the man and the woman spirit and life. Vili gave them understanding and the power of movement. Vé gave them clothing and names. The man was named Ask and the woman Embla. From Ask and Embla have sprung all the races of men who lived in Midgard.
  • Odin (Woden, Wotan) married Frigg, the daughter of Fjörgvin. These early gods are the members of the Æsir. They built themselves a stronghold named Asgard, the house of the Æsir. In Asgard was the great throne Hlidskjálf where Odin sat looking out over the universe, when he was not riding through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir, or roaming Midgard, the world of men, in disguise. On his throne report of all the doings in Midgard was brought to him by his two ravens Huginn and Muginn, meaning Memory and Thought.
The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin's shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The two ravens Hugin and Munin on Odin’s shoulders (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • For being the father of gods and the father of men, Odin is known as the All-Father. Odin sought wisdom throughout the world. Most famously he asked to drink from the spring of Mimir among the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil; but the price was his eye. Thereafter Odin is always depicted as a one-eyed man with a wide flat hat and magic spear, Gungnir.
  • The earth was Odin’s daughter and his wife as well. By her he had his first son, Thor (Donar, Donner, the thunder god). Thor is next most powerful god to Odin. He wields his mighty hammer Mjölnir, and rides a chariot drawn by two goats,  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Many Thor hammer amulets have been found across Scandinavia. I like the idea that pagans wore the in Christianised areas as a gesture of defiance.
  • The gods built a bridge from earth to heaven called Bifröst which is known as the rainbow bridge. At the top, defending the entrance to Asgard is the god Heimdallr, ready to blow his horn as a warning to the gods of any attack by their immemorial enemies, the giants.
  • The nine worlds of Norse mythology subsist within the vast overarching structure of the heaven-tree, Yggdrasil. On its peak sits an eagle. Watering its roots are the three Norns, equivalent to the Greek Fates who tell the past, present and future.  Every day the Norn Urd draws water from her well to water the roots of the tree. Chewing one of its roots is the dragon Nidhoggr. Scampering up and down it is the gossipy squirrel, Ratatoskr.

The Vanir

Interestingly the Teutons have two races of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are gods of power – the AllFather Odin, the thunder god Thor, the god of war Tiu. The Vanir, by contrast, are gods of fertility, originally a group of wild nature and fertility gods and goddesses, considered to be the bringers of health, youth, fertility, luck and wealth, and masters of magic. The Vanir live in Vanaheim. There were many of them but the two principle ones were the twins Freyr, god of fertility, and Freyja, goddess of love.

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

Freya and Brisingamen by James Doyle Penrose

The Nine worlds of Norse mythology

  1. In the first level was Asgard, the home of the Aesir.
  2. Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir.
  3. Alfheim, the home of the Light Elves.
  4. In the middle was Midgard “Middle Earth”, the home of the Humans.
  5. Jotunheim, the home of the Giants.
  6. Svartalfheim, the home of the Dark Elves.
  7. Nidavellir, the home of the Dwarfs.
  8. Niflheim was to the north, inside somewhere under the ground were Helheim home of the dead was.
  9. Muspelheim was to the south, it was the home of the fire Giants and Demons.
The nine worlds of Norse mythology

The nine worlds of Norse mythology

There is no spirituality in Norse culture, no religious feeling. There is fighting, deal-making, and laconic understatement which puts a brave face on the fact we will all fail and all die. The entire cycle of stories lives in the shadow of the foretold and inevitable Last Battle between Gods and Giants when the world will go down in flames: Ragnarök. Until then men and gods alike face their doom with stoic defiance.

“The Germanic gods were never thought of as more than men of superior essence; and like men they were mortal and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.” (p252)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Wikipedia Commons)

Wotan takes leave of Brunhild (1892) by Konrad Dielitz (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

Sagas

The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Grettir is one of the last of the great Icelandic sagas, set down at the end of the fourteenth century by an unknown author, some 350 years after the events it describes. The sagas are divided into categories and Grettir belongs to the ‘Icelanders’ sagas (Íslendinga sögur), heroic prose narratives written between the 12th and 14th centuries about deeds of the great settler families of Iceland from the period 930 to 1030, the period actually known as the söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history.

Grettir is not mythical; it references to no Norse gods. Instead it is firmly rooted in historical events and mentions many historical figures: the historical jarl (earl) Eirik sails off to join his brother-in-law Knut, who was king of England from 1016 to 1035; three real bishops are mentioned (Fridrik, Isleif, Thorlak) who, along with references to churches and mass and priests, demonstrate the diffusion of  Christianity throughout Icelandic society only a few years after its arrival in 1000 CE; late in the book Grettir journeys to petition Olaf, king of Norway 1015 to 1028, and so on. Instead of myths, the narrative is overwhelmingly made up of small-scale fights and feuds, ambushes and long-harboured grudges. Which makes the two key moments in the narrative – Glam’s curse half way through, and the sorceress’s spell at the end of the saga – powerfully compelling irruptions of the supernatural into the otherwise wholly naturalistic.

Editions I read the Everyman edition which consists of the 1913 translation by G.A. Hight garnished with a 1965 introduction and notes by Peter Foote. The Hight translation is available online. Hight wrote: “My aim has been to translate in the colloquial language of my own day, eschewing all affectation of poetic diction or medievalism,” and he succeeds very well. Hight’s prose is brisk and clipped:

The following summer jarl Eirik the son of Hakon was preparing to leave his country and sail to the West to join his brother-in-law King Knut the Great in England, leaving the government of Norway in the hands of Hakon his son, who, being an infant, was placed under the government and regency of Eirik’s brother, jarl Sveinn. Before leaving Eirik summoned all his Landmen and the larger bondis to meet him. Eirik the jarl was an able ruler, and they had much discussion regarding the laws and their administration. It was considered a scandal in the land that pirates and berserks should be able to come into the country and challenge respectable people to the holmgang for their money or their women, no weregild being paid whichever fell. Many had lost their money and been put to shame in this way; some indeed had lost their lives. For this reason jarl Eirik abolished all holmgang in Norway and declared all robbers and berserks who disturbed the peace outlaws. Thorfinn the son of Kar of Haramarsey, being a man of wise counsel and a close friend of the jarl, was present at the meeting.

Or take this specimen of dialogue when Thorhall, son of Grim, hires big Glam to be his shepherd:

‘What work can you do best?’ he asked.

Glam said it would suit him very well to mind sheep in the winter.

“Will you mind my sheep?” Thorhall asked. “Skapti has given you over to me.”

“My service will only be of use to you if I am free to do as I please,” he said. “I am rather crossgrained when I am not well pleased.”

“That will not hurt me,” said Thorhall. “I shall be glad if you will come to me.”

“I can do so,” he said. “Are there any special difficulties?”

“The place seems to be haunted.”

‘”I am not afraid of ghosts. It will be the less dull.’

Prior to Hight, this saga had been translated by the enthusiastic medievalist William Morris, aided by Eirikr Magnusson, back in 1869. Morris’s translation of Grettir’s Saga is available on Project Gutenberg and also on The Icelandic Saga Database. Morris’s Victorian patiche of medieval style is as dated as  his chintz wallpaper, but it has an interesting introduction and a handy chronology dating all the events: 997 Grettir born, 1012 slaying of Thorir Paunch, 1015 burning of the sons of Thorir, 1016 Grettir meets king Olaf but fails to bear iron, 1031 Grettir dies.

Contrast Hight’s crispness with Morris’s style:

But before Earl Eric went away from the land, he called together lords and rich bonders, and many things they spoke on laws and the rule of the land, for Earl Eric was a man good at rule. Now men thought it an exceeding ill fashion in the land that runagates or bearserks called to holm high-born men for their fee or womankind, in such wise, that whosoever should fall before the other should lie unatoned; hereof many got both shame and loss of goods, and some lost their lives withal; and therefore Earl Eric did away with all holm-gangs and outlawed all bearserks who fared with raids and riots.

It’s quite hard to read the Hight for any length; it would be impossible to read the Morris. There are also a Penguin translation and an OUP edition.

Medieval manuscript picture of Grettir the Strong

14th century illustration of Grettir the Strong (by Haukurth, from Wikimedia Commons)

Plot summary The plot is more a long sequence of events, though there is skill in the way the story detours to follow one thread then returns a few chapters later to pick up the main plotline of Grettir’s life. Only towards the end do you see the way various threads have been prepared right at the start to bring the narrative to a climax. Only when it’s completely over does the figure of Grettir emerge much bigger and more moving than at any one place in the text.

The saga is divided into 93 short chapters. Some are only a few paragraphs long.

  • Grettir is a disappointment to his rich successful father, Asmund Longhair, but his mother Asdis dotes on him, giving him her grandfather Jokull’s sword,  when he leaves home.
  • Grettir is a difficult antisocial child, prone to irritate people with smart oneliners and biting lampoons: “The likely may happen – also the unlikely.” “Work not done needs no reward.”
  • Grettir has red hair and freckles.
  • On a voyage with Haflidi he alienates the whole crew by doing no work, until the boat is in peril of sinking when he suddenly bales out with the strength of ten men.
  • At Vindheim Grettir breaks into a howe (from the Old Norse haugr meaning hill, knoll or mound) and fights the demon howe-dweller to win the treasure buried here with the dead king Kar.
  • Grettir is a guest at Thorfinn who is away at the Yule Feast when a boat of vikings lands and threatens to rape and carry off Thorfinn’s wife and daughters. Grettir fights them off, killing no fewer than ten including the leaders Thorir Paunch and Ogmund the Bad.
  • Grettir kills in single combat the troll who has been ravaging Thorfinn’s land.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn who had been teasing him.
  • Grettir kills Bjorn’s brother, Hjarrandi after the latter ambushes him.
  • Grettis kills Hjarrandi’s brother, Gunnar, after being ambushed by him and five assistants. What surprises about this is not the anarchy of these death; the opposite, it’s the way Grettis is hauled before jarl Eirik and Gunnar’s relatives argue on one side and Grettir’s supporters on another and the jarl speak openly of his anger at these deaths and is only just persuaded to let Grettir go free.
  • A whale washed up on the beach prompts a fight between Thorgils Makson and the twins Thorgeir Havarsson and Thormod Coalbrow-Skald. Thorgeir kills Thorgils. Again what’s interesting is this leads to a lengthy case at the annual Thing or court where both sides make cogent arguments; Thorgils’ relatives win and Thorgeir is banished and Thormod ordered to pay blood money to Thorgils’ family.
  • Grettir wins a horse fight at Langafit. Apparently the Icelanders made pairs of stallions fight each other by goading them with sticks.
  • Thorhall, the son of Grim, the son of Thorhall, the son of Fridmund, needs a shepherd and hires an enormous man called Glam, warning him his homestead is haunted. Glam is big and surly and refuses to fast on Christmas Eve. He stuffs his face and goes out to mind the sheep in a big storm. Later the men find his corpse and signs of a big struggle. He has been killed by the spook. Although they bury Glam he rises from the grave to haunt the neighbourhood, riding on people’s rooftops, scaring and sometimes killing men.
  • Grettir comes to the neighbourhood of Vatnsdal and ends up confronting Glam’s ghost and killing him. But not before the spook curses him, predicting that he will never be stronger than he is now, and will be followed by bad luck. Glam’s Curse:

“Hitherto you have earned fame through your deeds, but henceforward there shall fall upon you exile and battle; your deeds shall turn to evil and your guardian-spirit shall forsake you. You will be outlawed and your lot shall be to dwell ever alone. And this I lay upon you, that these eyes of mine shall be ever before your vision. You will find it hard to live alone, and at last it shall drag you to death.” (chapter 35)

Compare with the William Morris translation:

“Hitherto hast thou earned fame by thy deeds, but henceforth will wrongs and man-slayings fall on thee, and the most part of thy doings will turn to thy woe and ill-hap; an outlaw shalt thou be made, and ever shall it be thy lot to dwell alone abroad; therefore this weird I lay on thee, ever in those days to see these eyes with thine eyes, and thou wilt find it hard to be alone and that shall drag thee unto death.”

  • And thereafter Grettir is afraid of being in the dark, because it is then that Glam’s eyes appear to him and terrify him.
  • Grettir, like many others, seeks employment under the new king of Norway, Olaf, and sets sail. But on the boat Thorborn Slowcoach insults his now-dead father, Asmund, and Grettir slices his head off at a stroke.
  • The trading boat Grettir is on moors off the coast of Norway in a blizzard. The traders see fire across a river and Grettir swims there to ask for some but the men in the house attack him when he lumbers in looking like a troll, so he fights back, seizes some burning brands and flees back to his ship. The next day they discover the house burned down killing everyone in it. They were the sons of Thorir an important man. Grettir is shunned.
  • In Trondheim, Norway, Grettir seeks an audience with king Olaf. He says burning Thorir’s sons was an accident. The king him the ordeal of holding iron. This was the practice of holding iron bars which have been heated in a furnace a) you have to be inured to pain to hold them b) afterwards, if the wounds heal you are innocent, if not you are guilty. A crowd gathers in the church for the liturgy which precedes the ordeal but an adolescent taunts Grettir so much he strikes him and the king calls the ceremony off. Grettir’s impatience is harming him.
  • Grettir is staying with Einar, a wealthy man in Norway. Robbers led by the berserk Snaekoll, ride down out of the forest and threaten to carry away his daughter, Gyrid. After a laconic exchange Grettir rams the berserk’s shield into his mouth breaking his jaw, pulls him off his horse and decapitates him with his axe.
  • Meanwhile in Iceland Grettir’s father dies a natural death, leaving his holdings to his son Atli. But Atli is murdered by Thorbjorn Oxmain. Meanwhile Thorir learns about his sons who were burned to death by Grettir and takes a large force to the Thing or court, where he gets Grettir proclaimed an outlaw. Grettir’s ship form Norway arrives in Iceland and he learns these three facts in one blow.
  • He steals Sveinn’s horse, saddlehead and rides it a long way in the rain stopping to speak verses to the people he meets. When Sveinn tracks hi down, instead of fighting, they end up swapping verses and becoming good friends.
  • Grettir surprises Thorbjorn Oxmain and his son in the fields as they are gathering in the hay. He shatters Arnor’s skull with a side blow of his sword, then embeds his axe in Thorbjorn’s head. He knows he is outlaw so bids farewell to his mother, still grieving for the loss of her son, Atli, and rides west.
  • Grettir winters with Thorgills at Reykjaholar; two other guests, Thorgeir and Thormod, attack him. They are in mid-fight when Thorgils appears and tells them to stop. Which they do, like naughty schoolboys.
  • A long account of the All-Thing or court where Skapti the Lawman and Snorri the Godi adjudicate the case of Atli’s murder and Thorbjorn’s murder. The remission of Grettir’s status as outlaw is mooted but firmly rejected by Thorir of Gard whose sons were burned in the house. Thus Grettir’s status as outlaw is confirmed, though with misgivings.
  • Grettir roams the westlands taking what he wants from farmers and shepherds. Eventually a posse of 30 men surround and ambush him and tie him up and have a lengthy debate about what do with him, which was turned into a separate humorous poem. At which point the lady of Isafjord rides up and has him released on his good behaviour.
  • Grettir is a plague on the land, stealing from all passersby. He builds himself a hit by the sea and tries to earn a living fishing. Grettir’s enemies, the men of Hrutafjord, hire a mercenary, Grim, to kill him. But Grettir kills Grim.
  • Thorir of Gard commissions Thorir Redbeard, another outlaw, to kill Grettir. For two years he lives and works with him on Arnarvatn Heath. One day, as a storm blows up over the lake and Grettir is repairing the boat, Thorir grabs his sword to kill Grettir who leaps back into the lakewater, swims behind Thorir, dashes him to the ground and cuts his head off.
  • Thorir of Gard attacks Grettir in a narrow pass with 80 men and yet Grettir fights them off. After Thorir withdraws grettir discovers his back had been covered by a strongman named Hallmund. For a while Grettir lives in Hallmund’s cave along with is daughter.
  • Then Grettir confers with Bjorn and goes t olive in a cave overlooking Fagraskogafjall. Bjorn and Grettir are both superstrong and have contests such as swimming the river Hitara from lake to the sea, and creating vast stepping stones.
  • A big man much given to ornaments, decorations and boasting, Gisli, arrives with three helpers to kill Grettir at his mountain fastness. Grettir fights off the assistants then chases Gisli all down to the mountain to the river as the coward strips off all his clothes one by one. At the river Grettir beats Gisli with a tree branch then lets him go free, returning up the hill and collecting all Gisli’s abandoned gear.
  • Grettir is attacked at a narrow spit between forks in a river by two coordinated bands but fights them off with two helpers.
  • Grettir migrates to a secret valley below a glacier which he believes to be protected by a blending, a giant named Thorir, and his daughter, so he called the valley Thorisdal.
  • Another grim takes over Grettir’s abandoned hut by the sea and catches fishes. On two successive nights Hallmund steals the fish laid out to dry. On the third night Grim catches him in the act and chops his neck with his axe. Hallmund flees back t ohis cave and recites the lay of his lifestory to his daughter, dying just at the end. Grim arrives and he and his daughter mourn together and become friends.
  • Grettir outwits another expedition Thorir sends to kill him, outflanking them and stopping to recite verse to Thorir’s daughter.
  • At Eyjardalsa in Bardardal dwells Thorsteinn the White and his wife Steinvor. One Yule she travels to church for mass and when she comes back her husband has vanished. The next year she travels to church leaving her servant behind. Once again he is gone when she returns. Grettir hears of the disappearances and arrives under the alias of Gest. First he carries Steinvor and her daughter across a flooded river so they can go to church. When he returns he builds a barricade in their house and sure enough in the middle of the night a troll appears and there is a massive fight. Some say Grettir hewed off her arm and she ran for the rocks, some say they were fighting when day arose and she turned to a woman-shaped stone which can still be seen. He rests form his fight then the priest tells Grettir of a cave behind a waterfall. Grettir dives into the water, climbs up into the cave and fights an ugly giant. When he has killed him he explores the cave and finds the bones of two dead men, obviously the missing men from Bardardal. He carries them to the church (v Christian) and writes the story of the giant-battle in runes on a staff (v pagan).
  • On advice Grettir journeys to the isle of Drangey. He goes with his younger brother, Illugi, just 15. Their mother Asdis is tearful at the parting.
  • Grettir squats on the isle of Drangey, living with Illugi and a servant, off seabird eggs and the sheep there. In fact the island belongs to some 20 freemen, chief among them Thorbjorn Angle, but they can’t dislodge him, Grettir lives there 2 years. Once when the fire goes out he swims a nautical mile to the mainland, secures fire and a boat back.
  • Thorbjorn persuades a young man called Haering to climb up the cliff while he and his men distract Grettir form the boat. Haering climbs up and is sneaking up on the brothers when Illugi turns and spots him and gives chase. They chase all over the island until Haering jumps over the cliff and breaks every bone in his body. At the spot known ever since as Haering’s Leap.
  • At that summer’s All-Thing Grettir’s supporters claim his 20 years outlawry is expired. His enemies say he should be outlawed all over again for the wicked things he has done. the Lawgiver decides he has not completed the full 20, but that twenty is the maximum any man can have. Grettir will be freed the following summer.
  • Desperate to get his island back Thorbjorn Angle takes a boat out to it with his foster mother Thurid, an old woman and a witch and heathen from the old times before Christianity came. She listens to Thorbjorn shouting up at Grettir on top the cliff, and Grettir refusing to discuss leaving and then shouts out a curse at Grettir, that his doom is sealed and his days will grow worse. Grettir throws a huge stone out into the boat which breaks the old woman’s hip. But she is confident her curse will work.
  • the sorceress performs a strange rite on a log on the beach and sends it off, against the current, to Grettir’s island. Here it bumps against the cliff and Grettir rejects it twice. But on the third day the servant Glaum brings it up and to the hut. Unaware Grettir goes to chop it up with his axe which slips and badly injures him in the thigh. The wound festers.
  • Then Thorbjorn assembles a gang of men and goes back in the boat. The useless thrall Glaum has left the ladder down and Thorbjorn’s men easily climb to the top, overpower Glaum, and launch a massive attack on Grettir’s house. His brother Illugi defends him bravely but he is pinned down by all the shields while the others kill Grettir. Although he is said to be already dead from the festering wound. they cannot free his sword form his grip until they cut his hand off. And then Thorbjorn ruins the sword by cutting off Grettir’s head which he packs in salt.
  • Thorbjorn rides with the head to Bjarg to confront Grettir’s mother Asdil who conducts herself with dignity.
  • At the next All-Thing it is decided that all feuds around Grettir are ended; but instead of getting the price on the head of the outlaw Thorbjorn finds himself exiled for using sorcery in this increasingly Christian culture. His relations go recover Grettir and Illugi’s bodies and bury them in Bjarg church.

Postscript The saga doesn’t end with Grettir’s death and burial. Blood feuds weren’t optional in Icelandic society, even after Christianity was established, and how they played out, how the relatives of those killed bore their responsibility for revenge, were as much a source of interest in this kind of prefeudal society as the finest details of their genealogy. And so Grettir’s half-brother pursues his murderer all the way across Europe to take his revenge. What is extremely odd is the way this brutal saga then turns into a medieval Romance of love and adultery – and then again turns into a Christian tract preaching ideal repentance and holiness, all in the last 30 or so pages!

  •  Thorbjorn sells his goods and takes ship to Constantinople where he becomes a warrior in the emperor’s guard. But he is tracked there by Grettir’s quiet half-brother Thorsteinn Dromund who also joins the Varangian Guard and takes the first opportunity to kill Thorbjorn and is thrown into prison.
  • At this point, surreally, the saga turns into a medieval romance as the lady Spes walks past the dungeon and hears Thorbjorn singing. She pays for him to be released and they become adulterous lovers behind the back of her ineffectual husband Sigurd. They conspire to get Sigurd to falsely accuse her so that he can be disgraced and forced to divorce her and they get married and have sons and move back to Norway.
  • From here, in old age, they decide to atone for their youthful sins and travel to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope, and then to live out their days in separate holy retreats. And thus they die reconciled to God.

CHAPTER XCIII. THE TESTIMONY OF STURLA THE LAWMAN

Sturla the Lawman has declared that no outlaw was ever so distinguished as Grettir the Strong. For this he assigns three reasons. First, that he was the cleverest, inasmuch as he was the longest time an outlaw of any man without ever being captured, so long as he was sound in health. Secondly, that he was the strongest man in the land of his age, and better able than any other to deal with spectres and goblins. Thirdly, that his death was avenged in Constantinople, a thing which had never happened to any other Icelander.
Further, he says that Thorsteinn Dromund was a man who had great luck in the latter part of his life.
Here endeth the story of Grettir the son of Asmund.

I was moved to learn that there is a memorial to Grettir the Strong near his legendary homestead of Bjarg in Iceland:

Photo of the memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland

Memorial to Grettir the Strong at Bjarg in Iceland (Image: Bromr under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons)

Understatement The saga has some examples of the famous Norse understatement:

  • Grettir counted the men. There were twelve in all, and their aspect did not look peaceful.
  • ‘I shall come again, and it is not certain that we shall then part any better friends than we are now.’
  • Thorbjorn sidled round to the front of the door and thrust his spear with both hands into Atli’s middle, so that it pierced him through. Atli said when he received the thrust: ‘They use broad spear-blades nowadays.’
  • ‘Have you not heard that I have not proved a mound of wealth to most of those who have had to do with me?’ said Grettir.
  • He said: “Here is a man coming towards us with his axe in the air; he has a rather hostile appearance.”

But, to be honest, not as many as you’d expect.

Naming legends There are references to the contemporary present of the author, and a number of naming stories of the kind you commonly find in oral literature. (They litter the early books of the Bible.)

  • “The spear which Grettir had lost was never found until within the memory of men now living. It was found in the later days of Sturla the Lawman, the son of Thord, in the very marsh where Thorbjorn fell, now called Spearmarsh. This is the proof that he was killed there and not in Midfitjar, as has been elsewhere asserted.”
  • Grettir went up to the Arnarvatn Heath and built himself a hut there of which the remains are still to be seen. (chapter 55)
  • Grettir and Bjorn swam in one course the whole length of the Hitara from the lake at its head down to the sea. They brought the stepping-stones into the river which neither floods nor freezing nor icedrifts have since moved from their places. (Ch 58)
  • “Grettir fell back a little and reached a stone which is still standing by the side of the way and is called Grettishaf, where he stood at bay.” (Ch 59)
  • The place where they fought is now called Grettisoddi. (ch 60)
  • They laid Grettir’s head in salt and put it for the winter in the out-house called Grettisbur in Vidvik. (ch 82)
  • Angle let him take the head and bury it in a sand-hill, which is now called Grettisthuf. (ch 84)

Lovely words

  • a bondi is a class of warrior freeman
  • holmgang (meaning “walk on an island or small place”) is a Viking duel.
  • a jarl is a leader or chieftain, next in line to the king. Origin of our word “earl”.
  • luck, from the Dutch apparently, and cognate with modern German Glück.
  • thing is a meeting to administer and decide cases; the All-Thing was the annual meeting of Iceland, held every Summer
  • weregild – a value placed on every human being and piece of property under Salic Law. If property was stolen or someone was injured or killed the guilty person would have to pay weregild as restitution to the victim’s family or to the owner of the property. Weregild is composed of were, meaning “man” (as in werewolf), and geld, meaning “payment or fee”, as in Danegeld; Geld is modern German for ‘money’.
  • berserker (from the Icelandic for “bear-skin”) is a fighter capable of working himself up into a homicidal frenzy. In their delirium they sometimes bite their own shields and I was delighted to learn that the Lewis chessmen include just such knights in the act of biting their shields!

“The berserk thought they were trying to get off by talking. He began to howl and to bite the rim of his shield. He held the shield up to his mouth and scowled over its upper edge like a madman.” (chapter 40)

Other sagas

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