Following my latest post about the villages of France, I thought I might move northwards, and back through time, to consider the wics of the 7th century North and Baltic sea areas. These settlements, unlike a circulade or a bastide, are not classified by a particular shape or typical layout, but instead are usually recognised by their locations. Situated along sea-coasts or rivers, they served as nodes along the trade routes between England and Russia (more about which here,) a fact highlighted by the coins, pottery, and other goods found in their vicinity by archaeologists.
Typically, a wic (an Anglo-Saxon word) would have no church or high status residence, hinting that they were almost entirely oriented towards trade. This is emphasised by the way in wics were usually twinned with other settlements, the famous example being the partnership between Lundenwic and Lundenburgh –that is, London-port and London-town. Other wics include Hamwic (modern Southampton), Dorestad, Riba, Birka, and Quentovic, although those in modern-day England are usually larger.
These factors–the wealth of emporia and their proximity to high-status local settlements–suggests that they may have been deliberately established to bring trade under the control of rulers, probably for tax purposes. Charter material from the 9th century kingdom of Mercia (the English midlands) supports the idea of royal influence over trade, as does the location of mints within the wics.
This prosperity had it’s drawbacks, however. Located outside the walls of nearby settlements and within easy striking distance of the sea, the emporia were vulnerable to attack, particularly as the Viking threat intensified during the 8th and 9th centuries. The Annals of St-Bertin record, for example, that Dorestad had been the target of Viking attention repeatedly, in 850, 857, and 863. In this last year, the Annals write,
‘…Danes sailed up the Rhine towards Cologne, after sacking the emporium called Dorestad and also a fairly large villa at which the Frisians had taken refuge, and after slaying many Frisian traders and taking captive large numbers of people….’ (p.104)
Such attacks were also undertaken at English sites, and probably contributed to the decline of wics in the 9th century. In the face of such dangers, traders preferred to move within the walls, bringing new prosperity to the burghs (enclosed settlements) in England while depriving the emporia of their specialised function. In England in particular, society was changing. Viking attack had crippled the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, and East Anglia, and sorely tested the kingdom of Wessex.
In their wake, the Wessex kings (among them Alfred ‘the Great’) built fortified towns and spread their influence, laying the foundations of the England conquered by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066.
In the North and Baltic seas, the collapse of the Carolingian Empire and the establishment of newer, fortified trading cities likewise spelled the end of the emporia.
The Annals of St-Bertin, trans. Janet L. Nelson (Manchester, 1991).
Reynolds, Andrew, ‘Review Article: On farmers, traders and kings: archaeological reflections of social complexity in early mediaeval north-western Europe,’ Early Medieval Europe vol. 13.1 (2005).