The Coming of the Northmen

It’s rare to find references to history–and particularly the Middle Ages–in discussions about foreign policy, which makes this October rather unusual. Not only have horses and bayonets been reintroduced into the American arsenal (as per the latest presidential debate), but author John Arquilla (in a rather more modest forum), has also invoked the Vikings as a way to understand modern terrorist attacks. He writes:

‘Perhaps the greatest early technological enabler of terror was the swift, shallow-draft ship. The Vikings perfected this kind of vessel, which gave them great mobility — and the lack of international order of any sort during the Dark Ages gave them plenty of opportunities. … Pirates ever since have done their best to emulate the Viking model, and have waxed or waned in tandem with technological advances or international developments that affected their relative mobility and the resolve of their opponents.’ (Find the full article on Foreign Policy.)

The views he expresses are not new. It has long been hypothesised, for example, that the responsibility for the Viking Age, starting symbolically with the sack of Lindisfarne in 793, rested not with the Northmen, but with their victims.

Ruins of the 11th century Priory of Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island), site of the first recognised Viking attack. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alcuin of York, a prominent intellectual in the court of Charlemagne, reacted to the attack on Lindisfarne and its monastery by blaming the sinfulness of its inhabitants. In a letter to Bishop Higbald he writes

‘Is this the beginning of the great suffering, or the outcome of the sins of those who live there? It has not happened by chance, but is the sign of some great guilt.’

To his mind, the Vikings were an instrument of God’s displeasure, and he enjoined the survivors of Lindisfarne to recommit to the rigours of the monastic lifestyle–lest it occur again.

Danes at sea, from a 12th century insular manuscript (Wikimedia Commons)

The Annals of St-Bertin also viewed the Viking attacks as a failure of leadership on the part of their victims. On the Vikings, the annalist remarks:

‘God, in his goodness and justice, so much offended by our [Frankish] sins, had thus worn down the lands and kingdoms of the Christians’

Despite these contemporary opinions, however, most modern scholars only cautiously assign blame for the ravages of the Vikings upon their victims. Certainly, churches and monasteries–wealthy and often isolated–bore a measure responsibility for the piratical attentions they attracted. The contemporary world-view of culpability and divine judgement, however, robs the Vikings themselves of all responsibility for their own actions, and is rejected by modern historians for these reasons.

Likewise, Arquilla’s assertion that it was a lack of international order which allowed the Vikings to flourish ignores the general lack of anything resembling international order during this period. In fact, the 8th century in England and Frankia (just prior to the Viking attacks) was a time of political consolidation, not fragmentation, which undermines the hypothesis that political disorder brought about the Viking Age.

Prow of a reconstructed Viking ship overlooking Strangford Lough, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons)

Arquilla’s citation of Viking sailing technology as an engine of piracy and disruption, too, is a common argument. While Viking ships were formidable, though, they predated the so-called Viking Age–making it difficult to see them as a cause (rather than simply a facilitator) of such activities. Additionally, the Adventus Saxonum–which saw the anglicisation of Britain–occurred centuries earlier without such technology, proving that large-scale, seaborne migration at this time was not purely technology driven.

If neither technological determinism or political fragmentation actually caused the Viking Age, what did?

For most, the jury is still out. Traditional explanations, such as the climate or over-population, have generally been phased out, while economic imperatives (such as the price of ‘Abbasid silver or the growth of towns) have grown in popularity.

Most compelling to me is James Barrett’s theory that the practice of female infanticide in Scandinavia, coinciding with a population bulge of young men and the competitive process of state-formation, caused an acute need for wealth. Young men, political exiles, and individuals looking for social mobility thus took to raiding (and trading–it seems many Vikings tried their hands at both) in Europe to improve their chances of success when they returned home.

One thing we know for certain, however, is that each individual, and each crew, had their own unique motivations which caused them to voyage to the ends of the known world–and beyond.

Learn More:

Find a full translation of Alcuin’s letter here.

The Annals of St-Bertin, trans. J. L. Nelson, (Manchester, 1991).

Coupland, Simon, “The rod of God’s wrath or the people of God’s wrath? The Carolingian theory of the Viking invasions”, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42 (1991), pp.535-554.

Barrett, James H., ‘What Caused the Viking Age?’ Antiquity 82 (2008), pp.671-685.


4 thoughts on “The Coming of the Northmen

  1. I agree that the technological argument is bunk – even the eighth-century Scandinavian ships seem to have been the maximal development of a nautical technology that we can see already highly operational in earlier vessels like the Sutton Hoo ship – but I’m less sure that one can dismiss ideas of international order. I agree that lack of international order was not a cause of the Viking Age but it might still be a facilitator, as you put it. I don’t think it’s anachronistic, at least, because one of the repeated responses of the Carolingian rulers faced with Vikings and a secure military position was to apply pressure to the Danish kings, to the extent of backing a tame claimant to the throne on one occasion. Later on, King Æthelred II of England undertook campaigns against Normandy which are usually interpreted as reprisals for Norman quartering of Viking fleets, or deterrence from so doing in future, Both these tactics were not, finally, very effective, but they do seem to me to be an appeal precisely to this concept of international order, that kings could usefully affect such matters by international policy (in the Clausewitzian sense where ‘war is the continuation of policy by other means’). In the end the situation in both case escalated to the point where only immediate defence and/or tribute were effective but in both cases the kings tried initially to manipulate this insufficient but fully-conceived international order. There’s probably an argument to be made that kings wanted to concentrated their subjects’ attention on the fact that responses like this to such situations could only be carried out by kings, but that doesn’t remove the idea of international order from play; quite the reverse!

  2. Pingback: History TV: First Voyage with Vikings | mediaevalmusings

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