The Economics of Organizing 9th Century Viking raids

Paper by Mary Valante given at the Fourth Annual Appalachian Spring Conference in World History and Economics (2009).

Viking raiders first appeared on the shores of western Europe in the 790s. For the year 793 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record, “…terrible portents appeared…and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air…. and the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”, while the Annals of Ulster for 795 describe, “The burning of Rechru by the heathens, and Scí was overwhelmed and laid waste.” These early raids followed a distinct pattern – one or two ships, coastal raids , and hit-and-run tactics. But in the 830s and 840s, the patterns of raids changed suddenly and dramatically.

viking-raiders

In Ireland, the Annals of Ulster record for the year 837 “A naval force of the Norsemen sixty ships strong was on the Bóinn, [and] another one of sixty ships on the river Life. These two forces plundered the plain of Life and the plain of Brega, including churches, forts and dwellings. The men of Brega routed the foreigners at Deoninne in Mugdorna of Brega, and six score of the Norsemen fell.” According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 838 “In this year came a great pirate host to Cornwall…”

The switch to larger raiding parties was swiftly followed by settlement, as in 841 Vikings first set up camp at Dublin. By the middle of the ninth century, it is clear that changes back in Scandinavia were having a direct impact on events in the British Isles, as shown by a takeover at Dublin in the 850s, and the arrival of the “Great Heathen Army” in Anglo-Saxon England in the 860s.

Some scholars have argued that the early raids were a deliberate “softening up” of Europe, a deliberate prelude to land-grabbing. But this view assumes that raiders were displaced farmers, victims of climate change or population pressures. I would argue instead that the earliest raids were the work of minor chieftains, stealing goods to trade at the new market towns in Norway and Denmark. The large-scale raids from the 830s onwards were the result of the success of the early raids, which allowed the market towns to become well-established and successful.

This in turn had provided funds for kings in Norway and Denmark to establish themselves more firmly, organize much larger raids, and then quickly to the deliberate founding or capture and settlement of new market towns in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. After the 850s, competition for power within Denmark and Norway, partially represented by vying for control of these same early towns, led once again to changes in Viking activities as seen especially in Ireland and England.

The earliest raiders targeted monasteries, relatively wealthy and usually undefended sites. People and portable valuables were their targets, “Howth was plundered by the heathens, [and] they carried off a great number of women into captivity” and “The heathens plundered Bennchor at Airtiu(?), and destroyed the oratory, and shook the relics of Comgall from their shrine.” The shrine, not the relics, held value the raiders could understand. Based on excavations of longships, a raiding crew would have consisted of about 30 men, led by their chieftain after planting and before harvest season.

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Lost Viking settlement found in Ireland

From Science:

The Vikings, the famed Scandinavian warriors, started raiding Ireland in 795 and plundered it for decades, before establishing two Irish outposts, according to the Annals of Ulster, a 15th century account of medieval Ireland. One outpost, Dúbh Linn, became Dublin, the other, Linn Duchaill, was lost in time. Perhaps until now. A team of archaeologists announced on Friday that it has found the lost Viking settlement near the village of Annagassan, 70 kilometers north of Dublin. “We are unbelievably delighted,” said archaeologist and team leader, Mark Clinton, an independent archaeological consultant.

The Annagassan locals have long believed they lived near an ancient Viking town or fort. The stories of Viking raids were told to local children by schoolteachers, and there were also occasional finds that underscored this story. For example, a few years ago, a set of handcuffs once used to shackle Viking slaves was found by a farmer ploughing land. The modern search for Linn Duchaill began 5 years ago when a local filmmaker named Ruth Cassidy, a member of the Annagassan and District Historical Society, enlisted the help of Clinton, a family friend, to find the lost Viking town. They searched through 2005, 2006, and 2007 and were on the point of despair when they came across a flat area—ideal for lifting boats out of the water for shipbuilding and repairs—a couple of kilometers up the River Glyde. They managed to secure funding to pay for a geophysicist, John Nicholls, to survey the site. Nicholls found a series of defensive ditches about 4 meters deep, running in lines. The pattern of ditches does not seem compatible with the typical Irish structure of the period, a ring fort, and no evidence of a Norman settlement, such as moat or castle remains, was found. That left just one other option: Vikings.

Despite this evidence, the researchers struggled to secure funding for excavation work. But the local Louth County Museum eventually offered funds to excavate at three locations. The team found 200 objects in 3 weeks, convincing them that they had found a major Viking shipbuilding town. There is evidence of impressive engineering, with an artificial island constructed out of the landscape to offer protection from attacks by the indigenous Irish. There is evidence of carpentry, smelting, and ship repair, with ship rivets dotted around the site. These features alone would make the site significant as few Viking longphorts—or shipbuilding towns—have been excavated. The team also found hacked coins, which Clinton says were a typical “calling card” of the Vikings, but there is also a total absence of pottery—the Vikings used wooden bowls. There are “high status” early Christian objects, too, probably stolen from the Irish.

Other Viking experts are cautiously optimistic that the long-lost Viking outpost has been found but emphasize the settlement needs to be solidly dated before the case is closed. “If the settlement found can be identified as Linn Duchaill, its value for linking archaeology to the written sources is very important,” says Peter Pentz, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. “In addition, it appears that the site is almost untouched by later activity, unlike those of Dublin—some longphorts developed into urban settlements—and thus it might provide important knowledge of this particular type of settlement.”

“It’s really, really exciting,” adds Christina Lee of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, an expert in Viking studies of Ireland and Britain. “I’m looking forward to hearing about the finds and the dating of the finds. It’s a really important step in thinking about the westward expansion of the Vikings, and the importance that Ireland had for the Viking world is something that hasn’t been recognized. Ireland in the Viking age is of strategic importance.”

One lingering question is why Linn Duchaill was abandoned while Dublin thrived. One theory is that because Dublin has better 24-hour access to the sea, it meant that the Vikings there could take to their ships and head out when they were under attack. At Linn Duchaill, tidal fluctuations would cut off access for several hours a day.

From Science