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.
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.