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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New Archaeological discovery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Archaeologists have discovered one of Britain’s oldest churches.

The find – on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the Northumberland coast – is of great historical importance because the newly discovered ancient church may originally have been built in or shortly after the mid 7th century AD as part of the monastic spiritual epicentre from which much of northern and central England was eventually Christianised.

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

lindisfarne-early-church

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

It’s also important because it is likely to have been a key site at the spiritual heart of the early 8th-century monastic community that made Britain’s most famous early medieval illuminated manuscript – the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The evidence suggesting that this could be the site of one of Holy Island’s original early Anglo-Saxon period churches – perhaps even one built by the founder of Lindisfarne, St Aidan – is complex but persuasive.

hsr_nec_200617church_1

The archaeological excavation has revealed that the monks chose the most challenging and difficult location to build their church – potentially for politically symbolic reasons.

The building stood on a totally exposed, extremely wind-blown rocky promontory facing directly towards the great royal palace of the monks’ first patron and benefactor, north-east England’s most important early Christian king, the 7th century St Oswald of Northumbria. The church was constructed just two or three metres from the cliff edge. The location was known in Anglo-Saxon times simply as “The Precipice”.

Also suggesting an early, potentially late 7th century, date is the very primitive ‘pre-architectural’ style of the church’s masonry.

So far, the archaeologists have found dozens of pieces of broken masonry – including crudely-worked window surrounds – in a style suggesting that the mason was more accustomed to working in wood than in stone.

A final potential clue to its age has been found at the extreme eastern end of the church. It is the probable base of what may well have been the original altar installed there by St Aidan in or immediately after he founded the monastery in AD 635.

aidan_of_lindisfarne_-_geograph-org-uk_-_10930601

It can be potentially associated with Aidan because it’s believed that changes in English church layout tradition after the mid 7thcentury meant that altars were no longer to be located up against the east wall of the church, but several metres further west.

Interestingly, the building was constructed of gleaming white sandstone that would have reflected sunlight particularly well, giving the impression that it was quite literally radiating the purest white light. The gleaming structure perched on its 20-metre high clifftop would have been clearly visible from the royal palace at Bamburgh as a white building surrounded by sea.

“It is one of the most important discoveries from the early medieval period that has been made in Britain over recent decades,” said Peter Ryder, an archaeologist specialising in medieval ecclesiastical buildings who has been involved in recording the masonry from the newly discovered early church.

The archaeologists have also discovered the massive foundations of what appears to have been a large signalling tower on the same promontory – presumably to enable simple messages to be sent directly to the king’s palace at Bamburgh, some four miles across the sea to the south.

Bamburgh castle

The eight metre square tower (with walls 2.5 metres thick) would probably have been up to 12 metres high – and would also have been used to communicate with monks living on the Farne Islands, seven miles away. It’s known from ancient accounts that a tower on that promontory was used, for instance, to receive a beacon signal from those monks when St Cuthbert (subsequently regarded as the patron saint of northern England) died there in AD 687.

The buried remains of the newly discovered early church, currently being excavated by the archaeologists, show that the building was at least partially made of stone.

However, it is almost certain that the initial mid-7th century church or (churches) on Lindisfarne were originally constructed purely of timber. We also know that the Lindisfarne monks viewed their earliest timber churches with such reverence that, in the 7th or early 8th century, they encased one in pure lead to preserve it – and later (in the 9th century) deconstructed it or another timber church and took it to the mainland to prevent it being destroyed by the Vikings.

Lindisfarne Priory

It is, therefore, conceivable that the newly discovered stone church on the Lindisfarne clifftop was built in the mid or late 7thcentury as a protective structure around what may have been St Aidan’s original timber church. If that is not correct, then it could be a later Anglo-Saxon stone rebuild of that church, although, on balance of probabilities, the primitive nature of the masonry would perhaps argue against that. Alternatively, it could be that a totally new stone church was built on the promontory in perhaps the early or mid-8th century.

Ultimately, only further excavation and scientific testing may solve the conundrum.

The newly discovered foundations and masonry fragments of the church on the wind-blown Lindisfarne clifftop are by far the oldest Anglo-Saxon structural remains found on the island.

Source.

Vikings raided cos they were desperate single men?

When the Vikings landed at the holy island of Lindisfarne in 793AD, it marked the beginning of hundreds of years of terrifying raids, which would earn the Norsemen a fearsome reputation as murderers and pillagers throughout Europe.

But the reason why groups took to the seas in the first place continues to divide historians, some blaming over-population in Scandinavia, and others seeing it as a preemptive strike against the seemingly unstoppable march of Christianity.

Now a new theory suggests that the Vikings actually had matters of the heart on their minds.

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9th-century ‘Doomsday stone’ found at Lindisfarne

 

Dr Mark Collard, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen and currently the Canada Research Chair at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, along with colleague Ben Raffield and Neil Price, Professor of Archaeology at Uppsala University , believes that changes in society had led to a desperate shortage of marriage partners.

The growth of polygamy and social inequality in the late Iron Age meant that richer men took many wives, or concubines, causing an inbalance in the male-female sex ratio.

Suddenly young poor men had little chance of securing a wife unless they became rich and well-known quickly, says Prof Collard. And raiding was a shortcut to heroism and treasure, he believes.

“What is clear is that the sex ratio would have been substantially biased and increasing through time, and even small amounts of bias can have a big effect,” he said.

“In a population where just a few powerful older men are able to have multiple concubines you end up with a large number of young single men quite rapidly.  Some men would have two to three wives, but the Norse sagas say that some princes had limitless numbers.

“So raiding was away to build up wealth and power. Men could gain a place in society, and the chance for wives if they took part in raids and proved their masculinity and came back wealthy.

“Because polygynous marriage increases male-male competition by creating a pool of unmarried men, it increases risky status-elevating behaviour.”

Surprisingly the idea was first put forward by the Norman historian Dudo of Saint Quentin who argued in his 10th century work, The History of The Normans, that the Viking raids were sparked by an excess of unmarried young men.

Similarly the English antiquarian William Camden in his 1610 work Britannia suggested that the ‘Wikings’ were selected from areas of overpopulation after they “multiply’d themselves to a burdensome community”.

Vikings disembarking in England during the second wave of migration (vellum)
Vikings disembarking in England, from a 10th-century Scandinavian manuscript

But in recent years the theory has lost support from historians with many believing that raids were a quest for retaliation against Charlemagne’s bloody campaign to force Scandinavian pagans to convert to Christianity – killing those who would not be baptised.

However Prof Collard believes new research into psychology, and other ethnographic studies of tribes, now make the new theory more plausible.

Recent studies found that aggression rises when there is a shift in the male-female sex ratio and where the percentage of unmarried men is greater, the rates of rape, murder, assault, theft and fraud also rise.

New research has also shown that Yanomamo tribes in South America resort to inter-village raiding for polygamous marriages.

Norse sagas such as The Saga of the People of Laxardal and the Saga of Harald suggest that by the time of the raids polygamous behaviour was normal in Scandinavia while the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal speaks of concubines.

And the archaeological evidence of the graves of Viking raiding parties also suggests that  sailors were young males, rather than seasoned soldiers.

“Acquiring portable wealth seems to have been the major objective of raiding groups. Undefended monasteries away from settled areas would have been ideal targets,” added Prof Collard.

“By the end of the 8th century a number of regional polities and petty kingdoms had developed in Scandanavia.

“It is possible that the combined effects of polygyny, concubinage and social stratification simply reached a tipping point that led to a surge in raiding.

“With elite men monopolising an increasing percentage of women, many low-status men would have found it difficult to marry unless they were willing to engage in risky activites to improve wealth and status.”

The new paper was published in the journal Evolution & Human Behaviour.

Source.