Post-classical history



Coniston Water it is called by the public now-a-days, but its proper name is Thurston Water. So it is written in all old documents, maps, and books up to the modern tourist period. In the deed of 1196 setting forth the boundaries of Furness Fells it is called Thorstancs Watter, and in lawyer’s Latin Tiirstini Watra, which proves that the lake got its title from some early owner whose Norse name was Thorstein.

W. G. COLLINGWOOD, The Book of Coniston (1897)1

It is incontrovertible that large parts of Britain were settled by Scandinavians; the evidence, when taken as a whole, is overwhelming. Nevertheless, not one of the specific questions that one might wish to pose – how did this settlement happen and where precisely was it densest; did it start suddenly or gradually; was it continuous or sporadic; how many people were involved and where did they come from and were there women and children among them as well as men? – can be answered satisfactorily.

That does not mean that the subject has been neglected. As one scholarly duo put it, ‘there is in this area such a weight of scholarly tradition that everything seems to have been said, and firmly objected to, before’.2 This is inevitable in cases such as these, where the evidence itself is weak and contradictory. Consider, for example, the state of archaeological knowledge regarding rural settlement in Northumbria: the two most frequently mentioned sites that supposedly display evidence of Scandinavian influence in their design and layout are Simy Folds (Co. Durham) and Ribblehead (north Yorkshire). Among a handful of other Scandinavian features, the buildings excavated at both places seem originally to have been furnished with stone benches that ran along the interior walls, features characteristic of the architecture of Viking colonies in the north Atlantic.3The size of the Ribblehead farm building also sets it apart from other English buildings of the period, as does its construction method: it has been described as ‘a house which undertakes in stone and timber what elsewhere, i.e. in lowland England, was an earthfast timber form’.4 Such stone-founded homes bear more resemblance to the Viking long-houses of Orkney and Shetland than to the timber halls of Wessex. Even these weak indicators, however, are compromised by the unfortunate fact that we know very little about pre-Viking architecture in northern England, and arguments about size, or layout, or building materials are therefore predicated on an absence of evidence; we just don’t know for sure how to tell a ‘Viking’ house from an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ house.

Instead, scholarly efforts to pinpoint the extent of Viking settlement have turned on place-names and personal names, language and dialect. We have already seen how elements of Scandinavian legal and administrative terminology were imported into parts of Britain, and in certain English regions the vocabulary of the land feels thick with the Viking past, the countryside rumbling away in Old Norse, or at least with a strong accent. These words and names fall heavily like iron on stone, their sharp cadences catching the glimmer of a low northern sun, salt spray jagging off them on the back of a cold wind: ‘Garstang’ in Lancashire (ON geirr + ON stǫng, ‘spear-post’); ‘Grimsby’ in Lincolnshire (ON grims + ON bȳ, ‘Grimr’s farm’); Micklethwaite in Yorkshire and Cumbria (ON mikill + ON þveit, ‘great clearing’). These are entirely Old Norse words, displacing whatever had preceded them, renaming the land, reimagining the landscape. Elsewhere, however, the Old Norse words are grafted on to an Old English stock – ‘Grimstons’, for example, abound in the corpus of English place-names (ON grims + OE tūn, ‘Grimr’s settlement’), alongside more exotic formulations like ‘Brandesburton’ (ON brands + OE burh + OE tūn, ‘Brandr’s fortified settlement’). In addition, the Norse tongue bled into the everyday words which people, especially in the north, still use to frame the world around them: fell (ON fjall), beck (ON bekkr), tarn (ON tjarn), gill (ON gjel) …

When Old Norse place-names are plotted on to a map of Britain, they present a pleasing picture, clustering with varying intensity across all the regions where the historical record leads us to expect them, even respecting (more or less) the border of Alfred’s treaty with Guthrum. However, satisfying though this may be, it does little beyond apparently confirming that Old Norse-speakers did, indeed, inhabit parts of England at some point in the past. And the closer one looks, more questions than answers arise. Why, for example, are there apparently so many more Old Norse place-name elements in Norfolk than in Suffolk? What is the significance of hybrid place-names as opposed to ‘pure’ Old Norse ones? Why do the most significant places (by and large) retain their English names? What impact have other, post-Viking, changes to landownership and language had over the 1,100 years since the first Viking settlers arrived? How many Norse-speakers would it have taken to effect linguistic change on this scale and in this way? Did the changes come early (in the ninth century) or accrue over time? Did these Norse-speakers come from Denmark, or from Norway, or from some other outpost of the Viking diaspora – Ireland perhaps or the north Atlantic?

And so it goes on, without any real resolution, the arguments highly technical and the conclusions provisional.5 The best that can perhaps be said is that, from the late ninth century onwards, changes wrought through migration were affecting the way people spoke and the way they thought – the world shaped and reshaped by words, mental maps reordered in irrevocable ways. These changes can have been effected only by a sizeable number of Norse-speaking immigrants, though the socially dominant position of these migrants may have meant that their language had an impact that was disproportionate to their number.

Cultural changes are evident across the north and east of England. Among the well-to-do community of moneyers who were responsible for minting coins in ‘Danelaw’ towns during the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Scandinavian names had become common, if not ubiquitous.6 In places like Thetford, Lincoln and Norwich they were a minority, the Ascetels and Ulfcetels, Grims and Thorsteins still outnumbered by the Ælfwines, Eadgars and Leofrics. In York, however, the picture was reversed, with Norse names equalling if not outnumbering the English. These changes did not only affect moneyers, and were long-lasting. Less than a century later, in 1086, the Domesday survey for Lincolnshire recorded 240 names of which 140 were Scandinavian.7 This doesn’t mean, of course, that by 1086 three-fifths of the Lincolnshire population were descended from ninth-century Viking settlers, any more than the (relative) abundance of Scandinavian and Scandinavian-inspired jewellery found in that county (and in East Anglia) signifies large-scale migration.8 Both names and jewellery, however, do strongly suggest that in cultural terms life in those parts of Britain had taken a Viking turn. Affinity for a transmarine North Sea identity was becoming more fashionable from the turn of the tenth century than it had been at any point since the age of Sutton Hoo in the early seventh century, and was arguably edging out (though certainly not extinguishing) other forms of cultural expression.

These trends didn’t last for ever, but they were surprisingly durable. The Norman Conquest of 1066 ultimately reorientated English culture decisively, and by the late twelfth century moneyers across England mostly had names like Hugo, Robert, Walter or William. But even as late as the 1180s, during the reign of Henry II (the first Plantagenet monarch), there were moneyers named Rafn, Svein and Thorstein working at Lincoln, and there was still a ‘Turkill’ (Thorkell) minting coins in York during the reign of Richard I the Lionheart (r. 1189–99). Although the vogue for Norse names would ultimately die out, there were other changes that could never be undone. As the English language – rapacious omnivore that it is – ruthlessly harvested and absorbed the Scandinavian speech that was introduced to England, it was irrevocably changed by it. Old Norse words in English are not confined to those that we might consider proper to ‘Vikings’ (‘berserk’, ‘ransack’ and ‘skull’, for example, are all words of impeccable Old Norse provenance), but even fundamental linguistic building-blocks like the pronouns ‘their’ and ‘they’, and outrageously mundane words like ‘husband’, ‘egg’ and ‘window’, are rooted in the speech of Scandinavian immigrants.9

This northern onomasticon was thrilling to an early generation of antiquarians, in particular the place-names that compounded still tangible features of the landscape with Scandinavian personal names. During the nineteenth century, surveys were conducted and beautiful hand-inked maps plotted that conjured the ghosts of the Norse-speaking country-folk, summoning them to reclaim the familiar lakes, farms and fells.10 Some of these antiquarians, like W. G. Collingwood and Charles Arundel Parker, spun sagas of their own out of the place-names with which they were most familiar, the Cumbrian Lake District becoming a subject of particularly intense study and fascination. Tales like Parker’s The Story of Shelagh, Olaf Cuaran’s Daughter (1909) and Collingwood’s Thorstein of the Mere (1895) and The Bondwoman (1896) are practically forgotten today, the stilted tenor of late Victorian narrative militating against their enduring popularity, but they are fascinating for what they reveal about the intellectual climate in which they were written – as enthusiasm for the Viking past developed in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. For what is so striking about writers like Collingwood is their willingness to marry their romantic attachment to the places, languages and objects of the Viking Age past to the pioneering academic study of them. It was scholarship as both art and science – the attempt to conjure the wonder of a lost world back into existence through the combination of patient study and literary and artistic invocation.11


Frontispiece to Thorstein of the Mere, drawn by W. G. Collingwood, 1895

Collingwood, who had been intimately acquainted with the Lake District from an early age (he was born in Liverpool), came to live at Gillhead (Lake Windermere) in 1883. But he had been, and remained, closely associated with Coniston; from 1880 he worked as personal assistant to John Ruskin during the long twilight of the latter’s life – twenty years during which the great man’s powers inexorably dimmed, his mental health failing, his beard growing longer and whiter as his relevance diminished. It was, in Collingwood’s own words, a ‘very pleasant servitude’, often staying one night a week at Ruskin’s home, Brantwood, overlooking Coniston Water, the Old Man looming on the far shore. But there can be little doubt of the emotional and practical demands that Ruskin placed on the younger man’s shoulders. ‘Nobody knows how awful these times are,’ he would write of Ruskin’s mental degeneration (in 1889, the year before the latter’s death).12 The bond between the two men was a strong one. When Ruskin died, Collingwood designed Ruskin’s gravestone (the Ruskin Cross), which stands in the graveyard of St Andrew’s Church in Coniston, its elaborate neo-Anglo-Saxon stylings perhaps a more fitting legacy to Collingwood’s own life’s work than to that of his celebrated patron. Collingwood’s own gravestone stands just feet away, modest and plain by comparison, deferential even in death. It is poignant that a man of his talents should be remembered in this way, struggling to break free from a persona as overwhelming as Ruskin’s – a young, glittering star, shackled to the orbit of a grotesquely swollen giant, obliterated by the embrace of its sickly dying light.13

After Ruskin’s death, Collingwood produced a great deal of valuable work; the bibliography of his works – running to seven pages in Matthew Townend’s definitive study – speaks for itself. Several of these represented major breakthroughs for early medieval scholarship. His Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age (1927), for example – with its meticulously hand-drawn contents, catalogued and described with a breathtaking precision and care born of love – is described by Townend as ‘a triumph, a great scholarly achievement, and one that has been enormously influential in the subsequent study of pre-Conquest sculpture’.14 This was, in many ways, the culmination of Collingwood’s antiquarian career – a mature work, published five years before his death in 1932. More remarkable, in some ways, is his much earlier book Scandinavian Britain, published in 1908 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. It has sat on my desk throughout the writing of this book, a reminder that I walk on paths trodden before by others, whose efforts to clear away the brambles and the boulders has made my journey much easier than theirs.15

Scandinavian Britain was a book years ahead of its time, a fact acknowledged by some16 but certainly forgotten by most. Its seamless combination of philology, history and archaeology was a pioneering foray into what we would now call inter-disciplinary study, the attempt to liberate evidence from narrow silos and force them to communicate in conjuring an image of the past. There is deep irony in this: what came naturally to Collingwood, the very quality that makes his writing so easy and unforced and his scholarship so lightly worn, has become a subject of protracted theoretical debate and (sometimes heated) argument; I am sure he would have read much modern historical and archaeological theory with bewilderment.17 For Collingwood, as for many scholars before the creeping professionalization and specialization of the later twentieth century, it would have been entirely natural to muster all of the evidence for the Viking Age that he could access, deploying it on its own merits, without prejudice.

As a result, many of Collingwood’s specific conclusions, as well as the overall tenor of his treatment, remain startlingly modern, not least his recognition that Viking identities were surprisingly adaptable to the cultural climates into which they plunged. More obviously dated, though in no way to its detriment, is the physical quality of the first edition – a fine example of early twentieth-century publishing, with its beautiful gilt lettering and a finely drawn fold-out map. This sort of attention to detail was to be a hallmark of the work with which Collingwood was associated, and more often than not it was his own hand that supplied the maps and illustrations: he was a highly skilled draughtsman, and brought his pen to bear on the sculpture of the north, producing some of the earliest accurate surveys of what we might now call Anglo-Scandinavian sculptural style. But he was also more than equal to the task of illuminating fictional and mythological work with lively borders and marginalia, maps and frontispieces – enlivening his scholarly output with artistry, and grounding his imaginative work with observational rigour.

My great-great-great-great-uncle, G. W. Kitchin (1827–1912), had also, like Ruskin, once lived at Brantwood – indeed he was the occupant who vacated the premises immediately ahead of Ruskin’s tenure. The two men had a relationship of sorts, Kitchin having once written a long essay entitled ‘Ruskin at Oxford’ (one of an improbable number of accomplishments and distinctions).18 Kitchin spent his time at Brantwood in the early 1870s in the employ of the Clarendon Press, proofing the pages of the mighty Cleasby–Vigfusson English–Icelandic dictionary, a monumental work of scholarship which remains a definitive foundation of the study of Icelandic and Old Norse in English. Indeed, Kitchin had been instrumental in supporting Vigfusson’s labours during his time at Oxford in the late 1860s.19 His interest was active and engaged – while working on the proofs he consulted the local antiquarian Thomas Ellwood about the Old Norse antecedents of Cumbrian dialect words – and later he wrote to Ellwood from Denmark (Kitchin’s wife Alice was a friend of Queen Alexandra) with the rather outlandish claim that ‘a countryman from here [Denmark] and a countryman from that neighbourhood [the Lake District] would, if speaking their respective dialects, be almost able to mutually understand one another’.20 (One wonders whether, given the rarefied circles in which he moved, Kitchin had all that many conversations with ‘countrymen’ of either persuasion.)

Some of this interest doubtless originated in his ancestry. His father, Isaac, came from a family of Cumberland ‘Statesmen’, a class of yeoman-farmers that he praised for ‘their independence, their sturdy battle with nature, their simplicity and traditional loyalty’.21 Kitchin regarded these ‘Statesmen’ – independent peasant farmers – as parallels to a Norse (or Swiss) ‘type’, fiercely protective of their freedoms and their rights.22 They were, in other words, the models for Collingwood’s conception of the free Norse farmers who populated fictional works like Thorstein of the Mereand, indeed, Collingwood drew direct parallels between these ‘Statesmen’ and the free farmers (bóndi) of Old Norse saga literature. It was a simplistic idea – though a common enough sort of notion in those days – and an appealing one, particularly for antiquarians working in a predominantly local milieu. In its crudest iterations it was articulated in clumsy racial stereotypes offered up as evidence for the longevity of Viking influence. For example, the cleric, writer and conservationist Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851–1920) felt that to ‘look at the blue eyes and the fine cut profile and heavy jaws, and large limbs and long arms of the shepherds and farm folk of the dales’ is to ‘feel that just such were the Norse sea-rangers’.23

This sort of thing would be laughable if such ideas had not been manipulated to maleficent ends throughout the twentieth century. Nevertheless, biological descent as an indicator of population movements has, indeed, come to be a viable tool of modern research. South of Cumbria, along the Irish Sea coastline of the Wirral and West Lancashire, maybe half of the male population whose ancestors can be shown to have been present in the region before 1600 have Scandinavian markers in their DNA.24 What such research cannot show, however, is when or how this genetic material entered a population or the number of individuals from which it ultimately derives. It is also selective, ignoring the very many other biological markers that are prevalent in particular communities. More importantly, such research is possible only when it is carried out with relatively large sample sizes, ensuring that results are statistically significant and can be compared meaningfully with other populations. When used in this way, it has the potential to reveal something about the scale of past migrations, even if it remains something of a blunt instrument. Without care, however, it can easily be manipulated to resemble racial bluster – a means to prove (or disprove) a biological connection to a past invested with moral quality or desirable antique glamour: a superiority of the blood.

It was turning dark when we arrived in Coniston, and it had just started to rain. We missed the turning. We stopped. I consulted the directions to the cottage provided by the letting company. Turning around we drove back along the darkening street – unfamiliar shop-fronts and strangers in cagoules, wet dogs, impatient local drivers; the rain came down harder. Finally we found it; headlamps catching on the words ‘private road’, we crossed the cattle grid, feeling the first sickening lurches as the car slumped into the ruts and divots of the unmade road. I started to feel nervous. Safely tucked behind my desk I hadn’t thought much about the words ‘dirt track’. It had conjured images of a hundred yards of farm track, muddy and bumpy but with a picturesque stripe of greensward rippling down the centre, a touch of bucolic wilderness to signal that the modern world was at our backs – nothing that could threaten defeat.

As we drove on, the gradient increased, until it was clear that the road was taking us into the fells. It soon became apparent that the road was not a road at all. For substantial stretches, the granite bedrock was laid bare beneath us, the bones of the mountain rubbed raw, defleshed by wheels and walkers; and then there were the pools of scree, the carpet of broken slates that poured down from the mountain like a petrified river, the blood of a giant loosed to cover its wounded flanks. I don’t really know why we stopped; I think the will just ebbed away. It was the sudden knowledge of having been beaten, the sudden clarity of failure after the adrenaline of panic dies away. But now the car wouldn’t move, its sad wheels spinning feebly in the wet sandy gravel. There we were, for a moment, clinging like an iridescent beetle to the foothills of the Coniston Old Man, both of us silent, minds blank, despair seeping in.

If three returning walkers hadn’t suddenly appeared in the road behind us, all willing to help push the car and endure a muddy splattering and the funk of a tortured clutch, I don’t know what would have happened. But they did, and they were, and after a few miserable minutes of grunting and shoving, we were on our way. Finally, tired and dejected, we made it to our lodgings, overlooking the copper mines and the ribbon of silver water that tumbled from the peaks. But up above, glowering down at us, the Old Man was watching. There was no mistaking it. We had been warned.

Almost as soon as we arrived, my wife was struck down with flu. Shuttered in the upstairs room of the cottage, she was not to move beyond the front door until the grim day arrived when she was compelled to drive us both home again. For the rest of the week I watched, increasingly irritated, as a succession of inappropriate hatchbacks bounded up the valley with abandon. On foot I visited the Ruskin Museum, founded by Collingwood in 1901, and the Ruskin Cross, designed by Collingwood in 1900. And every afternoon I sat in the window to write. But always the Old Man was out there watching me, glaring down unmoving, ever changing. I had to climb him. It was inevitable.

‘Our first walk is naturally to climb the Coniston Old Man,’ declares Collingwood in The Book of Coniston: ‘It is quite worth while making the ascent on a cloudy day. The loss of the panorama is amply compensated by the increased grandeur of the effects of gloom and mystery on the higher crags.’25 Everywhere there are delvings and workings, spoil heaps and tunnels, culverts and rushing water. Even as I climb, it feels as though the summit recedes, the distances stretching and distorting; the landscape giving up its form grudgingly, revealing its folds and contours one at a time – painfully, slowly. I move up under the black-slate crag, the silver-mercury water marbling the grey with an endless roar, tumbling down from Low Water above; then up and over the springing turf, past boulders that stud the hillsides, scattered like seeds from the hands of giants, down from Raven’s Tor. Suddenly I am up to the rim of Levers Water, the wide cool tarn spreading beneath hunched knots of rock. I skirt the water round to the left and start to climb again. He’s always ahead of me, Collingwood, wiry legs poking out from his shorts, a ghost at the bend in the path, always out of reach. A phantom. I picture him like a mountain goat, like the shaggy upland sheep that bound, with terrifying sureness of foot, up and down the mountain paths – a spry old fellow with a bright gleam in his eye, too quick to catch.

‘It is here, on a cloudy day when the tops are covered, that the finest impressions of mountain gloom may be found; under the cloud and the precipices a dark green tarn, savage rocks, and tumbling streams; and out, beyond, the tossing sea of mountain forms.’26

On the summit ridge, everything changes. Shifting clouds smother the contours, bleaching the landscape, masking the drop. Surrounding peaks loom out of the vapours, hulking leviathans wreathed in mist, no longer chained to the world below but free to crash like icebergs through the fog. The path ahead is bleak and otherworldly, heaped cairns along the path speak of the dead, the horizontal trails of cloud like angry shades, screaming over the mountaintop, voices joined with the howling wind that screams across the peak. Black carrion shapes hover in this twilight kingdom, their wings thrum like propellers overhead.

‘The view on a clear day commands Ingleborough to the east, Snowdon to the south, the Isle of Man to the west, and to the north, Scafell and Bowfell, Glaramara and Skiddaw, Blencathra and Helvellyn: and beneath these all the country spread out like a raised model, with toy hills and lakes and villages.’27

And then suddenly it clears, and the ghosts are gone. I can see Coniston Water laid out below me, and the fells rising in ranks behind me. And away on the far banks of Coniston Water I can see the house, mere flotsam below the tree line, where Ruskin and Collingwood worked and Kitchin once sat, leafing through proofs from the Clarendon Press; and I know that all of them, every day they were there, raised their eyes from their work to look, up through the great study window, to gaze at the Old Man, unmoving, ever changing, and found me gazing back at them across the water.


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