Post-classical history



Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.


northwards lies the road to hell

SNORRI STURLUSON, Gylfaginning (early thirteenth century)2


Ærest of swin forda upp andlang broces to ceolnes wyllan …

(‘Go first up from the swine ford and along the brook to ceolnes [Ceolwine’s?] well’)3

At the river’s edge you pass a churl driving his pigs across the muddy ford, hairy oinkers on their way to the wood pasture, eager to rootle among wyrttruma (‘woody roots’) for acorns and beech mast; the animal scent of sweat and pig shit, crumbly clods of dried mud dropping from bristly bottoms. It is damp down here, soggy. Water seeps into your shoes (stitched leather – hardly watertight) as you turn to the north, away from the ford. Perhaps you slip a little on the muddy path that runs beside the brook and stub a toe on a stone – the dull throbbing adding injury to numbness in your cold feet; at least there are no midges (mycgas) at this time of year. You pause and place a bright glass bead on the flat mossy stone beside the spring where the brook wells up – you have heard from the monks how, long ago, a pilgrim called Ceolwine struck his ash staff on the stone and a rush of cold water sprang up to slake his thirst: a miracle they said. But an old man in the village told you this was rubbish: his grandfather had been a boy when the old gods still lived here and the folk made sacrifice, mounting the heads on ash poles and throwing the bones into the water; now their corpses haunt the marshy edgelands: ‘you can hear them coming when the light fails boy: drip … drip … drip …’

Probably best to leave a gift either way.

andlang hege ræwe to luttes crundele · þanon to grafes owisce · Andlang owisce to wege …

(‘along the hedgerow to luttes [Lutt’s?] pit and then on to the eaves of the grove; along the eaves to the road’)

Reaching the hedgerow is a welcome relief: the land slopes slightly away from the brook here, the earth becomes firmer. As you walk alongside the broad band of bramble and blackthorn, you can hear the rustling of foraging birds: a blackbird (ōsle) probably, or a finch (finc). A streak of brown – a mouse (mūs), or a shrew (screāwa) perhaps – shoots across the path ahead and disappears rustling into the undergrowth: all are hunting for the last berries of autumn.4 It is November (Blōt-mōnaþ: ‘the month of sacrifice’), and the scent of damp earth mingles with the vinegar notes of rotten apples. You hurry past Lutt’s pit – part stone quarry, part sepulchre (the word, crundel, is ambiguous): you have heard stories about this place too, but you would rather not dwell on them now, not until you are clear of the dark overhanging woods. You know you’re being a baby – this is managed woodland after all – but you’re glad when you reach the road all the same.

… Andlang weges to æles beorge · nyþer on aler cumb · Andlang aler cumbes ut on afene · Andlang afene eft on swin ford.

(‘along the road to æles [Ælle’s?] barrow and down to alder-tree valley; along alder-tree valley and out to the Avon; along the Avon to the swine ford.’)

From here it is an easier stroll on the compacted earth, compressed by the tread of generations of men and beasts. You need to watch where you’re going, mind – sometimes dips in the path have allowed the rain water to gather. Here the plunge of heavy hoofs, and the ruts riven by the ox-wains, have churned the path into patches of slimy mud – you dance your way with giant steps, and try to keep to the green stripe that marks the middle of the track. When you eventually look up, you give an involuntary start: massing against the westering sky, the dark bulk of Ælle’s barrow looms. The atmosphere thickens. This is a place of power; everyone knows it … even the monks, though they pretend it’s all just superstition: heathen folly, you’ve heard them call it, although not in front of the reeve – he’ll tell anyone who listens that his ancestor is buried under that mound, sleeping until the day his people call upon his aid in battle. It’s not so different, now you think of it, to the stories the monks tell: of long-dead saints who return to help the living … Lost in thought you stroll through the alder trees and back down the valley, arriving at the river as the light begins to fail.

Standing on the banks you watch the ghost-white spectre of a swan glide past, the curve of its neck rising from its breast as the prow of a ship rises from its keel, carving the placid water, silent in its grace.


The fragments of Old English, translated above, are from what is known as a boundary clause, a description of the edges of a parcel of land. This one describes an area at North Stoke in Somerset. It was written down and added to a charter documenting a grant of land made by the West Saxon king Cynewulf (r. 757–86), Beorhtric’s predecessor. Like many such clauses, it is written in English – the common tongue – but it is inserted into a document otherwise drafted in Latin, the officialese of ecclesiastical administrators. The implication is clear enough: while Latin was appropriate for the legal formulae of witness lists and the stern religious injunctions against violating the terms of the charter, the description of the land came straight from lived experience – from the mnemonic commitment of landscape to oral narrative.

A boundary clause circumscribes a place known at an intimately local level, swaddling a parcel of land with animals, plants and the bumps and wrinkles of the soil. In some cases these bounds can still be followed in the perimeters of modern parishes, and the ‘beating of the bounds’ – a communal ritual of remembering in which the bounds are not only walked, but the landmarks physically struck by the participants – has in some places endured to the present day. These texts provide more than a simple insight into local administrative geography, however. They show us a way of understanding the world, not with the false objectivity of the map-reader looking down from above, but as an actor and participant within it. Names and monuments emerge by the wayside: no one knows any more who this Ceolwine was or what he meant to the stream that bore his name; none can say what crawling things or shadow walkers (sceadugangan) might have emerged from Lutt’s pit or Ælle’s barrow in dark Anglo-Saxon dreams. What is beyond doubt is that places like these, all over England, were the punctuation points in the stories that rural communities told about their world: more than how to get from A to B (or, in the case of boundary clauses, how to get from A back to A), these were the tapestries of lived existence that were woven both in words and in the physical actions of human beings moving and interacting with the world around them.5

In a modern context, geographical knowledge tends to be represented in forms which are relatively static. We think of masses of land and water viewed from space, the contours of mountains, the reflective spatter of lakes, the ragged torn coastline of Norway – remembered by Slartibartfast in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for its ‘lovely crinkly edges’.6 We also think of neatly inked political boundaries, the nation states limned in pink and powder blue, or of roads and railways scored decisively across the page. These types of knowledge are essentially cartographical, known to us through abstracted, two-dimensional images. Whether carried in the imagination, drawn by hand or photographed from space, the map is the dominant means by which we understand our relationship to the physical world. And yet, in myriad ways, it is fundamentally flawed – made all the more misleading by the sense of omniscience it instils: maps, we feel, make gods of us. It takes only a little scratching to find the bloodstains under the cartographer’s pastel palette. Enduring fault-lines of religion, language and politics are obscured; ancient pathways fade from view. Distances are rendered down to straight lines through empty space, continents grotesquely contorted through the amputation of their third dimension. The senses are cauterized: map-world is a place for the eyes alone. That we instinctively feel this sensory loss can be judged by the compulsive desire to run frustrated fingertips over the smooth surfaces of maps and globes, subconsciously seeking the missing textures of the earth.7

How inadequate – how anaemic – this would have seemed to Beaduheard’s contemporaries, steeped in a geography that was personal, local, storied. For early medieval Britons, geographical knowledge was more than just a series of routes and landmarks; it was a series of signs and symbols that plumbed time, mythology and identity – moving through ancient landscapes could mean travelling backwards in time, while ancestral mythologies transported people to far-off realms.

Maps were not unknown, but their circulation was restricted to a handful of learned men and fulfilled very different purposes from their modern counterparts. A common form was the T-O map – a schematic diagram, or ‘ideogram’, that divided the world into three unequal segments: Asia (the top half of the circle), Africa (the bottom right quarter) and Europe (the bottom left). Jerusalem lay at the centre. The image was in part a means of concentrating the mind on the totality of God’s creation, its symmetry and its unity. By superimposing the letters T and O on to its form, it also incorporated the initials of the words terra orbis (orb of the world; the globe) into the design. Needless to say, it was of limited utility to the disorientated traveller. Like boundary clauses, early maps and the base of knowledge from which they were derived were essentially concerned with circumscription – the gathering of what was known into (usually circular) plans, forming an ‘inside’ and an ‘out there’. In the Greek and Roman worlds this had symbolized the distinction between civilization and barbaricum; in the Christian epoch ‘inside’ indicated, if not exactly Christendom, then the totality of that portion of the earth which lay within the orbit of potential salvation. Later medieval maps – such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi – depict Christ standing behind the world, literally embracing creation.8

That which lay beyond these borders was, in this conception, more dreadful than mere terra incognita. It was the abyss – the world beyond God.

A sense of how fearsome this outer world could seem is evident in Old English poetry and the cosmology it reflects: the Old English poetic retelling of Genesis, for example, paints the earth as a golden hall surrounded by a sea of darkness – the void a place of mist and sorrow beyond the light of God.9 Other poems refine this image: the cold seas of The Wanderer and The Seafarer reflect both physical and spiritual desolation. It is Beowulf, however, that really drives this fear home:

Grendel was the grim ghoul named,

Famous edge-marcher, who held the moors

The fen and fastness …10

The first part of Beowulf tells the story of how the eponymous hero came to Denmark from his home in the land of the Geats, drawn by tales of a monster – named Grendel – who for many years had menaced the hall – Heorot – of the Danish king Hrothgar. Beowulf defeats the monster, tearing off his arm and sending him fleeing back to die in his fenland home. But the real power and tension in this part of the poem follows the monster. Grendel is the border-walker, the dweller in shadow, the descendant of Cain and an avatar of jealous alienation. He is of the world ‘outside’ – fifelcynnes eard, literally ‘monster-world’ – and it is with horrible fascination that the poet follows him ‘down over mist-slopes’, creeping through the darkness, coming with the fog, greedy hands pushing at the hall door.11

‘Heorot’ literally means ‘hart’ (a male deer), but the word is derived from the same root as the Old English heorte, a word which means ‘heart’ in all its literal and figurative senses; and in Beowulf the hall is, indeed, the beating heart of human culture – a symbol of warmth and light, safety and security, community and the affirmation of bonds: it is fortress, pub and family home wrapped into one. The violation of that safety and sanctity is what gives the poem a psychological edge that cuts easily across the centuries – Grendel is the home-invader, the wolf in the fold, striking deep at the vitals of society.

In fact, Grendel and his kin are described in explicitly lupine terms by the Beowulf poet, a distinction they share with other malefactors of the Anglo-Saxon world. The term wearg (the origin of Tolkien’s ‘warg’) meant both ‘wolf’ and ‘criminal’, and the label wulvesheofod (‘wolf’s head’) was, by the eleventh century, used to define outlaw status. The Vikings who appear in the poetic account of the battle of Maldon in 991 are ‘slaughter-wolves’ (waelwulfas). These groups – monsters, criminals, outlaws, Vikings – posed threats to the ordered world represented by the hall: they were the wolves beyond the border, the slaughterers, raveners, stealers of property, of livestock, of children. In a world where terrors could be made horribly and suddenly real, it is small wonder that Ine’s laws should have been so unforgiving to the outlander.12

Of all the compass points from which terror might emanate, there was one which held the greatest dread. This was not just because the sea had repeatedly disgorged boatloads of child-snatchers and hall-burners from precisely this direction, nor indeed because empirical observation demonstrated that this was the horizon over which the most wretched weather tended to hurtle, but because the Anglo-Saxons already knew full well that it was here that Satan had set his throne.

This was the medieval world’s heart of darkness: the North.


Behind are the familiar paths and places of home, the songs in the hall, the fire, the harp. Out here there is only the dark, only the cold, only the biting north wind that screams over the barren hillsides. Rocky paths lie ahead, thin winding ways where death leers blackly from the fells below. A mist closes in, a wolf howls … Down through the mist-bands, a glimmer of light flickers – ghostly, ethereal, unnatural: a sheen of dark water, witch-fires burning on its surface. Beyond the water a bleak forest looms, glowering from gloomy cliffs. Branches encrusted with rime and hoarfrost drag skeletal fingers through the frigid air; roots like serpents quest over slimy banks towards the rotting stagnant tarn. In the reeking water nameless things writhe and wriggle. Monsters dwell here – among the ‘wolf-slopes, windy headlands, dangerous fen-tracts’.13 To go further would be to risk soul and sanity: here the laws of nature are perverted and upended – the burning black water rushes upwards towards the heavens and gouts of ice and flame entwine. From the sky comes a deadly hail, lashing from the roiling clouds, and amid the black mist comes the beating of wings in the darkness, like clouds of leathery moths searching for prey to pluck into the storm-wracked heavens. Further northwards, and deeper down, lies the abyss itself: sometimes a foul cavern beneath the waves, infested with serpents and other filthy wriggling things, sometimes a grim bastion wreathed in smoke and fume, ‘evil spirits running about amid the black caverns and gloomy abysses’.14


Other than the T-O ideograms, very few maps date to the eighth century or earlier, and the northern world is all but absent from them. It seems that, at the beginning of the Viking Age, what learned British monks knew of classical scholarship implied that Britain was, itself, at the ends of the earth: about lands further north, classical and Christian learning was vague, and it is uncertain how much of this knowledge was even accessible to British monks. The image they would have had was one of vaguely drawn islands floating in sluggish seas: of the isle of Thule and the land of the Hyperboreans (the dwellers ‘beyond the north wind’), of men with bestial bodies and others with the heads of dogs – a dwelling place of monsters.15 In this, it was not unlike any of the unknown regions of the earth, but the theme of the North as a specifically satanic realm also manifested itself in the literature of medieval Britain. Often this can be found in ways clearly derived from biblical narratives, but at others it appeared in vivid and idiosyncratic form.

In the tale of St Guthlac, written at the monastery of Crowland in Lincolnshire in the 730s by a monk called Felix, the treatment meted out by a demonic horde to the unfortunate anchorite is described in vivid terms. After a relentless campaign of physical and psychological punishment,

they began to drag him through the cloudy stretches of the freezing skies to the sound of the horrid beating of their wings. Now when he had reached the lofty summit of the sky, then, horrible to relate, lo! the region of the northern heavens seemed to grow dark with gloomy mists and black clouds. For there could be seen coming thence to meet them, innumerable squadrons of foul spirits. Thus with all their forces joined in one, they turned their way with immense uproar into thin air, and carried the afore-named servant of Christ, Guthlac, to the accursed jaws of hell.16

Nor is this the only northern tradition to riff on the biblical theme of the diabolical North. The vision of St Paul, as told in late Anglo-Saxon England, recounts that ‘St Paul was looking at the northern part of this world, where all the waters go down, and he saw there above the water a certain grey rock, and there had grown north of that rock very frosty woods, and there were dark mists, and under that rock was a dwelling place of water-monsters and wolves; and he saw that on that cliff there hung in those icy woods many black souls, tied by their hands, and their foes, in the guise of water-monsters, were gripping them like greedy wolves, and the water was black …’17

That these ideas had deep roots in the northern psyche is implied by striking similarities between this description of the monster-haunted North and the Beowulf poet’s description of the home of Grendel and his mother. The two descriptions are almost certainly related.

Though no comparable tales survive from the Celtic-speaking areas of Britain, the Irish life of St Brendan – written in the seventh century – describes boiling northern seas and an island of flame and tormented howling: ‘the confines of Hell’ as the saint puts it.18 Even the people of Scandinavia themselves knew that niðr ok norðr liggr Helvegr (‘netherwards and northwards lies the road to hell’).19 The word ‘hell’ itself has no Latin-Christian origin. It is older than that, reflecting fragments of a shared vision that haunted the darker dreams of the Anglo-Saxons and their contemporaries: a nightmare North of the early medieval imagination.

The human inhabitants of this world, if known at all, would have been distinguished for their heathenism – their rejection of Christian norms and values, their bloodletting and their weird rites. It would have been natural to imagine them, to use the historian Eric Christiansen’s memorable phrase, as ‘robot agents of Satan’s foreign policy’, flesh and blood avatars of the monster-world beyond the pale.20

When the men of the North next appeared in the written record, in all their dreadful pomp and fury, they more than lived up to the fevered imaginings of their victims. In 793, the North disgorged its innards in lurid tones, and chroniclers responded with imagery that came easily:

In this year dire fore-bodings came over Northumbria and miserably terrified the people: there were immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying aloft. Those signs were soon followed by a great hunger, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the harrying of heathen men wretchedly destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.21

Of all the religious centres of northern Europe, there were few that could rival the cultural muscle of the island priory of Lindisfarne. Its peripheral location, tied to the Northumbrian coast by the narrow umbilical cord of its tidal causeway, belied the wealth and status that it had accrued since its foundation in the early seventh century. Much of this flowed from the stories told of its most famous bishop, Cuthbert (c. 634–87). Cuthbert – a monk originally from Melrose who had later been appointed prior of the community at Lindisfarne – was elevated to bishop in March 685. For perhaps as long as nine years, Cuthbert lived in self-imposed exile from Lindisfarne as a hermit on Inner Farne, a wildly bleak outcrop of grey granite stacks, jutting gloomily from the sea.22 It was a life of hardship, solitude and self-denial modelled on the penitential attitudes of the desert fathers – St Anthony in particular. His elevation to bishop did little to change his temperament – by 687 he had returned to his hermitage, determined to live out his last in solitude.

On Inner Farne, Cuthbert – like St Anthony – encountered devils in the wilderness. The accounts of his struggles are brief – he fought them with ‘the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith and the sword of spirit which is the word of God’ – and the vanquished demons are left to the imagination.23 But it is perhaps justifiable to imagine them in the same way that Felix depicted the diabolical horde that appeared in his life of St Guthlac:

they were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeon breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries […] they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shriekings that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowings.24

The effect is cumulative. What starts out as absurd – comical even (shaggy ears? wild foreheads?) – becomes ever more grotesque and horrible, one perversion heaped on top of another, until the vision devolves into a squamous mass of deformed, unnatural depravity. If this is what early medieval people saw when they dreamt of wild places, then their dreams must have been dark indeed.

Whatever Cuthbert saw or did not see on Inner Farne, he conquered his little wilderness, living out the brief remainder of his life in self-imposed exile: eating, sleeping, fasting, praying. It is easy to picture him, like the figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, gazing sadly at the cold grey ocean that embraces him: a last outpost of human life, wearily defiant before the uncaring gulf and his own mortality.

When he died, Cuthbert’s body was taken by boat to Lindisfarne. A great crowd received it, psalms were sung, and it was carried to the Church of St Peter and buried in a stone coffin beside the altar. Miracles were reported and he was canonized, his tomb becoming a place of pilgrimage. When, eleven years later, his resting place was deemed inadequate, he was exhumed for translation to a more exalted shrine. His body was apparently found uncorrupted, as pristine as the day he had passed away. The story only confirmed his sanctity and his legend spread, the monastery growing in size and wealth, its scriptoria producing illuminated gospels which – like the Lindisfarne Gospels (commissioned to ornament Cuthbert’s shrine-tomb) – are some of the greatest treasures of their age.

We might be justified in imagining that, for later generations of monks, the monastic life became rather more comfortable than Cuthbert and his forebears would have approved of. By the time of the raid on Lindisfarne, contemporaries – as we shall see – had already begun to voice their opinion on these matters, and it is likely that there really was a drop in standards in the century after Cuthbert’s death; or, rather, that the monks gained access to temptations that their forebears had not enjoyed. Even so, the same cold sea would have lapped at their heels and the stories of the devils of Inner Farne would have been told again and again. For the monks living out their lives on the edge of the world, the sea would have been omnipresent – a wide and brooding, raging wilderness stretching out to eternity. Empty, but alive.

When the Vikings came it must have seemed to the monks as though something dreadful had finally stirred from its century-long slumber. What horrors did their bleary eyes see rushing up the moonlit shore, what gargoyles leered from the prows of the great black leviathans looming at the edge of the shadowed water? Did they see devils in the shadows – lit red in the glare of blazing torches? Were they ‘ferocious in appearance’ and ‘terrible to hear with their mighty shriekings’? Did they possess ‘filthy beards’ and ‘fierce eyes’, ‘foul mouths’ and ‘strident voices’?


Against the blood-red glare cast by fire, the dragon-headed prows of the ships stand in silhouette, grim spectators of the unfolding chaos. Like oars striking water, the axes rise and fall, biting into timber, bone and flesh; blood splatters across blankets and altar-cloths, burgundy smears in firelight. Brightly coloured shards of ruined gospels flutter among glowing embers, like butterflies and fireflies dancing together in the thermal draughts. A sea-cold breeze whips off the water, lifting the iron tang of blood and metal with the brine, the stink of death and burning carried deep into the land.


The attack on Lindisfarne in 793 has become the iconic moment that defines the engagement of Britain’s inhabitants with their neighbours across the North Sea. A sudden seaborne assault on a renowned centre of Christian learning, it was an event that sent shockwaves through Europe. From the court of Charlemagne across the Channel, the English cleric Alcuin wrote a series of letters to his brethren in England in response to this unprecedented tragedy. To him, a terror from the North should have been foreseen, particularly in the light of ‘the bloody rain, which […] we saw fall menacingly on the north side’ of St Peter’s Church in York ‘though the sky was serene’. Therefore one should not be surprised, he adds, ‘that from the north there will come upon our nation retribution in blood, which can be seen to have started with this attack’.25

A sense of the psychological impact these raids had in the communities they visited can be found in one of the more unsettling objects to have survived them. A carved stone – cracked at its base, rounded at its top – was discovered on Lindisfarne and first mentioned in the 1920s. It numbers among more than fifty tombstones – many of them decorated with Anglo-Saxon carvings and inscribed with names – that have been unearthed on the island. This one, however, is unique. On one side, figures are depicted gesturing towards the sun and moon which ride the sky together on either side of an empty cross. It is an image evoking the passage of time, the transition of day into night, mediated by the risen Christ – a reminder of the judgement to come when night finally falls over the earth.

On the other side of the stone are depicted seven men, all facing forward, their arms raised. Weapons are held aloft by five of them – three swords and two axes – and their clothing is distinctive. If the stone is taken as a whole, it seems to be a representation of the apocalypse, the armed men perhaps a representation of the wrath of God in corporeal form – a form that English monks would recognize. As we shall see, ecclesiastical commentators found it easy enough to imagine the Vikings as an instrument of divine justice. The stone was probably carved in the late ninth century, and there is no way of knowing whether these armed men are intended to depict Vikings rather than any other armed group, but it is hard to dispel the feeling that the trauma inflicted in Lindisfarne left psychological scars that would trouble the imaginations of generations of monks, colouring their apocalyptic visions.26

Lindisfarne was the first raid of this type to be recorded, but it was by no means the last. The years around the turn of the ninth century saw waterborne raiders attacking and pillaging poorly defended monasteries and settlements all around northern Britain and Ireland, as well as elsewhere in continental Europe, and for those on the receiving end it must have been a dreadful experience – made all the more terrifying by the primal horror that a heathen assault inspired.

Alcuin’s words, very often ripped from their context, are found at the beginning of many treatments of the Viking Age: ‘the pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary,’ he lamented in his letter to Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne, ‘shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street’. One has to wonder whether Higbald and the monks needed reminding. Indeed, one could easily forgive the torrent of Anglo-Saxon invective that we might imagine issuing from the good bishop’s lips upon reading the rest of Alcuin’s letter, for it is not – as one might think appropriate – a warm-hearted missive expressing sorrow, solidarity and offers of practical assistance. It is, instead, a lecture on the assumed defects of Higbald’s authority and the sub-par behaviour of his monks: they are accused of having asked for it through their drunkenness, vanity, lewdness, degeneracy and – most unfairly of all – lack of manliness (‘you who survive, stand like men’).27

In a similar letter to King Ethelred of Northumbria, Alcuin wrote the words which have led many to imagine the heathen storm breaking on the shores of Britain like lightning from a clear sky:

Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments …28

Once again the expat cleric used the opportunity to castigate the monks, this time for wishing to ‘resemble the pagans’ in their ‘trimming of beard and hair’. With this stern intervention into the hairdressing habits of his former colleagues, however, Alcuin inadvertently alerts us to something potentially more significant than Northumbrian fashion trends, something which challenges and complicates the image of the North as a hellish realm and its peoples as the devil’s imps.

While learned attitudes to the North seem certainly to have emphasized the diabolic qualities of its inhabitants, comments such as Alcuin’s imply a measure of contact and even, in some cases, admiration or nostalgia for the Scandinavian world and its denizens: a contradiction at the heart of Anglo-Saxon ideas about the wider northern world. On a simplistic level, in order to copy heathen haircuts, the monks must have been exposed to and favourably impressed by them – and presumably not when ducking a swinging axe. It seems highly probable, if not yet provable, that Scandinavian traders had become a feature at some of the new trading settlements of eighth-century England (as well as, perhaps, in the Northern Isles and Pictish Scotland as well).29

It is certainly the case that the Viking Age emerged against a background of increasingly sophisticated European trade. A new type of specialized trading settlement had grown up around the North Sea during the eighth century, exploiting and facilitating long-distance trade. These settlements – known to historians and archaeologists as ‘emporia’ – included Southampton (Hamwic), London (Lundenwic), Ipswich (Gipeswic) and York (Eoforwic) in England, as well as trading settlements at Quentovic (France), Dorestad (Netherlands), Hedeby and Ribe (Denmark), Birka (Sweden) and Kaupang (Norway) among others. It seems inconceivable that every exchange of goods between Britain and Scandinavia in the eighth century was conducted through continental middlemen.

Whatever the realities of direct trading relationships in the decades leading up to the earliest Viking raids, archaeology suggests that contacts across the North Sea in the preceding centuries had been close. A famous example (referred to in the preceding chapter) serves to illustrate the point. The great masked helmet (the Old English word, rather wonderfully, is grimhelm) that was excavated from the boat grave found beneath Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk finds its closest parallels in the highly elaborate boat graves from the cemeteries at Vendel and, later, Valsgärde in Sweden; the parallels, in both the style of artefacts and the manner of their burial, demonstrate elements of a cultural identity that spanned the North Sea. This, and a great deal of other evidence (not least the transformation of lowland Britain from a Romano-British-speaking population to one which used the western Germanic ‘Old English’ language), broadly supports the stories which the Anglo-Saxons told about their own origins.30 On this point, the Northumbrian monk and scholar Bede – writing at Jarrow in the early eighth century – was quite explicit:

In the year of our Lord 449 […] the Angles or Saxons came to Britain at the invitation of King Vortigern in three long-ships […] They […] sent back news of their success to their homeland, adding that the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly […] These new-comers were from the three most formidable races of Germany, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes.31

The first group, the Saxons, came from a region identified by Bede as ‘Old Saxony’ – now north-west Germany. The Angles and the Jutes originated in the Jutland peninsula, occupying land which, by the time Bede was writing, lay within the kingdom of the Danes. Quite how true this story is remains unknowable (though it is certain that significant migration from the continent did occur). But what is critical is that the Anglo-Saxons themselves believed it to be true.32

By Bede’s day, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ had been in Britain for the best part of 300 years (by his reckoning), and had been Christian, in most cases, for several generations. By the late eighth century, they had formed a number of independent kingdoms, each with its own cultural and geographical peculiarities. Nevertheless, the tribes from whom they claimed descent were (and, in the late eighth century, remained) pagan peoples, part of a wider northern European heritage that had stood beyond the limits of Rome’s continental frontiers. As receivers of that heritage, the Anglo-Saxons were torch-carriers for traditions, tales, words and images from a legendary world. That world, though its shapes and contours grew ever more indistinct, yet blazed brightly in the imaginations of poets and storytellers. The earliest genealogical lists of Anglo-Saxon royal houses typically extend via Woden, the pagan deity equivalent to Odin (ON Oðinn) in Old Norse mythology, through Finn (a legendary Frisian king) to Geat, the eponymous ancestor of Beowulf’s own Scandinavian tribe.

Even a century of Viking attacks failed to dampen enthusiasm amongst the Anglo-Saxons for their northern heritage. By the end of the ninth century, royal genealogies had expanded to include Bældæg (the Old Norse god Balder), Scyld (the legendary progenitor of the Danes) and possibly Beowulf the Geat himself.33 Negotiating the evidence for the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons identified with this heritage is complex and sometimes bewildering. Much of what remains is reduced to the blank names of kings and heroes – names which must once have conjured great arcs of narrative, laced with the myths of the pre-Christian past, but whose owners now stand mute guard at the entrance to pathways which can never now be trod.

The perpetuation of this fascination with the ancestral North did not, however, go unchallenged. Writing in around the year 800, our friend Alcuin was so incensed by this sort of thing that, in a letter to another Anglo-Saxon bishop, he demanded to know ‘what has Ingeld to do with Christ?’ We know only a single anecdote about Ingeld, king of the Heathobards – a gloomy story about how he burned Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, and was thereafter a target of the Danish king’s vengeance. The story is alluded to in Beowulf and mentioned in passing in another Old English poem, Widsith. Alcuin’s reference to Ingeld pops up in a passage in which he lambasts his fellow ecclesiasts for listening to music and ‘inappropriate’ stories at dinner-time and for laughing in the courtyards (he presumably didn’t get invited to many parties). It is of particular interest, however, because it suggests that even in what should have been a thoroughly Christian environment, the old stories were still popular – and this at a time when, in Alcuin’s own words, the ‘bodies of the saints were being trampled like dung’ by the living descendants of Hrothgar and his kin.34

Rather less is known about attitudes to the ancestral North in other parts of Britain. One tradition, reported by Bede, held that the Picts – the people inhabiting the highland and island regions of what is now Scotland – had originated in ‘Scythia’. This land had been believed by classical authorities to have existed in an ill-defined region somewhere, seemingly, in northern Eurasia. Whether the Picts themselves believed this to be true – and if they did, what they thought of it – is less than clear. The Welsh, on the other hand, had their own distinct boreal traditions: to them, Hen Ogledd (‘the Old North’) referred to those parts of Britain from which their ancestors had been ejected by Anglo-Saxon incomers in the sixth and seventh centuries. It was an altogether more insular sense of northernness, and can only have compounded the sense that northern lands beyond the sea were a place whence nothing much good ever came.35

Among the English-speaking peoples, however, we are left with an apparent paradox – a set of attitudes to the North that painted it as both shining ancestral homeland and infernal monster-infested wasteland, its inhabitants as both cousins and aliens. As a result, the Viking has emerged as a Janus-faced figure, constantly at war with himself in our imaginations: poet or plunderer, merchant or marauder, berserker or boat-builder, kinsman or kin-of-Cain. The reconciliation of these themes and the resolution of these identities is in large measure the story of Viking Britain. It is a process of negotiation that continues to this day, and begins with the fundamental question of who we understand the Vikings to be.


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