Post-classical history



Bitter is the wind tonight,

it stirs up the white-waved sea.

I do not fear the coursing of the Irish sea

by the fierce warriors of Lothlind [Vikings].

Irish monk (ninth century)1

If the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 remains the apocalyptic touchstone for the Viking Age in Britain, it was only the first of many similar attacks that were to rage up and down the coastlines of Britain and Ireland in the years around 800. Viking raiders struck at Iona in the Western Isles in 795, at Jarrow (former home to the monastic scholar Bede) in 796, at Hartness and Tynemouth in 800, at Iona again in 802 and 806.2 The earliest raids in Ireland fell in 795 on Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim (almost certainly the same group that had already hit Iona in that year), at St Patrick’s Isle (Co. Dublin) in 798 and at Inishmurray (Co. Sligo) in 798 and 807.3 The record is patchy and incomplete; but what is certain is that people died and people suffered. There is not much direct evidence of the impact of these early Viking raids, no clear indication of the human cost exacted – of the people, possessions and lives that were snatched away. But there are traces – objects and remains that give terror and plunder a weight and substance that even the purplest of ecclesiastical prose fails to convey. It is here, in the material traces of the Viking Age – in stone and bone and metal – that something of the original purpose and the impact of the Vikings in Britain can be seen.

A grim and bearded head lies within the collection of the British Museum.4 It is small, made of bronze and dated to the eighth century – a piece of Scottish, Irish or Northumbrian workmanship. It was probably intended to depict the face of a saint (it is strikingly similar to the depiction of St Mark in the Lichfield Gospels). Discovered near Furness Abbey in Cumbria (a region, as we shall see, of later Scandinavian settlement), the head has been adapted as a weight in a manner typical of Viking traders. Stuffed with lead, it has been turned to a new use in the hands of owners more concerned with personalizing their belongings than with piety. The little head, severed from its body, hacked from whatever piece of ecclesiastical treasure it had once been intended to decorate, is a reminder of the material consequences of Viking raids – of the treasured possessions that were broken and stolen, the human heads that were detached from their bodies, of the people taken away from their homes and disposed of far away.

Direct evidence for the sort of violence recorded by monastic writers is rare and often equivocal; a number of skeletons excavated from the ditch of an enclosed settlement at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey, for example, were long believed to be local victims of Viking raiding until chemical analysis of the remains revealed several of them to have grown up in Scandinavia: not, in itself, any reason to believe that they were not the victims of raiding, but enough to complicate the narrative considerably.5 In only one place in Britain – at the former monastery at Portmahomack in Scotland – has good evidence for the violence of Viking raiding been uncovered; it is a place, moreover, that is not mentioned in any written source that has survived from the Viking Age.

‘The further north you go in the island of Britain, the more beautiful the scenery becomes, the hills wilder, the skies wider, the air clearer, the seas closer. Even for those not born in Scotland, you feel as if you are driving towards your beginnings.’6 This is how Professor Martin Carver described his journey to Portmahomack. The small fishing settlement lies at the north-eastern tip of the Tarbat peninsula: a finger of land that points emphatically north-east, separating the Moray and Dornoch Firths. It is the shard of crust marking the end of the Great Glen, the weirdly rectilinear fracture that shears a diagonal fissure through Scotland, scoring a damp line that puddles along its length into Loch Ness and Loch Linnhe before dispersing into the Firth of Lorne. There is a sense up here, as elsewhere in the far north of Britain, of land dissolving at the margins, like the edge of pack ice giving way to the ocean, splintering and drifting into ragged and provisional forms. To travel there is to a find a place – not of journeys ending – but of transitions and embarkations: a terminus, rather than a homecoming.

The monastery that Carver discovered at Portmahomack was revealed in a series of archaeological investigations between 1994 and 2007. It is, just for the fact of its existence, a supremely significant addition to our knowledge of the early medieval north. No record of it exists in any written source, and it is – so far – the only monastery discovered within the notional bounds of the Pictish kingdom; indeed, it lies close to its heart. At the height of its wealth and productivity in the eighth century, the monastery was producing prodigious quantities of vellum for the production of manuscripts as well as high-quality liturgical metalwork such as chalices and pyxes (containers for holding the consecrated bread used in the Eucharist). There was obviously a limit to the number of such objects (particularly of the latter sort) that a single church required, and so the workshops probably served newer, start-up monasteries elsewhere in Pictland and perhaps beyond. It is precisely this sort of wealth and activity that drew attention to Portmahomack and probably sealed its fate. For at that time, and in that place, the attention of outsiders was something that no one would have wanted to attract; at some point around the year 800, the monastery burned.

The parts nearest the sea went first, the blaze ripping through the workshops of the vellum-makers, immolating timber, straw and heather. The severity of the fire can be judged by the condition of stone fragments, cracked and reddened in the heat of the burning. Carver’s team discovered that most of these stones, strewn on top of the fire, had been part of a great cross-slab (a flat rectangle with a cross carved upon it in relief). The stone, which had originally stood at the edge of the monastic graveyard, had been toppled and obliterated – pulverized with a calculated malice more reminiscent of the violence done by Islamic fundamentalists to ancient artefacts than of any casual vandalism. This was destruction with a purpose – the work of people with motive and intent, who had an understanding (whatever that was) of what such a monument stood for. It was not the only one: other stone cross-slabs (at least one, probably three) were broken down and shattered on this site.7

A famous example of the sort of thing that was broken at Portmahomack can be seen just 5 miles away at Hilton of Cadboll. The stone that stands near the chapel there is an imposing monument, nearly 8 feet tall and 4½ feet wide, heavy and overbearing. The images that decorate its surface – like those discernible among the fragments from Portmahomack – are stunning in their quality and execution, renderings in stone of the types of imagery more familiar from illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells. It is a replica, the original stone having been moved from here in the mid-1800s and ultimately finding its way to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.8 The imagery that survives on the original monument is almost all on one side. Scenes of aristocratic life – hunting dogs and a deer run to ground, mounted men with spears and others blowing horns, a woman riding side-saddle – are surrounded by a frame of twisting vines and interlacing animals. Surmounting it all are the idiosyncratic hieroglyphs known as ‘Pictish symbols’ – in this case the ‘crescent and V rod’ and the ‘double-disc and Z rod’, as well as the ‘comb and mirror’, tucked into the corner of the figurative hunting scene. Nobody really knows what these symbols represent, but they certainly had their origins in a distant past. The best guess at present is that they signify the names, and perhaps ranks or affiliations, of Pictish aristocrats.9


Engraving of the Hilton at Cadboll stone by Charles Carter Petley, 1812 (Wikimedia Commons)

Missing from the original Hilton of Cadboll stone is the feature that, at the time of its making, would have been its definitive attribute: the huge and elaborate cross that once decorated its eastern side (a reconstruction of this cross can now be seen on the replica, sculpted by Barry Grove). This cross was deliberately defaced, methodically, carefully and totally; but not by Vikings. In 1667, or a little later, the redressed stone was inscribed with a memorial to one Alexander Duff and his three wives (one assumes that these were consecutive, rather than concurrent, relationships). In the febrile religious climate of seventeenth-century Scotland, it seems possible that the ostentation of this cross was enough to make it a target for iconoclasts. No one knows whether it originally carried an image of the crucified Christ; if it did it would have been even more offensive to Protestant sensibilities – nothing says ‘Popish’ quite like an enormous ornamental crucifix embellished with vine scrolls and animal interlace. At the very least it was clearly not considered worth preserving such an object, pregnant as it was with associations that ran counter to prevailing cultural, political and religious norms.10

In 1640, the Aberdeen Assembly (the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland) determined that ‘in divers places of the Kingdome, and especially in the North parts of the Same, many Idolatrous Monuments, erected and made for Religious worship are yet extant’ and should be ‘taken down, demolished and destroyed, and that with all convenient diligence’. Such stones, in other words, in the seventeenth century, were inescapable reminders of a regional, native identity that was partly defined and sustained by its religious affiliations. For the men of the Aberdeen Assembly, such reminders were intolerable – on religious grounds, certainly, but perhaps also as memorials to an aristocratic, kin-centric and local way of life, deep-rooted and old-fangled things that lay far beyond the systems and controls of civic assemblies, national government and kirk. At the time of their making, however, these stones were billboards proclaiming the political and cultural dominance of the prevailing local dynasties, and clearly could be no less provocative. Around the year 800, not long after the monuments at Portmahomack and Hilton of Cadboll were erected, a new power was plying the coastal waters of Pictland. This power, founded in raw military strength and impressive maritime technology, was unimpressed by the strictures, injunctions and symbols of the British Christianity it encountered. Moreover, it had a vested interest in challenging the strident Pictish identity that those stones gave voice to. It was a power determined to frame the landscape in its own terms, without reference to local landmarks and the bigwigs who had built them. For Viking warlords – seeking, perhaps, to consolidate their spheres of influence – the Pictish monuments of Portmahomack may have represented an intolerable challenge to their mastery of the northern oceans. This perhaps was the reason why they suffered so badly.11

It was not, of course, only the stones that suffered. Although it is the damage done to buildings and to things that endures in the archaeological record, and although it is the irretrievable loss of cultural heritage that grieves the historian most acutely, for the monks who were present at the monastery on the day it burned there were corporal and existential issues at stake. Excavation of the monastic cemetery revealed the skeletons of three men who had suffered extreme personal violence. One of them (number 158 in the excavations report) was struck in the face with a sword, a wound which cleaved through his flesh and into the bones of his skull. Somehow he survived to die another day. Another monk, number 152, received three blows to the head with a heavy bladed weapon. He was less fortunate than his brother. ‘As two of the cuts were on the back of the head,’ Carver explains, ‘it is likely that the assailant attacked from behind. Given that one of the fractures was on the crown of the head, the individual may have been below the assailant at one point (e.g. kneeling). As injuries with larger weapons are more likely to produce terminal fractures, it is possible that a weapon such as a large sword may have been used to produce these fractures.’12

Here are the Vikings we think we know – hacking apart the head of a fleeing monk, shearing open his skull from behind as he drops to his knees. Did he stumble in his flight – driven by the burning terror that had spewed up out of the ocean? Or did he drop to his knees in prayer, facing death as a martyr with the Pater Noster on his lips? This we cannot know. What we can say with certainty, however, is that someone cared enough about him in death to remove his bloody corpse from the smoking ruins and inter it with dignity within the confines of the monastic cemetery. These were hardly likely to be the actions of his killers. They, presumably, were long gone, in ships laden with silver chalices and the gilded covers of holy manuscripts, their precious painted vellum leaves left to burn in the smouldering wreckage or used to stoke the camp-fires at their next stop along the coast. Not that the Vikings would leave this corner of Britain alone. There were other islands, and other sources of wealth, to be won.13

The island of Inchmarnock, lying off the Scottish coast among the other islands of the Clyde, is not much of anything really, not now at any rate: a smear of wooded hillside between the coast of Bute and the Kintyre peninsula, a few fields caught napping when the tide came in too fast. These days it is privately owned by Lord Smith of Kelvin, who breeds highland cattle on the island; there are no other human residents.14 Twelve hundred years ago, however, Inchmarnock was thriving. Excavation in and around the medieval ruins of St Marnock’s church has revealed evidence of early medieval metalworking, and – most significantly – of what has been interpreted as a monastic schoolhouse. Dozens of fragments of slate, scratched with graffiti, patterns and text, seem to be the work of students, copying or practising writing and carving: a longer Latin text in a neat insular minuscule is perhaps an exemplum – passed around for copying – and fragments of cross-slab monuments imply the ultimate intended expression of the artistic skills being taught here.

One can imagine a clutch of young boys, seated cross-legged on a hard earth floor, stifling their yawns as an older monk tries patiently to explain the importance of making sure their half-uncials are all the same height. A little way from the main group, one boy sits apart. He doesn’t join in with the covert attempts of the others to turn their practice slates into gaming boards,15 or to flick pebbles at the brother’s back when he gets up to go for a piss. Instead he silently persists in his own project, scratching at the lump of grey schist he keeps tight in his left hand, pressing down hard, his muscles taut. He hasn’t been long on the island – he came with some older monks from Iona; something had happened there, apparently, but the other boys weren’t told what. The new boy won’t speak, and the monks won’t tell them. ‘Just keep on eye on the sea,’ they say, ‘just watch the sea.’

Among the slates found on Inchmarnock, one stands out as utterly unlike anything else found there.16 It depicts four figures, all in profile, facing to the right as if moving together resolutely in the same direction. Three of them – only one of which is complete (the upper-right portion of the image has broken away and is presumably lost, or perhaps still somewhere under the surface of Inchmarnock or in the foundations of its ruinous buildings) – appear to be armed men dressed in mail shirts, the cross-hatching on their legs perhaps indicating the tight wrappings that were worn to gather the loose material of fabric trousers. They surround the image of a ship, its multitude of oars giving it the appearance of an unpleasant, scuttling invertebrate. The central figure in particular dominates the composition – large and commanding, a shock of long hair streaming from his bristly, oversized head. He leans forward slightly, propulsive and determined, in total contrast to the pathetic figure behind him. Stunted and unfinished, his head is barely outlined – just a jumble of lines; he is indeterminate, without identity: a nobody, a blank. What gives him purpose is the object attached to him, shackled to him in fact, hanging from an arm that pushes forward, reaching out. There is something terribly poignant about the gesture – drawn so clearly, where the face is absent, the fingers delineated and the hand open. It is on the object, however, that interpretation of the image turns. It could be a lock or a manacle; several such objects have been discovered in Ireland and around the Baltic. The object seems to be chained to the body of the figure in some way, and perhaps to the waist of the warlike central figure as well. Lines extending from the shoulder of the latter figure also seem to imply a captive being dragged into bondage – dragged, perhaps, to the waiting ship and a long journey east.17

If the object is not a manacle, it is most probably a depiction of a portable reliquary shrine. These little house-shaped objects are a familiar component of ecclesiastical culture around the Irish Sea; containing the relics of a saint, they would have functioned both as containers for holy objects and as portable focal points for devotion. As such, they were often highly decorative and valuable. Surviving examples, like the Scottish Monymusk reliquary, give an indication of the craft and precious materials with which such treasures were invested. As such, they made tempting targets for robbers – especially robbers with scant regard for Christian sensibilities. Substantial quantities of ecclesiastical metalwork, including house shrines, from northern Britain and Ireland in particular, have been found in Scandinavian graves and settlements – often adapted for use in new ways. A casket of exactly this type, manufactured in the eighth century in Ireland or western Scotland, was discovered in Norway, eventually entering the royal collections of the Danish–Norwegian royal family and from there into the collections of the National Museum of Denmark. It is empty, long having lost the relics it was built to house, but on its base is scratched an inscription in Old Norse, the letters formed in the distinctive runic alphabet used in south-west Norway and in the later Norse colony of Isle of Man: ‘Rannveig owns this casket.’18


The noise is deafening. The sail cloth beats and rumbles like barrels tumbling over cliffs, and the ship’s timbers scream in the rending hands of wind and water; above it all comes the shrieking gale, the thousand voices that howl together, raging and vengeful as they pour unending out of the blackening sky, riding on the salty arrows of the storm. He fights to bring the sail in, to stop the oar holes, to secure the provisions. He thinks he can hear the howling – the wolf that will swallow the sun; he thinks he can feel the thrashing of coils – the serpent that encircles the earth; he thinks he can see the shadow of the ship, Naglfar, built from the fingernails and toenails of the dead.19 His right hand reaches up and grips the hammer that hangs around his neck. He forces his thoughts homeward, to the bright hearth and the cows in the byre. He thinks of his boys playing on the hillside, and the carvings around the hall door; he thinks of his wife, sitting by the fireside, her head bowed, weeping. Suddenly the storm is dying, the rain reducing to great globs of water that strike hard but sparingly, the rage of the wind expended, quietened now to a whispered lament. A ray of sunlight breaks through the fortress of black clouds in the east, a golden glimmer spreading on dark water. An arch begins to form, building itself from the ether into a bridge of colour linking the heavens with the earth. He smiles: it is a good omen. Bending down to open the chest that serves as a rowing bench, he begins to rummage among the clinking metal objects within. Eventually he produces a house-shaped box. It is small but exquisite, gleaming with gilt bronze. He wipes a ruddy-brown stain from the lid with a corner of his cloak and opens it up, peering inside and grunting. Standing, he upends it over the edge of the boat and towards the disgruntled water, shaking its contents into the breeze. Scraps of fabric, little brown bones, a fragment of wood, tumble into the slate-grey sea and are swallowed in darkness. He closes the box again, turning it in his big, scarred hands, the fugitive light glinting from its golden edges; he thinks of his wife, sitting by the fireside, the casket in her lap; she looks up, and she smiles.


Rannveig is a woman’s name, and there is every possibility that the casket that bears it was brought back from a successful campaign of raiding in the west, its holy contents dumped without ceremony, repurposed as a lavish gift from a father, husband or suitor. An Irish annal of 824 describes the fate that befell the bits and pieces that had once been or belonged to St Comgall: ‘Bangor at Airte was sacked by heathens; its oratory was destroyed and the relics of Comgall were shaken from their shrine.’20

Of course, Rannveig might well have acquired such an object by other means before marking her ownership in writing; Viking women were not dependent on men for their status and possessions.21 But it is hard to imagine how such an object could have been liberated from its keepers and divested of its holy cargo without the application or threat of violence, and this – in the overwhelming majority of cases – was the preserve of men.

It may well be, therefore, that the Inchmarnock stone depicts the abduction of valuables both human and material, shackled together, shrine and guardian hauled off into bondage as one. The drawing was made – on the basis of its context and the style of the lettering found on its reverse side – around the year 800, the same time that the monastery of Portmahomack burned. It seems highly likely, given what else we know of events in that region in those years, that Viking raids on Iona and the coast of Ireland, as well as further away to the west, furnished the imagery and impetus for someone to scratch this odd graffito on to stone. With its menacing ship and exaggerated, trollish warriors, it calls to mind those heartbreaking drawings produced by the child survivors of wars and atrocities – crude images in which men, their weapons and their vehicles loom huge and all powerful, the visual manifestation of unhealable mental scars. As always, of course, there are competing interpretations (as with the apocalyptic gravestone at Lindisfarne, we can never know for sure what this scene was intended to convey), but it is easy to see how the arrival of murderous waterborne marauders could have jolted those on the receiving end into novel spasms of creativity.22

Thus we come to perhaps the most lucrative and plentiful source of wealth that the Viking raiders targeted – plunder that leaves little trace in the archaeological record, but which defined the activities of people from the north in the eye of those they encountered. In the early tenth century, the Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Rusta described the activities of Vikings in eastern Europe (the Rūs). He explained how they raided their neighbours, ‘sailing in their ships until they come upon them. They take them captive and sell them in Kharazān and Bulkār (Bulghār) […] They treat their slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade.’23 Being treated well, however, was – for a slave – a relative concept. For women and girls, the experience was as horrific as could be expected, and frequently far worse. Another Arab writer, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, describes his encounters with a group of Rūs travellers, making their way from the north along the Volga towards the markets of central Asia and the Middle East. In an extended description of the funeral of the Rūs chief, ibn Fadlan describes how a slave girl – owned in life by the dead man – ‘volunteered’ to die and accompany him to the grave. After a lengthy ritual, the girl was stupefied with alcohol, repeatedly raped, stabbed with a dagger and strangled with a cord. Once dead, she was burned upon the funeral pyre with the dead man, his horses and his hounds.24

These accounts are from the east, where the Viking trade routes came into contact with the Abbasid Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire and the flowing riches of the Silk Road.25 But the goods they brought to trade were harvested far away; all and any of the people who could be preyed upon by sea might find themselves shackled and transported. Descriptions of the seizure of people are commonplace – particularly in the Irish chronicles. The year 821, for example, saw the ‘plundering of Etar [Howth in Dublin] by heathens; from there they carried off a great number of women’. Ten years later, in 831, ‘heathens won a battle in Aignecha against the community of Armagh, so that very many were taken prisoner by them’. In 836 came ‘the first plunder taken from Southern Brega by the heathens […] and they slew many and took off very many captive’.26

Monks may have been of less value as sex-slaves, and men were probably valued primarily as manual labour, often carried back to Scandinavia to work the farms of landowners where they, as well as female slaves, would have been expected to undertake the hardest and foulest work. Recent research has even suggested the institution of slave ‘plantations’ in parts of Scandinavia, where imported workers were housed in cramped conditions and forced to mass-produce textiles for the export market.27 There they were known in Old Norse as þrælar (‘thralls’), a word which survives in modern English with something close to its original meaning (to be in ‘thrall’ to something is to be captivated by it). The low regard in which these unfortunate folk were held can be gauged by a poem, written down – in the only surviving version – in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, but probably preserving a much older text and ideas.28 It describes the mythologized origins of social castes in Scandinavia and lists the sort of pejorative names and menial tasks thought suitable for the children of a thrall (‘slave’; ON þræll) or thrall-woman (ON þír):

I think their names were Big-mouth and Byreboy,

Stomp and Stick-boy, Shagger and Stink,

Stumpy and Fatso, Backward and Grizzled,

Bent-back and Brawny; they set up farms,

shovelled shit on the fields, worked with pigs,

guarded goats and dug the turf.

Their daughters were Dumpy and Frumpy,

Swollen-calves and Crooked-nose,

Screamer and Serving-girl, Chatterbox,

Tatty-coat and Cranelegs;

from them have come the generations of slaves.29

Slavery was an institution across Europe, as it had been in the days of the Roman Empire, and persisted into the Norman period. In 1086, some 10 per cent of the English population was recognized as being unfree, and Anglo-Saxon slave-owners had the power of life and death over their slaves until the late ninth century.30 The capture of defeated enemies was also a feature of inter-kingdom warfare in both Britain and Ireland before and during the Viking Age. In 836 (the same year that Vikings took captives from Brega), Fedelmid mac Crimthainn, king of Munster, attacked the oratory at Kildare ‘with battle and weapons’, taking the abbot Forindan and his congregation captive: they were shown, according to the chronicler, ‘no consideration’.31

What was different about the Viking slave-trade was its integration into long-distance commercial networks that connected the Irish and North Seas with the Baltic, Black, Caspian and Mediterranean Seas. No longer could slaves taken in Britain and Ireland expect to remain within a reasonable radius of their erstwhile homes, surrounded by people who differed from them little in speech or custom, and who respected social and cultural norms that were mutually understood. Instead they faced the possibility – if they weren’t shipped directly to Scandinavia or to more local Viking colonies – of being transported like livestock over vast distances, to be sold in the markets of Samarkand or Baghdad, or – perhaps – to meet a horrific death on the banks of the River Volga. If they survived that journey and made it to market, they may well have found themselves, prodded and manhandled, forced to watch as their price in silver was carefully measured out – the scales tipping with the heft of weights, gleaming with ornaments ripped from the books and treasures that had once adorned their homes and churches.


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