Viking Ireland

The earliest raids in Ireland fell in 795 on Rathlin Island, Co.Antrim. This was followed by attacks on St Patrick’s Isle (Co. Dublin) in 798 and at Inishmurray (Co. Sligo) in 798 and 807. By the 820s and 830s, this predation had become epidemic: In 821 came the ‘plundering of Etar by heathens’ and ‘from there they carried off a great number of women’. 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’. No one should be under any romantic illusion about what this meant for the people wrenched from their homes. The reality of Viking thraldom was hell: transportation, degradation, rape and murder.[1]

In time, the Vikings who targeted Ireland came to make of it a base of operations. Winter camps, known in Ireland as longphuirt (singular longphort) developed over time into permanent settlements, the origins of Ireland’s first towns: Waterford, Wexford, Limerick, Cork. By far the greatest, however, was Dublin. Excavations at Wood Quay revealed the range of commodities that came through the port-town, drawing in wealth and settlers: silk from the east, amber from the Baltic, slaves from everywhere the Vikings sailed. And it was Dublin that became the lynchpin of political power around the Irish Sea. Scions of its ruling elite – the house of Ivar (the Ui Imair) – played decisive roles in the fate of numerous northern British realms. They fought each other, they fought the old Irish dynasts, they fought the English and the Picts; they were expelled from Dublin (in 902) and they took it back (in 917), and all the while a new identity was being forged: the Gallgoídil – the ‘foreign-Irish’ – a people apart from the native population, but who no longer shared a simple kinship with their ancestors in Scandinavia.[2]

The last great Viking king of Dublin was Sihtric ‘Silkbeard’(r.995-1036), a Christian who undertook pilgrimage to Rome and an inveterate plunderer of churches. It was during his reign that the first Irish coins were minted. Simple copies of English coins at first, they later developed into striking new designs, a conical helmet on a front-facing head, beady eyes peering over luxuriant moustachios. It was also in Sihtric’s reign that the iconic battle of Clontarf (1014) was fought – the clash of Brian Boru’s Munster-led alliance with a Dublin-Leinster faction and its Norse allies from Orkney and the Isle of Man. The significance for Irish history and the Ireland’s Viking Age has been thoroughly investigated. Although Sihtric remained King of Dublin, Norse influence in Ireland was undoubtedly on the wane. But it may be true to say that, whatever the impact of the battle, the old distinctions were eroding to the point of invisibility: dynastic and regional identities displacing the power of older heritage.[3]

In many ways, Ireland’s history encapsulates the Viking paradox. Without question, the appearance of Scandinavians in Ireland and around the Irish Sea was a harrowing experience for the coastal communities they targeted –the pitiless slave-raids, the women and children ripped from their homes, the church treasures stripped from their communities, the manuscripts left to burn. But by the eleventh century, Ireland had become home to a thriving urban economy, linked to a global network of trade and communication. As in Britain, it was the Vikings who were at the heart of these transformations, even if – in the end – they left themselves behind.

[1]  T. Charles-Edwards (ed. and trans.), The Chronicles of Ireland (2006, Liverpool University Press)

[2] D. Griffiths, Vikings of the Irish Sea (2010, Oxbow)

[3] S. Duffy (ed.), Medieval Dublin XVI: proceedings of Clontarf 1014–2014: national conference marking the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf (2017, Four Courts Press)

[Image: silver penny minted in Dublin for Sihtric Anlafsson Silkiskegg (Silkbeard), British Museum; click here for more info]

Hollow Places

Hollow Places (William Collins 2019) is both the piercing dissection of a folktale and a thrilling rummage through the thickets of the English imagination. Christopher Hadley’s debut work of book-length non-fiction ostensibly concerns the story of how Piers Shonks slew a dragon, how that dragon dwelt in a cavern beneath a yew tree, and how Shonks was buried in the parish church of St Mary at Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire.

In the same way, however, that Jaws isn’t really a film about a shark, Hollow Places isn’t really a book about a dragon-slayer. Rather it is a book about how stories become knit into place-names and landmarks and the identity of communities; in the process it unearths myriad details of lost folk life – of rural work and tithes and festivals and the heroic, often unsung, labour of individual collectors and antiquarians (one of my favourite nuggets of information was that much of the work of recording English field names – before their loss to the hedgerow grubbing scourge of agribusiness and the collective forgetting brought on by urbanisation and consumer capitalism – was pioneered by a man named John Field).

In fluid and satisfying prose, Hadley succeeds in transforming a literally parochial subject into a means of illuminating the tangled roots of story-telling and lost rural life. It is a reminder that to study folklore is to study the way that people construct meaning and a sense of belonging in the world around them: there are few subjects more compelling.

The paperback edition of Hollow Places is out on on 6 August 2020.

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Norman haircuts and ‘Celtic’ tonsures

On page 95 of my book Viking London, I gave the following description of a group of Normans –

‘their hair long in the back, but shaved from crown to hairline -hardcore mullets, haircuts that led the historian Simon Schama to call the Normans “the scary half-skinheads of the early feudal world.”’

Striking thought his image is, anyone with a passing familiarity with the Bayeux Tapestry will have been puzzled. This is not the way that Normans wore their hair – quite the opposite in fact…

Norman hair was actually left to grow at the front, but shaved at the back – more like a reverse mullet than anything else, rather the opposite of what I described, though still entirely congruent with the idea of the ‘half-skinhead’.

How did I make such a basic error? I’m not altogether sure. It is an object lesson in how two contradictory pieces of connected knowledge can exist simultaneously in the mind. A warped image of the ‘half-skinhead’ had clearly taken root somewhere inside my head, remaining somehow uncontaminated by the real experience of actually looking at the Bayeux Tapestry…

But I think it wasn’t helped by the fact that, around the same time, I had also been thinking about the problem of the ‘Celtic’ tonsure, which has often (incorrectly) been reconstructed along the lines of my erroneous description above. In my current book I have the following to say on the matter (with quotations from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History):

‘British and Irish monks […] shaved the head in a way that was, in the words of St Ceolfrith, “abhorrent and detestable” because it reminded him of the hated figure of Simon Magus and other disreputable wizards. What the insular tonsure actually looked like, however, is hard to determine. The shaved area seems most likely to have resembled a D shape from above, with the straight edge running from ear to ear so that, from the front, it had a “superficial resemblance to a crown”. Only on going around the back would the full horror be revealed, “the apparent crown cut short” a cursed “characteristic of simoniacs and not of Christians”.’

Iceland: legends of the north

 

NOR Nordmennene lander på Island år 872

Oscar Wergeland (1877), The Norsemen landing in Iceland [not an archaeologically accurate depiction, but still rather wonderful]

According to the Old Norse Landnámabók – ‘the book of settlements’ – the first Scandinavian settlers to make their home in Iceland were Ingólfr Arnarson, his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttr and his brother Hjörleifr. According to the legend, they left Norway in 874 after a violent feud, sailing west towards a land of which they had heard rumour. The story goes that when he first sighted land Ingólfr tossed his ‘high-seat pillars’ into the sea and followed them as they drifted towards the shore. They washed up in what is now known as Faxa Bay, in the south-west of the island, and there the family built their farmstead – the first settlement on Iceland, chosen by the tug of wind and tide. Ingolfr watched the smoke, risen from hot springs, drifting low over the water and named his farm Reykjavík, the smoking bay. Continue reading

The Tale of King Harald is a true story…

But what does it mean for a story to be ‘true’?

The first versions of this tale were written down in in the middle ages in a number of different hand-written texts. The oldest of these was compiled in around 1220 in a manuscript called Morkinskinna, which means ‘mouldy skin’ (the parchment it was written on was made of vellum, made from the stretched and dried skin of a calf). The most famous version, however, was written by an Icelandic chieftain and historian called Snorri Sturluson around 1230. Snorri was a remarkable man. As well as twice being elected to Iceland’s highest official post – Lawspeaker (Lögsögumaður) – he wrote a number of works about traditional Scandinavian poetry and mythology, but also a sprawling compendium of King’s Sagas (tales) called Heimskringla (the circle of the world). Harald’s Saga forms a small part of this great work. Snorri was very careful to present what he thought were true accounts of the lives of the kings of Norway. He made great use of earlier histories – like Morkinskinna – and often used fragments of poems (called skaldic verse) which were written during the lifetime of the Norse kings, and remembered long afterwards.

In the case of King Harald, we have a little more to go on. He was mentioned in histories written in the Byzantine Empire where he was described as a Varangian with a prominent rank in the Imperial army. His invasion of England is also described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So we know he existed, and the broad outlines of his life as presented by Snorri seem more or less accurate. However, poems in praise of kings are rarely even-handed, and some of the details seem improbable and are rather similar to folk-tales told about other kings. Most telling of all is that some of the stories sound very much like the boasting of a man in later life about the glories of his youth, at a time when no one could contradict his version of events. If this is so, we can expect some of these stories to contain a degree of exaggeration.

Audun

Audun and the polar bear in the hall of Harald Hard-ruler

 

The version of Harald’s story that is written in this book [The Tale of King Harald] is fairly true to Snorri’s account of Harald’s life in Heimskringla. In some places I have added details taken from earlier sagas, especially Saint Olaf’s Saga (the tale of Harald’s half-brother who died at the Battle of Stiklestad). The tale of Audun and the polar bear is taken from a short story written about Harald and preserved in Morkinskinna, and a few details have been added from other sources that mention Harald and the period in general. Much of the dialogue is adapted from the saga, but by no means all of it. The biggest changes I have made are to the length of various sections of the narrative. In Heimskringla, Harald’s time with Yaroslav is told on a single page, and much of chapter 2 has therefore been fleshed out with other details of the period taken from other sources. On the other hand, chapters 3 and 4 present a greatly compressed version of Snorri’s story-telling. In particular, the politics of Norway and Denmark during Harald’s reign have been simplified.

I don’t think Harald would have minded these minor changes. For a Viking, the most important ambition was to live long in memory; I am sure he would be pleased to know that his legend continues to be told.

[This post is an extract from The Tale of King Harald: The Last Viking Adventure, which is available from Amazon and The British Museum]