Art Outside the Carolingian Empire

The Art of the British Isles and Scandinavia

According to the ninth-century Anglo‐ Saxon Chronicle, in 793

... terrible portents appeared over Northumbria and sadly affrighted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning, and firey dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed soon upon these signs, and a little after that in the same year on the ides of [June] the harrying of the Heathen [the Vikings] miserably destroyed God's church in Lindisfame by rapine and slaughter.

Alcuin, learning of the disaster at Lindisfarne from the safety of Charlemagne's court, believed the Vikings to be instruments of God's wrath and cited Jeremiah 1:14: "Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land." For some time, the invasions indeed appeared to fulfill the old prophecy. By 800, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome, the Vikings had raided the coast of Northumbria, rounded Scotland to destroy St. Columba's monastery on Iona, ravaged the Isle of Man, attacked Wales and Ireland, and reached the coast of France.

Who were these fearsome people? They lived along the coasts of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as seafarers, fishermen, and traders; but at the end of the eighth century, they suddenly took to the sea as explorers and pirates. Whether moving as solitary warrior bands with two or three boats, or in flotillas of 350 ships, the Vikings—named for the viks, or bays along the Norwegian coast—terrorized Europe. The shallow draft of their longboats enabled the Scandinavians to sail up the rivers of Europe into the heart of the Continent: no town or monastery was safe [1]. Vikings appeared in Normandy in 814 and on the Seine in 820. Not until the very end of the ninth century did Carolingian armies begin to hold fast against the Scandinavian threat. Nevertheless, in 911 Charles III, the Simple, was forced to cede the northern coast of France to the Viking Hrolf, or Rollo, who became duke of the region, thenceforth called Normandy after the Norsemen.

Meanwhile Viking raids began in the British Isles at the end of the eighth century. Norwegian Vikings settled in Scotland, northern England, and Ireland, and in the second half of the ninth century they began to extend their territories. Not only did Olaf the White found the Kingdom of Dublin in 851, but in 860 his compatriots discovered and colonized Iceland. Little more than a hundred years later, the Vikings sailed on to Greenland, and about 1000 they even reached the North American continent. Crafty Viking leaders subsequently developed into statesmen, among whom the most astute was the Danish Knut, known in English as King Canute the Great (c. 995-1035), who by 1028 had become the ruler of Denmark, Norway, and England.


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Medieval Art


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