Goodbye to the Vikings? Richard Hodges Shows How New Evidence Is Leading to a Fresh Understanding of the Role of the Vikings in European History

Article excerpt

MEDIEVAL HISTORY HAS TURNED A CORNER with the new millennium. Almost unnoticed, a new paradigm is being shaped. Ninth-century Europe is being re-calibrated by decades thanks not only to many new excavations but also to the wealth of numismatic evidence being found by tens of thousands of energetic metal-detectorists. The first results cast great doubt upon the role of the Vikings as deus ex machina forces in the course of the century. Their role as a catalytic force in terminating an age of peaceful trade between the North Sea kingdoms is open to question as is their part, after a supposed generation of turmoil and cataclysmic disruption, in the making of the Middle Ages and, in particular, in the industrial revolution that characterised the late ninth and tenth centuries. Indeed, the thrust of the new evidence tends in part to confirm that the Vikings only became raiders and invaders when the Carolingian political economy collapsed during the civil wars between the grandsons of Charlemagne.

The traditional history goes as follows. The Vikings were bold Baltic Sea merchant venturers plying their trade from Russia to north-west Norway. Yet some dissidents voraciously eyed other sources of income in the form of vulnerable monasteries, Lindisfarne being the first great target of these evil marauders in 790. The familiar timeline runs as straight as a die through coastal attacks in the early ninth century on to sacks such as those of Hamwic (Saxon Southampton) in 842 and Dorestad, the emporium at the mouth of the Rhine, in 834. Following the hit and run raids come the invasions of Scotland, England and Normandy. The Great (Danish) Army of 865--rather like the panzers of 1940--overwhelmed Mercia and East Anglia and was only halted in Wessex in 878 following a series of Dunkirk-like catastrophes. The Churchillian figure of the age, King Alfred, founded London in 886 and initiated a 1944-like re-conquest of the lost kingdoms of England. His descendants finished the task by 954, ridding England of its Nordic invaders. Meanwhile York, like other emergent markets in the Danish half of ninth-century England, was suddenly prospering under new west Baltic management. As the Jorvik Centre in York proudly illustrates to 750,000 tourists a year, it was a moment of North Sea brotherhood--an image that teas readily engaged European Union support. Viking monsters had become good citizens, eagerly creating civilised medieval wealth-generating shops within metalled gridded streets.

From time to time historians have pondered how far this traditional picture is pure propaganda issued by the West Saxon court and monastic chroniclers eager to explain how God could have wantonly damned their institutions. Cautiously, historians once chose to believe that they had not been hoodwinked. Then, when faced with the first results of the archaeological evidence in the 1980s and 1990s, they sat on the fence, consigning towns and trade--regardless of their significance to the political economy--to subsidiary roles in defining the age.

Closer study of the evidence reveals a striking binary pattern. The earliest towns in the Viking period like Haithabu, near Schleswig in north Germany, and Birka on an island in Lake Malaren, central Sweden, appear to have been flourishing in the first forty years of the ninth century. Then they seem to have declined. Meanwhile, the evidence for Viking raids appears to complement this picture: their number increases steadily after the period front around 840, something that is confirmed by the large quantities of Anglo-Saxon and Frankish silver coins in Scandinavian hoards from precisely this period. Trade, it seems, was superseded by raid.

Coincidentally, the first results of large excavations at the Frankish emporium of Dorestad and at Hamwic demonstrated that these exceptional, monopolistic market-places were actually declining fast when the Vikings first raided them in 834 and 842 respectively. …