How Destructive were the Vikings?

How Destructive were the Vikings?

Danielle Trynoski reports on the paper “How Much Material Damage Did the Northmen Do in Northern Europe?” given by Lesley Anne Morden of St. Mary’s University College and University of Calgary. The paper presented on Thursday, April 10, 2014 at the joint conference for the Medieval Academy of America and the Medieval Association of the Pacific, held at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA.

In her paper presented at the 2014 MAA-MAP Conference, Lesley Anne Morden considers ninth-century Viking raids and the actual damage caused by these events. Using literacy sources and archaeological evidence together, she has scoured records in Europe, including France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, to create a comprehensive survey of Scandinavian raiding activity.

Morden reminded the audience that Norsemen returned to the same location multiple times, as recorded in various annals and chronicles. These same records dictate mass destruction, razing, leveling, fire, and various other radical effects on the site in question. Morden wanted to know if these records, written by Christian authors for a Christian (and potential raid target) audience, were exaggerating or if raid sites were destroyed by Scandinavian activity.

Overall, activity appears to be more violent, extreme, and shocking to the annalists. Viking raiders were aiming for shock value, intimidation, and fright. Annalists were from monastic communities, isolated, and undefended. The response to these raids was, understandably, hysteria in the face of a hostile new invasion.

In 873 in the Annals of Xanten recorded that the Vikings were wreaking havoc. This is fairly strong language, but this type of record is seen in the records of Fulda, St. Vaast, St. Bertin, Angoulême, Rouen, Nantes, Fontanelle, St. Philibert, and Fleury, to name just a few of Morden’s sources. These sources also document requests for retribution from the king, a type of medieval insurance claim for property damages.

Morden also considered the truthfulness of these records, giving an example of an attack in 873 recorded in multiple sources. These literary sources are highly biased but the number of references to this presumed single raid gives an overall effect of its effect on the population. The ‘home base’ of the source has a great effect on its content, smaller monastic communities will have different recording priorities compared to larger houses, but smaller annals can be cross-checked with greater annals.

When examining the archaeological evidence, Morden expected to find fire, destroyed structures, abandoned foundations, and other signs of violent activity. While these events are difficult to date in the archaeological record, collaboration with textual evidence can help support hypothetical date assignments.

The Netherlands, or Frisia to use the historical term, was likely the earliest territory attacked by the Danes. Dorestad was burned and sacked multiple times according to records from 830-850, however excavations by Venice and Verrers in the 1970’s did not discover any evidence of burning. The excavations did provide ample evidence for the gradual silting up of the adjacent river delta, changes in the riverbed, and the presence of wharves and jetties. Morden asks how this could be interpreted; perhaps the evidence of burning was not excavated, or the water front area was unburned, or perhaps the Northmen preserved this area of the settlement?

In 863, the Annals of St. Bertin record Viking raids on Dorestad and Cologne. In 882, the Annals of Fulda record an incursion of Northmen at d’Aventura and the construction of an embankment. Utrecht was attacked in 881-882. In Zutphen, Antwerp, and Bruges, ring walls were constructed in the late ninth century presumably in response to hostile activity. In the archaeological record at Zutphen, a burned layer covers ninth century ceramics and Carolingian burials. This means that the settlement was burned after the deposition of those ceramics and burials. In excavations beneath the cathedral in Liege, evidence of ninth century burning was uncovered, which neatly correlates to records of raids in 881. Not all raids ended with the complete destruction and terror among local populations; the Annals of Fulda report that the Northmen were expelled from Saucourt in 881.

According to records for the 880’s, Cologne is the target of many raids and fires, but excavation shows no signs of large-scale burning. Specifically in 882 and 883, Cologne had rebuilt its gates, walls, and ramparts but was still rebuilding the city’s churches.

While the settlements along the Dordogne, Mosel, Rhône, and Rhine rivers were targets, the Seine and especially Paris was repeatedly attacked between 850-900. Excavations on the Right Bank show walls and ditches built in the ninth century and evidence of multiple repairs and additions to these fortifications. This closely corresponds with records of attacks in 845, 856, and 861. In addition, the Ile de la Cité was walled in 877. In 885-886, Paris defended itself and fought back against the Northmen. Archaeological explorations around St. Germain in 1998 recovered evidence of burning relatable to the late ninth century, but whether this burning was the result of an offensive or defensive maneuver is not known.

Raiding parties continued to move along rivers inland to Burgundy in 886, recorded in the records from St. Vaast, and to Rouen in May 841. The Rouen attacks were recorded in several sources, making it more likely that they were truthful documentation. Excavations in that city in 1993 show evidence of burning, melted lead, and destroyed glass from the mid-ninth century. A capitulary records burning in 863, so whether the fires were from hostile Northmen or accidental fires is debatable. In Tours, the Annals of Fulda and Xanten record raids and burning in 853 and 857, but thus far archaeology has not recovered any major evidence of fire. In Reims, an excavation project in 1999 identified a late antique ditch and trench with additions and modifications from the late ninth century. This presumably helped the city repel attacks by the Northmen, as recorded in the Annals of Fulda for the year 887.

Morden concludes that while the Northmen’s raids were destructive, much was left intact. Overall, it seems likely that archaeology can help support the textual evidence but the recent excavation work of the past twenty to thirty years still needs to be analyzed and correlated with other remaining evidence.

See also Account of the Viking Siege of Paris offers new insights into the early Middle Ages

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