Save us from the fury of the Northmen’s… comb

While the Vikings don’t appear in the records of the 8th century until near its close, recently a rare piece of evidence about the Vikings in the early 8th century was unearthed in Ribe, one of the oldest towns in Denmark. What, might you muse, was this relic of those wild seafarers and vicious raiders known to us from countless movies and images? One of those horned helmets, perhaps, or a massive axe still embedded in the skull of some poor monk? None of the above. It was a comb, a beautiful little piece of engraved reindeer antler.

Comb made of reindeer antler

When the written record is silent, often archaeology will sing. “Proof of Viking activity in Ribe well before historically documented accounts of raiding attacks in Britain suggests that long-distance trade and urbanisation were the driving forces behind the resulting Viking Age of expansion, trade, maritime travel, and warfare.”1.Current World Archaeology, Viking Origins, June 16, 2015. When the Vikings finally did make their mark in the historical record, it was with a bang. Off the northeast coast of England is small outcrop called Holy Island, on which was situated the monastery of Lindisfarne, famed for the gospel book which has survived through the ages. One day in 793 a band of Scandinavian warriors appeared out of the ocean mists. They slaughtered the monks and looted the monastery before boarding their sleek longships and returned to the sea. This event sent shock waves through the Christian world.

You might recognize the title of this post as a slight modification (trifling, really) of a famous prayer, “A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine.” Roughly translated, “From the fury of the Northmen save us, Lord.”2.As dramatic as it is, unfortunately the prayer doesn’t turn up in any surviving contemporary sources. The roughly contemporary sources paint a picture of near-panic and incomprehension at the sudden onslaught. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported the event.

In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria and sadly affrightened the inhabitants: there 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 miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter.3.Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 793, pp. 89-90.

This image remains the one foremost in people’s minds, more than twelve centuries later. But there had been other mentions of relations between the Franks and Danes prior to the raid on Lindisfarne. A ‘leading man’ of the Westphalians named Widukind is reported in the 770s and ’80s taking refuge with the Danes a couple of times, rather than face Charlemagne’s forces. Widukind’s host on those occasions was the Danish King Sigfred, who seems to have had some kind of a relationship with Charlemagne. At the annual assembly in 782 King Charles “gave audience and leave to depart to legates from Sigfred, king of the Danes.”4.Royal Frankish Annals, years 777 and 782.

Missionary activity was a constant preoccupation with the Franks, and in 789 Alcuin asked of an unknown abbot in the east “whether there is any hope of the conversion of the Danes.”5.King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Letter 1, p.308. The actual answer is not recorded, but, like all of the Germanic tribes, Scandinavian Christianization was a centuries-long process.

Not long after Lindisfarne the Vikings began to raid the northern European coasts more frequently. “The late eighth and ninth centuries are the era of Viking attacks along the entire length of the Frankish coastline and deep into the interior, up the rivers.”6.Wallace-Hedrill, Long-Haired Kings, p.12. Diplomacy, however, was maintained between the kingdoms. In 798 one of Charles’ legates to Sigfred was killed by the Saxons on his return from Sweden.7.Royal Frankish Annals, year 798. Six years later the new king Godofrid had agreed to meet Charles at his (Godofrid’s) capital of Schleswig, about twenty miles up the Jutland peninsula. They were going to talk about Saxon fugitives (from the Frankish point of view, of course) finding refuge with the Danes. Godofrid decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and send legates instead. The outcome is not recorded.

Evidently they came to some kind of an agreement on borders, for in 808 when Godofrid marched on the Obrodites, who bordered Saxony, ostensibly Carolingian territory by that point, Charles immediately sent his forces to the border “with orders to resist the mad king if he should attempt to attack the borders of Saxony.”8.Royal Frankish Annals, year 808.

There is, of course, far more to the Scandinavian culture than simple savagery, leavened with boat building. They were eager tradesmen, and their economic influence spanned the Atlantic, through Russia, and into Muslim lands.

They were particularly well placed to meet the inexhaustible European and Muslim demand for furs and slaves, but turned their hand to any saleable commodity: grain, fish, timber, hides, salt, wine, glass, glue, horses and cattle, white bears and falcons, walrus ivory and seal oil, honey, wax, malt, silks and woollens, amber and hazel nuts, soapstone dishes and basalt millstones, wrought weapons, ornaments, and silver.9.Jones, History of the Vikings, p.3.

The famous Viking sagas are a product of a later time, from 13th century, but they are accepted as representative of the earlier ages as well, and ripping good yarns no matter what. A lot of the stories were written down by the Icelandic contingent, which was first settled in 874, and Christianized not long after.10.The first Icelandic bishop was consecrated in 1056. Despite conversion to the faith, the sagas are filled with ribald asides and wild adventures. Two friends, faced with a female “monster… broader than it was high,” beguile the creature with sweet words, asking her, “Who are you, oh beautiful, bed-worthy lady?”11.Seven Viking Romances, Egil and Asmund, p.233. Later in the same story one of the friends has agreed to sit in a burial mound for three days, in homage to a great warrior. The first night the dead warrior kills and eats a hound and a hawk he was buried with. The second night the dead man rips apart a horse in the tomb and eats it, blood streaming down his face. The third night the dead man attacks the other, and rips off his ears before the adventurer is able to get his sword and cut off the corpse’s head and burn the body.

Why this hasn’t been referenced in any of the ubiquitous zombie stories of our own age is beyond me.

Who knows, perhaps the find of a comb will put to rest the image of tangle-haired marauders. But I doubt it. Oh, and the horned helmets are a myth as well. Who could fight wearing one of those?

UPDATE: Livius Drusus from The History Blog reports that a late 8th century viking sword has recently been discovered by a hiker who stopped for a rest along a old and popular trail. The sword is in exceptional condition. Personally, I am always delighted when new and significant finds pop up under unlikely circumstances.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Current World Archaeology, Viking Origins, June 16, 2015.
2. As dramatic as it is, unfortunately the prayer doesn’t turn up in any surviving contemporary sources.
3. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 793, pp. 89-90.
4. Royal Frankish Annals, years 777 and 782.
5. King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Letter 1, p.308.
6. Wallace-Hedrill, Long-Haired Kings, p.12.
7. Royal Frankish Annals, year 798.
8. Royal Frankish Annals, year 808.
9. Jones, History of the Vikings, p.3.
10. The first Icelandic bishop was consecrated in 1056.
11. Seven Viking Romances, Egil and Asmund, p.233.

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