The Vikings in Norfolk
Richard Hodges reviews a book on the Vikings.
The Vikings in Norfolk
Norfolk Museums Service, 48 pp. £7.50. ISBN: 0-903-10165-3
Think of the Vikings in England and most people these days think of the Jorvik Centre at York. York seems to have monopolised the Vikings, turning them into tourist dollars. But, after the decisive Battle of Etheldun at which King Alfred of Wessex forced the Danish invaders to accept baptism, it was to East Anglia rather than Northumbria that the great army withdrew. In a well-illustrated account of the Vikings in Norfolk, Sue Margeson, Keeper of Archaeology in Norwich Castle Museum until her tragic death last year, draws the unknown threads of this venture together.
Margeson recounts how the great heathen army some years before Etheldun had pursued the luckless King Edmund. The monk, Abbo of Fleury, was an eye-witness to Edmund's grizzly end - he was lashed with whips, used for target practice by the Danish archers until he 'looked like a prickly hedgehog', and finally beheaded. Despite this savage death, the Danish conquerors were to issue memorial pennies to Edmund within twenty-five years. Clearly, the relations between conquerors and conquered as Margeson shows should not be stereotyped. Indeed, her little book brings to life a picture of farmer-settlers who lent their names to new villages with Scandinavian place-names ending in '-by' or linking Scandinavian personal names with Old English as in the case of Grimston. Illustrating these first settlers, she assembles the handful of typical Viking graves as well as the miscellaneous objects. A man was found at Middle Harling with an iron knife, two iron pivotal bladed knives, a spur, buckle and whetstone – a funerary form that conformed to Danish standards and ignored the implications of the Anglo-Danish treaty signed with King Alfred. The only other pagan burial in East Anglia was that of a well-to-do woman discovered in 1876 at Saffron Walden, Essex. The skeleton had a necklace composed of two ornamented silver pendants, two carnelian, two glass and two crystal beads.
As at York, though, the real effects of the settlement were felt in the burgeoning urban centres. In Norwich and Thetford, small Anglian nuclei were transformed swiftly under the Danish hegemony. The conquerors, it seems, were familiar with Carolingian market practice, and with focused energy set about developing new regional towns as well as commodity industries such as the mass-produced Thetford wares. The many street names of Norwich bear witness to their Scandinavian influence: Finkelgate, for instance, has two Scandinavian elements, finkel meaning 'crooked', or, as suggested recently 'cuddle', the street name thus being translated 'Lovers' Lane'.
This little book, completed during Sue Margeson's illness, sketches a picture that is as intriguing as it is informative. Medieval East Anglia, like Medieval Northumbria, took shape under its purposeful Viking conquerors. These peoples created a culture which was rich in North Sea artistic expression, and wedded to Continental Frankish economic ideals. As archaeology illuminates this formative episode, we begin to appreciate the full propangandic nature of celebrated texts like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the manipulative efforts of the West Saxon historians who have, until now, described the history of this age.
Richard Hodges is the author of Light in the Dark Ages: The Rise and Fall of San Vincenzo al Voluturno (Duckworth, 1997).
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