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The Vikings on the Continent

Alfred the Great was not the only one to be beset by Norseman – Simon Coupland and Janet Nelson re-interpret their impact on the mainland of 9th-century Europe.

The Vikings have become a high-profile subject in Britain in the 1980s, after a major exhibition at the British Museum and the huge success of the Jorvik Centre in York. Yet how many of us are aware that Vikings were just as active on the other side of the Channel in the ninth century? The problem here is not lack of evidence, since there is a wealth of contemporary Latin texts - far more texts than have survived from anywhere in Britain - which describe Viking activities. But hardly any of these texts have been translated; and nor have the standard works on the subject written by German and French scholars over sixty years ago. Furthermore, Continental archaeologists have been on the whole uninterested in early medieval sites.

Until recently, Continental historians tended to see the Fall of the Carolingian Empire as a re-run of the Fall of Rome, with the Vikings in the role of new barbarians, responsible for a new ninth-century Dark Age. English historians relished the contrast between the 'French' King Charles the Bald (840-77), who allegedly failed to resist the Vikings, preferring, shortsightedly, to buy them off, and the 'English' King Alfred (871-99) who beat the Vikings in battle and, farsightedly, forged a nation. Either way, as foils for English virtues or pointers to French failings, the Vikings have continued to be regarded as fundamentally other - more violent, more barbaric, more 'primitive' - than those with whom they came into contact on both sides of the Channel.

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