English histories don’t ignore the Vikings. Who could? As raiders and as invaders, they left a mark that’s hard not to notice. But although the histories I’ve read mention the chunk of England the Vikings ruled, they treat it as if it was surrounded by an electric fence–they walk the perimeter, touch a quick finger to the wire, but then shy away to talk about the real England, which is (why, of course) the one the Anglo-Saxons ruled.
Well, screw that. Let’s go trespassing. I want to know what life was like in the Danelaw.
The Danelaw–the part of Britain ruled by the Danes (or Vikings, or Norse–it was all fluid at this point) and where Danish law was in force. It filled north, central, and eastern England (England didn’t exist yet as a political entity, but let’s use the name anyway) and included London. In other words, this was a big chunk of land. For a while there, it extended up into Scotland as well.
If you want to look like you know something no one else does, you can also spell it Danelagh or Danelaga. The price for that is that no one will know what you’re talking about. I don’t recommend it.
How’d the Danelaw get there?
Most of us first got to know the Vikings through cheesy movies, TV shows, and comic books. (Yes, we’re a high-culture lot around here.) They were raiders with horns on their helmets and they came in long, narrow boats, smashing, grabbing, and terrorizing. They were big, they were hairy, and they were scary.
Except for the business about the horns, that’s not untrue, but it’s also not the whole truth.
Okay, I can’t vouch for the big and hairy part. They might not have been bigger or hairier than anyone else on the scene. Scary, though? Definitely.
The rest of the story is that they were also settlers (or immigrants, or invaders–take your choice), farmers, craftspeople, and traders. They timed their raids to the agricultural year, because they were needed at home for the planting and harvesting.
The raids weren’t England’s first experience of the Vikings. Britain and Scandinavia had a history of trade, and if you want to find cultural similarities, start by looking at England’s Sutton Hoo ship burial. But whatever the relationship was, no one wrote about it, leaving the Vikings to appear in the eighth century as raiders along the English coasts.
In the ninth century the Vikings shifted from raiding to settling in what became the Danelaw, replacing the Anglo-Saxon kings and landlords. It would be fair to say that they weren’t neighborly about those replacements.
They settled most heavily in York and four other towns (they’re called the five boroughs, and York was dominant) and less heavily in rural areas. Some of them intermarried with the local population, so that it wasn’t long (at least in historical terms) before no clear genetic line could be drawn between Dane and non-Dane.
Not that they knew about genes, but everyone knew about sex.
In some ways, the incomers adapted to the country they’d conquered. Buildings, for the most part, didn’t take on a Scandinavian style. Scandinavian runic writing disappeared. The incomers converted to the Christianity of Anglo-Saxon England fairly quickly, although a paper from the University of Leeds (sorry–I can’t find the author’s name) notes the difference between conversion and the more gradual process of Christianization and argues that “conversion might not be so much a matter of individual conscience as a question of social and political expediency.” In other words, the formal changes happened faster than the deeper ones. No surprise there.
Discussions about the Vikings’ impact swerve pretty quickly into language. In a period that didn’t leave us much evidence, it’s one of the things that can be traced. So place names get mentioned. The endings -by (village or farmstead), -thorpe (new village), -thwaite (meadow), and -dale (valley) mark a Viking presence. Personal names get mentioned. You can’t tell from a person’s name whether they were of Danish or Anglo-Saxon descent or a mix of both, Word borrowings also get mentioned.
Word borrowings? Tuesday and Wednesday are on loan from the Norse gods, although I’m cheating a bit since it was the Anglo-Saxons who brought more or less the same gods into English before they converted to Christianity. In contrast, Old English outright stole egg, steak, law, die, bread, down, fog, muck, lump, scrawny, and a long list of other words, and we’ve had them long enough that no one’s likely to ask for them back. Skirt, cake, freckle, neck, moss, sister, window, knife, smile, seat, gift, cross, leg, husband, law, and wrong are also ours illegally. So are words that start with SK, like sky and skin. Possession is 90% of the law.
Most of those linguistic thefts were of everyday words, arguing (according to one article) that the two peoples lived side by side, passing a cup of flour and a bucket of words over the fence, as needed. They fall into a category of words a language can’t have too many of: nouns, adjectives, that sort of thing. If we have multiple words for tan (and if you’ve ever worked in the garment industry you know how many we have), the language can absorb that. But English somehow borrowed the word they from Old Norse (it was originally a masculine plural, but English got bored and made it gender neutral). Pronouns, it turns out, fall into a different category: the language chokes, coughs, and spits if it has multiples of them. The transfer (according to that same article) seems to testify to a close relationship between speakers of the two languages. In fact, the two languages may have been mutually intelligible–they’re both Germanic–which surely would’ve helped.
Compare all that to the French words that entered the language after the Norman conquest. We have more borrowings from French than from Norse, but they’re about high culture, hunting, law, cooked food as opposed to uncooked animals, and government, not about ordinary things like window, smile, knife, and seat.
Old Norse might have still been in use when the Normans invaded but it had probably dropped out of use by the twelfth century. Its speakers had been absorbed into the general population.
Some academics argue that modern English is a descendant of the Vikings’ language, Old Norse, rather than of the Anglo-Saxon language, which I learned to call Old English. Other academics say, “Bullshit,” only more politely and at greater length. We’ll keep our hands in our pockets and let them fight that out, okay? May the best argument win.
This is another place where the Vikings’ impact can be traced. With a lovely sense of irony, we stole the word law from them, along with by-law. The by there means “town.”
Central to the Viking legal system was the Thing–or in some spellings, Ting: a representative gathering that served as both legislature and court. (If you have nothing better to do, try googling “What is a thing?”)
Someone accused of a crime could be brought before the Thing, with people stating what they believed to be the facts of the case. Or claimed to believe. Or–well, we’re an imperfect species. That hasn’t changed.
A law-sayer would explain what the law had to say about the crime, and a jury or 12–or 24, or 36, if the case was important enough–would decide whether the accused was guilty or innocent. A person who was found guilty could be fined or outlawed–banished to the wilderness, denied help from friend and family, and fair game for his (or presumably her) enemies.
When the old gods held sway, disputes could also be settled with duels, but Christianity put an end to that, introducing the civilized practice of the ordeal by fire. If you could grab a piece of iron out of boiling water and walk nine paces with it, you were innocent. Ditto if you could walk twelve paces over red-hot iron and not have infected wounds three days later.
To be fair–and I do occasionally want to be fair–having introduced the ordeal by fire, Christianity later abolished it, but it took a while, and left a lot of burned feet.
Even after the Norman invasion, as late as the twelfth century, the old Danelaw area was recognized as having a customary system of laws that was different from the formerly Anglo-Saxon part of England’s.
Viking women were freer than most women of their age. They could own land, divorce a husband, and reclaim their dowries if a marriage broke apart. With their men so often away pillaging, their role in the family was a powerful one, and some seem to have fought beside the men.
All that is ripped wholesale out of discussions of Scandinavia, but it’s a fair bet that it carried over into Viking England.
Solid evidence about women’s role is sketchy, though. Until recently, the assumption was that the invaders were men and that when they settled down they married local women. Recently, though, metal detectorists have found enough Scandinavian women’s jewelry to convince at least some experts that a fair number of women either journeyed with or later joined the men.
The strong impact of Old Norse on English also argues for the presence of Norse women. Language is transferred primarily in the home. A bilingual household is less likely to preserve the incomers’ language.
Or so the theory goes.
Poor farmers also had more independence in Viking England than they did in Anglo-Saxon England. On the other hand, both the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons held and traded slaves, so poor farmers weren’t at the bottom of the social scale.
Nothing’s ever simple, is it?
I could–in fact, I will–toss a handful of words at you that mark the Viking social structure: sokeman (a small farmer with more independence than the English equivalent), wapentake and sulung (units of tax assessment, which tells us that yes, these big, hairy people did have a governmental structure), jarl (which became earl), riding (an administrative unit that continued into the 1970s). The words hint at social changes that would’ve been significant to the people living through them.
What else do we know about the Danelaw? It experienced growth in industry–mass-produced metalwork; pottery that was thrown on a wheel and glazed–and that may have been due to increased trade.
It’s not much, is it?
And then what happened?
Viking and Anglo-Saxon England fought. Anglo-Saxon England paid Viking England not to fight. Everybody fought some more. People were born. People died. Everyone got mixed together in complicated patterns. A handful of English kings were Scandinavian. The last Anglo-Saxon king, the unfortunate Harold–he of the arrow in the eye–had Norse ancestors.
The closer you get, the more complicated the picture is. You think you can draw a clean line between two groups of people and two cultures, but you can’t.
Welcome to the real world.