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08 January 2019

Heathens, pagans, Danes …. Vikings?

‘Your tragic suffering brings me sorrow, since the pagans have desecrated God’s sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.’

Alcuin, writing to the brothers of Lindisfarne, 793 (preserved in an 11th-century letter collection)


This vivid description is perhaps our earliest written record of the activities of the 'Vikings' in England. But who were the 'Vikings', and what do we really know about them? In this blogpost we describe some of the evidence for the 'Vikings' in Anglo-Saxon England, taken from manuscripts on display in our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, on show at the British Library in London until 19 February.

The opening page of the Gospel of Mark with text written in gold and an elaborate gold foliate frame

The Cnut Gospels: Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r


Fact and fiction

Modern historians and archaeologists continue to debate the origins, customs and name of the people popularly known as the 'Vikings', but who were often described in the contemporary sources as heathens, Danes or pagans. Many 'popular' facts about the 'Vikings' are themselves highly dubious. For example, the myth that the 'Vikings' wore horned helmets possibly has its origins in the 19th century, as popularised by Richard Wagner's The Ring Cycle. Another myth, that the 'Vikings' were unclean and unkempt, was debunked by John of Wallingford in the 13th century (but working from earlier sources). John commented that Anglo-Saxon women often preferred heathen 'Vikings' rather than Christian Englishmen, because the 'Vikings' were known to bathe every Saturday, comb their hair and dress well. Indeed, the original meaning of the Scandinavian word for Saturday, ‘laurdag/lørdag/lördag’, means ‘washing day’.


The early raiders

A text page in a medieval manuscript

The entry for 793, describing the raid on Lindisfarne, in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 26v

In the letter quoted above, the Anglo-Saxon author Alcuin, writing from mainland Europe, consoled the community of Lindisfarne after a recent attack. The same event is recorded in the entry for 793 in the D-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which described how ‘the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne’.

In the decades that followed, these same ‘heathen men’ targeted the coastlines of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, other areas of Britain and Carolingian Francia. Many of these raiders are thought to have come from Scandinavia, namely Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The initial raids were seasonal, concentrated in spring and summer, but from the middle of 9th century 'Viking' armies began to over-winter in England. By the late 870s, the established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia had all experienced regime change, as the Scandinavian raiders in turn became rulers and landowners.


The treaty between Alfred and Guthrum

The kingdom of Wessex held out against these invaders. Following a series of battles with the 'Vikings', in around 880 King Alfred of Wessex (871–899) signed a treaty with Guthrum, leader of the Danes settled in East Anglia. This treaty set out the lands held by both rulers, divided by a boundary that bisected the kingdom of Mercia. Lands north and east of this line became known as the Danelaw, and lands to the south and west came under Alfred's authority.

A text page in a medieval manuscript

The treaty between King Alfred and King Guthrum: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 383, f. 57r

Towards the end of the 10th century, Anglo-Saxon England became subject to further attacks by the Danes. The English rulers were repeatedly defeated by the Danish leader Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut, until Cnut became king of all England in 1016. He ruled England for nineteen years until his death in 1035, as well as being king of Denmark and Norway.

Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a large gold cross on an altar, with Christ in a mandorla above flanked by the Virgin Mary and St Peter

Miniature of King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r


In search of treasure

Anglo-Saxon churches and monasteries were attractive for pagan raiders. They may have been relatively unguarded, and they possessed books and liturgical equipment which were sometimes richly decorated.

This luxurious Anglo-Saxon gospel book bears an inscription which describes the book’s close encounter with a ‘heathen’ army. The inscription, written in an English hand, records how this mid 8th-century manuscript was ransomed from a ‘heathen’ army by an Anglo-Saxon, Ealdorman Alfred. The gospel book was then donated to Christ Church, Canterbury, in exchange for prayers for the souls of Alfred, his wife, Werburgh, and his daughter, Alhthryth (whose names are entered in the right-hand margin).

A page of text written in gold capital letters, beginning with the Chi-rho, the monogram of the Greek name of Christ. In the lower margin is a later inscription.

The Stockholm Codex Aureus: Stockholm, Kungliga Biblioteket, MS A. 135, f. 11r

Some precious Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were originally bound in what are known as treasure bindings. One famous example, on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, is the Judith of Flanders Gospels. Its script suggests that it was written partly in 11th-century Northumbria, while Judith was married to Earl Tostig. It is rare for medieval manuscripts to retain such treasure bindings, and we often imagine that they were torn off by 'Viking' raiders.

An ornate gold book cover, showing the crucifixion in the lower half and Christ in Majesty above

Treasure binding of the Judith of Flanders Gospels: New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover


Ancestral connections

The first Anglo-Saxons to arrive in Britain came from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. They retained close cultural connections with their ancestral homelands, using the runic alphabet and (before their conversion to Christianity) worshipping similar pagan gods. The Old English epic poem Beowulf is set in this context, following the exploits of a warrior named Beowulf as he came to the aid of the king of the Danes. The surviving manuscript was copied around 1000 but the poem was likely transmitted orally long before that.

A text page from the Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r


Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.


Becky Lawton 

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