Lindisfarne and the Discovery of the Vikings
A commentary on Chapter 3 of The Wistful and the Good.
This is part of a series of commentaries on the historical background and literary issues raised by my serialized novel, The Wistful and the Good. You can follow both the novel and the commentaries on the index page and subscribe to get the latest updates.
The first germ of an idea for The Wistful and the Good came in the aftermath of 9-11 when innocent people of Arabic descent, or even vaguely Arabic appearance, living peacefully in the west, were suddenly objects of hatred and fear. What would it have been like, I found myself asking, for an innocent Norse trader landing on a beach in Northumbria in the weeks and months following the great raid on Lindisfarne? The book actually began as Leif’s story. Elswyth entered as a complication in his quest to raise his father’s ransom. But Elswyth, being Elswyth, gradually took over and made it all about her.
Was there trade between Northumbria and the Norse before Lindisfarne? Some accounts make it sound like the raid came entirely out of the blue, as if no one in Britain had ever heard of Norse or Danes before. But we can be pretty confident that Lindisfarne was not even the first raid. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records an encounter in Wessex six years earlier in 787:
Here Beorhtric [AD 786-802] took King Offa's daughter Eadburh. And in his days there came for the first time 3 ships; and then the reeve rode there and wanted to compel them to go to the king's town, because he did not know what they were; and they killed him. Those were the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race.
But it seems highly unlikely to me that this was actually the first encounter with Norse or Danes. The chronicler, one suspects, is confusing the first time he heard of something for the first time it happened. Plus, it is not likely that Vikings were just sailing around the North Sea raiding places at random. Lindisfarne was one of the richest monasteries in Britain. It was attacked with a fleet of multiple ships. It beggars belief that this happened by chance. The raiders had to have known their target in advance and aimed for it deliberately.
How did they know its location and it wealth so precisely? I have chosen to suggest the sort of mechanism that makes for a good story. We shall never know what the real story was. But it seems likely to me that trade was going on long before the raid happened. It is not like trade ships had to enter an official port, pay customs duties, and report to passport control. Just pull up on any beach or river bank and lay our your wares. No one but the trading parties may have know it was going on at all, or thought it was anyone’s business but their own.
The difference between “discovery” —the event that enters the public conscience and the knowledge of people who were not there to witness it—and mere commerce—people going quietly about their business, is an important one. Discovery does matter, and does deserve the name—it is the event that dis-covers, that “blows the covers off” and signals a broader change in knowledge and interaction. But it is not the same thing as being there. Columbus did dis-cover America. He was not the first to be there. He was the first to “blow the cover off” it for the European world.
The Lindisfarne raid may have been the event that “blew the cover off” the Vikings for the rest of Europe. But both evidence and logic suggest that it was far from being the first encounter. But if it was not the first time that Vikings (or Norse and Danes) entered England, it was the time that they entered the consciousness of the English people. (Or, at least, is seems from the surviving documents that it was the time that they entered the consciousness of the English people. We have no idea what documents have not survived or what fears and reactions were never written down at all.)
This is really the main significance of the raid for history, for there was not a lot of documented Viking activity in the years that followed. Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey was attacked in 794 and Iona Abbey in 795, but then there is a long pause (or a big gap in the records) before serious Viking invasions began. (This focus on attacking abbeys further suggests that the Vikings were well informed as to the nature and location of their targets.)
There were, of course, terrorist incidents before 9-11, and after it. But it is the one that stands out, that changed how the west looked at the terrorism threat, and reshaped the way the west thought about the Arab world and its dominant religion. It seems that the Lindisfarne raid did something similar for the Anglo-Saxon age.
We know remarkably little about the raid itself, as we know remarkably little about most incidents in Anglo-Saxon history. From the Anglo-Saxon chronicle we have this:
Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: these were immense flashes of lightening, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 June the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God's church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter.
I don’t think we can expect ancient sources to be less prone to hyperbole than our current news media. One can almost imagine an Anglo-Saxon Anderson Cooper, his silver hair tossed by the stiff sea breeze as he delivers the above lines to camera.
We also have this, from the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin in the court of Charlemagne:
Lo, it is nearly 350 years that we and our fathers have inhabited this most lovely land, and never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race, nor was it thought that such an inroad from the sea could be made. Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of all its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as a prey to pagan peoples.
Here one can detect the tone of the politician. “Never before in the field of human conflict…” The issue on which I urge you to action is the first, the worst, the impossible to foresee... This, O best beloved, is the way Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snakes always talk.
But this is not to suggest that the people of Northumbria were not affected strongly by the Lindisfarne raid. It cannot but have made them feel personally uneasy, as 9-11 did to so many all over the western world. It cannot but have made them think differently about any Norse or Danish friends or visitors they may have had. When the journalists and the politicians talk as they do, it is because they have caught the public mood.
Poor Leif, then, picked just the wrong time to turn up on a beach in Northumbria with a cargo of holy books. And his life is not going to get any easier from here. He’s going to have Elswyth to deal with.