Introduction - Honor and Feud.
Part of that lies in the paucity of documentation of what the Vikings actually did during their raids. To many at the time—clerics in particular—attacking a monastery or church would have seemed irrational. Or, the documentation we are left with was written centuries after the events, often in poetry, often wrong.
The horned helmets of the Vikings—they never existed. As for the other two famous images, the blood eagle and the berserker—those are the result of mistranslations.
The second translation led to a 14th-century interpretation that still exists today of the Vikings enacting a particularly horrid form of retribution. More importantly, contends Winroth, the Vikings were acting completely rationally with their raids. And, he argues, it was no different than Charlemagne.
For instance, he points out, Charlemagne treated Saxony like his own personal punching bag. Meanwhile, because they attacked those who would control the written record, the Viking execution of prisoners in lives on in infamy. Which brings us to the utterly fascinating heart of the argument for why the Vikings are due for a makeover—their sophisticated and extensive trade network saved Europe.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, all of Europe faltered as trade and commerce dried up. While things had picked up by the height of the Viking era in the 9th and 10th centuries, two things were holding the region back. This was largely due to currency being made of silver and gold, but the precious metals came from the East, Afghanistan in particular.
The second factor was that in regions where currency was not used, the system in place was the barter system, which limits economic growth.
The first, and less significant one, is that by attacking the monasteries and churches, the Vikings tapped into the sole major untouched source of precious metals in Europe. Those riches did not disappear, as the Vikings were well integrated in the European trade network. Alcuin saw the Viking onslaught as divine retribution for the slack standards of the Northumbrian people, much as he might have interpreted an epidemic of disease as punishment for human sin.
Worse was to come for his homeland, however, and Alcuin might have had difficulty in explaining the Viking activities of the ninth and tenth centuries in terms of God's punishment for bad behaviour.
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One of Alcuin's poems celebrates York and its library, where he spent so many happy years as a young man, and he lists many of the authors whose works were on its shelves. These included classical Latin writers such as Virgil, Cicero and Lucan.
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The cathedral library at York became even more famous throughout Europe after Alcuin's time - only to be destroyed utterly by Danish Vikings in an attack in Fortunately Alcuin's writings have not been lost to us and they remain a key source - giving historians a unique insight into one of the most traumatic periods of English history.
Dr Anna Ritchie is an archaeologist and a Viking specialist. She has excavated numerous sites, notably Buckquoy, in Orkney. She is author of Viking Scotland , as well as many other books on Scottish archaeology.
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Home Explore the BBC. This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving. Alcuin of York c.
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About the author Dr Anna Ritchie is an archaeologist and a Viking specialist. Explore the BBC. BBC Homepage.
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Contact Us. He knew that the oil needed for church services was scarce in Britain and he sent olive oil to be distributed amongst the Northumbrian bishops.
His distress and horror at the fate of Lindisfarne in comes over very strongly in his letters both to the Bishop of Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian king. In contrast, now that I am away from you, the distress of your suffering fills me daily with deep grief, when heathens desecrated God's sanctuaries, and poured the blood of saints within the compass of the altar, destroyed the house of our hope, trampled the bodies of saints in God's temple like animal dung in the street…'.