Saturday, May 9, 2015

Diaspora: The Beauty and the Confusion of Assimilation

Welcome back, History Fans! I apologize for the long absence, but this time I have a very good excuse! Having found out last month that I was (finally) accepted into the University of Iceland's Viking Studies masters program, I have been working on my Old Norse language/grammar skills, not to mention brushing up on some of the sagas.

Today, however, I want to discuss some very exciting things, at least for me, from a cumbersomely titled book, In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England. Good lord. I decided to follow up with a blog post title of equal complexity. Why not?! It's Saturday morning! Let's get nutty!!

Here's what the title of the book means: The majority of Viking activity in England occurred in the North-East, above the Danelaw and centered around York, Northumbria. Yet over the last century, more and more evidence has popped up to support a Scandinavian/Viking influence on the other side of the country, in North-West England. We are talking Wirral, Chester, Cumbria, and the Isle of Man. The areas of the Danelaw are heavy in the written sources, archaeology, and place names. More digging and research was needed to understand the influence in the North-West, whose history was largely ignored in sources such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or William's Domesday Book. Editors Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths, and Elizabeth Royles compiled some of the groundbreaking research that has been done on this subject into this ridiculously named book.

One of the contributors is the delightful Judith Jesch, who briefly discusses the difficulties of understanding diaspora. Jesch defines diaspora as relating to, "the processes and results of migration and how migrants think and feel about their situation." (Harding, et. al 2015).


The Vikings reacted so differently in each place they visited. They settled in Iceland where they maintained intense Norse connections and cultures. Charles the Bald handed over Normandy to a group of Vikings who were almost immediately engulfed into French culture--hardly any Norse connections remain! In England, however, there is a weird convergence of similar cultures: purely Scandinavian, Hiberno-Norse, Irish, Gaelic, and Anglo-Saxon. Traces of each exist in North-West England, so our question, and the one the book is trying to answer, is just how Norse were these communities? And more to the point, how do we even know?

Once again, we have to look at our not-so-trusty sources: the written record, archaeology, and language/place names. I've already mentioned that the already few written sources are mostly mum on the goings-on in North-West England. Some of the archaeological finds, however, tell an amazing story. Possibly the most intriguing relic is the Halton cross that was found at Halton, near Lancaster. This sculpture contains carvings depicting scenes of Sigurd Fafnisbani, or as we know it, The Saga of the Volsungs. This is astounding on a couple of levels. First, this is a pagan, Old Nose heroic story that has been transplanted on a cross. England had been Christianized for centuries prior to the Viking raids/migration, and even the Scandinavians themselves would have at least been nominally Christian by the 11th century when the cross was made ( This means that even though the culture would have been deeply rooted into an organized Latin Christianity, stories like Sigurd's were still circulated.

Halton Cross

Even more amazing is that the Icelandic version of the story, The Saga of the Volsungs, matches perfectly with the scenes depicted on the Halton cross! That saga wouldn't have been written down until at least the 13th century. Do you realize what that means?! The story of Sigurd slaying the dragon, probably an ancient Germanic legend, took shape in the minds of the Scandinavians before the Viking Age. Multiple examples exist on stones and in carvings in pre-Viking Age and in Viking Age Scandinavia. The story was carried by long ships to the west side of England FULLY INTACT. AND THEN THE STORY CROSSED TO ICELAND CENTURIES LATER AND WAS STILL THE SAME STORY! That is simply amazing for a culture with no real documentation, no writing system besides the occasional runes. But those weren't used for record keeping or writing stories. It's amazing how this legend survived. And its existence in North-West England in the 11th century meant that at least some of the community was holding onto its Norse roots.

Happy lil Sigurd slaying a dragon

Place names are normally instructive as to who was living in a specific place. Jesch explains, however, that no names in the North-West are entirely Irish, nor entirely Old Norse (Harding, et. al 2015). Instead, we see a splattering of odd combinations. Irish names smashed with the Old Norse -by, which means farm. Or they appear the other way around, with Old Norse personal names combined with Anglo-Saxon or Irish landmark descriptors. The fact that both of these forms exists in large numbers leads one to believe that the language of Old Norse was not just a fading form of communication. The language was relevant and dispersed enough to replace existing place names and to take hold in the local population. Of course, Jesch argues that many of the Viking settlements could have been unoccupied, which is why we see such a large number of Old Norse names (Harding, et al 2015).

This doesn't really answer our question, though. Did the Vikings bring their wives and children to England and assimilate into a mixed culture? Did they take Irish and Anglo-Saxon wives who imposed Christianity. Did these wives learn Old Norse, or did the men take time to learn the local dialect? Were the children bilingual?

The contradictory Halton and Gosford crosses and the jumbled place names are beautiful examples of  two cultures attempting to co-exist. They also undermine how confusing it is to pick a part the already muddled pieces. Christina Lee piles on the confusion in the chapter that follows Jesch. Lee points out that English contains many loan words from Old Norse --an obvious testament of the Norse influence on the English people. Ugly, egg, to die, to kill, skull, sky, and window are just a few of the common words we yanked from Old Norse. She also points out the place name of Helperby in North Yorkshire is derived from an Old Norse female name, Hjalp, combined with the -r, a genitive form, which shows ownership, and -by, which means farm. Lee says that the community would have had to have spoken Old Norse long enough for this combination of words to hold in place. So the North-West communities MUST HAVE MAINTAINED THEIR LANGUAGE AND CULTURE, RIGHT?!

I'm not so certain. It's so hard to make assessments based on place names and language. Lee also presents the uncertainty of grave goods. The classic oval brooches, which have come to define Viking women's costume in a kind of a blanket one-size-fits-all sort of assumption, are strangely absent from from the archaeology and from the grave sites in the area. Instead, the women seem to prefer ringed pins, which are more of an Irish influence.

Modern babe modeling the classic oval brooches

Without a written account, assessing the diaspora is a nearly impossible task. How did the Scandinavians feel about their relocation, about their neighbors, about assimilation? The sources at hand leave a murky picture, much like the mapping of the Christian conversion. We are left with our classic assessment: the Vikings were the supreme opportunists and would have looked for an advantage in any situation. If converting to Christianity would enhance their standing, they would have converted. If learning the local language would have increased their status, they probably would have happily abandoned their mother tongue. What is obvious, however, is that no matter how far from home or to what god they answered to, the Vikings held onto certain aspects of their culture that have bled through in the north-west region of England. The place names, the monuments, the loan words, and even the runic inscriptions which appear quite frequently, if not haphazardly, prove that the Scandinavians had a hand in shaping North-West England.

No comments: