Northmen vs. Irishmen in the 10th Century
by Renee Vincent
Generally speaking, one of the first or perhaps the most famous of appearances made by the Northmen was in 793 AD, when a small band of armed men attacked the monastery of Lindisfarne (a small island off the east coast of England) and mercilessly killed the peaceful monks of the abbey where they stood. Not only did they thieve the riches from the monastery, but they also slaughtered the cattle to restock their ships. To the Christian world, including Ireland, this was an outrage. And just as word quickly spread of this atrocity, so did the number of reoccurring attacks on other monasteries, particularly those along Ireland’s coasts and rivers.
Eventually, Ireland became the perfect place for the Northmen to set up winter camps when excursions were put on hold until the warmer seasons. Over time, these temporary encampments developed into settlements and even flourishing ports. The Northmen started to trade, intermingle, and adapt to the customs and culture of the Gaels, but there were still those Irish, who did not like the “foreigners” who swept into their country like a vicious storm. Many of the Irish, noble and ignoble alike, had come into brutal contact with these pagan people, and had lost their loved ones to raids, skirmishes, or even the slave trade. The thought of actually allowing these Northern people to integrate within their own country—which had so far remained impervious to outside influences—left more than a bad taste in their mouths.
This is the very time period when my Emerald Isle Trilogy takes place—when there was more at stake than just a claim on Ireland’s flourishing port, but the very alliances made between Christian and pagan men, how ever unlikely it seemed.
It has been argued that the seafaring Northmen brought the “world” to Europe’s ports and boosted its very economy with the expansion of their trading routes. There is no doubt that they also brought terror and destruction by the edge of their swords, but unfortunately, it seems that this horrific image has gone down in history as the stereotype of what the Northmen were like as a whole.
As in any culture, there are those whose actions defy the moral code of society, and those people often gain recognition and the privilege of the written record. The “Vikings” were no different. Most of the documents we have today, although colorfully descriptive and poetically versed, are from the partiality of the victimized monks who described only the few renegades driven by the spoils of piracy and plunder. We do not get the full picture of the other Northmen whose lives did not involve pitiless rape, arson, and thievery.
Along with courage, these men made and kept oaths of loyalty, both with their gods and their brothers in arms. It was not likely that oaths were broken, as doing so would have called to question one’s honor, and during this time, a man’s character was either his glory or his shame.
These men were also family men; a people who stood closely together, sometimes living together in the same longhouses and raising each others’ young as their own. This was not done for poverty sake, but as an opportunity for the younger generation to learn specific crafts and strengthen bonds within the group. If a lad aspired to be a blacksmith, he’d be fostered by the local blacksmith, if one did not run in his own family. It was a convenient, if not logical form of apprenticeship.
But as much as we’ve come to discover the Northmen’s high regard for kinship, it still did not get in the way of independence. When a lad grew of age, he was free to stay at home or live abroad. There was no disappointment if a son wanted to venture out and find new lands for himself.
In truth, this was the spirit of the Northmen. Their vitality for adventure, as well as their unsurpassed nautical intelligence, helped them to perfect the most versatile sea vessel of their time. Their ships were sturdy enough to withstand the treacherous storms of the open sea, yet shallow enough to slip up rivers and streams. They understood clearly the concept of latitude and could even navigate their ships in the darkest of night using the Pole Star.
One last misconception I feel worth mentioning, is that contrary to popular belief, the Northmen were relatively clean for men of the Early Middle Ages. They groomed themselves often, employing the use of braids and clips in their hair, various rudimentary bone “picks” for their teeth and ears, and within the realm of credibility, bathed more frequently than their European neighbors. This has been suggested to be a purposeful tactic, as they were well aware that in order to gain the attention of a noble woman, one’s hygiene could play a factor in her willingness. And if you look at the most common find in excavated Scandinavian gravesites, aside from weapons, it would be the comb.
I hope this has given you a new insight on “Vikings,” and yet on the same token, an empathetic sense of pride for the Irishmen who withstood, sometimes complied with, and, yet, ultimately survived the men of the North.
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