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Discretion and deceit: a re-examination of a military stratagem in Egils saga

Discretion and deceit: a re-examination of a military stratagem in Egils saga

By Ian McDougall

The Middle Ages in the Northwest: papers presented at an international conference sponsored by the Centres of Medieval Studies at the Universities of Liverpool and Toronto, edited by Tom Scott and Pat Starkey (Oxford : Leopard’s Head Press, 1995)

Introduction: The last three decades have witnessed the publication of a great many valuable studies of the nature and extent of Scandinavian settlement in the north-west of England during the Viking Age. Particularly in the area of onomastics, evidence for Scandinavian settlement both north and south of the Solway Firth has been thoroughly investigated. W.F.H. Nicolaisen, for example, has demonstrated the close relationship between the distribution of Scandinavian place-name elements in south-west Scotland and corresponding onomastic patterns south of the border in Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire. W.H. Pearsall has studied the distribution of place-names in Cumberland in relation to local geology, flora and fauna to show that Scandinavians in these regions tended to settle areas better suited for herding than for agriculture. Detailed evidence of Scandinavian settlement patterns and the survival of Norse as a dominant language has been presented in, for example, studies of place-names in the Isle of Man by Margaret Gelling and Basil Megaw, in John Dodgson’s examinations of Cheshire place-names, and Melville Richards’ investigation of Scandinavian place-names in north-east Wales. A complete record of the large body of onomastic research in the field to that date was made available in 1985 with the appearance of Gillian Fellows Jensen’s survey, Scandinavian settlement names in the North-West. Our knowledge of the Scandinavian presence in north-western England has been similarly advanced in recent years by R. I. Page’s several studies of the runic inscriptions on the Isle of Man, by the publication of new archaeological research on Man by, for instance, Marshall Cubbon, James Graham-Campbell, and Sir David Wilson, by Steve Dickinson’s report on the archaeology of Scandinavian Cumbria, by Nick Higham’s surveys of evidence of viking settlement in the North-West, and by Richard Bailey’s work on Viking Age sculpture in the North and North-West: a large body of evidence distributed throughout the region, and for that reason of comparable importance to the place-name material.

When we turn to the area of written accounts of viking invasion of and settlement in the north-west of England, however, the pickings are rather slim. There is only one clear, though rather indirect, reference made to viking raids in the North-West in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, in the entries for 875 in all versions of the Chronicle except `F’. There it is noted that, while wintering in Northumbria by the River Tyne, the Danish leader Healfdan and his men `made frequent raids among the Picts and the Strathclyde Britons’, forays which must have taken them through parts of Cumbria and Dumfriesshire, although the chroniclers make no mention of Danes settling in that area either then or at a later date. Similarly, there is an interesting note in the eleventh-century Historia de Sancto Cuthberto to the effect that, some time in the early years of the tenth century, a certain Ælfred son of Brihtwulf fled east over the Pennines (presumably from Cumbria) to escape from `pirates’. Apart from scant and oblique references such as these to viking penetration of the North-West in English, Irish and Welsh annals, there are no reliable historical records of viking activity in the region. Perhaps because no wealthy monasteries with scriptoria had been established in north-west England by the tenth century, the history of the region during this period has for the most part been left unwritten. Whatever the reason, for reliable information about the Scandinavian presence in this part of Britain we must depend entirely upon non-literary sources such as the archaeological and onomastic evidence I have already mentioned.

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