By Daniel Wollenberg
Paper given at the Vagantes: Medieval Graduate Student Conference, held at the University of Pittsburgh (2011)
Did medieval readers/listeners believe that the information in chivalric romances to contain at least some historical truth? Wallenberg looks at this question by examining how the Danes were described in Middle English Romances (between the 13th – 15th centuries) and in other depictions found in England in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern Period.
The Danes were described in these sources come from the Viking invasions of England in the Anglo-Saxon period, and are always portrayed as villains who were responsible for the destruction of towns and buildings, and who were shown to be cruel and brutish. One early modern work claimed that all ruins presently in England were the result of the destruction caused by the Danes centuries earlier. The term ‘Danish Yoke’ was used during this period, describing the Danes as living off the land without working, and turning the local residents into little more than slaves. By contrast, Normandy is often depicted in these works to be a peaceful and well-governed place.
Another source for the depiction of the Danes within England were plays, such as one held on Hoctide, a festival held just after Easter which became popular during the 15th century. Other plays include the 16th century work ‘Edmund Ironside’ which may have been written by Shakespeare – in it the main villain is Cnut, and his claim to the throne is presented as being nothing more than by the force of arms, without any notion of law or justice.
Did these works and plays influential on their readers? Wallenberg believes it to be and notes the many place-names and geographic locations that were associated with the Danes – and more importantly places were local English people successfully fought off Danish invaders. In the 16th century the residents of the city of Manchester claimed that the name of their city originated from ‘City of Men’ who had won a victory over the Danes. In many places a tradition formed which described how certain places were areas that saw heroic resistance to the Danes.
One interesting development was that denholes, underground chambers built during the Roman period (usually found in Kent and Essex) to store grain, were being called ‘Daneholes’ and were believed to be hiding places for Danish maurauders. Also, during the 15th century the redddish flower Dwarf-elder started to be called ‘Danes Blood’ and its reddish colour was caused by all the blood spilled in the fields by the Danes.
Wollenberg concludes that a popular belief arose in late medieval England about the Danish/ Viking invasions and the resistance of the locals, which came about because of the influence of these medieval romances.