By Jayne McErlean
Innervate: Leading Undergraduate Work in English Studies, Vol.1 (2008-9)
Introduction: The significance of Scandinavian migration to the British Isles, for the identities of both the indigenous people and the Scandinavian settlers during the early middle ages, is dichotomous and complex. Identity is not one dimensional and fixed; it is multiple and fluid. Ethnic identity might be expressed through language, religion and culture, but could arguably be defined by history, geographical origin or parentage. National identity can be undermined by regional identities. Social roles, for example mother, farmer and earl, imply other identities. It is clearly impossible to define what underpins identity. Indeed, the Vikings have several ‘labels’ in medieval texts which suggest several assigned identities. The scholar Alcuin wrote from the court of Charlemagne to Bishop Higebald, following the first recorded Viking raid in 793 on the monastery at Lindisfarne. Outraged, he describes the Vikings as ‘heathens [who] desecrated god’s sanctuaries’. Despite conflict between tribes in Ireland, the Irish sense of shared polity and Christianity set the non-Christian Vikings in such striking opposition that they are repeatedly referred to as ‘Gaill’ or foreigners in The Annals of Ulster. In contrast, in Orkneyinga Saga, Svein Asleifarson, a prolific Viking is described as ‘the greatest man the western world has ever seen’. The word ‘Viking’, is in itself not an ‘ethnic label, but is descriptive of what they did’. It refers to the act of travelling to raid, steal and plunder. These are clearly broadly different identities of Scandinavians (a blanket term referring to the peoples of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and indeed another identity), assigned to them by others in response to their raiding and migrating activities.
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