Danish Ferocity and Abandoned Monasteries: the Twelfth-century View

Danish Ferocity and Abandoned Monasteries: the Twelfth-century View

By Julia Barrow

The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past, eds. M. Brett, M and D.A. Woodman (Ashgate, 2015)

Lindisfarne ruins - created by  Thomas Girtin (1775–1802)

Lindisfarne ruins – created by Thomas Girtin (1775–1802)

Abstract: Apart from brief accounts of attacks on Lindisfarne and Donemutha in the 790s, there are almost no accounts of Viking attacks on Anglo-Saxon monasteries in contemporary sources. There are however many in twelfth century sources, most of them fictive or largely so. This article tries to explain why twelfth-century authors found it so important to invent stories of Viking brutality towards monks and nuns and what ideas and material they used to create their stories.

Introduction: When, in the second half of the twelfth century, the author of the opening section of the Liber Eliensis got to the passage where he needed to explain how what had been a flourishing nunnery in the time of Bede had become a community of secular clerics by the middle of tenth century, he invoked the Danes as agents of change, and accused them of having burned the monastery and slaughtered all the nuns. He had access to a brief comment about the burning of the monastery of Ely and the killing of its inmates in the Libellus Æthelwoldi of the early twelfth century, but this was insufficiently detailed for his purposes, and so, to set the scene, he described the arrival of the Danes in terms borrowed from John of Worcester, Abbo of Fleury and the prophet Jeremiah. The following may serve as an example:

All these men were persecutors of Christians, so cruel in their inborn ferocity that they did not know how to become gentle in the face of the miseries of mankind but, without any pity, they fed on people’s agonies and, in accordance with the oracular statement of prophecy that ‘all evil comes from the North,’ this same wicked race leaping forward as the North Wind blows.

Most of this passage just quoted was taken from Abbo’s Passion of St Edmund, including the term ‘ferocity’ in connection with the northern peoples.

The author of this part of the Liber Eliensis was only one of several twelfth-century English authors who felt moved to write descriptions of Vikings destruction of monasteries in the ninth century. We find such accounts in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta pontificum; in one of the Peterborough interpolations in the E-version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and, also at Peterborough, in Hugh Candidus’ chronicle; in the Abingdon Chronicle; in the Whitby cartulary and in Symeon of Durham’s Libellus de exordio. Orderic Vitalis makes a brief reference to the Danes burning the churches of monks and clerics in his account of how the English church declined between the days of Bede and 1066.

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