Writing fire and sword: the perception and representation of violence in Viking Age England
By Alice Cowen
PhD Dissertation, University of York, 2004
Abstract: This thesis expounds an alternative approach to the debate over Viking violence. I argue that, rather than seeking to quantify violence, it is more fruitful to explore how contemporaries shaped and interpreted their experience of Viking raiding. Representations of violence relate to empirical violence in various ways: reproducing conflict through vilification of the enemy, evaluating conduct in battle, conferring order on chaotic events, confronting or suppressing horror, or turning violence to the service of some other argument. Texts do not merely reflect violent events but are means of perceiving them. According to William Ian Miller, ‘violence is perspectival’; representations of violence are shaped by the perspectives of their makers (as victims, aggressors or witnesses and according to more precise political positionings) but they also manipulate perspectives.
Historical events can be matched to literary models, as the historical battle of Maldon is matched to the conventions of battle poetry in The Battle of Maldon; selection of detail colours events with authorial priorities. This thesis analyses the approaches to violence taken in texts (Old English, Latin and Old Norse) produced in ninth- to eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon England.
The thesis is organized chronologically and by topic. Beginning with a chapter centred on the first part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS A, to 891), it goes on to cover battle poetry (Maldon and Brunanburh), the ecclesiastical perspectives of Wulfstan and mlfric, and finally alternative views of the Danish conquest of England. These texts show how the representation of Viking violence is shaped by particular agendas and intersects with other discourses. For example, in Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi we see how the discourse of invasion crosses those of penitence and spiritual struggle in a call to repentance that is also a call to arms. The thesis stresses the plurality of representations of violence, but it also shows a continuity in pre-conquest uses of the image of Viking invaders that is disrupted when invaders become rulers.
Top Image: Image by Mary Hallock Foote, from the book The skeleton in armor (1877)