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Religious and Cultural Boundaries between Vikings and Irish: The Evidence of Conversion Clare Downham 1 The Scandinavian migrations of the early Viking Age imprinted in European minds an enduring image of vikings as marauding heathens. As descendants of these ‘salt water bandits’ settled into their new homes, they adopted traits from their host cultures. 2 One such trait was the adoption of Christianity. This was perhaps the biggest change which affected vikings in a colonial situation as it entailed a new system of belief and way of understanding the world. Vikings in Ireland have often portrayed as late converts, with christian ideas only taking hold over a century after vikings settled in the island. Nevertheless in this paper I seek to argue that vikings of Dublin began to adopt christianity at an early stage, although the process of conversion was protracted and possibly uneven across social ranks. The stereotype of Hiberno-Scandinavians as staunch heathens may need revision. Ninth-century literature from Ireland expresses fear of vikings as slave-raiders and heathens. 3 It was not however until the eleventh century that vikings ‘burst onto the Irish literary stage’ by which time (as Máire Ní Mhaonaigh has demonstrated) a stereotype of heathen, plundering vikings had evolved which did not always reflect contemporary realities. 4 It is in accounts from the eleventh century and later that we get colourful descriptions of heathen activity linked with ninth-century vikings, for example the satirical account of the ‘druid’ Ormr who is hit by a stone and foretells his imminent death, or Auða, the wife of the viking leader Þórgísl, who was said to issue prophecies while seated on the altar at Clonmacnoise. 5 These accounts were on the one hand meant to be entertaining, but on the other they were intended as negative publicity for contemporary viking groups which helped to justify their subjection to Irish kings. 6 If we compare sources from England, the horror with which viking attacks were viewed is immediately apparent. The heathenism of vikings is stressed as one of their dire attributes in Alcuin’s famous response to news of the attack on Lindisfarne in 793. 7 Literary accounts of vikings also became more lengthy and imaginative over 1 I would like to thank David Dumville for his bibliographic advice, Finn Rindahl for comments. I have adopted Old English forms for medieval English names, Middle Irish forms for medieval Gaelic names, and Old Norse forms for medieval Scandinavian names. The term Gael refers to the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of Ireland and North Britain. 2 Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples , 2 vols (London: Cassell, 1956), I, 74. 3 Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, ‘Friend and Foe: Vikings in Ninth- and Tenth-Century Irish Literature’, in Ireland and Scandinavia in the Early Viking Age , edited by Howard B. Clarke et al. (Dublin: Four Courts, 1998), pp. 381-402: 383-91.

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