15.01.05, Hadley and Harkel, eds., Everyday Life in Viking-Age Towns

Main Article Content

Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 15.01.05

Hadley, D.M., and Letty Ten Harkel. Everyday Life in Viking-Age Towns: Social Approaches to Towns in England and Ireland, c. 800-1100. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013. Pp. xii, 227. ISBN: 9781842175323 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Craig R. Davis
Smith College

In their preface the editors flag the primary focus of their collection as less on the causes or necessary conditions of urbanization in England and Ireland during the Viking Age (the ninth through eleventh centuries) and more on the experience of people living in these new towns, especially their various expressions of a social identity distinct from that of contemporaries living in the countryside round about. Before the advent of the Vikings, early medieval Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England were "essentially non-urban" societies (vii) in which the main form of production was agriculture and animal husbandry. The new towns, in contrast, provided regular markets for the produce of surrounding farms, as well as centers for the creation and exchange of other goods and services, facilitating the economic growth and cohesion of their hinterlands and integrating these into broader regional polities. The antecedents of emergent towns in the Viking Age are various and often uncertain, whether (1) monasteries; (2) coastal or riverine trading depots called wics in England; (3) newly built strongholds provoked by Viking attacks such as the burhs of King Alfred (r. 871-899); or (4) the naval and military encampments of Vikings themselves, like Dublin, which continued to develop their commercial and manufacturing activities into times of greater peace and stability. Even though the roots of Viking-Age urbanization are still under debate, its actual progress has been much more clearly mapped during the last couple of decades of "rescue archaeology" begun in the late twentieth century, especially for the towns of Dublin, York, Leicester, Lincoln, Oxford, Chester, and Nottingham, the towns studied most fully in this volume.

In his introductory essay, "Living in Viking-Age Towns," David Griffiths summarizes the recent spate of rescue excavations or those funded by developers in a phase of archaeological discovery that may now be passing, but which has had a profound impact on our understanding of life in these incipient urban centers, each site evincing its own distinctive "personality" in the way its occupants came to express their civic, ethnic, occupational, social class, age and gender identities. Some of this variety depended upon the presence of pre-existing Roman structures or natural topographical features, of course, generating patterns of internal organization which "conditioned the lives of early medieval citizens," as well as of visitors and transients, "in both practical and cognitive ways," often creating a certain civic pride and self-identification (10). In "Towns and Identities in Viking England," Gareth Williams explores the role of urban centers in transforming Anglo-Scandinavian society, especially in their redefinition of older kingdoms like East Anglia or the creation of new polities like the Kingdom of York, the Five Boroughs (Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford, and Derby), and, more broadly, the Danelaw itself, a term which only came later into use to signify the distinctive political character of the region of Scandinavian settlement in the north and east of England. Across the Irish Sea, Emer Purcell and John Sheehan examine relations between the northern half of Ireland--Leth Cuinn—and the new Scandinavian settlement in "Viking Dublin: Enmities, Alliances and the Cold Gleam of Silver." The authors note that the Irish annals report many Scandinavian raids and attacks, "but more often than not reveal Vikings in alliance with various Irish kings, as they fought one another, and in particular vied for the position of king of Tara" (35). The large silver hoards found in the territories of dominant Irish dynasties, especially the Northern and Southern Uí Néill, may represent economic ties with Viking Dublin in the role of financier and "king-maker," rather than the customary exchange of honorific gifts between ruling elites. The presence of silver hoards in the territories of ascendant dynasties seems to correspond to periods when their contacts with the Scandinavian trading emporium were closest.

The second section of the volume describes the outward shaping and internal experience of urban landscapes, beginning with Stephen H. Harrison's query about the world "Beyond Longphuirt [fortified ship enclosures]? Life and Death in Early Viking-Age Ireland." In particular, Harrison looks at social activity inside the recently excavated longphort at Woodstown (Co. Waterford) and considers relations between this new town, its rural neighbors, and international contacts. In "From Country to Town: Social Transitions in Viking-Age Housing," Rebecca Boyd studies how citizens adapted traditional domestic architecture to the narrow urban plot, which functioned both as home and workplace, and thus became a compact locus of family pride and identity. The Hiberno-Norse Type 1 house is the main building in each plot, but its smaller ancillary structures and sharply defined boundaries with neighbors are important factors in clarifying the social significance of this space. Boyd notes that Scandinavian women in Viking Dublin lived their lives in these self-contained household units, working and caring for their children there, thus forming the core of an individual nuclear family as a distinctive constituent of social identity in the new land. Deirdre McAlister further explores "Childhood in Viking and Hiberno-Scandinavian Dublin, 800-1100," discussing the home environment in which children grew up, the ways in which they were socialized into their adult roles and, in particular, the types of play they enjoyed through the toys they left behind, sometimes in their graves. These miniature swords and other weapons, horses and ships, mimic the status symbols of the adult world. In rural areas, toy quernstones and millstones suggest a somewhat different set of values, where children were trained in the use of practical tools from an early age, "either through play or through real contribution to household labour" on a smaller scale (98). McAlister believes that the Viking migration to Ireland led to a greater emphasis on an individual family's standing in the community, so that even children of such families were buried like adults with symbols of their newly acquired wealth and status. In "Whither the Warrior in Viking-Age Towns?" D. M. Hadley wonders what happened to piratical menfolk after they had settled down to a peaceful lifestyle requiring a different set of virtues and points of social pride. The author concludes that retired Vikings in Dublin remained quite proud of their earlier martial success, especially manifested in the symbolic objects they took with them to the next world, but that this source of identity was mitigated by other forms of masculine ideal over time, not so much those of the bourgeois craftsman or trader, but rather those of the Christian clergy and Christian kingship, which offered alternative models of a more pacific kind of social authority. In contrast, Hadley finds that explicit symbols of a warrior ethos attenuated much more slowly in rural areas with their landed estates of peasants and nobles, as opposed to the " more complex socio-political melting pot of the towns" (115). David Stocker also considers these changing leadership roles in "Aristocrats, Burghers and their Markets: Patterns in the Foundation of Lincoln's Urban Churches." In particular, Stocker studies the process by which early parishes were founded by local magnates, sometimes simply as churches on their own manorial estates, but more often in the laying out of nearby towns for development, "whereby one of the lord's new urban strips was devoted, not to the generation of rents, but to the provision of a church for the occupants of other plots" (139). These lords hoped to benefit from the commercial prosperity of their newly recruited tenants and more generally offered the establishment of churches as a way to construct for themselves a new kind of civic authority.

The contributors to the third section of this volume focus on the way particular kinds of archaeological evidence reveal social identities. Kristopher Poole considers animal bone assemblages in "More than Just Meat: Animals in Viking-Age Towns," concluding that lack of daily interaction between most town-dwellers and domestic animals, which was a ubiquitous feature in the lives of their rural forebears, constituted an essentially "different way of life, and of perceiving oneself, than had existed before" (154). Intensified human-to-human relationships rather than constant human-to-animal interaction meant, Poole argues, that the change from rural to urban was even more profound in changing town-dwellers' perception of themselves than their ethnicity as "Scandinavian" or "Saxon." Paul Blinkhorn studies another form of evidence for identity expression in "No Pots Please, We're Vikings: Pottery in the Southern Danelaw, 850-1000." Blinkhorn notes that the "mid- to late ninth century in England saw a major change in pottery production with the introduction of a number of wheel-thrown, kiln-fired wares that were produced on an industrial scale, the first time pottery had been made in this way since Roman times" (157). It has been suggested that this new industrialization of ceramic production in the Midlands and East Anglia (the southern Danelaw) was part of the urbanization that accompanied the Scandinavian settlement of the region. Yet Vikings came from an "aceramic" society, which used other materials for its cooking, drinking and storage vessels. Blinkhorn wonders whether the pottery industry had already begun to develop in this region before the advent of the Vikings or only took off after the West Saxon reconquest of the region in the early tenth century. Either way, he concludes, the rise of a ceramic industry in this period was "purely Anglo-Saxon in nature," rather than of Scandinavian provenance or inspiration (165). Nonetheless, it was the demand of denser populations in emergent towns that gave this industrialization its impetus. And although ceramic pots are utilitarian objects, they seem to have retained "meaning" to the people who made and used them, particularly as an expression of local identities. "They were new pottery types for a new way of life, but they also referred back to far older allegiances and social identities" in the pre-Viking kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex (157). "The Anglo-Saxons had, by the middle of the tenth century, been using pottery as an expression of their identity for around five hundred years... By the mid-tenth century, England was supposedly a single nation rather than a collection of kingdoms. The pottery tells us quite a different story" (169). In "Of Towns and Trinkets: Metalworking and Metal Dress-Accessories," Letty Ten Harkel examines the craft of metalsmiths, not so much in the creation of iron weapons or tools, or even silver coinage, but in the fashioning of ornamental dress-accessories as a form of urban style and social display. She concludes that "the Church was an important driving force behind the increased monopolisation of non-ferrous metalworking in the emerging towns and the increased social acceptability of the craft. Producers of dress-accessories were not part of elite society, but may have worked for a variety of patrons and clients, most clearly demonstrated in the widespread distribution of hooked tags. Some of the metalworkers were of Scandinavian descent, although there is no evidence that those active in Lincoln invested their products with overt references to ethnic or religious identity" (187). Creators of elite metal dress-ornaments enjoyed a higher social status than other craftsmen who worked in clay or iron. They retained their central location in the heart of the Lower City of Lincoln for centuries after other industries had been moved outside, thus confirming that such ornamental display had clearly become a marker of urban sophistication. In "Making a Good Comb: Mercantile Identity in Ninth- to Eleventh-Century England," Steven P. Ashby describes one of the more ancient items of mass production and marketing, one that enjoyed both practical and decorative functions. The combs produced in Viking York and Lincoln were inspired by Scandinavian models, but were adapted to insular materials and techniques in northern and eastern England forming a distinctive "school of manufacture" binding the comb-makers together as a "reference community" (205). Ashby stresses the "social aspects of early medieval craft and industry" as a shared tradition of technology that was adapted, learned and developed in distinctive ways by the collective decisions of a cohort of regional craftsmen over time. And finally, Maurice F. Hurley considers "Craft and Handiwork: Wood, Antler and Bone as an Everyday Material in Viking-Age Waterford and Cork," reminding us that most of the raw materials for urban crafts came from the surrounding hinterlands, even when these were marked by disparate political allegiances, mutually unintelligible languages or sharp differences in ethnicity: "Craft knowledge, skills and information on new technologies must have easily transcended political and ethnic boundaries" (209), Hurley surmises, since it is impossible to tell whether many objects are the result of urban craft or rural handiwork, especially when they are made from wood. In working this latter material, wood-turning and coopering seem to have become specialized industries located mainly in towns, while basketry and wood-carving were more widespread domestic activities in both town and country. Antler, bone and horn were also obtainable from local sources and worked by both skilled professional craftsmen for urban markets and semi-skilled amateurs for personal or family use.

All these studies treat the material artifacts uncovered by archaeologists less for their diagnostic value in dating particular sites or even as evidence for the degree of commercial exchange between town and country or between towns near and far, and more as evidence for a different kind of human being, the "urbanite" who sees him- or herself, and whom others see, as distinctive, as someone who reveals by style of dress, manner of speaking, personal carriage or other less definable qualities that he or she has been born, lives and belongs in a town rather than in the country. These studies make this point discreetly, however, or reiterate it only as a general proposition, concentrating individual efforts on a summary and analysis of the evidence of specific sites and types of artifact with detailed maps, charts, drawings, and photos. In fact, the authors indulge in remarkably little extrapolation or imaginative re-creation of "everyday life in Viking-Age towns," so that the title of the collection as a whole began to seem, at least to this reviewer (not a trained archaeologist but a student of language and literature), just a little misleading. The volume contains a fine and convenient compendium of recent archaeological research on Viking-Age towns, shifting the focus of attention from artifacts to the people who used them. As such, it will provide the basis for a fuller account of what must clearly have been a very dynamic, intense and ever-shifting series of social experiments, involving a close-knit, but newly formed society of men and women whose lives had been marked by violence and predatory self-interest, desperate venture and punishing labor, disciplined cooperation and frequent compromise--the sharing of mutual benefits across many barriers of language, custom, ethnicity, political allegiance, and personal circumstances. The Viking diaspora ironically concentrated people from many disparate backgrounds into crowded urban melting pots in which they now lived cheek by jowl with strangers, new neighbors and their families. We can study the detritus of their busy lives and marvel at the collective choices they made as individual agents acting in their own self-interest to create a new kind of society that ultimately transformed the regions around them, as well the larger countries in which their towns appeared, late Anglo-Saxon England and Hiberno-Norse Ireland.

Article Details

Author Biography

Craig R. Davis

Smith College