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Vikings where I've been

If there is one theme common to every place I've been in Europe, it's the Vikings.

The Vikings were everywhere there was water between Labrador snd Moscow, Seville and Baghdad.

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Vikings in Amsterdam

The Vikings were never in Amsterdam because Amsterdam was not there.

The "Viking age" began abruptly in 793, and while its end canot be as neatly delineated, most would agree that it was finished by the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Amsterdam was first documented in the 1200's; the area was probably totally uninhabited* when the Scandinavians arrived. They were probably there, but it wasn't.

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Vikings in Seville

It was in Seville that I first encountered a Viking-influenced city.

The Vikings went up the Guadalquivir river "as far as" the city in 844. The record seems unclear about whether they attacked again, but they were in the region (until 861, according to at least one source.)

By some accounts, the municipality built the city wall in response to the attack of 844. The English-language sources are pretty smug on the point. Spanish writing, though, makes the matter seem more complex. There were other enemies; and there was the river itself, occasionally flooding.

The wall is gone now but for a fragment. You can see a trace in the flow of automobile traffic around the edge of the old city that is not defined by the curve of the river.

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Dublin Vikings

The Vikings in Ireland were not primarily barbaric plunderers, but opportunists. They plundered when it was the best opportunity.

They were, as everywhere, a commercial people. They traded when they could, marauded when that was more practical. They made political alliances when it was necessary.

Dublin is a Viking city.

Dublin was, indeed, the first city of any kind in Ireland. And the Vikings made it.

They didn't steal it. They made it.

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Vikings in Ireland

The Viking Age in Ireland is bracketed by two events — The first landfall in 795, and the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, where the high king Brian Boru died in his troops' victory over the Dublin Vikings.

I passed through Galway. The Vikings were there, but they didn't stay long, either. This is a bit surprising. Galway Bay offers good access to inland waterways, and the Vikings raided in the area frequently, from about 830. The Vikings established the coastal cities of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. In Galway, they did only the work for which they are most infamous; they plundered monasteries.

Monasteries were the plum prize, and the ideal candidate for a raid. The Irish monasteries had already been attacking each other, both in plunder and in political war.

For the Vikings, the appeal of monasteries was simple — they were sites of concentrated wealth. In fact, with no cities on the island, monasteries were just about the only sites of concentrated wealth. Crops and livestock seem to have been prime goals — and people; both as ransom and slave. They would naturally take any treasures they could steal; but the quest for treasure could not explain repeated raids on the same monastery, a common occurence.

Some probably took a wife. The Vikings were settling in.

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Vikings in Kilkenny

The Kilkenny monastery was located at the present site of St. Canice's Cathedral, a Norman church completed in 1285.

On that site is a round-tower, a typical feature of Irish monasteries, that was built sometime between AD 700 and 1100. Below the level of this tower is evidence of Christian burial. Speculative dating often puts the establishment of the Kilkenny monastery at about AD 500.

There is no record that Vikings looted the monastery in Kilkenny.

That is a conspicuous fact, albeit one that is based on information's lack rather than its presence. But monasteries are the source of historical writing for pre-Norman Ireland. The lack of any report of plunder suggests that the Vikings never plundered here.

Then the question becomes "how could that be?"

If they fail to leave conspicuous record in Kilkenny city, the Vikings left a gruesome reminder at Dunmore Cave, just north. In 928, according to the annals, there was a massacre by the Dublin Vikings. Having defeated their men, the Vikings reportedly lit a fire at the cave, murdering as many as a thousand women, children, and elderly who'd gone there for refuge. Forty-four skeletons have surfaced in modern times.

Strangely, an employee at Dunmore discovered in 1999 a hoard of fine Viking items that dates to 940 (by evidence of coin also present.) It is a mystery why a Viking would stash valuables at the site of an earlier massacre, and why he never retrieved them.

There are plenty of reasons to expect that the Vikings would have raided the Kilkenny monastery — primarily that it was a monastery. And it was on a river. The Viking town Waterford is on the sea 30 miles downstream. And the Vikings were active in the valley of the River Nore — as they were on all waterways during a period.

But the kingdom of Ossory — most of modern County Kilkenny and a part of County Laois to the north — had a great king during the period of inland Viking plunder, and Ossory was a powerful state.

The fame of that king, Cerball MacDunlainge, rests on his interactions with Vikings. He was a talented warrior and a diplomat, forging alliances and treaties when he could and going to war when he had to. He was formidable: his rule established Ossory as a powerful kingdom, cemented Kilkenny as a center of power, and left an enduring memory in the folk legends of the Icelandic descendants of those who had tried to best him.

It's possible that during the period when the Vikings were actively raiding inland waterways (late 800's,) Ossory was too powerful for their tastes. The Vikings may have found the Kilkenny monastery unattractive ]]] because it was in Cerball's Ossory.

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Vikings in Nijmegen, The Netherlands

The Vikings took over the Valkhof in Nijmegen in 880, and used it as a winter-quarters. Or so goes the standard narrative. I read in one source that they repeated this in the following year, but have nowhere found any greater detail about the matter.

One of Nijmegen's official epithets is that of "Keizerstad," which means "Emperor's town." The "Keizer," (in Dutch) or "Caesar," or Emperor, was none other than the great Charlemagne, Karel de Grote, "Charles the Great." His rule, the Holy Roman Empire, was a supposed re-institution of the original Roman empire after four centuries. The Keizer's palace — in written history — was an important feature in an important city within the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne would stop here on his trips through the region. Official Nijmegen is proud of this legacy.

The site was distinctly important in the Nijmegen of the real Roman Empire, a great market city and garrison on the northern border.

The Emperor, "successor" to the Roman imperial title, had ostensibly found Nijmegen an important symbol with its Roman pedigree, and had graced it with his occasional presence, and that palace.

The problem with the Viking story (that they overwintered at the palace) is the problem with the palace. There's no archeological evicence of it. More pointedly, there is no physical evidence of Carolingian occupation.

Albert Delahaye, archivist for the city of Nijmegen from 1946 to 1957 noted the lack of Carolingian artifacts in the city's archaeology. Delahaye is reviled and revered in Dutch letters — more so the former, and especially by established historians — but he raises an interesting point here.

The rebuilding after the bombing of Nijmegen in WWII naturally involved extensive archeological work. Carolingian artifacts remained lacking.

There are two points on which the ideas of Albert Delahaye are pertinent to the matter of any Viking raid on Nijmegen. The first is that I have found no other interesting detail of the supposed conquest and occupation of the Valkhof palace — only the fact that it might not have happened. The other point is one of Delahaye's most prosaic assertions: that Nijmegen museums lack even a single Carolingian artifact.

I've been to the Museum Valkhof twice — the museum that stands next to Valkhof hill, the traditional location of the Keizer's palace. I didn't see anything Carolingian.

The Roman occupation was of briefer duration than the supposed presence of the Carolingians — and centuries earlier. And yet, to compare with the overflow of Roman artifacts, we have from the Carolingians... nothing.

It seems likely that the story about Vikings wintering in Nijmegen is untrue.

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* The first record of Amsterdam comes from 1275 when Count Flores V granted a toll privelege to the city. Three neighboring settlements had converged over several decades. This toll privelege documents the earliest known official recognition of the unified municipality.

The first waterworks probably date to the early 1100's. Before water management, Amsterdam couldn't have been more than a few buildings on a wash of delta clay. If there was anything there in the Viking days, it was nothing worth plundering — or if worth plundering, not worth anybody's time to keep a record of it.

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