The map above is derived mainly from The Viking World, an invaluable tome edited by Stefan Brink, Professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Aberdeen, and Neil Price, professor in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University. The book was published in 2008 by Routledge and it is a good anthology of current historical and archaeological opinion.
But here I must pause with a health warning; in Chapter 26 Vikings in Insular Chronicling, David Dumville, the well-known medievalist, raises the point that, although the West Saxon chronicler of our chosen window refers to ‘Danes’, we cannot be sure that he truly understood where Denmark was, or that he could tell the difference between any of the Scandinavian peoples or, for that matter, any itinerant band of adventurers or pirates from any other part of the world. Other chroniclers referred to Northmen – hence the Normans, and Irish chroniclers referred to two groups – the Finn-gail and Dubhgail. These distinctions have been translated by some nineteenth century historians and writers, on scant evidence, as the Finn-gail being Norwegians, and Dubhgail equating to Danes. However, for those who dispute the existence of a separate Norwegian ethnicity, I would refer them to a paper written by Deborah VanderBilt of Wisconsin University on the reports of two merchant adventurers, Othere and Wulfstan whose journeys to that place were recorded by a scribe in the court of King Alfred (Oral Tradition, 13/2 (1998): 377-397 Translation and Orality in the Old English Orosius). Further evidence exists in skaldic poetry recorded in the thirteenth century, particularly of a Norwegian king called Harald Finehair, or Fairhair, who apparently existed around 850.
Just looking at our specific window of 866 to 890, in Chapter 8 of the Viking World, Dagfinn Skre of the University of Oslo, describes the Danish empire as an amorphous rural (or perhaps coastal) society. It was not town centred – as were the legislated kingdoms of the Franks and the majority of the small kingdoms of the British Isles. Today, we take for granted that a nation possesses a national capital, wherein the state leader resides and where all his/her administrators and their books of law and treasuries are kept. But the Danish kings possessed no written laws and possessed no maps that defined the limits of their domains. They had no structured church and, for all we know, had no systematic method of tax collection. They therefore had no need to be town-centric. Skre argues that just before 850, the four main urban areas of the Danish empire were Ribe, Kaupang, Birka and Hedeby, and that the whole population of these four places did not exceed 4000, representing only 1 or 2% of the national population.
Elsewhere in the Viking World, Jan Henrik Fallgren of Aberdeen University, describes a landscape of clusters of farms, each containing a principal communal dwelling of between 100 and 1000 square metres floor area, often boat shaped in plan, in plot areas of 3 -15,000 square metres. These clusters might exist in clearings, coastal inlets or wherever the ground might be suitable. It seems likely that they were kinship groupings.
It is difficult to understand how this disparate and small society – without literacy and maps – could have mobilised itself to send out invading armies in hundreds of ships. (It is stated that it would take 40,000 man-hours of work to build one 30m long ship.) And it is equally mystifying how the Danish King Gudfred could, in the closing part of the eighth century, have constructed the Danevirke – a massive palisade wall on an embankment and ditch between Denmark and the Franks. But then, maybe it wasn’t so difficult … three thousand years earlier, someone built Stonehenge.
It would seem that, by comparison to Denmark, the kingdoms that comprised what is now England were busy and densely populated places. Returning to our historical window, and the possible kinship that existed between the Christianised Angles of East Anglia and Mercia and the pagan Danes, the archaeologist Alan Vince has pointed out that finds indicate that the River Trent seems to have served, even before the arrival of the Danes, as a thoroughfare for surrounding industries. These included salt, iron and lead mining and even the production of glass. It seems that Leicester, Northampton, Nottingham, Repton, Derby, and Torksey were commercially active locations. Bearing in mind that the Danes wintered in Nottingham in 868, and, following their drubbing in Wessex in 871, returned to winter in Torksey in 873, and then in Repton in 874, it might not be so unreasonable to think that the Angles of the Trent valley were not exactly antagonistic towards them, it being likely that there were many old trading and family ties between them.