New Study Debunks the “Ruthless Vikings, Helpless Monks” Narrative
Medieval English monasteries didn’t just passively cave in to the long-running Viking attacks on English shores that culminated in the victory of the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great . Lyminge, a monastery in Kent, was in the thick of Viking hostility from the late eighth century, but survived it for almost a century through defensive tactics devised not just by the monks but also by secular leaders of Kent, a new study has found.
The study by University of Reading archaeologist Dr. Gabor Thomas was published in the journal Archaeologia. Based on detailed examination of archaeological evidence and historical records, the Viking study suggests that medieval monasteries and local communities that were on the frontlines of repeated Viking attacks managed to pull through for much longer than previously believed.
“The image of ruthless Viking raiders slaughtering helpless monks and nuns is based on written records, but a re-examination of the evidence shows the monasteries had more resilience than we might expect,” Dr. Thomas said in a University of Reading press release .
Over a decade of archaeological research in the village of Lyminge, first established in the fifth century, has gone into the study. Located in a region of Kent that endured the full force of the Viking raids in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, Lyminge not only lived to tell the tale but even bounced back to a great extent.
The excavation at Lyminge in Kent revealed hereto information about monastic resilience in the face of raids by the Vikings. (Dr. Gabor Thomas / University of Reading )
Evidence of Monastic Buoyancy When Faced with Viking Raids
In 2007 to 2015 and 2019, archaeologists conducted excavations at the monastery that laid bare its main features. The monastery was built around a stone chapel. Meanwhile a wide expanse of wooden and other structures catering to different aspects of monastic life surrounded the chapel, reported Ancient Pages .
The researchers also came across animal bones that had been dumped as rubbish. The bones likely belonged to animals slaughtered for the abbey kitchen. Radiocarbon dating of these bones confirmed that the monastery remained occupied for almost two centuries after its founding in the second half of the seventh century. This indicates that it withstood the Viking assaults for almost a century.
Evidence provided by written records from neighboring Canterbury Cathedral shows that a raid in 804 AD displaced the monastic community of Lyminge. The monks sought and received sanctuary within the walled Canterbury town, a former Roman center and the administrative and ecclesiastical capital of Anglo-Saxon Kent.
However, the excavations by Dr. Thomas’s team prove that the displacement was temporary. The brothers not only returned but continued to live and add to the structures at Lyminge for several decades during the ninth century. Silver coins and other artifacts from the site provide corroborative evidence of this re-establishment of the monastic community.
“This research paints a more complex picture of the experience of monasteries during these troubled times,” explained Dr. Thomas in Medievalists.net. “They were more resilient than the ‘sitting duck’ image portrayed in popular accounts of Viking raiding based on recorded historical events such as the iconic Viking raid on the island monastery of Lindisfarne in AD 793.”
A silver coin discovered at Lyminge in Kent. (Dr. Gabor Thomas / University of Reading )
Eventual Breaking Point Caused by Long-Term Viking Pressure
However, there was a limit to the hardiness of the monastic community and the sustained attacks finally resulted in the monastery being disbanded. “The resilience of the monastery was subsequently stretched beyond breaking point,” explained Thomas. “By the end of the 9th century, at a time when Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great was engaged in a widescale conflict with invading Viking armies, the site of the monastery appears to have been completely abandoned.”
When explaining why the monastic community reached its so-called “breaking point,” Thomas hypothesized that it was “most likely due to sustained long-term pressure from Viking armies who are known to have been active in south-eastern Kent in the 880s and 890s.”
According to the evidence found during these excavations, routine and everyday life returned to Lyminge only in the 10th century. Nevertheless, by this point it was “under the authority of the Archbishops of Canterbury who had acquired the lands formerly belonging to the monastery.”
The excavations which have provided evidence about the Vikings and their raids of Britain took place at Lyminge in Kent. (Dr. Gabor Thomas / University of Reading )
Monastic Lyminge Resilience Is the Norm, Not an Exception
The study goes on to conclude that Lyminge’s experience was not isolated. It ties in with evidence from other monasteries in different parts of Britain, including Kent. There was also a widespread mid-ninth-century watershed in the lifestyle of these monasteries with a dislocation or downturn in economic activity being followed by a scaling down of the more conspicuous aspects of consumption.
According to Thomas, it is difficult to link a specific Viking raid to permanent abandonment except in rare cases like the burning and destruction of monasteries in Whithorn and Portmahomack. Clearly, the monks of Lyminge didn’t award the Vikings a walkover. While they may have temporarily moved out to safer havens, they came back to reclaim their abode again and again.
Top image: New study claims medieval monasteries showed resilience in the face of the Vikings. Source: Deivison / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey