An analysis of the man and dragon combat from the Sigurd legend in the North of England to the first carvings of St Michael and the Dragon
During the period in question, the Vikings and then the Normans were in control of society and government, yet the church heavily influenced and prevailed in society throughout. The church soon was involved in political situations and gaining strength in peace time, while remaining materially poor. The art of the church is bound up with the fortunes of English Christianity, and hence both the political and social history of the Vikings who settled in England has a determining factor in all types of art of the period. The raids of the 9th century concentrated on East Anglia, Northumbria and Yorkshire, although all areas felt the impact of the Vikings. By the end of this century the Vikings had largely become settlers, with estate management and cultural matters now having greater importance. The north east of England had been settled mainly by Danes, and York had become a major trading centre with links to the Scandinavian countries and, to the west, with Dublin. The importance of York meant it later moved into Norse hands, with the Norwegians settling in the north west.
The second phase of the Viking invasions began around 980, followed in 991 by the payment of the Danegeld. Matters were finally resolved by the arrival of Sweyn Forkbeard and his son, Cnut, in 1013. Cnut was made king in 1016, and reigned in comparative peace for the next quarter century. In that time a society and a government were established that owed much to Danish laws and King Edgar’s English laws, and was also respectful to and protective of the Christian faith. The next notable king was Edward the Confessor, who reigned from 1042 to 1066. This was another peaceful reign, and the last of the Anglo Saxon era, which lasted until October 1066, when William the Conqueror gained control of the English throne. After this, Scandinavian political influences effectively ended, although trading continued between England and the Scandinavian countries.
It is seen that although the Vikings were harsh and determined invaders, the periods of peace, during Cnut’s and Edward’s reigns, provided a time of great settlement and absorption of the Viking peoples into the English culture. Socially, the situation changed to accommodate the wealthier, stronger Danish landowners. Evidence shows this to be very much a two way process, with the Scandinavian settlers accepting many English traditions and beliefs, including Christianity. Prior to the Viking invasions, the Church had laid the foundations for an artistic golden age, producing such works as the Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospels. With the invasion and plundering by the Vikings, the church lost much of its wealth, and lost touch with the continent. Possibly the observance of the Benedictine rule almost vanished, as the church struggled to survive in the rural backwaters. Often monks had to flee the invaders, burdened with their precious relics, while remaining true to their faith and its doctrines. This included the attempts to convert the pagan Vikings.
The Danish rule was conspicuous for its patronage of religion, and the church was, by the early 10th century, able to exert some political influence. This is reflected in the cooperation given to the Vikings of York by Archbishop Wulfstan I. Even before this, in 883, the Abbot of Carlisle had involved himself in the choosing of a new Viking king of York. He eventually blessed the converted King Guthfrith, ratifying his election with both the relics of St.Cuthbert and a holy Viking armlet. Gradually the Christian faith gained esteem in the eyes of the Vikings, although it may seem that the Church was compromising itself by entering into political intrigues Note 1. However the Church, especially prior to the invasions, was accustomed to government, both of its estates and in connection with ecclesiastical law. The virtual monopoly on knowledge and education that the church had held also contributed to its high status, and in the 8th century had embraced most aspects of life. It had introduced ideas that would eventually develop the framework for everyday life, such as the counting of hours or naming of days. The Church dominated at the major secular ceremonies baptism, marriage and burial while also providing help during all the intervening stages. The monasteries educated many, and allowed secular people to live their last days attached to monastic houses.
Once the Viking settlement had been established, the Church was soon able to return to many of its former duties in society. In a sense it was a stronger, more devout church. Hard times had helped to bring about a removal of many corrupt or weak monastic houses, paving the way for a major reformation, starting in the second half of the 10th century led by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ethelwold, Bishop of Winchester. The Viking society quickly accepted many Christian customs and was prepared to seriously consider the Christian faith as an alternative to their pagan beliefs. In the north especially, the Scandinavians retained governmental control and wealth, hence placing them in positions of potential patronage to the now materially poor church. Consequently any tactics used by the Church to convert the controlling heathen society had to be diplomatic and sensitive to Viking beliefs, especially to the regard in which the pagan gods and heroes were held, even by converted settlers. Although officially the Church condemned any heathen practices and beliefs, often the individual priest or church seems to have reached some kind of compromise.
While retaining their complete belief in Christianity, many monks and priests seem to have recognised that the Christian culture was not wholly superior to the Scandinavian lifestyle Note 2. Hence in some spheres of Christian life, at least in the early days of conversion, allowances were made for the small pagan traditions and ideas that the Viking converts wished to retain, as long as the essential Christian virtues and worship were adhered to.
Although there is little evidence from the 10th century as to how the conversion was actually achieved, it is understood that Christianity did continue in the rural areas, even in the Danelaw region. There was no official system of conversion, due to the isolation in which the remaining Christian population found itself. The process was further hindered by the political divide between Wessex kings and the Danelaw, especially the Northumbrian area, whose people seemed to have feared the ambitions of Wessex more than settlement by the Danish Vikings. Since the Christian Wessex kings and the Danelaw population retained their cultural separation, the church was still faced with a Scandinavian based society which retained political power and social domination. Consequently, while their willingness to examine and accept Christianity was gratifying, the church was not in a position to easily impose all ecclesiastical laws. Thus, whilst such Christian practices as baptism, blessings and procedures of worship were accepted, some laws concerning taxes due to the church or restrictions on marriage, were often ignored. Wulfstan II, while Archbishop of York, spoke out against adultery, incest, breaking of oaths, neglect of church dues and lack of respect for the clergy Note 3. Consequently it can be seen that at this stage, while Christianity was a welcome alternative to the heathen gods, it was not allowed to interfere with traditional Scandinavian social laws, however much it may have changed an individual’s life style. Furthermore, while Christianity preached peace, converts notably among royalty would still be perfectly willing to go into battle and retain armies. Thus the material fight against evil was as well known and seemingly as highly regarded, especially among the secular population, as the spiritual fight.
The Benedictine reform in the later 10th century helped to consolidate the Church’s position and present a united and austere example to the secular community, as well as linking the Church closely to the King – probably due to the patronage given to the reform by King Edgar. This was later echoed by King Cnut’s example. Heathen born and later converted, he had taken both a common law Scandinavian wife, and the wife of the late Ethelred (who was his acknowledged queen), and during his reign was harsh both towards his enemies and in terms of selfish taxation. He was nevertheless generous towards the church in both patronage and protection, and legislated against heathen practices. By his reign, these practices were limited to primitive nature worship, superstitions, and ritual oaths and actions Note 4. Only perhaps in art did specific references to heathen gods and heroes remain. For example a stone frieze, contemporary with Cnut’s reign, was found in the Old Minster at Winchester, a remnant of which shows a sequence from the Volsung saga where Sigemund bites off the wolf’s tongue.
Here in art the heathen myths and motifs endured, possibly because by this time they were no longer a reflection of the threatening pagan culture, but elements of a particular secular artistic style. This is most plainly notable in more widespread and inexpensive artforms, such as sculpture, where the heathen elements are more explicit, involving figure narratives and recognisable references to specific sagas. This is contrasted with art forms such as manuscripts, that were expensive in terms of material and labour time, and required educated and talented artists. Here pagan influences were limited to decorative embellishments, such as ornate interlaces and innocuous creatures, many of which could have as easily come from biblical inspiration, for example from Revelation, Isaiah or the Psalms.
Pre-Viking sculpture in England was often highly accomplished with a precise awareness of the emotive force of the stories depicted. For example the Ruthwell cross, created as a preaching cross, presents Christian stories emphasising the ascetic way of life Note 5. Anglian sculpture usually incorporated only ecclesiastical iconography, and was almost exclusive to monastic sites, hence having little or no influence or patronage from the secular community. Free standing crosses were the most likely to be seen outside of church establishments, since they could be set up as preaching crosses, although they were also found in graveyards along with grave slabs. Stone friezes and shrines were also produced.
The Danish and Norwegian Vikings had no tradition of stone carving, although prior knowledge of it may have been possible through the Swedes of Gotland who inscribed and painted stones. In the north of England it is clear that the new Scandinavian settlers quickly adopted this art form. The move of artistic inspiration and patronage into secular society, endowed it with a wealth of new ornamental styles and motifs, as well as introducing the new medium of the hogback. The hogback’s shape was suggested by a small dwelling, perhaps inspired by the early Irish metal shrines for relics, that were designed to imitate houses Note 6. Although this may have the intention of symbolising the house of the dead, English hogbacks often have gripping beasts at each end, as for example at Brompton. Excavations of the York Minster foundations revealed a cemetery that exemplified some of the ways these hogbacks and other funerary sculpture were used. Since a large part of 10th and early 11th century sculpture was designed with this purpose in mind, this has direct implications for the system of ornamentation on any particular piece. Combinations include flat slabs which could be laid the length of the grave, with small head and foot stones. There is also evidence at Penrith (Cumbria) and Inchcolm (Yorkshire) that hogbacks were being used in conjunction with crosses to produce an elaborate version of the slab and stone formation. The use of preaching crosses occurred in areas without churches, and similar crosses would also be found outside churches to announce the purpose of an otherwise plain and unobtrusive wooden building Note 7.
Although a plain cross would denote the Christian faith, the ornamentation and figure narratives would often tell a more complex story, allowing an assessment of the interplay between Scandinavian and English traditions. While native Anglian motifs were retained, new Viking influence prevailed, since the previous source of inspiration, the monastic manuscripts and knowledge, were unavailable to the new secular craftsman. Furthermore, the dominant purpose of the sculpture was now to ornament largely secular graves, hence also reflecting a change in patronage. The Scandianavians held their ancestors in great esteem, with royalty tracing their roots, however fictitiously, back to the heroes of the sagas. Consequently, even if converted, the aristocratic Viking would retain his pride and reverence for his heroic ancestors, and even if not consciously worshipping them, would perpetuate their deeds through art. Thus literature, carvings on small items like the Frank’s casket, and sculpture began to combine both Christian stories and heathen myths. In sculpture, Weyland and Sigurd are prominent heroes, both also having fairly standardised iconography. References to both Gods and heroes can vary from a single condensed image standing for a whole story, or comparatively lengthy narratives, as found on the celebrated Gosforth cross. Among the gods it shows are Odin and Heindal, along with Loki being punished by the Gods for killing Balder, who was supposed to return at the end of the world, in a similar way to Christ’s resurrection. Possibly to emphasise this point there is at the bottom of the east face, a figure in the crucifix position, with Longinus, the spearman at the foot of the cross, and a woman. This comparison of pagan myths with a similar Christian story, when presented on a Christian monument, implies that at least some pagan depictions had in fact a Christian purpose, namely that of encouraging conversion by emphasising parallels between the two beliefs. However there are still pagan examples that depict events with no Christian equivalents, and again these are on Christian monuments. Did the Church have no control over art commissioned by a secular lord, or was this an extension of the compromises apparently made by priests in the face of a dominant Viking society? Alternatively, the Church may have regarded such motifs as secular, as opposed to pagan.
The implications and validity of these hypotheses probably varies depending on subject matter, type of monument (and its purpose), and location and date of each example. For instance, a pagan story on a preaching cross, has more direct implications for the state of the Church than a pagan story on a small funerary monument of a converted Viking who may merely have wished to refer to his legendary ancestry. The Sigurd examples largely occur on cross shafts or slabs, with the exception of the York grave slab, and Ripon, where Sigurd is depicted on the cross head itself. Furthermore, with the exception of York, it is the more isolated examples in the Isle of Man that contain the most explicit examples of the dragon slaying. These are described in detail on pages 1 to 5 of the catalogue, as is the York Grave Slab. Also in the catalogue are descriptions of the other Yorkshire examples which are all references to the Sigurd story concentrating on the sucking of the thumb and the consequent learning of the bird language. When examining the importance of this it is important to remember that firstly the knowledge is gained through Fafnir’s death, and secondly, that this knowledge then saves Sigurd’s life, albeit at the expense of the treacherous Regin. This has symbolic implications when it is realised that three of the following Sigurd examples are closely connected either with Christ’s crucifixion, or the Christian communion.
The Halton Cross in Lancashire ( Plate 7) shows both the sucking of the thumb and a new smithy scene.
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Note 1 – From the mid 11th Century – History of St Cuthbert. Return
Note 2 – G R Owen, Rites and ReLigions of the Anglo Saxons, London, 1981, p.176. Return
Note 3 – Full text found in Bethurum (ed.), p267-275. Homilies of Wulfstan. Trans. D Whitelock, English Historical Documents, p885-859. Return
Note 4 – Wulfstan composed these laws with the helpof Wulfstan II. These include the following: “It is heathen practice if one worships idols, namely if one worships the sun, the moon, fire or flood, wells or stones, or any kind of forest tree …….. or takes any part in such delusions.” (II Cnut, 5:1 English Historical Documents, p240. Return
Note 5 – The 8th century Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire, and documented in W G Collingwood, Northumbrian Crosses of the pre-Norman Age, Dyfed, 1989, p69 & 84. Return
Note 6 – J Romilly Allen, “Early Christian Monuments of Lancashire and Cheshire”. Trans. Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, V.45, 1893. Return
Note 7 – Since crosses have been found at the centres of pre Viking parochial systems, where some sort of religious building would have been expected, it has been argued that there is little evidence of these remaining since these were wooden.
M.L. Faul, Studies in Late Anglo Saxon Settlement, Oxford, 1984, p. 129 142.