The change to the language corresponds with the idea of Vikings ‘swamping’ England: if most of these thousands of men settled (as they began to do around the mid 9th Century, according to both archaeological evidence of pagan burials and the ASC) and were then followed by their families, the Viking influx would have been huge. This is related to the idea that the Vikings were drawn to England because of land-hunger in their native countries.
Although there is no evidence in Scandinavia (or for that matter, in any of the chronicles) of land-hunger being a cause of the invasions, some historians have suggested that some Vikings chose to escape their tightly stratified social system which prevented, say, a peasant from getting more land. Also, Scandinavian society was essentially a warrior society (see Beowulf, for example) where loyalty to the leader depended on gift-giving: land was a potential gift, and if there was not enough of it at home, a king might choose to find it further afield. Wormald argues that the fact that there is no clear evidence for settlement in England before the 870s (the situation in Frankia is similar) indicates that the Viking invasions were not due to over-population and land-hunger but rather a secondary and rather incidental feature of Viking activity.
Instead of being caused by land-hunger, the Viking invasions were motivated by something else: a desire for plunder. Monasteries such as Lindisfarne were seen as easy targets. They harboured great wealth and were relatively undefended in remote areas. Moreover, the pagan Vikings had no need to fear an alien God’s wrath. Relics were stolen (some have been found in graves in Scandinavia) or ransomed (such as the Codex Aureus), libraries (which would have meant little to an illiterate people) were burned and objects and people who were unfortunate enough to be at the scene- usually monks and priests- were murdered or ransomed. Elsewhere, three kings were murdered, King Aella apparently being mutilated in a ‘blood-eagle’ sacrifice. According to Keynes, evidence for such Viking barbarism is almost completely circumstantial.
He claims that King Alfred’s statement of ‘how, before everything was ransacked and burned, the churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books’ is the only explicit evidence indicating that the Viking raids on England were attended by wholesale destruction and talks of how difficult it is to substantiate this supposition with reference to the fate of particular monasteries. Keynes talks of Alfred’s desire to portray the raids as the effect of God’s displeasure with England and mentions that a letter that Fulco (the archbishop of Rheims) wrote to him in the mid 880s suggests that the quality of religious life was affected as much by negligence and complacency as by plunder by the Vikings.
One of the examples he gives of poor management of the Church is the selling-off of Church lands by the kings of Wessex. However, this was to raise money to pay off the Vikings! Also, as Smyth forcefully asserts in his vehement attack on ‘revisionists’ who claim the Vikings were not as bad as has been claimed, it is one thing to leave a book to gather dust on a shelf, it is another thing to burn it. Because of the Vikings almost all churches north and east of Watling Street lost their libraries and churches. This could very well be the reason why we have no written evidence from Offa’s reign. Also, 5 dioceses lost bishops for a very long period, while 3 were never reconstituted.
Keynes goes onto talk about how quickly many communities recovered from the Viking attacks. Chertsey Abbey, for example, appears to have been thriving in the 880s: 10-20 years after 90 of its monks were said to have murdered. Lindisfarne, too, he claims, recovered fairly quickly. However, one is inclined to agree with Smyth when he states that to assert that ecclesiastical recovery meant that the raids were not as destructive as was claimed by the chroniclers is to ignore a basic human instinct to get on with life as normally as possible after terrible destruction has happened. Also, several historians refer to the fact that the monks of St. Cuthbert’s were allowed to walk through Viking territory unharmed.
However, the fact remains that they had been exiled. While the sources were written (probably entirely) by ecclesiasts and so will have had an aspect of anti-pagan bias, it seems ridiculous to argue that the Vikings were not as destructive as they claim. They were not anti-Christian iconoclasts (note, for example, the fact that stone crosses on Iona were left standing), but rather raiders out to plunder who had a different value system from the English.
This does not mean that they did not understand that what they were doing was wrong- simply being pagan does not make someone immoral- but rather they did not care and were insufficiently sensitive to Christian beliefs. The fact that the Viking settlers seem to have converted to Christianity fairly soon (very few explicitly pagan graves have been found in England) and that the attacks on monasteries stopped well before the mid 9th Century shows that they were not as barbarically pagan as is sometimes believed.
It also seems right to say here, briefly, that the Vikings being destructive does not mean that they can not have been constructive too. They managed an administration under the Danelaw, replaced the debased copper currency of Northumbria with a silver one, established towns, for example Dublin and maybe Norwich and gave old ones, such as York and London, a lease of life. Certainly, this boost to urbanisation and trade was inextricably linked with violence, raiding and the slave-trade (as Wormald points out), but it still had a positive effect in boosting development in the longer term. Also, without the Vikings, it might have taken a lot longer for England to become unified, but that is another matter.
Nils Lund claimed it was misleading to arrange numbers, influence and permanent effects co-ordinately, the latter two being the premises, the first the conclusion drawn from these. Again and again we come back to the same question of whether it is possible for a small group of invaders to effect large-scale change (and, in relation to the Vikings, destruction). As we have seen, the Vikings had a massive and permanent impact on English society, partly positive, partly negative, but always significant.
Hopefully it has been established that it is not necessary for there to have been thousands of invaders for this change to happen, at least in the first place. We need to remember to see the Viking period as fragmented: the early period being a great deal more destructive; the later period more constructive, however unless significant archaeological evidence comes to light, we cannot draw firm conclusions on the scale of the Viking raids or the density of settlement, or the timescale involved.