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Viking robbery of churches and monasteries

Robbery of churches and monasteries
Lindisfarne today. Photo: Lee Bailey.

The beginning of the Viking period is normally regarded as the year 793 AD, when the first documented Viking attack took place. The target of the raid was a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in Northern England. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle tells us that the wild heathens trampled upon saints’ bones and destroyed God’s house.

The fact that the new Scandinavian threat was aimed at churches and monasteries was regarded as particularly horrifying at the time – the Vikings were often described as infidels or heathens, who were completely lacking in conscience. From the point of view of the Vikings, these attacks were probably made where it was thought that they would pay and could reap great rewards. The monasteries often contained large amounts of ecclesiastical silver and were not as well defended as the trading towns. The first Viking expeditions did not involve large fleets and thousands of men, so the churches and monasteries presented ideal targets for the smaller Viking contingents.

The fact that the travelling Vikings did not adhere to the Christian God, and thus did not shy away from plundering churches, has greatly influenced the image of them that has built up since the Viking Age. Many of the preserved written sources of the period were written by monks, and their descriptions of the Vikings are distinctly negative. As the Vikings did not write their own chronicles, our picture of them is still coloured by these early descriptions. Today the Vikings are often described as especially bloodthirsty and ungodly, even if the archaeological evidence has revealed a period in which trade, fishing and agriculture were just as characteristic of daily life.

The plundering of churches and monasteries

The Vikings are well known for their plundering and ravaging of Denmark’s neighbouring territories. This plundering brought them into possession of objects from the monasteries and churches of Western Europe. Two Frankish silver cups, which were made in Western Europe just before the year 800, are known from Denmark. Such cups are called pyxes and were used in churches to hold the communion wafers during the administering of the sacrament. In Denmark, however, they were incorporated into the drinking sets of magnates, along with small domestic silver cups. Such drinking sets were probably used in special rituals. Presumably, the clergy did not voluntarily hand over these holy cups to the heathen Vikings. It seems instead much more likely that the Vikings must have entered churches and taken them.