Viking Camp, from Siege to Commerce


The Norse peoples were justifiably famous for their maritime skills. The Viking Age itself was only made possible due to these superlative abilities. Yet, it did not took long for the historical Viking raider to realize that, sometimes, a more permanent presence would be beneficial, and much more lucrative.

One particular approach to understanding Viking activity has been to study the encampments they set up along the coasts and rivers of western Europe, allowing them to substitute their famous longships for a fixed, onshore position whenever cold, fatigue, hunger, or other conditions compelled them to.

More than 100 Viking winter camps or longphuirt were founded across the Atlantic archipelago and European mainland during the height of the Viking Age in the ninth century. Such encampments were found in places like Repton and Torksey in England, Woodstown in Ireland, near Zutphen in the Netherlands, and even on the Coquet Valley in Northumbria.

Locations of ninth-century viking camps, as found in written sources from the period.

Locations of ninth-century viking camps, as found in written sources from the period.

No two Viking camps would have been the same. Established in hostile environments, many used islands, wetlands, and other naturally defended positions to their advantage.

Some of these camps were created in previous structures, such as the Carolingian palace at Nijmegen (Netherlands), which was commandeered by Vikings in 880, only for its new occupants to set fire to it the following year, likely to prevent it from being used again as a defensive structure against them in the future.

Where needed, ramparts would be built, as seen in Repton, where the abbey church of St. Wystan seems to have been incorporated into a new perimeter wall as a makeshift gatehouse.

As any veteran can tell, a true camp needs more than a mere defensive structure. Protection from attack can be meaningless if the defenders starve or thirst, making the safety of any local food stores, livestock, and non-combatants a vital issue.

 

Finding Supplies

Like any armed force, Viking groups required steady, reliable sources of food and water to keep their encampments viable, with a diversified array of methods for obtaining provisions (read more about the Norse diet here). As well as hunting, fishing, and foraging around the camps, evidence exists that they even raised crops and tended cattle themselves for the more prolonged stay.

The most common source of supplies would, however, come through violence, or at least the threat of it. 

The most recognizable use of threating to acquire supplies by the Viking raiders was during the siege of Paris of 885 to 886. During this siege, Norsemen were seen carrying off harvests and herds inside the camp, while simultaneously received large amounts of flour, livestock, wine, and cider as part of regional tribute payments so the nearby towns and villages wouldn't be pillaged.

The preparation of the supplies was always took into account, with grindstones used to grind grain into flour found in Viking bases in both England and Ireland. In Péran, Brittany archaeological evidence has produced several iron cauldrons and other cooking vessels, with several written records describing Vikings feasting on meat and wine within their camps.

 

Commerce

Much more than a simple outpost, such Viking bases of operation were found to have had a great complexity, with shelters, stables, and workshops being built; ships being mended; and weapons, ornaments, and other items being crafted. This meant the added logistics of a steady influx of resources such as wood, stone, iron and even precious metals made its way into the camps.

In the blink of an eye, such camps became almost city-like, with a highly regarded commerce, which may not have been completely off-limits to outsiders, and may have even provided valuable opportunities to trade.

A silver hoard found on the former island of Wieringen (North Holland, Netherlands), thought to indicate an established local Viking presence.

The ninth-century Annals of St Bertin, for example, describe how Vikings sought to "hold a market" on an island in the River Loire (now France). Shortly after, the Annals of Fulda also point to Frankish soldiers setting foot inside a Viking camp on the River Meuse (now the Netherlands) – not to fight, but to trade. Physical traces of such commerce including coins, silver bullion and trade weights, alongside carefully crafted arm rings have been found at sites such as Torksey and Woodstown.

Viking camps were often bustling and extremely organized, doubling as command posts, armories, treasuries, granaries, prisons, workshops, markets, harbors and homes. Hosting diverse and dynamic communities of dozens, hundreds, or at times even thousands of people, some provided support to regional Viking groups well beyond the span of a single winter.

To keep camps like these up and running would have been no small feat. Small cities unto themselves, a great deal of commerce and cultural diversity was brought – sometimes with an axe – alongside the Viking presence, providing a key insight into a wider Viking phenomenon that was neither arbitrary nor aimless as it made landfall across western Europe.

 The great Viking army that landed on the isle of Thanet, in Kent on the year 865 is estimated to have been composed of around 3000 persons (some estimates vary from 1000 to 4000). That is the size of a small to medium-sized medieval town on itself.

 

Sources:

Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. ISBN- 9780859915137

Ármann Jakobsson (2013). Nine Saga Studies: The Critical Interpretation of the Icelandic Sagas. Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press. ISBN 9-789-97954997-0.

The New Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521362917

Medieval Dublin X, Four Courts, Dublin. ISBN: 978-1-84682-221-6

Monarchs and Hydrarchs: The Conceptual Development of Viking Activity across the Frankish Realm (c. 750–940). Routledge, Abingdon. ISBN 9780367202149

Visning av Down by the River: Exploring the Logistics of Viking Encampment across Atlantic Europe. Cooijmans, Christian. ISSN 0332-608x


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