A new study by researchers from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading suggests that Anglo-Saxon monastic communities were more resilient to Viking raids than previously thought.
In AD 793, a Viking raid on Lindisfarne in Northumberland, England, sent shockwaves throughout the Christian west. Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court wrote at the time: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race…The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.”
The raid is considered by many scholars to be the beginning of the Viking Age, a period during the Middle Ages when Norsemen undertook large-scale raiding, colonising, conquest, and trading throughout Europe and reached North America.
Lyminge, a monastery in Kent endured repeated Viking raids, but resisted collapse through effective defensive strategies put in place by ecclesiastical and secular rulers of Kent.
“The image of ruthless Viking raiders slaughtering helpless monks and nuns is based on written records, but a re-examination of the evidence shows that the monasteries had more resilience than we might expect,” said Dr Gabor Thomas, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading.
A study, published in the journal Archaeologia, suggests that the monastic community at Lyminge not only bore the full brunt of Viking raids in the later 8th and early 9th centuries AD, but recovered more completely than historians previously thought.
Excavations at Lyminge conducted between 2007-15 and 2019, uncovered the main elements of the monastery, including the stone chapel surrounded by a wide swathe of wooden buildings, and other structures where the monastic brethren and their dependents lived out their daily lives.
Historical records held at Canterbury Cathedral show that after a raid in AD 804, the monastic community at Lyminge was granted asylum in the walled safety of Canterbury, however, according to Dr Thomas’s research, the monks returned to Lyminge to re-establish their community and continued to expand the settlement over the course of the 9th century AD. This is evidenced by dateable artefacts such as silver coins discovered in situ.
Dr Thomas said: “This research paints a more complex picture of the experience of monasteries during these troubled times, 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.”
“However, the resilience of the monastery was subsequently stretched beyond breaking point. 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. This 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. Settled life was only eventually restored in Lyminge during the 10th century, but under the authority of the Archbishops of Canterbury who had acquired the lands formerly belonging to the monastery,” added Dr Thomas.
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