“Certainly God is angry with us” – a sermon on the Vikings

In a previous blog, I gave some (admittedly lighthearted) advice on how to fend off a vampire attack, culled from a twelfth-century chronicle. In a slightly more serious tone, this blog’s about how to defend against the Vikings.

It’s a truism of the lecture-hall, the textbook and the documentary to point out that the Vikings didn’t write down their side of the story, at least not in the early Middle Ages. But nor did their secular opponents, at least not on a large scale. Instead, we’re dependent on texts produced by their ecclesiastical victims.  Historians mostly draw on monastic annals of one kind or another – the Annals of St-Vaast are a particular favourite for this purpose, filled with terror and horror at the Scandinavian depredations.  In other words, the perspective on the Vikings from the written sources is thoroughly ‘monastic’.

Actually, though, other kinds of texts do survive that shed a somewhat different light. In the course of research into a forthcoming article, I came across a short but very rich sermon by the Paris monk Abbo of St-Germain-des-Pres, written around 900 or so, and was so delighted by it that I’ve made a quick translation (I think the first into any modern language) so more people can read it too: http://history.dept.shef.ac.uk/translations/medieval/abbo-sermon/

Abbo’s theme was how to fend off the Viking attacks. What makes his sermon especially interesting is that it seems to be aimed at Carolingian lay aristocrats. This is still a monastic text, then, but it’s one that’s reaching out beyond the monastery, and not written purely or even primarily for monastic consumption.

It’s pitched at a fairly low level, in very straightforward Latin and with an easy-to-follow take-home argument. The main thrust is that the Vikings are a punishment from God for moral and ethical failings: “But how are you able to please God and to have victory, you who always have your hands full of perjury and rapine?”. Abbo draws on Biblical and Roman history to underline the point, and also draws on British history too (contemporary or ancient?) as a warning of what might happen if things don’t improve.

It’s however the last paragraph that’s perhaps the most interesting of all. Despite the general argument that what’s required is moral reform, Abbo concludes not by urging fasting or donations to the church, but by urging his audience to go out to battle:

Do not let your enemies multiply and grow but, as Scripture commends, fight for your homeland (patria), do not fear to die in God’s war (bellum Dei). Certainly if you die there, you will be holy martyrs. And know truly that no man will die before his term, foreknown by God. A man is not able to be killed amongst all the swords, if it is not his time. For it is written, “You have set the limits which they cannot pass”. And therefore enter confidently into the Lord God’s war. And when you enter into God’s war, shout out with a loud voice, “Christ conquers, Christ rules, Christ commands!”.

Abbo here encourages his listeners to go out and face death, with an interesting combination of ideas of holy war and fate: Beowulf meets First Crusade. Whether this kind of pep-talk worked, we can’t of course know. But Frankish armies did win quite a few battles around this time – and Abbo’s sermon is maybe as close to their state of mind as we’re likely ever to get.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

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One thought on ““Certainly God is angry with us” – a sermon on the Vikings”

  1. The grisly demise of Saint Edmund is an interesting case in this category I think. According to the Parker Chronicle in the year 870 the Danish army returned to Thetford form Northumbria, fought with King Edmund and killed him. If the army was that which the Peterborough Chronicle asserts is the same as came to his kingdom in 866, then his people had been happily supplying them with horses – and therefore probably much more, four four years! I understand that much of the Saint Edmund story comes from the Annals of St Neot’s work which was largely the product of Abbo of Fleury.

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