Migration and acculturation: the impact of the Norse on Eastern England, c. 865-900

Shane Mcleod

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The settlement and settlement of lands in eastern England by Old Norse speakers, c. 865-900, represents an extreme migratory episode. The cultural interaction, both during the campaigning period and following Norse settlement, involved one group forcing themselves upon another, usually from a position of military and political power. Despite this seemingly dominant position, by 900 AD the Norse appear in the main to have adopted the culture of the Anglo-Saxons whom they had recently defeated. This thesis proposes that a major factor in this cultural assimilation was the emigration point of the Norse and the cultural experiences which they brought with them.

Although much has been written on the settlement of Norse groups in England, most scholars have focused on the comparatively abundant evidence available for the tenth century, attributable to the second and later generations of Norse and later migrants. This thesis will instead focus on the first generations of settlers, those initially arriving with the ‘great army’ in 865 and augmented by Norse from another army in 896, and possibly other undocumented migrants. As the settlements represent the end point of a migratory process, migration theory will be examined. Applying relevant aspects of the theory allows us to consider issues and questions hitherto rarely discussed in analyses of the Norse settlements.

The use of migration theory (chapter 2) suggests that the Norse migration should be seen as part of a longer process and involving migrants who had information about their destination. The theory also directed me to consider the demographics of the migration: analysis of the sample of burials available suggests that most of the migrants were young adults, but there appears to have been a greater number of Norse women and children present than hitherto thought by most scholars, and furthermore they were probably present from the earliest period of migration.

The origin of the migration (chapter 3) is crucial to an understanding of the possible motivations of the Norse, and of the acculturation process. Although some of the Norse may have emigrated directly from the Scandinavian homelands most apparently commenced their journey in either Ireland or northern Francia. Consequently, and contrary to most previous scholarship, it is as much the culture of these regions as Scandinavia that needs to be assessed in searching for the cultural impact of the Norse upon eastern England. This realisation may help to explain how the Norse appear to have adapted to aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture (chapters 5 and 6), such as the issuing of coinage and at least public displays of christianity, relatively quickly: most of the settlers had emigrated from regions where christianity was established and which had institutions similar to those of the Anglo-Saxons. The origin of the Norse also helps to explain some of the innovations introduced by the migrants, including the use of client kings and the creation of ‘buffer’ states (chapter 4).

Informed by migration theory, this thesis focuses on the first generation of Norse settlers in England, investigating their geographic origins and what impact that is likely to have had in the innovations they introduced and the apparent ease with which they acculturated after they arrived in 865. The origin of the migrants and their demographic profile suggests that the majority of Norse arrived in England with the intention of remaining, and that they were familiar with the culture which they would settle amongst, including christianity. In conclusion: this thesis demonstrates not only that aspects of modern migration theory can be productively applied to such early medieval migration events as the Norse settlement of parts of ninth-century England, but also that the Norse, like many other migrant groups, were well-informed about their destination and well-prepared for acculturation within it.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2011


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