The secret to the Vikings’ success may lie in their encampments

Viking encampments allowed them to leave their boats behind and use their positions to support themselves as they expanded, writes Christian Cooijmans

Thursday 25 November 2021 00:01 GMT

For many years, archaeologists and historians have provided an increasingly informed insight into the dynamic world of the Vikings, chipping away at the clichés of a crazed, capricious people preoccupied with beards and bloodshed. 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 ships for a fixed, onshore position whenever cold, fatigue, hunger, or other conditions compelled them to.

Often called “winter camps” or longphuirt, more than 100 of these sites were established across the Atlantic archipelago and European mainland during the 9th century alone, and their tangible remains have been uncovered in places like Repton and Torksey in England, and Woodstown in Ireland. More recently, potential Viking encampments have also been found near Zutphen in the Netherlands, as well as the Coquet Valley in Northumbria.

But while these camps have often been considered for their wider strategic roles, much less time has been spent on their everyday, practical planning and operation. New research, tying these different strands of evidence together, now reveals a far more intricate image of camp logistics, challenging notions of Vikings simply waiting out the winter behind their walls in the company of their peers and their plunder.

Safe havens

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. Others took over prior man-made structures: on the continent, for example, the Carolingian palace at Nijmegen was commandeered by Vikings in 880, only for its new occupants to set fire to it the following year. Where needed, Vikings would also have built their own ramparts, 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.

But protection from attack would have only been half the battle, as the continued safety of any local food stores, livestock, and non-combatants would have been just as important to the sustainability of any such camp.

A map of Viking encampments

Eating local

Like any armed force, Viking groups required steady, reliable sources of food and water to keep their encampments viable. Under the looming spectre of starvation and malnutrition, they diversified their methods of obtaining provisions as much as possible. As well as hunting, fishing, and foraging around the camps, evidence exists that they raised crops and tended cattle themselves.

Less unexpectedly, Vikings also obtained their food through violence and the threat of violence. Those camped outside Paris in 885-886, for example, were seen carrying off harvests and herds, while others took large amounts of flour, livestock, wine, and cider as part of regional tribute payments.

Back at the camp, this food would have been prepared for consumption and storage. Accordingly, quern-stones – used to grind grain into flour – have been recovered from Viking bases in both England and Ireland, and a proposed encampment at Péran in Brittany has produced several iron cauldrons and other cooking vessels. Written records also describe Vikings feasting on meat and wine within the confines of their camps.

Hustle and bustle

To keep camps like these up and running would have been no small feat, relying on levels of planning and discipline not commonly associated with Viking activity

Beyond the basics of protecting and feeding themselves, Vikings engaged in a wide range of camp-bound activities, with shelters, stables, and workshops being built; ships being mended; and weapons, ornaments, and other items being crafted. To support these ongoing efforts, a steady stream of resources – including wood, stone, and (precious) metals – would have had to make its way into the camps.

Venues like these may not have been completely off-limits to outsiders, and may have even provided valuable opportunities to trade. The 9th-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, have been found at sites such as Torksey and Woodstown.

As well as offering Vikings yet another way to obtain their supplies, occasions like these may have allowed items that were previously stolen or extorted to be returned to circulation.

A place for everything

All in all, Viking camps were by no means dormant or disorganised, and doubled as command posts, armouries, treasuries, granaries, prisons, workshops, markets, harbours, 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, relying on levels of planning and discipline not commonly associated with Viking activity. As a result, the success of the encampments provides a key insight into a wider Viking phenomenon that was neither arbitrary nor aimless as it made landfall across western Europe.

Christian Cooijmans is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow, at the University of Liverpool. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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