The Influence of Viking Invasions on Irish Art

White ceramic plate with intricate blue Celtic knot design in center by Sophia Hart.
Sophia Hart "Celtic Inspiration"

ABSTRACT - The Book of Kells is an 8th century illuminated manuscript attributed to the monasteries at Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland, and Kells, at County Meath. The book was produced by Columban monks in the scriptorium of the monasteries, and probably used only for special occasions, due to the size, ornamentation, and coded nature of the text. The Book of Kells contains the four gospels based on the Latin Vulgate translation and was written in insular majuscule, a bolder and rounder form of calligraphy. The manuscript was written on vellum, a prepared calfskin that was stretched over frames to achieve the size of the pages, requiring about 185 calves to create the whole manuscript. The monks used a wide variety of inks, brushes and pens to create the lettering and the ornamentation in the book.

The most fascinating aspects of the Book of Kells are the calligraphy, the illustrations of many animals, and the intricate knots adorning the book. This study is focused on all three of those aspects and the conditions that influenced the Book of Kells. The Viking raids on Iona and the monks are another incredibly fascinating aspect of the Book of Kells and explains many of the illustrations in the book. To understand exactly how these raids affected the monks it is essential to research the Vikings and their many possible ways of life. While the Vikings had an immense effect on those they purged and conquered, they were also influenced by them. Despite the hardships that the Book of Kells and its creators faced, it still managed to become one of most famous works of western calligraphy and illustration—and is often described as the work “not of men, but of angels.”

The Influence of Viking Invasions on Irish Art

When the word “Viking” is brought up in a conversation, the almost immediate reaction is one that describes this group of people in cruel and negative lighting. This assumption is quite substantial, especially when considering evidence of Viking cruelty present in the prayers of Irish monks. However, many historians have come to the conclusion that there is more to these Scandinavian raiders than meets the eye. Their cruelty and destruction had an obvious massive effect on many cultures—especially Irish art—but they also provided many new contributions to commerce and trade, making the overall impact of the Vikings all-encompassing, including both negative actions, and positive reactions.

According to most historians, including Gwyn Jones, author of A History of the Vikings, the Viking Age is the name given to the period from 780-1070 A.D., when the Vikings migrated overseas, making “contributions to trade, discovery, colonization and political institutions” (1). Their origins were in Scandinavia, and they were also called Nordmenn or Norsemen. They came from “Rogaland, Vestfold, Zealand, Skane, and Sodermanland”, to name a few (Jones 2). However, they also migrated overseas to lands such as the British Isles, the Baltic Lands, Iceland, and Greenland (Jones 145). The Vikings were successful in trade and commerce, but more than most people they possessed qualities of “greed, treachery and cruelty” (Jones 2). Greed was a driving factor in many of their conquests, their motivation being to make as much profit as possible. To them, being a Viking was a “profession,” a means to “the good life” (Jones 3). The three main elements of their practice were “trade, piracy and land-taking,” all “northern activities” that had been around for many years before the Viking Age and that definitely outlasted it (Jones 3). While the Vikings are often portrayed as a cruel and vicious people, experts on the Viking age disagree about the exact cause and nature of their conquests, as there were many facets to their lifestyle. There is, indeed, also disagreement among scholars about the extent of the influence of the Viking invasions on Irish Art.

The Viking conquests became significant for Western Europe in the late 8th century when they conducted raids on at least five different settlements. These were at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, Morganwg in South Wales, Lambey Island north of Dublin, Kintyre in the Isle of Man, and—most significant for Irish Art—the sacred island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland (Jones 195). These raids were so effective partly because of their ships. The Gokstad ship, the most famous, could carry a crew of thirty-two to thirty-five men. The vessels were made of planks of timber nailed together and waterproofed by filling the spaces with wool or moss mixed with tar. This proved that the Vikings were very advanced in carpentry, creating some of the most effective longboats which gave them an “unchallengeable instrument of aggression” (Jones 194). Their raids were swift, surprising almost every place they visited. The Vikings are widely stereotyped, both in ancient and current texts, as ferocious raiders. However, this image may be biased. While the standard view of these actions is of “savages running berserk, robbing towns, and drinking heavily,” in their article “Rational Bandits: Plunder, Public Goods, and the Vikings” Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen subscribe to the revisionist opinion that that view is very one sided (255). These raids were, in fact, sudden attacks that used violence strategically to strip the people of their money and goods. This was the first step that the Vikings used before transitioning to “stationary banditry” (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 256). In the beginning, sudden attacks provided them with the most income, in the form of confiscated goods from farmers and traders. However, after realizing that the more pillagers there were, and the more over-plundering became a problem, the Vikings decided to switch to a more economical way of life (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 257). This switch was to “stationary banditry.”

Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen suggest that “stationary banditry” was the Vikings solution to their economic problem of no longer making money from seizing goods. “Stationary banditry” involved the Vikings actually moving into the settlements that they had once raided and taking power. They switched from stealing to taxing the individuals that lived in the region, which was how they made their money (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 256). They chose to settle also because their acts of roving attracted competitors and became a threat to overall profits. If they became stationary, they prevented others from plundering in that region and could heavily tax the people there (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 259). In a way, this also provided those they conquered with protection from other roving bandits, which was why the people agreed to pay such heavy taxes (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 259). By becoming stationary, they also were able to “maximize the production of goods and profits” in the regions that they conquered. For example, in Ireland, the Vikings learned that stationary banditry was more profitable for them, and this ultimately led to the settlement of future cities like Dublin (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 259).

However, one could argue that the effects of “stationary banditry” were far worse for the victims than normal pillaging because rather than attacking once, the Vikings were living in the region and constantly controlling those there. While there were greater profits in “stationary banditry” for the Vikings because of their high taxes, the effects on the people may have been worse. The Irish coast had suffered from numerous Viking attacks since the first on Lambey in 795, but the Irish weren’t drastically affected until Turgeis from Norway arrived in 840 (Jones 204). It was clear upon his invasion that he intended to stay for a while, and through acquiring Armagh, the most important ecclesiastical center of Ireland, he gained a permanent place in Irish tradition, reputation, power and wealth (Jones 205). Turgeis was also reported to have intervened in inner-tribal fighting for his own gain and to have had an immense effect on the number of Irish churches and monasteries that were raided (Jones 206). From 800 to 910, many raids on Irish churches occurred, and the large quantities of silver and other precious commodities were seized (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 263). These extortions, similar to Turgeis’, became even more frequent in the 10th and 11th centuries, right around the time when the precious metal binding of The Book of Kells was stolen. Not only did these raids have a negative effect on Irish economy, they also had an effect on the daily lives of those they conquered and stole from and of the monks they displaced.

One very obvious result of the Norse raids was, then, the disruption of the work of the monks, among the most productive creators of Irish art at this time. Their work included illuminated manuscripts, carvings, and metal work. In Iain Zaczek’s book on the art and origins of the Book of Kells, he describes Irish art as being largely influenced by Celtic craftsmen, including the use of many intricate and interlacing knots (8). Francoise Henry’s foundational work, Irish Art During the Viking Invasions, describes the types of metalwork, including brooches, hanging bowls, pins, and plaques (111). They often used knots cast of bronze, and a variety of enamels for filling in spaces surrounding the knots (Henry 115-116). Many carvings appeared in religious houses, and many crosses, ranging from four to twenty-two feet high, produced by sculptors also adorned the grounds of monasteries (Henry 133). Other popular forms of Irish art were paintings, often done in manuscripts, and mosaics (Henry 164).

Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, in his The Book of Kells (an illustrated introduction), states that the illuminated manuscript owes its origins to the arrival of St. Patrick in the fourth century, and the consolidation of Christianity through his work and others in the fifth century (9). The new, reformed religion required many religious articles in their services, the most important being the Gospels. The monks had smaller versions of the Bible that were used for their missionary work and private prayer, but books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells were designed only for use on the altar (Meehan 10). These manuscripts were used only at the altar by clergymen because of their incredible ornamentation, size, coded nature, and intricate detail. The illuminated manuscripts were obviously influenced by the style of the Celtic craftsmen, and featured spirals, knots, interlacing, and stylized human and animal forms. These Celtic craftsmen also featured similar patterns on weapons, armor, household goods, jewelry, and chalices (Zaczek 8). The manuscripts were produced during this time in places known as scriptoria, workshops that were located at all the major monastic centers such as Iona, Lindisfarne, Durrow and Kells (Zaczek 9).

There is much controversy surrounding the actual date and place of origin of the Book of Kells, but the two primary locations connected with it are Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, and Kells, County Meath, in Ireland. The monastery on Iona was founded in 561 by St. Colum Cille, but in 807 the monks took refuge at Kells, after a series of Viking raids on Iona (Meehan 10). It is estimated that the Book of Kells was created near the time of this migration. As a result of later Viking raids, the book was stolen in 1007, but it was found almost three months later “covered by a sod” (Meehan 14). The ornamental and elaborate binding of the book was missing, however, along with several pages, which were never returned (Meehan 14). The manuscript then remained at Kells through the seventeenth century (Meehan 14). During the unrest of the Cromwellian period, Charles Lambart sent the book to Dublin for safekeeping, and a few years later it found its home at Trinity College (Meehan 14).

The book is a large codex of the Latin text of the four gospels, based on the Vulgate, the version of the Bible that was completed by St. Jerome in 384 AD (Meehan 9). Included in some sections of the book was an older Latin translation of the Bible. Meehan describes the script, insular majuscule, as “bold and expert” (9). It is also decorated with magnificent iconography. Important words are emphasized throughout the text, and the most famous pages, known as carpet pages, contain symbols and portraits of, for example, the evangelists, Christ and the Virgin, and the temptation and arrest of Christ (Meehan 9). Many errors involved when copying, and as a result, some of the pages are difficult to read. Although the book was not used every day, it was and is still dearly treasured worldwide, especially by the Irish.

The Book of Kells was written on a prepared calfskin, known as vellum. It is estimated that in its original state the book required almost 185 calves to create all of the pages that the manuscript needed (Meehan 86). The process of preparing the vellum for work consisted of soaking it in lime, working the skin with a knife to remove hair and other imperfections, and then stretching it on a frame (Meehan 85). As far as writing materials and pigments, the portrait of St. John on folio 291v gives us a clue that the scribes fashioned quills from the tail feathers of geese, and possibly used reeds as well (Meehan 86). Much of the text was written with a brownish iron-gall ink, and the scribes used a “rich palette of organic and mineral pigments” to achieve the decorative designs (Meehan 87-88) The scribes also used a variety of tools while working on the pages, such as “knives for excising mistakes, brushes of varying fineness, compasses, dividers, rulers and templates.” The monks also may have had access to magnifying tools, due to the sheer intricacy of some illustrations (Meehan 88).

In 1007, the Book of Kells was “wickedly stolen” and upon its recovery, the ornamental binding and several chapters from the Gospel of John were missing (Henry 69). This was the earliest mention of the manuscript, and probably the most detrimental effect of the Viking raids on Irish art. In fact, because of these invasions a large part of the Book of Kells was never completed. Evidence exists all throughout the manuscript of its not being completed: Iain Zaczek citing folio 29r, where an angel’s face has been omitted with white paint, and folio 188r, where a beast is depicted clamping a human head in its jaws, but the only finished part of the illustration is the man’s tunic (33). Francoise Henry also suggests that the book was far from completion when the attacks on Iona occurred, and that some of the monks most certainly lost their lives during these invasions (69-70). The possibility of the disappearance of one of the painters; this affected the decorative plan of the book and the continuation of the paintings (Henry 70). A handful of pages that have been left blank, including folio 123v, where Meehan suggests that a crucifixion scene was planned for the page (24). Meehan also explains that the plan of folio 29r was changed multiple times, resulting in, among other things, unused compass circles simplification in ornamental lettering, snake decorations being less than halfway completed, and the face of an angel left featureless (24). The Book of Kells is like none other illuminated manuscript of its time and while the many unfinished pages and mistakes may be off-putting, they do not detract from the overall beauty and volume of the work.

More evidence of the effects of the Viking raids on the Book of Kells may exist in the illustrations and marginalia. Many human activities are depicted throughout the manuscript, including images of soldiers and warriors that appear on folio 114r, 200r, and 4r (Meehan 71). These may have been created as a result of the torments that the monks faced under the Norse invasions. Many of the animals illustrated in the book were native to Iona and Kells—such as the lizards, cats, otters, fish and moths—but other more fantastical illustrations such as griffins, men with fish tails, and birds with two sets of wings are also present (Meehan 74, 77). In Meehan’s definitive Book of Kells he suggests that “the mythological griffin, with the head and wings of an eagle and the body and paws of a lion, could stand for two of the Evangelists symbols—the eagle of John and the lion of Mark” (104). It is possible that these and other religious iconography were used often and emphasized because of the desire of the monks to grasp onto their Christian faith in the midst of the disasters of the Viking raids and invasions. Francoise Henry describes the illustrations of one monk as “grave, a mixture of violence and subtlety, a sort of decorative intoxication” which could be a result of the melancholy mood during the time of raids and invasions (73). It is difficult to pinpoint the exact effects on marginalia and illustrations simply because the manuscript was the work of an entire scriptorium, making it challenging to pinpoint the exact personalities of different artists and their own influences.

In addition to the effects that Viking raids had on illuminated manuscripts and the Book of Kells, they also specifically influenced Irish art. Often times, there were groups of craftsmen that worked on specific projects such as books, metals, or crosses. As with any groups of artists, they had the license to go their own way with their craft, causing differences in the influences of their art following the Norse invasions (Henry 196). However, Henry discusses the reoccurring patterns that became more evident in Irish art, especially in illuminated manuscripts after the Viking invasions. Although, the use of the spiral became almost nonexistent, and animal patterns and influences became more common. In metalwork there was almost no evidence of the spiral left after the invasions of the Vikings, and the animal illustrations underwent transformations to new appearances, drastically different from the original sketches (Henry 196). In other cases, such as carvings, there is almost no evidence of change after the Norse raids. The decoration of the crosses remained “obstinately traditional” with spirals still very prominent, carved specifically to stand out instead of being reduced to the surface of the stone (Henry 196). Henry highlights the interest in iconography prior to the Viking invasions, but mentions that it was greatly strengthened by the presence of the invaders, as a “desire on the part of the Christian Irish to proclaim their faith” and that they used it “as a protest against the sacrileges of the pagans” (197). This is also evident in the carvings on many crosses, with illustrations giving examples of rescues from death and oppression that “appear as cries of hope raised in the distress of threatening raids” (Henry 197).

However, it is dangerous to assume that the influence on art was only one sided. In fact, the Irish craftsmen had just as great of an effect on Scandinavian art, thus creating an exchange of culture between two very different groups of people. Before the invasions, Scandinavian artists chose to seal themselves off from outside influences, in a desire to break away from their European counterparts (Jones 334-335). However, their war, piracy, and trade practices helped them bring many beautiful objects back to Scandinavia (Jones 335). Scandinavian artists reopened themselves to other art forms, welcoming them because they shared their artistic values, and not because they felt “behind the times, naïve, or provincial” (Jones 335). The Viking explorations helped Scandinavian artists gain confidence in exporting and importing new art styles, and as all artists do, they took what they wanted from their past and contemporaries, and made it into something that was their own (Jones 335-336).

Among historians the perception of the Vikings has gradually changed. Early characterizations of them as cruel, irrational people evolved into seeing them as rational traders and merchants. Due to popular culture—for example, the television series The Vikings—it is easy to become familiar with the Vikings as violent people who invaded and killed others with no mercy. This view is also supported by primary sources, such as the Irish monk’s legendary prayer for protection, where the Vikings are described as despicable by those they were invading and conquering. Before providing their analysis of contemporary views on the Vikings, Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen describe the standard picture of Vikings as “that of savages running berserk who roved the European coasts, robbed towns, burned churches, raped women, killed innocents and just generally created havoc and mayhem before eventually celebrating their deeds by gorging and drinking day and night” (255). Roving, plundering and stealing were very common in the Viking age as this was their profession (Jones 3). Perhaps the Vikings were, in fact, no better or worse than contemporary successful warriors. The world they lived in was without moral constraints and offered a low risk of detection and punishment, making violence and plunder their rational decision for profit and for life (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 256).

Much of modern knowledge of the Vikings comes from archaeology, numismatics, and written records. Evidence shows that they were highly accomplished in creating weaponry, tools, and a method of currency (4). Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen support the new perspective that the Vikings acted simply as “economically rational bandits” and analyze the “dynamic elements” of their plundering to support the reasoning that they were not just irrationally cruel human beings (255). They explain that the Vikings learned that there was more to gain in becoming stationary kings, which heavily suggests that they were literate enough to understand the magnitude of their attacks and the literature and artwork they influenced and destroyed (Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen 259). In her article, “The Vikings: A New Look,” Kate Gordon states that the Vikings’ greatest contribution to history was as “colonists and merchants” (50), and not as looters and plunderers. She explains that, while they were violent, their craftsmanship on their boats, armor, weapons, and jewelry was expert and helps revise the traditional view of the Vikings as inherently cruel (Gordon 53).

With two very contradictory ideas of the Vikings, and pop culture adding another element to the mix, it is difficult to decide whether the Vikings truly lived as inherently cruel people, or if they really were “rational bandits.” Though Kurrild-Klitgaard and Svendsen suggest that they were economically intelligent, it is hard to believe that they were ignorant of their destructive actions. If they truly were intelligent enough to realize they needed a change in their lifestyle to make more profits, it would be easy to argue that they were intelligent enough to realize the suffering they were causing upon those that they conquered. On the contrary, it would also be sensible to support Kate Gordon and many other contemporary historians who agree that the Vikings made vital contributions to trade and culture during their rise in power. The argument is a double edged sword because each side contains its own truths. However, it can be said that while some of the Vikings’ methods were indeed cruel and destructive towards people and the arts, their actions did have unintended positive effects on other areas of culture during the late 8th to 11th century and beyond.


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