Vikings in the focus of research: much more than looting pirates

Press release from 21 December 2022

Historians and archaeologists examined the diverse relationships between northern and central Europe in the early Middle Ages at an international conference. Two medieval experts from Ingelheim, Holger Grewe, Head of the Kaiserpfalz Research Centre, and Ramona Kaiser (Project Development Department), also travelled to Aachen.


When unknown ships suddenly appeared on the Rhine near Ingelheim in June 826, many contemporaries must have been terrified. Was it a raid by warriors from the north? The worries were unfounded in this case, as the men on board, the ‘Vikings’, as the common but scientifically imprecise term for Scandinavian cultures and peoples of the time, were not out to raid: Their leader, the deposed Danish king Harald Klak, came at the invitation of Louis the Pious to attend an imperial assembly in the Ingelheim Palatinate. The guest from Jutland had been a vassal of the Frankish king since 814 and now hoped for military support from him in internal power struggles in his homeland. He also received this from Louis – but only after he had been baptised on 24 June 826 in St. Alban’s Abbey near Mainz.
This famous episode is recorded in several written sources, including the cleric Ermoldus Nigellus, who reports on the 100 ships of the Danish king. This figure is certainly exaggerated, but at least we have Ermoldus to thank for one of the few descriptions of the Ingelheim palace complex – even if it should also be evaluated with appropriate caution. Nevertheless, this story paints a more nuanced picture than the still widespread cliché of the murdering and plundering ‘Vikings’. Although they did exist, the inhabitants of Scandinavia at the time were primarily farmers and, in particular, very successful merchants.
From around the middle of the 8th century, there is evidence of lively trade relations between western Denmark, England and Friesland. The Vikings built up a huge network of contacts outside their homeland and characterised an era of economic and cultural exchange with other ethnic groups, some of whom lived far away.

Diverse relationships between north and south
For some years now, the Viking Age (approx. 800 – 1050), which runs roughly concurrently with the Carolingian and Ottonian periods in Central and Western Europe, has therefore increasingly become the focus of medieval research. Most recently, an international conference entitled ‘Early medieval rulers’ seats and the north. Centres of power between diplomacy, knowledge transfer and economy’ from 8 – 10 November at the Centre Charlemagne in Aachen was dedicated to the diverse relationships between “North and South”. In addition to academics from various research institutions in Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, two researchers from Ingelheim also took part in the event: Holger Grewe and Ramona Kaiser, the head of the research centre. The colloquium in Aachen was the continuation of a collaboration that began in 2018 with a symposium in Ingelheim. At that time, the city of Ingelheim and the Romano-Germanic Central Museum, Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology (RGZM) in Mainz had agreed to cooperate in the field of medieval research at the Ingelheim Centre for Continuing Education.

Publication on the conference to be published in 2023
In Aachen, the contributions and discussions focused primarily on the question of the influence that economic and diplomatic relations had on the centres of power in the south and the seats of power of Scandinavian princes in Haithabu, Schleswig and Starigard-Oldenburg. For example, influences of palace architecture on representative royal courts in early medieval Scandinavia can be recognised. In the early medieval artefacts from the Middle Rhine, Lower Moselle and neighbouring regions, individual long-distance contacts with the north can be detected, sometimes indicating warlike actions, sometimes economic relations.
The lectures and results of the Aachen colloquium will be published in 2024 in a conference volume edited by Matylda Gierszewska-Noszczyńska (Kaiserpfalz Research Centre), Lutz Grunwald (RGZM Research Department of Volcanology, Archaeology and History of Technology) and Oliver Grimm (Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology in Schleswig). As with the last publication, the research centre will also publish this volume in cooperation with the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology. Mayor Eveline Breyer is particularly pleased about this: ‘The fact that our cooperation with the RGZM will once again bear fruit with another publication following the joint publication of the conference volume “Zwischen Machtzentren und Produktionsorten” in 2021 shows the high scientific level of the work of the Kaiserpfalz Research Centre,’ says the city’s Head of Cultural Affairs.

Finds from ‘the north’ also in Ingelheim
The aforementioned visit by the Danish king Harald Klak was not the only diplomatic mission in these parts. The ‘Northmen’, as they are often called, also left some archaeological traces in Ingelheim. This was made clear by the lecture ‘Economy, trade and politics – evidence of long-distance contacts to the north from archaeological and historical sources in Ingelheim’ by Ramona Kaiser and Matylda Gierszewska-Noszczyńska in Aachen. They reported on a cremation grave from the Carolingian period that was found in Frei-Weinheim. The unchristian cremation burial custom alone indicates that the buried person came from northern, not yet Christianised regions. Sceattas, small, early medieval silver coins that were minted in Friesland, Jutland and England, among other places, are also repeatedly found in the Ingelheim artefacts. Their presence in Ingelheim is the surest evidence that people from regions north of the Frankish Empire also travelled up the Rhine as peaceful merchants and came ashore here.
The fact that the ‘Vikings’ or ‘Northmen’ nevertheless had their image as notorious pirates for a reason is shown by the decades following Harald Klak’s visit to Ingelheim, during which there were repeated raids in the Carolingian Frankish Empire. The Rhineland was particularly affected, where the old Roman cities of Nijmegen, Aachen, Cologne, Bonn and Trier were among the targets of attacks. Several monasteries such as Prüm Abbey were also destroyed and libraries containing centuries of knowledge went up in flames. Ingelheim was spared, but the Carolingian Empire was shaken to the core.

In Ingelheim, finds of sceattas, small silver coins from Friesland, Jutland and England, provide evidence of trade contacts with the northern regions in the early Middle Ages. Image: City of Ingelheim, Benjamin May.
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