Danelaw Saga, co-curated by Dr Dale and Professor Judith Jesch, ran in parallel with the British Museum/York Museums Trust touring exhibition Viking: Rediscover the Legend. Together, the two exhibitions drew over 30,000 people to Nottingham Lakeside Arts.
The exhibitions offered an unprecedented opportunity to engage the public with the University’s research, and highlight how the Vikings’ legacy resonates today across the East Midlands. Nine fully booked public engagement lectures brought world-leading experts to Nottingham. The lectures were live-streamed and can be viewed on Nottingham Lakeside Arts’ Facebook page. A lecture on Old Norse dialect in the East Midlands by the University of Cambridge’s Dr Richard Dance was attended by nearly 200 people, and viewed online more than 6000 times.
An activity programme saw both adults and children enjoy workshops on anything from writing in runes to spinning wool, while handicrafts and artefact handling sessions gave the opportunity to make contact with one’s inner Viking.
We’re trying to show that a thousand years ago the East Midlands was a cultural melting pot
Dr Dale continues to be in demand on the local history circuit. He’s visited Melton Mowbray to talk about North Leicestershire’s place in the Viking diaspora, followed by a lecture on the Danelaw at Leicestershire Archaeology and History Fair. Partnerships with museums and collections at Derby, Lincoln and Leicester will grow, with opportunities to embed PhDs and further share knowledge.
Dr Dale sees such engagement as vital. “The idea of the mono-cultural white, blond, blue-eyed Viking is so strong, and it is misused in so many ways. Being in a position to present people with the evidence gives us an opportunity to challenge a lot of these preconceptions and get people thinking – how the Vikings didn’t see race in quite the same way we do, how they thought in terms of communities of language, not national borders. How they borrowed from other cultures.
“We’re trying to show that a thousand years ago the East Midlands was a cultural melting pot.”
Danelaw Saga: Bringing Vikings Back to the East Midlands, was presented by Manuscripts and Special Collections at the University of Nottingham.
The exhibition, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and supported by the University’s British Identities Research Priority Area (RPA), echoed its exploration of the continuously shifting influence of migration, language and culture on this archipelago.
Judith Jesch, the UK’s only Professor of Viking Studies and leader of the British Identities RPA, said: “I’m delighted that the Danelaw exhibition and other outlets for our research have struck such a rich seam of interest and enthused so many thousands of people.”
Manuscript where worlds collide
A parchment from around 1200 is held by Manuscripts and Special Collections and featured in the Danelaw exhibition. It has Roderick Dale fizzing with excitement.
The deed records a transfer of land near the Nottinghamshire village of Gunthorpe. What delights Dr Dale is that these few lines of Latin script reveal how the Anglo-Saxon and Viking worlds collided and coalesced, while offering a nuanced picture of medieval England.
“It’s so good,” he says. “The deed sets out Emma De Bellefago’s granting of land to Alice, the wife of Thurstan, and her heirs, in return for Alice’s fealty to Emma. The land was formerly owned by Ulf, and the manuscript is witnessed by men with names like William, Pinchard and Hugo. You have a group of people whose names reveal that at Gunthorpe (Gunnhild’s Thorpe) half a dozen different cultures lived together – Norse, Anglo-Saxon, old French, continental Germanic, Anglo-Scandinavian.
“So much for the medieval period being mono-cultural. And the best part? Here’s a woman, who isn’t high status, having the right to own land and give it to another. It challenges another prejudice, that women were invisible and utterly passive in the medieval period.”
Are you laiken? No, it’s siling it down
Dr Roderick Dale, Cultural Engagement Fellow with the University’s Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, on Viking Nottinghamshire
“The East Midlands as we know it wouldn’t exist without the Vikings. King Alfred fought them to a standstill and a boundary was created that divided the country in two. On one side, the Danelaw, Danish laws, prevailed. The East Midlands was inside the Danelaw. Our Institute for Name-Studies fed straight into the Danelaw Saga: Bringing Vikings Back to the East Midlands exhibition.
“Some place-names like Gunthorpe (Gunnhild’s Thorpe) tell us that Old Norse was the dominant language in that area and that the Vikings controlled it. Sometimes you get hybrids, where you get an old Norse name but maybe with an Anglo-Saxon suffix, like Toton, from the Old Norse name Tófi and Old English tun, Anglo-Saxon for farm, which show that the Vikings were engaging with the Anglo-Saxons’ language.
“When you walk down Fisher Gate in Nottingham, you’re walking down a Viking street. Gata is Old Norse for street. The Anglo-Scandinavian street planisvery much still there in the city centre. Nottingham dialect is influenced by Old Norse – heavy rain is siling it down; are you laiken - coming out to play? Rammy means nasty or smelly.
“With our exhibition, we’ve encouraged people to see the Vikings on their doorstep. And we’ve also tried to show how the East Midlands was created from influences from France, Germany, Scandinavia and Ireland. It certainly wasn’t homogenous or inward-looking.
“We have coins that show the Vikings were exposed to trading routes from the Middle East and as far as Afghanistan. At the Repton burials in Derbyshire, isotope analysis could show local people were buried alongside warriors not just from Scandinavia, but from around Europe. So the Viking great army isn’t necessarily, again, mono-cultural.”