Steve Bivans

Author, Coach, Urban Viking

Category: History Articles (page 1 of 2)

Since my ‘professional’ training is in History, I occasionally write articles on historical topics. You’ll find them here. Just so you know, I hold a master’s degree in history from the University of Minnesota, and have completed everything but my dissertation towards my Doctorate in Medieval History.

Uhtred Suffers Defeat!: Update on Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians

UPDATE on the new book, Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians

The book has been selling quite well since the launch almost a month ago.

It hit #1 in one category (history/france), on June 24th!

But yesterday, on July 5th, it hit another major milestone. The book topped the category, History/Military/Other, surpassing the first book in Bernard Cornwell’s series, The Last Kingdom!!!

Read’em n Weep, Uhtred, son of Uhtred!

Uhtred son of Uhtred

Thanks to all of you who helped make it possible!

Will it stay there forever? No, of course not. But it’s there right now! Time to celebrate a bit!

Steve Bivans is a FearLess Life & Self-Publishing Coach, the author of the Amazon #1 Best Sellers, Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians,The End of Fear Itself, and the epic-length, self-help, sustainability tome, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, If you want to learn how write and self-publish a book to best-seller status, crush your limitations and Fears, and disrupt the status quo, contact Steve for a free consultation to see how he can help you change the world! CONTACT STEVE

Get Your Free Vikings Book!

Hello friends,

The day has come!

Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians is LIVE and FREE for the today and most of Monday!

Do go pick up your free copy on Amazon, HERE!Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 4.44.32 AM

If you don’t have a Kindle, that’s okay. You can download the Free Kindle App by clicking the ‘READ ON ANY DEVICE’ button, under the photo of the cover, on Amazon!

If you’re on the Official Launch Team, or a close friend of mine who is hesitant to take the free book, since you want to support me by actually ‘buying’ it, I thank you. Trust me, downloading the free version WILL support the book. But if you want to wait until it goes to $.99, just stay tuned. I’ll post another short blog article to let you know when that happens.

Free or at $.99 both help to promote the book, though the final rankings for the book do depend on actual sales.

Thank you, to all of you who have already read an advanced copy, and especially to those who have posted a review!

The reviews are a MASSIVE help in promotion and ranking of the book on Amazon. So, whether you pick up the book for free, or at $.99, please take a few moments when you’re finished reading it, to post a short review. It really does help the success of the book.

That’s enough for now.

Thanks to you all!


Steve Bivans is a FearLess Life & Self-Publishing Coach, the author of the Amazon #1 Best Sellers, Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians,The End of Fear Itself, and the epic-length, self-help, sustainability tome, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, If you want to learn how write and self-publish a book to best-seller status, crush your limitations and Fears, and disrupt the status quo, contact Steve for a free consultation to see how he can help you change the world! CONTACT STEVE

Viking Women: Feud, Violence, and Resolution in Saga Age Iceland

Viking Women and Violence

The “great village” mentality of Medieval Iceland, as Jessie Byock describes it, probably helped to curb feud violence in Iceland.

Conflict did occur however, and the Icelanders had institutions to deal with this problem.

The central institution for conflict resolution was the Althing, while local chieftains called goðar handled minor local problems.

If these institutions failed to resolve a conflict it could be handled by an older, if less peaceful institution, the blood-feud.

The first two solutions were controlled and run by men.  Women played very little if any role in the Althing and though they could act in their husband’s stead on some matters, the men of the community, alone, were charged with handling the legal matters.

This does not hold true with the Feud, as an examination of the Icelandic Sagas proves.

In the age-old institution of feud, the women in the Icelandic Sagas played important roles.

The most common female role in feud was as ‘goaders’, verbally coercing the men to take bloody revenge.

Women seized upon other roles as well. While the majority fell into the goader position, some also served as key planners of the vengeance, while some (not content to sit home and await the outcome) accompanied the men to serve as witnesses.

Some took on the roles of men as blood-letters and others as mediators.  As evidence for this, I will refer to three of the Icelandic Sagas: The Saga of the Volsungs, Laxdaela Saga, and The Saga of Grettir the Strong.

The Goaders: Viking Women as Inciters of Violence

Any examination of women’s involvement in feud should begin with their most common role, that of the goader.  Although Icelandic women were precluded from the official institutions of conflict resolution, they frequently played a major role in the unofficial institution of feud.

In this way, women exerted some degree of control within their families, communities and the legal system.

As goaders, the women of the sagas worked to incite the men to act.

In Volsunga Saga, Brynhild urges her husband, Gunnar, to kill Sigurd.  Thorgerd and Gudrun work their men into a frenzy in Laxdaela Saga.  Gudrun convinces several men to ambush Kjartan. Then on the morning slated for the attack, she threatens her husband Bolli with divorce if he refuses to join them;

if you refuse this journey, it will be the end of our marriage.”

In response to Kjartan’s murder, his mother, Thorgerd, goades her remaining sons into exacting an exceptionally bloody revenge on Bolli.  After dragging them past Bolli’s house, she breaks into full goading mode:

“I know that Bolli lives here, your brother‘s killer.  And you are remarkably unlike your noble kinsmen if you don’t want to avenge such a brother as Kjartan was…I for one believe it would have suited your better to have been your father‘s daughters and been married off.”

This is scathing abuse, but effective, as they promptly put together a plan to murder Bolli in his summer house.

Why is Goading Necessary? Aren’t Vikings Inherently Violent?

The degree of goading involved in both of these cases begs the question; why was such abuse necessary?Vikings War and the Fall of the Carolingians cover

Icelandic women sometimes had to work very hard to get their men to exact revenge.  This is mostly due to the nature of the ‘great village’ communal idea that Byock refers to.

According to Byock, Iceland’s feuding practices were different from other Scandinavian, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, because of the insular nature of the Icelandic community.  While the other countries organized themselves along familial and clan based lines, in Iceland, due to the isolation of the island, families intermarried more often, confusing and complicating familial alliances.

This was further complicated by the fact that women retained their alliance to their father’s line, as well as to their husband’s.  This intermarriage meant that there were rarely clear-cut alliances or enemies.  Without the sense of ‘us versus them’ that one finds in more clannish societies, like Scotland, men were more reluctant to take revenge through feud, as their enemy was more often than not, blood-related.

We can see this reluctance play out in the sagas.

In Volsunga Saga, after Brynhild threatens to leave her husband, Gunnar, unless he kills Sigurd,

Gunnar “became very distressed.  He thought he did not know the best course to pursue, for he was “bound by oath to Sigurd.”

Gunnar knows that he will be an oath-breaker if he kills Sigurd and this is an unforgivable act in Icelandic society.

In Lacdaela Saga, in response to Gudrun’s tirade of insults, both Ospak and her husband Bolli show reluctance to take revenge on Kjartan.

Ospak tells her that,

“she was making too much of this,”

and Bolli argues that,

“it would not be right for him to do that because of his kinship with Kjartan, and he recalled how lovingly Olaf had brought him up.”

Bolli had been raised by Kjartan’s father, Olaf, and as such was Kjartan’s foster brother.  This is a perfect example of how interlinked Icelandic society was.

After suffering the verbal attacks of Thorgerd, her sons sought the assistance of a friend, Bardi, who warned them,

“To violate a settlement with one’s kinsmen would be widely condemned.”

He goes on to say, in reference to their invitation to join in on the killing,

“I know you would think it improper of me to shirk it…Nor shall I, if I cannot dissuade you from it.”

This demonstrates three things all in one statement; the reluctance that Bardi has to join in the violence against a kinsman, the anticipated fallout that will come from the society at large, and the strong ties of kinsmanship to Thorgerd’s family which sway him, in the end, to join in the feud.

To convince men to break such strong bonds of kins-manship and to risk the condemnation of their community, women had to goad them severely.

Viking Women as Generals and Witnesses

When the goading was over, there was still the problem of carrying out the vengeance and sometimes this required solid planning, a hidden talent of some Icelandic women: the role of General.

Sometimes the men needed help to plan out the bloodletting and their women were happy to pitch in.  Planning revenge could be tricky, especially when the ones slated to do the killing are a group of reluctant men.

Gudrun certainly had no compunctions about planning the counter-revenge for the murder of Bolli.  She held a long discussion with Snorri the Priest on the particulars of whom to kill and who should do the killing.  She even pretended to promise an engagement to Thorgills Holluson in order to get him to agree to lead the attack.

Not to be outdone by her rival, Thorgerd was not only involved in the planning, but insisted on tagging along to keep her sons in line.

She told them in no uncertain terms,

“for I know you well enough, my sons, to realize that you will need spurring on.”

Then she takes on the role of battlefield strategist and general when (as Bolli is desperately struggling to keep his intestines from rolling onto the floor) she gives them play-by-play instructions,

“there was no need to shrink from dealing with Bolli thoroughly; she told them to finish off their work.”

They promptly separate Bolli from his head and the killing ends. Thorgerd was certainly intent on seeing the job through to the end.

There is one more woman in Laxdaela Saga who can be labeled as a ‘planner’: Aud, who takes on the sole responsibility of planning revenge on her ex-husband, Thord.  However, as she also falls into another category, she is better left for later.

Viking Women as Witness to Honorable Death

Thorgerd and Gudrun are also the best examples of women as witnesses to feud.

In the aforementioned attack on Bolli, it was not only Thorgerd who is present at the killing, but also her rival, Gudrun.  Gudrun had been sent out of the shieling by order of her husband, Bolli, but she returned afterwards to ask his killers how the event played out.

A witness to a hero’s death is an important part of the taking of vengeance.  Someone must witness how the hero dies in order to uphold his or her honor after death.  In this scene, Gudrun plays this role and is probably the most haunting witness in the three sagas:

She [Gudrun] asked them how their encounter with Bolli had gone. They told her what had happened. Gudrun was wearing a tunic with a tight-fitting woven bodice, and a tall head-dress, and around her waist she had tied a fringed sash with dark blue stripes.  Helgi Hardbeinsson went up to her and took one end of the sash and wiped the blood off the spear with which he had run Bolli through.  Gudrun looked at him, and smiled.

Gudrun is a bold and fearless woman.  As a result, she obtained the story of her husband’s death, his bloody clothes and her own sash to use later as goading tools to exact revenge on Helgi.

Thorgerd served as a witness to a job well planned and well executed.

Both Gudrun and Thorgerd represent ways in which bold Icelandic women could take an active part in feuding.  However, neither woman steps completely over the boundary into the roles reserved for men.  Neither Gudrun nor Thorgerd take up weapons themselves or personally arbitrate the end of the feud.

Viking Women with Weapons

There are two women in the sagas who do assume roles generally reserved for men alone: Aud and Thorbjorg.

In Laxdaela Saga, Aud lost her husband Thord, who accused her of wearing men’s trousers, apparently grounds for divorce in Medieval Iceland.

Aud exacted bloody vengeance upon Thord, not by goading other men into attacking him, but by riding to his house, strolling into his bedroom and stabbing him as he attempted to get out of bed.

The scene is full of gender-bending allusions: Aud wore “breeches” (the charge that led to divorce in the first place) and Thord mistook her for a man.  The gender issues draw attention to the fact that she was not acting as a woman, but taking on the role of a man.  Aud is an excellent example of a woman in a man’s role as bloodletter.  She is not alone in assuming a masculine role.

In Grettir’s Saga, Thorbjorg, a wife of an influential farmer, assumes the role of her husband as the arbitrator, or mediator of a conflict between a group of lowly farmers and Grettir, whom the farmers have captured while sleeping and are getting ready to hang from a tree.

The farmers had already dragged Grettir around to all of the local chieftains, but none of them wanted to deal with him.  Thorbjorg warned the farmers against killing such a powerful and influential man and then freed him after making him swear an oath to cause no more trouble in her region.

The farmers apparently recognized her authority, because they released Grettir to her and Grettir had little choice but to recognize her power over his situation.

The existence of such women in the sagas begs the question of how realistic were such situations?  How many women stepped into traditionally male roles?

Neither Aud nor Thorbjorn are criticized for their actions.

Aud’s brothers seem impressed by her actions if guardedly optimistic about the repercussions.  Thorbjorn’s husband is at first upset over his wife’s actions, but is convinced by her argument that it will bring honor to them both for having acted thus.


This brings us to the final section and the question of what motivated these women to act in such bold ways?

While revenge might suffice as a motive for most of the cases, namely the planners, goaders and Aud, it is insufficient to explain the case of Thorbjorg.

In her case, she explains her motive to be the increase of honor.  The easy answer would be to say that Thorbjorg was looking for honor and the others were in search of vengeance.

I would argue that they all were attempting to regain honor that they perceived to have been lost.

Honor was an important factor in Medieval Iceland, and all of Viking society, and indeed, all of Northern European society at the time.

In Volsunga Saga, Signy killed two of her sons and betrayed her husband, so she chose to die with her husband in their burning house, because

“I have worked so hard to bring about vengeance that I am by no means fit to live.”

She felt as if she had lost so much honor that the only way to gain any of it back would be to die beside the husband she had betrayed.

Brynhild repeats this same motive when she stabs herself to death.  She lost honor because she had broken her vows to Sigurd, to Gunnar, and to herself.  She also lost honor by not marrying the best man, Sigurd, who married another woman whom Brynhild sees as inferior.

In a similar situation, Gudrun lost honor because her first choice for husband, Kjartan married a lesser woman, so she plots his demise.  When Kjartan’s widow died, Gudrun left the job of revenge to her mother-in-law, Thorgerd, who defended the family’s honor by goading and plotting the death of Bolli.

Aud felt dishonored by Thord’s rejection, but instead of goading her family into taking revenge, she regained some semblance of honor by attacking Thord on her own.  In fact, one might argue that Aud should be awarded higher honor than many of the men in the sagas, as she carried out the attack solo, with no backup, an unusual procedure, even for the men.


While men dominated most institutions in medieval Iceland, women asserted themselves in bold and sometimes masculine ways.  These three sagas suggest that if faced with the choice between honor and disgrace, Icelandic women would go to extraordinary lengths to retain or regain the former.

Sometimes this was accomplished within the traditional roles assigned to women.  However, if the retaining or regaining of honor required an Icelandic woman to overstep the traditional gender boundaries, some at least, stepped over firmly, and whoa be it to the Viking man who fell into their crosshairs.

Love this article?

Then you’re gonna love my book:

Vikings War and the Fall of the Carolingians cover

Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians!

Grab the Kindle or Paperback version on Amazon, today!

Love Vikings? Check out my other articles:


Byock, Jessie. Viking Age Iceland. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001.

Laxdaela Saga. translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Falsson.  London: Penguin Books, 1969.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong. translated by Bernard Scudder.  London: Penguin Books, 2005.

The Saga of the Volsungs. translated by Jessie Byock.  London: Penguin Books, 1999.

Steve Bivans is a FearLess Life & Self-Publishing Coach, the author of the Amazon #1 Best Sellers, Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians,The End of Fear Itself, and the epic-length, self-help, sustainability tome, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, If you want to learn how write and self-publish a book to best-seller status, crush your limitations and Fears, and disrupt the status quo, contact Steve for a free consultation to see how he can help you change the world! CONTACT STEVE

Viking Warrior Camp: Tired, Sweaty, & Awesome!

Hi y’all,

Just an update on my week.

I’m the Chief Viking at the Oakeshott Institute’s, Viking Warrior Camp this week. I’ve done this several times in the last several years, and I love warrior camp

It’s hot, sweaty, and tiring work training a bunch of young Vikings. But it’s also a lot of fun. I’ll write more on it when the week is over, but here’s a bit of what I was up to this afternoon. (I’m behind the camera…)

Steve Bivans is a FearLess Life & Self-Publishing Coach, the author of the Amazon #1 Best Sellers, Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians,The End of Fear Itself, and the epic-length, self-help, sustainability tome, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, If you want to learn how write and self-publish a book to best-seller status, crush your limitations and Fears, and disrupt the status quo, contact Steve for a free consultation to see how he can help you change the world! CONTACT STEVE

Bones, Burials, and the Viking Great Army in Repton

The Viking Great Army in England

In 866 AD a “large heathen army” invaded East Anglia.[1]


Over the next decade, the Viking Great Army roamed, rarely hindered, over all of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia, as well as penetrating deep into Wessex.  England, much the same as the continent, had suffered the wrath of the Vikings since their first raids on Portland in 789 and Lindisfarne in 793.

During the next 60 odd years, the Scandinavian pirates returned sporadically to ravage, pillage and burn the ‘soft’ targets of England’s monasteries and villages.  Moving swiftly in their longships which enabled them to navigate deep up England’s rivers, they victimized the unsuspecting interior villages and farms of England, disappearing before local forces could be mustered against them.  Content with their easy loot, they sailed for home every winter to return in the spring and summer months to strike again.

This seasonal raiding characterized the first 60 years or so of the Viking Age.  The invasion of 865 was to be different.  According to the sources, the Vikings came in much larger numbers—a so-called Viking Great Army—intent not only on plunder but on staking a claim to the land itself.  This change in strategy has sparked much debate on the nature of Viking warfare and the nature of the Viking presence in England.  How ‘great’ was this army?  Was it really much larger than earlier raiding parties?  If not, how did they manage to remain in England for so long?  What evidence is there for the size and nature of this army?  If they really came to settle, did they bring women along?

The answers to these questions continue to elude historians.  The written sources simply do not give sufficient information to answer them.  For that reason, historians have looked to archaeology for the answers.  The archaeological record has been viewed as less subjective than the written sources.  But modern archaeologists and historians have been more critical of the physical evidence in the last few decades, realizing the subjectivity of interpretation of the archaeological evidence.

Particularly problematic in the case of the Vikings is the uncritical use of historical sources by archaeologists, who based many of their interpretations of the physical evidence on literary sources, like the Icelandic Sagas.  The sagas, not written into their final form until the 13th century, have recently been criticized for their value as a source for the Viking Age of the 9th and 10th centuries.[2]  Archaeologists, basing interpretations on these sources, have unintentionally set into motion a ‘circular’ logic, in which historians refer to the interpretations of the archaeologists, who in turn refer to the work of the historian.[3]


While it is usually difficult to reconcile the archaeological record with documentary sources, in the case of the findings at Repton, Derbyshire, there seems to be some agreement.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the year 873, the Vikings invaded Mercia and seized the town of Repton, a royal center.  They then fortified this position for the winter of 873-4.[4]  In 875 the army divided, one part going north into Northumbria and the other south toward Cambridge.[5]  Little was known about their winter quarters until the 1970s and 80s when Martin Biddle and his wife, Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle excavated the site of St. Wystan’s

St Wystan's Church, Repton

St Wystan’s Church, Repton

church in Repton, where they discovered evidence of fortifications and pre-christian burials.

Among the burials were the remains of what Biddle suggests might be Ivar the Boneless, one of the Viking leaders, as well as the bones of females that may be of Scandinavian origin.  In the 1990s, Julian Richards excavated 59 mound burials in nearby, Heathwood, Ingleby, only 2.5 miles south east of Repton.  Most of the burials were cremations, with the remainder most likely cenotaphs.  Artifacts consistent with Viking burial practices were found and the carbon dating is also consistent with the period of the Great Army.

These two sites may help to answer some of the questions that have plagued historians and archaeologists about the nature of the Viking army and its settlement in the Danelaw. The fortifications at Repton are significant because they are the only archaeologically excavated Viking-built fortifications in Britain and as such may be able to give us an insight into the size and sophistication of Viking military operations.  The burials at Repton and at Heathwood, may shed light on the make up of the army as well as whether or not women were a part of the invasion.

Repton and Viking fortifications

Historical sources inform us that the Vikings built fortifications frequently while on campaign.  However, in England at least, only Repton has been excavated. The parish church, St. Wystan’s,  parts of which date from the Anglo-Saxon period, is situated on a bluff of “Bunter sandstone on the southern side of the valley of the River Trent.”[6]  The river, during the Anglo-Saxon period, flowed much closer to the church than it does today, where it formed a “low cliff”.[7]  The village of Repton is situated at a strategic point, where the “ancient main routes across the Trent and along the valley meet.”[8]  As such, it would have been an important site for the Vikings to seize and hold, if they wished to maintain their presence in Mercia.

The location of the church near the riverbank made it an ideal place to construct their winter camp.  The River Trent feeds into the Humber just south of York, a Viking stronghold during the years of the Great Army.  This situation suited the nature of Viking warfare, as their shallow-drafted ships could easily navigate up the Trent to Repton.


The eastern half of a v-shaped ditch was found using resistivity and the western half by means of a caesium magnetometer survey.  Stratigraphy was employed to determine the sequence of cemetery development, especially in relation to the defensive ditch and bank built by the Vikings.  Measurements of weight and size were done on the bones from both the cemeteries and the crypt, and radio carbon dating was employed to date some of the bones, as well as comparisons of Preauricular sulcus and cranial indices.

Originally hoping to find evidence of the early Anglo-Saxon church foundations, the Biddles were surprised to find evidence of the V-shaped defensive ditch, repton sketchanchored on either end of the church and curving northward to the original riverbank to form a large D-shaped enclosure.  The entire ditch had, at some point in time, been filled in from the north side, probably with earth originally from the ditch which most likely formed a bank on the inside of the ditch.  The ditch was some 4 m deep.  Fortifications such as this were fairly common in Scandinavia in places like Århus and Hedeby.[10]  If this fortification followed examples in Scandivanvia and on the continent, it would have been crowned with a wooden stockade on top of the bank.[11]

Size of the ‘Great’ Army at Repton

The resulting fortification enclosed an area of 3.65 acres.  Unfortunately, the Biddles have yet to publish the complete site report, so I have no exact dimensions for the church or the ditch, but from the area, the total circumference can be calculated at 1595 feet.[12]  Using the formula of 1 man to defend every 4 feet of wall, the bank at Repton would have required 398 men to defend it against attack.  However, a portion of the south side of the fortification was defended by the stone walls of St. Wystan’s church, and as such would not need the same ratio of man/ft as the rest of the wall.  The roof and walls apparently suffered greatly during this occupation, as the evidence in the stone work suggests that the upper half or more (including the windows) were dismantled.[13]  If this was truly the case, then the same ratio of 1 man to 4 feet would be needed to defend the walls of the church as well.

VW cover 2nd version smallThe cliff overlooking the Old Trent Water, was about 6 meters high, a formidable obstacle, and along with the river would have served to protect the north side of the encampment.  Very few men would have been needed to defend this side.   Without further dimensions, more accurate calculations cannot be made on the size of force needed to defend the site.  However, an estimate between 200 and 300 men is probably safe.[14]  Using figures and dimensions from known Roman marching camps on the continent, it is possible that somewhere in the area of 400 men could have encamped within the fortification.[15]

Four hundred men does not sound like a ‘Great Army’.  The lack of evidence of occupation within the ditch, and the relative small size of the area raises some interesting questions.  First, where is the evidence of occupation if there were 400 men here?  Would there not be remains, at least post-holes, of their winter houses, or at least a scatter of artifacts and evidence of hearths or campfires?  Second, it is difficult to reconcile 400 men with the accounts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and with the achievements of the Viking army over the decade or so that they were in England.  It is simply inconceivable that 400 men could have invaded, subdued, and held such a large area.  If there were more men, where is their camp?

A Viking Marina?

John Haywood, in his discussion of the Repton fortifications mentions evidence of a “slipway” on the bank of the river, which might have allowed ships to be hauled onto shore within the fortification.[16]  He does not, however, give a source for this information.  I could find no such mention in the publications from the Biddles.[17]  If such a slipway did exist, it might explain the small size of the fortification, which may have been used primarily to protect the ships.  Employing the dimensions of two Viking ships found in Roskilde Fjord, the area enclosed within the fortification could have housed between 50 and 100 ships, with a minimum rowing capacity of between 2100 and 2600 men.[18]  In order to house this many ships, they would have had to be neatly and tightly parked.  Also, ships may have carried twice the number of men needed for rowing, in order to always have fresh rowers.[19]  If so, then the number could be doubled.  It is also possible, and indeed even likely, that the second half marched on foot along the bank of the river, as they did at least a few times on the continent, in similar situations (see my article, “Size Matters: the Vikings, the Siege of Paris, and the Bridge at Pontoise“). If the force was 2000-4000, then the men must have camped nearby, which means that a major discovery is waiting beneath the soil near Repton.

Viking Burials at Repton

The presence of fortifications and the scarce documentary evidence lead one to believe that the fortifications are indeed Viking built.  This evidence alone is not enough to seal the case.  However, the burial evidence and the existence of previous finds, help to round out the picture.  This evidence, without the documentary sources, would be much more problematic to interpret.  In keeping with scholarly debates over interpreting ethnic or culturally identity, at issue at Repton is whether one can differentiate ‘Viking’ artifacts and remains from ‘Anglo-Saxon’.

In the past, archaeologists have relied heavily on the typology of material finds to determine ethnic, cultural and geographical origin of interred or cremated human remains.  This approach has been challenged in recent years.[21]  It is difficult to determine, in many cases, whether a person buried with ‘Viking’ artifacts, is actually Scandinavian in origin, or whether the items were obtained through trade, raid or other means.  Such scattered finds have been found in many places in Britain and elsewhere, but without the assistance of documentary evidence, it is nearly impossible to answer these questions.

In Repton, the picture seems a little clearer.  There is a convergence of the documents and the archaeological evidence, which seem to line up both in time (870s) and in place, at Repton.  There are a number of items either excavated by the Biddles or previously, that are Viking in style and are consistent with the period of time of the Great Army.  First, is a bearded axe of Viking type found in 1923, a common item found in excavations of English churchyards.[22]  Also, a Viking ‘hogback stone monument, found in the early 19th century, sketsc0202e1b8ched and then broken up and lost.[23]  A Petersen type L Viking sword was found in 1839 “‘in the midst of a large quantity of human bones’ in the Old Trent Water to the north-west of the burial mound.”[24]  An electrotype copy of another Viking sword, Petersen type X, was found in a Repton attic in 1948, possibly a copy of an earlier find at Repton.[25]  With the exception of the axe, the context for these finds has been lost, but together point to the conclusion that Repton was, at some time in the past, a Viking site.

Viking Graves

The Biddles discovered several furnished burials around the church that they have interpreted as Viking graves.  The most prominent is grave 511, one of a male aged 35-45, who suffered a large wound to the skull, then a killing blow to the “head of the left femur.”[26]  dig_report_repton_warrior_skullHe was buried with several items, most notably a silver alloy Thor’s hammer and a sword of Viking style, Petersen type M.[27]  His height, 1.81 m, and physical type are very similar to remains found in a mass burial near the church (discussion below).[28]  Buried in an adjacent and parallel grave, grave 295, were the remains of what appears to be a young man, height 1.79 m, who may have expired from a “cut to the right side of the skull.”[29]  At his side was an iron knife. Biddle suggests, or more accurately, questions if this might be the older man’s “weapon-bearer”?[30]

Grave 529, north of the chancel, contained the remains of a man “aged 25-35, 1.77 m tall” who was buried with a ring and “five silver pennies datable to the mid-870s.”[31]  The ring also has parallels with similar finds in Scandinavia.[32]  In this area, burials continued for the next three centuries, but only one grave, that of a woman (grave 203), “showed Scandinavian traits.”[33]  Buried a generation after the other ‘Scandinavian’ burials, she was aged c.45 and interred with an iron knife and a strike-a-light.[34]  The existence of this female burial raises questions about the nature of the Viking presence in the early Danelaw.  If she was indeed a Scandinavian woman, possibly coming to England in the generation after the Great Army, were there more like her?  How can we know her origins?  The few objects in her grave seem inadequate to answer such questions.  Other methods are needed.

Probably the best evidence for pagan, or Viking, burials was found by the Biddles just to the west of the church when they rediscovered the mass-burial, in what might have originally been a mortuary chapel of Anglo-Saxon construction.  It appears that the building had been cut down to ground level and reused as a mound burial.  It was first discovered in the 17th Century and thanks to an interview in the early 18th Century, a description of the contents survives.  It is worth quoting at length:

…when clearing farther he found it to be a square enclosure of Fifteen Foot: It had been covered, but the Top was decayed and fallen in, being only supported by wooden Joyces.  In this he found a stone coffin, and with Difficulty removing the Cover, saw a ‘Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot’ long, and round it lay ‘One Hundred Humane Skeletons, with their Feet pointing to the Stone coffin.’  The Head of the great Skeleton he gave to Mr Bowers,…but it is lost; yet he says, that he remembers the Skull in his Father’s Closet, and that he had often heard his Father mention this Gigantick Corps, and thinks this Skull was in Proportion to a Body of the Stature.  The bottom of this dormitory was pav’d with broad flat Stones, and in the Wall was a Door-Case, with Steps to go down to it…[35]

When the mound was again opened in 1787, this central burial was gone and the bones were scattered in a heap.

When the Biddles excavated this mound in the 1980s, sc0203816ethey discovered the remains of at least 264 people.  97% of them were adults, mostly falling between the ages of 17 and 45, only 5% were younger and 3% older.[36]  Of the individuals that could be sexed, 82% were male or possibly male with only 18% female or possibly female.[37]  This is contrasted with the data from the four other cemeteries in the churchyard, which demonstrate a ratio of 63% male to 37% female.[38]  Due to the high percentage of fighting age men and the low percentage of women, children and elderly, the Biddles suggest that the mound may contain the remains of the dead of the Great Army. The lack of wounds suggests that they probably died of disease.

Comparing bone size and density between the mound burials and those of the other cemeteries, the male bones in the mound are more robust.  The male skeletons in the mound are also on average taller than those in the other cemeteries, with the exception of cemetery 3M, which are taller, and which surround the mound and are of a slightly later date, early 10th to 11th century.  The Biddles suggest that the remains in 3M may be Scandinavian as well.[39]  A comparison of cranial indices demonstrates similarities between the mound population and those in 3M.[40]

There is some evidence, though probably inconclusive, that there was a shift in the female population after the initial conquest of Repton by the Vikings.  Comparisons of bone size and density, suggests that the females in the mound had more in common with other Anglo-Saxon burials, suggesting that they were probably English and not Scandinavian.  Might some of these women have been slaves of the Great Army?  It is impossible to tell.  Measurements of the percentage of Preauricular sulcus suggests that the women in 3M have more in common with Viking Age women in Scandinavia than with the women in the other cemeteries at Repton, including those in the mound.[41]  This may suggest that after the occupation of Repton in 873-4, Viking settlers from Scandinavia moved into the area and brought their women with them.  DNA profiling, and isotope analysis of teeth, might help to answer, or at least shed more light on some of these questions, but that has yet to be applied to the bones of Repton.

Using coins found in the mound, along with radiocarbon dating, the Biddles argue that the data is consistent with a closing of the mound in 874, when the Great Army left Repton.[42]  This is based on the dating of 16 bones from the mound.  Half the bones dated to an earlier period, late 7th to early 8th century.  The Biddles contend that the rest of the evidence, the coins, “the condition of the bones…their physical character, and their taphonomy suggest…that the deposit is homogenous.”[43]  However, they suggest that some of them may have been remains of the royal Mercian house, “included with the Viking deposit, either because it had seemed fitting to do so, or because the Danish army wished to validate their possession of the site…”[44]  All of the bones were most likely moved to the mound at some point, from another location as there are almost no foot or hand bones found in the mound, which means they had been left buried or exposed long enough for the bones to become fully detached from one another.[45]

Ivar the Boneless?

Although the central burial in the mound had been either looted or so scattered that it could not be identified, the Biddles did find a handful of items that may have originally been a part of the find.  Possible items include: an early medieval axe of an identical type found in Fyrkat, Denmark, a sword fragment, “two large seaxes” and several smaller seaxes.  Also found were 5 silver pennies, “four of which were struck no earlier than c.872, and the fifth of which may belong to 873/4.”[46]  The Biddles argue that the man buried in the central position in the mound may have been Ivar the ‘Boneless’, one of the leaders of the Great Army.  The best evidence for this is all circumstantial, and based on the elaborate ritual surrounding the mound burial, the interment of over 200 men with him, rich objects, the labor involved in demolishing the original structure and re-flooring of the mound with red marl, offering pits surrounding the mound, and some evidence that human sacrifice may have accompanied the closing (four young people in a pit at the south west corner).

Along with the physical evidence are the historical texts, the Annals of Ulster, The Chronicle of Æthelweard, and Ragnar Lothbrok’s Saga.  The Biddles make an interesting and spirited case for identifying Ivar with the man in the mound, but in the end, it is a question that cannot be definitively answered, as none of the written sources specifically tell us where he was buried.  The Annals of Ulster only tell us that he came to Ireland in 871 and that he died, but not where he died or where he was buried.  Ragnar is the only one that mentions his elaborate burial somewhere in England, but because of its late date and literary nature, may be the most unreliable of the three sources.

Burials at Heathwood, Ingleby

Only 2.5 miles east, southeast of Repton is Heath Wood, a site excavated by Julian Richards in the 1990s.  In order to minimize the digression from the topic of Repton, I will only compare Richard’s finds and conclusions in light of the finds at Repton.  At Heath Wood, Richards uncovered 59 mound burials, all of them cremations.  Based on the typology of a number of artifacts, especially two sword blades, radio carbon dating of human bone and the pagan nature of the burial rite, Richards dates the site to the period of late9th or early 10th centuries, but argues for the earlier date, most likely the Great Army.[47]  He also suggests that the difference between the inhumation practices at Repton, and the cremations at Heath Wood, may reflect divisions in the Great Army during the winter of 873-4, leading to the split of forces in 875.

Richards points to the ad hoc make up of the Great Army, from disparate forces coming from different places and at different times.  Each one possibly bringing new burial practices along with them.  He also suggests that those buried at Repton may have preferred to legitimize their position by associating themselves with the Mercian royal house, choosing interment in the Mercian churchyard and mortuary chapel to do so, while the other group chose the pagan rite of cremation and burial in the landscape at Heath Wood.[48]  While this is an intriguing hypothesis—and may in fact be correct—too little is known about Viking burial practices, especially in England, to make solid conclusions about why one practice was followed only 2.5 miles from another, at what appears to be the same time period.  Both cremation and inhumation were practiced in Scandinavia, but we need more study there in order to better understand what may have been occurring in England.[49]

Future directions for analysis

I am unsure as to the future of the scholarship on this site.  The excavations concluded some 20 years ago and the site report has yet to be published.  New methods in analysis—especially isotope analysis of teeth, which can determine where an individual lived in childhood—could be applied, especially to the human remains to help determine the origin of those buried there.  DNA and isotope analysis might go a long way to an understanding of the identity of the bodies at Repton and Heath Wood. The preponderance of evidence, fortifications, weapons, burials, artifacts, coin dating, strongly suggest that the site was a Viking fortification built during the decade when the so-called Great Army was in England. The written sources back this up. As to the identification of the central burial as Ivar the Boneless, the evidence is inconclusive, but intriguing nonetheless. Whoever was buried there, they seem to have been important, and Ivar is as good a guess, or better, than any other.

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[1] The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, (Everyman Press, London, 1912), online at:, accessed 12/6/08, entry for 866 AD.  Henceforward referred to as ASC.
[2] Jesse Byock, Viking Age Iceland, (London: Penguin, 2001): 21-4.
[3] For a discussion of this problem see; Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age,  Woodbridge: Boydell, 1991, 201.
[4] ASC, 874 AD.
[5] Ibid, 875 AD.
[6] Biddle, M., and Kjølbye-Biddle, B., 2001, ‘Repton and the ‘great heathen army’, 873-4’, in Graham-Campbell, et al (eds), Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress, Nottingham and York, 21-30 August 1997. 45.  Henceforward referred to as GHA.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 46.
[9] H. Vassall, “Discovery of a Viking axe at Repton”, Antiquaries Journal  4, 1928, 270.
[10] Roesdahl, 1991, 120-3, 128-30.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Calculated w/1acre=4840sq yds for a total of 17,666 sq/yds = 132.9 yd2.  This means that each side of the fortification, if equal in length would be 132.9 yds long.  Multiplying this by 4 would equal 531.65 yds for the perimeter of the entire fortification.  This is multiplied by 3 to give us the figure in feet.
[13] Biddle, GHA, 66-7.
[14] John Haywood suggests that it could have been manned by “no more than 150”, calculating the ditch sections at 200 yds in length.  While it may have been possible to man the ditch perimeter with only 150, it would have been necessary to also guard the riverbank with a minimum force, as well as the ‘gate’ or doors of the church, as well as any windows.  See, John Haywood, Historical Atlas of the Vikings,  49.
[15] The Roman camp at Haltern, which held some 11,000 men was about 82 acres, which gives us a figure of approximately 36 sq/yds per man.
[16] Haywood,  49.
[17] I have been unable to reach either the Biddles or Haywood at this time.  I hope to do so in the near future.
[18] Crumlin Olin Pedersen, Five Viking Ships from Roskilde Fjord, 1978, 110.  The dimensions of ‘Skuldelev 2’ the largest of the ships was approximately 95 feet by 13 feet, with a rowing capacity of 50 men.  ‘Skuldelev 5’ was 57 feet long by 8.5 feet wide, with a rowing capacity of 24 men.  Calculating the rectangular area of these ships gives us a good number of how many could fit into the fortification at Repton.  It is likely that they Vikings had a variety of different sized ships.  This is accounted for in the range of possible numbers of rowers above.
[19] James Graham-Campbell, The Viking World, 1980, 49.
[20] “Nortmanni hoc cognoscentes Gandavum rediere suisque reparatis navibus terra marique iter facientes Mosam ingressi sunt et in Haslao sibi sedem firmant ad hiemandum”, from The Annals of St. Vaast, trans. Steve Bivans, forthcoming, entry for the year 881 AD.
[21] Bonnie Effros,“Dressing conservatively: women’s brooches as markers of ethnic     identity?”  Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900,  Ed. Leslie Brubaker, (Cambridge, 2004): 165-184.
[22] Biddle ‘Great Heathen Army’, 55.  This was of Petersen Type E.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Bigsby 1854, in Biddle, GHA, 57.
[25] Biddle, GHA, 57.
[26] Biddle, GHA, 60-61.
[27] Ibid, 61.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid. Also see Biddle, 1986b, ‘The Repton coin finds: archaeological and historical significance’, in M. Biddle., et al., ‘Coins of the Anglo-Saxon period from Repton, Derbyshire: II’, British Numismatic Journal, 56, 24-32.
[32] Biddle, “Repton Coin Finds”, 25.
[33] Biddle, GHA, 65.
[34] Biddle, GHA, 65.
[35] Sir Simon Degge of Derby, 1727-8, in Biddle, GHA, 67.
[36] Biddle, GHA, 74.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Biddle, GHA, 78.
[40] Ibid, 77.
[41] Biddle, GHA, 78.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid, 79.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Biddle, GHA, 68-9.
[47] Julian Richards, “Excavations at the Viking barrow Cemetery at Heath Wood, Ingleby”, Antiquaries Journal 84, 2004, 93.
[48] Ibid, 103-5.
[49] Ibid, 97-8.

Steve Bivans is a FearLess Life & Self-Publishing Coach, the author of the Amazon #1 Best Sellers, Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians,The End of Fear Itself, and the epic-length, self-help, sustainability tome, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, If you want to learn how write and self-publish a book to best-seller status, crush your limitations and Fears, and disrupt the status quo, contact Steve for a free consultation to see how he can help you change the world! CONTACT STEVE

Truck Jousting: Medieval Lance Test on Pig Flesh Video

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered just what the effect would be if I were to ram a lance into the chest of an enemy, from horseback, at about 15 to 20 mph. JoustingOk, you probably haven’t really given that much thought. I’m weird that way, I reckon. But if you clicked on this post, or stumbled across it somewhere, there must be a small part of you that’s just curious enough to compel you to read on. I hope so anyway.

The following video clip is from a larger documentary I put together a few years ago on the Knights Templar, for a college project. I’m no film-maker, so I’ll make no claims there, but what I do well, is history, and dreaming up sick things like ramming spears into the carcass of a pig from the back of a pickup truck.

Why truck jousting? you ask.

Well, the documentary was not a low budget film. It was essentially a NO budget one, so we didn’t have money for pretty much anything. That leads to innovation, as necessity always does. She’s a hard mother after all, but one that will teach you self reliance, if nothing else. So I was out at my friend, Keith’s house, in B.F.E., NC, somewhere between Swampville and the Pyramids of Giza, because I needed a rural backdrop for the weapons demonstrations that I wanted to film for the documentary. These days, Keith has two horses, as Murphy would dictate, but back then, he had an old Ford pickup truck, and some space in his front yard, where the horses now roam and graze. There was also several sturdy trees which came in handy when it was time to string up the pig, so we could mutilate him with various implements of destruction, including the lance. But there were no horses. So we had a dillemma.

How do you test the effectiveness of a medieval, war lance, if all you have are the feet and speed of two Southern, redneck boys, and no horse? I suppose we could have just run really fast at the pig and jammed it in, but that didn’t sound very scientific, though it did sound amusing, and I reckon it would have been. Keith called a friend of his who had a motorcycle, thinking that he could ride it past the pig and try to spear it while steering the bike. That also would have been amusing, especially since he probably would have wiped out as soon as he made contact with the pig, and the lance–stuck in the carcass–yanked him off the bike, or rolled it into the grass. Well, it would have been funny from MY standpoint anyway. But he couldn’t get hold of his friend, so we were stuck. We sat there a few minutes, both thinking so hard you could smell it, when he suggested, in jest really–and at this point, you should really be asking yourself, what could possibly be more ‘jest-like’ than suggesting running at, or riding a motorcycle at a pig with a lance under your arm–but nonetheless, he prefaced his suggestion with “This is kind of crazy,” and then proceeded to suggest that we put me in the back of his pickup truck, and he drive it past the pig. My first reaction, for some reason, was “That’s ridiculous,” which of course it is, but so were the other ideas, if not more so. So after a few seconds, I said, “Why the hell not? It will at least be funny!” So that’s what we did.

We set up my stationary camera behind the pig, to one side a bit, so I wouldn’t inadvertently spear it too, and then Mike–oh yeah, I forgot to introduce Mike Myles, our cameraman–climbed into the back of the truck with me to get a shot looking down the lance as we closed in on the pig. We did one dry run at the pig, where Mike shot down the length of the shaft, then he got out and set up to one side to get a shot of another dry run from a distance. Then we did the ‘wet’ run, if you will. For the first two runs, I aimed at the pig, but pulled the lance away at the last moment. On the third and final run, I balanced myself, took aim, and as Keith sped past the pig, I rammed it home. The results are little short of astonishing.

On the ‘science’:

This is not a scientific test, not by a long shot. First off, the lance and chain-mail are not made from medieval steel (see the sword post, where I talk about that in more depth). Secondly, I’m in the back of a modern pickup truck, which kind of undermines the ‘science,’ if you will. As another friend mine, James, pointed out recently, there is also a ‘mass’ issue involved, since mass times acceleration equals force, or something like that. It’s one of those geeky, Newtonian thingys. A truck weighs a bit more than a horse, so it will bring a higher punch when it hits something, or when a sweaty, Southern redneck, standing in the back of it, hits something with a spear traveling at 15 mph. I know this isn’t something that happens very often, but hey, I’m just trying to be scientific.

Anyway, here is a link to the video. It’s quite shocking. I usually tell my students–when I assault them with this video–that the most shocking thing might actually be the reaction of their teacher when he hits the ‘target.’

Truck Jousting: Medieval Lance Test on Pig Flesh Video

You can find the other tests on this blog site: sword and bow, or on my Youtube channel, as well as videos explaining my upcoming book publication, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, which will be on Kickstarter soon.


Steve Bivans is a FearLess Life & Self-Publishing Coach, the author of the Amazon #1 Best Sellers, Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians,The End of Fear Itself, and the epic-length, self-help, sustainability tome, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the Guide to Sustainable Shire Living, If you want to learn how write and self-publish a book to best-seller status, crush your limitations and Fears, and disrupt the status quo, contact Steve for a free consultation to see how he can help you change the world! CONTACT STEVE

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