A battle in 952

Vikings

Those of you who are familiar with Kevin Halloran’s articles in academic journals will know that he has a special interest in the political history of 10th century Britain. Kevin recently sent me his thoughts on a little-known event from this period: a Viking victory dated by the Irish annalists to the middle years of the century. In giving a summary of his views Kevin produced a useful and original piece of research which I think deserves a wider audience. As it relates to Scotland I’m publishing it here as a blogpost, with Kevin’s permission.

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A Small Matter Of Identity
by Kevin Halloran

In his excellent overview of early Scottish history, From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070, Alex Woolf considered the identity of the victors in an obscure battle of 952. The event is mentioned in two Irish annals: the Annals of Ulster 952.2 and the Annals of the Four Masters 950.14. The entries are fairly similar, recording that ‘The foreigners won a battle over the men of Alba, the Britons and the Saxons.’ One question at issue is: were the ‘foreigners’ led by the Eric, son of Harold, who took over as king of York that year, by the ousted Amlaib Cuaran and his Irish-based Vikings or were they Vikings from elsewhere?

In both annals the Irish text uses the word Gallaibh to mean ‘foreigners’ and it is evident from many entries in both annals of the period that this term was used to describe the Vikings based in Ireland. The very fact that the event was mentioned in two separate Irish annals suggests strongly in my view that the victors were from Ireland. There is further support for this view. The AFM 940.9 records a battle between Irish-based Vikings and other ‘foreigners who came across the sea’ and is the only entry from either source in the period that refers to Vikings definitely based other than in Ireland. The Irish Vikings are as usual described as G(h)allaibh but their enemies are not, instead being called Goill dar muir. The annal’s use of Goill cannot be simply to differentiate between two groups of Vikings as there are many entries that depict conflicts between Irish Vikings where both sides are described as Gallaibh.

The annals give no context for the battle of 952. The fact that Alba, the Britons (presumably of Strathclyde) and the Saxons (again, presumably of Bamburgh) were in alliance suggests, as Woolf argues, that this was a north British event and also in my view that the alliance was a defensive one as I know of no precedent for such a coalition invading southern Northumbria or elsewhere. Four possibilities come to mind, although there may well be others. Firstly, that Amlaib left York to attack Lothian or Bernicia and Eric usurped the throne in his absence. Secondly, that the ousted Amlaib fought the battle after being driven from York. Thirdly, that supporters of Amlaib fought the battle en route to an attempt at reinstating him in York. Fourthly, that this was simply an unconnected large-scale raid by Irish Vikings into lowland Scotland.

The annal entries give no hint as to the cause of the conflict and, so far as we can tell, there appear to have been no significant or lasting political consequences. There are, however, two events in Ireland prior to the battle that might bear some relation to it. The first took place in 951 and is recorded in AU951.3, AFM949.10, Chronicon Scotorum CS951 and the Annals of Clonmacnoise under 946=951. These all record major raids against Irish churches by the Dublin Vikings under Guthfrith, son of Sihtric, in which 3000 captives and a great spoil of cattle, horses, gold and silver were taken. Similar attacks in Ireland preceded other Viking incursions into Britain and may well have provided the necessary finance for an expedition.

The other event occurred over the winter of 951-2 and is recorded in three of the annals, AU951.7, AFM949.15 and AClon 947=952. The first two refer to an outbreak of leprosy and dysentery among the Vikings of Dublin while the third states that ‘The pox ran over all Ireland’ and describes it as ‘Dolor Gentilium’. It is possible then that the Vikings abandoned Dublin temporarily and crossed over to Britain to escape the outbreak of disease.

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Kevin examines other aspects of the 10th century in these articles:

‘The Brunanburh campaign: a reappraisal’ Scottish Historical Review 84 (2005), 133-48
‘The identity of Etbrunnanwerc’ Scottish Historical Review 89 (2010), 248-53
‘Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956′ Welsh History Review 25 (2011), 297-313

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17 comments on “A battle in 952

  1. What is the word they used for pox? Delor Gentilium makes it sound more like they brought it with them or were at least the primary victims. If a pox ran all over Ireland but was still called Delor Gentilium (Misery of the Gentiles) they were clearly some kind of focus for it.

  2. Regrettably the ‘pox’ reference is only in the AClon which now only exists in a seventeenth-century English translation.
    For clarification I should also add that Amlaib is Woolf’s preferred rendering and he might be more familiar to some readers as Anlaf Cuaran or Anlaf Sihtricson. Presumably, therefore, the Guthfrith mentioned was a brother. It is of course possible that Anlaf was under political or military pressure in York for some considerable time before his ousting in 952 and that the 951 raids on Irish churches were intended to provide support to bolster his position.

    • Tim says:

      I have a tendency to lag behind current renderings of personal names. I’ve only recently started using ‘Anlaf’ instead of ‘Olaf’ and might never get as far as ‘Amlaib’.

      Our old friend Cuaran does seem to have fluctuated between periods of popularity and unpopularity at York. I wonder if his plundering of Irish churches came back to haunt him in later life, the weight of guilt eventually leading him to choose penitence on Iona in his twilight years.

      • I intend to stick with ‘Anlaf’. Amlaib seems to derive from Irish annals but the ASC uses ‘Anlaf’ and most English Latin sources use ‘Anlafus’ or similar. Not sure where ‘Olaf’ sprang from – Egil’s Saga perhaps?

  3. Michelle, I’ve checked the references to “leprosy” and “Dysentery” in the original Irish and both AU and AFM refer to “Clamtrusca mor” and “rith fola”. I believe the first may suggest pustules on the skin and I’m not sure if it supports the leprosy translation given in the published annal?

  4. Michelle, ‘rith fola’ seems reasonably straightforward as ‘running blood’ or ‘bloody flux’. ‘Clamtrusca’ was considered by W.P.MacArthur, ‘The identification of some pestilences recorded in the Irish annals’, Irish Historical Studies, Vol.6, No.23 (March 1949), pp.169-88 – which I haven’t read but which you’re probably familiar with.
    Two points spring to mind: was the ‘rith fola’ a symptom of the ‘clamtrusca’ or a separate disease and, given the links between Dublin and York, did the outbreak spread to England?

    • Ok, I reread MacArthur and he associates this event with smallpox. He thinks that Delor Gentilium means that it started with the Vikings, comparing it to the Spanish Flu. The problem there is that the Spanish flu didn’t start in Spain. Writing in 1949 the Spanish flu in 1918-1920 was the pestilence of his time. Diarrhea and vomiting can also occur with smallpox. Usually more vomiting than diarrhea.

      He doesn’t really address any dysentery with it. There is no reason why dysentery can’t occur during a smallpox epidemic.

      • Thanks for the clarification, Michelle. It’s frustrating that the AClon refers to an Ireland-wide ‘pox’ while the other annals refer specifically to the Vikings in Dublin. I had thought to compare mortality rates (non-violent) of personages listed in AU and AFM for years between 945 and 955 to see if any increase showed up in 951-2 but got sidetracked. Oh, for parish registers!
        A couple of thoughts. If the Vikings were planning a large excursion against Britain then Dublin may have been crowded and may also had some or all of the 3000 captives taken, presumably to sell on as slaves. Any idea where slaves went from Ireland and were they transported by the Vikings, say, to the Mediterranean, or did slave ships visit Dublin?

      • Michelle, Tim, a possible breakthrough on the chronology of the outbreak of the disease. I have cross-referenced the various annal entries to other known events in the annals, notably the deaths of Constantine of Alba and one Feardough O’Mooney.
        This shows that these deaths occurred AFTER the report of disease among the Vikings of Dublin but BEFORE the AClon reference to the ‘pox’ affecting all Ireland. This suggests that the disease may have spread from Dublin to the rest of Ireland. ‘Dolor Gentilium’, ie the misery of the Gentiles may thus have been named because the Vikings in Dublin were seen as the originators of the outbreak. Interesting at least.

        • The outbreak is also referred to as ‘great lues’. Specifically syphilis but generically ‘a plague’. The bloody diarreah and the likely circumstances in Dublin in late 951 lead me to think we may not be talking about smallpox but Typhus.

        • I don’t know that the dates in the annals are specific enough to say one thing happened before another in close proximity. It is likely that an epidemic of a disease like smallpox could start in one area like Dublin and then spread very widely, even to all of Britain and Ireland. Smallpox is extremely contagious. The higher the population density for any reason the greater the ‘misery’, be it for an army or a slave market.

          • Michelle, you’re right on typhus – first noted in Europe c.15th century. I take your point on chronology of the annals but have to say having used them for many years and cross-referenced with ASC, Annales Cambraie etc, I find the order of events almost always accurate (with some notable exceptions!). In this instance the annal entries in my opinion support what we’d expect and also suggest that the Irish naming of the outbreak as ‘Dolor Gentilium’ was accurate. I see no reason to throw out what little evidence we have pointing to an outbreak in Dublin then spreading throughout Ireland.

          • Tim,
            Michelle makes an interesting point regarding the order of entries in Irish annals. Interestingly, I deal with this very aspect in my forthcoming SHR paper. Also, as you know, I’m working up a tabulated cross-reference of all Irish, Welsh and English annals and chronicles in the period 920-960 and perhaps you might in due course put up a precis of the findings? That is, of course, if I ever get the thing finished!

            • Tim says:

              Kevin,
              Yes, it would be useful to have your chronological table here at Senchus. I should really start the ball rolling by posting my own 10th century ‘tale of years’ as mooted some weeks ago in another thread.

  5. esmeraldamac says:

    Lots of stuff I didn’t know there that I need to read more about! And thank you for the links – I shall be looking for those.

  6. […] Tim Clarkson of Senchus hosts a post by Kevin Halloran on a Viking battle in southern Scotland in 952. […]

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