Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stormy seas, a scribe's comfort

The Vikings were a feared and ferocious warrior people. Ireland and Europe in general endured their bloody raids and wars for centuries. In France the Franks handed over a sizeable slice of their kingdom to these mighty “men from the north”, which they named Normandy. The Irish were less generous. Irish scribes wrote scathingly of these gentiles from the north (which is slightly ironic since they were gentiles themselves!). We are told of the Irish coast filled with “countless sea-vomitings of ships” loaded with Vikings and Pirates. The annals repeatedly record churches burned to the ground, manuscripts and shrines destroyed and the slaughter of Christians by these ‘gentile hoards’.

To the Irish scribe, these Nordmanni represented the forces of darkness. Illiterate, pagan, and savage. No monastery or church was safe. The wealthier monastic settlements like Clonmacnoise, Durrow and Armagh were frequently raided. Even the desolate rock of Sceilig Mhichíl, off the Kerry coast, was raided in 823. The Annals of Inisfallen record that the Vikings didn’t find anything worth taking just an old decrepit hermit called Étgal. They carried him off and left him to starve to death in captivity.

Around the year 800 an anxious Irish scribe was staying up late one night busy copying a Latin grammar book. Viking raids were an ever present threat, but this night in particular our scribe paused his copying and penned a small poem in the upper margin of his manuscript (pictured above). As he listened to the howling wind outside he smiled and began to write “Is acher in gáeth innocht”, ‘the wind is fierce tonight!’ The seas were rough, too rough for the dreaded Viking long-boats. He could rest easy tonight.

The wind is fierce tonight
It ruffles the ocean’s fair mane
I do not fear the wild warriors of Norway
Sailing on a quiet sea!

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