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Legacy of the Vikings

By Elaine Treharne
Tracing the Vikings

Image of Lindisfarne Stone
Fierce raiders, depicted on the Lindisfarne Stone 
The impact of the Viking settlements in the Danelaw regions of Northumbria, the Five Boroughs (Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, Stamford), the south-eastern Midlands, and East Anglia can be traced, very often, through place names. Place names are usually chosen because of such things as geographical or topographical features, or because of the people who founded a village or burh (a fortified dwelling). Scandinavian settlements can easily be detected through the use of the suffix -by (meaning 'homestead' or 'village').

Examples are easy to find, with names such as Grimsby ('Grim's homestead'), Thurnby (either 'homestead near a thorn-bush' or 'Thyrne's village'), and Derby ('village near deer') still very common. Grimsby, much as it is today, was likely to be a place of trade and fishing. Thurnby and Derby were probably agricultural villages, where the Vikings made a living for themselves in their new land.

Other common Scandinavian place names are those ending in -thorpe (meaning 'a new village'), as in Scunthorpe (meaning 'Skuma's village'), or -thwaite (meaning 'a meadow', 'a piece of land'), as in Lothwaite ('clearing on a hill'). These settlements were probably established by families from other Viking villages, moving to create new centres for farming and trading.

'Using place names, then, historians and linguists are able to determine the spread of Viking settlements ...'

Other place names suggest not just a straightforward Viking settlement, but perhaps the intermingling of Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons, or the renaming of sites previously held by the English. Most of the place names beginning with sk-, for example, show Old Norse linguistic influence. Thus, Skeffington, meaning 'the dwelling of Sceaft's people' has a first element which is an Old English personal name, Sceaft, that was Scandinavianised when the settlers arrived. The ending part, -ton is from Old English -tun (meaning 'farming village'). It is possible that the farming settlers took over an Anglo-Saxon village, perhaps living on friendly terms with their English neighbours.

Using place names, then, historians and linguists are able to determine the spread of Viking settlements, finding that the further north one goes, the more obvious is the Scandinavian influence. The closer one gets to the Anglo-Saxon parts of the country, the less the Scandinavian impact.

Published: 2004-11-17



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