The Danelaw – population, culture and heritage

It is impossible to know how many Scandinavians settled in The Danelaw. It may have been many thousands. Or it may have been just a few thousands.

However many Scandinavians settled here, they must have had a lot of influence and power, if the language effects are anything to go by. As well as affecting the names of so many places and landscape features they had a powerful effect on the everyday language of the people.

The Vikings spoke Old Norse which, like the Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons, had a Germanic origin. A few hundred years before the Viking Age, the two languages must have been very similar, probably dialects of the same language. By the Viking Age they had developed into two distinct languages, though still similar in many ways.

In The Danelaw, where the Vikings settled and started to merge with the English, there had to quickly develop a form of language which everyone could speak and understand, so that people could communicate with each other easily in matters of work, the home, trade and administration. If, for instance, an Old Norse speaker wished to discuss the sale of a horse with an Old English speaker, they would both understand that a horse sale was involved because the languages were similar enough for this. But because Old Norse and Old English had different rules of grammar, it could lead to confusion between it being one horse, or more than one horse, that was for sale! Many everyday incidents like this made it necessary for both languages to come together and be simplified so that there was no risk of confusion.

Vikings affected the language spoken throughout England and, today, we can identify many words which were ‘loaned’ to English by Old Norse, such as ‘knife’, ‘take’, ‘window’, ‘egg’, ‘ill’ and ‘die’. There are probably about six hundred more ‘loan’ words of this kind in modern Standard English.

But in The Danelaw the effect was much more powerful, going beyond ‘loan’ words to the creation of new Anglo-Norse dialects which were, in many ways, more Scandinavian than English. The ‘traditional’ dialects, amongst others, of Yorkshire, Lancashire, The Lake District and Lincolnshire emerged from this process.

In Yorkshire, the Viking rulers divided the county into three separate units for ease of administration. The Old Norse word for a third of something (thrithjungr) became modified to ‘riding’, giving rise to the East Riding, North Riding and West Riding of Yorkshire. These administrative Ridings existed right from the Viking age until 1974, when they were dismantled by the UK Boundary Commission. Since 1974, Yorkshire people conscious of their heritage has pressed for the restoration of the ancient Viking Ridings. At the sub-shire county level, the Viking administrative unit was the ‘vapnatak’, which is expressed as ‘wapentake’ today. At the periodic meetings of the wapentake (a kind of local parliament and court) we believe the freemen vote by a show of weapons, which were then counted. The wapentakes still exist today for certain administrative purposes and they can be found marked on local maps.

English and Scandinavian styles of art, craft and ornament also merged. As the Vikings became Christian, the combined Anglo-Norse style of decoration can be found on many stone crosses and ‘hog-back’ shaped gravestones in The Danelaw. There are the remains of more than 500 such gravestones and crosses in Yorkshire alone. Some are purely Christian in the subject matter of their sculpture. Others depict scenes from old Norse mythology, while some seem to combine both traditions.

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