Feature Image: Suffolk Landscape. Image Credit: Niklas Weiss on Unsplash

What’s in a Name?

Mapping out Viking Place-names in East Anglia

Discover what the Scandinavian-influenced place names of East Anglia can reveal about Viking migration in the region with this blog, in which David Boulton charts out his course from his fascination with cartography as a child, to studying Viking settlement in his homeland of East Anglia.

By David Boulton, author of Viking Migration and Settlement in East Anglia | 4 min read
Originally appeared on the Oxbow Books’ Blog

An Early Fascination

I’ve always been fascinated by both historical maps and early medieval history ever since as a little boy I discovered a dusty and tattered copy of Ramsey Muir’s School Atlas of History in a long-forgotten family trunk abandoned in my parent’s coal shed. I pored with wonderment over its colorful maps charting the migrations of exotic-sounding barbarian tribes such as the Visigoths and Ostrogoths – and more familiar ones like the Vikings.

This abiding interest led to a degree in history, after which I joined the family firm involved in the production of educational films. One of these was about England in the Middle Ages, which required several sequences of animated historical maps and diagrams. I enjoyed planning and devising these, but it was a laborious and time-consuming process in the early 1980s firstly to create the maps by hand (they were painstakingly prepared by my graphic-designer sister Anne) and then film them using 16mm stop-frame animation. Just one little mistake and you had to go back to the beginning and start again…

New Discoveries, Old Locations

So many years later, after returning to the academic study of history at university, it was an exhilarating experience to discover GIS mapping – enabling maps to be built up layer by layer on a computer screen, adding further features incrementally to your heart’s content. It has opened up wonderful new possibilities for the exploration of hitherto hidden areas of early medieval history, such as the settlement of Vikings in East Anglia – which I was delighted to exploit in my PhD and develop further in the preparation of this book.

In this year [880] the [Viking] army went from Cirencester into East Anglia, and settled there and shared out the land.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

This tantalisingly terse sentence is the only direct historical reference to Viking settlement in East Anglia. It has encouraged generations of historians to regard the Great Army’s occupation in the late 9th century as the primary event in the Viking settlement of the region and formation of its Scandinavian-influenced place-names, overlooking any possible migration from Scandinavia. But increasingly over the past few years, conflicting forms of evidence from other sources have emerged or have been re-evaluated, seriously questioning the traditional assumptions.

So I have explored several of these factors in my academic work, which are outlined below and tell quite a different story.

Unique Place-names

The Scandinavian-influenced place-names of East Anglia have until now received little attention in the academic study of Viking settlement. My book provides the first comprehensive analysis of them, showing patterns of place-name formation which differ significantly from some of the previously accepted, orthodox interpretations of how Scandinavian-influenced place-names (especially those containing the bý and thorp elements, and the ‘Grimston-hybrids’) came into being in the Danelaw.

Contextualizing Landscapes

Local landscape settings of bý-names in East and West Flegg. Image Credit: David Boulton

The geographical and archaeological contexts of the settlements in East Anglia bearing Scandinavian-influenced place-names are crucial to our understanding of them, but they have not been studied before.

My use of GIS-generated maps has made it possible for the first time to display and compare the local landscape settings of these place-names, exploring their underlying terrain, geology and soil characteristics, proximity to water and other resources. This analysis shows how Viking settlement was influenced by changes in rural society and agriculture which were then already occurring in East Anglia, such as the late Anglo-Saxon expansion of arable farming and the concomitant recolonization of the inland clay plateau.

Several different phases and patterns of Viking settlement became apparent that had clearly resulted from more than just a short-lived ‘sharing out of the land’ in the late ninth century.

The Archaeology

Superficial and bedrock geology of East Anglia, plus Scandinavian-influenced place-names
Image Credit: David Boulton, with the permission of the British Geological Society

Throughout the 20th century, much of the traditional archaeological material that might have provided evidence of Viking settlement (such as burials and buildings) remained sparse and inconclusive, and tended to confirm the orthodox view that there was little immigration of settlers direct from Scandinavia.

But the recent discovery by metal-detectorists of abundant Scandinavian metalwork and jewelry in many parts of East Anglia have transformed our understanding of Viking settlement, enabling dramatic new interpretations.

Widespread Migration

Indicators of the extent of Scandinavian influence. Image Credit: David Boulton

For many years, the possibility of a migration of settlers from Scandinavia during the Viking period was dismissed by historians and archaeologists – a victim of the ever-changing fashions in archaeological theory, but compounded also by the lack of material evidence. But this all changed with the discovery of the abundant Scandinavian metalwork and jewellery, which made a substantial migration of settlers from Scandinavia a feasible proposition after all. Furthermore, GIS mapping has revealed quite a close correlation between the find-spots of Scandinavian jewellery to the south of Norwich and a cluster of Scandinavian place-names located in the same area.

This, together with detailed analysis of other factors as outlined above, have enabled me to propose in my book a hypothetical model for the formation of the Scandinavian-influenced place-names in East Anglia which explores differing patterns and phases of Viking settlement in the region and the possible pathways of migration that preceded them.

After a lifetime’s enjoyment of perusing historical maps and discovering medieval history, it has been a rewarding experience to combine both interests and offer my own exploration of a significant, but long-overlooked episode of East Anglia’s history.

Little did I know as a young boy in the coal shed how my future life would ‘map out’, eventually charting the migration of those Vikings in my own familiar homeland of East Anglia.


Further Reading

Viking Migration and Settlement in East Anglia is available now from Casemate Academic.

Viking Migration and Settlement in East Anglia

The Place-Name Evidence

David Boulton

Reassesses the traditional interpretations of how Scandinavian place-names in England came into being and offers a new model of place-name formation that incorporates the hypothesis of a substantial migration of settlers from Scandinavia.

$80.00

9781914427251

208 Pages