The furious and threatening ocean

Published 24th Jul 2007

While the Sea Stallion from Glendalough is making its way west from Norway, we can speculate as to what people in the 11th century – in a period without the magnetic compass and sea charts – thought about the North Sea and the passage north around Scotland. 

Nowadays we make use of a kind of scientific navigation that has been developed in the course of the most recent centuries. A seaman or a yachting enthusiast who has been trained in navigation can with the help of instruments, sea charts and works of reference sail safe and sound to any part of the world. 

In the Viking Age, however, navigation was based to a very high degree on experience. Comparisons were made between current observations and impressions with the experience that had been gained on earlier voyages in the same area. If none of the people on board had made this journey before, they had to make do with the oral instructions for the voyage that they could obtain from a man of experience who had experienced the voyage himself. The Scandinavians who reached the Irish Sea were not just fortunate. They had also mastered the navigational skills of the time. This specialist knowledge had not been written down, however. Written accounts of the Nordic seafarers’ geographical knowledge are only to be found in brief runic inscriptions, surviving scaldic verses and the secondhand information that Christian authors had chosen to write down in Latin. 

An author interested in geography who was a contemporary of the Sea Stallion’s archaeological model – the Skuldelev 2 shipfind – was Adam of Bremen. He was born about 1040 and probably died in the 1080s. In the last of his four books on the history of the Archbishops of Hamburg he describes the area covered by the Nordic mission: Descriptio insularum Aquilonis ‘Description of the islands of the North’. 

The North Sea and surrounding Atlantic Ocean he describes as follows:

The western Ocean would seem, however, to be that which the Romans call the British Sea. It is extremely wide, terrifying and dangerous and encloses in the west Britain, which is today called England. In the south it reaches the Frisians and that part of Saxony that belongs to our diocese, Hamburg. In the east it has the Danes, the mouth of the Baltic Sea and the Norwegians, who live on the other side of Denmark. In the north, however, this sea glides past the islands of Orkney and encircles in its endless extent the whole world, for it has to the west Hibernia, the fatherland of the Scots, which today is called Ireland, and to the right the mountains of Norway and even further out the islands of Iceland and Greenland. The Ocean ends at the place called The foggy sea” (Adam IV.10). 

Adam had also heard and read something about the Orkney islands (Orchadae):

“Opposite Norway there lie many considerable islands, almost all of which belong to Norway, and we should therefore not ignore them, since they belong under the diocese of Hamburg [...] The Orkney islands, which thus lie between Norway, Britain and Ireland, defy in this way the furious and threatening Ocean. It is said that from these islands one can sail to Trondheim in Norway in a single day. It is also claimed that from the Orkney islands the distance is of equal length whether one steers for England or sails to Scotland” (Adam IV.35). 

The times indicated for sailing to Trondheim and England would seem to be much too optimistic. The distance between the Orkney islands and Trondheim is approximately 485 sea miles. The best results achieved by the Sea Stallion are so far about 170 sea miles per day. 

The tide is a phenomenon that takes the breath away from Adam’s curiosity:

“There are also other things that it would be suitable to relate here with respect to the tide of the sea and its rising, which takes place twice a day. This phenomenon appears so strange to everyone that even natural scientists who investigate the secrets of nature do not really know how it is to be explained [...]. Therefore I find it best to say with the prophet [cited from the Psalms] ‘Lord how great are thy deeds! ‘Everything has thou created in thy wisdom’ [...] ‘Thou rulest over the mighty ocean’ and ‘Thy judgements are like the great deep’ and that is why they can with good reason be called incomprehensible”. (Adam IV.44). 

At the very end of the book, however, Adam breaks out in rejoicing over the great progress that has been made in the northern mission fields:

“Just look at the wild Danes, Norwegians or Swedes, who – in the words of St Gregory – before knew nothing but how to grind their teeth in a barbaric manner while now they can already sing Halleluja to the praise of God’. Look at these pirate folk who once ravaged the lands of Gaul and Germany, as we have read, but now they are content with their own region and say with the apostle: ‘We do not have a resting place here but we desire to have one in the future’. Just look at the cruel land [...] which has now abandoned its native wildness and allows the preachers of truth to come to it in throngs, and they tear down the altars of the idols and build far and wide churches in their place, and the name of Christ is praised by all in fellowship” (Adam IV. 44). With these words Adam of Bremen testified to the close of the Viking Age. These lines were written in about 1075, at almost the same time as the Irish longship was sunk in Roskilde Fjord near to the village of Skuldelev. Although the Nordic peoples have long since quietened down, however, the sea is still as untamed today as it was then. 

(Translations based on Allan A. Lund 1978 and Carsten L. Henrichsen 1930) 

Created by Anton Englert, maritime archaeologist, curator at the Viking Ship Museum