‘What’s he saying now?’ asked my husband in a provoking manner when an actor read out a bit of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on one of those excellent television programmes by Michael Wood about King Alfred. Very good the Old English sounded — a little like the Danish in The Killing. There were subtitles for those whose focus went further than their whisky glass.
Despite a good deal of Viking smiting, the word Viking was not heard. It is a historian’s word, not used in English until as late as 1840. In Alfred’s day they might be called Danish and in The Battle of Maldon (about an encounter we lost in 991), they are referred to as æschere, an ‘ash-army’, from the ash-wood of their boats. Oddly, there is a man called Æschere in Beowulf, hundreds of years earlier, though perhaps his name, ‘Ash-army’ too, refers to the ash-wood shaft of a spear. But the most ordinary name for Vikings among the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers was heathen. That was their distinguishing feature.
Heathen, in the Old English translation of the Bible, means the gentiles — those who weren’t Jews. A traditional explanation for the original use of heathen is that it paralleled pagani. In fourth-century Latin, pagani were dwellers in the country, and so might be expected not yet to have become Christians. Likewise the heathen, as dwellers in the heath. This etymology for pagani has long been questioned. In late Latin, paganus was ordinarily a ‘civilian’ (not a soldier) — so perhaps pagani were outside the milites Christi, the soldiers of Christ. Or perhaps they were rustic in the sense of being outside the City of God.
In any case, Anglo-Saxon use of heathen followed that of their Continental cousins, the Goths. In the fourth century, the Goths’ bishop, Ulfilas (‘Wolfling’) had made his own Gothic translation, in which the Syrophenician woman in Mark 7:26 is called haithno. That looks like heathen, but the ingenious Norwegian philologist, Sophus Bugge (1833-1907), had a notion that Ulfilas borrowed the word haithno from the Armenian version of the Gospels. And the Armenians had simply borrowed their own word from the Greek ethnos. So the heathen Vikings were ethnics too, of a particularly troublesome kind.
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