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The permeating presence of practices: Northwest English and Manx ecclesiastical sites with Viking-Age furnished burials and sculpture

Danica Ramsey-Brimberg

Abstract: In many sites featuring furnished graves in churchyards, sculpture is also present with motifs and iconography associated with or partially based on styles originating in Scandinavia and the British Isles. Pervading use of this influence, whether consciously or unconsciously, appears to have had a wide-ranging impact, manifesting itself in two different forms and highlighting the complexities of societies amalgamated from Britain and its neighbours. Various ideas were developed and observed due to learned practices, adopted traditions, and/or simply aesthetics. The Isle of Man and northwest England contain examples of these phenomena in differing degrees of expression occurring at numerous ecclesiastical sites of varying sizes and purposes. The active relationship between the individuals who made these choices and the clerics of the Church would have played an important role, influencing the decisions and highlighting expressions of power and status on both sides. This discussion hopes to serve as a preliminary means with which to study long-term settlement as well as the underlying motivations with which these forms of expression were used to cement individual and collective statuses within local communities and regions among individuals from Britain and its neighbours.

The Viking Age diaspora is known to have been a period of not just exploration and settlement, but of interaction between different peoples, objects, ideas, and practices. Individuals first raided and then settled Britain and its neighbours, adding further to the diversity already present. Physical manifestations of this can be seen in relation to memorialisation, specifically burials and sculpture; the kin of the deceased drew upon practices from different traditions. These existed on a spectrum. Some individuals maintained practices and ideas more in line with those found in Scandinavia, while others embraced more local, Christian practices and ideas. Many fell somewhere between the two. The process of Christianisation was a longer and more in-depth process than even that of conversion, and the extent and rate to which either occurred is varied and abstruse (even if certain events like baptism have been recorded).1 The physical record of burials may be used to augment our knowledge of the laity and the clergy during the Viking Age. Perhaps the best form of expression of this is funerary monuments, specifically furnished graves, and decorated sculpture, within or near ecclesiastical grounds. Often studied separately even within the same work, these physical manifestations of power, status, and memory are closely linked and should be studied in tandem to shed further light on Britain and its neighbours.

Before continuing, a few key terms must be clarified, as they may differ from those given elsewhere in this book. The first is ‘Viking Age’, which is used here as a descriptor that embodies characteristics associated with the time period, especially as related to the area now known as Scandinavia. Viking Age characteristics outside of Scandinavia were the result of the homogenisation of the various practices and beliefs of transplanted individuals, although this does not preclude diversity.2 ‘Scandinavian’ will also be used to describe an individual or characteristic originating from or influenced by the culture within the area of modern-day Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.3 This term remains applicable when describing the people and the artefacts as a homogenisation of their former culture, which may have occurred when transplanted individuals amalgamated together, albeit not excluding multiplicity. ‘Manx’ and ‘English’ will be used as broad, cultural descriptors, which embodies the pre-existing, Christian characteristics from their respective areas, specifically in this case around the burial, cemetery, and church. ‘Manx-Scandinavian’ and ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ will be used for both burials and sculpture utilising aspects derived locally and from Scandinavia. Although they may date to the Viking Age, the sculpture and the burials are not wholly Scandinavian, containing Manx and/or English aspects, as well as Scottish, Irish, and broadly Irish Sea.5 These words stress the complexities of navigating past identities, which were multifaceted, complex, and often manipulated to achieve a specific purpose. An elastic form is necessary to encompass the various internal and external influences that led to different forms of expression.

Sculpture and graves need to be reviewed together in the context of their respective sites and geographic areas, as well as the larger funerary monument record. Analysing the sculpture and the furnished burials is critical to early medieval studies, as together they shed light on long-term settlement, as well as the attempts to cement individual and collective statuses to achieve power and status in local communities and regions. Previous scholars have briefly touched upon their relationship, but an in-depth analysis was beyond their respective scopes.6 Both types of commemorations would have required negotiations between the clergy and the laity for approval in terms of location, construction, and materials. With these individuals having the funds to commission these works and to perhaps financially contribute to the ecclesiastical sites, the clergy may have been willing to accommodate different aspects of memorialisation in exchange.' A mutual benefit would have been created. The limited evidence within the historical records from the Danelaw alludes to this close relationship between the laity and the clergy in the tenth century.8 The ambiguity of ecclesiastical and lay laws as well as documentation and archaeological evidence reveal that furnishing or constructing burials in a certain way was not as prohibitive as previous research has indicated in the past.9 The same can be seen with sculpture, which has led to their hybridisation as Manx-Scandinavian or Anglo-Scandinavian. Burials and sculpture highlight the malleability and ambiguity of identity of the deceased, their kin, and even the clergy. Actively utilising forms and styles already present in the area, they were able to use these mediums to solidify their power and status amid a constantly changing society.10 Funerary monuments were potent tools to be used to build these new, amalgamated social environments, and individuals used them to their advantage.

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