Introduction – A Day Out in Paris in 868 AD
Sometimes light can be shed on the history of wine in the most obscure places and in seemingly the most innocuous of ways. Such is the case with The Annals of St Bertin, or Annales Bertiniani, to give it its proper Latin name. These annals were found many years ago in the Abbey of Saint Bertin in Saint-Omer in north-eastern France near Calais. They were most likely compiled in the late ninth or tenth century by a French scribe or monk as a continuation of the Royal Frankish Annals which chart the history of the French region between 741 and 829. The Annals of St Bertin pick up the story from 830 and continue down to 882.
Now under the year 865 there is a revelatory entry in the Annals. Here the unknown author states that a band of Vikings, or as they were known in France at the time, the Normant or Nordmannus (i.e. Northmen), who were settled at Pitres on the banks of the River Seine near modern-day Rouen, sailed up the Seine to attack the city of Paris. Their objective was relatively clear. As the Annals state, “those Northmen dispatched about two-hundred of their number to Paris to get wine.”
The Norse/Viking Raids, Expansion and Settlements
Ultimately the Viking raid on the French city was unsuccessful, but the description in the Annals of St Bertin is revelatory all the same. Typically the view of the Vikings is of a beer and mead-drinking culture, while their raids are viewed as being for the purposes of acquiring gold, silver and slaves. Yet here we have a statement about how some of the Northmen who were beginning to settle in northern France were primarily interested in acquiring wine. They were not alone in this endeavour and research over the last several decades has revealed that wine was central to the Viking raids and trade which occurred between the ninth and eleventh centuries.
Who were the Vikings?
The Vikings must be one of the most misunderstood peoples in European history. For starters the name is applied as a catch all term for the people of Scandinavia broadly, but there were clear cultural and social differences between people who hailed from Lowland Sweden and Jutland in Denmark to the people of the remote parts of northern Norway. Indeed contemporaries recognised these distinctions and used terms like Danes and Swedes to refer to the Norse people.
A statue of Leif Eriksson, discover of Vinland, from Duluth, Minnesota
The typical view of the Vikings is that these were warlike Pagans who suddenly burst onto the European scene at the end of the eighth century after their first recorded raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne on an island off the north-east coast of England. However, contrary to this popular notion of the Vikings suddenly bursting out of Scandinavia into regions like Britain which had never encountered them before, the people of Northern Europe had interacted extensively with Western Europe prior to the raid on Lindisfarne and other monasteries. If they hadn’t, how else would they have known that the monasteries were the places to target to acquire gold, silver and other riches?
With their longboats and war parties the Vikings were soon wreaking havoc across Western Europe, raiding all over Britain, Ireland, northern France and south to the Iberian Peninsula and even parts of North Africa. It wasn’t all raids though. Eventually, in the second half of the ninth century, large war parties began occupying territory in places like northern and eastern England and the lower parts of the River Seine Valley in northern France. As they did they settled down and turned to commerce, creating a trading empire which extended across Northern Europe and south to the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
The remnants today of some of the walls of Constantinople as they would have existed in Viking times. Such was the impregnability of the fortress that the Vikings of Eastern Euripe knew the city as Miklagaror, or the ‘Great Stronghold’.
Mead and the Vikings
If the Vikings are not usually discussed in terms of their wine consumption it is surely because they are conventionally understood to have consumed a staple of other alcoholic beverages. Beer was one of these, but the favourite beverage of the Norse peoples in the ninth and tenth centuries was mead.
Mead is made from fermented honey and water, while other ingredients such as spices, fruit, grains and hops are often added to it to give it a more nuanced flavour. It is effectively a type of honey wine. Like grape wine, it can vary very considerably in terms of its alcohol content, with some mead being as low as 4% ABV, while others are as strong as 20% ABV. The ingredients for mead are plentiful in Northern Europe and there are many ancient Greek and Roman authors who mentioned the beverage as being widely consumed by the people they perceived as barbarians on the edges of the known world.
Mead was central to Viking culture. Not only was it consumed widely in the longhouses of the Norse people across Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but it also featured in their religion, mythology and legends. For instance, in Norse mythology Ksavir, a semi-divine being born of two groups of the gods, was said to have been killed by the dwarves Fjalar and Galar, who the drained Ksavir’s blood off before mixing it with honey to make the fabled Mead of Poetry.
This mythical beverage was said to imbue anyone who drank it with the power of being a skald or ‘scholar’. Essentially the myth is a metaphor for alcohol being involved in poetic inspiration. Many other elements of Norse myth attest to the centrality of honey wine to their culture.
Wine and the Danes and Norsemen in Western Europe
Yet for all that mead was intrinsic to the Norse diet, in the course of their voyages far and wide across Europe in the ninth century they began to develop an appetite for grape wine. This was as a result of Viking raids on and settlement in certain areas where viticulture was practiced extensively, notably France and the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed there is a specific time period to which we can trace the origins of Viking assaults on these regions. In 844 a Viking raid was launched against the city of Seville in southern Spain.
At the time this was controlled by the Arab Umayyad Emirate, but wine consumption was widespread within the Arab world in the ninth century despite the later prohibition thereupon. Just a year later the first of several sieges of Paris by the Vikings was initiated. Raids like these would have brought the Vikings into direct contact with cultures where wine was in plentiful supply and if the entry from The Annals of St Bertin mentioned at the outset is anything to go by the Vikings developed a taste for grape wine quickly.
In tandem grape wine also became an element of Norse mythology. The Poetic Edda, a compendium of Old Norse narrative poems which were composed in the late tenth and eleventh centuries, includes the poem Grímnismál. In this Odin, the king of the Norse gods, is described as having companions in the form of wolves called Geri and Freki. These he feeds plentifully, but Odin, the god of war and master of Valhalla, the Norse underworld for great warriors, is described as subsisting solely on wine. It attests to the strength of viticulture amongst the Norse peoples by the early eleventh century that this tale was included in the Poetic Edda.
A modern recreation of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in ‘Vinland’ (Wine Land) in North America, as it might have appeared in the early eleventh century
The Rus’, Wine and the ‘Great Stronghold’
These associations between the Vikings and wine were not confined to Scandinavia and Western Europe. The degree to which the Vikings penetrated into Eastern Europe and then southwards to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea has been generally underappreciated. Nevertheless, their activity here was immense and in some ways greater than their role in Western European history in the ninth and tenth centuries.
During this period Norse raiding parties began landing onto the southern shores of the Baltic Sea and then traversing overland to the mouths of the great rivers of Eastern Europe, the Volga and the Dnieper. Then they sailed south; all the way to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, and these voyages brought them in turn into contact with the two great civilizations of Europe and the Middle East at this time: the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphate.
Trade with the Arabs from their capital of Baghdad led to the Norse peoples who settled across Eastern Europe in cities like Kiev and Novgorod becoming known as the Rus’, a name which effectively means ‘Swedes’. This trade became so significant by the late ninth century that we find hundreds of thousands of Arab silver dirham coins showing up all over Northern and Western Europe in places like England and Sweden, just a few short years after they were minted in Baghdad with the regnal year of the reigning sultan noted on the coin. This indicates how cosmopolitan the Viking world was and how quickly trade was carried out across thousands of kilometres of riverine route-ways.
This also had a massive bearing on the wine trade. By the year 900 or thereabouts Kiev had emerged as the most significant trading city and political centre of Norse settlement in Eastern Europe. A huge amount of that same trade was based around a handful of specific commodities, notably olive oil, silver, spices and wine. The foremost city from which the Vikings obtained these goods in this part of the world was Miklagaror or the ‘Great Stronghold’, the Norse name for the city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire and the most elaborately walled major city in the world at the time.
Between the mid-ninth and mid-tenth centuries Viking raiding parties sailed down into the Black Sea and to the Bosporus to try to besiege Miklagaror on multiple occasions. Again, the main object of these raids was to obtain goods like wine and olive oil in large quantities, the trade of which in the Eastern Mediterranean was controlled by the Byzantines.
These endeavours never proved wholly successful and the Byzantines always managed to stave off the attacks of the Norse raiders. However, over time this was accomplished in part by simply bribing the Rus’ raiders from Kiev and other cities. Rather than trying to fight off ever more regular sieges, the Byzantine emperors in Miklagaror simply reached an arrangement with the Rus’ of Kiev and other cities, whereby the Norse provided thousands of mercenaries to join the Byzantine armies and in return vast quantities of wine, olive oil and silver were sent north to Kiev from whence rulers like Vladimir the Great, Yaroslav the Wise and Izaislav of Kiev willingly sent soldiers south.
These in time became known as the ‘Varangians’, an Old Norse term which equates approximately to ‘pledges’ or ‘companions’, an indication that the princes of Kiev pledged to send soldiers to Constantinople in return for wine and other commodities being sent to Kiev in return.
The Vikings and Vinland
Eventually the Norse interest in and involvement with viticulture extended beyond Europe itself and the Middle East. It has long been known that the Vikings were actually the first European peoples to establish significant contact with the Americas, half a millennium before Christopher Columbus rediscovered the New World in the 1490s. In the course of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries Norse explorers like Erik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson, discovered and settled parts of Greenland and the north-east of what is now Canada.
However, what is often overlooked in these accounts of Viking age settlement in North America is the role viticulture played in it. One of the foremost settlements established by Erikson in the first years of the eleventh century was that at L’Anse aux Meadows in what is now Newfoundland in north-eastern Canada. However, the Vikings of this period had a different name for the region. They called it Vinland, which means ‘Wine Land’.
Archaeological investigations undertaken in this part of Newfoundland since the 1960s have revealed that the name was not accidental. A millennium ago wild grapes of a kind which were suitable for making wine grew plentifully here and the Vikings who settled in the region used them to produce wine, just like that which their forbears in France and Kiev had become so used to consuming during the ninth and tenth centuries. Thus, all the way from Constantinople in the Eastern Mediterranean, westwards to Paris and across the Atlantic Ocean to Newfoundland, wine played a major role in the age of Viking explorations and discoveries.
Norman Europe and Wine
Eventually the Norse people who settled in regions like Britain, Ireland and northern France became so powerful that they emerged as the dominant power in certain regions like northern England and the coastal regions of Ireland. None were as powerful as the Normans, a word derived from ‘Northmen’ which evolved to describe the Vikings who settled along the lower course of the River Seine in Normandy in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. In the eleventh century these Normans became the elite warriors of medieval Europe, spreading out in war parties and conquering England, Wales, southern Italy, Sicily and even leading the First Crusade to the Holy Land in the late 1090s.
In the course of these actions these descendants of the Vikings continued to play a role in medieval viticulture across Europe. In Sicily the Normans who settled there established small estates which were based on grain cultivation and vineyards. Recent archaeological discoveries in Israel have revealed that the Norman knights who conquered Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land in the late 1090s settled down and began planting vineyards across the Levant. Thus, the taste for wine which the Vikings had developed in the ninth and tenth centuries was inherited by their successors, the Normans.
The Vikings are remembered for many things today, though their associations with wine and viticulture are generally not one of them. Yet as the foregoing has made clear, wine was one of the goods which, along with things like silver, olive oil, textiles, furs, leather and iron, were central to both the Vikings’ raids and their trading activities both in Western Europe and on the other side of the continent in the Black Sea. Given that the Vikings eventually played a crucial role in the evolution of Europe from the Dark Ages into the High Middle Ages, their quest for wine played its own not insignificant role in the history of medieval Europe.
The Rus’ of Eastern Europe
For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries historians tended to view the Vikings as being almost solely associated with Western Europe, particularly Britain, Ireland and France. But in recent times there has been a realisation that they were just as prominent in Eastern Europe where they sailed down the enormous River Dnieper and River Volga into the Black and Caspian Seas to trade with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphate. These latter Vikings eventually began settling along the course of these rivers, taking over the settlements of Kiev and Novgorod and building them into the foremost cities in the region. From these sites they alternated between attacking the Byzantines and Arabs and trading with them between the late ninth and eleventh centuries. These particular Vikings eventually became known as the Rus’, a term derived from the Arab word for ‘Swede’, Ruotsi, which in turn was borrowed from a Finnish word for their western neighbours. Thus, ‘Russia’ effectively means ‘the land of the Swedes’. In the course of the tenth century Kievan Rus’ became an extremely powerful state in Eastern Europe, one which traded extensively with the Byzantine Empire to acquire goods like olive oil and wine.
The Viking Explorations of the North Atlantic
By the middle of the ninth century the Vikings were heading so far afield from Scandinavia in their efforts to raid and trade that they began to head to places where no European had trod before. In the 870s Ingolfr Arnarson, a Norse explorer from western Norway, landed in Iceland, beginning a period of settlement which eventually saw tens of thousands of Vikings arrive to the previously uninhabited island over the next century.
It was one of these settlers in Iceland, Erik the Red, who hailed originally from Norway, who established the first major Norse settlement in Greenland in the mid-980s, a land which had been charted by another explorer, Snæbjörn galti Hólmsteinsson, in 978. By the time he died in the first years of the eleventh century the Eriksfjord region of coastal Greenland was home to thousands of settlers. At almost exactly the same time Erik’s son, Leif Eriksson, had discovered new lands again further to the south-west around Newfoundland in north-eastern Canada.
One of the settlements here was possessed of so many wild grapes that Leif and his followers called the region ‘Vinland’ or ‘Wine Land’. Further exploration ceased shortly afterwards, but the Greenland settlers survived for three centuries in North America before eventually dying out owing to disease, drought or famine, the exact cause has never been entirely determined.
- Sverrir Jakobsson, The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire (London, 2020).
- Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021).
- Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in American, Volume 1: From the Beginnings of Prohibition (Berkeley, California, 1989), chapter 1 has relevant sections.
- Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007).
- Ben Raffield, ‘Bound in captivity: Intersections of Viking raiding, slaving and settlement in Western Europe during the ninth century CE’, in Scandinavian Journal of History, Vol. 47 (2022), pp. 414–437.
- James Westfall Thompson, ‘The Commerce of France in the Ninth Century’, in The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 23, No. 9 (November, 1915), pp. 857–887.
Also read: Wine Gods Beyond Dionysius and Bacchus
On this Day
8 June 793 – On in this day in 793 the Vikings burst into the world of Western Europe when they attacked Lindisfarne Monastery on the island of Lindisfarne off the north-east coast of England. It was the beginning of an intense period of raiding of monasteries and other settlements across Britain, Ireland and northern France which would occur in the decades that followed and then morphed into full scale campaigns of military conquest and settlement. The story of the Vikings, Norsemen and Northmen are well-known, but what historians have uncovered in recent decades was that the Vikings were as much traders as they were warriors. From Britain and Ireland to France and Spain and east to the rivers of Russia and Ukraine, they sailed down rivers to trade at cities like Constantinople. This trade focused on numerous different commodities, notably silk, furs, spices, olive oil, silver and gold. Wine was central to this Viking trade. From Paris in the west, to Constantinople in the east, and Seville in the south, the Vikings were obsessed with obtaining extensive supplies of wine, which seems to have been prized over the mead which was their staple alcoholic beverage. Thus, while it’s not usually credited as such, viticulture played its own significant role in the Viking expansion.
18 June 860 – On this day in 860 a fleet of some 200 Viking ships sailed into the Bosporus, the waterway separating Europe from Turkey and the Black Sea from the Aegean Sea. In the hours that followed they landed and started pillaging the suburbs of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, a city which these Norse raiders knew as Miklagaror, meaning ‘Great Stronghold’. This was the first time that the Norse attempted to besiege the city of Constantinople, with further attempts following in 907 and 941. The Vikings in question are more specifically known as the Rus’, an Arabic name for the peoples of Sweden and Finland who in the ninth century had begun sailing down the great rivers of Eastern Europe, the Volga and Dnieper, to raid and trade with the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphate, establishing cities like Kiev and Novgorod in the process. Much of this trade focused on commodities like olive oil, Arabic silver and large quantities of wine. Although mead was the main alcoholic beverage of the Norse peoples, the Rus’ acquired a taste for wine in the ninth century and much of both their raiding activity and trade with the Byzantines for decades to come involved large quantities of wine.
6 November 1997 – On this day in 1997 the Norwegian archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad died in Oslo in Norway at 79 years of age. Back in 1960 she and her husband Helge discovered the remains of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in north-eastern Canada. This was the remains of a settlement which had been originally established by the great Norse explorer, Leif Eriksson, in the early eleventh century. Anne subsequently led the excavation of the site throughout the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, it uncovered significant evidence of grapes and wine having been consumed here a millennium ago. This was to be expected because the Vikings had christened this new land ‘Vinland’ when they settled here in the eleventh century, Vinland meaning ‘Wine Land’, a name which they applied as wild grapes of a kind which were suitable for making wine grew plentifully here. It is an indication of how significant grape wine was to the Norse peoples during the era of the Viking expansions that they named Newfoundland in this way.
Want to read more? Try these books!
 Janet L. Nelson, The Annals of St Bertin (Manchester, 1991); Simon Coupland, ‘The Vikings on the Continent in History and Myth’, in History, Vol. 88, No. 2 (April, 2003), pp. 186–203.
 Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021), chapter 3.
 For a brilliant new study, see Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021); Jonathan Clements, A Brief History of the Vikings: The Last Pagans or the First Modern Europeans? (London, 2005).
 https://warontherocks.com/2016/01/mead-and-the-vikings/ [accessed 27/12/22]; Fred Minnick, Mead: The Libations, Legends and Lore (Philadelphia, 2018).
 Joshua J. Mark, ‘Norse Alcohol and the Mead of Poetry’, World History Encyclopedia, 7 January 2019.
 Ann Christys, Vikings in the South: Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean (London, 2015); Eric Joseph Goldberg, Struggle for Empire: Kingship and Conflict Under Louis the German, 817–876 (Ithaca, 2006), pp. 133–135.
 Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007); https://www.lifeinnorway.net/miklagard-vikings-constantinople/ [accessed 29/12/22].
 Sverrir Jakobsson, The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire (London, 2020).
 https://www.historyhit.com/locations/lanse-aux-meadows/ [accessed 28/12/22]; Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement (Newfoundland, 2001); https://learn.winecoolerdirect.com/vinland/ [accessed 30/12/22].
 Trevor Rowley, The Normans: A History of Conquest (London, 2021); John Julius Norwich, The Normans in Sicily (London, 2011).
 https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-49335312; ‘Sicily’ in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
 Omeljan Pritsak, ‘The Origin of Rus’’, in The Russian Review, Vol. 36, No. 3 (July, 1977), pp. 249–273; Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007).
 Gordon Campbell, Norse America: The Story of a Founding Myth (Oxford, 2021); Farley Mowat, West Viking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (New York, 1965); Dale McKenzie Brown, ‘The Fate of Greenland’s Vikings’, Archaeology, 28 February 2000.
 Alex Marsh, ‘In 793 AD, Vikings attacked Lindisfarne: Here’s why it was so shocking’, National Geographic 21 June 2022; Cat Jarman, River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Road (London, 2021); John Marsden, ‘The Fury of the Northmen: Saints, Shrines and Sea-Raiders in the Viking Age, AD 793–878 (London, 1995), p. 41.
 Alexander Vasiliev, The Russian Attack on Constantinople in 860 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1925); Sverrir Jakobsson, The Varangians: In God’s Holy Fire (London, 2020), pp. 23–34; Thomas S. Noonan and Roman K. Kovalev, ‘“Wine and Oil for all the Rus!”: The importation of Byzantine wine and olive oil to Kievan Rus’’, in Jonathan Shepard, The Expansion of Orthodox Europe: Byzantium, the Balkans and Russia (London, 2007).
 https://www.historyhit.com/locations/lanse-aux-meadows/ [accessed 28/12/22]; Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement (Newfoundland, 2001).