Wulfstan and his journey

In the late ninth century was communication routes in Europe not quite what they are today, ships were often the easiest way to get from a to b (provided a or b was somewhere near water). The sea was the highway throughout Europe, a way that transported people, goods, Gods, and stories. This was the case in the late ninth century when Alfred the Great of Wessex had two traders visiting his court, both telling stories about their journeys. The first and perhaps most famous was Othere, a Norwegian merchant who sailed from Northern Norway into the White Sea before returning to the Norwegian coast and sailing to the British Isles through Skiringsal and Hedeby. The second visitor who is perhaps not as famous, but who’s story is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon version of Orosius’s description of Europe.

The second traveller was Wulfstan, a presumably English or Flemish merchant who sailed into the Baltic sea from Hedeby and visited (if we are to believe his story) the Baltic region and told the story of the Ests that lived in the area that today lays between Gdansk and Kaliningrad. Yet the story from Wulfstan’s is not as easily understandable as that of Othere. Like Othere’s story does this text provide a geographical and ethnic account of the lands east of Hedeby. Wulfstand points out that there are many towns in this land, and each town has its own king, and between the different tribes and kings were there a great deal of warfare. Wulfstan notes that the land has plenty of honey and fish, and that mare milk is the drink of the rich, whereas the poor drink mead. He also notes that the people drink no Ale, this suggest a great difference from the lives of the Anglo-Saxons at Alfred’s court.

It has been suggested that these stories that was added into Orosius’s to increase the knowledge of the world surrounding the Anglo-Saxons, as a part of Alfred’s drive for the resurrection of knowledge. Although the food and the governmental system described by Wulfstan is a bit different from that found in Anglo-Saxon England, it is perhaps the burial and funeral costumes that are most different from those known in the Christian World. ‘When a man dies, he is put on display for a month or two [says Wulfstan] after that the dead man’s wealth is distributed in several piles some miles from the city, and the quickest riders in the land rise to take it. When all the wealth has been taken (distributed) the body is burned, until nothing is left. For if anyone finds a bone unburned then the finder would be fined a considerable amount.’ These observations suggest firstly that these practices were those that Wulfstan was not used to himself, for it is easier to point out the differences in a society than the similarities.

Furthermore does this suggest that the social, political and cultural system of the Ests were considerably different from that of the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, but also that the Est society were a well-developed cultural unit that had its own religious and cultural ideas about how to deal with death and burials. In this context the society of the Ests is a frontier in the Anglo-Saxon world. Wulfstan’s journey also illustrates how the Anglo-Saxon court was linked to other European cultures through trade, and how different cultures in the 9th century could be. It also shows that the trade routes of the late middle ages, which was dominated by the Hanseatic league in the Baltic sea, already might existed in the Viking age, and that Denmark, with the city of Hedeby was the linking point between the Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, German, Norse, and Slavic areas of North Europe.

Wulfstan’s journey also gives, although not extensively, information about the lifestyle and livelihood of the Ests in the 9th century, a period from which the sources of this region are not extensive. So we need to work with what we got.

If you want to read more about the Journey of Wulstan then a recommended book is:

Trakadas, Athena: Englert Anton, Wulfstan’s voyage: the Baltic sea region in the early Viking age as seen from shipboard, (Oxford, 2008).

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