Burial Practices in Early Medieval Northern Europe

Today we are going to talk about something that my archaeology friends find fascinating, and most other humanist consider as particularly gross – the dead. Death is a key moment in anyones existence – dare I say The Most Crucial? But it can be quite a nasty and blunt topic to discuss. Nevertheless, in the medieval period, the dead were still important for their societies, in a way or another. And burials could create a great deal of tension in certain communities. After all, we have to consider these people were far more influenced by religion and belief than perhaps our modern society – or so we think…Anyway, strap on your seatbelts and jump on the cart…(trying really hard not to make a Monty Python joke here…too late!).


The world of the early middle ages was one of religious diversity. Both pagans and Christians coexisted for some centuries, each of them with different practices related to the veneration of their deities and the rituals this implicated. Like in many other cultures, just like nowadays, death was another step in life. However, death involved the reunion of the deceased with his ancestors and even with the Gods, therefore it is understandable that burials and other practices related with death represent religious connotations of these individuals.

Starting with a classic the account of Ibn Fadlan on Viking burials on the other hand provides details of the actual Scandinavian rites of death; from the moment in which the corpse was temporarily buried to the burning of the funerary ship. If you have seen The 13th Warrior , you probably get the idea: human sacrifice, chanting, party, the Angel of Death and her spooky predicaments…Nonetheless, there is a major problem in relying on this type of sources – Fadlan I mean, not the movie – religious bias, judgement and exaggeration.

The situation is slightly different once the archaeological records are approached. Think of the Ogam stones from Ireland or the Pictish Class I stones. Even though they provide us with key information about the practice of burials (the disposal of the bodies, the grave-goods they used, etc.) there are still problems in understanding the religious convictions of the different individuals interred. It is usually assumed that if the orientation of the grave is east-west and has no grave-goods then the burial is Christian, while if it is flexed and presents irregularities it is most likely to be pagan, but it does not always work like that. In addition, it has to be considered that throughout time graves have been re-used or even robbed, leaving both archaeologists and historians without their original context – and as you know I am a fan of context, because contact is crucial.

One could easily assume that interments within a churchyard with no grave-goods are most likely Christian burials, as the members of the Church would not let a non-Christian disturb their eternal place of rest. Moreover, we have the reassurance that certain type of graves and markers are most certainly Christian, due to a prolonged and consistent use of these. For example, head box graves at least from the 7th century onwards seem to have a clear Christian connotation. These and similar types of graves would be decorated or marked by the sign of the cross, or the chi-rho symbol which is the most explicit  form of identifying Christian iconography. In addition, it seems likely that the Ogam stones of Cork and Kerry with the ANM inscription are related to Christian individuals as well, as the language used in them is Latin, or Latin influenced, and usually contain the depiction of the cross. The same could be said about the stones marked in their wider face with Maltese crosses, which have been dated from sometime between the 6th and the 8th century from Ireland to the Hebrides and that have clear parallels in the continent.

In the same way, certain practices could be considered, and have been considered pagan per se. Cremations have been regarded as pure pagan practice and have not been questioned by historians for a long time. Primary Frankish sources refer to this burning of dead men´s bodies as pagan rites and such practice was retaliated by capital punishment. In addition, the burials with grave-goods, especially horses, or horse related artefact, are usually considered a pagan practice which was particularly prominent in the Germanic speaking areas. In Frisia unlike anywhere else both cremation and horse burial practice carried on as late as the 9th century. There are other odd burials that are commonly regarded as non-Christian: human sacrifices. This seems quite prominent in Scandinavian and Germanic lands – remember Ibn Fadlan and the 13th Warrior? We even references to human sacrifice in the Carolingian capillary regarding Saxony. It states that “if anyone shall have sacrificed a man to a devil, and after the manner of the pagans shall have presented him as a victim to the demons, let him be punished by death” (in P.E.Dutton, Carolingian Civilization: A Reader, p. 67). These sort of practices would be unacceptable for the Christian Church as only God has rights on someone else’s life and therefore they should be regarded as purely pagan, with certainly no room to even consider malpractice.

But what seems non sensical, is the fact that we seem to want to establish this very clear-cut between what was pagan and was not. The idea that both religious beliefs shared time and ground with no interaction or exchange of any kind might seem reasonable to some, but highly unlikely. Approaches by imitation might have taken place before the conversion of these people, and for sure once Christianity installed itself in these new lands, lending and borrowing would have happened in order to provide the lay population with an easier transition. In Ireland, for example, there was an old pre-Christian custom to make lamentations or ‘keening’ for the deceased. There are reference to such practice in both the Bigotian and the Old Irish penitential. The first one seems sympathetic towards the subject as long as the lament is made for a good person, imitating therefore practices of Jacob from the Old Testament.The other, on the other hand, condemns such a practice by fifty nights of penance. Possibly the reason why this source is more strict, without totally prohibiting such a ritual, is to promote proper praying for the soul in religious mannerism rather than folk practice. These weird ideas and performances regarding the dead and religious ritual, reach their peak with generally considered to deviant burials: those in which the ritual has been altered as due to the unorthodoxy of the burial itself.  S.L.Fry suggests that usually this deviation is caused in order to dishonour the dead. However there seems to be a pattern: murderers, suicides, unbaptised children, women who died during or shortly after childbirth, as well as strangers. In any of these cases Christian burial was denied, and so it is possible that many deviant burials might have been identified as pagans when they were not such a thing. A similar case can be appreciated especially in the Cillin burials in Carrowkeel from the 9th to the 11th century, which present even more issues as the orientation of the graves was east-west, but the corpses were flexed and in odd positions. Nonetheless, this coincides with a well-spread tradition performed by Anglo-Saxons – to have a separated area for the disposal of child burials, like in Rands Furnells, Northamptonshire, and even other place in Northern Europe such as Norway during the 9th and 11th century like in the cathedrals of Trondheim and Hamar.

So what can be said about these practices? Where they Christian or pagan, or none? If one looks at Scandinavian rune-stones it could be argued that these memorials were mainly used for Christian purposes, in the same way a grave-slab would be, however they were developed from a pre-Christian practice and contained pagan elements. Even when their use was purely Christian, especially in Denmark, odd inscriptions can be found in these stones in the shape of curses, spells, and even invocations of Thor. The same sort of thing could be said about both Ogam and Pictish stones; all of them most likely started being a pagan symbol, changed slightly, but carried out with pejoratively the same purpose throughout the Christian era. It is true that certain aspects of burial practices and their associated rituals can be identified as being from Christian faith or pagan belief but unfortunately the matter cannot be answered in too a simplistic manner. There are issues like the nature of certain deviant burials that religion cannot explain. The fact that more than one person was interred in the same grave does not necessarily mean pagan. Maybe the grave was simply re-used, as it commonly happened, or it was rather a cultural marker for multiple deaths that would have seem exceptional for such small populations and therefore was reflected in the odd features of their death rituals. However, and leaving on the side all the scepticism this subject might cause, one could definitely argue that there was a level of religious consciousness that affected people’s choices when proceeding to death rites. And perhaps it was selfishness, and the reassurance that life after death was obtainable. It is quite possible that the desire for saving the soul of the deceased – as well as that of those performing the ritual –  made them incorporate elements from both Christian and pre-Christian traditions so they could have all the guidance needed in death in the same way it would have been when they were alive.



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