In search of the Dane Law

Living in Sweden has been made me much more attentive to the signs of Scandinavia in the UK.

There are the place names where we have any number ending in “thorpe” and “by” (Swedish  torp) in Eastern England, the old Dane Law. And around the coast, in the Wirral peninsula and the islands off Scotland, where we find “Bostad” in Lewis in the outer Hebrides. And in Orkney and the Shetlands, names of Scandinavian origin are everywhere. Orkney and Shetland did not become Scottish until 1472 and the last speaker of Norn, the Scandinavian language of the islands, Walter Sutherland, died around 1850 (and presumably there was knowledge of Norn in fragmentary form after that).

Norn lives on in the Shetland dialect where, for example, “grice” means pig (gris in Swedish), “gulsa” is jaundice (gulsot in Swedish), “keek” to peek (kika in Swedish). A fluent reader of Danish or Norwegian would find many more cognates.

Further south, large areas of Eastern England, the Dane Law,  were subject to Danish law with substantial Danish colonisation in the century or so before the Norman Conquest.

Scandinavian names abound in the Domesday Book for, for example, Lincolnshire, William the Conqueror’s inventory of the loot from about 1080, Here we find landowners called Halfdan, Knutr, Sveinn, Thorulf and Esbjorn among others.

It strikes me as odd though that I have not been able to find many written traces of the Dane Law, despite a considerable number of Scandinavians having settled and lived there. The Anglo-Saxons were, by contrast, far better documented. There are gaps where the sources are thin, especially in the early period but none the less we have access to a large corpus of texts of various kinds, literature, wills, religious texts etc., in Early English and in Latin. But the Danelaw is more obscure.

I was excited to receive Cyril Hart’s “The Dane Law” (1992) from a Danish second-hand bookshop.

It looks fascinating and I shall enjoy reading it but I couldn’t find many links in the bibliography to material written during the period in Latin, Danish or English, which actually originated from the Dane Law. And not much literature in Danish at any period, while there is a lot on the Anglo-Saxons. I hope a careful reading will soften or at least explain this judgment.

History is often produced for a reason. It took a long time after the Norman conquest before a new concept of Englishness emerged which combined the history of the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.

I should like to know more about the history of the re-emergence of the Anglo-Saxons. I presume that historians did much work on this during the rise of the UK as an imperial power, especially perhaps in the Victorian period (glorification of King Alfred, his scholarship, navy, battles against the Viking invader, burnt cakes etc).  We still only count our kings and queens from the Norman conquest – the early Edwards don’t count, even though Edward the Confessor has had a good press.


The Danes have not been pressed into service to the same extent. They are presented as vikings, storming ashore killing monks and removing their treasures. But there is much less focus on the later period when the Danes came to stay with many named settlements. We are told about the money for peace impositions by the vikings and successful resistance and pushback by King Alfred in Wessex (the plucky underdog is a recurrent theme in British history with less emphasis on the vicious overdog…). We are told about Canute (Knut) telling the sea to behave and encouraged to agree that that was rather foolish.  The extensive Danish settlement in the Dane Law, the import of administrative words such as “soke” (socken) and “wapentake” (admittedly of martial origin but later an administrative word), and other legal words makes me feel that Vikings rushing up the beaches and silly Canute are far from the whole story of the Scandinavians in England.

I suppose this is because we haven’t needed the Scandinavians in the construction of our national myth. And our insufficient skills in the Scandinavian languages don’t help. Widespread knowledge of French and German helps us understand Anglo-Saxon and Norman history.

I’ve read some material on the Scandinavian influence on the English language (I can’t remember the title but it may have been from researchers at the University of Oslo).

Swedish researchers from Lund and Uppsala were very active in the twentieth century in working on the origin of English place names and the foremost studies of the place names of Dorset for example, are Swedes. I’d like to know more about these researchers.

As we have at least access to a good selection of Scandinavian personal and place names, it would be interesting to look at the principles that governed selection of place names – the proportion of place names based on geographical features (Dalby), those named after gods and goddesses in the Asa religion. How do these vary over time and can we learn anything about gaps (for example, a cursory look at the material it seems that Thor is often used while Oden/Woden, (becoming perhaps, for example, Wednesbury) is less frequent). Distinguishing names of  Scandinavian origin from Anglo-Saxon is difficult – the Anglo-Saxons were pagan for a rather longer time than the settled Vikings. But comparing Christian Anglo-Saxon place naming with what happened in the Dane Law also seems interesting (what was Christianity like in the Danish areas – if they were Christian, we might expect names of places after saints important in the Nordic world etc.).


It would be great to find a book on the various aspects of the Scandinavian influence on England – political, legal, administrative, religious, cultural, language-wise etc.

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