The Tour of Saint Nicholas, abbey of Bec

Heathen Danes

NEW RESEARCH: Perceptions of Danishness in Normandy can be found in the literature of the Abbey of Bec, 1030 -1080

“They all still lived in the manner of the old Danes…” Perceptions of Danishness Remaining in Normandy in the literature of the Abbey of Bec, 1030 -1080.
By Sally Vaughn
In: Toogtredivte tværfaglige vikingesymposium. Syddansk Universitet 2013, pp. 37 – 51. Forlaget Wormianum 2014.

Around 1034 -1037 the Dano-Frankish knight, Herluin, founded the abbey of Bec in Normandy between the cities of Rouen and Bernay. His story was later told by Gilbert Crispin. According to him the Normans at tthat time “still lived in the manner of the old Danes”.

Of course this statement has been much disputed. However, in a recent article Sally Vaughn, explores the wider context and discusses some further evidence, which she uses to outline the contours of the Franco-Danish life, she finds described in the Vitae and other related texts from the Abbey of Bec.

Fragment of stonecarving from the old Abbey in Bec
Fragment of stonecarving from the old Abbey in Bec

Needless to say Sally Vaughn recognises the facts that Normans at that time had already adopted a series of practical customs such as early castle-building, cavalry tactics of warfare and other matters pertaining to the pursuit of power and lordship. Yet – she writes – “in the eyes of the contemporary monks of Bec, they still remained rooted in the life of the old Heathen Danes – a non-Christian, secular life.

In a series of vignettes subjected to close reading, we get a sense of this “Danish” culture as violent, bickering, rough, unlettered and not least promiscuous. In short: very worldly. As a literary device it is obvious that this characterisation suited Crispin and some later hagiographers nicely. By aligning Danishness with worldliness, it became possible to frame that otherworldly holiness, which was paraded by Herluin and his growing religious community in their search for a proper religious life.

However, it seems as if the hagiographers did not only work with this Danishness as a literary devise. They obviously experienced the real life-world of the Franco-Danes as utterly alien. According to Sally Vaughn another witness to this is Anselm, who was created Abbott at Bec after the death of Herluin 1078. As is well-known Anselm wrote some of his most magnificent theological tracts in the 1070s, the Monologion and the Proslogian, while Prior there. Both were obvious tracts intended to convert “heathens” to the Christian faith. (Perhaps baptism was in Herluin’s and Anselm’s time still no more than a kind of varnish.)


Dr. Sally Vaughn is a scholar of Medieval history, specifically the Medieval church, the Normans and St. Anselm of Bec and Canterbury. Vaughn received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the co-founder and first director of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Houston, and the co-founder, first Vice President and Conference Director of the Charles Homer Haskins Society for Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman and Angevin History, which met at the University of Houston for its first fifteen years (1981-1996). She has served two terms as president of the Texas Medieval Association (2005 and 2012).  Professor Vaughn has also served as the chair of the Undergraduate Committee and on the Executive Committee and the Graduate Committee in the History Department. She has directed numerous Ph. D. dissertations and M.A. theses. Her most recent book is  Archbishop Anselm 1093-1109: Bec Missionary, Canterbury Primate, Patriarch of Another World, which was published by Ashgate Press in July 2012 in the new Ashgate series on the Archbishops of Canterbury, co-sponsored by the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

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