Some reflections on the Early Medieval Åland – settlement reduction or continuity
by Jan-Henrik Fallgren
If we return to the question of discontinuity or continuity, and consider what place-names can say about this matter, it is obvious that the majority of the place-names of Åland are of younger types. Above all, the many –böle, –bo names, and the numerous –by names with a person name as the first element, which are considered to have been popular during the high medieval and late medieval periods (but still, there are also a few other names, topographic names, that might be of older origin). Thanks to new pollen investigations, supporting the older ones, and a few new excavations, it is equally obvious today that there were continuous cultivation and settlement in large parts of the archipelago, as well as an intensified clearing of the landscape and an increase in land use during the Viking Age and the high medieval period. How can one understand this contradictory information? Is it possible to understand these conflicting data at all? Well, I actually think it may be possible.
First, one must accept the idea that settlements could change their original names, and that this could affect villages/hamlets in an entire region. If we extend our gaze slightly further afield to other parts of Europe, this phenomenon appears to be much more common than one might first imagine. The British Isles can serve as a good example. Firstly, when the Anglo-Saxons invaded the eastern parts of Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries, they took over already existing settlements, villages and hamlets named with British or Roman names, and gave them new Anglo-Saxon names. Furthermore, they built a few completely new settlements. The same thing happened when Gaelic people or culture spread from western Scotland to the Pictish eastern and northern parts of Scotland, during the 9th century. The same happened when the Vikings from Norway conquered and settled in the northern and western parts of Scotland during the 9th and 10th centuries, and again when Danish Vikings invaded the eastern Anglo-Saxon regions, and renamed a large number of villages and hamlets. A large proportion of the latter were given names of the same type as the Ålandic –by names, that is by-names with a personal name as the first element! Then again, after the battle of Hasting 1066, it was time to rename a bunch of settlements again. Now, it was added a large number of Norman, Flemish and French names to the “British names flora”. It is possible to line up a lot of other examples from Central Europe, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Iberian Peninsula and others, but I shall confine myself with these examples. What is important with these examples is to show that the settlements that changed names, or had relatively young names, need not to have suffered a prolonged devastation and depopulation. Instead, the new younger names were caused by conquest, changed sovereignty, migration or cultural fusion. The majority of the settlements as such, and the farmlands, have in those examples survived several invasions, re-naming and changed lordship or sovereignty, even though in many instances the people living in the villages could have changed during these dramatic events. This is shown very illustratively in the case of Wharram Percy in Northumberland, England’s most excavated village. The settlement started as an Iron Age hamlet around 50 BC. It survived the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman conquests, but changed size and layout after most of them, and was finely abandoned in the 16th century. It is also known that the name of the settlement was amended several times.
If we then return to Åland and consider when, and under what circumstances, the archipelago acquired its relatively young place-names, it is obvious that it must have happened between the end of the early medieval period and the middle of the high medieval period. This is exactly the period when the Baltic Crusading was taking place (this was also the time period suggested by Lars Hellberg, but he thought that the colonists arrived to a deserted group of islands). It is well known that both Danes and Swedes made several crusades/raids from the 1100’s onwards in the Finnish speaking areas. The political map in the Baltic region changed gradually from the year 1147, when Bernhard of Clairvaux proclaimed that the Christians in the region should pursue war against their ‘own heathens’, and thus the Baltic Sea would be ‘their Jerusalem’. Germans, Danes, different orders of knights and eventually Swedes, all representing the western Catholic Church, began to compete over land areas in the southern and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea, additionally encouraged by a religiously sanctioned ideology. From the east, the Novgorodians, representatives of the Orthodox Church also beset them. These where ruff times for the, not yet Christianized, eastern tribal societies and stateless kingdoms, that were not organized in larger political units with administrative structures, and therefore lacked access to any professional military apparatus. Furthermore, they were often in conflict with each other.
…to be continued 🙂