Ann. 793—In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians and miserably terrified the people; these were extraordinary whirlwinds and lightnings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these omens; and soon after that, in the same year, the havoc of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne."

The "miserable heathen" portrayed in this account from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were the Vikings. Popular legend portrays them as swift, merciless marauders; pagans who attacked the holy places of Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere without regard for anything but accumulating wealth. No wonder Celtic monks prayed regularly, "From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord deliver us."

In the late eighth century, Ireland was a land of petty chieftains, all of whom fought vigorously and frequently to become High King. Ireland's economy had not yet risen above that of a pastoral society, and it possessed no true towns or cities.

It did, however, possess monasteries—lots of them. Not merely religious havens, they were miniature towns and centers of economic and political power. In fact, they functioned as the main financial institutions of their time, repositories for the priest-kings. Rivalry between tribes meant these repositories were plundered repeatedly, long before any Viking raiders appeared.

Archaeologist Magnus Magnusson explains, "A short experience of the country would have taught even a freelance Viking band that a raid on an Irish monastery was a sound economic proposition." Thus in 793, they performed their first recorded raid on a monastery: Lindisfarne.

At first, the Vikings held a raiding season, from May to September each year, then returned home to winter in ...

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