Was Leuven Founded by Vikings? Lost History and Legend

Was Leuven Founded by Vikings? Lost History and Legend

The Viking period has definitely influenced the history of Europe and left its marks in both its Western and Eastern parts. During a period of 250 years, from about 800 to 1050, sea travelers from the Scandinavian countries, at that time without any specific national identity, set out to trade, raid and colonize so distant parts of Europe as Iceland and Russia. The future capital of Ireland, Dublin, was founded by Vikings. In France they sailed along the Seine and threatened Paris. Belgium was not spared by the Vikings and the town of Leuven even claims that it developed from a fortified Viking camp, similar to fortified settlements found in Denmark.

Vikings in East and West

In the east, Vikings from nowadays Sweden traded and plundered in what today are Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The Vikings traded with the mythical Jewish Khazar kingdom until it was defeated in the 10th century by their Russianized descendants who ruled in Kiev. In the west, Vikings from nowadays Norway colonized unpopulated islands such as Iceland and reached as far away as Greenland and Newfoundland.

Trading and raiding were two inseparable elements of the Viking saga and sometimes it ended in settlement and assimilation. Vikings from nowadays Norway, Denmark and the Swedish west coast colonized east England and Ireland, and attacked the coast and inland of nowadays Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France, where they eventually settled in Normandy and Bretagne. Vikings even reached southern Europe and served in the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian guard.

It can be disputed whether the Vikings left their home countries because of over-population, internal power struggles among their kings, an adventurous search for new lands, a lust to plunder the riches of other countries or even a religious zeal to prove that their pantheon of gods were superior to Christianity. Probably it was a combination of all factors. Even after they had become Christianized, they continued to raid and it would take Christianity a few hundred years to take root.

“The Viking expeditions were both plundering raids and trade missions,” says senior curator Gunnar Andersson at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. “The Vikings exploited weaknesses and internal conflicts in the countries they targeted. The first raids were carried out by small gangs of pirates that later would grow to mighty fleets and armies led by kings.”

The pagan Scandinavian societies of the Viking period were based on a clan identity and military virtues, such as honour and blood revenge. They prospered on a rural slave economy and international trade, and were ruled by local chieftains who later became kings. The Viking period has been idealized but modern historians have arrived at a more nuanced picture.

The Vikings carved runic inscriptions on stones to memorialise important events. Most are found in
Sweden, but there are also many scattered in other parts of the world where the Vikings raided.
In this picture stone, the god Odin is shown on his eight-legged horse Sleipner. Below him is a Viking ship.
© The Swedish History Museum, Stockholm

Gunnar Andersson is of the opinion that historians are emphasizing different aspects of the Viking period and the Viking society. “In the national-romantic ideology of the 19th century, women were supposed to stay at home. The image of the Viking woman with her key ring, taking care of the farmstead when her husband was out somewhere trading and raiding, fitted into that tradition.”

“In fact, women also participated in the voyages, perhaps not as warriors but as traders, including the slave trade.” Basically, the Viking society was a very unequal society with up to 30 % of the population either slaves or dispossessed farmers without any rights. The many silver treasures found in Sweden were payment in the slave trade.

The Vikings’ sailing ships with shallow drafts and oars enabled them to penetrate rivers far into the mainland and attack and plunder places on their way. This might explain how the Vikings, part of a raiding army from Denmark or from England, arrived in the 880s in Leuven via the river Dijle (Dyle), in what was then a small village, and set up a winter camp there.

According to Andersson, relatively little is known about the Vikings in Belgium in general and in Leuven in particular. The reasons can be that neighboring countries were more targeted by the Vikings or that archaeological excavations in Belgium have been insufficient. Besides some single findings from the Viking age, almost all our knowledge is based on brief medieval annals.

A city like Ghent, which at the start of the Viking period was a settled place with two abbeys, was attacked and destroyed twice in 851 and 879 by Vikings who arrived along the river Scheldt. The city was later to recover from the Viking onslaught.

From Ghent, the Vikings might have continued to Leuven via the Dijle river. They could also have belonged to another raiding party that had arrived from Denmark or been expelled from east England by the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great, and therefore wanted to try their luck in less defended regions in the divided Carolinian states on the other side of the English Channel.

“Leuven in that period was hardly more than a small village with some wooden structures,” says Ramon Kenis, an engineer-architect by profession and secretary of the Leuven Historical Society. The Vikings established a winter camp there in the 880s which they might have used as a basis for further raids.

If that was the only connection between Leuven and the Vikings, it would not be enough to explain the interest that the historical society is showing them. However, according to the chronicles, in particular the Fulda annals, named after the monastery where they were written during the same period, a crucial battle between Vikings and a Frankish army under the Carolinian king Arnulf took place at Leuven in 891.

11th century Carolingian copy of the Fulda annals, kept in the Humanist Library of Sélestat. The Annals were composed at the Abbey of Fulda and recount historical events that took place in the Frankish Empire. According to Timothy Reuter, who has translated and annotated the Annals (1992), they “offer the major narrative account of the east Frankish kingdom from the death of Louis the Pious (in 840) down to the end of the ninth century, one which has crucially shaped our view of events.”

The battled ended in the defeat of the Vikings and they would never more return to Leuven. Their advancement to other parts of the east-Frankish kingdom was stopped.  The Fulda annals tell us that the bodies of dead Vikings blocked the run of the river. This might have been an exaggeration to pay tribute to the victorious king Arnulf but might also have been close to the truth.

Ramon Kenis took us for a walk to the river that is quietly meandering through Leuven today. We were equipped with a map drawn by military historian Luc De Vos, known for his book “Battles in the Low Lands.” Possibly his map was based on a sketch by the late historian, Marcel Mestdagh from Ghent, who was fascinated by the Vikings and wrote a book called “The Vikings Among Us”.

The map shows the centre of nowadays Leuven surrounded by a semi-circular wall which is left open on the west side where the river is running. That direction apparently did not require any special defense because of the steep river banks and swamps on the other side. Arrows are showing the Frankish army attacking the rampart to the east and the weak point of the defense at the river to the west along what today is the Brouwerstraat.

In fact, the map does not give us the full picture, explains Ramon Kenis, since it shows the stretch of a man-made riverbed which was dug in the 12th century in connection with the construction of a defense stone wall. The natural river from the time of the battle is located a bit further eastwards. Between them, there is a small third arm of the river, also man-made and linked to a duke of Leuven.

The Battle of Leuven in 891: The arrows on the map show how the Frankish army are believed to
have attacked the rampart to the east and the weak point of the defense at the river to the west
along what today is the Brouwerstraat.

While it was a bit difficult to feel the tide of history and imagine the battle, it cannot be excluded that it took place at the very spot we were surveying, close to the natural arm of the river, not far from ruins of stone fortifications from a later period. “The natural river Dijle is, as it probably also was in the 9th century, not more than about five to seven meters wide and one meter deep,” explains Ramon Kenis.

In other words, the river was relatively easy to cross for the Frankish soldiers, who outnumbered the Vikings, and so small that it easily could have been filled by dead Vikings. On the other hand, we can wonder if the Viking vessels, which could be 20 – 30 meters long and 4 – 5 meters wide, could have passed the river. The Vikings, or some of them, might have arrived on horseback as the annals tell us.

Unfortunately, we cannot know for sure what happened because no archaeological excavations in the area have been carried out. Even the small island Aborg in the river, at the other end of the ramparts, where Arnulf is supposed to have built a small fortress, has not been excavated. By a strange coincidence, a human skull was found in the riverbed just days after our tour and was subject to a forensic examination at the time of the writing of the article.

Where the battle probably started, close to the current Brouwerstraat and the nearby river, lies today a nice park and playground. The earth there might still hide remnants of the battle but the city of Leuven would have to hurry up to explore the grounds. A huge parking place with underground floors is planned to be constructed there.

“Some excavations were carried out in the center of Leuven about 10 years ago when the Barbara complex was constructed,” says Ramon Kenis. “Relics and ruins of a wooden palisade structure were discovered but unfortunately not enough time was given for the excavations and most of the findings weren’t even preserved.”

Ramon Kenis from the Leuven Historical Society

The Vikings never settled permanently in any place in the territory of today’s Belgium and largely left a legacy of plunder and ruin. Still, they continue to arouse interest and fascination in Belgium as the occasional exhibitions of Viking history show. And Leuven has a special reason to show an interest in the Viking period.

Although Leuven was accorded city rights first by the construction of a stone wall in the 12th century, it may owe its origin as a town to the fortified camp that the Vikings established there, at least if we are to believe the somewhat speculative ideas by historian Mestdagh. He claimed that the Vikings built a pagan temple in the camp and that some of the current street names (= toponyms) can be derived from Nordic words.

Leuven gradually developed after the defeat and disappearance of the Vikings and became a splendid city and trade center during the Middle Ages, with the first university in the Low Countries, founded in 1425.

A new Belgian law on the need to carry out archaeological surveys in case of construction works entered into force in 2016. Building companies will have less say than before, and archaeologists will hopefully have more work. The Leuven Historical Society could look forward to renewed excavations to discover the forgotten history of the Vikings in the city. 

By Mose Apelblat

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