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Origin of the phrase, "A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine"

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

My question concerns a saying or prayer that was supposedly commonly known among those fearful of Viking raiders. It was rather brief and said something about "preserve us from..." I really pored over Kenneth Clark's book Civilisation because I seemed to remember it being there, but no luck. Does such a thing sound at all familiar to you? Would it be possible for you to pass it along to me or perhaps suggest where I might find it? I think I have made a good effort looking for it in the on-line materials relating to raids, warfare, etc.

Signed, Seeking.

Gentle Reader:

The phrase you are looking for is, A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, "From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord."

This phrase is alleged to have been the litany of despair raised up in every medieval church and monastic institution, starting after the first Viking raid upon Britain and continuing during the years of Scandinavian attacks upon Western Christendom. It has been shown, however, that the phrase is apocryphal 1.

No 9th century text has ever been discovered containing these words, although numerous medieval litanies and prayers contain general formulas for deliverance against unnamed enemies. The closest documentable phrase is a single sentence, taken from an antiphony for churches dedicated to St. Vaast or St. Medard: Summa pia gratia nostra conservando corpora et cutodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna, "Our supreme and holy Grace, protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms" 2.

Carved Gravestone Found at Lindisfarne
Carved Gravestone Found at Lindisfarne
This stone was thought to commemorate the Vikings' 793 attack upon Lindisfarne.

The monastic community expressed outrage at the savage attack upon a House of God
Monk, Carved Ivory
The monastic community expressed outrage at the savage attack upon a House of God

Page from the bible revision by Alcuin
Page from the bible revision by Alcuin

Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels
Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

The first Viking raid upon the British Isles occurred in 793 C.E., during the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex. Simeon of Durham recorded the grim events:

"And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers; some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea" 3.

Swiftly the news travelled across the Channel, coming to the ears of the Anglo-Saxon monk Alcuin, who served in the court of Charlemagne at Aachen, prompting him to write:

"It is some 350 years that we and our forefathers have inhabited this lovely land, and never before in Britain has such a terror appeared as this we have now suffered at the hands of the heathen. Nor was it thought possible that such an inroad from the sea could be made" 4.

Alcuin went on to quote Jeremiah 1:14, "Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the North an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land," seeing the raiding Vikings as God's instrument of divine retribution upon a sinful people 5.

The ruins of the late medieval church at Lindisfarne
The ruins of the late medieval church at Lindisfarne

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 793 records:

"In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria and sadly affrightened the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and firey dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed soon upon these signs, and a little after that in the same year on the ides of June the harrying of the heathen miserably destoyed God's church in Lindisfarne by rapine and slaughter" 6.

Within the next five years, Viking raiders would strike at Lindisfarne and Jarrow in Northumbria, at Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Isle of Iona in Scotland, and even the islands off Aquitaine in France. Over the next 250 years, the Vikings became justly feared throughout Europe as the Hammer of the North. While no known text actually documents the famous phrase, A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, certainly the sentiment would have been appropriate and understood in a heartfelt way by people from Orkney to Paris, from Byzantium to the New World, from Britain to Rome.






Footnotes

  •   1 Albert D'Haenens. Les Invasions Normandes en Belgique au IX Siecle. Louvain. 1967.

  •   2 Magnus Magnusson. Vikings! New York: E.P. Dutton. 1980. ISBN 0525228926. p.61.
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  •   3Ibid. p.32.

  •   4 Gwyn Jones. A History of the Vikings. 2nd ed. reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1984. ISBN 019285139X p.196.
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  •   5 Robert Wernick. The Vikings. The Seafarers Series. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books. 1979. ISBN 0809427085 p.16.
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  •   6Jones, p.195,note.
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