A large town at the other end of the world sea

We have gone on, probably more than is good for you or for us, about the political resonances of Schleswig-Holstein, and about how Erskine Childers uses them so skilfully to make an unavoidable point about the growth in German power. Nonetheless, it turns out that this particular part of the world has always been on a very notable political fault line. In fact, it’s a line you can actually see today.

It is on September 30th that our heroes reach Schlei Fjord, south of the Flensburg fjord and, of course, on the route to Kiel, which is Davies’s real destination (though Carruthers knows nothing of this yet). As Carruthers says, this fjord is rather interesting:

I could see no sign of the entrance he had spoken of, and no wonder, for it is only eighty yards wide, though it leads to a fjord thirty miles long.

Schlei Fjord, from openstreetmap.org
Schlei Fjord, from openstreetmap.org

It is indeed a rather extraordinary landscape, judging by the map. Not only is it an enormous body of water with a tiny entrance – it also cuts deep into Schleswig-Holstein, reaching almost halfway across the peninsula.

It is this geographical landscape that brings us to the subject of this post. Because at the far end of the fjord, deep into the body of Schleswig-Holstein, a mighty town was founded in the eighth century. It was called Hedeby, and it was the second biggest city of the Vikings. These days, there’s nothing left of it other than a ring of trees on a raised bank.

Hedeby Today, from Wikimedia Commons "Haithabu Haddebyer Noor WT2005". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Hedeby Today, from Wikimedia Commons “Haithabu Haddebyer Noor WT2005”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In those days before canals, the Schlei Fjord afforded your entrepreneurial Viking with an obvious opportunity. Instead of sailing your ship all the way around the Jutland peninsula to reach to the North Sea, you could sail it to Hedeby at the head of the Schlei Fjord, lift it out of the water, carry it a mere 10 miles and then reach the Treene River. The Treene flows into the Eider, and the Eider flows into the North Sea.

So important was this location that Hedeby grew mighty on the back of it, attracting traders from as far away as Arab Spain. One of these traders, called al-Tartushi, described the world of Hedeby thus:

Hedeby is a large town at the other end of the world sea…. The town is not rich in goods… The staple food is fish, since it is so plentiful. It often happens that a newborn infant is tossed into the sea to save raising it. Also… Women may divorce their husbands. Nothing can compare with the dreadful singing of these people, worse even than the barking of dogs.

Hedeby’s singers may not have been up to much, but its merchants were. So successful were they that that Hedeby captured the attention of the peoples who lived to the south of it – the Frisians, the Franks and the Wends. One doesn’t normally think of Vikings as being a defensive lot, but in this case they were keen to protect their trading golden egg. So they built an earth wall, called the Danewirk, across almost the entire width of the peninsula just south of Hedeby. It is this wall, rather like Offa’s Dyke, that can be seen today.

 Danewirk » by Joachim Müllerchen. Under licence CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.
Danewirk » by Joachim Müllerchen. Under licence CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikimedia Commons.

The Danewirk didn’t work. Hedeby was lost for most of the 10th century, first to the Swedes and then to the Franks. King Harald Bluetooth, conqueror and inventor of local wireless networks, got Hedeby back in 983, but raids continued and in the 11th century Hedeby was abandoned for the neighbouring town of Schleswig.

We like to imagine an earlier version of Carruthers and Davies, dressed in furs and leather instead of Norfolk jackets, pottering around the waters of the Schlei Fjord and coming across a dastardly Swedish plot to invade their precious town from the sea. And singing their awful songs, worse than the barking of dogs.

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