Danegeld: England’s Ransom to the Vikings
England’s history is rife with conflict, especially during the Viking Age. In that era, hairy and scary foreign men raided and raped. Bearded berserkers, while wielding axes to cleave and spears to thrust, ransacked towns then rowed away on their loot-filled longboats before the local lords could mount a defense. Indeed, any army they dispatched arrived too late. It’s no wonder that the English nobles chose to pay off the Vikings instead—a tribute called Danegeld.
Danegeld (Danish tax, or Dane tribute) was a levy gathered from the kingdom and offered to the Vikings to dissuade them from attacking. The Vikings at that time came from Denmark, hence the term.
England initially paid this tribute in 991 with the amount of £10,000. For a time, the Vikings stopped their raiding. But when they realized that this was an easy way of getting gold, they came back to wreak havoc and slaughter Englishmen until they were again appeased with Danegeld. This cycle repeated for years with the tribute increasing in amount each time. The Vikings’ bullying buried seeds of hate in the Englishmen’s hearts, leading them to massacre the Danes on St. Brice’s Day.
Danegeld in Contemporary Culture
Nowadays, the term Danegeld has become a warning to people who try to buy off a problem instead of trying to solve it. It’s even possible that England’s medieval misery is an influence to the Western world’s stance of non-negotiation with terrorists.
Danegeld is often referred to in literature. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Danish king, Claudius, orders the titular Hamlet to collect Danegeld from England. Taken verbatim, Claudius declares, “He shall with speed to England / For the demand of our neglected tribute” (“The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” act 3, scene 1, Shakespeare.mit.edu).
Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Dane-Geld” colorfully summarizes the tribute. The Englishmen’s lesson was conveyed in the last two stanzas:
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say,
“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that pays it is lost!” (“Dane-Geld,” Poetryloverspage.com)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” Act 3, scene 1. Accessed October 7, 2016. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/hamlet.3.1.html.
Poetry Lovers’ Page. “Dane-Geld.” Accessed October 7, 2016. http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/dane_geld.html.