Source: Adalhelm of Séez, from The Miracles of Saint Opportuna, 886-887
In 885 or 886, Adalhelm was appointed the new bishop of Séez, a modest diocese in northwest France. To secure his position, Adalhelm promised to write a book about Opportuna, a holy abbess whose relics were kept there. He failed to keep his promise, and when vikings seized him, most likely from his refuge at Moussy-le-Neuf near Paris, he blamed himself. He was taken by ship, apparently down the Seine River and along the French coast toward the Netherlands and Denmark. He escaped at Saint-Valery at the mouth of the Somme River, less than 100 miles from Moussy-le-Neuf, but much further along the route that Adalhelm had followed. Adalhelm attributed his escape to the intervention of Saint Opportuna. He returned to Séez and quickly wrote his book, starting with the story of his own escape. A single late copy survives in a manuscript from the 1300s. It is the only extant slave narrative from the Viking Age and might be compared to the later slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoan.
Translated from the Latin by Matthew C. Delvaux. Adalhelm of Séez, Liber miraculorum, ed. Godfrey Henschen, Daniel Papebroch, and Jean Baptiste Carnandet, 2nd ed., Acta Sanctorum, Aprilis 3 (Paris: Victor Palmé, 1866), 68D-71E, at 68F–69A, I.2. https://archive.org/stream/actasanctorum12unse#page/n115. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
On account of the sin of my neglected vow, I was taken into the hands of the savage Northman people in the same year as my ordination [885 or 886]. They bound me into captivity—as if a common slave!—and they sold me across the regions of the sea. This happened on account of my sins, that I might know that I am but dirt and ash and ought never be prideful, and that it is better not to make a vow than not to fulfill a vow.
And so after the many insults of the Northmen, who hit me with many cruel blows, after diverse raging seas and perilous storms, after great cold and exposure and dire famine, and the burdens moreover of a lengthy journey, when it pleased the goodness and mercy of our Lord and Redeemer who alone brings comfort to sinners, he permitted me to return to the land of my birth. It is fitting for you brothers to know just how much I profited from the intercession of Blessed Opportuna.
Beyond the river of the Somme, at the town called St-Valery, as we endeavored to cross, those who were with me were anxious and oppressed by the violence of the approaching sea. In the river of the Somme they fell from their horses, and with them—miserable me!—I fell, too. And when there seemed to be no hope for me to live, I began thus to cry out: “Saint Opportuna and Blessed Calais, free your perishing servant!” By their aid, as I had no experience with swimming, by the assistance of Blessed Opportuna, as it seemed to me, I arrived at the shore of the river. I therefore deem it fitting to write this miracle of Saint Opportuna prominently at the outset.
- What does Adalhelm tell us about the raiders who captured him?
- How does Adalhelm experience his captivity? What are the effects of his suffering? How do his captors intensify his suffering? In what ways do they share Adalhelm’s experience?
- There are few indications that other Viking-Age captives escaped to return home. What does Adalhelm’s account suggest about the difficulties of escape? How does he justify his return?
Related Primary Sources
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England
- La Cautiva Marcelina
- Laxdæla Saga
- Life of Saint Findan
- Yanoáma: The Story of Helena Valero
Related Secondary Sources
- Coupland, Simon. “The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History.” History 88, no. 290 (April 2003): 186–203.
- Smith, Julia M. H. “The Problem of Female Sanctity in Carolingian Europe c. 780–920.” Past and Present, no. 146 (February 1995): 3–37.