Tag: Vikings

The Normans – The Great Conquerors of the Viking King Rollo

The Normans (Norman: Normaunds; French: Normands; Latin: Normanni) were the people who, in the 10th and 11th centuries, gave their name to Normandy, a region in France.

They were descended from Norse (“Norman” comes from “Norseman”) Vikings (Old English wicingas—”pirates”) from Denmark, Iceland and Norway who, under their leader Rollo, agreed to swear fealty to King Charles III of West Francia. Through generations of mixing with the native Frankish and Gallo-Roman populations, their descendants gradually became assimilated into the Carolingian-based cultures of West Francia. The distinct cultural and ethnic identity of the Normans emerged initially in the first half of the 10th century, and it continued to evolve over the succeeding centuries.

Rollo, (Clive Standen) as depicted in the History Channels hit TV series ‘Vikings’.

The Norman dynasty had a major political, cultural and military impact on medieval Europe and the Near East. The Normans were famed for their martial spirit and eventually for their Catholic piety, becoming exponents of the Catholic orthodoxy into which they assimilated. They adopted the Gallo-Romance language of the Frankish land they settled, their dialect becoming known as Norman, Normaund or Norman French, an important literary language. The Duchy of Normandy, which they formed by treaty with the French crown, was a great fief of medieval France, and under Richard I of Normandy was forged into a cohesive and formidable principality in feudal tenure.

Circa 1190, Richard I of England (1157-1199), also known as Richard I, Duke of Normandy.

The Normans are noted both for their culture, such as their unique Romanesque architecture and musical traditions, and for their significant military accomplishments and innovations. Norman adventurers founded the Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II after conquering southern Italy and Malta from the Saracens and Byzantines, and an expedition on behalf of their duke, William the Conqueror, led to the Norman conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Norman cultural and military influence spread from these new European centres to the Crusader states of the Near East, where their prince Bohemond I founded the Principality of Antioch in the Levant, to Scotland and Wales in Great Britain, to Ireland, and to the coasts of north Africa and the Canary Islands.

Map of Norman Empire circa 1100 CE It shows the additional lands conquered, including Italy and Sicily, England, the Crusade State of Antioch, the coast of North Africa and Malta.

The legacy of the Normans persists today through the regional languages and dialects of France, England, and Sicily, as well as the various cultural, judicial and political arrangements they introduced in their conquered territories.

The English name “Normans” comes from the French words Normans/Normanz, plural of Normant, modern French normand, which is itself borrowed from Old Low Franconian Nortmann “Northman” or directly from Old Norse Norðmaðr, Latinized variously as Nortmannus, Normannus, or Nordmannus (recorded in Medieval Latin, 9th century) to mean “Norseman, Viking”.

The 11th century Benedictine monk and historian, Goffredo Malaterra, characterised the Normans thus:

Specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skillful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war.

In the course of the 10th century, the initially destructive incursions of Norse war bands into the rivers of France evolved into more permanent encampments that included local women and personal property. The Duchy of Normandy, which began in 911 as a fiefdom, was established by the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte between King Charles III of West Francia and the famed Viking ruler Rollo, and was situated in the former Frankish kingdom of Neustria.

King Rollo’s Viking fleet en-route to the Frankish Kingdom.

The treaty offered Rollo and his men the French lands between the river Epte and the Atlantic coast in exchange for their protection against further Viking incursions. As well as granting to protect the area of Rouen from Viking invasion, Rollo had to swear not to invade further Frankish lands himself, accept baptism and conversion to the Christian faith and swear fealty to King Charles III.

The area corresponded to the northern part of present-day Upper Normandy down to the river Seine, but the Duchy would eventually extend west beyond the Seine. The territory was roughly equivalent to the old province of Rouen, and reproduced the Roman administrative structure of Gallia Lugdunensis II (part of the former Gallia Lugdunensis).

Before Rollo’s arrival, its populations did not differ from Picardy or the Île-de-France, which were considered “Frankish”. Earlier Viking settlers had begun arriving in the 880s, but were divided between colonies in the east (Roumois and Pays de Caux) around the low Seine valley and in the west in the Cotentin Peninsula, and were separated by traditional pagii, where the population remained about the same with almost no foreign settlers. Rollo’s contingents who raided and ultimately settled Normandy and parts of the Atlantic coast included Danes, Norwegians, Norse–Gaels, Orkney Vikings, possibly Swedes, and Anglo-Danes from the English Danelaw under Norse control.

Anglo-Dane Warriors.

The descendants of Rollo’s Vikings and their Frankish wives would replace the Norse religion and Old Norse language with Catholicism (Christianity) and the Gallo-Romance language of the local people, blending their maternal Frankish heritage with Old Norse traditions and customs to synthesize a unique “Norman” culture in the north of France. The Norman language was forged by the adoption of the indigenous langue d’oïl branch of Romance by a Norse-speaking ruling class, and it developed into the regional language that survives today.

The Normans thereafter adopted the growing feudal doctrines of the rest of France, and worked them into a functional hierarchical system in both Normandy and in England. The new Norman rulers were culturally and ethnically distinct from the old French aristocracy, most of whom traced their lineage to Franks of the Carolingian dynasty. Most Norman knights remained poor and land-hungry, and by 1066 Normandy had been exporting fighting horsemen for more than a generation.

Many Normans of Italy, France and England eventually served as avid Crusaders under the Italo-Norman prince Bohemund I and the Anglo-Norman king Richard the Lion-Heart.

Duchy of Normandy between 911 and 1050. In blue the areas of intense Norse settlement.

 

Italy

The early Norman castle at Adrano.

Opportunistic bands of Normans successfully established a foothold in southern Italy. Probably as the result of returning pilgrims’ stories, the Normans entered southern Italy as warriors in 1017 at the latest. In 999, according to Amatus of Montecassino, Norman pilgrims returning from Jerusalem called in at the port of Salerno when a Saracen attack occurred. The Normans fought so valiantly that Prince Guaimar III begged them to stay, but they refused and instead offered to tell others back home of the Prince’s request. William of Apulia tells that, in 1016, Norman pilgrims to the shrine of the Archangel Michael at Monte Gargano were met by Melus of Bari, a Lombard nobleman and rebel, who persuaded them to return with more warriors to help throw off the Byzantine rule, which they did.

The two most prominent Norman families to arrive in the Mediterranean were descendants of Tancred of Hauteville and the Drengot family. A group of Normans with at least five brothers from the Drengot family fought the Byzantines in Apulia under the command of Melo di Bari.

Between 1016 and 1024, in a fragmented political context, the County of Ariano was founded by another group of Norman knights headed by Gilbert Buatère and hired by Melo di Bari. Defeated at Canne, Melo di Bari escaped to Bamberg, Germany, where he died in 1022. The County, which replaced the pre-existing chamberlainship, was considered to be the first political body established by the Normans in the South of Italy. Then Rainulf Drengot, from the same family, received the county of Aversa from Duke Sergius IV of Naples in 1030.

The Hauteville family achieved princely rank by proclaiming Prince Guaimar IV of Salerno “Duke of Apulia and Calabria”. He promptly awarded their elected leader, William Iron Arm, with the title of count in his capital of Melfi. The Drengot family thereafter attained the principality of Capua, and Emperor Henry III legally ennobled the Hauteville leader, Drogo, as “dux et magister Italiae comesque Normannorum totius Apuliae et Calabriae” (“Duke and Master of Italy and Count of the Normans of all Apulia and Calabria“) in 1047.

From these bases, the Normans eventually captured Sicily and Malta from the Saracens, under the leadership of the famous Robert Guiscard, a Hauteville, and his younger brother Roger the Great Count. Roger’s son, Roger II of Sicily, was crowned king in 1130 (exactly one century after Rainulf was “crowned” count) by Antipope Anacletus II. The Kingdom of Sicily lasted until 1194, when it was transferred to the House of Hohenstaufen through marriage. The Normans left their legacy in many castles, such as William Iron Arm‘s citadel at Squillace, and cathedrals, such as Roger II’s Cappella Palatina at Palermo, which dot the landscape and give a distinct architectural flavor to accompany its unique history.

Institutionally, the Normans combined the administrative machinery of the Byzantines, Arabs, and Lombards with their own conceptions of feudal law and order to forge a unique government. Under this state, there was great religious freedom, and alongside the Norman nobles existed a meritocratic bureaucracy of Jews, Muslims and Christians, both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

The Kingdom of Sicily thus became characterized by Norman, Byzantine, Greek, Arab, Lombard and “native” Sicilian populations living in harmony, and its Norman rulers fostered plans of establishing an empire that would have encompassed Fatimid Egypt as well as the crusader states in the Levant.

One of the great geographical treatises of the Middle Ages, the “Tabula Rogeriana“, was written by the Andalusian al-Idrisi for King Roger II of Sicily, and entitled “Kitab Rudjdjar” (“The Book of Roger“).

Byzantium

Soon after the Normans began to enter Italy, they entered the Byzantine Empire and then Armenia, fighting against the Pechenegs, the Bulgars, and especially the Seljuk Turks. Norman mercenaries were first encouraged to come to the south by the Lombards to act against the Byzantines, but they soon fought in Byzantine service in Sicily. They were prominent alongside Varangian and Lombard contingents in the Sicilian campaign of George Maniaces in 1038–40.

Varangian Guards at court. Credit: Osprey Publications.

There is debate whether the Normans in Greek service actually were from Norman Italy, and it now seems likely only a few came from there. It is also unknown how many of the “Franks”, as the Byzantines called them, were Normans and not other Frenchmen.

The Varangian Guard, Byzantine mercenaries, largely recruited from Viking and Norman territories in the north and West of Europe.

One of the first Norman mercenaries to serve as a Byzantine general was Hervé in the 1050s. By then, however, there were already Norman mercenaries serving as far away as Trebizond and Georgia. They were based at Malatya and Edessa, under the Byzantine duke of Antioch, Isaac Komnenos. In the 1060s, Robert Crispin led the Normans of Edessa against the Turks. Roussel de Bailleul even tried to carve out an independent state in Asia Minor with support from the local population, but he was stopped by the Byzantine general Alexius Komnenos.

Some Normans joined Turkish forces to aid in the destruction of the Armenian vassal-states of Sassoun and Taron in far eastern Anatolia. Later, many took up service with the Armenian state further south in Cilicia and the Taurus Mountains. A Norman named Oursel led a force of “Franks” into the upper Euphrates valley in northern Syria. From 1073 to 1074, 8,000 of the 20,000 troops of the Armenian general Philaretus Brachamius were Normans—formerly of Oursel—led by Raimbaud. They even lent their ethnicity to the name of their castle: Afranji, meaning “Franks”. The known trade between Amalfi and Antioch and between Bari and Tarsus may be related to the presence of Italo-Normans in those cities while Amalfi and Bari were under Norman rule in Italy.

Norman expansion by 1130.

Several families of Byzantine Greece were of Norman mercenary origin during the period of the Comnenian Restoration, when Byzantine emperors were seeking out western European warriors. The Raoulii were descended from an Italo-Norman named Raoul, the Petraliphae were descended from a Pierre d’Aulps, and that group of Albanian clans known as the Maniakates were descended from Normans who served under George Maniaces in the Sicilian expedition of 1038.

Robert Guiscard, another Norman adventurer previously elevated to the dignity of count of Apulia as the result of his military successes, ultimately drove the Byzantines out of southern Italy. Having obtained the consent of pope Gregory VII and acting as his vassal, Robert continued his campaign conquering the Balkan peninsula as a foothold for western feudal lords and the Catholic Church.

Pope Gregory VII.

After allying himself with Croatia and the Catholic cities of Dalmatia, in 1081 he led an army of 30,000 men in 300 ships landing on the southern shores of Albania, capturing Valona, Kanina, Jericho (Orikumi), and reaching Butrint after numerous pillages. They joined the fleet that had previously conquered Corfu and attacked Dyrrachium from land and sea, devastating everything along the way.

Under these harsh circumstances, the locals accepted the call of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to join forces with the Byzantines against the Normans. The Albanian forces could not take part in the ensuing battle because it had started before their arrival. Immediately before the battle, the Venetian fleet had secured a victory in the coast surrounding the city. Forced to retreat, Alexius ceded the city of Dyrrachium to the Count of the Tent (or Byzantine provincial administrators) mobilizing from Arbanon (i.e., ἐξ Ἀρβάνων ὁρμωμένω Κομισκόρτη; the term Κομισκόρτη is short for κόμης της κόρτης meaning “Count of the Tent”).

The city’s garrison resisted until February 1082, when Dyrrachium was betrayed to the Normans by the Venetian and Amalfitan merchants who had settled there. The Normans were now free to penetrate into the hinterland; they took Ioannina and some minor cities in southwestern Macedonia and Thessaly before appearing at the gates of Thessalonica. Dissension among the high ranks coerced the Normans to retreat to Italy. They lost Dyrrachium, Valona, and Butrint in 1085, after the death of Robert.

A few years after the First Crusade, in 1107, the Normans under the command of Bohemond, Robert’s son, landed in Valona and besieged Dyrrachium using the most sophisticated military equipment of the time, but to no avail. Meanwhile, they occupied Petrela, the citadel of Mili at the banks of the river Deabolis, Gllavenica (Ballsh), Kanina and Jericho. This time, the Albanians sided with the Normans, dissatisfied by the heavy taxes the Byzantines had imposed upon them. With their help, the Normans secured the Arbanon passes and opened their way to Dibra. The lack of supplies, disease and Byzantine resistance forced Bohemond to retreat from his campaign and sign a peace treaty with the Byzantines in the city of Deabolis.

The further decline of Byzantine state-of-affairs paved the road to a third attack in 1185, when a large Norman army invaded Dyrrachium, owing to the betrayal of high Byzantine officials. Some time later, Dyrrachium—one of the most important naval bases of the Adriatic—fell again to Byzantine hands.

England

The Norman Conquest of England 1066.

The Normans were in contact with England from an early date. Not only were their original Viking brethren still ravaging the English coasts, they occupied most of the important ports opposite England across the English Channel. This relationship eventually produced closer ties of blood through the marriage of Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, and King Ethelred II of England. Because of this, Ethelred fled to Normandy in 1013, when he was forced from his kingdom by Sweyn Forkbeard. His stay in Normandy (until 1016) influenced him and his sons by Emma, who stayed in Normandy after Cnut the Great‘s conquest of the isle.

Norman cavalry at the Battle of Hastings as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

When Edward the Confessor finally returned from his father’s refuge in 1041, at the invitation of his half-brother Harthacnut, he brought with him a Norman-educated mind. He also brought many Norman counsellors and fighters, some of whom established an English cavalry force.

This concept never really took root, but it is a typical example of Edward’s attitude. He appointed Robert of Jumièges archbishop of Canterbury and made Ralph the Timid earl of Hereford. He invited his brother-in-law Eustace II, Count of Boulogne to his court in 1051, an event that resulted in the greatest of early conflicts between Saxon and Norman and ultimately resulted in the exile of Earl Godwin of Wessex.

On 14 October 1066, William the Conqueror gained a decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings, which led to the conquest of England three years later; this can be seen on the Bayeux tapestry (a linen, embroidered cloth).

Siege of a motte-and-bailey castle from the Bayeux Tapestry.

The invading Normans and their descendants replaced the Anglo-Saxons as the ruling class of England. The nobility of England were part of a single Norman culture and many had lands on both sides of the channel. Early Norman kings of England, as Dukes of Normandy, owed homage to the King of France for their land on the continent. They considered England to be their most important holding (it brought with it the title of King—an important status symbol).

An Anglo-Saxon Warrior in the late Anglo-Saxon era.

Eventually, the Normans merged with the natives, combining languages and traditions, so much so that Marjorie Chibnall says “writers still referred to Normans and English; but the terms no longer meant the same as in the immediate aftermath of 1066.” In the course of the Hundred Years’ War, the Norman aristocracy often identified themselves as English.

A Norman Warrior in the 11th Century.

The Anglo-Norman language became distinct from the Latin language, something that was the subject of some humour by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Anglo-Norman language was eventually absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon language of their subjects (see Old English) and influenced it, helping (along with the Norse language of the earlier Anglo-Norse settlers and the Latin used by the church) in the development of Middle English. It in turn evolved into Modern English.

Ireland

The Normans had a profound effect on Irish culture and history after their invasion at Bannow Bay in 1169. Initially, the Normans maintained a distinct culture and ethnicity.

Yet, with time, they came to be subsumed into Irish culture to the point that it has been said that they became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.

Norman keep in Trim, County Meath.

The Normans settled mostly in an area in the east of Ireland, later known as the Pale, and also built many fine castles and settlements, including Trim Castle and Dublin Castle. Both cultures intermixed, borrowing from each other’s language, culture and outlook. Norman descendants today can be recognised by their surnames.

Names such as French, (De) Roche, Devereux, D’Arcy, Treacy and Lacy are particularly common in the southeast of Ireland, especially in the southern part of County Wexford, where the first Norman settlements were established. Other Norman names, such as Furlong, predominate there. Another common Norman-Irish name was Morell (Murrell), derived from the French Norman name Morel.

Names beginning with Fitz (from the Norman for son) indicate Norman ancestry. These included Fitzgerald, FitzGibbons (Gibbons) dynasty, Fitzmaurice. Families bearing such surnames as Barry (de Barra) and De Búrca (Burke) are also of Norman extraction.

Scotland

One of the claimants of the English throne opposing William the Conqueror, Edgar Atheling, eventually fled to Scotland. King Malcolm III of Scotland married Edgar’s sister Margaret, and came into opposition to William who had already disputed Scotland’s southern borders.

William invaded Scotland in 1072, riding as far as Abernethy where he met up with his fleet of ships. Malcolm submitted, paid homage to William and surrendered his son Duncan as a hostage, beginning a series of arguments as to whether the Scottish Crown owed allegiance to the King of England.

Normans went into Scotland, building castles and founding noble families that would provide some future kings, such as Robert the Bruce, as well as founding a considerable number of the Scottish clans. King David I of Scotland, whose elder brother Alexander I had married Sybilla of Normandy, was instrumental in introducing Normans and Norman culture to Scotland, part of the process some scholars call the “Davidian Revolution”.

A computer genrated image of Robert the Bruce.

Having spent time at the court of Henry I of England (married to David’s sister Maud of Scotland), and needing them to wrestle the kingdom from his half-brother Máel Coluim mac Alaxandair, David had to reward many with lands.

The process was continued under David’s successors, most intensely of all under William the Lion. The Norman-derived feudal system was applied in varying degrees to most of Scotland. Scottish families of the names Bruce, Gray, Ramsay, Fraser, Ogilvie, Montgomery, Sinclair, Pollock, Burnard, Douglas and Gordon to name but a few, and including the later royal House of Stewart, can all be traced back to Norman ancestry.

Wales

Even before the Norman Conquest of England, the Normans had come into contact with Wales. Edward the Confessor had set up the aforementioned Ralph as earl of Hereford and charged him with defending the Marches and warring with the Welsh. In these original ventures, the Normans failed to make any headway into Wales.

Subsequent to the Conquest, however, the Marches came completely under the dominance of William’s most trusted Norman barons, including Bernard de Neufmarché, Roger of Montgomery in Shropshire and Hugh Lupus in Cheshire. These Normans began a long period of slow conquest during which almost all of Wales was at some point subject to Norman interference. Norman words, such as baron (barwn), first entered Welsh at that time.

On Crusade

The legendary religious zeal of the Normans was exercised in religious wars long before the First Crusade carved out a Norman principality in Antioch. They were major foreign participants in the Reconquista in Iberia. In 1018, Roger de Tosny travelled to the Iberian Peninsula to carve out a state for himself from Moorish lands, but failed. In 1064, during the War of Barbastro, William of Montreuil led the papal army and took a huge booty.

First Crusade 1095-1101.

In 1096, Crusaders passing by the siege of Amalfi were joined by Bohemond of Taranto and his nephew Tancred with an army of Italo-Normans. Bohemond was the de facto leader of the Crusade during its passage through Asia Minor. After the successful Siege of Antioch in 1097, Bohemond began carving out an independent principality around that city. Tancred was instrumental in the conquest of Jerusalem and he worked for the expansion of the Crusader kingdom in Transjordan and the region of Galilee.

Anglo-Norman conquest of Cyprus

The conquest of Cyprus by the Anglo-Norman forces of the Third Crusade opened a new chapter in the history of the island, which would be under Western European domination for the following 380 years. Although not part of a planned operation, the conquest had much more permanent results than initially expected.

Illuminated manuscript showing king Richard the Lion-hearted authorizing Guy de Lusignan to take Cyprus.

In April 1191, Richard the Lion-hearted left Messina with a large fleet in order to reach Acre. But a storm dispersed the fleet. After some searching, it was discovered that the boat carrying his sister and his fiancée Berengaria was anchored on the south coast of Cyprus, together with the wrecks of several other ships, including the treasure ship. Survivors of the wrecks had been taken prisoner by the island’s despot Isaac Komnenos.

On 1 May 1191, Richard’s fleet arrived in the port of Limassol on Cyprus. He ordered Isaac to release the prisoners and the treasure. Isaac refused, so Richard landed his troops and took Limassol.

Various princes of the Holy Land arrived in Limassol at the same time, in particular Guy de Lusignan. All declared their support for Richard provided that he support Guy against his rival Conrad of Montferrat. The local barons abandoned Isaac, who considered making peace with Richard, joining him on the crusade, and offering his daughter in marriage to the person named by Richard.

Castle of Limassol, near which Richard’s wedding with Berengaria of Navarre is said to have taken place.

 

But Isaac changed his mind and tried to escape. Richard then proceeded to conquer the whole island, his troops being led by Guy de Lusignan. Isaac surrendered and was confined with silver chains, because Richard had promised that he would not place him in irons.

By 1 June, Richard had conquered the whole island. His exploit was well publicized and contributed to his reputation; he also derived significant financial gains from the conquest of the island.

Richard left for Acre on 5 June, with his allies. Before his departure, he named two of his Norman generals, Richard de Camville and Robert de Thornham, as governors of Cyprus.

While in Limassol, Richard the Lion-Heart married Berengaria of Navarre, first-born daughter of King Sancho VI of Navarre. The wedding was held on 12 May 1191 at the Chapel of St. George and it was attended by Richard’s sister Joan, whom he had brought from Sicily.

The marriage was celebrated with great pomp and splendor. Among other grand ceremonies was a double coronation: Richard caused himself to be crowned King of Cyprus, and Berengaria Queen of England and Queen of Cyprus as well.

The rapid Anglo-Norman conquest proved more important than it seemed. The island occupied a key strategic position on the maritime lanes to the Holy Land, whose occupation by the Christians could not continue without support from the sea.

Shortly after the conquest, Cyprus was sold to the Knights Templar and it was subsequently acquired, in 1192, by Guy de Lusignan and became a stable feudal kingdom. It was only in 1489 that the Venetians acquired full control of the island, which remained a Christian stronghold until the fall of Famagusta in 1571.

Romanticized image of the Knights Templar.

Canary Islands

Between 1402 and 1405, the expedition led by the Norman noble Jean de Bethencourt and the Poitevine Gadifer de la Salle conquered the Canarian islands of Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and El Hierro off the Atlantic coast of Africa. Their troops were gathered in Normandy, Gascony and were later reinforced by Castilian colonists.

Bethencourt took the title of King of the Canary Islands, as vassal to Henry III of Castile. In 1418, Jean’s nephew Maciot de Bethencourt sold the rights to the islands to Enrique Pérez de Guzmán, 2nd Count de Niebla.

Norman expeditionary ship depicted in the chronicle Le Canarien (1490).

Norman Culture

Norman Law

The customary law of Normandy was developed between the 10th and 13th centuries and survives today through the legal systems of Jersey and Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Norman customary law was transcribed in two customaries in Latin by two judges for use by them and their colleagues: These are the Très ancien coutumier (Very ancient customary), authored between 1200 and 1245; and the Grand coutumier de Normandie (Great customary of Normandy, originally Summa de legibus Normanniae in curia laïcali), authored between 1235 and 1245.

Architecture

Norman architecture typically stands out as a new stage in the architectural history of the regions they subdued. They spread a unique Romanesque idiom to England, Italy and Ireland, and the encastellation of these regions with keeps in their north French style fundamentally altered the military landscape. Their style was characterised by rounded arches, particularly over windows and doorways, and massive proportions.

A quintessential Norman keep: the White Tower in London.

In England, the period of Norman architecture immediately succeeds that of the Anglo-Saxon and precedes the Early Gothic. In southern Italy, the Normans incorporated elements of Islamic, Lombard, and Byzantine building techniques into their own, initiating a unique style known as Norman-Arab architecture within the Kingdom of Sicily.

Visual Arts

In the visual arts, the Normans did not have the rich and distinctive traditions of the cultures they conquered. However, in the early 11th century the dukes began a programme of church reform, encouraging the Cluniac reform of monasteries and patronising intellectual pursuits, especially the proliferation of scriptoria and the reconstitution of a compilation of lost illuminated manuscripts.

The church was utilised by the dukes as a unifying force for their disparate duchy. The chief monasteries taking part in this “renaissance” of Norman art and scholarship were Mont-Saint-Michel, Fécamp, Jumièges, Bec, Saint-Ouen, Saint-Evroul, and Saint-Wandrille. These centres were in contact with the so-called “Winchester school”, which channeled a pure Carolingian artistic tradition to Normandy.

In the final decade of the 11th and first of the 12th century, Normandy experienced a golden age of illustrated manuscripts, but it was brief and the major scriptoria of Normandy ceased to function after the midpoint of the century.

An illuminated manuscript from Saint-Evroul depicting King David on the lyre (or harp) in the middle of the back of the initial ‘B’.

The French Wars of Religion in the 16th century and the French Revolution in the 18th successively destroyed much of what existed in the way of the architectural and artistic remnant of this Norman creativity. The former, with their violence, caused the wanton destruction of many Norman edifices; the latter, with its assault on religion, caused the purposeful destruction of religious objects of any type, and its destabilisation of society resulted in rampant pillaging.

By far the most famous work of Norman art is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not a tapestry but a work of embroidery. It was commissioned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and first Earl of Kent, employing natives from Kent who were learned in the Nordic traditions imported in the previous half century by the Danish Vikings.

In Britain, Norman art primarily survives as stonework or metalwork, such as capitals and baptismal fonts. In southern Italy, however, Norman artwork survives plentifully in forms strongly influenced by its Greek, Lombard, and Arab forebears. Of the royal regalia preserved in Palermo, the crown is Byzantine in style and the coronation cloak is of Arab craftsmanship with Arabic inscriptions.

Many churches preserve sculptured fonts, capitals, and more importantly mosaics, which were common in Norman Italy and drew heavily on the Greek heritage. Lombard Salerno was a centre of ivorywork in the 11th century and this continued under Norman domination.

Finally should be noted the intercourse between French Crusaders traveling to the Holy Land who brought with them French artefacts with which to gift the churches at which they stopped in southern Italy amongst their Norman cousins. For this reason many south Italian churches preserve works from France alongside their native pieces.

A bronze lion sculpture attributed to an Italo-Norman artist. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Norman Rulers

See Also

References

  • Bates, David (2013). The Normans and Empire. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-967441-1.
  • Chibnall, Marjorie (2000). The Normans. Oxford, Blackwell publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-4965-5.
  • Rowley, Trevor, ed. (2000). The Normans. The History Press.

 

 

The Battle of Buttington

The Battle of Buttington was fought, in 893, between a Viking army and an alliance of Anglo-Saxons and Welsh.

The annals, for 893, reported that a large Viking army had landed in the Lympne Estuary, Kent and a smaller force had landed in the Thames estuary under the command of Danish king Hastein. These were reinforced by ships from the settled Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria, some of this contingent sailed round the coast to besiege a fortified place (known as a burh) and Exeter, both in Devon. The English king Alfred the Great, on hearing of Exeter’s demise led all his mounted men to relieve the city. He left his Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians and ealdormen Æthelhelm, Æthelnoth, and others in charge of defending various towns and cities from the rest of the Viking army.

The king’s thegns managed to assemble a great army consisting of both Saxons and Welsh. The combined army laid siege to the Vikings who had built a fortification at Buttington. After several weeks the starving Vikings broke out of their fortification only to be beaten by the combined English and Welsh army with many of the Vikings being put to flight.

The Kingdom of Wessex.

Viking raids began in England in the late 8th century. The raiding continued on and off until the 860s, when instead of raiding the Viking changed their tactics and sent a great army to invade England. This army was described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “Great Heathen Army“. Alfred defeated the Great Heathen Army at the Battle of Edington in 878. A treaty followed whereby Alfred ceded an enlarged East Anglia to the Danes.

After Edington, Alfred reorganised the defences of Wessex, he built a navy and a standing army. He also built a series of fortified towns, known as burhs that ringed Wessex. To maintain the burhs, and the standing army, he set up a taxation system known as the Burghal Hidage. Viking raids still continued but his defences made it difficult for the Vikings to make progress. As the political system in Francia (part of modern day France) was in turmoil the Vikings concentrated their efforts there as the raiding was more profitable.

By late 892 the leadership in Francia had become more stable and the Vikings were finding it difficult to make progress there too, so they again attempted a conquest of England. In 893 two hundred and fifty ships landed an army in the Lympne Estuary in Kent where they built a fortification at Appledore. A smaller force of eighty ships under Hastein, landed in the Thames estuary before entrenching themselves at Milton, also in Kent.

The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating a meaningful attempt at conquest and colonisation. Alfred took up a position from which he could observe both of the Viking armies. The Vikings were further reinforced with 240 ships, that were provided by the Danes of East Anglia and Northumbria who had settled there after the wars of the 860s and 870s. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that they did it “contrary to [their] pledges.”

At some point Alfred’s army captured Hastein’s family. The annals report that Alfred was in talks with Hastein, but do not say why. Horspool speculates that it may well be to do with Hastein’s family, however while the talks were going on, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck northwestwards. They were overtaken by Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, and were defeated in a general engagement at Farnham in Surrey. They took refuge on an island at Thorney, on Hertfordshire’s River Colne, where they were blockaded and were ultimately forced to submit. The force fell back on Essex and, after suffering another defeat at Benfleet, joined Hastein’s army at Shoebury.

Alfred had been on his way to relieve his son at Thorney when he heard that the Northumbrian and East Anglian Danes were besieging Exeter and an unnamed burh on the North Devon shore. Alfred at once hurried westward and when he arrived at Exeter, the Danes took to their ships. The siege of Exeter was lifted but the fate of the unnamed North Devon burh is not recorded.

Meanwhile, the force under Hastein set out to march up the Thames Valley, possibly with the idea of assisting their friends in the west. But they were met by the Western army that consisted of West Saxons, Mercians and some Welsh, it was led by three eldermen namely Æthelred the Lord of the Mercians, Æthelhelm the Ealdorman of Wiltshire and Æthelnoth the Ealdorman of Somerset.

The chronicle says that they “were drawn from every burh east of the Parret; both west and east of Selwood, also north of the Thames and west of the Severn as well as some part of the Welsh people”. Æthelred although a Mercian was married to Alfred’s daughter and thus as his son in law was able to cross the borders of Wessex in pursuit of Vikings. The combined Anglo-Saxon and Welsh army forced the Vikings to the northwest, where they were finally overtaken and besieged at Buttington.

Siege and battle

Battle of Buttington – A map of places named in the Burghal Hidage.

The western English army came up the River Severn, and besieged all sides of the fortification (at Buttington) where the Vikings had taken refuge. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that “after many weeks had passed, some of the heathen [Vikings] died of hunger, but some, having by then eaten their horses, broke out of the fortress, and joined battle with those who were on the east bank of the river. But, when many thousands of pagans had been slain, and all the others had been put to flight, the Christians [English] were masters of the place of death. In that battle the most noble Ordheah and many of the king’s thegns were killed.”

Depiction of a typical Viking fortified town.

The annals say that the Vikings came up the Severn from the Thames making the most likely candidate for the location of the battle as present-day Buttington, Welshpool in the county of Powys, Wales. Another place that has been suggested is Buttington Tump at the mouth of the River Wye, where it flows into the Severn but this is seen as less likely.

The Vikings who had taken to their ships after Alfred’s arrival, at Exeter, sailed along the south coast and attempted to raid Chichester, a burh according to the Burghal Hidage, manned by 1500 men. The chronicle says that the citizens “put many [Vikings] to flight and killed hundreds of them and captured some of their ships”.

According to the Anglo-Saxon historian Æthelweard writing nearly a hundred years later, “Hastein made a rush with a large force from Benfleet, and ravaged savagely through all the lands of the Mercians, until he and his men reached the borders of the Welsh; the army stationed then in the east of the country gave them support, and the Northumbrian one similarly. The famous Ealdorman Æthelhelm made open preparation with a cavalry force, and gave pursuit together with the western English army under the generalship of Æthelnoth. And King Æthelred of the Mercians was afterwards present with them, being at hand with a large army.”

References

 

 

 

Harald Fairhair’s campaign in Götaland

Harald Fairhair statue, in Haugesund, Norway.

Harald Fairhair’s campaign in Götaland was an attack that took place in the 870s.

Snorri Sturluson writes in Harald Fairhair’s saga that Harald Fairhair disputed the Swedish king Eric Eymundsson‘s hegemony in what is today southern Norway.

Götaland (Swedish: ˈjøːtaland, also Gothia, Gothland, Gothenland or Gautland) is one of three lands of Sweden and comprises ten provinces. Geographically it is located in the south of Sweden, bounded to the north by Svealand, with the deep woods of Tiveden, Tylöskog and Kolmården marking the border.

He attacked and forced Viken to accept his rule and then plundered and burnt in Rånrike. Because of this the Norwegian skald Þorbjörn hornklofi boasted that the Swedes stayed indoors whereas the Norwegians were out on the sea.

Úti vill jól drekka,
ef skal einn ráða,
fylkir framlyndi,
ok Freys leik heyja,
Ungr leiddisk eldvelli
ok inni at sitja,
varma dyngju
eða vöttu dúnsfulla.
The Norseman’s king is on the sea,
Tho’ bitter wintry cold it be.
On the wild waves his Yule keeps he.
When our brisk king can get his way,
He’ll no more by the fireside stay
Than the young sun; he makes us play
The game of the bright sun-god Frey.
But the soft Swede loves well the fire
The well-stuffed couch, the doway glove,
And from the hearth-seat will not move.

The Gauts (Geats) did not accept this and assembled their forces. In the spring, they put stakes in Göta älv to stop Harald’s ships. Harald Fairhair put his ships alongside the stakes and plundered and burnt everything he could reach. The Norwegian skald said of this:

Grennir þröng at gunni
gunnmás fyrir haf sunnan,
sá var gramr, ok gumnum,
geðvörðr, und sik jörðu.
Ok hjálmtamiðr hilmir
hólmreyðar lét ólman
lindihjört fyrir landi
lundprúðr við stik bundinn.
The king who finds a dainty feast,
For battle-bird and prowling beast,
Has won in war the southern land
That lies along the ocean’s strand.
The leader of the helmets, he
Who leads his ships o’er the dark sea,
Harald, whose high-rigged masts appear
Like antlered fronts of the wild deer,
Has laid his ships close alongside
Of the foe’s piles with daring pride.
Longships or dragonships (drakushiffen), Drakkar.

The Geats arrived to the ships with a great army to fight king Harald, but they lost after great losses.

Ríks, þreifsk reiddra öxa
rymr, knáttu spjör glymja,
svartskygð bitu seggi
sverð, þjóðkonungs ferðar,
Þá er, hugfyldra hölda,
hlaut andskoti Gauta,
hár var söngr um svírum,
sigr, flugbeiddra vigra.
Whistles the battle-axe in its swing
O’er head the whizzing javelins sing,
Helmet and shield and hauberk ring;
The air-song of the lance is loud,
The arrows pipe in darkening cloud;
Through helm and mail the foemen feel
The blue edge of our king’s good steel
Who can withstand our gallant king?
The Gautland men their flight must wing.
Viking Short Bearded Battle Axe.

Then the Norwegians travelled far and wide in Götaland, winning most of the battles. In one of the battles, the Geatish commander Hrani the Geat fell. Harald then proclaimed himself the ruler of all land north of Göta älv and north and west of lake Vänern and placed Guttorm Haraldsson to defend the region with a large force.

Viking Warriors shore assault.

References

Tears of Blood – The Last of the Viking Whalers

Pilot Whales Slaughtered.

Norwegians caught whales off the coast of Tromsø as early as the 9th or 10th century. Vikings from Norway also introduced whaling methods for driving small cetaceans, like pilot whales, into fjords in Iceland. The Norse sagas, and other ancient documents, provide few details on Norwegian whaling. The sagas recount some disputes between families over whale carcasses but do not describe any organized whale fishery in Norway.

Spear-drift whaling was practiced in the North Atlantic as early as the 12th century. In open boats, hunters would strike a whale, using a marked spear, with the intent of later locating the beached carcass to claim a rightful share.

The Lofoten Islands in the far north of Norway have always been a world apart, a peninsula-like chain of wild, craggy shards jutting into the Norwegian Sea inside the Arctic Circle. In Norse folklore Lofoten’s long spine of mountains was said to be the haunt of trolls and valkyries (maidens who conducted slain warriors to Valhalla), and its fjords provided dramatic backdrops to some of the grandest of the Viking sagas.

A small wooden boat putters across the glassy expanse of the Vestfjorden, its wake rippling the mirror-perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains. The boat’s skipper, 69-year-old Jan Bjørn Kristiansen, has been sailing these waters for more than 50 years, the past 40 of them in the same weather-beaten vessel, also called Jan Bjørn. The name is fitting, for man and boat have much in common: both are tough, seasoned whalers, quintessentially Norwegian – stubborn, practical, strongly built – and both bear the scars of much hard work at sea.

Over the course of the summer whaling season, Kristiansen will harpoon perhaps 30 or 40 minke whales, butcher their carcasses on deck, and sell the meat dockside to seafood merchants along the coast. Despite there being an international moratorium on commercial whaling, Norwegians such as Kristiansen persist in hunting minke whales – for practical reasons they do so only in Norway’s domestic waters.

Model of a Viking Whaleboat.

In his five decades as a whaler, Kristiansen has weathered many a storm, both at sea and on land. He lived through the dangerous years of the eco-wars, when activists sabotaged and sank a number of Lofoten whaling boats. And he survived a horrific shipboard accident a few years ago when his harpoon cannon backfired, nearly killing him and leaving him with a mangled left hand. He was back hunting whales the following season.

But as he steers towards an old whaling station on this calm midsummer morning, Kristiansen sees not only his own long career drawing to a close, but also an entire way of life. His eponymous boat is one of only 20 that came out to hunt this season – a far cry from the nearly 200 whalers that worked northern Norway’s coastal waters in the late 1950s, when Kristiansen was getting his first taste of whaling as a deckhand.

It isn’t a scarcity of whales that is bringing down the curtain, or even the complicated politics of whaling. It is something far more prosaic and inexorable: Norwegian children, even those who grow up in the seafaring stronghold of Lofoten, simply do not want to become whalers any more. Nor do they want to brave storm-tossed winter seas to net fortunes in cod, as their forebears have done for centuries. Instead, they aspire to safer, salaried jobs in distant cities or with the offshore oil industry, and they have been leaving their island communities in droves.

Present day Norwegian Commercial Whalers.

There is irony in this turn of events. For most of its history, Lofoten exerted a gravitational pull on the young and ambitious. In his 1921 coming-of-age classic The Last of the Vikings, the Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer described the island chain as ‘a land in the Arctic Ocean that all the boys along the coast dreamt of visiting some day, a land where exploits were performed, fortunes were made, and where fishermen sailed in a race with Death.

The Lofoten islands, off the west coast of Norway.

For a few gold-rush months each year, millions of Atlantic cod migrate south from the Barents Sea to spawn among the reefs and shoals of Lofoten. Fishermen have been flocking here to cash in on the bonanza for more than 1,000 years. In addition to straddling one of the world’s richest fisheries, these islands are also blessed with a near-perfect climate for drying fish in the open air to make stockfish. This durable, highly nutritious cod jerky sustained the Vikings on their long voyages and became Norway’s most lucrative export in the Middle Ages.

The immense wealth of the dried-cod trade, and the possibility that jackpot riches might await any man with a boat, courage and a bit of luck, lured fortune seekers by the thousands. Grainy photographs from the 1930s show Lofoten’s harbours jammed with boats. Nowadays factory trawlers from the big seafood companies in the south do the work of many boats, netting and processing a high percentage of the catch. Small family-owned boats that brought their catches to local merchants and kept the Lofoten villages alive have now become endangered species.

The cod are still there, still in the millions, still a lucrative business. But as the older fishermen sell out and retire, seafood companies snap up their quotas for big money. Even the fishermen’s sons who want to carry on the family business may find their paths blocked by the cost of buying a boat and a quota – typically £500,000.

Atlantic Cod.

‘Banks don’t want to lend you that kind of money when you’re my age,’ says 22-year-old Odd Helge Isaksen, who nevertheless is determined to follow tradition and become a fisher­man. A resident of Røst, a close-knit island community at the heart of the Lofoten cod banks, Isaksen is making his way into the business the hard way, in an open boat hauling in cod one by one on handlines, in much the way his Viking forebears did 1,000 years ago. Such dedication is rare. In the past 10 years only Isaksen and one other young man on Røst have decided to pursue fishing as a career.

‘I’m one of the new Vikings,’ he jokes one bitterly cold evening as he motors into the harbour after a long day at sea. Coming in hours after the rest of the fleet returned, his boat is laden to the gunwales with hundreds of pounds of cod. Black Sabbath is blaring on his iPod as he steers his boat with one hand and updates his Facebook account on his mobile phone with the other.

‘My friends from school think it’s kind of funny that I decided to become a fisherman,’ Isaksen says. ‘But they sure are impressed with the money I’m making.’

Compared with Lofoten’s cod industry and its 1,000-year history, commercial whaling was a latecomer. ‘Whaling from boats was unknown in my grandfather’s day,’ recalls Oddvar Berntsen, now 83 and the last surviving resident of his fishing village. ‘The boats were just too small. Occasionally the villagers might kill a whale from shore if it came in close, but this was opportunistic, done for food.’

Norwegian workers butchering a Whale.

When commercial whaling finally arrived in Norway, it did so with a bang – literally. In the 1860s a Norwegian shipping and whaling magnate named Svend Foyn devised the grenade-tipped harpoon. It was a game-changer, thrusting Norway to the fore of the world’s whaling nations.

Norway’s fishermen, however, blamed the new industry for poor catches during the 1870s, since whales were believed to drive schools of fish closer to shore, where fishermen in small boats could catch them. After a series of bitter disputes between fishermen and whalers, Norway became the first nation to ban whaling in its territorial waters, declaring a 10-year moratorium in 1904. From then on, Norway’s commercial whalers sought their quarry in the wider North Atlantic and in the rich waters of the Antarctic.

At about the same time, the Lofoten fishing fleet began shifting from sail to engine. With their newfound mobility, some of the fishermen took up whaling as an additional means of putting food on the table – no small consideration later on during the Great Depression, when both cash and meat were scarce. The banner year for Lofoten’s whalers came in 1958, when 192 boats caught 4,741 minke whales. But change was already in the wind. By 1973, the year when Kristiansen bought his boat, the number of whalers had dropped by nearly half, and numbers have continued falling ever since.

The reasons are more economic and social than ecological. The cost of hunting whales is high, and returns are low. Although fashionable restaurants in Oslo still offer whale steak, many Norwegian grocery shoppers regard the rich red meat as Depression-era food, or as un-ecofriendly, or perhaps worse still, as a novelty cuisine for tourists. And because of a variety of factors – including restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – there is little export market. So although Norway’s government sets an annual quota of 1,286 minke whales, in practice whalers take far fewer (only 533 in 2011).

Even some of Norway’s green groups, staunchly opposed to whaling on principle, are content these days to maintain a death watch for a way of life they expect to disappear within a generation. They can afford to wait it out. With the North Atlantic minke whale population estimated at a healthy 130,000 animals, Norway’s modest annual catch is considered highly sustainable. It is the whalers who are heading for extinction.

The demise of whaling and the consolidation of the cod industry are changing the face of Lofoten, and nowhere is that change more glaring than at Skrova. A generation ago this was a thriving fishing port with no fewer than eight factories working overtime to process cod, herring and other fish. Fishing and whaling were booming then, and Skrova was the place to be. By the early 1980s the tiny community was deemed to have the highest percentage of millionaires in all of Norway.

Wealthy factory owners and fishermen liked to take their ease on a dockside bench, which bemused locals christened the millionærbænken, or millionaires’ bench. The old bench is still there, weathered and worn, but most of the millionaires who sat on it were put out of business long ago by the seafood companies down south and their fleets of factory ships. All but one of Skrova’s fish factories have closed, most recently in 2000. With the loss of jobs, the island’s full-time population has dwindled to about 150.

Only Ellingsen, an old family-run seafood company, remains in business. It is still prosperous, nowadays turning out 12,000 tons a year of its own locally farmed salmon and, for a few weeks each summer, buying whale meat from the handful of whalers who still work these waters.

‘To be honest, whale meat isn’t really commercial for us any more,’ says 42-year-old Ulf Christian Ellingsen, the third generation of his family to run the company. ‘We continue to buy it mainly out of respect for tradition and our old roots. My grandfather started this business in 1947 primarily as a whale-meat buyer. We’d like to keep that going for as long as we can.’

Skrova’s most significant export these days is not salmon or whale but the precious cargo that leaves on the passenger ferry to Svolvær every autumn – a small clutch of schoolchildren who have outgrown the island’s tiny community school and are obliged to pack their bags and leave home to attend the regional high school. For most of them, this introduction into the larger world is the start of a whole new life, one that leads away from Skrova.

The Lofoten Islands.

The five teenagers who depart Skrova this autumn will be followed by two more next year and another three the year after. And with no youngsters entering school at the other end of the line, the island’s already critically small community school will shrink still further.

‘We need to get more young families moving in here,’ says Ellingsen, whose own daughter, Aurora, is among this autumn’s group of teenage émigrés moving to Svolvær to continue their education.

‘I’d like to come back and retire here some day when I’m old,’ says 17-year-old June Kristin Hauvik, whose mother has worked in the Ellingsen fish factory for 35 years. For now, though, June Kristin is following in the footsteps of her two older sisters, both of whom are leading successful urban lives, one a doctor, the other a lawyer, worlds away from the sleepy island where they grew up. On a bright autumn afternoon, June Kristin and the other departing teenagers board the ferry and set off into the future, past the old millionaires’ bench, out beyond the headlands and into the wide open waters, where everything seems possible.

  • This article first appeared in National Geographic Creative

References

  • Official Norwegian minke whaling: Norwegian Government environmental policy site explaining Minke whaling policy (English).
  • Mark Cioc, The Game of Conservation. International Treaties to protect the World’s Migratory Species (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2009), Chapter 3 The Antarctic Whale Massacre, 104-147.
  • Kurk Dorsey, “National Sovereignty, the International Whaling Commission, and the Save the Whales Movement,” in Nation-States and the Global Environment. New Approaches to International Environmental History, Erika Marie Bsumek, David Kinkela and Mark Atwood Lawrence, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 43-61.
  • Kurk Dorsey, Whales and Nations. Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).
  • Charlotte Epstein, The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
  • Anna-Katharina Wöbse, Weltnaturschutz: Umweltdiplomatie in Völkerbund und Vereinten Nationen 1920-1950 (Frankfurt: Campus, 2011), Chapter 6 Der Reichtum der Meere, 171-245.
  • Frank Zelko, Make It a Green Peace!: The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), Chapters 7-9, 161-231.

 

 

 

Pets and Livestock in the Viking Age

Norwegian Elkhound.

The Viking Age

Vikings (Old English: wicing—”pirate”, Danish and Bokmål: vikinger; Swedish and Nynorsk: vikingar; Icelandic: víkingar, from Old Norse víkingar), were Norse seafarers, mainly speaking the Old Norse language, who raided and traded from their Northern European homelands across wide areas of northern, central, eastern and western Europe, during the late 8th to late 11th centuries. The term is also commonly extended in modern English and other vernaculars to the inhabitants of Viking home communities during what has become known as the Viking Age. This period of Nordic military, mercantile and demographic expansion constitutes an important element in the early medieval history of Scandinavia, Estonia, the British Isles, Ireland, France, Kievan Rus’ and Sicily.

Facilitated by advanced sailing and navigational skills, and characterised by the longship, Viking activities at times also extended into the Mediterranean littoral, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Following extended phases of (primarily sea- or river-borne) exploration, expansion and settlement, Viking (Norse) communities and polities were established in diverse areas of north-western Europe, European Russia, the North Atlantic islands and as far as the north-eastern coast of North America. This period of expansion witnessed the wider dissemination of Norse culture, while simultaneously introducing strong foreign cultural influences into Scandinavia itself, with profound developmental implications in both directions.

Popular, modern conceptions of the Vikings—the term frequently applied casually to their modern descendants and the inhabitants of modern Scandinavia—often strongly differ from the complex picture that emerges from archaeology and historical sources. A romanticised picture of Vikings as noble savages began to emerge in the 18th century; this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival.

Perceived views of the Vikings as alternatively violent, piratical heathens or as intrepid adventurers owe much to conflicting varieties of the modern Viking myth that had taken shape by the early 20th century. Current popular representations of the Vikings are typically based on cultural clichés and stereotypes, complicating modern appreciation of the Viking legacy. These representations are not always accurate – for example, there is no evidence that they wore horned helmets.

Pets Kept by Vikings

Vikings were said to keep pets for several purposes. Apart from the usual cats and dogs, there were several others kinds of animals whose existence was recorded by historians. These animals do not only act as companions but at the same time they were used as farm animals. A large number of animals were present during Vikings age. Some of the animals, owned by the Vikings as pet animals or farm animals were: Cats, Dogs, Hawks, Sheep, Horses, Cattle and Goats.

Cats

There is a great deal of historical and archaeological evidence showing that Vikings kept cats. Historical evidence suggests that not only were cats employed to deal with vermin, they were also valued as pets. Vikings were master mariners and spent a great deal of time at sea in Longships – either exploring, trading or raiding; rats were a constant problem and cats were employed to control their population.

Norwegian Forest Cat.

Cats had a religious significance during Viking period. They were directly associated to Freyja, the Goddess of Love. Viking families used to give a kitten to a new bride so that she could successfully establish a happy household with her husband. It was said that Freya or Frayja, (Goddess of Love and Beauty, also; fertility, war, and wealth) was the daughter of Njord, and the sister of Frey. Her daughter, by her husband, Od, is named Hnoss, who it is said: “Is so beautiful that whatever is valuable and lovely is named treasure after her.”

Norwegian Forest Cat during the winter months.

Norse legend tells of Freya, whose chariot was pulled by two black cats. Some versions of the tale claim they became swift black horses, possessed by the Devil. After serving Freya for 7 years, the cats were rewarded by being turned into witches, disguised as black cats. The cats also played around her ankles as a symbol of her domesticity.

Freya aboard her chariot which was said to be pulled by Norwegian Mountain Cats.

Historians believe that the mythological cats that pulled Freya’s chariot were Norwegian Mountain cats. The Vikings used to call them “Skogkatt” which literally means mountain cats in Norwegian. These species of cats are found in the northernmost regions of Norway and Denmark. The bone structure and strong muscle form distinguished these feral animals from domestic cats.

The Viking people did however keep the Norwegian Forest cat domestically. Evidence suggests that they were kept as pets as well as a means of controlling vermin. Archaeological evidence shows us that these animals were revered by Viking elders. Many Forest cats and Elkhounds were buried with their masters.

Close up portrait of a Norwegian Forest cat.

The Norwegian Forest Cat was valued by the Vikings for it’s strength, intelligence and ability to survive and hunt in the harsh Norwegian winters. Today, the Forest Cat is “The Official Cat of Norway” and is a highly prized pet in Norway, Denmark and across Scandinavia. The Vikings introduced the breed to many countries across Europe and even perhaps North America.

Dogs

The next most common type of pets owned by the Vikings were dogs. Archaeological evidence from grave finds suggests that dogs were kept as pets by Vikings. They would have been used for hunting, companionship, as working animals and even as ‘War’ dogs.

Norwegian Elkhound.

Frigga, the Goddess of Fidelity and Marriage, wife of Odin was said to travel in her chariot pulled by a team of dogs. Thus according to Vikings, the dogs represent a perfect symbol of loyalty and faith towards their owner. Dogs are also part of Norwegian society today. But it was the Vikings who first kept dogs as pets in Norway and Denmark.

According to the Viking artifacts, the historians have found out that the dogs and owners were so attached to each other that they were buried side by side. Pictorial historical evidence shows that the Viking people had a good relationship with their dogs. The most common breed owned by the Vikings was somewhat related to the spitz; these dogs were hybrids of the Arctic Wolf and Southern Domestic dogs. There were several other dog breeds which were found later on by historians stated which illustrates the wide range of dog breeds that was present during the Viking age.

Norwegian Elkhound.

Some of them which were identified by the experts were:

  • Hunting dogs
  • Norwegian Elkhound
  • Karelian Bear Dog

These were some of the dog breeds owned by the Vikings during 8th to 11th century. Each had specialized skills. For example; the Elkhound was used for hunting deer and small animals, the Karelian Bear Dog, as it’s name suggests was bred for hunting bears.

Karelian Bear Dog.

Wild Animals

The Viking people utilised many wild animals. Animals such as hawks, cattle, sheep and many others have been recorded by historians over the years. Vikings attempted to domesticate many wild animals such as bears. For instance, they would send a hunting party to capture a young bear that had been caught in a trap. The bear would be reared and semi-domesticated.

It isn’t entirely clear how the adult bear was used by Viking communities, however it is possible that these creatures may have been kept for entertainment or used as a training tool for the Karelian Bear Dog.  Hawks and Falcons were also used by the Vikings. They were trained and used as hunting tools, much like the Falconers of today. The Vikings considered falcons as the kings of birds.

Accipiter gentilis, Scandinavian Goshawk, Hønsehauk. 56cm.

Cattle and Farm Animals

Certain livestock were typical and unique to the Vikings, including the Icelandic horse, Icelandic cattle, a plethora of sheep breeds, the Danish hen and the Danish goose. The Vikings in York mostly ate beef, mutton, and pork with small amounts of horse meat. Most of the beef and horse leg bones were found split lengthways, to extract the marrow. The mutton and swine were cut into leg and shoulder joints and chops. The frequent remains of pig skull and foot bones found on house floors indicate that brawn and trotters were also popular. Hens were kept for both their meat and eggs, and the bones of game birds such as the black grouse, golden plover, wild ducks, and geese have also been found.

An Icelandic cow, in a pasture with Icelandic sheep.

Seafood was important, in some places even more so than meat. Whales and walrus were hunted for food in Norway and the north-western parts of the North Atlantic region, and seals were hunted nearly everywhere. Oysters, mussels and shrimps were eaten in large quantities and cod and salmon were popular fish. In the southern regions, herring was also important.

The invention and introduction of the mouldboard plough revolutionised agriculture in Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and made it possible to farm even poor soils.

The Medieval mouldboard plough.

In Ribe, grains of rye, barley, oat and wheat dated to the 8th century have been found and examined, and are believed to have been cultivated locally.

Ribe is a Danish town in south-west Jutland.

Grains and flour were used for making porridges, some cooked with milk, some cooked with fruit and sweetened with honey, and also various forms of bread.

Remains of bread from primarily Birka in Sweden were made of barley and wheat. It is unclear if the Norse leavened their breads, but their ovens and baking utensils suggest that they did. Flax was a very important crop for the Vikings: it was used for oil extraction, food consumption and most importantly the production of linen. More than 40% of all known textile recoveries from the Viking Age can be traced as linen. This suggests a much higher actual percentage, as linen is poorly preserved compared to wool for example.

References

 

The Viking Siege of Paris (885-886)

The Siege of Paris of 885–886 was part of a Viking raid on the Seine, in the Kingdom of the West Franks. The siege was the most important event of the reign of Charles the Fat, and a turning point in the fortunes of the Carolingian dynasty and the history of France.

It also proved to the Franks the strategic importance of Paris, at a time when it also was one of the largest cities in France. The siege is the subject of an eyewitness account in the Latin poem Bella Parisiacae urbis of Abbo Cernuus.

With hundreds of ships, and possibly tens of thousands of men, the Vikings arrived outside Paris in late November 885, at first demanding tribute. This was denied by Odo, Count of Paris, despite the fact that he could assemble only a couple of hundred soldiers to defend the city. The Vikings attacked with a variety of siege engines, but failed to break through the city walls after some days of intense attacks. The siege was upheld after the initial attacks, but without any significant offence for months after the attack. As the siege went on, most of the Vikings left Paris to pillage further upriver. The Vikings made a final unsuccessful attempt to take the city during the summer, and in October, Charles the Fat arrived with his army.

To the frustration of the Parisians who had fought for a long time to defend the city, Charles stopped short of attacking the Viking besiegers, and instead allowed them to sail further up the Seine to raid Burgundy (which was in revolt), as well as promising a payment of 700 livres (257 kg) of silver. Odo, highly critical of this, tried his best to defy the promises of Charles, and when Charles died in 888, Odo was elected the first non-Carolingian king of the Franks.

Although the Vikings had attacked parts of Francia previously, they reached Paris for the first time in 845, eventually sacking the city. They attacked Paris three times more in the 860s, leaving only when they had acquired sufficient loot or bribes. In 864, by the Edict of Pistres, bridges were ordered built across the Seine at Pîtres and in Paris, where two were built, one on each side of the Île de la Cité. These would serve admirably in the siege of 885. The chief ruler in the region around Paris (the Île-de-France) was the duke of Francia (who was also count of Paris), who controlled the lands between the Seine and Loire.Odo,

Originally this was Robert the Strong, margrave of Neustria and missus dominicus for the Loire Valley. He began fortifying the capital and fought the Norsemen continuously until his death in battle against them at Brissarthe. Although his son Odo succeeded him, royal power declined. However, Paris continued to be fortified but due to local rather than royal initiative.

Meanwhile, West Francia suffered under a series of short-reigning kings after the death of Charles the Bald in 877. This situation prevailed until 884, when Charles the Fat, already King of Germany and Italy, became king, and hopes were raised of a reunification of Charlemagne’s empire. It had been thought that the Franks had gained an upper hand against the Vikings after the victory of Louis III at the Battle of Saucourt in 881, but in 885, a year after the succession of Charles, the Vikings launched their most massive attack on Paris yet.

Charles the Fat.

Danish Vikings under Sigfred and Sinric sailed towards West Francia again in 885, having raided the north-eastern parts of the country before. Sigfred demanded a bribe from Charles, but was refused, and promptly led 700 ships up the Seine, carrying perhaps as many as 30,000 or 40,000 men. The number, the largest ever recorded for a Viking fleet in contemporary sources, originates from Abbo Cernuus.

Although an eyewitness, there is general agreement among historians that Abbo’s numbers are “a gross exaggeration,” with Abbo being “in a class of his own as an exaggerator.” Historian C. W. Previté-Orton has instead put the number of ships at 300, and John Norris at “some 300.” Although the Franks tried to block the Vikings from sailing up the Seine, the Vikings eventually managed to reach Paris.

Paris at this time was a town on an island, known today as Île de la Cité. Its strategic importance came from the ability to block ships’ passage with its two low-lying foot bridges, one of wood and one of stone. Not even the shallow Viking ships could pass Paris because of the bridges. Odo, Count of Paris prepared for the arrival of the Vikings by fortifying the bridgehead with two towers guarding each bridge.

He was low on men, having no more than 200 men-at-arms available (also according to Abbo Cernuus), but led a joint defence with Gozlin, Bishop of Paris (the first “fighting bishop” in medieval literature), and had the aid of his brother, Robert, two counts and a marquis.

Paris – Ile de la Cité, clearly showing the island where the City was situated during the 9th Century.

The Vikings arrived in Paris on 24 or 25 November 885, initially asking for tribute from the Franks. When this was denied, they began a siege. On 26 November the Danes attacked the northeast tower with ballistae, mangonels, and catapults. They were repulsed by a mixture of hot wax and pitch.

All Viking attacks that day were repulsed, and during the night the Parisians constructed another storey on the tower. On 27 November the Viking attack included mining, battering rams, and fire, but to no avail. Bishop Gozlin entered the fray with a bow and an axe. He planted a cross on the outer defences and exhorted the people.

His brother Ebles also joined the fighting. The Vikings withdrew after the failed initial attacks and built a camp on the right side of the river bank, using stone as construction material. While preparing for new attacks, the Vikings also started constructing additional siege engines. In a renewed assault, they shot a thousand grenades against the city, sent a ship for the bridge, and made a land attack with three groups.

The forces surrounded the bridgehead tower, possibly mainly aiming to bring down the river obstacle. While they tried setting fire to the bridge, they also attacked the city itself with siege engines.

For two months the Vikings maintained the siege, making trenches and provisioning themselves off the land. In January 886 they tried to fill the river shallows with debris, plant matter, and the bodies of dead animals and dead prisoners to try to get around the tower. They continued this for two days. On the third day they set three ships alight and guided them towards the wooden bridge.

The burning ships sank before they could set the bridge on fire, but the wooden construction was nonetheless weakened. On 6 February, rains caused the debris-filled river to overflow and the bridge supports to give way. The bridge gone, the northeast tower was now isolated with only twelve defenders inside. The Vikings asked the twelve to surrender, but they refused, and were all subsequently killed.

The Vikings left a force around Paris, but many ventured further to pillage Le Mans, Chartres, Evreux and into the Loire. Odo successfully slipped some men through Norse lines to go to Italy and plead with Charles to come to their aid. Henry, Count of Saxony, Charles’ chief man in Germany, marched to Paris. Weakened by marching during the winter, Henry’s soldiers made only one abortive attack in February before retreating.

The besieged forces sallied forth and to obtain supplies. Morale of the besiegers was low and Sigfred asked for sixty pounds of silver. He left the siege in April. Another Viking leader, Rollo, stayed behind with his men. In May, disease began to spread in the Parisian ranks and Gozlin died. Odo then slipped through Viking-controlled territory to petition Charles for support; Charles consented.

Rollo, (Clive Standen) as depicted in the History Channels hit TV series ‘Vikings’.

Odo fought his way back into Paris and Charles and Henry of Saxony marched northward. Henry died after he fell into the Viking ditches, where he was captured and killed.

That summer, the Danes made a final attempt to take the city, but were repulsed. The imperial army arrived in October and scattered the Vikings. Charles encircled Rollo and his army and set up a camp at Montmartre. However, Charles had no intention of fighting. He allowed the Vikings to sail up the Seine to ravage Burgundy, which was in revolt. When the Vikings withdrew from France the next spring, he gave them 700 livres (pounds) of silver as promised, amounting to approximately 257 kg.

Aftermath

The Parisians and Odo refused to let the Vikings down the Seine, and the invaders had to drag their boats overland to the Marne in order to leave the country. When Charles died in 888, the French elected Odo as their king. Odo’s brother was later elected king as well. Throughout the next century the Robertians, descendants of Robert the Strong, fought the Carolingians for the French throne. Their duchy (Francia) gave its name to the Kingdom of France and the Carolingian Empire was never again reconstituted.

References

The Saga; Old Norse narrative of achievements and events in the history of the Vikings

Sagas are stories mostly about ancient Nordic and Germanic history, about early Viking voyages, the battles that took place during the voyages, about migration to Iceland and of feuds between Icelandic families. They were written in the Old Norse language, mainly in Iceland.

The texts are tales in prose which share some similarities with the epic, often with stanzas or whole poems in alliterative verse embedded in the text, of heroic deeds of days long gone, “tales of worthy men,” who were often Vikings, sometimes pagan, sometimes Christian. The tales are usually realistic, except legendary sagas, sagas of saints, sagas of bishops and translated or recomposed romances. They are sometimes romanticised and fantastic.

Excerpt from Beowulf

The term saga originates from the Norse saga (pl. sögur), and refers to (1) “what is said, statement” or (2) “story, tale, history”. It is cognate with the English word saw (as in old saw), and the German Sage. Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions and much research has focused on what is real and what is fiction within each tale. The accuracy of the sagas is often hotly disputed. Most of the manuscripts in which the sagas are preserved were taken to Denmark and Sweden in the 17th century, but later returned to Iceland. Classic sagas were composed in the 13th century. Scholars once believed that these sagas were transmitted orally from generation to generation until scribes wrote them down in the 13th century. However, most scholars now believe the sagas were conscious artistic creations, based on both oral and written tradition. A study focusing on the description of the items of clothing mentioned in the sagas concludes that the authors attempted to create a historic “feel” to the story, by dressing the characters in what was at the time thought to be “old fashioned clothing”. However, this clothing is not contemporary with the events of the saga as it is a closer match to the clothing worn in the 12th century.

There are plenty of tales of kings (e.g. Heimskringla), everyday people (e.g. Bandamanna saga) and larger than life characters (e.g. Egils saga). The sagas describe a part of the history of some of the Nordic countries (e.g. the last chapter of Hervarar saga). The British Isles, northern France and North America are also mentioned. It was only recently (start of 20th century) that the tales of the voyages to North America (modern day Canada) were authenticated.

Most sagas of Icelanders take place in the period 930–1030, which is called söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The sagas of kings, bishops, contemporary sagas have their own time frame. Most were written down between 1190 and 1320, sometimes existing as oral traditions long before, others are pure fiction, and for some we do know the sources: the author of King Sverrir‘s saga had met the king and used him as a source.

Excerpt from Njáls saga in the Möðruvallabók (AM 132 folio 13r) c. 1350.

Norse sagas are generally classified as: the Kings’ sagas (Konungasögur), sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur), Short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir), Contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur or Samtímasögur), Legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur), Chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur), Saints’ sagas (Heilagra manna sögur) and bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur).

Dronning Ragnhilds drøm (Queen Ragnhild’s dream) from Snorre Sturlassons Kongesagaer by Erik Werenskiold, c. 1899

Kings’ sagas are of the lives of Scandinavian kings. They were composed in the 12th to 14th centuries. The Icelanders’ sagas (Íslendinga sögur), a.k.a. Family Sagas, are stories of real events, passed in oral form till they eventually were recorded, mostly in the 13th century. These are the highest form of the classical Icelandic saga writing. Some well-known examples include Njáls saga, Laxdæla saga and Grettis saga. The material of the Short tales of Icelanders sagas is similar to Íslendinga sögur, in shorter form. The narratives of the Contemporary Sagas are set in 12th- and 13th-century Iceland, and were written soon after the events they describe. Most are preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga, though some, such as Arons saga Hjörleifssonar are preserved separately. Legendary Sagas blend remote history with myth or legend. The aim is on a lively narrative and entertainment. Scandinavia’s pagan past was a proud and heroic history for the Icelanders. Chivalric sagas are translations of Latin pseudo-historical works and French chansons de geste as well as native creations in the same style.

While sagas are generally anonymous, a distinctive literary movement in the 14th century involves sagas, mostly on religious topics, with identifiable authors and a distinctive Latinate style. Associated with Iceland’s northern diocese of Hólar, this movement is known as the North Icelandic Benedictine School (Norðlenski Benediktskólinn).

Other

“Saga” is a word originating from Old Norse or Icelandic language (“Saga” is also the modern Icelandic and Swedish word for “story” or, especially in Swedish, fairytale). Saga is a cognate of the English word say: its various meanings in Icelandic are approximately equivalent to “something said” or “a narrative in prose”, along the lines of a “story”, “tale” or “history”. Through the centuries, the word saga has gained a broader meaning in Nordic languages. In contemporary Swedish and Danish it describes a non-realistic or epic work of fiction. Folksaga means folk tale; a fairy tale by an unknown author, in Swedish and Danish. Konstsaga is the Swedish term for a fairy tale by a known author, such as Hans Christian Andersen or Astrid Lindgren, while the Danish and Norwegian term is eventyr (“adventure”).

Saga can also be a work of fantasy fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings series was translated into Swedish by Åke Ohlmarks with the title Sagan om ringen: “The Saga of the Ring”. The 2004 translation was titled Ringarnas herre, a literal translation from the original. Icelandic journalist Þorsteinn Thorarensen (1926–2006) translated the work into Hringadróttins saga meaning “Saga of the Lord of the Rings”.

In Swedish history, the term sagokung, “saga king” is intended to be ambiguous, as it describes the semi-legendary kings of Sweden, who are known only from unreliable, probably fictional, sources.

In Faroese, the word underwent U-umlaut becoming søga, and adopted a wider meaning. In addition to saga, it also covers terms such as history, tale, story.

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