The Mysterious Genesis of the Normans

Gaelic Ireland very different from its European neighbours in that it had not been colonised by the Romans and was in many ways a pre-early modern society without the typical Roman imprint of cities, bureaucracy or even much church organisation, either local or ultramontane.  But like its neighbours it was ruptured by two shocks in the early medieval period.  The first was the arrival of Vikings in the ninth century and the second the arrival of the Normans in the twelfth.  Indeed, the Normans fought the Vikings for possession of Dublin, itself a product of Viking settlement like all the other cities and towns in Ireland at the time – Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.

Yet here’s the odd thing: the Normans were originally Norsemen, in other words Vikings.  They had settled on the Seine in 911.  By the time the Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169, they were profoundly different from their forebears.  The spoke French, were aristocratic, fought in highly disciplined formations, used fortifications as primary means of conquest, were socially organised by feudalism and held land as feudal magnates, were highly literate, and were the avatars of European chivalry.  The Norman kings and lords were engaged in a symbiotic and powerful partnership with the Church that was fundamental to the rise of the nation state as we know it.  By the time Strongbow had landed in Ireland in 1170, the Normans had ruled England for over a hundred years and the Angevin domain under Henry II ran from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees.  Norman lords had captured (and lost) Jerusalem, had established a maritime state at Antioch, seized control of Calabria and Sicily, and established footholds in North Africa. When the Normans faced off against the Vikings in Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, it was as if across a vast evolutionary leap.  By what mysterious process had this leap occurred?

Quite why Vikings turned from farming, fishing, and trading to raiding and plundering remains a mystery.  What we know of Viking society comes from archaeology, sagas and runic inscriptions, none of which shed much light on socio-economic dynamics.  But raid they did where societies were weak and unable to mount adequate defences.  After the death of Louis the Pius, Charlemagne’s son and successor, the civil wars that engulfed the Carolinginian Empire allowed the Vikings to raid again Western Europe. The long coastline of Neustria Province (in the new kingdom of West Frankia) was particularly vulnerable as Charlemagne’s grandson and now king, Charles the Bald, was unable to mount an effective defensive system as his grandfather had done.  Vikings repeatedly raided up the Seine from the 840s to the 890s, driving monastic settlements out of the valley and repeatedly threatening Paris.  Charles paid them off with Danegold (a tribute to ensure departure).

Of course the Vikings came back, wintering regularly on the Seine and raiding south and west deep into the Provinces.  By 860 Charles the Bald had learned that the most effective way to stop the raids was for to fortify towns and bridges; in other words to rebuild the Roman fortifications.  He did this with the help of the Church which had, ironically, often stripped Roman walls to build churches during the rule of Charlemagne and his son, Louis the Pious when the region had been was stable and protected.  Roman local government structures and models of bureaucracy had survived in the form of Church and it was the Church and its educated bishops that provided the officialdom for Charlemagne and later kings to manage their realms.  Charles now looked to strengthen local government, replicating his grandfather’s efforts, the better to organise defences against the Vikings.  West Frankia was, however, damned to endure Viking raids because of leaders too weak (with names like Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat, Charles the Bald and so on, not greatly surprising) to wrest control from powerful local magnates.

It is generally held that the Viking migrations occurred in three phases.  The first was raiding and plundering; the second the extortion of Danegold; and the third settlement. At some point during the transition from the ninth to the tenth century, Scandinavians settled along the lower Seine.  This may have been facilitated by the withdrawal of the local population, under the orders of King Odo, to repopulate and fortify Rouen.  Rouen was the first place along the river where fortification was possible and a key to the defence of Paris, the emergent capital of an emergent nation state.  Be that as it may, the settlement was associated with one leading Viking figure, Rollo, “the founder of Normandy”. [Francois Neveux, A Brief History of the Normans, the conquests that changed the face of Europe (Robinson, 2006) p. 57.  My account is drawn from Neveux’s mainly, supplemented by the more circumspect Leonie V. Hicks’ A Short History of the Normans and W.L. Warren’s magnificent biography of Henry II.  For the Angevin context, see my previous blog on this.  For the role of Normans in teh evolution of chivalry, see Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshall, The Greatest Knight, the remarkable William Marshall, The Power behind Five English Thrones.  Marshall was of course a major figure in the early phase of the Norman conquest of Ireland.]

According to Neveux, based on a history of Normandy commissioned and written between 1015 and 1026 by Dudo of Saint-Quentin, Rollo was a Norwegian leading a war party of Danes supported by some Anglo-Saxons.  In a pattern that the Normans would repeat over successive conquests, including Ireland, Rollo was granted an extensive tract of land in exchange for protection from other enemies while he married into the local Frankish aristocracy.

It was not a smooth process – Rollo left for many years only to return and attack Paris.  When he was defeated at the battle of Chartres, it was politic to sign a deal, the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911. The lands granted to him stretched from the river Epte, a tributary of the Seine, to the sea.  To sweeten the deal, Rollo was given permission to plunder Brittany, paving the way for its eventual incorporation into Normandy.  Rollo also agreed that he and his followers would convert to Christianity; indeed conversion was a seen a key factor in sealing alliances not least because the state itself was a product of the partnership between secular leaders and the Church. Conversion was, notes Neveaux, “a sine qua non of integration into the Frankish world”. Rollo paid homage to the king, Charles the Simple, and was granted the lands not in fiefdom but as hereditary, a critical distinction and sign of Rollo’s leverage.  Rollo, in another act that would be repeated by the Normans, granted lands to the monasteries in his new domain.  (In subsequent years, Frankish magnates bordering Normandy granted lands to monasteries to block Norman encroachment.)  In return, Rollo agreed to protect the Franks from attacks by his Viking kinsmen.  In this way, the Franks plugged a major gap in their defences as their new Scandinavians allies and Frankish locals settled down in what would be henceforth known as the duchy Normandy.  An additional advantage for the Franks was that the growing power of the Normans would finally put manners on the troublesome Bretons further west.

Rollo personally manifests an amazing transformation from pillaging Viking to resplendent feudal lord, integrated into Frankish aristocracy, sworn in fealty to the king, servant of the Church, and master of an autonomous principality with Rouen as its capital.  He did not know it at the time, but his acceptance of this new role was a key development in the evolution of both England and France as nation states.

Neveux writes that Normandy would soon grow “to include almost the whole ecclesiastical province of Rouen, the former second Provincia Lugudensis” of Roman Gaul. It is as if the palimpsest of Roman civilisation was flooded again with energy, its circuitry revivified by the energy of Rollo and his Norsemen.  Is this the key to the transformation of the Normans and the awesome power they wielded in the following centuries?  Were the Normans the second coming of the Romans?  And if so, can we see in the Norman conquest of Ireland a glimpse of what might have been had Roman legions landed in Hiberia?  More anon.



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One response to “The Mysterious Genesis of the Normans

  1. Hi Eamon

    Interesting post on the Normans. I enjoyed it.

    You might be interested in the attached, my latest brace of articles. Twenty Five Years On is about the collapse of Jugoslavia and the War in Croatia. A Step Too Far is about two Irish issues – Abortion and Votes for Emigrants. Who would have thought a few years ago there would actually be debate in the Dail on proposals for Abortion on Demand and that the Fianna Fail leader would come out in favour? On the Votes for Emigrants issue I’m not at all sure how that will pan out and what the result of any referendum will be. And, lest we forget, Irish Ambassadors and diplomats serving abroad were excluded from voting in Irish elections until the late 1980s.

    kind regards

    Sean 21/1/18

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