History Lesson: Birth of the Normans

Rooster dives into the history of how the Normans came to be on this edition of History Lesson.

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Preserve us and ours, O God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms” – Antiphony of St. Vaast (ca 870)

By the late 700s AD, the Vikings had been attacking Northern Europe for two centuries, leaving coastal cities and monasteries ravaged and spreading a reputation of their pagan barbarism. They were one of the few peoples of Europe not Christianized at this point, wearing bear or wolf pelts and resorting to fighting with their hands and teeth if they lost their weapon. Their bestial nature had a tremendous psychological effect on their targets. Kingdoms were terrified of them.

Paris still retained the immense wealth of Charlemagne’s reign, but his weak and inept descendants who ruled after him made the city a very appetizing target. Vikings typically attacked in small bands, ideal for their standard hit and run style of warfare. However, in 881, the Franks (French) met the Vikings in a rare pitched battle and killed approximately eight thousand of them. After that humiliating defeat, the frequent raids on the Frankish Empire dwindled until four years later when around thirty thousand Vikings returned outside of Paris’s walls, insulted by the previous defeat and more determined than ever to take their prize. When the Franks tried speaking with a solitary leader, they found that the Vikings had no such person that could be recognized as a ‘king’, only a collection of bands united in their pursuit of plunder and completely uninterested in negotiations.

Despite the size of the Viking horde, the formidable Parisian defenses held back the fierce onslaught. After a year-long siege with no progress into Paris, many of the Vikings left for easier pickings. One minor leader stood out among the remaining raiders due to his ambition, determination, and sheer physical size: a large Norwegian jarl called Hrolf or Rollo.

Over the years, the Franks had lost 1/3 of their wealth to the Vikings, so Charles the Simple took a different approach to end the siege and offered Rollo a chunk of northern territory around the river Seine and the city of Rouen. In return, Rollo converted to Christianity and promised to end his raiding of Frankish land. The proposition initially insulted Pagans and Christians alike, but this solution proved profitable to both parties. Rollo, a middle aged man, likely wanted to settle down with some territory and power, and who better to protect the inland Parisians from Viking raiders than other Vikings? Rollo accepted the treaty and became the first Duke of the Northman’s Duchy, or “Normandy”.

An intelligent and adaptable man, Rollo knew that he could not force the local people to accept him easily. He did his best to integrate rather than alienate his new subjects, and he began to go by his new Christian name, Robert. He married a local woman and encouraged his Viking army to do the same. The savage raiders showed a remarkable flexibility, trading their former pillaging ways for knighthood. Their descendants soon spoke only French and believed only in the Christian God. The wanderlust, ingenuity, and fighting prowess of the Vikings combined with the fervent Christian faith and culture of the Franks to create the Normans: an extremely enterprising people that helped Western Europe not only catch up with, but surpass the Middle East in terms of military and technology.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

Check out the SoBros Shop. Become a Patron. Give us money for no reason. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter @SoBrosNetwork. Watch on YouTube. Image courtesy of Steinar Engeland on Unsplash!

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