Vikings and Normans

A third German influence on Medieval Europe was the Vikings, and their successors the Normans . Actually, the word "Viking" refers to an occupation, that is slipping up little streams and creeks --viks-- to plunder unsuspecting villages. The people commonly called Vikings were the Norse, a Scandinavian sea faring people from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. In effect, they were the Germans who stayed behind, as many of the German tribes can be traced back to Sweden and Denmark. The same population pressures that caused the tribes to leave Scandinavia several centuries before the birth of Christ, continued. In the meantime, the Scandinavians perfected their ship building technology and produced a light, swift sailing ship that could also use oars to good effect. This, the Viking long ship, was originally intended for trade. The Vikings were, basically, traders. But they were also fierce warriors and soon noted that many of the places they came upon in Europe were wealthy, and undefended. By the late 8th century, Viking ships came to raid first, and trade if the locals were too well armed. The 8th century was a period when Europe was still getting itself organized after the demise of Roman rule in the 5th century. While Charlemagne might control most of France and Germany, he did not have enough troops available to deal with the Vikings.

Indeed, it's questionable if the Romans would have been able to deal with the Vikings. Interestingly enough, the Romans did have, at times, serious problems with large scale piracy in the Meditteranean. In the 1st century BC, they launched a major military campaign to conquer the areas the pirates were using as bases. The Vikings were fiercer than any of the Meditteranean pirates and their home bases were far to the north in Norway and Denmark. No Roman army or fleet had ever attempted to operate that far north. The Romans did not like the north European Winters and generally did not try to occupy lands so afflicted. We'll never know how the Romans would have dealt with Vikings, but it's an interesting issue to speculate about.

What eventually stopped the Viking raids, in the early 10th century, was the unification of Norway, and the earlier establishment of Viking settlements in the lands that they had previously just plundered during the warm weather. The Vikings set up housekeeping in three main areas, the Normandy region of France, eastern England, and eastern Ireland. The Irish settlements had no impact on later European history, but the English, and particularly the French ones, did.

Britain (Britannia to the Romans) was one of the more thinly populated and distant Roman provinces. Less than a million Celts were romanized over three centuries before the last Roman legion left in the early 5th century The romanized Britons (who still spoke Celtic languages, as well as Latin ) continued to be raided by the Picts and Celts from Scotland and Ireland. Having depended on professional Roman soldiers for centuries, the Britions were unable to deal with these raids and in desperation called in Germans (Saxons, Jutes, and Angles, for the most part) from northwestern Germany and Denmark (areas still known as Saxony and Jutland, the Angles living in the '"angle" between the two) to help them out. This turned out to be a big mistake, because the Germans were so impressed by the place that they went back for their families (and more warriors) and came back to take Britain for their own. In the process, most of Brittania became England (from "Angleland"). The Germans drove out some of Celtic Britons (who fled to places like Cornwall, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Brittany) and mixed in with the rest to produce the English, who spoke a German dialect that has evolved into modern English. The Germans were pagans, and the Christian Britons had little success in converting them. That would come later when missionaries from Rome arrived. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons established seven kingdoms and proceeded to quarrel among themselves.

Just as the Germans were settling down in their new British homes, along came the Viking raids, from the late 7th century into the early 10th century. The Vikings soon found the area quite livable and Danish settlers moved into the northeastern areas and began carving out their own kingdom during the 9th century, a matter which greatly eased the Viking pressure on Britain, since the local Vikings objected to having their newfound lands devastated by the occasional visitors from Vikingland. During the 10th century, one king (a German-English fellow) named Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899) united most of England.

The Vikings also found Ireland easy pickings. Ireland, not a very prosperous or densely populated (about 300,000 people) place, received several thousand Viking settlers, who were soon absorbed into the native Celtic population.

While some Vikings were establishing themselves in Britain and Ireland, another group did the same in the coastal region of France, around the mouth of the river Seine. In effect, the Vikings in this region allowed themselves to be bought off by the king of France. These Vikings had quite a bit of leverage. Beginning in 896 they had sailed up the Seine and laid siege to Paris several times and were constantly expanding the area they pillaged. The French kings, even Charlemagne, were unable to stop the plundering. When the French noted the increasing number of Viking settlements along the coast, they feared the worst. But the Vikings were wearying of the raids. French defenses were becoming more effective and Viking losses were increasing. So a deal was struck in 912. The French would recognize the Vikings possession of the land they had already settled (plus a bit more) and make the Viking leader, one Rollo, a French noble. In return, the Viking duke would convert to Christianity, acknowledge the French king as his overlord and, protect France against wilder Vikings. Thus was born Normandy.

The Normans were quick to become French, particularly since they were a minority in their new dutchy and a disproportionate number of the new people were young male Vikings who took local women for wives. After a few generations, the Norwegian language and customs were fading fast and the Normans were French. But they were French with a difference. While their language and other habits may have changed, the Normans were still, like all Vikings, supreme opportunists. Then William, the duke of Normandy in the 1060s, talked his way into a claim on the English throne. The king of Norway was doing the same thing. An English noble, Harold, also thought he had a lock on the crown once the king died. When the king, Edward the Confessor did die, in 1066, Harold defeated the king of Norway's invading army, but was in turn defeated by duke William and his invading Normans.

Meanwhile, for several generations, some footloose Normans had been drifting into Italy. By the time duke William was taking England, other Norman lords were making their own conquests in southern Italy and Sicily, clearing out the Byzantines, Lombards, and Moslems. These Normans established a kingdom which would endure until the mid-19th century, covering southern Italy and called the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. This was done with papal encouragement, as the Normans not only subdued the Lombards and expelled the Greeks and Arabs from Italy, but served as a useful balance against the Italian nobles who had designs on the pope's lands. As with England, the Normans in Italy eventually went native and became Italians.

So it was the Vikings who settled in France who proved the most successful. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the manner in which the Norwegian-French William, duke of Normandy, conquered all of England and established a line of kings and queens that is still on the throne. This feat was carried off little more than a hundred years from the time that the first Viking settlements were established in France. The Vikings who had settled in France, now speaking French and called Normans, had come a long way from thinly populated (200,000 people) and rather poverty stricken Norway. They had carved out a nice piece of property for themselves in northwestern France early in the 10th century, taken England in the mid-11th century, and now they ruled some two million people in England and France, while some of them had gone to Italy in the 1th century and built yet another kingdom (with another million people) in southern Italy and Sicily. Not bad for a bunch of sea raiders.

The Vikings (Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes) had done much with little. Taking a unique boat design (their "long ships") and a lust for travel and combat, they laid waste to large areas of Ireland, England, France, Spain, Germany, and Russia, even raiding Persia and parts of North Africa. The total population of Scandinavia barely reached a million during this period, and only a few percent of these would be off raiding in any one year. Yet in the century or so of their raiding and pillaging, they ended up taking control of vast territories containing millions of people.

The Vikings went in all directions. They discovered Iceland in 860, and began colonizing it in 874. Their descendants are still there. Greenland was discovered in 982, and colonized in 1000. Shortly thereafter, North America was also discovered, but settlements did not last long. While iceland was supporting some 50,000 people by 1000, Greenland's population never rose above 3,000 and the North American venture never panned out, the few settlers being largely drawn from the Iceland and Greenland settlements. When the Northern hemisphere's climate turned cold again beginning around 1300, the Greenland colony lost touch with the motherland and graducally died out. Only the Eskimos could survive in the arctic conditions which prevailed there, as the Vikings needed a longer warm season for their grain crops.

What is most ironic about this is that, a thousand years before the Viking raids began, the tribes that would become known as the Germans, also left Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden) It was quite an exodus, both the first one and the later one. Europe was never the same after the Germans and Vikings went south.