The Viking Age is generally agreed to have ended, as far as England was concerned, on 25 September 1066, when Harald Harðráði, or ‘Hardline Harald’, was killed and his army all but annihilated at Stamford Bridge. This put an end to the steady progress of the Vikings from raiders to settlers to would-be conquerors: an attempted invasion by King Sweyn of Denmark three years later was abortive, and though Norwegians continued for many years to control the Scottish islands in the far North, their effect on the British mainland was negligible.
But if you take a more romantic view, the First Viking Age was succeeded within three weeks by the start of a Second Age, with the victory of William of Normandy at Hastings. By 1100, Norman princes ruled not only England and most of Wales, with much of Scotland and Ireland soon to follow, but also Apulia and Calabria in southern Italy, and Sicily. They had started the process of picking off parts of the Byzantine Empire, and a Norman prince was ruler of Antioch in the Levant. They were to play a significant part in the reconquest of Spain and Portugal from the Muslims, and had ambitions even in North Africa. Who were the Normans, after all, but the men of the North, descended from pagan pirates?
Historians have long taken a different view, summed up almost fifty years ago by Ralph Davis in The Normans and Their Myth. The story of a Norman diaspora with a shared Viking ancestry, he suggests, is a fairly late creation of the 12th century, when ‘Normanness’ was beginning to fade and needed something of a boost. It can be seen, for instance, in Ailred of Rievaulx’s account from the 1150s about the Battle of the Standard (fought against the Scots in 1138). Ailred gives Walter Espec, the high sheriff of Yorkshire, an unlikely pre-battle speech. ‘Why should we despair of victory, when victory has been given to our race, as if in fee, by the Almighty?’ Our ancestors, he continues, conquered Normandy, beat the French of Maine, Anjou, Aquitaine, conquered Britain and Apulia and Calabria and Sicily, and put to flight the emperors of both East and West on the same day. What have we to fear from King David and ‘his half-naked natives’?
If Walter Espec did say anything of this sort, his words wouldn’t have meant much to his English levies. Some of it is simply false, such as the same-day defeat of both emperors (the events were in fact two years apart, in 1081 and 1083). But in an account of an Anglo-Norman expedition against Lisbon, in 1147, a similar speech is credited to Hervey de Glanville: ‘Recalling the virtues of our ancestors, we ought to strive to increase the honour and glory of our race … For who does not know that the race of the Normans declines no labour in the continual practice of valour?’ This is also no doubt invented, but both chroniclers must have thought it was the kind of speech, and the kind of appeal to race-pride, that their rulers desired.
The Normans’ name and origin myth date back to 911, when – according to Norman historians – Charles the Simple of France ceded the land between the river Epte and the sea to a Viking leader called Rollo or Rou (or, according to his own deeply unreliable saga, Hrolfr, known as Göngu-Hrolfr, or ‘Hrolf the Walker’, because he was so big that no horse could carry him). There is no doubt that what is now Normandy did receive a large number of Scandinavian settlers: as many as a hundred place names derive from Norse personal names, including La Hastinguerie, Havardière, La Quetterie and Le Mesnil-Opac, from Hasteinn, Havarthr, Ketill and Ospakr. The Scandinavian connection was kept up for a while, and remained a point of pride, but ethnicity was inevitably diluted and the incomers adopted French and Christian culture with surprising speed, as is clear from the accounts of 1066 in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. To the chronicler, the Normanni are Harald’s Norwegians, while William of Normandy’s men are the Frencyscan, the French.
This seems to have happened all over. Modern historians write, or used to write, of the ‘Norman’ invasion of Ireland: to the Irish, however, the intruders were either Gaill, ‘foreigners’, or Sagsannaich, ‘Saxons’. In the Byzantine world, Normans were ‘Franks’, and to the Scots they were English. Like the Vikings, the Normans didn’t maintain an empire but were assimilated where they invaded. What then remains of their myth of multiple conquests?
Two recent books take different views. As Levi Roach’s subtitle suggests, he follows what one might call the triumphal line – for which there is a great deal of evidence. Take family names, for example. The two contenders for the Scottish throne in the 12th century were the families of de Brus and de Bailleul (Bruces and Balliols). The kings of Sicily and rulers of southern Italy were the de Hautevilles, and the names de Lacy, de Warenne, de Montgomery and de Clare recur in accounts of conquest.
Roach considers one area at a time: first England, then Italy, then Byzantine involvement and the First Crusade, then the conquests of Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Other chapters take us to Iberia and North Africa (a step too far). The height of Norman power, in Roach’s view, was the accession in 1212 of Frederick II as king of the Germans, to add to his title of king of Sicily, with king of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor to come and, to cap it all, king of Jerusalem from 1225: a far cry from the village of Hauteville in the Cotentin and a (possible) Viking ancestor called Hjalti.
For Anglophone readers, the least familiar parts of this are the activities in the eastern Mediterranean (though they form the subject of Alfred Duggan’s Norman trilogy of novels). Roach writes that, some time before the year 1000, a group of Norman pilgrims found Salerno besieged by Saracens, borrowed horses and armour, drove them off, and decided to strike out for themselves. In an area divided between Lombard princes obedient to the pope, Byzantine governors obeying the emperor and Muslim amirs fighting for their own hand, the Normans saw an opportunity. They took advantage of it, eventually unifying themselves under William de Hauteville. At the battle of Civitate in 1053 – ‘a victory every bit as complete as that at Hastings’ – the Normans defeated the Lombards and papal forces, and captured the pope himself.
In the years after Civitate, they benefited from both the wealth and the weakness of the Byzantine Empire. A sequence of Norman adventurers entered imperial service, first as mercenaries, for pay, and then as rebels, for land: Hervé (full name not known), Robert Crispin (or ‘Curly’) and Roussel (‘Ginger’) de Bailleul. Roussel – the hero of Duggan’s Lady for Ransom – took part in the Byzantine campaign of 1071 against the invading Turks, which ended in disastrous defeat at Manzikert, but got away with his men and used the collapse of Byzantine power to set up an independent kingdom in what is now Anatolia. The Byzantines got the better of him, mostly by bribery, but the Byzantine historian Bryennios says his rule was so popular that when he was eventually captured, the future Emperor Alexios had to only pretend to blind him to escape the fury of the ‘rescued’ provincials. Among several reasons for the popularity of Norman rulers in the East were their relatively low taxes – no expensive imperial court to maintain – and their reliability as protectors, unlike the professional Byzantine soldiers, who might be transferred at any moment to some far frontier.
The dream of a Norman kingdom in Asia was revived at the end of the century with the First Crusade. One of the major figures was Bohemond de Hauteville, son of the conqueror of Sicily, Robert ‘Guiscard’ de Hauteville (‘Guiscard’ might mean ‘the Wily’ or perhaps ‘the Twister’). ‘Bohemond’ is another nickname, borrowed from a giant, because Bohemond was very tall: in her Alexiad, Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexios, writes that Bohemond was nearly a cubit taller than the tallest of other men. A cubit is around a foot and a half, which would make him at least seven feet tall: rather unlikely, but this is at least first-hand evidence from an eyewitness, even if she was only fourteen when they met. Like his predecessors, Bohemond gained experience fighting for and against the Byzantines in the Balkans, but when Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095, the Normans of the south were among those most enthusiastic to join up. Indeed, the whole idea of a Crusade to conquer Jerusalem probably had its origin in the Norman success in Muslim Sicily. Bohemond achieved his goal three years later by becoming, after a long siege, prince of Antioch, and his descendants and namesakes continued to rule for almost two hundred years.
The story of Norman conquest in the British Isles outside England is even more of a tangle, but it’s clear that Norman barons, especially the ‘marcher lords’ of the north and west, were adept at exploiting the chronic disunity of the Celtic lands, siding with one faction or another before moving in and taking over, while Norman kings in Westminster were quite happy for them to turn their energies away from England.
This is the story told by Roach, but it leaves important questions unanswered. If the Normans continued to be Normans, what was distinctive about them? What explains their success and how long did it last? These issues are more in focus in Judith Green’s book, which has a narrower chronological range. Her 220 pages of text are followed by sixty pages of endnotes and a forty-page bibliography. If you want to know the state of scholarly opinion, this is the place to start. It comes with a certain guardedness, however. For every academic opinion there is a counter-opinion: place-name studies need ‘careful handling’; rules of inheritance were probably ‘kept flexible’. When it comes to interactions between Norman lords and the populations they ruled, ‘there are no simple conclusions’. She finally arrives at the more difficult matters in a number of analytic chapters, beginning with ‘Power’.
The Normans, Green writes, had charismatic leaders such as William and Bohemond. They were good at logistics: William’s ‘greatest achievement’ in 1066 (as Roach acknowledges) was provisioning his fleet and army during the long weeks of waiting for a fair wind to Hastings. They were violent and sometimes cruel: when peasants in Normandy sent envoys to Duke Richard II to ask for the continuation of their customary rights to wood and water, his response was to send the envoys back without their hands and feet. The practice may have been inherited from Richard’s Viking forebears, who had a special word for such unfortunates: heimnar, ‘home-corpse’. But it isn’t clear that the Normans were more barbarous than anyone else in the early Middle Ages, and if they were, we can’t be sure that this was the reason for their success.
Green’s general conclusions are that the Normans were dynamic, opportunistic, well-led and ‘brutally efficient’. One might add, more impressionistically, but taking the impressions from Green’s account, that the Normans were very good at handing out the smack of firm government. The Old English state was well organised, unusually literate, good at coinage and taxes, but bumbling. Orders were disobeyed, there was internal friction and it was sometimes unclear who was in charge. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 892 reports that when the Vikings arrived at the mouth of the river Lympne, they landed without difficulty because the fort meant to guard it – part of King Alfred’s defence programme – was only half-built and feebly garrisoned. By contrast, the Normans got on with things. In England and Wales they built something like six hundred castles within forty years of the Conquest. It wouldn’t have been pleasant to have to report construction delays to a Norman marcher lord.
Green continues with chapters on ‘The Church’ and on ‘Buildings’, for both of which there is a great deal of evidence – documentary, in the shape of lavish endowments to churches and abbeys, and physical, in the shape of buildings such as the White Tower in London, made from stone imported from Caen, or Westminster Hall, finished in 1097 and for a century the largest in Western Europe. Once again it seems that while the Normans may not have been innovative themselves, they backed innovation, whether it was ecclesiastical reform, monastic constitutions, new religious orders such as the Cistercians and Augustinians or different styles of church-building borrowed from Byzantium and Rome. In a chapter on ‘Encounters’, Green comments on Norman attitudes to intermarriage, religious difference, law and literature, music and medicine, and women’s rights, concluding that Norman rulers adapted themselves to different situations and different subject populations in whatever way they thought best, without any ruling ideology.
It’s hard to see the Normans as ‘conquerors of Asia’, as Roach would have it. The Crusades may have been inspired by Norman conquests, and Normans did make conquests in Asia, but neither lasted. Outremer in the Holy Land was extinguished in 1291. It’s true that a de Villehardouin was for a while duke of Athens and Thebes (in Old French, Satines and Estives), while a de Bruyère ruled Sparta (Lacedaimon, or La Cremonie) and Frankish Achaea lasted almost until the Ottoman Conquest of 1460. But no trace after that of the principality of Lamorie, once and now again the Morea.
As for ‘makers of Europe’, one can perhaps say that Norman conquests had the effect of bringing outlying areas of Europe, such as Ireland and the British Isles, Sicily, southern Italy and Spain, into the mainstream of European civilisation. It’s sometimes suggested that the Normans popularised the cults of chivalry and courtesy, though Green is unconvinced. It is certainly hard to see the Normans, with their habit of penal mutilation, blinding and castration, as agents of a mission civilisatrice. And, looking back to their identity problem, in the end they had no identity left.
The last word of Davis’s book of 1976 is ‘disappeared’, of Roach’s book of 2022, ‘forgotten’. Roach says the Normans were ‘victims of their own success’, so much ‘part of the fabric of European society that they scarcely occasioned note’. Green sees them as opportunists who got lucky, several times. Reverting to a romantic view, one might say that the Normans entrenched what has been called ‘the Western way of war’ – the decisive head-on clash with no concern for manoeuvre. Anna Comnena, the admirer of Bohemond, remarked that a mounted and armoured Frankish lancer ‘would even make a hole in the walls of Babylon’. By Franks, Anna probably meant Normans specifically – she had observed Bohemond’s men training – but not excluding West Europeans generally. She notes, moreover, that while their charge was irresistible, they were vulnerable to what we would now call ‘asymmetric warfare’. This has been a feature of Euro-American culture ever since.
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