Monday, May 11, 2015

The Carolingian Catastrophe: The Failure of Charlemagne's Line Against the Vikings

Hello again, History Fans!
I have been revisiting the wonderful lecture series by Professer Harl. This is what ignited my passion in this subject, and I would urge anyone interested to give these lectures a shot!

Harl does an amazing job of summing up the utter failures of the Carolingian Empire against the Viking attacks, and we are going to poorly sum up his summation here for you. THIS WILL BE SUM BLOG POST, HUH?!

Let's start with Charlemagne. The first attacks began under Charlemagne's reign, including classic Viking sackings of monasteries. Then, a Danish sea king Godfried shows up just outside Frisia, and demands payment. If this isn't embarrassing enough, Godfried is threatening the immensely important commercial center of Dorestad. Ol' Chucky couldn't stand for this, so he marches towards the border with some troops and fortifies the area. This kinda works. Godfried is murdered by his own men, and the fortifications, though not fail proof, include an early warning system of beacons and barricades around the important ports. Charles thinks the threat is neutralized so he returns to his palace and dies.

So he's dead.

The importance of Dorestad

Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's son and LAST CHOICE for an heir, continues this mild success in the early parts of his reign. But he can't stop all of the attacks. The Vikings continue to pick off monasteries and coastal towns here and there but without much real importance. Then, things pick up in the 830s. Part of the reason for this is because Louis's sons are fighting between themselves over the empire. Nobody wants Lothar to rule the whole thing, so they want to split it up. The Vikings, those masters of chaos, know this and prey on this weakness.

Louis cannot keep up with the attacks. With his sons fighting, the Viking raids, and his just generally becoming an old grump, the naval defenses deteriorate and no effort is put into keeping the Vikings at bay. Between 834-837, that important town of Dorestad is sacked every year. EVERY YEAR! By the 840s, the town is completely abandoned, due mostly to the relentless attacks but also to the changing course of the river. Louis then comes up with a brilliant idea- what if he hires a Viking to keep the other Vikings away?! So, he gives a fief to a Danish sea king named Harald Klak. This set up sort of works. The attacks stop around that area of Frisia. But Harald is all to happy to give his fellow Vikings a market in which they can sell their stolen goods, give them information on the goings on in the empire, or simply direct them down the coast. This last option seems to have pleased the Vikings because they found their way down the major river systems of the next 20 years and really wreaked some havoc on the old Carolingian Empire.

Louis the Pious died in 840, and by 843, his sons had divided the empire into three separate kingdoms. Poor Charles the Bald inherited the western-most kingdom, which is basically modern France, and in doing so also inherited the brunt of the Viking attacks. Charles the Bald lacked the manpower and resources that his father and grandfather enjoyed, having a significantly smaller realm. In the mid-840s, some truly devestating attacks embarrass the hell out of Charles the Bald. A band of Norwegian Vikings sack the city of Nantes in 843, possibly with the help of the local count! This attack was followed by a similar one the following year. But it was in 845 when Charles received the heaviest blow.

A famous sea king by the name of Ragnar Lothbrok, who has been made popular by the History Channel show, Vikings, sailed up the Seine with the intention of taking Paris. Charles the Bald leads his army out to stop him and for some reason, splits them in half: one to each side of the river. Ragnar and his men capture 111 men and hang them on one side of the river in full of view of the other half of the army. Needless to say Charles gets cold feet watching them bodies swing in the wind and leaves Ragnar's way open. The Vikings don't sack the city, however. Charles pays them 7,000lbs of silver to please just leave him alone.

Hunky Ragnar

This payment of silver set a precedent. All the Vikings had to do now is just pretend that they would attack a city and get paid for it! Charles the Bald spent his reign paying off wave after wave of Vikings, much like Ethelred would do in England almost a century later. Scholars estimate that over 120,000 lbs of silver were paid out between the reign of Charles the Bald and Charles the Simple, who took the throne just before the 10th century.

These payments also had an unintended and world altering consequences. By the 860s and 870s, the Frankish kingdoms were almost completely broke. With all of the money going to Vikings to leave them alone, no money was available for actual defense. Instead the kings began handing out massive plots of lands to nobles who were then responsible for raising their own defenses. THUS BEGAN THE FUCKING FEUDAL SYSTEM! These Viking bullies, who were really just looking for a quick buck and maybe some poetry written for them, altered the European governmental and economical systems in an incredibly huge and indirect way. Seriously, if this doesn't blow your nug, your nug shouldn't still exist.

Peasants put the FUEL in FEUDALISM

In 865 the Carlongians got a break. Viking attacks ceased for about 15 years. One only has to flip through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the years of 864/865 to figure out why. The Vikings either got bored with Charles and the incredibly easy time they had in Western Europe or they heard that England was vastly richer than its counterpart. In any case, the Vikings focused their energy toward England with the arrival of "the Great Army" as the terrified chroniclers called them.

The Vikings returned in 879 with the sacking of Ghent in modern day Belgium. This was incredibly unsettling for the Carolingian kings for a number of reasons. First, it was the first attack in 15 years and was completely unexpected. But more importantly, this was in the center of a very important economic center for the realm. If the Vikings could get that far into the kingdom with no issues, what else could they do?!

In 881, nearly 80 years after the attacks began, Louis III enjoyed something that no other Carolingian king had up to that point: he defeated a band of Vikings! This victory was celebrated in song and poetry as a mighty show of Frankish superiority! Then some Vikings put siege to Paris and everyone remembered how awful the brood of Charlemagne were. in 884/885, a group of Vikings led by a man named Sigurd set up outside of Paris for about 18 months. Now in the light of the recent Viking attacks, the Frankish nobility had agreed to reunite the old Carolingian Empire that the sons of Louis had broken up. It was united under Charles the Fat in 883. So his first challenge is Sigurd and his boys breathing down the neck of Paris and its one protector, Odo. Charles the Fat comes to the rescue AND. . . pays them off in silver. Charles the Fat is quickly deposed of, and in classic Frankish tradition, is tossed into a monastery to live out the rest of his life, thinking about how awful of a ruler he was.

Charles the Fat thinking about his patented "Fat Burger"

In 895, a third wave of Viking attacks show up on the Seine, this time led by a sea king named Hrolf. By this time, however, the empire . . .or are they back to separate kingdoms now? . . anyway, they are out of money. They have been devastated by the continued attacks and pay offs. So the king, Charles the Simple, rolls the dice with a plan that Louis had tried: give the Vikings some land and tell them to fend off their contemporaries. Charles carves out a huge chunk of land and handed it to the Northmen, thus began the duchy of Normandy. This time, the plan worked. Hrolf and his men quickly assimilate into the French culture, keep the beaches Viking free, and his successors become a real pain in the ass for later French monarchs.

Now, this certainly isn't the end of the Viking Age, nor is it the end of Frankish dealings with Vikings. After Normandy was handed over, the relationship changed and the old Carolingian Empire was no longer as vulnerable as it had been. So for our purposes, this post is OVER.

Until next time, History Fans. You never know how your bullying attitudes might affect the outcome of history. So keep up the work, and keep being rude!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Diaspora: The Beauty and the Confusion of Assimilation

Welcome back, History Fans! I apologize for the long absence, but this time I have a very good excuse! Having found out last month that I was (finally) accepted into the University of Iceland's Viking Studies masters program, I have been working on my Old Norse language/grammar skills, not to mention brushing up on some of the sagas.

Today, however, I want to discuss some very exciting things, at least for me, from a cumbersomely titled book, In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England. Good lord. I decided to follow up with a blog post title of equal complexity. Why not?! It's Saturday morning! Let's get nutty!!

Here's what the title of the book means: The majority of Viking activity in England occurred in the North-East, above the Danelaw and centered around York, Northumbria. Yet over the last century, more and more evidence has popped up to support a Scandinavian/Viking influence on the other side of the country, in North-West England. We are talking Wirral, Chester, Cumbria, and the Isle of Man. The areas of the Danelaw are heavy in the written sources, archaeology, and place names. More digging and research was needed to understand the influence in the North-West, whose history was largely ignored in sources such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or William's Domesday Book. Editors Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths, and Elizabeth Royles compiled some of the groundbreaking research that has been done on this subject into this ridiculously named book.

One of the contributors is the delightful Judith Jesch, who briefly discusses the difficulties of understanding diaspora. Jesch defines diaspora as relating to, "the processes and results of migration and how migrants think and feel about their situation." (Harding, et. al 2015).


The Vikings reacted so differently in each place they visited. They settled in Iceland where they maintained intense Norse connections and cultures. Charles the Bald handed over Normandy to a group of Vikings who were almost immediately engulfed into French culture--hardly any Norse connections remain! In England, however, there is a weird convergence of similar cultures: purely Scandinavian, Hiberno-Norse, Irish, Gaelic, and Anglo-Saxon. Traces of each exist in North-West England, so our question, and the one the book is trying to answer, is just how Norse were these communities? And more to the point, how do we even know?

Once again, we have to look at our not-so-trusty sources: the written record, archaeology, and language/place names. I've already mentioned that the already few written sources are mostly mum on the goings-on in North-West England. Some of the archaeological finds, however, tell an amazing story. Possibly the most intriguing relic is the Halton cross that was found at Halton, near Lancaster. This sculpture contains carvings depicting scenes of Sigurd Fafnisbani, or as we know it, The Saga of the Volsungs. This is astounding on a couple of levels. First, this is a pagan, Old Nose heroic story that has been transplanted on a cross. England had been Christianized for centuries prior to the Viking raids/migration, and even the Scandinavians themselves would have at least been nominally Christian by the 11th century when the cross was made ( This means that even though the culture would have been deeply rooted into an organized Latin Christianity, stories like Sigurd's were still circulated.

Halton Cross

Even more amazing is that the Icelandic version of the story, The Saga of the Volsungs, matches perfectly with the scenes depicted on the Halton cross! That saga wouldn't have been written down until at least the 13th century. Do you realize what that means?! The story of Sigurd slaying the dragon, probably an ancient Germanic legend, took shape in the minds of the Scandinavians before the Viking Age. Multiple examples exist on stones and in carvings in pre-Viking Age and in Viking Age Scandinavia. The story was carried by long ships to the west side of England FULLY INTACT. AND THEN THE STORY CROSSED TO ICELAND CENTURIES LATER AND WAS STILL THE SAME STORY! That is simply amazing for a culture with no real documentation, no writing system besides the occasional runes. But those weren't used for record keeping or writing stories. It's amazing how this legend survived. And its existence in North-West England in the 11th century meant that at least some of the community was holding onto its Norse roots.

Happy lil Sigurd slaying a dragon

Place names are normally instructive as to who was living in a specific place. Jesch explains, however, that no names in the North-West are entirely Irish, nor entirely Old Norse (Harding, et. al 2015). Instead, we see a splattering of odd combinations. Irish names smashed with the Old Norse -by, which means farm. Or they appear the other way around, with Old Norse personal names combined with Anglo-Saxon or Irish landmark descriptors. The fact that both of these forms exists in large numbers leads one to believe that the language of Old Norse was not just a fading form of communication. The language was relevant and dispersed enough to replace existing place names and to take hold in the local population. Of course, Jesch argues that many of the Viking settlements could have been unoccupied, which is why we see such a large number of Old Norse names (Harding, et al 2015).

This doesn't really answer our question, though. Did the Vikings bring their wives and children to England and assimilate into a mixed culture? Did they take Irish and Anglo-Saxon wives who imposed Christianity. Did these wives learn Old Norse, or did the men take time to learn the local dialect? Were the children bilingual?

The contradictory Halton and Gosford crosses and the jumbled place names are beautiful examples of  two cultures attempting to co-exist. They also undermine how confusing it is to pick a part the already muddled pieces. Christina Lee piles on the confusion in the chapter that follows Jesch. Lee points out that English contains many loan words from Old Norse --an obvious testament of the Norse influence on the English people. Ugly, egg, to die, to kill, skull, sky, and window are just a few of the common words we yanked from Old Norse. She also points out the place name of Helperby in North Yorkshire is derived from an Old Norse female name, Hjalp, combined with the -r, a genitive form, which shows ownership, and -by, which means farm. Lee says that the community would have had to have spoken Old Norse long enough for this combination of words to hold in place. So the North-West communities MUST HAVE MAINTAINED THEIR LANGUAGE AND CULTURE, RIGHT?!

I'm not so certain. It's so hard to make assessments based on place names and language. Lee also presents the uncertainty of grave goods. The classic oval brooches, which have come to define Viking women's costume in a kind of a blanket one-size-fits-all sort of assumption, are strangely absent from from the archaeology and from the grave sites in the area. Instead, the women seem to prefer ringed pins, which are more of an Irish influence.

Modern babe modeling the classic oval brooches

Without a written account, assessing the diaspora is a nearly impossible task. How did the Scandinavians feel about their relocation, about their neighbors, about assimilation? The sources at hand leave a murky picture, much like the mapping of the Christian conversion. We are left with our classic assessment: the Vikings were the supreme opportunists and would have looked for an advantage in any situation. If converting to Christianity would enhance their standing, they would have converted. If learning the local language would have increased their status, they probably would have happily abandoned their mother tongue. What is obvious, however, is that no matter how far from home or to what god they answered to, the Vikings held onto certain aspects of their culture that have bled through in the north-west region of England. The place names, the monuments, the loan words, and even the runic inscriptions which appear quite frequently, if not haphazardly, prove that the Scandinavians had a hand in shaping North-West England.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Anders Winroth and the Economics of the Viking Conversion

History Fans! Two posts in one week? What is this madness?! Or should I say: This is being single at 29. . .

Anders Winroth's book, The Conversion of Scandinavia, has been read front to back and MY GOD IT WAS FANTASTIC!

Not only did Winroth support my theories about the conversion (which has been discussed here at length) but he also presented some new and amazing ideas about the Viking Age. Not least of all that Adam of Bremen is a total prick.

Winroth's first revelation is a pretty good explanation for the Viking Age raids. History books contain many theories, such as a population boom in Scandinavia, the inheritance-less younger sibling syndrome, a sudden desire to show off their mad sailing skills. While all of these things may indeed have been true, none of them really satisfactorily answer why the Scandinavians began scooting around the world and taking things from the neighbors. Winroth suggests an explanation of simple economics.

Scandinavian chieftains, even long before the Viking Age, relied on a system of giving gifts to their followers and warriors and receiving loyalty and service in return. This was not simply a military leader paying a soldier. On the contrary, chieftains needed to give their followers and warriors prestigious and often times personal gifts. The chieftains would attempt to tie as many of his retinue to him, by means of marriage or official friendship rituals. But in order to keep warriors that were not related by blood or marriage, a chieftain would have to present his men with those unique and personal gifts, often times taking the form of gold or silver arm band, an artistically inlaid axe, or exotic dishes like walnuts and wine.

Do you think a warrior had to axe for this gift?

You can do the math in your head: If a chieftain wanted his constituents to grow, he needed to produce more gifts, but more importantly more prestigious gifts. And the Scandinavians knew, through their trade routes, that some VERY prestigious gifts lay undefended in the monasteries that dotted the British and Frankish coasts. With their innovations in ship building, the Scandinavian chieftains found themselves in a unique position. Competition for power was always a heated affair in the north, as chieftains controlled people instead of territory. With the Christian European models of kingdoms popping up, competition to create a state must have driven some of the leading chieftains. In order to maintain their current stash of warriors and more importantly to increase the support, the chieftains were driven further and further out, to those undefended coasts, to steal what they needed in order to maintain their power. For instance, Olaf Tryggvason was run out of his country and lived for a while in exile in Novgorod. He then began his life as a raider, amassing treasures and wealth. After getting his cut from a very lucrative campaign against Ethelred, Olaf had enough wealth, prestige, and treasures to produce gifts to his followers and even attract new ones in his face off against Hakon.

Does this solely answer the question of how the Viking raids began? Certainly not. But it does give us a good grasp on how they could have come about. It is my opinion that it was a slow and steady increase and not a sudden onslaught as the dramatic authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle would have us believe. Indeed, the fluidity of power exchange in the Scandinavian countries would have pushed less powerful chieftains overseas to find a niche where they could carve out a piece of the POWER PIE.

These chieftains did not just steal gifts and give them away. As the Viking Age continued, many chieftains set up their own towns so that they could gather artisans in one place, either surrounding their hall or at a busy trading spot. We know from the Royal Frankish Annals that King Godfried launched Hedeby as a center of trade in 808. Many of the early Scandinavian trade towns were laid out in regular, organized lots that appeared to have been planned out, not grown organically. Many Vikings would shake take their booty to these towns, melt them down and create new and prestigious gifts for their followers. Viking warriors probably had no real use for a lot of the church treasures they lifted, but if their leader melted them down and turned them into arm rings, well by golly we are sticking with this guy! Here is an interesting question: Did the demand for more prestigious gifts push the artisans to create or modify new and different artistic styles? Could some of the beautiful animal-style designs that we now associate with the Viking Age be simply a byproduct of economic supply and demand?

Viking art on a fat guy

On the other hand, some chieftains wouldn't even bother bringing all that shit home. They would set up a temporary market to sell the stolen goods IN THE SAME KINGDOM WHERE THEY STOLE IT FROM. Good lord, you can just see those poor clergy men just staring across a river at the Vikings selling their property and probably their friends to Arab traders. But, if you think about it, this weird move kinda improved the European economy--an irony that the Vikings appeared to have mastered.

In the early Middle Ages, Europe was dragging itself out of the barter system and into, at least in the large empires (BECAUSE WE SAW CHARLEMAGNE JUST DO THIS), a coin system. However, a lot of the gold and silver that could be used as currency was locked away as static capital in the royal coffers and in the treasuries of the monasteries. So how's this for irony? The Vikings stole a lot of that gold and silver, turned them into goods or sold them for coins into a booming European market. AND the Carolingian and British kings emptied those treasuries to pay the Vikings not to steal their things, in which case the silver and gold were melted down into coins anyway! The Viking raids themselves injected steroids into an already blossoming medieval European economy. Whether they stole the money or were paid off in tribute, the fact remains that the Scandinavians, who had up until the Viking Age had not been part of the European world, had not just joined the modern world: they helped keep it on its feet.

What a wild world!

An interesting side note before we get to the conversion and tearing apart Adam: the actions of the Vikings were nothing new. Plenty of Celtic and British tribes sacked churches and monasteries. Charlemagne raided his neighbors every god damn summer so that he could pay his troops. But Charlemagne was Christian and so were the sources. The Vikings were incredibly more efficient and knew when to strike and when to back out (cough..cough..didn't spendthirtyyearssubduingtheSaxons...cough). That's just the way people paid for things back then. Until the Viking attacks, that is.

Listen: When the Vikings demanded tribute or payment, the fearful rulers of Europe would drain the royal and ecclesiastical treasuries. But when that ran out, they began taxing their subjects so that they could pay off the Northmen. Likewise, Alfred the Great demanded a certain percentage of income (not necessarily in monetary form) from his subjects to build fortifications against the Vikings and to support his troopz. These taxes continued long after the Viking Age and became the woes and miseries of many later Middle Age peasants. Do you guys see yet? Do you see how important and incredible the actions of the Vikings were? They forced Europe to organize! England was a wreck until the Vikings showed up. The subsequent Carolingian kings could not match Charlemagne's zeal or organizational skills and they too fell victim to the Vikings' shrewd attacks. Better administrations, faster armies, stronger fortifications, more organized institutions--a lot of what came to define the Middle Ages were a direct or indirect result of the Viking Attacks.

Charles the Bald liked to call them "FARTIFICATIONS"

I won't go into full detail of Winroth's discussion of the conversion, as we have covered it pretty extensively here on History Books. But Winroth does agree with me in that the benchmarks used to track Christianity's progress throughout Scandinavia are largely obsolete because the conversion was ultimately a political move.

Try this on for size: Christianity was nothing new to Scandinavia. They were not as cut off from the Roman world as we might think. They traded with Europe, stole from Europe, and had plenty of interaction that, especially in Denmark, the religion had already started to seep in. Yet by the 9th century, Christianity was to be associated with the powerful Carolingian Empire, the majestic Byzantine Empire, and the filthy rich English kingdom(s). Christianity was, to the Vikings, a very prestigious religion that produced extremely prestigious treasures. Olaf Tryggvason and St. Olaf were both baptized overseas at the courts of kings and important European players and saw firsthand how they could monopolize this power. When one was baptized in the medieval world, a person was to stand as a sponsor. For instance, Robert of Rouen, brother to Queen Emma (Ethelred's wife), stood as sponsor for St. Olaf and became his godfather. This increased Olaf's status. When he returned to Norway, he stood in as godfather to some of his followers, sharing with them the prestige of having those important ties. The relationship of godfather really mirrored the old marriage and blood ties that kept warriors indebted to their chieftain. In this way, Christianity became gift, one of the most prestigious gifts, that a chieftain could give to his warriors. It became a commodity and was used, just as the inlaid axe or arm ring, to build a political alliance with his followers.

The Scandinavian kings quickly realized the advantages Christianity had over their former pagan ways. The latter was decentralized and easily accessible to anyone. According to archaeology and the tidbits in the written records, there doesn't seem to have been any priests or specific roles within the pagan religion. Some chieftains appeared to have led sacrifices but the roles were not exclusive. On the other hand, Christianity had exclusive roles. Only bishops could anoint priests and deacons.

The kings soon saw their chance: Christianity promoted an ideology of kingship blessed by God. If they could claim the kingship, the bishops would submit to them, with the churches, priests and deacons all following suit. A king could monopolize the church, taking on its full power, organization, and allegiances and used it to carve out their little niche of power in their own country. And, just as Charlemagne ruled as the head of his church, so the Scandinavian kings found themselves at the head of their churches. The Viking kings took advantage of Christianity, the way they took advantage of anything they could get their hands on in order to achieve their goals.


In other words, the Vikings saw THE BENEFITS OF INCLUSION and converted simply as a political move, which is why we cannot trust the traces of Christian archaeology scattered throughout the north. Once the kings began using Christianity in their gift exchange model, the old pagan model stood little chance. The pagan religion was then rooted out not so much because of religious reasons but because it represented political opposition. We get a glimpse of this in the Icelandic conversion when certain pagan rituals were allowed even though they were strictly against canon law. It was all political. Especially for Iceland who used their conversion to circumvent Norway's attempt to plant their bishops there and swallow up the island into a commonwealth.

And at last we come to Adam of fuckin' Bremen. His account is one of the premier primary sources of Viking Age activity. And even though we knew at the time of our first reading that Adam flubbed certain facts, we believed he was innocently mistaken and just did a bad job of making sense of his sources. Winroth, however, provides a darker truth to Adam's mistakes. The pope had placed the Scandinavian missionary efforts in the hands of the church of Bremen (and eventually the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen). The sons of Louis the Pious had broken up the Carolingian Empire in a way that really sapped the church of its power. Angasar lost his funding due to the monastery that helped pay for his missions got separated from the bishopric in the empire's divisions. By the 1070s, when Adam was writing his history, Hamburg-Bremen was clinging on for any sense of importance. The pope had given them the responsibility of Scandinavia; however, as the Scandinavian kings learned to monopolize the religion, they brought in English and Polish bishops to bypass Hamburg-Bremen and essentially keep their position as head of the church.

This really pissed Adam off so HE MADE UP a bunch of shit to try and sneak in a claim for Bremen to still have control over Scandinavian Christianity. For instance, he claims in his history that a certain Emperor Otto of Germany had invaded Denmark and forced Christianity on Harald Bluetooth. This is simply not true. Not only are there no other accounts of Otto's invasion, something that surely would have been celebrated, but by all accounts Harald Bluetooth converted on his own. In fact, he invited bishops and missionaries into Denmark because he saw the BENEFITS OF INCLUSION! Adam paints both Olaf Tryggvason and Svein Forkbeard as Christians who relapsed into paganism. Svein, as far as we know, was baptized at a young age. Olaf, as one of the contributing players in the conversion of Norway, does not appear to relapse in any of our other sources. Adam was angry with these kings because they refused to acknowledge Hamburg-Bremen's authority. One of the most controversial parts of Adam's text is his (second hand) description of a sacrifice ritual at a temple in Uppsala. This, too, seems to be fabricated in resentment! Sweden had brought in Polish bishops instead of German, and Adam threw a god damn hissy fit. No pagan temple has ever been discovered in Uppsala, and the pagan rituals described cannot be satisfactorily verified.

"Uhhh...fuck it, I'll just make it up." - Adam of Bremen

Adam: kiss my ass, you prick!

That will do, History Fans. Let's learn a lesson from Adam. Don't be a diaper baby!

Until our next adventure!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Charlemagne Part Three: Daddy Issues

Welcome back, History Fans!

Today we are going to finish up our study of Charlemagne. So far we've seen how the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace seized royal control (thanks to a scared pope) and how Charlemagne's military victories put him position to be crowned emperor (thanks to a scared pope). This post has less to do with spooked clergy and more to do with Charlemagne's personal life and some of the institutions and policies he set in place.

Charles seemed to have no trouble knocking up his wives and concubines but the royal succession turned into quite a disaster over the span of his life. His first marriage was more or less an old Frankish custom that looked more like our idea of common-law marriage. There was no real ceremony, and it was definitely not approved by the church. Remember the church, though no longer in its infancy, was still fighting to take hold in the West after Rome fell. Einhard calls Charles's first wife a concubine, but this is misleading. The king certainly had his fair share of concubines but he married this woman named Himiltrude. The church, as it grew and planted itself in Frankish policy, eventually decided that those old Frankish marriages were not official and therefore null. This meant that Charles not only had to find a new wife, but the child that Himiltrude bore him, whose name in history is PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, would never have a legit claim to the throne.

If you remember from our last discussion, Charlemagne had also married the princess of the Lombards. She did not have any children, so any Italian heirs who may have wanted to continue the desperate fight for Lombard independence thankfully did not come into existence. Nevertheless, it is significant that both of his early marriages had pretty intense political consequences. We saw Desiderus early on attempt use his daughter's marriage to Charles to regain his footing and get anointed by the pope. PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK, though gross and disfigured, had been born before the church policy that denied him his birthright had been put into place. As we shall see, this decision by the church to strip his disgusting son of his claim to the throne, will come (hunch) back to haunt him in 792. The HUNCHBACK got mixed up with some folk who urged him to take what was his. Pepin led a rebellion against his father that was quickly stomped out. As punishment, PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK was locked away in a monastery for the rest of his life. A fate worse than death.

Charles then enjoyed a handful of brides for different periods of time. Most famous was Queen Fastrada, who Einhard blames for all of Charles's merciless destruction that his military had been bestowing on Europe since before he married Fastrada. But with a name like that, I'm sure she was no peach! Entering the ninth century, here's what Charles's succession plan looked like. . . with BULLETS!
  • Pepin the Hunchback - doomed for life in a monastery
  • Carloman who later took the name Pepin - kingdoms of Italy and Lombard
  • Louis who later became the Pious - kingdom of Aquitaine
  • Charles Jr - was not given a kingdom but was to replace his father as King of the Franks
 We have seen how the Germanic tradition of splitting up kingdoms totally ruins them. Very few sons have the charisma and leadership skills of their father. A great example that we have studied here on History Books is old King CNUT. His North Sea Empire crumbled as soon as he passed away. Charles, though centuries before CNUT, likewise divvies up his kingdom that he fought so hard for between his remaining sons. When will these Germanic numbskulls learn?!

Yet disaster struck in 810, and the kingdom, for better or worse, was left in the hands of one son. Carloman, who was to take over the Italian portion of the empire, died that year. The following year Charles's pride and joy Charles Jr. died. This was a heavy blow because Charles had been pruning him, letting him take over military operations and diplomatic issues. With PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK locked up with monks and his legitimacy ruined by the damned church anyway, the entire empire was left to the weakest of all Charlemagne's sons: Louis the Pious. Charles, probably still frustrated with how the Pope ruined his own coronation, made sure that Louis was crowned by no one but himself. Possibly Charles knew that his son Louis didn't have the stuff to be an emperor and wanted to make sure that he gave him the best shot at a successful tenure - without the aggravating interruptions of the Pope and silly policies created by the clergy. This way, Louis stood above everyone else. Charles had seen himself as head of the church. Crowning his own son took any question out of the symbolism - Louis was now head of Western Christianity.

Louis the Pious HATED the alphabet

Whether or not Charles actually took such a special interest in Louis is debatable. His special treatment of his daughters, however, caused quite a bit of controversy in the royal court. A typical medieval ruler would have used his children to his advantage--marrying off daughters to strengthen or make new alliances, and setting up sons with land or titles or as successors. There is clear evidence that Charles attempted the latter even though bad luck struck in the early ninth century. Even PEPIN THE HUNCHBACK had a prestigious ecclesiastical position with his name on it until he led the rebellion. The daughters, however, stayed at court, either traveling with Charles or in place at Aachen. He had intended to marry a daughter early on to one of the Constantines in Byzantium, which would have linked the Christian world in an unprecedented way. He backed out at the last minute and kept his daughter near to him.

Nothing ever gross is reported. He didn't sleep with his daughters, you monsters! I know that's what you were thinking. He was just a lonely dude who liked to be surrounded by people who liked him. Maybe he was afraid of solitude or just a really social guy. Maybe he had daddy issues with the first Pepin. But having multiple grown and rich daughters at the court was bound to cause some trouble. With a rotating cast of eligible bachelors coming in and out of Aachen, the daughters had their pickings. One of Charles's daughters got pregnant from a famous poet. Another was rumored to have been sleeping with a trusted military leader. Without proper marriages, the princesses got their kicks and suddenly the palace was filled with illegitimate bastards. Is that redundant? Whatever.

Charlemagne was a man who could adapt, which was part of what made him such an effective ruler. We witnessed two policy shifts in his military aggression. The first was when he realized that he had destroyed the Italian countryside and that families were selling themselves into slavery because they couldn't pay their debt. Charles was quick to act and forgave the Italian debt. After his ruthless and tiresome venture against the Saxons, Charles was willing to change tactics against the Avars and lighten up a little bit. Another policy that shifted under Charlemagne, though not necessarily for the positive, was slavery. The gap between slave and peasant had slowly been growing closer together, and with the church's encouragement to do away with slavery, serfdom was created. They were like slaves, who had no choice but to rely on their patrons or former patrons for survival. Yet they were free! Kinda.

The monetary system also saw a transformation. Charles demanded a standardization of weights and measurements to ensure a balanced economy. He slowly took the old Roman gold coins out of circulation, keeping the old Frankish silver ones and even minting some new currency. It would appear that Charles was obsessed with organizing, something that became clear on the battlefield. His troops were no better equipped or stronger than their adversaries, but Charles knew how to organize his resources. It certainly helped to have a seemingly unending supply of manpower. Standardizing the monetary system created, in Charles's eyes, a real empire, not just different lands under one ruler. 


The most famous of Charles's policies or improvements was that of the church and of education, which at this point in time, went very much hand in hand. The Frankish church under Charles Martel was in shambles. Reforms began under Pepin the Short and Charle's brother Carloman, who wanted to see a bishop in every city. All the clergy in that bishop's diocese must answer to that particular bishop. Charles himself wanted to see the church cleaned up. He began dishing out stiff penalties to bishops, deacons, and monks who disobeyed their ecclesiastical orders. Old ecclesiastical provinces that had fallen in disuse were restored. Charles was getting organized more than anything. And though he demanded better behavior from the clergy, keeping tabs on all the wickedness was nearly impossible. Charles then went further and began updated ancient liturgies and customs in the church. He tested his clergy to see how well they knew the Lord's Prayer and even personally changed how the Catholic Creed was worded.

Charles held education in very high regard. He loved to learn and was very concerned that his kingdom would lose the Frankish language to the Latin of the church. He spearheaded a move to actually create a standard Frankish grammar. In 789, the Admonitio generalis instructed priests to gather up boys of all stations and statuses for educational instructions. Thus began the first Frankish schools. Again, Charles wanted everybody on the same page. Book production increased under Charlemagne who enjoyed reading and being read to, though he could not write.

We can't get ahead of ourselves though. Charlemagne is often attributed with pushing education and cultural change into modern Europe. And this he may have done but his number one concern was the church. As Barbero put it, "culture and education were revived for the express purpose of reforming or rather rectifying the way the church worked and the way that Christian people lived." Charles believed he was put in a position to protect the church. In fact the pope gave him that title! But the Frankish king took this responsibility to heart and tried to get his people organized, educated, and on the same page so that they could serve God efficiently. Educational reforms and cultural betterment were simply byproducts of Charlemagne's ultimate goal: serve the Lord (this included killing tons of pagans).

Charles seemed to have lost his edge during the Viking attacks that preceded his death. Instead of aggressively striding into Denmark and cutting down every pagan in sight, he tried to fortify the borders and come to peaceful terms with Godfried, the king of the Danes. In that devastating year of 810, Godfried died and left the kingdom of Denmark in mad and bloody rush for the throne. Charles figured the threat had disappeared with Godfried and decided not to invade. Boy, was he wrong! And after all that effort to prepare Louis for an easy reign, Charles had left the door wide open for the ultimate villains: THE VIKINGS. The great emperor died in January of 814, and Louis took on the burden of keeping the empire from crumbling. But that story is for another time.

Stay cool, Chuck.

This concludes our look at the life of Charlemagne. Hopefully our guest writers will have their posts ready in the next week or so. Or else it is back to THE VIKINGS!

Until then, History Fans. Don't trust poets with your daughters!

Friday, February 27, 2015

Charlemagne Part Two: A New Pope

Welcome back, History Fans!

When we last left the Carolingians, Pepin had usurped the Merovingian king with the help of a desperate pope. Pepin's jump from Mayor of the Palace to King of the Franks had some serious consequences, not least of all an obligation to protect Rome, a.k.a. fight the pope's battles for him.

Pepin died in 768, leaving his kingdom split, in the Germanic custom, between his two sons, Charles and Carloman. Pepin had expanded the kingdom significantly before handing it off to his sons, but instead of splitting the kingdom down traditional, territorial lines, he created new boundaries. Charles took over the more central kingdom that faced Germany and the Saxons while Carloman was given the more treacherous neighbors - the Lombards and the Arabs. There were rumors of animosity between the two brothers, or at least a coolness. Certainly there would have been competition and maybe a little resentment on the older Carloman's part. The harsh feelings came to an end in 771 when Carloman died suddenly.

Sensing an opportunity, the king of the Lombards, Desiderius, encouraged Carloman's widow to claim her husband's throne before Charles could act. This was significant on a couple levels. First, the Lombards were the continued enemy of the papacy, the defeat of whom was all but promised by Pepin when the pope gave him the crown. Much to the pope's annoyance, however, Charles had married Desiderius's daughter not long before. This tied Desiderius and the Lombards to the Frankish crown and thus to survival. Pope Adrian wrote to Charles to ask for help against the Lombards, who were threatening more than ever. Desiderius wanted anointing just like Pepin and Charles had been. This obviously put Charles in a tight pinch. Being ever the practical diplomat and ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, Charles ditched his Lombard wife, took up his sword and crushed The Lombard threat. The king quickly annexed his brother's lands into his own before anyone else could act. Interestingly, neither brother embarked on any type of military endeavor while they shared the

Charles's rookie card

Charles's Italian campaign was incredibly destructive to the local population. Many farmers, peasants and entire families were forced to sell themselves into slavery in order to survive. This had a profound effect on Charlemagne, and it is one of many contradictory battles that raged on throughout his reign. As a Christian king, it was his duty to eliminate God's enemies--not only the surviving pagan religions but also any threat to Rome. Yet as a Christian, was he not supposed to show mercy? Charles seemed to struggle with this concept throughout his reign, something that his later medieval successors would simply ignore. There was no doubt in his mind that he was God's chosen king, the Franks the new Israelites, and every move completed through a religious paradigm, yet he often seemed at odds with his relationship with the universal church. For the most part, he was a brutal military leader, unafraid of stiff punishment for his enemies and relentless in both legislation and in war. However, these moments of understanding like with the suffering of the Italians, this weird form of compassion, brings Charlemagne out of a legendary status and paints him as a real, complex human being. The Italian catastrophe bothered him so much that he drafted some legislation that gave the Italian people their land back, forgave their debts, and ultimately made him a hero after destroying their property with his army.

Charles believed in a slow and steady takeover. The Frankish kingdom was based on Roman tradition, and the lines were blurred between secular and ecclesiastical offices. When conquering a kingdom or a people, Charles like to maintain the local administration by giving them the Frankish and Christian benefits of being part of their "empire." This helped quell most of the out crying that normally accompanied a takeover that ousted the local leaders. Under Charles, the local leaders were carefully incentivized until the position was vacated when the king would subtly install his more trustworthy Frankish vassals. This method, combined with the sheer number of troops and the masterful organization of the king, worked extremely well in almost every foreign occupation. . .except with the Saxons.

The most notorious of Charles's wars was the thirty-year struggle against the pagan Saxons who would just not fucking die! In the end, it appeared the king had adopted a patient plan to slowly suffocate the Saxons, though I'm sure that he did not intend for the violence to be so prolonged. The Franks chipped away, little by little, taking a fort here, losing a fort there. As they pushed the boundaries, they would set up fortifications--some would stand strong, others they'd lose in one of the many Saxon uprisings. Charles repeatedly pinned the Saxons down, forced them to be baptized and to sign peace agreements, only to have a new rebellion pop up a few years later. This infuriated Charles! If there were two things that guy hated, it was pagans and oath-breakers. The Saxons were both! In 782, he finally loses his shit after another insurgence and decapitates 4,500 Saxons. NO MERCY.

Some Saxons were pretty cross after the beheadings

Charles takes a completely different approach with the Avars, or as they were more commonly and wrongly identified as, the Huns. These warriors ruled the Eastern Steppes, wreaking havoc on the Byzantine Empire who had been paying them off for years. Charles had had enough of the menace and blitzed into the Avar territory and annihilated the entire people. This was the second time the western Christian kingdom had shown up the east. These slights, not to mention the vastness of Frankish kingdom, did not go unnoticed in Rome or Byzantium.

At first an annoyance, Charles and the Franks had grown into a serious threat in the Byzantine Empire's eyes. Charles had expanded the kingdom to include all of France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Austria; Germany up to the Elbe, northern and central Italy; Istria, Bohemia, Slovenia, Hungary up to Danube and even parts of Spain! Sheesh! This put CHARLES IN CHARGE of basically all of Christendom except for the Eternal City (which was relying on the Franks for protection) and Byzantium (which was limping along and growing continuously powerless).

Vikings to the north of me! Arabs to right of me! Moors coming from beneath!

The competition between east and west began with Pope Gregory III's letter to Charles Martel asking for assistance. The papacy was not receiving the help it needed from what was technically the superior emperor. Pope Zacharias followed suit by sending his famous desperate letter to Pepin, saying that, as military leader, he had the right to rule. At some point Rome broke away from all practical submission to Byzantium. Yet the eastern empire still nominally ruled the Christian realm, something the Franks began to resent. They didn't like the stupid sounding Greek language and couldn't understand why they couldn't just speak Latin like everybody else! This resentment was amplified by a major controversy that was raging through the Byzantine Empire. A debate had begun over icons. Was praying to icons considered idolatry? The empire was split down the middle and violence erupted between those who thought it was okay and those who considered it wrong to use the icons. Western Christianity did not utilize icons and thus considered the debate a waste of time and the violence that ensued a blemish and embarrassment to Christianity. Empress Irene was sitting on the throne as regent for her young son, Constantine VI. Mother and child took stances on opposite sides of the icon debate which resulted in Irene poking out her son's eyes, as well as cutting out his tongue. This embarrassment, coupled with the impressive power being showcased under Charles, was enough to drive the pope to switch alliances. But then something happened to the pope that gave him no choice, and once again, history was moved by ANOTHER pope in sheer desperation.

In 799, Pope Leo, successor to the more friendly Adrian, found himself in some hot water. Some pretty hefty charges were brought against him, including perjury and fornication. The pope was sleazin' around! In true Byzantine tradition, the Roman citizens attempted to poke out his eyes and cut out his tongue. This was considered the best insurance against somebody ever taking office again. If they can't see or speak, who the hell would pay any attention to them? Not a bad policy! Leo escaped with his pants around his ankles and ran to the only real protector left to him - Charles. And the door was finally opened for our dear Charlemagne. Both Leo and Constantine VI had been attacked by their own people; both the mighty Byzantine Empire and the infallible pope had been shaken, embarrassed, and plunged deep in sin. Meanwhile, the unstoppable Frankish machine churned onward and Charles saw his opportunity. He rescued Leo, marched him back to Rome, held a ridiculous trial in which the pope was found to be above reproach, and set him back in his comfy office. However, the gesture was not lost on anyone. The pope, the head of the church, had come to the King of the Franks for help. The King of the Franks in turn gave a ruling that put the pope back in his place. Thus a battle for power had begun.

In November of 800, Charlemagne showed up outside of Rome. Leo walked twice as far out of the city to greet him--again, people noticed and understood the symbolism. And on Christmas Day, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor. The symbolism continued at the coronation, much to Charles's dismay. Leo had beaten Charles to the punch, and, seeing no way out of it, Charles had to kneel and allow Leo to crown him. After all his hard work, saving Leo, defeating the Lombards, and basically starting Europe, Charles STILL place himself beneath the pope. You might be thinking to yourself, "But a Church lovin' yahoo like Charles surely didn't mind being one step below the pope!" You'd be wrong! And this is how we know: When his only surviving heir, Louis the Pious, was crowned as emperor, Charles made certain that it was he and not the pope who placed the crown on his son, a very symbolic move that was to be repeated a thousand years later by another French bad-ass, NAPOLEON BLOWMYBONEAPART!

Napoleon, searching for a fuck to give
(Hundred Best)

Charles did not just see himself as head of the church, but as protector and ruler of Christians on Earth. Why else would God have blessed him with victory after victory? The ambiguity of the relationship between the pope and king continued on for centuries. If only our boy Chuck had reached the crown before the ol' sex crazed Pope Leo!

So far we have seen how the Carolingians achieved the Frankish crown, how Pepin pushed himself into global relevance, and how Charlemagne created the new powerhouse in the West. In our next installment, we will look closer at the emperor's personal life, the bizarre and tangled web of his heirs, and how he created through his policies a new Europe. We are also very excited to announce a new post coming about Byzantine and the battle of the iconography by a person who actually knows what he's talking about!

Until next time, History Fans. Keep your hands to yourself!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Charlemagne Part One: Pepin with the Door Open

Greetings, History Fans. I hope you're all exhausted from your Valentine's Day activities. What better way to recover from your weekend of love than with some history?! Today, we are focusing on the Father of Modern Europe, Charlemagne.

Our sources for this particular post comes from The Two Lives of Charlemagne, written by Einhard, who personally knew Charlemagne, and Notker the Stammerer, who wrote a biography years later that mostly consisted of anecdotes and stories from the king's life. A more informative source has been Alessandro Barbera's biography, Charlemagne: Father of a Continent.

There are many things to say about Charlemagne--from his governmental reforms to his military prowess. He was not necessarily a military genius but a brilliant organizer of resources. Yet, expansion through force remains his most memorable legacy. We will touch briefly on his military career, but today we will focus on his and his father's ascension to power.

By the time of Charlemagne's reign, there was no questioning his authority. Yet he was only the second Carolingian king that had just recently usurped the Merovingian dynasty with the pope's blessing! Let's set the stage:

Gaul had been part of the Roman empire that had since crumbled under the weight of the barbarians. Out of the ashes grew smaller kingdoms, including the kingdom of the Franks. The Merovingian dynasty ruled the Franks who, in the eyes of the more sophisticated Roman and Byzantine worlds, were still nothing more than barbarians--or at least a primitive Christian kingdom. Many times, the Merovingian kings were selected by the Byzantine emperor. The emperor was considered the head of the church at this point, so, as part of Christendom, the Franks served the east. The former kingdom of Gaul would occasionally be united by a Merovingian king only to be split up again on his death and at the grasping fingertips of his heirs.

Charlemagne came from a powerful family who made a name for themselves as Mayors of the Palace. A small, administrative council, the Mayors of the Palace assisted the king in ruling, particularly in defense and military endeavors. Charlemagne's great-grandfather, Pepin of Herstal, was the first Mayor of the Palace to extend his rule into more than one of the splintered kingdoms. He continued to monopolize on the position, and by the time of Charlemagne's grandfather, Charles Martel, the Mayors, and in particular Pepin's line, had grown incredibly powerful while the king saw himself reduced to an empty title.

Charles Martel "served" under Childeric III, the last of the Merovingian kings. Of course, neither Martel nor Childeric knew that fact. However, Childeric must have been aware of his lack of power in his own kingdom. Charles Martel had become quite popular in the eyes of the Franks after beating back the Muslim incursion from Spain. He passed on his title and prestige to his sons, Pepin the Short and Carloman. When the latter left the court to pursue a monastic life, Pepin found himself as sole Mayor of the Palace and ruler of the Frankish kingdom in all but official title. In 754, Pepin received that title from Pope Stephen, as Einhard informs us. But why? Obviously the mayors wielded considerable power while Childeric was basically a non-entity. But what could have driven the pope to surpass an established line of kings to crown a new one? The answer lies in the insecurity of Rome and in a people called the Lombards.

Pepin the Short

After Rome fell, the pope saw all power drain out of Italy and east into the Byzantine empire. Even centuries after the collapse, Germanic tribes continued to threaten the great city, worse among these were the Lombards. At first the pope relied upon the Byzantine forces to protect Roman interests, yet continued internal struggles, distance, and a lack of resources resulted in lapse of protection that the popes relied upon. So they started looking elsewhere for the prayers to be answered. The powerful military on the rise in the old lands of Gaul would hardly have escaped the desperate gaze of the pope. In 739, Pope Gregory III wrote a letter not to the Merovingian king but to Charles Martel asking him to intervene on the papacy's behalf and eliminate the Lombard threat. Martel was unable to meet that request but his descendants believed that his military victories gave them the right to rule. When Pepin inherited his position as Mayor of the Palace, he wrote to Pope Zacharias to ask him, essentially, since he and his line did all the work and yielded the military power, shouldn't THEY have the right to rule? Zacharias returned the letter with his full agreement and in 751 Pepin declared himself king.

Zacharias's successor, Stephen, took the matter even further - literally and figuratively! Not only did he travel from Rome to the Frankish kingdom to crown Pepin (a highly symbolic gesture that no one failed to notice) but he also proclaimed that the Frankish kings were the new 'Particans of the Romans," or the protectors of the papal see. The line of Pepin and Charles Martel already had a pretty high opinion of themselves, but this decree from God's own mouth cemented their legacy, not just as the new Roman Empire but as the new Jerusalem. The Franks were, by all accounts and purposes, God's chosen people. Hadn't Charles Martel proven that with his defeat of the evil Arabs? Now the pope declared it so it must be true!

But there's something more to the story. One of the first things Pepin did as king was to take on the Lombards. Could there have been a deal behind the scenes? Or maybe not even behind the scenes! Zacharias and Pepin were in contact. Is it crazy to think that Pepin said, "Look, Pope, I'm pretty much already king. If you give me your blessing, I'll take a swing at the Lombards." Zacharias and later Stephen were in a desperate spot. They weren't getting sufficient help from Byzantium, who surely would have taken offense if they requested some petty Germanic king to fight the pope's battles for him. Yet, Pepin was probably straight wang hanging his longsword in front of the pope. Who would be able to resist?! Plus, Zacharias was consulted in the disposal of Childeric III who, according to Carolingian tradition, probably spent the remainder of his life shut up in a monastery--a policy that Charlemagne would come to really love.

An evil Lombard(i)

Pepin invaded the Lombards and lay siege to Pavia in 754, checked King Aistulf, but did not force submission. Ominous, huh? So of course Aistulf breaks the truce he agreed upon in 756 and shows up at the gates of Rome. Pope Stephen begged Pepin for assistance. Pepin obliged but once again failed to eliminate the threat, a folly that Charlemagne would not repeat--at least when it came to the Lombards. Pepin passed away in 768 but not before he placed the kingdom in the hands of his two sons: Charles (Le Magne) and Carloman (Who Died).

As we will soon see, this would not be the first time that the Carolingians benefited from the pope's desperation. In the next installment, we will look at Charlemagne's personal, military, and intellectual life and contributions--how he became emperor and the father of a continent. We will also be featuring a post from a guest contributor on how the internal strife of the Byzantine Empire left a vacuum that only Charlemagne could fill.

Charlemagne during his growth spurt

Keep your eyes peeled, History Fans. You never know when someone might be just desperate enough to hand you a crown and ordain all your decisions as infallible. I'm crossing my fingers!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Austrveg, or The Truth On Titties

Welcome to 2105, History Fans! Can you believe we've been at this for seven years now? The fruits of our labor are surely rotten to the core but that does not keep us from learning!

We continue on our Viking journey - this time to the east!

The Vikings are probably much most notorious for their activities in the west: their discovery and settlements of Iceland, Greenland and the other Insular island communities; their raids on and eventual assimilation into the English people; the disastrous attacks on the Carolingian Empire; their journey to North America. Yet their activities in the east are no less substantial and have had a real impact on Russia's historiography. In fact, more Viking artifacts have been found in the east than in Western Europe and even in Denmark! Their most famous achievement in the east is their involvement in the Varangian Guard. Serving the Emperor of Byzantium's personal guard was a crowning achievement of wealth and glory for many east-faring Scandinavians. Byzantium, however, was not the initial attraction. Though it came to play an important part in later Viking activity, the Byzantine Empire had to be discovered nearly by chance. The Vikings, or Rus as they were known, left their marks throughout the Baltic and Eastern European world as they found their way to Constantinople, including what would eventually be one of the greatest controversies in Russia's history!

The way east, or austrveg, was traveled mostly be Swedish Vikings, though there is much evidence that their neighbors in Gotland had been active in the Baltic since the second half of the 8th century. Staranga Lodoga is thought to have been a trading center that resembled, and predated, the likes of Hedeby and Birka. Those from the island of Gotland seemed to have closer ties with their Baltic neighbors than the Scandinavian Swedes to the west. Both appeared to have taken part in the trading hub on Lake Ladoga. The Swedes, however, pushed onwards.

The Vikings took two main roads to the east: the most direct route was through the Gulf of Finland while the second was getting onto the Daugava River and passing through what is today Latvia. Constantine VII Porphyorgenitus thought this journey highly impressive and recorded just how the Rus traveled through the Eastern European landscape--braving the rivers, (their slaves) carrying the ships overland to the next waterway. Surprisingly, no permanent Viking settlements have been found along the routes. Scandinavian culture appears to have influential in Latvia while minimal in Estonia, despite the many silver hoards found through its lands. In Latvia, especially at the Salapils Laukskola cemetery, Scandinavian coins and brooches, as well as imitation brooches are found in ample supply. The Swedes, it would seem, were more interested in the destination than the journey, and didn't stop to fraternize much with the local Estonians. They had no choice but to go through the Baltics to get the grand prize: Byzantium!

But wait! I said earlier that Byzantium wasn't the original goal! What lured the Vikings east was that lucrative seductress known as silver. They watched from afar as the Khazars got rich from the Arabic silver that flowed into the high steppes. Being the great opportunists, the Vikings took the wares from home (furs, slaves, furry slaves) and mimicked the Khazars in their commerce, even in their leadership hierarchy. Exactly when the Rus showed up in Eastern Europe is hotly contested--most likely in the 9th century. Arab writer Ibn Khurradadhbeh claimed that the Rus were at the Byzantine court as early as 838. Regardless, they showed up and began shaking things up immediately. The story of how the Rus came to power in the east as told by the Primary Russian Chronicle has led to two different factions that have argued for decades about whether or not the Rus helped form the early Russian state.

The story goes like this: The Slavic tribes were unruly and fighting amongst themselves. They had had some contact with the Rus and thought them impressive and powerful folk. So they invited a great warrior named Rurik to come rule over them. This would have happened around 862. Rurik made his seat at Novgorod and gave a handful of followers rule over other important cities, like Kiev. Around 866, the newly settled Rus led a great attack against Constantinople only to be washed away by a great storm. Rurik died in 879 and left the rule to his kinsman Oleg, who moved the capital to Kiev. Oleg attacked Byzantium again in the early 10th century, which proved to be much more successful. He and his successor, the great Vladamir, put together a wonderful treaty in 911 and 912 that spells out how things are going to work between the Rus and the Greeks.

(Maybe) Rurik (possibly) founding (what could be) the Russian State (kinda)

This legend suggests, and plenty of scholars agree, that the beginning of a Russian state owes its thanks to the Scandinavian Rus. The founding or at least bolstering of Novgorod and Kiev as leading centers are attributed to the Rus. Many scholars, known as antinormanists, disagree with this account and not without good reason. The tale has certain motifs that tips the scales toward folklore. Many of its claims cannot be verified. The archaeological evidence is also inconclusive. Both sides attempt to use the artifacts, silver hoards, and grave sites to prove their point. The antinormanists have probably been much more feverish in their attempts to disprove the legend ever since Hitler let slip that, had it not been for the Vikings, the Russians would still be living underground like rabbits. What is most remarkable about the argument is that the greatest pieces of archaeological evidence are the brooches from the Viking Age. Women wore these brooches on their chests and usually strung a chain between them, on which swung keys the farm and other charms. The brooches are so distinctly Scandinavian that they can be used as a standard. But both normanists and antinormanists are attempting to prove the points of what men did by the findings of jewelery that sat on women's breasts. Titties forever!

Smoochie Broochies!

What is clear is that the Rus showed up on the hills of the eastern steppes in the late 9th century. The land there was not particularly arable, which meant that the Rus probably had their eye on the powerful Byzantine Empire. Sure enough, they wasted little time in assaulting Constantinople. Whether or not Rurik was blasted by a storm on his way or out of the city is unknown. The treaty of 911/912, however, is an extremely telling piece of history. It was written in response to the besieging of Constantinople by the Rus, yet both sides appear well represented. The document presents two very different cultures attempting to come to terms with the other. It covers a variety of circumstances, such as how to respond to a Christian killing a Varangian, or how to return a deceased Varangian's property should he die within the city walls. The reason for all these cultural adjustments is totally economic. The Rus wanted sole trading rights with the empire in the area but lacked the manpower to upend the Khazars or to do more than pester Byzantium. The empire on the hand saw an opportunity to turn enemy to ally. The Byzantine cities were much too fortified for the Rus win more than a handful of significant victories, but their presence was worrisome for the emperor all the same. So a treaty was drawn up and looked like a win-win for both sides. The haughty Byzantine could go on fighting the Bulgars without worrying about their Varangian neighbors, while the latter developed brand new trade routes and began milking their new relationship for all it was worth.

The peace lasted until 941 when Igor, who had taken over the rule of the Rus, attacked Byzantium again but  whose campaign was blown to smithereens by Greek Fire. A treaty was reworked in 944 with some stricter stipulations on how the Rus were to handle themselves if they wanted to go on trading with Byzantium, thank you very much! The treaty also tended to favor and give special attention to any Rus who had converted to Christianity. Igor's son Sviatoslav took over after his father's death, and one would think he would see the signs written in the smoke and quickly convert to gain the emperor's trust. Instead, Sviatoslav made a shaky peace with the empire and went after his true enemy: THE KHAZARS. They thought they were so cool but not for long! Sviatoslav eliminated his rivals on the steppes. Byzantium took notice and paid Sviatoslav a bunch of money to take care of THEIR biggest rivals, the Bulgarians, which he did in 968. Pretending everything was cool, Emperor John I Tziniskis made a surprise attack on Sviatoslav, sending his cavalry toward Preslav, while a fleet fully equipped with Greek Fire headed up the Danube. The Rus were roughed up pretty good by the Greeks but managed to escape to the Dnieper estuary. That winter, weakened by their scuffle with the Byzantine army, Sviatoslav and his men were annihilated by the Pechenegs, who didn't just kill the Rus leader but took his skull home with them to use as a drinking cup!

I can't remember a hippocampus ever tasting so delectable!

Sviatoslav's death left a vacuum in Kiev. With the silver shortages of 970, and the Arabic trading routes dried up, the seat became even more important and drew the eyes of many of the Rus's Nordic neighbors. Yet it was Sviatoslav's son, Vladamir, who returned to seize Novgorod and Kiev in 978. Prince Vladamir is famous for his "faith investigations" and eventual conversion of the Rus. This is highly misleading. Vladamir began his rule by instituting a sort of "counter-cult" of idols and sacrifices. Then, suddenly having a change of heart, I guess, he decided to send out some of his men to investigate which religion seemed like the best one. Everybody hated Islam, Judaism wasn't even considered and western Christianity was BORING. Eastern Orthodox it was! Of course, this story is mostly bogus. Vladamir had struck a deal with the then emperor, Basil II and came to his rescue when Constantinople was besieged by some other foe. Vladamir was rewarded with a marriage to Basil's sister Anna, but, of course, before they got married Old Vlady would have to be baptized. Following his baptism, many of the inhabitants of Kiev were baptized, but it appears that many religions co-existed within and without the city walls.

The separation of cultures between the eastern Rus and the western Vikings was growing ever greater. Yet Vladamir's successor, Iaroslav, kept the Nordic ties going. Even if they were culturally growing apart, the splendor of Byzantium was enough to send the Vikings of the west down the Austrveg. In fact Iaroslav is famous for his assistance of the last Viking king, Harald Hardradi, the poor English king via Denmark who lost his life at Stamford Bridge in the chaos of 1066. Harald had married Iaroslav's daughter at some point in his illustrious career. The prototypical Norsemen serving in the Varangian Guard, Harald arrived in Constantinople in the early to mid 11th century, served as the captain of the Varangians within the Byzantine Empire. According to Snorri Sturluson, he offended Queen Zoe and was thrown into prison only to be rescued by the ghost of his half-brother, Saint Olaf! What a story to tell the grand kids!

The cities of Kiev and Novgorod continued their connection with the Nordic world for years after, but as the Viking Age came to a close, so did the distinct Scandinavian culture. The Viking Age was finally wiped out by that dastardly villain known as the German merchant who supplanted the Vikings as the main movers and shakers of Baltic commerce. It is interesting to note the similarities and differences between the Vikings in the east and their contemporaries in the west. Very little settlement occurred on the west and, aside from the main cities, almost no actual supremacy was established. Their opportunistic nature held true, fighting the monster that was Byzantium when it was weak, attacking when the emperor was elsewhere fighting different enemies. The Christian sources are likewise similar in their doomsday rhetoric. Only the Arabic sources seem to keep a clear head. Obviously annoyed by the Vikings, the Arabs seemed to cut their losses after a Viking raid, regroup and set after them. Maybe the Arab world was more organized or better trained. The writers were surely less panicked, almost indifferent.

The Vikings in the east were truly just as big of players as those in the west, but not indefinitely. There was never quite the assimilation as in England or the complete control obtained in Normandy. The Rus left their mark, however. Sicily, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia all have some sort of Nordic impression left on them. And while we may never get to the bottom of who really started the Russian state, we can be sure that the eastern Rus played SOME part in its rise to prominence. And who knows! Maybe the brooches will one day reveal a clue that will end the settlement once and for all and smother the fire that rages in the the opposing scholars' breasts.

Titties forever.