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.