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!




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