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The Tenth Century

The Later Carolingian Empire

Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, managed to maintain his inheritance intact, so that Charles' creation lasted for two generations. Louis had three sons and he divided the empire between them. But those sons fought and a final agreement wasn't reached until 843. Even so, their various heirs quarrelled from time to time, so that from the 870s onward, even the fragments of the Carolingian Empire became fragmented.

The basic three-fold division held after a fashion.  The Kingdom of the West Franks corresponded more or less with France, though southern France broke away fairly early.  In the east, various German kings ruled until Otto I (936-973) re-united much of the eastern lands, plus Italy, and was able to claim the title of Emperor.  That was how the Holy Roman Empire came to be based in Germany.

The so-called Middle Kingdom lay between these two, and it fragmented early. This area comprised the Rhineland, Flanders, and Burgundy. We still see evidence of this today:  France is to the west, Germany to the east, and in between are the Low Countries and Switzerland.

The ninth and tenth centuries were a bad time for internal political stability, however; for this was the age of the Vikings. And around the same time the Vikings were attacking the northern and western periphery of Europe, two other peoples were attacking: Muslims to the south, and Magyars from the east.

The Magyars

Some time in the 9th century, a Turkish people from the steppes of Asia, known as the Magyars, began migrating westward. Like other people from this region, they were a horse people, semi-nomadic, and ferocious warriors. They arrived on the wide plains of Hungary in 895 where they were joined by what was left of the Avars, whom Charlemagne had crushed.  Hungary was a perfect home--surrounded by mountains but with wide plains well suited for horse breeding. 

The Magyars raided Europe for over fifty years. They invaded Bavaria in 900. They returned year after year, plundering and looting. By 905 they had reached as far as Saxony and for the next twenty years their depredations were especially fierce. They raided into the Rhine valley and into Alsace. They got as far as Reims, in France, in 937.  

But by that time, Otto I was king of Germany. As he consolidated his power, he made defeat of the Magyars one of his most important objectives. In 955 in southern Germany, about 50 miles from Munich, Otto defeated the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfeld. He inflicted such casualties that the Magyars never again raided in force into Germany. Instead, they settled down in Hungary where they became the ruling class. They remained the aristocracy of that country down to the twentieth century, and Hungary is still a land of horse breeders.

Muslims in the Western Mediterranean

The initial spread of Islam lasted for about a hundred years in the West. By the time of Charlemagne they controlled all of northern Africa and most of Spain, but north of the Pyrenees belonged to Charles and the Franks.  The Byzantines still controlled Sicily and southern Italy, plus various other outposts, and the Byzantine navy still controlled the eastern and central Mediterranean.

But in the ninth century there was renewed Muslim activity, mainly led by lesser princes (emirs) who sometimes behanved like rulers and sometimes like pirates. Commanding armies and small fleets of ships, these princes had the run of the Western Mediterranean because there was no Christian power with a fleet. This left the coasts vulnerable to adventurers and left Christian merchant fleets at their mercy as well.

The most significant Muslim conquest came with the invasion of Sicily in 827. It took several years, but the Muslims were able to drive out the Byzantines, and Sicily was Islamic for over two hundred years. They also invaded mainland Italy, driving the Byzantines out from there as well. They even attacked Rome in 843. But the Byzantines mounted a counter-offensive and the Muslims were gradually driven out of the mainland (final battle in 915).

Muslim adventurers were active outside Italy, too. The estuary of the Rhone River was an important conduit of trade and was also a great haven for pirates.  Whole Islamic cities were built, though they did not survive. One emir even set himself up in the Alps, preying on merchants.

All these activities had a significant impact on trade between West and East. Trade with Constantinople and Alexandria dropped steadily and dramatically, further cutting Europe off from outside influences. Trade had declined but had survived all through the earlier Middle Ages, but with Sicily in Muslim hands, and with Muslim control of the western Mediterranean largely in the hands of Muslim pirates and independent princes, trade simply became too risky for most. Contact did not end, but it was reduced to a trickle all through the 9th and 10th centuries.

The Vikings

The group most associated with raiding, though, is surely the Vikings, and they were most active during the same period as the Magyars and the Muslim pirates. Their impact was rather more complex, however.

Who were the Vikings? The word is a modern one, the exact meaning of which gets argued endlessly. Christian chronicles never called them "vikings"--they were known as the Northmen.  They were the people from Denmark, from Norway, and from Sweden. Their raids began in the early 9th century and continued in one form or another right up to the end of the 11th century.

The usual image of a Viking raid is one of a sort of mindless burning and pillaging, but the reality was rather different. The activity lasted for about three hundred years, so it is only sensible to realize that there must have been different kinds of raiding. Some were raids for plunder: a fleet of ships anywhere from three or four up to several score would attack a region specifically to gain loot. Their objective was to enrich themselves and then to return home. If there was burning and the like, it was to terrorize the locals or perhaps to burn down a fortification.

A rather different type of activity was actual invasion. Vikings came with the specific intent of subduing an area and settling it with their own people. Such regions were not generally regarded as annexations of Norway or Denmark or Sweden but became little kingdoms in their own right. In other cases, it was more a matter of a warlord who decided it was more convenient to remain in the invaded territory than to return home in the winter. So they stayed, sometimes for years, sometimes forever. Finally, there were invasions that were intended as acts of conquest, to expand the lands held by this or that Viking king.

To the victims, of course, it was all of a piece. Vikings were famous for their ability to terrorize, mainly because they moved so swiftly and tended to attack places that were not well defended, preferring to go around a fortress rather than to besiege it. Their longships could sail in very shallow water, and the navigable rivers that so benefit trade in Europe proved to be watery highways that allowed the Vikings to strike far into the interior of the continent. Monasteries in particular suffered, for they were generally wealthy and generally made easy targets. And, since many of our records of this time come from monastic chronicles, we of course get a very vivid picture of this side of the Vikings.

The fact is, that Viking peoples eventually settled down, all across northern Europe. From Swedish settlers in Kievan Russia, to Norwegians in Iceland, Greenland, Ireland, Scotland, and northern England, to Danes in east England and northern France, the Vikings made a significant impact on the development of medieval Europe. Only some of them were warriors, and of these only some went on Viking raids. Many more were farmers, fishermen, and merchants. These brought Scandinavian culture into the mix that was slowly simmering and becoming Europe. 

Vikings in 9th Century France

When Charlemagne conquered the Saxons, he extended his empire to the borders of Viking realms: specifically, to Friesland in southern Denmark. Having encountered problems there, he built fortresses and maintained a navy to protect against Viking raids. His son, Louis the Pious, continued this practice.

But in 834, the Danes overran the Frankish coastal defenses and raided well inland. They were stopped only by a succession dispute that distracted them for a few years. Not until King Horik emerged as the eventual victor did they again threaten the Frankish kingdoms. Horik discouraged independent action and gathered the captains together into a regular invasion force. He attacked Hamburg in 845 with a fleet that numbered hundreds of ships. At the same time, he sent a second fleet up the Seine to attack Paris, but it was turned back.

After Horik was murdered in 854 by a rival, Denmark produced no centrally-directed attacks for a century. The captains were left to their own devices and they led numerous raids, mainly against northern France. These persisted for about fifty years.

In 878, having suffered a major defeat in England, various Danish princes joined together and formed a huge army that invaded the Continent. They plundered up and down rivers for thirteen years. During this time, a chronicle from the Scheldt River valley says "there did not exist a road which was not littered with dead, priests and laymen, women, children, and babies."

Even when this Viking army lost, it won. After a serious defeat in 881 at Saucourt, near the Somme River, the Frankish king was killed and the victory led to nothing. He was only about twenty years old and after the battle happened to spot a pretty young woman. He pursued her on horseback. She fled and ran through a gateway. The king charged after her and brained himself on the crossbeam.

Other Frankish kings were no more glorious. In 885 the Vikings were besieging Paris. King Charles the Fat of the West Franks bought them off with a huge ransom but allowed them to pass by the city, whereupon the Vikings laid waste to the entire countryside for several more years. Nothing actually stopped this Viking invasion until 892, when pestilence so ravaged the army that they finally dispersed.

Raids into France began again in 896. When a Viking leader named Rollo invaded, the Frankish king made him an offer: if Rollo would convert to Christianity and agree to defend his lands against other Vikings, then the king would make Rollo a duke and give him a huge chunk of north France. Rollo agreed and brought his people into a land that still bears their name:  Normandy, the land of the Northmen.

Vikings in 10th Century England

Viking influence was even greater in England than in France. There were isolated raids even in the late 8th century, but the first significant attack came in 835 when the Danes sailed up the Thames River. King Aethelwulf of Wessex defeated the Danes in 851, after which the major efforts were directed against East Anglia and Northumbria, where a flourishing monastic culture made the area an attractive target. The Vikings captured York in 866 and Nottingham in 867. In contrast with France, almost from the beginning, the Danes not only invaded but built permanent settlements.

Alfred the Great became king in 871 and began his long struggle with the Vikings. That same winter, the Danes captured London and wintered there. Alfred won a great victory in 878, but he was unable to liberate London until 886. Viking remnants of the great army that had devastated France occupied southern England in 892, but they dispersed four years later. At Alfred's death in 899, Danes still occupied England north of the Thames and as far east as Cheshire and up to Scotland. So many Danes had settled in eastern England that Alfred was unable to pry them out. They acknowledged him as their king, but he let them stay and live under their own customs, so that this area of England was known as the Danelaw.

Vikings in Russia

The Danes and the Norwegians went west and south. The Swedes went east and south. Active merchants, they were already in Livonia, trading at Lake Ladoga and Onega. From there they spread to the upper waters of the Dnieper and Volga rivers. These rivers led south, into Byzantine territories, and offered much wealth. Swedish raids penetrated further and further into the Russian heartland, striking terror into the locals.

At Kiev, the Swedes began to settle and built a good-sized kingdom that acted as an entrepĒt between the riches of the Black Sea and the northern outpost of Novgorod. They appear in the chronicles as the Varangians, famous for their fighting ability. In fact, by the 11th century, the Byzantine emperors themselves had acquired some Swedes to serve in the palace at Constantinople: the Varangian Guard.

The Swedes also turned much of the Baltic Sea into a Swedish lake in the 10th century. They conquered Denmark for a time, but couldn't hold it. They had outposts along the southern Baltic shores, and had a strong presence in Latvia.

Viking Activity Elsewhere

The Norwegians first attacked the Orkneys and Ireland before they struck England. They conquered most of Ireland in the 9th century, but Irish resistance never died out. Norwegian kings ruled in Dublin and had a number of Irish kings as tributaries. Some tried, without success, to return the island to paganism. But the Irish worshipped in secret and fought back where they could. They recaptured Dublin in 901, but Viking kings were in Ireland for another century.

Iceland was settled in the decades around 900, and Greenland was discovered around the same time; both by the Norwegians. Greenland was opened up for settlement in 982 by Eric the Red, father of Leif Ericsson, who gave the island its name. In a classic ploy, Eric named the island Greenland in hopes of attracting settlers.

Danes and Norwegians also sailed down the Atlantic coast of France, sacking Nantes in 843 and controlling the mouth of the Loire River. In most places, Danes and Norwegians were enemies, but for reasons unknown, they seem to have cooperated in this part of the world. A combined fleet captured Lisbon in 845, then sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean. They set up shop in the estuary of the RhĒne River in 859 and in 860 they sacked Pisa. This Mediterranean expedition was not followed up, and the Vikings returned to Britany in 862.

Conversion to Christianity

The Vikings of the 9th century were pagans, with a pantheon of gods, many local spirits, and lots of variation from one area to another. Because the Vikings were in fact many separate peoples, their conversion to Christianity was uneven, occurring at different places at different times and by different means.

Vikings were polytheistic, and like many such peoples, the god of the Christians was simply one more god to pray to or honor. An example is one Helgi, mentioned in a Viking saga, who believed in Christ but who also invoked Thor in matters of seafaring.  Pagan Viking kings allowed missionaries within their borders and even into their courts, without themselves feeling the least inclined to become Christians themselves.

The earliest missions came in the early 9th century, in Denmark, but these made little progress, until King Harald Bluetooth converted in 960. His grandson was Cnut, who conquered England and who was a devout Christian. Norway took a slightly different route. It had Christian kings in the early 900s, but its people remained pagan. The country did not become generally Christian until around 1000. King Olaf, who was later sainted, more or less imposed Christianity on his people by force.

The Swedes were the last to convert, even though a Christian church was built there as early as 829. By the 11th century, with Denmark and Norway both Christian, and with the Germans expanding along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, more and more pressure was brought to bear on the Swedish pagans. Rather than a sudden conversion as in Denmark, or the imposition of the faith from the top down, as in Norway, the Swedish people converted only very gradually, and it was not until well into the 12th century that there were no more kings or great nobles who rejected Christ and worshipped the old gods.

In reading of Viking attacks, therefore, you cannot always assume that the invaders were pagan. They might have been resolute pagans, enthusiastic Christians, or some indifferent mix of the two.

Viking Raids

So, what were these famous Viking raids? Were they anything like what is portrayed in Hollywood movies?

That is difficult to answer. Much of our evidence comes from the hands of monks, who were among the chief victims of the raids and who had a certain interest in portraying the Vikings in as lurid a light as possible. There is no doubt that the Vikings struck terror into the hearts of many, not least because their favorite targets were those places that were most weakly defended.

Effects of the Viking Invasions

Major Viking attacks occurred somewhere in western Europe from the early 800s right through to the end of the 11th century--almost three hundred years of the "Viking terror." In the end, however, the "Vikings" became Norwegians and Swedes and Danes. They became an integral part of the newly-forming European community.

To my mind, the Vikings--and especially the 10th century--mark the end of the Carolingian era, which itself marks the end of Late Antiquity. The Carolingians attempted to put together a sort of western revival of the Empire. Perhaps the attempt would never have succeeded, but the tremendous blows struck by the Magyars and especially the Vikings guaranteed that the Carolingian experiment would not last. Instead, the Viking era marks the beginning of a new age: the age of Europe. They were the final ingredient; or, to put it a better way, they were an integral part of a transformation, that gave final cultural shape to Europe. 

They helped form new kingdoms. Not just the Scandinavian kingdoms, but they also made a profound impact on England, Ireland, and France, by way of Normandy, on Sicily and southern Italy, as well as distant lands such as Kievan Russia. In all these places they brought their language, their customs, literature and culture.

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Copyright 1999, Ellis L. Knox This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.