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Normans in History

Lion shield of Normandy

On the next pages are stories that are adapted from the Norman History (Gesta Normannorum) by Dudo of St. Quentin, a clerical chronicler serving the Norman court. He wrote the book in obscure and clumsy Latin ca. 1015 CE. After the fall of Rome in the 400s, Franks became the dominant ethnic group in the region between the rivers Loire and Rhine. They built several monasteries during the Carolingian Empire. However, towards the end of the 900s, Viking raids devastated the region. The French king Charles the Simple handed over Normandy to a Viking, Rolv the Ganger (Rollo) in 911.

Normandy takes its name from Viking invaders. They were called "men of the North", or "Northmen". The word "Norman" comes from it.

The dark Viking Age lasted for about 250 years, from 793 to 1066. In 793 Scandinavian vikings pillaged Lindisfarne in North-East England. Six years earlier they had raided Wessex according to records. And already in 794 they sacked the monastery at Jarrow. Vikings also raided the Scottish Isles, and returned home with the plunder. Later Viking raids establish settlements on the East coast, northwest Scotland, Ireland (Dublin), Wales, Northumbria, and Manx. But in 1066 the army of Harald Hardrada lost a great battle of London, and that was more or less the end of Viking warfare on a massive scale.

The extremely mobile Vikings were slave-takers and slave-traders too. Dublin was once one of their markets. (Brown 1969, 9).

In 841, Rouen and Jumièges in Normandy were severely damaged by raiders. An expedition in 845 went up the Seine and reached Paris. The raids were carried out primarily in the summer. After 851 the Viking raiders began to stay in the lower Seine valley for the winter, burning and looting. And in 911 the Viking leader Rollo forced Charles the Simple to sign the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. In it, Charles gave Rouen and the area of modern Haute-Normandie to Rollo. In exchange Rollo pledged vassalage to Charles in 940 and agreed to be baptised. Rollo also vowed to guard the estuaries of the Seine from further Viking attacks.

With a series of conquests, the territory of the Duchy of Normandy gradually expanded. Many buildings were pillaged, burned, or greatly damaged by the Viking raids, but no city was completely destroyed. Yet monasteries and abbeys, where treasures had been stored, were destroyed. For all that, what Rollo and his successors did, brought about rapid recovery (!).

Among the Scandinavians who colonised Normandy, were a few Swedes. In some areas the Scandinavians established themselves rather densely. The merging of the Scandinavian and native people contributed to one of the most powerful feudal states of Western Europe. Historians have few sources of information for this period of Norman history. Dudo of Saint-Quentin is one of four such sources.

Normandy map

Rollo and the Dukes after Him

After 911, the Viking Rollo (Norwegian: Gange-Rolf) was the first Norman count of Rouen. His successors were called Dukes of Normandy. They increased the strength of Normandy, struck their own money and leveled taxes. They raised their own armies and appointed most of the prelates of their archdiocese. They were practically independent of the French king, but paid homage to each new monarch.

The historian Reginald A. Brown tells how Normandy was rebuilt in the hands of Norman patrons that were skilled in administration, in drafting commoners to labour under them, and skilled in warfare. Further, Normans were not all integrated among the Frankish even if they took on Frankish manners and became elegantly cloaked. The dukes maintained relations with foreign kings, especially the king of England. Emma, sister of the Norman Richard II, married King Ethelred II of England. Norman dukes appointed family members to positions as counts and viscounts. They held on to some territory in Scandinavia and the right to enter those lands by sea. The Norman dukes also ensured that their vassal lords did not get too powerful. The Norman dukes thus had more authority over their own domains than other territorial princes in Northern France.

Members of de Hauteville family among the Normans left Normandy and rode out into Italy. Well-trained Norman knights were much feared. They got lots of lands in Italy, and took over Sicily too. There they looted and gradually took over Southern Italy and expanded even further. They got established with a Norman dynasty of kings. Palermo on Sicily became their capital. And there they were, rulers of southern Italy for many centuries. Normans took what became their Italian kingdom out of the hands of Moslems and Greeks who had settled there, and had the blessings of the pope.

These Normans took over literature that the Arabs had preserved, including Greek classics - forgotten books by Aristotle. Normans brought many of these treasures and formerly flourishing Roman building skills to Normandy too. One contemporary chronicler wrote: "The world. . . was clothing itself in a white robe of churches" (Brown 1969, 14). They took manuscripts with them to their many monastic churches and preserved many. This in the long run paved the way or eased the way for the Renaissance.

In Normandy, Normans used their management skills to fortify their domains and got strongholds and generated monastic schools built in northern France. They advocated Greek learning and art, and also simplified Roman cathedral architecture into so-called Romanesque, which was stouter, more astute. Some of the Norman churches are still standing. Many memorable buildings in France, England, and Southern Italy are comprised under the heading "Norman" architecture, which is the same as Romanesque. The Tower of London is one such building, the Lincoln Cathedral another, and many more. (See Woodward 1965, 1-25)

William's conquest of England in 1066 opened up more land to the dukes. The aristocracy was composed of a small group of Scandinavian men, while the majority of the Norman political leaders were of Frankish descent.

Naïve chivalry came from the Normans too; not just a feudalist sway.

Norman Exploits

The historian Reginald A. Brown sums up:

"Of all the centuries in the history of the West, the eleventh is perhaps the most exciting. . . . Most serious of all . . . were the Vikings, whose raids, by reason of their extreme mobility, seemed to range over almost all Latin Christendom and to come from every direction at once." (Brown 9)

"Vikings in origin and established in their province from 911 by the grant and "treaty" of St. Clair-sur-Epte [when Rolv Ganger caught hold of the first of three domains to rule over in that region], Normans made Normandy in the next one hundred and fifty years one of the most powerful states . . . Viking settlers and others in Normandy made it one of the most powerful states in Latin Christendom and the most potent feudal principality in France. And Normandy was built up from ruins. Viking influence and customs remained strong. Rollo and his successors, as rulers of Normandy, got the title of counts, valuable rights and widespread domains. Thus established, Normans conquered the far larger kingdom of England in 1066, and in due course rode out from there into Wales and southern Scotland, and ultimately into Ireland. . . . (Brown 1969, 15-6; 20-23 15, 26, 2-3)

Going forward at the same time, was their piecemeal conquest of southern Italy and Sicily, which in some respects was even more remarkable than their English enterprise. Normans exploited southern Europe by near irresistible military prowess. "Before them, said a Lombard prince, the enemy were 'as meat to the devouring lion'" (Brown 1969, 16).

The Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily [taken from such as Moslems there] was a largely more remarkable chain of feats than the English enterprise. It "was the achievement of individual Norman adventurers in one of the most dazzling examples of private enterprise the medieval and modern world has witnessed." All of southern Italy was under Norman domination. (Brown 1969, 15-6)

Normans were "unscrupulously bold", marked by elegance, "love of fighting", got papal recognition by 1059. One of these lords, Roger 2, "in 1130 was crowned and anointed at Palermo king of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria - and as such he, and descendants after him, remained." (Brown 17) (2)

The kind of Christianity that was fostered, was marked by violence mixed with piety; pilgrimages; fashion; and "irresistible military prowess" (Cf. Brown 16). Loving adventures, fighting and Mediterranean riches, Normans came flocking to southern Italy, cantering "through fields and gardens . . . happy and joyful on their horses . . . to seek their fortunes. Some had enormous success, and also papal blessings and recognition. When one Norman died he was described as "the terror of the world" upon his epitaph. Another was anointed at Palermo king of Sicily, Apulia and Calabria, and as such he, and his descendants after him, remained (Brown 1969, 17).

So, Normans had "near-incredible success. Norman kings established in Southern Italy and Sicily became men of "near-incredible success, ruled in Oriental splendour over the riches, the most powerful, the most cultured and technically the most advanced state in all Latin Christendom." (Brown 16). Further, land-hungry young descendants were bred and trained for war. Mixing piety with violence, many became pilgrimage knights and broke out of the confines of Western Europe altogether (ib. 14, 18-19)

At Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban 2 appealed for a crusade. "The Normans were in the vanguard of the First Crusade, with a powerful contingent from Normandy under duke Robert (who was) the Conqueror's eldest son, and another . . . from Norman Italy and Sicily, under Bohemond of Hauteville . . . and Bohemond's nephew Tancred. (Brown 18)

Jerusalem was taken in an orgy of bloodshed in 1098, and Norman lordship was established by Bohemond at Antioch (and it) became the strongest and best governed of the Latin states of Outremer . . . By the end of (the eleventh century) a chain of Norman states had been established from the Atlantic to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, . . . all ruled by a potent mixture of [such as] feudal customs, and dynamic energy. (Brown 19)

Certain developments can be distinguished - economic prosperity, ecclesiastical revival, the establishment of a new aristocracy - remarkable independency - (Brown 1969, 14, 24, 29).

"Adopters and adapters par excellence, the Normans . . . had their share, which was often the lion's share, in all the achievements and developments of the eleventh century . . . by their own conquests." (Brown 15). Normans became sea-farers, traded and prospered commercially, as well as had a great period of emigration in the 1000s AD. They knew how to assimilate, and in the end they adapted themselves out of existence (cf. Brown 1969, 28).

(WP, "County of Apulia and Calabria")

Norman history, Literature  

Barthelemy, Ch. Histoire de la Normandie ancienne et moderne. Tours:Mame, 1862.

Brown, Reginald Allen. The Normans and the Norman Conquest. London: Constable, 1969.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, reteller. The Penguin Book of Norse Myths: The Gods of the Vikings. Reprint ed. London: Penguin, 1993.

Crouch, David. The Normans: The History of a Dynasty. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

Dolley, Michael. Anglo-Norman Ireland 1100-1318. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1972.

Freeman, Edward. The History of the Norman Conquest of England. London: University of Chicago, 1974.

Gibberd, Frederich. The Architecture of England from Norman Times to the Present Day. 4th ed. London: Architectural Press, 1962.

Graham-Campbell, James, and Dafydd Kidd. The Vikings. London: British Museum Publications, 1980.

Grant, Michael. Myths of the Greeks and Romans. New York: Meridian/Penguin, 1995.

Hødnebø, Finn, og Hallvard Magerøy, eds. Norges kongesagaer. Vols 1-4. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1979.

Kapelle, William. The Norman Conquest of the North: The Region and Its Transformation, 1000-1135. London: Croom Helm, 1979.

Lifshitz. Felice, tr. Dudo of St. Quentin's Gesta Normannorum: An English Translation. (History of the Normans). ORB Online Library (Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies), 1996. ⍽▢⍽ Dudo wrote this history to legitimise the Norman rule of Normandy. It tells how the a group of Vikings conquered parts of France, and eventually came to rule the area. The work is available in Latin and in English on the ORB of Medieval Studies. Parts of Lifshitz�s translation-in-progress are called rough still.

Loud, Graham A., and Alex Metcalfe, eds. The Society of Norman Italy. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Marongiu, Antonio. Byzantine, Norman, Swabian and later Institutions in Southern Italy. Collected Studies. London: Variolum Reprints, 1972.

Matthew, Donald. The Norman Monasteries and Their English Possessions. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Renaud, Jean. Les Vikings et la Normandie. Rennes: Ouest-France, 1989.

Rowley, Trevor. The Norman Heritage: 1055-1200. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

Simonnæs, Per. Normannerne kommer. Oslo: Grøndahl Dreyer, 1994.

Steenstrup, Johannes. Normannerne, bd 1. Copenhagen: Klein, 1876.

Woodward, Ernest Llewellyn. A History of England. London: University Paperback / Methuen, 1965.

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