Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Deeds of the Northmen

One of the things which helped the growth of feudalism was the coming of the Northmen into Southern Europe.

The Northmen were a sturdy people who dwelt about the Baltic Sea, in the lands which their descendants—the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes—still occupy. There they had dwelt as long as we have any record of them. While the other Germans were seeking new homes in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Northmen had remained quietly at home worshiping the old gods, and gaining a scanty living from their herds and fields, and from the sea. They were so far away from Rome that only faint reports reached them of the stirring events that were taking place in the Roman lands. For four hundred years after the Goths had crossed the frontier, the Northmen remained quiet. But at last Charlemagne's conquest of the Saxons brought Christianity and the Frankish rule close to their doors. Traders and missionaries now began to come among them; from them they learned of the rich and beautiful lands which lay to the South, and their minds were dazzled by the thought of the easy victories which were to be won there.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


When finally the Northmen came into the southern lands, they came, not by land, as the earlier invaders had done, but by sea. The rocky islands, the bold cliffs, and the narrow valleys of the Scandinavian lands did not tempt men to agriculture. On the other hand, the sea invited them to voyage forth and seek adventures on its waters. The Northmen, therefore, had become bold sailors; and in their long, many-oared ships, they now dared the storms of heaven and the wrath of man, to sail wherever there was booty to be had or glory to be gained. They called themselves "Viking," which means "men from the viks," or creeks of Scandinavia. Even in Charlemagne's time the Northmen had begun to trouble the southern lands.

"One day, while Charlemagne tarried in a city of Southern Gaul," says an old writer, "a few Scandinavian boats came to plunder even within the harbor of the city. Some thought at first that they were Jewish merchants; others believed that they were from Northern Africa, or were traders from Brittany. But Charlemagne recognized them by the fleetness of their ships.

'These are not merchants,' he said, 'but cruel enemies.'

When the ships were pursued, they quickly disappeared. Then the Emperor, rising from the table where he sat, went to the window which looked towards the East, and remained there a long time, his eyes filled with tears. No one ventured to question him; but at last he said:

'Do you know, my faithful friends, why I weep so bitterly? It is not because I fear that these men should annoy me by their wretched acts of piracy. But I am deeply afflicted because during my lifetime they have come so near these shores; and I am tormented by a great grief when I think of the woes they will inflict upon my successors and the whole nation.'"

Before Charlemagne was dead, indeed, these hardy wanderers began to fulfill his prophecy; and after he was gone the evil increased rapidly. Now the Viking ships came by scores and hundreds, where before they had come singly and in dozens. The whole of Christendom suffered from them. They plundered the shores alike of Germany, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain and Italy. With their light vessels they would enter the river mouths, and row as far into the heart of the country as they could. Then they would seize horses, and on these ride far and wide. They loved most of all to attack the churches and monasteries. They cared nothing for the Christian God, for they were still heathen; and in the churches were rich gold and silver vessels, and fine embroidered cloths. It was easier, also, to capture a church or a monastery than it was a castle, for the priests and monks were not fighting men. And if any resisted these fierce heathen, they were pierced with arrows, or cloven with their swords.

One of the most famous Vikings was named Hastings. Some say that he was not a Northman at all, but a French peasant, who had joined the sea-rovers. At all events, he was very strong, brave, and cunning, and became one of their most famous leaders. We first meet with him while Louis the Pious was King; for nearly fifty years after this he was busy plundering towns and wasting the country in different lands. Now we find him in France; now he is in Frisia, just north of France; now he is in England; now he is on the shores of Spain.

On one voyage Hastings sailed around the Spanish peninsula and entered the Mediterranean Sea. There he plundered Southern France, Africa, and Italy. He wished especially to plunder Rome, as Alaric and the Vandal king had done before him. But he knew more about fighting than he did about geography. On the coast of Italy, north of Rome, lay a little city called Luna, and Hastings mistook its marble palaces and churches for the buildings of Rome. Even the walls of Luna, however, were too strong to be taken by force; so he was obliged to use a trick. He sent a messenger into the city saying that he had not come to make war, but was dying and wished to be baptized a Christian. The bishop and rulers of the city were pleased at this, and Hastings was baptized as he wished. Then the next day word was brought from the ships that their leader was dead, and they wished him to be buried in the church of the city. There seemed no harm in this request, so the rulers gave their consent. Hastings, with his weapons lying by his side, was brought within the walls, and with him came some of his best warriors, as mourners. While the people of the city went with the funeral party to the church, the rest of the Northmen landed from their ships and slipped through the unguarded gate. Then Hastings suddenly seized his weapons and sprang from the couch where he lay; at once his followers fell upon the people, and in this way the town was soon won.

At first the Northmen came only during the summer season, sailing home when the winter storms were due. Before long, however, they began to spend the winter also in Christian lands. They would seize upon an island lying off the coast at a river's mouth; and from this as headquarters they would go forth at all times of the year to ravage the land. For many years this prayer was regularly used in the churches: "From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord, deliver us."

Count Odo in Paris


The struggle lasted for a long time. In France, within fifty years after Charlemagne's death, Paris had fallen three times. At first the weak kings tried to buy off the Northmen with gifts of money. But such gifts only made them greedy for more; and payment had to be made again and again. Then the nobles and the cities took the defence into their own hands. In addition to the castles which the nobles were building, the cities began to fortify bridges over the rivers, so that they could keep the pirate ships from ascending the streams.

The most famous struggle of all came at Paris in the year 886. This city was not yet the capital of France, but its situation already made it important. It was built on a low island in the Seine, with a fortified bridge connecting it with each bank. When the Northmen came up the river in that year, the governor of the city, Count Odo, and the bishop, encouraged the people to resist. The viking ships numbered seven hundred, and they carried an army of 40,000 men; but for eleven months the city held out, and in spite of the weakness and cowardice of the King, the Northmen at last were obliged to withdraw.

The family of this Count Odo had already won great honor in warring against the Northmen. His father, Robert the Strong, had fallen, after many victories, fighting against the pirate Hastings. The brave defence of Paris now made Odo more powerful than ever, and men began to think how much worthier he was of the crown than the weak Carolingians. So the cowardly King who was then ruling was set aside, and Count Odo was chosen King in his place.

After Odo's death the Carolignians regained the throne, but their hold upon it was weaker than ever. For about a hundred years the family of Odo continued to be the rivals of the Carolingians. Then in 987, another descendant of Robert the Strong seized the throne, and this time the change of rulers was permanent. From that date, for more than eight hundred years, all of the kings of France were descendants of this great family; and their rule did not cease until the kingship came to an end in France, and a republic was set up in its place (1792).

Twenty-five years after the great siege of Paris, a band of Northmen secured such a footing in France that it was never possible afterwards to drive them forth. Their leader was a man of enormous size, strength, and courage; his name was Rolf (or Rollo), and they called him "the Ganger," which meant "the Walker." Like Hastings, he was for nearly fifty years a sea-king, plundering Frisia, England, Scotland, and France. At the great siege of Paris, he was one of the chiefs. Unlike Hastings, however, Rolf was something more than a mere pirate and robber. When he captured a town, he strengthened its walls, and rebuilt its churches, and sought to rule over it as a conquering prince.

In this way he came to possess a number of towns which lay north and south of the mouth of the river Seine. At last, in the year 911, he secured a grant from the King of France to a wide stretch of country in that region, with the title of Duke. This grant was made on three conditions. First, he must settle his Northmen there and leave the rest of the country at peace; second, he must become a Christian; and third, he must do homage to the French King as his feudal lord. This last condition was very distasteful to Duke Rolf, and he could scarcely be induced to place his hands between the hands of the King, as was required. When he was told to kneel down and kiss the foot of the King, as was the custom, he refused, and calling one of his followers, commanded him to do it. This bold Northman, however, had no more liking for the deed than his chief; and when he raised the King's foot to touch it to his lips, he toppled the King over on his back!

In Normandy,—as his land was called,—Duke Rolf speedily showed that he was as good a ruler as he was a fighter. His followers settled down quietly, under his stern rule, and became landlords and cultivators of the soil. Before he died, it is said that gold rings could be hung on the limbs of the trees, and no one would touch them. The Northmen learned rapidly in other ways too. They followed the lead of their Duke in being baptized, and soon all were Christians. They also laid aside their old speech and law, and in less than a hundred years the fierce sea-rovers had become as good Frenchmen, in speech and everything else, as could be found in the kingdom. About the only thing to mark the difference between these Normans, as they were called, and the rest of the French, was their greater energy, their skill in governing, and their fondness for the sea and adventure.

Proof that they had not lost their energy or military skill was given in events which took place in the eleventh century. Within a little more than a hundred years after Duke Rolf and his followers were established in France, their descendants began to send forth new bands of conquerors. By accident their attention was turned to Sicily and the southern part of Italy. Soon the greater part of these lands was conquered from the Greeks and Saracens, and a Norman kingdom was established there called the kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

This is not nearly all of the great deeds the Northmen and their descendants performed at this time; but we can only mention a few of the others. As every American boy and girl knows, the Northmen settled Iceland and Greenland, and discovered America long before Columbus was born. Twice bands of them attacked the city of Constantinople; and after that they entered the service of the Greek Emperor, and for centuries made up his faithful bodyguard. In the far North, they made settlements in Russia, and gave a line of rulers to the Great Russian Empire. And when the Crusaders set out to win Jerusalem from the infidels, the Normans of France, England, and Sicily took the leading part in these movements also.

These old Northmen were truly a wonderful people, and their coming into the Christian lands did much to make the southern nations stronger and more energetic than they would otherwise have been.