This blog will focus on historical accuracy and reconstructionism but also on the contemporary religion and sometimes wander into other heathenry, like Anglo - Saxon faith, Odinism, Theodism and so on.
There will however never be any bigotry, homophobia, anti Semitism or stupid ideas of a "pure" Germanic race.
During the 11th century Normandy operated under the medieval form of government known as feudalism, or enfeoffment in exchange for obligation. Within this system a knight would be given a grant of land in exchange for service to his overlord. In the strict military sense, which is our focus here, the knight would be granted a fief, or fee, in return for a specified length of military service per year. From a military standpoint this system of government has received far more attention than it deserves. Exactly how much did this feudal system contribute to the Norman capability to wage war? Were these feudal vassals the true backbone of the Norman military machine? In his study of the knight’s fee historian J.H. Round could only find three instances where the feudal host was summoned to full service. The payment of scutage, or money in place of physical service, seems to have been more common. From this we can see that, while feudalism did indeed play an important role in administration and government, it was not a significant factor in Norman military operations. Like most societies during the medieval period Normandy was a society organized for war. Most grievances would have been resolved through military means, even if this only meant intimidation through the physical presence of an army rather than actual combat. A strong and capable military structure was needed because of this ‘negotiation through force’ approach. If the feudal host did not serve as the backbone of Norman military operations what did?
The true core of the Norman army was the familia regis, or kings military household. The troops of thefamilia were professional mercenary troops who were paid for full-time military service. It must be understood that, during the 11th century, the term ‘mercenary’ did not carry the negative baggage it does today. The modern image of the mercenary is that of an untrustworthy and unscrupulous killer for hire. In contrast the paid members of the familia often showed intense loyalty towards their lord and their lord to them. The loyalty displayed by the familia was often far stronger than that shown to a lord by his feudal subjects. Even when mercenary troops were not officially part of a lord’s familia they often displayed a sense of professionalism and loyalty far greater than their feudal counterparts. During the siege of Bridgnorth in 1102 Robert of Belleme’s garrison was made up of a combination of mercenary and feudal troops. Unknown to either Robert or his mercenaries, the feudal members of the garrison cut a deal with the besieging army and surrendered the castle, much to the dismay of the mercenaries and surely to Robert himself. William FitzOzbern, one of the closest confidants of William I, was well known for bestowing lavish gifts upon the members of his familia, in spite of incurring the king’s displeasure over what he saw as excess. Upon his deathbed Henry I, the Conqueror’s son, professed concern about the welfare and care of his familia troops. Such was the bond of loyalty that one of Henry’s last thoughts concerned these comrades in arms. The combination of money and shared loyalty created a strong bond between a Norman lord and his personal troops. A lord’s feudal subjects often expressed contempt for these paid soldiers, since they saw them as inferior and of base station. Apparently thefamilia often showed equal contempt for the lord’s ‘noble’ subjects, who they saw as dishonest and without honor. This could undoubtedly lead to friction within an army and it would take a leader as strong as many of these Norman lords to maintain control. To place the familia in a modern context we may view them as the professional active-duty arm of the Norman army, with the feudal host as a form of reserve that would be called into service in time of greater need. The presence of familia troops in post-conquest England doesn’t seem to have been as great as in continental Normandy. The size of a Norman army was limited due to issues of transport and supply, as such the Saxon fyrd continued to supplement Norman troops in England after 1066. A soldier of the Norman familia shared much in common with the Saxon housecarl. The principals of service and loyalty were much the same. Perhaps this similarity is due to their common roots in the Nordic and Germanic areas of northern Europe. As such, the professional soldiers of the familia formed the truly effective arm of Norman military might.
I have tried to avoid using the term ‘knight’ and will continue to do so. In later centuries the scope and basis of knighthood would change considerably, using it as a descriptor here may lead to a false impression of who the Norman warrior really was. The Norman soldier took two basic forms: the militeand the pedite. In their strictest interpretations these are translated into ‘soldier’ and ‘infantry’ respectively. The term equites can be translated into ‘cavalry’, although milite seems to have served this definition in the broader sense. In Stephen’s reign a miles was defined as one who held a knights fee, hence the use of miles as a descriptor for ‘knight’. Consequently, we will define the miles, or milite, as a mounted soldier and the pedite as an infantryman. During the 11th century these terms do not seem to have been used exclusively to describe those of noble birth, as we would come to expect from later definitions of knighthood. A man’s equipment seems to have been the defining factor. If a man possessed the required equipment of mail hauberk, helm, sword and horse he could be considered amilite. In an age where the horse was a main symbol of wealth and status, undoubtedly most of the feudal nobility would have occupied this role. Still, a professional soldier of the familia may not have been of noble birth but if his success allowed him to possess the required equipment he could also fill the role of the miles. Likewise, a senior infantryman might possess helm, hauberk, etc. yet still play the part of a pedite. The fact that Norman milites often dismounted and fought as pedites, or organized infantry, further muddies the waters between these two definitions. Siege warfare was a far more common event than large set-piece battles like Hastings, which tended to be very costly affairs in both men and material. Consequently, the Norman miles spent quite a bit of his time fighting on foot. Henry I made good use of dismounted troops at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106. Henry was besieging the castle when his brother Robert arrived with an opposing relief force. Henry dismounted a large number of his milites and used them to support the infantry, to good effect. The common perception of the medieval infantryman as a simple peasant with a spear is a long standing fallacy. While it is true that they were generally less well-equipped than their mounted counterparts, they still played a crucial role on the battlefield. Infantry could, and often did, play a significant role in combat. William I knew the value of infantry and recruited large numbers of them for the invasion of England. If these professional mercenarypedites had not been present at Hastings the battle would have gone quite badly for the Norman cavalry. The Norman’s willingness to adapt to the tactical needs of the situation, as well as having the capability of fielding a cohesive and professional military force, cannot be overemphasized. The fact that Norman leaders were able to consistently command their mounted troops to dismount and fight among the infantry is also an indicator of their typically strong leadership. A man on horseback would have been seen as having the greater chance at fame and reward, as well as being able to retreat if the battle went badly. Only a leader with full command and control of his army could have accomplished this on such a routine basis.
Evidently the familia member was responsible for initially supplying his own equipment, with lost or damaged items being replaced by his lord as part of the service agreement. A prosperous and successful familia soldier, or feudal noble, would have possessed a mail hauberk consisting of many thousands of interlinking, riveted, iron rings. Mail was very time consuming to make and consequently quite expensive. Given its cost, the percentage of soldiers actually possessing mail at any given time is open to debate. While much of the surviving period artwork depicts large numbers of mail-clad warriors, its use undoubtedly varied with individuals as well as within familia units. Still, possessing a mail hauberk was one of the requirements for service as a miles, so when medieval muster rolls list large numbers of these troops we might assume that its use was fairly widespread. Whether or not a padded garment (gambeson, aketon, etc.) was worn beneath armor during the 11th century is a hotly debated subject within historical circles. There is no evidence for this until well into the 12th century. However, the effectiveness of a defensive system utilizing mail is much increased if padded underclothing is worn. An iron helmet, consisting of a conical skull and a simple nasal guard, would have supplemented the hauberk, although quite a few examples of period artwork show helms without nasal guards being used. In spite of its obvious popularity very few examples of this type of helmet survive. Nevertheless we can extrapolate from the surviving specimens that the helm took two basic forms: a segmented type in which individual plates were riveted together to form the skull, known by historians as the spagen form of construction, and the more expensive variety in which the helm’s skull was raised from a single piece of iron. The nasal guard itself could either be integral to the helm or riveted in place. Through period artwork it is obvious this seemingly simple helmet was quite popular for several centuries. It provided good protection for the wearer as well as good visibility and no hindrance to breathing. If contemporary sources like the Bayeux Tapestry are any indication this type of helm was the standard of the period. The soldier’s final piece of defensive equipment was the shield. The preferred shield for Norman use seems to have been the so-called ‘kite’, or teardrop, shaped shield, although the earlier round variety did remain in use. Made of wood and covered with cloth or perhaps leather, this design offered increased protection for the user’s legs, both mounted and dismounted, and by the late 11th century it seems to have become the preferred type.
The pattern-welded swords of the migration era and early Viking age had now given way to improved methods of manufacture. Smelting techniques had improved to the point where homogenous steel blades were now easier to produce, with no loss in function, and by the 11th century the more complicated manufacturing process had been replaced. The sword was still of a cutting dedicated design, with a broad, flat blade. However, as the period progressed longer blades with an increased profile taper began to be introduced. By the 11th century swords had become something of a general-issue item, no longer strictly the province of high born warriors of note. This last point may be reflected in the more austere appearance of many surviving specimens from the 11th century, although the Normans themselves seem to have been more reserved in their general tastes, so this may only be an aesthetic issue. The horse was the most expensive piece of equipment owned by the miles. As with modern work animals, such as the law enforcement canine, only certain specimens were suitable for use. A certain type of spirit and temperament was needed for a war mount, not every horse possessed such traits. Once the horse was selected for these duties, like its rider, it would undergo extensive training to make it suitable for the task. The miles would then ride this fully trained mount using a saddle with fully extended stirrup leathers that left the rider literally standing in the saddle, as well as a high front and rear cantle that did a good job of locking the rider in place. The end result was the melding of horse and rider into a stable, secure, and lethal weapons platform.
How the Norman soldier trained to use this equipment is itself cause for much debate. There is the long held opinion that medieval weapons were crude and brutish affairs that relied on brute strength and bludgeoning power for their effectiveness, this viewpoint is incorrect. Norman equipment was anything but crude and barbaric. While the various items of a Norman soldier’s kit may look uncomplicated to the modern eye, much time and effort was spent in their design and manufacture and every item was well suited for its intended purpose. The sword itself was a subtly complex killing instrument that, when properly made, possessed dynamic handling qualities perfectly suited to the required task. Surviving manuscripts from the later medieval period illustrate complex and dynamic methods of use. There is no reason to believe the training methods of earlier centuries were any less-complex. Likewise, modern medieval historians have found that training a horse to perform the task of running a tilt is a complex and time consuming affair. We can assume that training a horse to operate in tight formation, as well as performing in the confusion of the battlefield, would be even more so. While these men were professional soldiers, and in spite of the aforementioned complexities of their profession, it is unlikely that they attended any kind of formalized school as we define it today. From a very young age, men of medieval society were trained in the methods of warfare. Training with weapons began as soon as the individual was old enough, likewise with horsemanship. Norman cavalry operated in groups of 25 to 50 men known as conrois. Unity and timing would have been essential when working in a closely packed cavalry formation. Therefore, it is logical to assume that, in order for these skills to be properly developed, training was conducted in a similar group fashion. Young men may have been trained in the martial methods by assigned members of their lord’s garrison or court, perhaps a designated master of arms or castellan. The popular sport of hunting from horseback was itself a means of military training used to hone the warrior’s equestrian skills. Medieval societies were communities organized for war and life itself was their training ground. By the time a man reached adulthood the use of his mount and weapons must have been second nature.
While Norman military equipment was state-of-the-art for its time, it was not significantly different than that used by other European countries, nor was there a huge difference when compared to that used by their Moslem adversaries in the Italian campaign. The Bayeux Tapestry itself shows little difference in Norman and Saxon equipment. The Normans surely made the most of cavalry warfare. However, it would seem they simply adopted the small-unit cavalry tactics used by 10th century Byzantine armies. How then were the Normans so successful in their conquests?
One classic theory of Norman superiority relies on the invention of the stirrup. The main problem with this theory is that it cannot explain why infantry returned to dominate the field later in the fifteenth century. Why were formations of Swiss and German pikemen able to handedly defeat the best of European chivalry if cavalry was inherently superior? The earliest date considered for the stirrup’s invention is around 500 AD. By the 11thcentury the Normans were not the only people using the stirrup so this cannot be seen as any kind of special advantage. Also, if cavalry was the ultimate medieval weapon why did Norman troops routinely dismount and fight on foot? In reality cavalry is effective against other cavalry or disorganized infantry. In ages of cohesive infantry tactics, such as those of Greece and Rome, cavalry served mainly in a supporting role, this had little to do with a lack of stirrups. The battle of Hastings itself, as already mentioned, shows that massed infantry formations are quite capable of standing against cavalry attacks for extended periods of time. Therefore the use of things like the stirrup, couched lance and massed cavalry tactics cannot be seen as any kind of Norman secret weapon.
To what then can we attribute their success? As we have seen, the core of any Norman army consisted of a professional military arm. Yet it would be rather narrow-minded for us to assume they were they only ones who possessed such a force. We have already seen that the Saxon army itself was built around a similar group, so the Normans were not totally unique in this aspect. Norman society was built around the concept of warfare and their elite saw themselves as a warrior society. Still, the medieval world in general was a violent and war-strewn place and many of their enemies also possessed cultures with a warrior ethos. In areas like Sicily we may attribute Norman success to the political division and disunity that existed within the local populace. However, as with the conquest of England, the Normans sometimes faced a united enemy so this aspect cannot be seen as a catch-all solution. In my opinion Norman success can be attributed to two things that are far less tangible: leadership and luck. Throughout the 11th century Norman leaders showed themselves to be aggressive and capable. Nearly all of them, from the cruelly charismatic Robert Guiscard to the iron-fisted William of Normandy, possessed a dynamic and forceful personality that allowed them to maintain complete control of their troops in the field. Not only do they seem to have led from the front but they also believed in amply rewarding their men for loyal service, this practice can only have served to strengthen the motivation of their troops. When they did face rebellion it often came from their troublesome feudal subjects and relatives, whereas the troops of their familia seem to have been consistently loyal. In the modern world we tend to see law and religion as things which restrain us and govern our behavior. The Normans were big proponents of law and religion. However, they seem to have viewed these things as tools that could be bent to their personal use, not as legal or moral shackles. When Norman leaders decided to exercise their ambition they did so with an unwavering determination that was unsurpassed by any other people in the 11th century. They were also lucky. In spite of their military and political abilities, all too often they were outnumbered and isolated from support. In many instances where logic should have dictated a loss the Normans were victorious. Most capable military commanders have given luck at least partial credit for their success and the Normans seemed to have had more than their fare share. If there is any motto that could apply to them it is the old Latin phrase “Carpe Diem”. Throughout the 11thcentury the Norman people did indeed seize the day and in doing so made it their own.
The Normans,Their history, arms and tactics Their history, arms and tactics An article by Patrick Kelly
I have always been fascinated by those energetic people from northern France, known to history as the Normans. In the space of two centuries the duchy of Normandy stood as a prime mover in European affairs, not only completing the conquest of England but also stretching its arms out to southern Italy and Sicily. Even after the duchy lost its autonomy and was absorbed into the Kingdom of France-proper it still exerted great power and influence within that realm. Many of these men were larger than life figures who led lives even Hollywood could not imagine. Not only have I had a life-long interest in the Normans themselves but I have also had a particular fascination with their arms and equipment.
Who were these people and what made them such a significant force upon the European stage? What equipment and techniques made them so effective on the battlefield? Can their lethality really be a result of superior technology or was it something more intangible like national pride? Perhaps it was simple greed and ambition that fueled the fires of conquest?
Here we will discuss the Normans and their history and I will outline my own personal attempt to recreate the arms and equipment of a Norman warrior of the 11th century. Perhaps in that last respect this is just as much my story as it is theirs.
A detail from the Bayeux Tapestry
As the 10th century began Europe was at the height of the so-called ‘Viking’ age. (The term ‘Viking’ being more illustrative of their raiding activities than of the people themselves.) Seafaring warriors from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden had made incursions into northern Europe and the Slavic regions, as well as penetrating as far as Asia minor and the North American continent. In many areas these nordic raiders had ceased their plundering and had become colonists and traders. In 911 a Danish invasion fleet under the command of Hrolf the Ganger (‘Ganger’ meaning walker as apparently Hrolf was rather tall and long-legged for the age) sailed into the Seine Valley intent on stripping the region of its worth.
At this period in history France as we know it today did not exist. The region was divided into duchies and counties that owed only nominal allegiance to the French King Charles II, known as ‘the Simple’.
Charles seems to have come to the conclusion that he could not deal with the Danish invaders on a military level and decided to buy them off. This had become a common practice in Europe when dealing with ‘Viking’ invaders. However, instead of offering the Danes gold or silver, (hence the term “Danegeld”.)Charles offered them land instead. The land around Rouen was thereby ceded to Hrolf and his army. This act can be seen as a rather pragmatic decision by Charles since this area was already under Hrolf’s control and the King had no effective means to dislodge the invaders.
In 912 Hrolf converted to Christianity and allowed himself to be baptized, changing his name to Rollo in the process. Thus Rollo effectively became the first Duke of Normandy (meaning “land of the northmen”.) and by the time of his great-great-great grandson, Duke William, the Normans had consolidated their rule over a large area that stretched from the Cherbourg peninsula to the River Somme. Normandy retained its autonomy until 1144 when it was invaded and taken by Count Geofferyof Anjou. The duchy then became part of an Angevin empire that lasted until 1204 when King Phillip used military force to bring Normandy back into the French fold, along with Brittany, Touraine, Anjou, Poitou, and Maine. For the first time in three hundred years Normandy was again under Royal control.
The Southern Empire
The Normans are best known to history as the conquerors of England in the year 1066. While this operation was certainly no mean achievement it was far from the first example of Norman expansion and conquest. Long before Duke William fell onto his face while disembarking on the beach at Pevensey and cried, “I have the earth of England in my hands!” the Normans were penetrating into southern Italy. (Sources vary as to whether this statement was made by William himself or another Norman knight in the invasion force.)
According to the contemporary chronicler Amatus, in the year 999 a group of approximately 40 Norman pilgrims were returning from Jerusalem and were at Salerno when it was attacked by Saracen forces. Saracen being the generic term used by Europeans for those of Islamic faith. Apparently these ‘pilgrims’ were astonished and offended at the lack of resistance by the local populace and obtained arms and horses from Gaimar IV, the prince of Salerno. The Normans then succeeded in driving away the attacking forces and were invited to remain in Gaimar’s service. The travelers declined this offer and instead returned to Normandy with an Italian envoy that was apparently quite successful in recruiting volunteers “to come to this land that flows with milk and honey and so many beautiful things.”
While there are various sources that give opposing dates for an ‘official’ start of Norman incursion into Italy this is the earliest documented case of Norman involvement on the peninsula. Another source, written by William of Apulia, speaks of a meeting in 1016 between Norman pilgrims and a disenfranchised Lombard noble by the name of Melus. According to William this Melus had been involved in an unsuccessful rebellion against the Byzantine Empire and was now in exile. At this time most of southern Italy was under Byzantine control and apparently Melus styled himself as something of a revolutionary. In his account William states that Melus was successful in convincing the pilgrims that the freedom of southern Italy could be achieved with their help. It is unknown whether their willingness was due to a sense of religious piety on the part of these Norman pilgrims or simply a case of blatant opportunism. It must be observed that the Normans were always ready and willing to combine religion and opportunity if it was to their advantage.
Due to the political nature of Norman society the oldest son of a house would inherit all and younger sons were forced to depend upon their own initiative, their choices usually being limited to military service or a life with the church. Consequently, the envoy’s efforts at recruitment were quite successful, with many younger sons making the journey south along with those who had fallen out of favor with the Norman Duke. Unlike the conquest of England the Italian enterprise did not occur in piecemeal fashion. There was no single climatic battle that decided everything like that which occurred at Hastings, nor was there a quick follow-on campaign to consolidate rule. Over the proceeding decades there was a steady flow of manpower towards the Italian peninsula, and by 1046 the Normans had moved into southern Italy in force. Sergio IV of Naples had granted them a “prime concession of land”. This meant they were allowed to hold whatever land they could retake from the invading Arabs of North Africa. These opportunistic and energetic northerners were all too willing to take full advantage of the situation. By 1053 the Normans had taken the entire southern region of Italy, thereby creating a new empire. Unfortunately this aggressive expansion had come to the notice of the current Pope, Leo IX. It was indeed unfortunate for the Pope himself as he would discover.
In 1035 members of one particular family entered the Italian scene. This family, the Hautvilles, would become one of the greatest driving forces of the Norman kingdom in Italy. Three of the younger Hautville sons: William, Drogo and Humphrey arrived in Aversa to seek their fortunes. The Hautvilles entered Gaimar’s service and in 1038 were part of a 300-strong contingent of Norman knights sent to aid the Greek Emperor of Constantinople, Michael IV, in an invasion of Moslem Sicily. The expedition itself was without success but the Normans in general, and the Hautvilles in particular, distinguished themselves before leaving the campaign in disgust. William d’Hautville himself was afterwards known as William Bras-de-Fer, or William of the Iron Arm, due to his personal abilities. The Hautvilles would become one of the primary forces in expanding the Norman holdings in Italy. In 1046 another Hautville arrived who would become perhaps the greatest member of the family and bend the very pillars of Christendom to his will. This man was Robert Guiscard, known as “the Resourceful”, “the Weasel”, or “the Wary” depending upon the source. Anna Comnena, daughter of Alexus I of Constantinople, described the Guiscard in the following manner:
This Robert was Norman by descent, of insignificant origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire.
Upon his arrival Robert was disgruntled over not being given what he felt was his proper due by his older brother Drogo. Instead of being given a ‘proper’ fife his brother sent him south to Greek Calabria, an area that had barely been penetrated by the Normans. Whether Drogo expected his brother to expand their holdings, or was simply intending to rid himself of a brother who was by all accounts villainous and highly ambitious we will never know. Whatever Drogo’s motivation may have been Robert Guiscard succeeded in taking the region and established a base of power at San Marco Argentano. From this location Robert steadily increased his holdings, and his power, over the intervening years. In 1051 Count Drogo was assassinated in his own chapel and was immediately succeeded by his brother Humphrey. This change of command did little to change matters that had been growing increasingly hostile for the Normans. The native Italian populace had grown weary of the Norman’s strong-arm tactics and it was now dangerous for even pilgrims to travel alone for fear of attack.
Thus it was that the new Pope, Leo IX, felt obliged to intervene and in 1053 the Pope assembled a Papal army and allied himself with Constantinople, with the intention of ridding Italy of this Norman ‘problem’. The Normans, under Count Richard of Aversa, Count Humphrey d’Hautville and the wily Robert Guiscard, moved to intercept the Papal army before it could combine with its Byzantine counterpart. Contact was made on June 17th 1053 near the city of Civitate. The Normans were rejected in negotiations and reluctantly engaged the Papal forces. The Pope himself did not participate in the battle but instead watched from the walls of the city as his army went down to defeat. Civitate has been compared to the battle of Hastings for its significance in the history of Norman Italy and in that respect the comparison is appropriate. In a world-wide context this comparison really doesn’t hold water since, unlike Hastings; it had very little direct effect on the world outside of the region. Still, many comparisons can be made with the elite of the Papal infantry being defeated by Norman cavalry, just as the axe-wielding Huscarls of Saxon fame saw defeat at Hastings. The Byzantine army then withdrew without further hostility and the Normans held victory in their hands.
The Normans then exhibited the resourcefulness and opportunism for which history has made them famous. According to William of Apulia, in spite of the fact that they now held the religious leader of Christendom as their virtual prisoner, they knelt before Leo IX and begged his forgiveness. We will never know if this outward show of religious submission was sincere or merely a medieval example of strong-arm tactics covered by publicity spin and political correctness. Regardless of the Norman motivation the result was Papal recognition of Norman holdings in Italy. When Leo died the next year the new Pope, Gregory VII, immediately allied the Papacy with the Normans at Melfi in 1059. In spite of Robert Guiscard being excommunicated by the Pope no less than three times, the Normans thereafter retained Papal approval in their activities. This association with the Papacy would continue throughout the rest of the ‘Norman’ era and would play a key role in the launching of the Crusades at the end of the 11th century.
Count Humphrey had died in 1057 and was succeeded by Robert Guiscard, first as regent and then as count. Apparently the hereditary rights of Humphrey’s young son Abelard were of no consequence. Two years later Robert also ascended to the position of duke of Apulia and Calabria. In 1056, Roger, the eighth and youngest of the Hautville brothers arrived in Italy. Robert immediately sent his younger brother off to Calabria with a force of sixty knights. At the age of 26 Roger d’Hautville would gain either experience or a grave in southern Italy. The younger Hautville did indeed find success and became his brothers most trusted lieutenant. In an era of dubious family loyalties the two brothers remained steadfastly devoted to each other throughout the remainder of their lives. Whether this was due to any sense of familial loyalty or simply shared ambition will have to be for the reader to decide.
After two probing incursions the conquest of Sicily was undertaken in 1061. This operation would take thirty years to complete and was possible due to the divisions present between the Moslem factions inhabiting the island. The Normans continued to face problems within the already conquered areas of Italy, as well as a chronic shortage of manpower. When these factors are combined with very stiff Moslem resistance upon Sicily itself the duration of the conquest isn’t surprising. Out of necessity the invasion of Sicily was an amphibious operation with men and horses traveling by ship to an area south of Messina. The significance of this enterprise cannot be overemphasized. A few years later a similar, though much larger, operation would be undertaken by Duke William of Normandy during the invasion of England. Therefore, it would be logical to assume the lessons learned during the invasion of Sicily were put to good use in 1066.
The first landing south of Messina took place at night with a fleet of thirteen ships. An original force of 270 knights under the command of Roger d’Hautville was joined the next day by a further reinforcement of 170 knights. This force of less than 500 then took the city of Messina before Robert Guiscard had made landfall. Over the next thirty years the Normans would expand their domination of Sicily through a series of successful campaigns, including the decisive defeat of a much larger army under the command of Ibn al-Hawas. Contemporary sources list the Norman numbers at 700 with an opposing Saracen force of 15,000. Of course these contemporary sources must always be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to hard statistics. This battle was the first significant contact between Norman and Saracen forces and is interesting for this reason alone. Many historians have credited the initial European success during the crusades to two factors. The first, political disunity among the Moslem population is a logical and quite probable contributing factor. The second, unfamiliarity with European military tactics, seems less valid. This first contact between Norman and Saracen forces occurred over thirty years before the first crusade began. Consequently, it is logical to assume that the opposing sides were quite familiar with each other’s tactics by 1096. After the fall of Palermo in 1072 Robert Guiscard never returned to Sicily but instead concentrated on matters pertaining to mainland Italy. The rest of the Sicily campaign was left in the hands of his brother Roger. The city of Noto finally fell in 1091 and marked the completion of the Norman conquest of the island.
During the campaign the Normans made heavy use of sea power to transport invasion forces as well as laying siege to cities like Syracuse and Palermo. The ability of the Normans to use of these unfamiliar modes of transport and attack can be seen as evidence of their willingness to adapt to the circumstances at hand. It was also during the conquest of Italy and Sicily that the concept of a Holy War against the Moslem world began to take shape in the Norman mindset. So when Pope Urban II first preached of a holy crusade on November 27th 1096 the idea was far from unknown. By the end of the 11th century the entire southern half of Italy, as well as the Isle of Sicily, was under the domination of the Norman adventurers. Other famous names would follow such as Bohemond of Taranto, a son of the Guiscard himself who was apparently as cunning and ruthless as his father. Bohemond would become a key figure during the first crusade and would rise to fame on his own abilities instead of resting in the shadow of his father. When Robert Guiscard died of typhoid on July 17th 1085 he was buried alongside his brothers in the abbey of the Trinity at Venosa. His tomb was inscribed with an epitaph that could, perhaps be fitting for the entire Norman experience of the 11th century:
‘Hic terror mundi Guiscardus’ “Here lies Guiscard, terror of the world”.
Robert’s nephew, Roger II, would succeed his father and uncle by being crowned king at Palermo in 1130. Roger II then ruled over a Norman kingdom that would endure until the death of King Tancred in 1194. The southern kingdom the Normans had so miraculously created was then absorbed into the Hohenstaufen Empire of Henry VI.
What reasons can we find for the Norman success in Italy? The Italian campaign was not a heavily supported European enterprise, nor was it an example of overwhelming an enemy with superior force. The mercenaries, who would later become dukes and barons, were the lesser sons of Norman nobility. In many cases they were adventurers and exiles who could hope to receive little assistance from their homeland. One contributing factor is undoubtedly the Norman’s military expertise. It is a bit of a stretch to claim that the Normans were the originators of the use of heavy cavalry in the European context. However, they undoubtedly perfected the concept and made the most of it. While the Norman pedites, or infantry, surely played their part it is the milites, or knightly cavalry, that are spoken of in the contemporary chronicles. Time and again we read of heavily outnumbered Norman cavalry smashing a superior enemy force. While this may very well be propaganda we must remember that not all who wrote of these exploits were pro-Norman. We must also remember that Norman cavalry could, and often did, dismount to fight as infantry when the situation demanded it.
This tactical sense of flexibility was surely a strong weapon in the Norman arsenal. Nor should we underestimate the psychological factors when we speak of Norman success. These descendants of Viking raiders had cast off the pagan religions of their forefathers and had embraced Christianity. However, medieval Christianity was a far different thing than it is here at the dawn of the 21st century. To the medieval mind God moved and worked in all things in a very absolute sense. If the Normans gained success through military conquest it was simply God’s will that they should do so and if they received Papal blessing for it then so much the better. The fact of that blessing being won at the point of a sword was of little consequence to the Norman mind. Combine this sense of religious righteousness with a willingness to bend that same religion, and secular law, to fit their own needs and you have a very dangerous combination when combined with skill at arms.
Still, the Normans were not above sensing the reality their situation and molding it to fit their needs. The Moslem inhabitants of southern Italy and Sicily did not endure the wholesale rapine and slaughter that would occur during the first crusade. The Normans shaped the local forms of government with their own brand of feudalism, yet the local non-Christian populace was allowed to remain in positions of influence in trade and commerce.
The modern mind may look upon these events of nearly a millennium past and view them as a form of enlightened tolerance. In my opinion this would be a mistake. The Normans knew they were sleeping among the enemy and if they were to succeed the local inhabitance would need to be placated, and brought into the fold as much as possible. They simply did not have the manpower to rule with an iron fist that was completely closed. Instead they were forced to change the circumstances to their advantage, a skill they honed to a razor’s edge. Even though they faced unrest and rebellion on one scale or another during the entire time of the southern kingdom’s existence, it is a remarkable testament to their drive and skill that the Normans were able to rule effectively with so few numbers. The Norman domination of the Siculo-Italian region also produced a type of architecture that combined elements of northern European, Greek and Moslem design into a unique style. Many of the architectural works that still exist in Italy today are seen as classic examples of Norman achievement. In the end all that can firmly be said is that a relatively small group of northern mercenaries achieved improbable success and carved out an empire by shear tenacity and force of will. By helping to develop the crusading mindset, this kingdom would be partially responsible for moving the Christian and Moslem worlds onto a course that would consume them for the next two centuries.
A third German influence on Medieval Europe was the Vikings, and their successors the Normans . Actually, the word “Viking” refers to an occupation, that is slipping up little streams and creeks —viks— to plunder unsuspecting villages. The people commonly called Vikings were the Norse, a Scandinavian sea faring people from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. In effect, they were the Germans who stayed behind, as many of the German tribes can be traced back to Sweden and Denmark. The same population pressures that caused the tribes to leave Scandinavia several centuries before the birth of Christ, continued. In the meantime, the Scandinavians perfected their ship building technology and produced a light, swift sailing ship that could also use oars to good effect. This, the Viking long ship, was originally intended for trade. The Vikings were, basically, traders. But they were also fierce warriors and soon noted that many of the places they came upon in Europe were wealthy, and undefended. By the late 8th century, Viking ships came to raid first, and trade if the locals were too well armed. The 8th century was a period when Europe was still getting itself organized after the demise of Roman rule in the 5th century. While Charlemagne might control most of France and Germany, he did not have enough troops available to deal with the Vikings.
Indeed, it’s questionable if the Romans would have been able to deal with the Vikings. Interestingly enough, the Romans did have, at times, serious problems with large scale piracy in the Meditteranean. In the 1st century BC, they launched a major military campaign to conquer the areas the pirates were using as bases. The Vikings were fiercer than any of the Meditteranean pirates and their home bases were far to the north in Norway and Denmark. No Roman army or fleet had ever attempted to operate that far north. The Romans did not like the north European Winters and generally did not try to occupy lands so afflicted. We’ll never know how the Romans would have dealt with Vikings, but it’s an interesting issue to speculate about.
(Please notece that Rome fell centuries before the viking age)
What eventually stopped the Viking raids, in the early 10th century, was the unification of Norway, and the earlier establishment of Viking settlements in the lands that they had previously just plundered during the warm weather. The Vikings set up housekeeping in three main areas, the Normandy region of France, eastern England, and eastern Ireland. The Irish settlements had no impact on later European history, but the English, and particularly the French ones, did.
Britain (Britannia to the Romans) was one of the more thinly populated and distant Roman provinces. Less than a million Celts were romanized over three centuries before the last Roman legion left in the early 5th century The romanized Britons (who still spoke Celtic languages, as well as Latin ) continued to be raided by the Picts and Celts from Scotland and Ireland. Having depended on professional Roman soldiers for centuries, the Britions were unable to deal with these raids and in desperation called in Germans (Saxons, Jutes, and Angles, for the most part) from northwestern Germany and Denmark (areas still known as Saxony and Jutland, the Angles living in the ‘“angle” between the two) to help them out. This turned out to be a big mistake, because the Germans were so impressed by the place that they went back for their families (and more warriors) and came back to take Britain for their own. In the process, most of Brittania became England (from “Angleland”). The Germans drove out some of Celtic Britons (who fled to places like Cornwall, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and Brittany) and mixed in with the rest to produce the English, who spoke a German dialect that has evolved into modern English. The Germans were pagans, and the Christian Britons had little success in converting them. That would come later when missionaries from Rome arrived. The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons established seven kingdoms and proceeded to quarrel among themselves.
Just as the Germans were settling down in their new British homes, along came the Viking raids, from the late 7th century into the early 10th century. The Vikings soon found the area quite livable and Danish settlers moved into the northeastern areas and began carving out their own kingdom during the 9th century, a matter which greatly eased the Viking pressure on Britain, since the local Vikings objected to having their newfound lands devastated by the occasional visitors from Vikingland. During the 10th century, one king (a German-English fellow) named Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899) united most of England.
The Vikings also found Ireland easy pickings. Ireland, not a very prosperous or densely populated (about 300,000 people) place, received several thousand Viking settlers, who were soon absorbed into the native Celtic population.
While some Vikings were establishing themselves in Britain and Ireland, another group did the same in the coastal region of France, around the mouth of the river Seine. In effect, the Vikings in this region allowed themselves to be bought off by the king of France. These Vikings had quite a bit of leverage. Beginning in 896 they had sailed up the Seine and laid siege to Paris several times and were constantly expanding the area they pillaged. The French kings, even Charlemagne, were unable to stop the plundering. When the French noted the increasing number of Viking settlements along the coast, they feared the worst. But the Vikings were wearying of the raids. French defenses were becoming more effective and Viking losses were increasing. So a deal was struck in 912. The French would recognize the Vikings possession of the land they had already settled (plus a bit more) and make the Viking leader, one Rollo, a French noble. In return, the Viking duke would convert to Christianity, acknowledge the French king as his overlord and, protect France against wilder Vikings. Thus was born Normandy.
The Normans were quick to become French, particularly since they were a minority in their new dutchy and a disproportionate number of the new people were young male Vikings who took local women for wives. After a few generations, the Norwegian language and customs were fading fast and the Normans were French. But they were French with a difference. While their language and other habits may have changed, the Normans were still, like all Vikings, supreme opportunists. Then William, the duke of Normandy in the 1060s, talked his way into a claim on the English throne. The king of Norway was doing the same thing. An English noble, Harold, also thought he had a lock on the crown once the king died. When the king, Edward the Confessor did die, in 1066, Harold defeated the king of Norway’s invading army, but was in turn defeated by duke William and his invading Normans.
Meanwhile, for several generations, some footloose Normans had been drifting into Italy. By the time duke William was taking England, other Norman lords were making their own conquests in southern Italy and Sicily, clearing out the Byzantines, Lombards, and Moslems. These Normans established a kingdom which would endure until the mid-19th century, covering southern Italy and called the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. This was done with papal encouragement, as the Normans not only subdued the Lombards and expelled the Greeks and Arabs from Italy, but served as a useful balance against the Italian nobles who had designs on the pope’s lands. As with England, the Normans in Italy eventually went native and became Italians.
So it was the Vikings who settled in France who proved the most successful. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the manner in which the Norwegian-French William, duke of Normandy, conquered all of England and established a line of kings and queens that is still on the throne. This feat was carried off little more than a hundred years from the time that the first Viking settlements were established in France. The Vikings who had settled in France, now speaking French and called Normans, had come a long way from thinly populated (200,000 people) and rather poverty stricken Norway. They had carved out a nice piece of property for themselves in northwestern France early in the 10th century, taken England in the mid-11th century, and now they ruled some two million people in England and France, while some of them had gone to Italy in the 1th century and built yet another kingdom (with another million people) in southern Italy and Sicily. Not bad for a bunch of sea raiders.
The Vikings (Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes) had done much with little. Taking a unique boat design (their “long ships”) and a lust for travel and combat, they laid waste to large areas of Ireland, England, France, Spain, Germany, and Russia, even raiding Persia and parts of North Africa. The total population of Scandinavia barely reached a million during this period, and only a few percent of these would be off raiding in any one year. Yet in the century or so of their raiding and pillaging, they ended up taking control of vast territories containing millions of people.
The Vikings went in all directions. They discovered Iceland in 860, and began colonizing it in 874. Their descendants are still there. Greenland was discovered in 982, and colonized in 1000. Shortly thereafter, North America was also discovered, but settlements did not last long. While iceland was supporting some 50,000 people by 1000, Greenland’s population never rose above 3,000 and the North American venture never panned out, the few settlers being largely drawn from the Iceland and Greenland settlements. When the Northern hemisphere’s climate turned cold again beginning around 1300, the Greenland colony lost touch with the motherland and graducally died out. Only the Eskimos could survive in the arctic conditions which prevailed there, as the Vikings needed a longer warm season for their grain crops.
What is most ironic about this is that, a thousand years before the Viking raids began, the tribes that would become known as the Germans, also left Scandinavia (Denmark and Sweden) It was quite an exodus, both the first one and the later one. Europe was never the same after the Germans and Vikings went south.
The Normans (north men) where descendants of Norwiegian and Danish Vikings. Raiding France one time too many (along the Seine all the way up to Paris) they where more or less bought off. Become Christian and stop attacking and you can keep occupied ground + more.
Later they would invade England (William the Concuerror) and the King of England would also be Duke of Normandy.
They would form a kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily. These where the first knights as we understand them and effectivly the end of the viking age.
[More detailed articles on the Normans are coming]