(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)
While singing about Charlemagne, those in what had been Charlemagne's realm were helpless against those who would be called Vikings. In their low draft boats the Vikings ventured out with swords and battle axes. They raided along a shoreline or up a river and quickly returned to sea before help could arrive. With little or no resistance to their assaults, they were encouraged to launch more and bigger assaults.
The Vikings were responding to economic growth in their own country accompanied by an increase in population. The Vikings were "advanced in many ways ... highly skilled navigators and traders." ("Secrets of the Viking Sword," by NOVA, a PBS presentation)
The Vikings were aware of the wealth that existed elsewhere, and some were inspired to go out and grab some of it. They were aware that treasury was being stored at monasteries and churches, and these were their usual targets, conveniently located on rivers and near the coast. They raided and returned home, happy with the prestige that their loot inspired, and their success inspired an increase in raiding. They reported that land was available abroad, and with the growth in population having eliminated the availability of land at home, more Scandinavians were willing to venture to distant areas for the purpose of settling down.
Free men were obliged to possess weapons, and they were drafted for warfare, including raiding and plunder. According to NOVA they "worshipped their weapons" and believed that dying in battle was a way to get to paradise – Valhalla. Animistically, they believed that naming their sword after a person or creature of strength gave their sword added power.
"In Viking times, most men fought with axes and spears, but those who could afford it used swords for close combat." The Vikings had a superior sword, the Ulfberht. It was he Rolls Royce of swords. Its strength, lightness and flexibility was an advantage to its users. The making of the Ulfberht is belived to have been a secret, but inferior copies were made to cash in on that reputation. "Thousands of Viking swords have been found, most discovered in rivers or excavated from Viking burials across Scandinavia and northern Europe, but only 171 have been identified as Ulfberhts." ("Secrets of the Viking Sword")
Combat was not so much blade to blade contact as portrayed in old Hollywood films. "According to John Clements, in the arms race of the day, blades rarely touched each other directly. Instead, they pounded against armor and shields as fighters tried to go for the kill." The higher quality Ulfberht, with less slag left in the sword in its creation, was less brittle and less inclined to embarrass its owner by breaking during battle. And the sword was strong enough steel to be thrust through and break chain mail. ("Secrets of the Viking Sword")
The Vikings raided Paris, and they settled in Normandy. These were years of good weather and good sailing, and they ventured beyond Western Europe, and beyond England, Scotland and Ireland, as far as Iceland, Greenland and North America. The Vikings and their animals became Iceland's inhabitants, and between their use of wood and their animals wandering about, all the trees in Iceland would disappear. How far the Vikings could spread was limited by their number, and in North America, where they were greatly outnumbered, their settlements failed and they were forced to withdraw to Greenland.
The Vikings had greater success closer by. They also crossed the Baltic Sea, and in waves they passed down the Dnieper and Volga rivers. They were intent on looting treasure in Arabia but did not make it that far. Instead they conquered Slavs and set up a kingdom at Novgorod and at Kiev.
The Vikings raided England. At places in England their raids turned into conquests. They struck in Scotland, and they overran Ireland. A great army of Vikings came in 865 and overthrew the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899) rallied England against the Viking attacks. Vikings settled in East Anglia and Northumbria, while remnants of the Viking "great army" sailed away to the continent. In the next two centuries Vikings would continue to make their way to England, and the English would send them away with a bribe.
From the Hungarian Plain fierce Magyar tribesmen terrorized Europe. They raided isolated villages and monasteries, and in 899 they routed an Italian army at Brenta in the far northeast of Italy.
Today, the Institute of Hungarian Studies defends the Magyars. László Botos and Susan Tomory write:
In Hungarian history such a period was the ninth century. The campaigns of the Magyars against the West might possibly be compared only to the campaign of Hannibal. However, even Hannibal's campaign does not measure up to the campaigns of Bulcsu Horka, Lehel, Botond and Szabolcs, which were all victorious campaigns except for the Battle of Lechfeld, which took place in the heart of the German territory.
The West calls these campaigns "wild, robbing campaigns", forgetting that the Magyar "robbing campaigns" were preceded by the robbing campaigns of Charlemagne and Pepin, centuries earlier, who boasted proudly about the amount of treasures that they acquired.
Beginning in 917, Constantinople supported the Magyars against their enemy the Bulgarians. Constantinople gave the Magyars gold and precious robes to encourage them to attack the Bulgars from the rear. For several years the Magyars raided Bulgaria in force. The Bulgars drove the Magyars from the Black Sea westward. In the 930s the Magyars swept through Germanic lands to Paris and down through and past Rome in the 930s. They took prisoners and sold them to the slave markets of the East.
In 955 the king of Germany, Otto I, devastated the Magyars in battle, the Magyars unable to stand up to frontal assaults from heavy cavalry. And the Magyars returned to the Hungarian Plain, where they ruled over Serbs who farmed.
The Magyars had settled down in Hungary and had to defend themselves against the aggressions of nobles dominating the Holy Roman Empire. László Botos and Susan Tomory write of the Hungarians in "1041, 1044, 1050, 1051, 1052, 1108 and finally in 1146, winning every battle except the battle in 1044."
Charlemagne had created his empire by conquest, and unable to supervise his empire alone and he had sent out people to govern in his stead, to uphold his laws, to collect tribute and to punish resistance. These agents of Charlemagne were paid in land and what land could provide them. They were mostly farmers as well as local military commanders who led other landowners in their area against external threats. Order was desired, and local authority needed to organize a defense against marauders. This continued after Charlemagne's death in 814. Viking and Muslim raiding – and Magyar raiding into the 900s – disrupted tenuous lines of trade and communication, and agricultural production fell.
Money was not yet the dominant means of exchange. Few lords could buy a small army. Instead, in exchange for military service, local "lords" offered land and that which land could provide. The land was called the fief, and the fighting man on the fief was the vassal. Loyalty and commitment was valued ingredients in this system, and there developed the vassal's vow to his lord that he would love what the lord loved, hate what the lord hated and be bound to serve and respect the lord. "Thy friends," the vassal promised to his lord "will be my friends, and thy enemies my enemies."
The fighting men had the best means of transport on land: horses. Saddles with stirrups had arrived from Asia, and with these someone with armor on horseback had more stability and the ability to stand when wielding a sword or lance while carrying a shield. And the horses had iron horseshoes, which allowed them to carry more weight across rough ground.
Distances between major population centers were connected by rough paths, and local lords begun to assert themselves as warlords while Charlemagne was still alive. Charlemagne died in 814, and his successors lost power to these local lords.
The new system of defense was at times effective in chasing away marauders. But the little armies were at times also used against hostile neighbors and to settle territorial disputes. A new kind of warfare was coming into being, often involving sieges against neighboring lords holding out behind castle walls.
The vassals were called knights and were always on call for their lord if danger threatened. Otherwise they might be hunting on horseback, both as recreation and military exercise. The knights were a new form of aristocrat. In this new era of danger, common farmers – called peasants – joined the system by surrendering their land to a local lord for the protection offered by the lord and his knights – similar to what had been done in the Roman Empire at the beginning of its decline.
This was the manorial system. With it, peasants changed from a freeholder of land to a subject of the lord, often bound to the lord for life and under the lord's authority and perhaps supervised by a knight. The lord benefited from the peasant's harvests and sometimes dictated personal matters such as to whom one could marry. Some peasants might be forced into a sort of protection racket of a local lord, much as Hammurabi had around 2,500 years before. But many peasants preferred the protection of the local lord and his knights to being at the mercy of the armed marauders then prevalent in Europe, including those belonging to neighboring lords, whose men could be as ill-behaved as the Vikings.
What today is France was back then a patch work of communities and local rule, princes, lords and such. In the late 900s a new dynasty of kings came into being, beginning with Hugh Capet in 987. He and his successors ruled from behind the walls of Paris, in drafty, smelly and poorly sanitized castles only a few miles from robber barons. Castles were the defense strategy of the day, barriers against the weapons of the day: swords, knives, pikes, crossbows, spears and the Viking's battle axe.
Without democracy, political power was still based on force of arms. No single independent warlord elsewhere in France had the military power or will to overthrow Hugh Capet or his successors. These warlords were too independent-minded and fearful of one another to unite as a force against them. The Capets were to stay on their throne for generations to come (to the year 1328) while claiming the support of God.
The Crucible of Europe: the Ninth and Tenth Centuries in European History, by Geoffrey Baffaclough, 1976
The Formation of Christendom, by Judith Herrin, 1988
The Early Middle Ages, 500-1000, editor Robert Brentano, 1968
Spanish Islam: a History of the Moslems in Spain, by Reinhart Dozy, 2003
Western Civilization: a History of European Society, by Steven Hause and William Maltby, 2004
A History of Western Society, Fourth Edition, by McKay, Hill and Buckler, 1991
The History of the Balkan Peninsula, by Ferdinand Schevill, 1922
History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours, 584
Secrets of the Viking Sword, P BS, NOVA, 2013
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.