(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)

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Vikings, Magyars, Warlords and Feudalism

Map of Viking movements

Viking expansion (Wikipedia). Continue clicking (three times) to enlarge

In their low draft boats, Scandinavians who were to be called Vikings ventured out with swords and battle axes on quick raids along Europe's shorelines or up rivers. They were back to sea before help could arrive, and with little or no resistance to their assaults they were encouraged to launch more and bigger assaults.

The Vikings had been described as highly skilled navigators and traders. The Vikings were responding to economic growth in their own country accompanied by an increase in population, and they were aware of the wealth that existed elsewhere and 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 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.

In Scandinavia, free men were obliged to possess weapons, and they were drafted for warfare, including raiding and plunder. According to the PBS presentation "Secrets of the Viking Sword" these were people who "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. Not everyone could afford a good sword – the Ulfberht – and most men fought with axes and spears. Combat was not so much blade to blade contact as portrayed in old Hollywood films. According to the PBS documentary Secrets of the Viking Sword, "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.

The Vikings raided Paris, and they settled in Normandy. These were years of good weather and good sailing, and the Vikings ventured beyond Western Europe, and beyond England, Scotland and Ireland. They ventured 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 crossed the Baltic Sea and in waves 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.

England was close by, and Vikings arriving there turned to conquests. A great army of Vikings in 865 overthrew the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899) rallied England against the Vikings, but in East Anglia and Northumbria the Vikings settled, 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 the life of every nation, there is a period that modern historians judge through the eyes of the present and find actions that by modern standards are unacceptable. 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 the Italian peninsula past Rome. 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. The Magyars returned to the Hungarian Plain, and there they settled down. They ruled over Serb farmers, and they defended themselves against the aggressions of nobles dominating the Holy Roman Empire.


In what had been Charlemagne's empire, feudalism grew in response to Muslim, Viking and Magyar raiding. Into the 900s, raiding disrupted tenuous lines of trade and communication, and agricultural production fell. Money was not yet the dominant means of exchange. Instead of buying military services with cash, great landholders gave land (a fief) to a someone called a vassal, also to be called a knight, who was expected to supply those under him as fighting men. In other words, feudalism was a military system, and like all military systems loyalty was a valued ingredient. There was 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."

It was military matters that decided who ruled where, and Charlemagne's sibling successors had been losing power to the leaders of the military machines: the big landowners, called lords.

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 and carrying a shield. And the horses had iron horseshoes, which allowed them to carry more weight across rough ground. 

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.

Otherwise the knights 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 joined the system by surrendering their land to a local lord for the protection offered by him and his knights. The lords were applying their power to what they saw as their advantage. Farmers (peasants) were going from freeholders of land to a subject of the lord. The lord benefited from the peasant's harvests and sometimes dictated personal matters such as to whom one could marry. A new serfdom was developing.

The Capetian Dynasty

What today is France was in the 900s a patch work of feudal lords also to be referred to (in the Oxford dictionary) as "robber barons." There were alliances and marriages, and a new dynasty was begun by Hugh Capet, a member on his father's side of a powerful landowning family, the Robertians. He was also the fifth great-grandson of Charlemagne. He made alliances and won recognition as a king, his reign said to begin in 987, when he was 46. He lived to 55 and was succeeded by his son, Robert II, the beginning of a dynasty that would last into the early 300s. Titles were much appreciated and they wore the title "King of the Franks." Capet 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.

No warlord elsewhere in France had the military power or will to overthrow Hugh Capet. They were too independent-minded and fearful of one another to unite as a force against him.


Byzantium: The Early Centuries, by John Julius Norwich, Alfred A Knopf, 1989

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

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama, 2011

History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours, 584

Secrets of the Viking Sword, PBS, NOVA, 2013

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.