The Tenth Century
The Later Carolingian Empire
Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, managed to maintain his inheritance intact,
so that Charles' creation lasted for two generations. Louis had three sons and
he divided the empire between them. But those sons fought and a final agreement
wasn't reached until 843. Even so, their various heirs quarrelled from time to
time, so that from the 870s onward, even the fragments of the Carolingian Empire
The basic three-fold division held after a fashion. The Kingdom of the
West Franks corresponded more or less with France, though southern France broke
away fairly early. In the east, various German kings ruled until Otto I
(936-973) re-united much of the eastern lands, plus Italy, and was able to claim
the title of Emperor. That was how the Holy Roman Empire came to be based
The so-called Middle Kingdom lay between these two, and it fragmented early.
This area comprised the Rhineland, Flanders, and Burgundy. We still see evidence
of this today: France is to the west, Germany to the east, and in between
are the Low Countries and Switzerland.
The ninth and tenth centuries were a bad time for internal political stability,
however; for this was the age of the Vikings. And around the same time the
Vikings were attacking the northern and western periphery of Europe, two other
peoples were attacking: Muslims to the south, and Magyars from the east.
Some time in the 9th century, a Turkish people from the steppes of Asia, known
as the Magyars, began migrating westward. Like other people from this region,
they were a horse people, semi-nomadic, and ferocious warriors. They arrived on
the wide plains of Hungary in 895 where they were joined by what was left of the
Avars, whom Charlemagne had crushed. Hungary was a perfect
home--surrounded by mountains but with wide plains well suited for horse
The Magyars raided Europe for over fifty years. They invaded Bavaria in 900.
They returned year after year, plundering and looting. By 905 they had reached
as far as Saxony and for the next twenty years their depredations were
especially fierce. They raided into the Rhine valley and into Alsace. They got
as far as Reims, in France, in 937.
But by that time, Otto I was king of Germany. As he consolidated his power, he
made defeat of the Magyars one of his most important objectives. In 955 in
southern Germany, about 50 miles from Munich, Otto defeated the Magyars at the
Battle of Lechfeld. He inflicted such casualties that the Magyars never again
raided in force into Germany. Instead, they settled down in Hungary where they
became the ruling class. They remained the aristocracy of that country down to
the twentieth century, and Hungary is still a land of horse breeders.
Muslims in the Western Mediterranean
The initial spread of Islam lasted for about a hundred years in the West. By
the time of Charlemagne they controlled all of northern Africa and most of
Spain, but north of the Pyrenees belonged to Charles and the Franks. The
Byzantines still controlled Sicily and southern Italy, plus various other
outposts, and the Byzantine navy still controlled the eastern and central
But in the ninth century there was renewed Muslim activity, mainly led by
lesser princes (emirs) who sometimes behanved like rulers and sometimes like
pirates. Commanding armies and small fleets of ships, these princes had the run
of the Western Mediterranean because there was no Christian power with a fleet.
This left the coasts vulnerable to adventurers and left Christian merchant
fleets at their mercy as well.
The most significant Muslim conquest came with the invasion of Sicily in 827.
It took several years, but the Muslims were able to drive out the Byzantines,
and Sicily was Islamic for over two hundred years. They also invaded mainland
Italy, driving the Byzantines out from there as well. They even attacked Rome in
843. But the Byzantines mounted a counter-offensive and the Muslims were
gradually driven out of the mainland (final battle in 915).
Muslim adventurers were active outside Italy, too. The estuary of the Rhone
River was an important conduit of trade and was also a great haven for
pirates. Whole Islamic cities were built, though they did not survive. One
emir even set himself up in the Alps, preying on merchants.
All these activities had a significant impact on trade between West and East.
Trade with Constantinople and Alexandria dropped steadily and dramatically,
further cutting Europe off from outside influences. Trade had declined but had
survived all through the earlier Middle Ages, but with Sicily in Muslim hands,
and with Muslim control of the western Mediterranean largely in the hands of
Muslim pirates and independent princes, trade simply became too risky for most.
Contact did not end, but it was reduced to a trickle all through the 9th and
The group most associated with raiding, though, is surely the Vikings, and
they were most active during the same period as the Magyars and the Muslim
pirates. Their impact was rather more complex, however.
Who were the Vikings? The word is a modern one, the exact meaning of which
gets argued endlessly. Christian chronicles never called them
"vikings"--they were known as the Northmen. They were the people
from Denmark, from Norway, and from Sweden. Their raids began in the early 9th
century and continued in one form or another right up to the end of the 11th
The usual image of a Viking raid is one of a sort of mindless burning and
pillaging, but the reality was rather different. The activity lasted for about
three hundred years, so it is only sensible to realize that there must have been
different kinds of raiding. Some were raids for plunder: a fleet of ships
anywhere from three or four up to several score would attack a region
specifically to gain loot. Their objective was to enrich themselves and then to
return home. If there was burning and the like, it was to terrorize the locals
or perhaps to burn down a fortification.
A rather different type of activity was actual invasion. Vikings came with
the specific intent of subduing an area and settling it with their own people.
Such regions were not generally regarded as annexations of Norway or Denmark or
Sweden but became little kingdoms in their own right. In other cases, it was
more a matter of a warlord who decided it was more convenient to remain in the
invaded territory than to return home in the winter. So they stayed, sometimes
for years, sometimes forever. Finally, there were invasions that were intended
as acts of conquest, to expand the lands held by this or that Viking king.
To the victims, of course, it was all of a piece. Vikings were famous for
their ability to terrorize, mainly because they moved so swiftly and tended to
attack places that were not well defended, preferring to go around a fortress
rather than to besiege it. Their longships could sail in very shallow water, and
the navigable rivers that so benefit trade in Europe proved to be watery
highways that allowed the Vikings to strike far into the interior of the
continent. Monasteries in particular suffered, for they were generally wealthy
and generally made easy targets. And, since many of our records of this time
come from monastic chronicles, we of course get a very vivid picture of this
side of the Vikings.
The fact is, that Viking peoples eventually settled down, all across northern
Europe. From Swedish settlers in Kievan Russia, to Norwegians in Iceland,
Greenland, Ireland, Scotland, and northern England, to Danes in east England and
northern France, the Vikings made a significant impact on the development of
medieval Europe. Only some of them were warriors, and of these only some went on
Viking raids. Many more were farmers, fishermen, and merchants. These brought
Scandinavian culture into the mix that was slowly simmering and becoming
Vikings in 9th Century France
When Charlemagne conquered the Saxons, he extended his empire to the borders
of Viking realms: specifically, to Friesland in southern Denmark. Having
encountered problems there, he built fortresses and maintained a navy to protect
against Viking raids. His son, Louis the Pious, continued this practice.
But in 834, the Danes overran the Frankish coastal defenses and raided well
inland. They were stopped only by a succession dispute that distracted them for
a few years. Not until King Horik emerged as the eventual victor did they again
threaten the Frankish kingdoms. Horik discouraged independent action and
gathered the captains together into a regular invasion force. He attacked
Hamburg in 845 with a fleet that numbered hundreds of ships. At the same time,
he sent a second fleet up the Seine to attack Paris, but it was turned back.
After Horik was murdered in 854 by a rival, Denmark produced no
centrally-directed attacks for a century. The captains were left to their own
devices and they led numerous raids, mainly against northern France. These
persisted for about fifty years.
In 878, having suffered a major defeat in England, various Danish princes
joined together and formed a huge army that invaded the Continent. They
plundered up and down rivers for thirteen years. During this time, a chronicle
from the Scheldt River valley says "there did not exist a road which was
not littered with dead, priests and laymen, women, children, and babies."
Even when this Viking army lost, it won. After a serious defeat in 881 at
Saucourt, near the Somme River, the Frankish king was killed and the victory led
to nothing. He was only about twenty years old and after the battle happened to
spot a pretty young woman. He pursued her on horseback. She fled and ran through
a gateway. The king charged after her and brained himself on the crossbeam.
Other Frankish kings were no more glorious. In 885 the Vikings were besieging
Paris. King Charles the Fat of the West Franks bought them off with a huge
ransom but allowed them to pass by the city, whereupon the Vikings laid waste to
the entire countryside for several more years. Nothing actually stopped this
Viking invasion until 892, when pestilence so ravaged the army that they finally
Raids into France began again in 896. When a Viking leader named Rollo
invaded, the Frankish king made him an offer: if Rollo would convert to
Christianity and agree to defend his lands against other Vikings, then the king
would make Rollo a duke and give him a huge chunk of north France. Rollo agreed
and brought his people into a land that still bears their name: Normandy,
the land of the Northmen.
Vikings in 10th Century England
Viking influence was even greater in England than in France. There were
isolated raids even in the late 8th century, but the first significant
attack came in 835 when the Danes sailed up the Thames River. King
Aethelwulf of Wessex defeated the Danes in 851, after which the major
efforts were directed against East Anglia and Northumbria, where a
flourishing monastic culture made the area an attractive target. The Vikings
captured York in 866 and Nottingham in 867. In contrast with France, almost
from the beginning, the Danes not only invaded but built permanent
Alfred the Great became king in 871 and began his long struggle with the
Vikings. That same winter, the Danes captured London and wintered there.
Alfred won a great victory in 878, but he was unable to liberate London
until 886. Viking remnants of the great army that had devastated France
occupied southern England in 892, but they dispersed four years later. At
Alfred's death in 899, Danes still occupied England north of the Thames and
as far east as Cheshire and up to Scotland. So many Danes had settled in
eastern England that Alfred was unable to pry them out. They acknowledged
him as their king, but he let them stay and live under their own customs, so
that this area of England was known as the Danelaw.
Vikings in Russia
The Danes and the Norwegians went west and south. The Swedes went east and
south. Active merchants, they were already in Livonia, trading at Lake Ladoga
and Onega. From there they spread to the upper waters of the Dnieper and Volga
rivers. These rivers led south, into Byzantine territories, and offered much
wealth. Swedish raids penetrated further and further into the Russian heartland,
striking terror into the locals.
At Kiev, the Swedes began to settle and built a good-sized kingdom that acted
as an entrepĒt between the riches of the Black Sea and the northern outpost of
Novgorod. They appear in the chronicles as the Varangians, famous for their
fighting ability. In fact, by the 11th century, the Byzantine emperors
themselves had acquired some Swedes to serve in the palace at Constantinople:
the Varangian Guard.
The Swedes also turned much of the Baltic Sea into a Swedish lake in the 10th
century. They conquered Denmark for a time, but couldn't hold it. They had
outposts along the southern Baltic shores, and had a strong presence in Latvia.
Viking Activity Elsewhere
The Norwegians first attacked the Orkneys and Ireland before they struck
England. They conquered most of Ireland in the 9th century, but Irish
resistance never died out. Norwegian kings ruled in Dublin and had a number
of Irish kings as tributaries. Some tried, without success, to return the
island to paganism. But the Irish worshipped in secret and fought back where
they could. They recaptured Dublin in 901, but Viking kings were in Ireland
for another century.
Iceland was settled in the decades around 900, and Greenland was
discovered around the same time; both by the Norwegians. Greenland was
opened up for settlement in 982 by Eric the Red, father of Leif Ericsson,
who gave the island its name. In a classic ploy, Eric named the island
Greenland in hopes of attracting settlers.
Danes and Norwegians also sailed down the Atlantic coast of France,
sacking Nantes in 843 and controlling the mouth of the Loire River. In most
places, Danes and Norwegians were enemies, but for reasons unknown, they
seem to have cooperated in this part of the world. A combined fleet captured
Lisbon in 845, then sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the
Mediterranean. They set up shop in the estuary of the RhĒne River in 859
and in 860 they sacked Pisa. This Mediterranean expedition was not followed
up, and the Vikings returned to Britany in 862.
Conversion to Christianity
The Vikings of the 9th century were pagans, with a pantheon of gods, many
local spirits, and lots of variation from one area to another. Because the
Vikings were in fact many separate peoples, their conversion to Christianity was
uneven, occurring at different places at different times and by different means.
Vikings were polytheistic, and like many such peoples, the god of the
Christians was simply one more god to pray to or honor. An example is one Helgi,
mentioned in a Viking saga, who believed in Christ but who also invoked Thor in
matters of seafaring. Pagan Viking kings allowed missionaries within their
borders and even into their courts, without themselves feeling the least
inclined to become Christians themselves.
The earliest missions came in the early 9th century, in Denmark, but these
made little progress, until King Harald Bluetooth converted in 960. His grandson
was Cnut, who conquered England and who was a devout Christian. Norway took a
slightly different route. It had Christian kings in the early 900s, but its
people remained pagan. The country did not become generally Christian until
around 1000. King Olaf, who was later sainted, more or less imposed Christianity
on his people by force.
The Swedes were the last to convert, even though a Christian church was built
there as early as 829. By the 11th century, with Denmark and Norway both
Christian, and with the Germans expanding along the southern shore of the Baltic
Sea, more and more pressure was brought to bear on the Swedish pagans. Rather
than a sudden conversion as in Denmark, or the imposition of the faith from the
top down, as in Norway, the Swedish people converted only very gradually, and it
was not until well into the 12th century that there were no more kings or great
nobles who rejected Christ and worshipped the old gods.
In reading of Viking attacks, therefore, you cannot always assume that the
invaders were pagan. They might have been resolute pagans, enthusiastic
Christians, or some indifferent mix of the two.
So, what were these famous Viking raids? Were they anything like what is
portrayed in Hollywood movies?
That is difficult to answer. Much of our evidence comes from the hands of
monks, who were among the chief victims of the raids and who had a certain
interest in portraying the Vikings in as lurid a light as possible. There is no
doubt that the Vikings struck terror into the hearts of many, not least because
their favorite targets were those places that were most weakly defended.
Effects of the Viking Invasions
Major Viking attacks occurred somewhere in western Europe from the early
800s right through to the end of the 11th century--almost three hundred
years of the "Viking terror." In the end, however, the
"Vikings" became Norwegians and Swedes and Danes. They became an
integral part of the newly-forming European community.
To my mind, the Vikings--and especially the 10th century--mark the end of
the Carolingian era, which itself marks the end of Late Antiquity. The
Carolingians attempted to put together a sort of western revival of the
Empire. Perhaps the attempt would never have succeeded, but the tremendous
blows struck by the Magyars and especially the Vikings guaranteed that the
Carolingian experiment would not last. Instead, the Viking era marks the
beginning of a new age: the age of Europe. They were the final ingredient;
or, to put it a better way, they were an integral part of a transformation,
that gave final cultural shape to Europe.
They helped form new kingdoms. Not just the Scandinavian kingdoms, but
they also made a profound impact on England, Ireland, and France, by way of
Normandy, on Sicily and southern Italy, as well as distant lands such as
Kievan Russia. In all these places they brought their language, their
customs, literature and culture.