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The men of the Aquilon
The Normans, also called Vikings and Northmen, were known in the Middle Ages as ‘men of the Aquilon’, the Scandinavians. From the end of the 8th to the 11th century, while still pagan at first, they invaded other lands out of a desire for adventure and plunder and driven by dissatisfaction with their living conditions, eventually settling here and there in Friesland, at the mouth of the Loire and other bridgeheads.
Their highly mobile and reputedly diabolical tactics were full of trickery, with a particular preference for lightning attacks. Suddenly their sails would appear on the horizon, and before the coastal watch could intervene, they had already departed with their booty. On the Christian side, moreover, the civil and ecclesiastical leaders were ‘often the first’ to flee in disarray (Riché). Hincmar of Rheims, the famous archbishop, had forbidden the retreat of the priests, ‘who have neither wife nor children to feed,’ but in 882 he fled in haste, escaping the invaders.
The Norman plundering began in 793 with a surprise raid on the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne (later known as Holy Island). The monastery had been founded in the 7th century by Irish and Scottish monks, off the northern English coast of Northumberland, a very wealthy abbey. It managed to survive and acquired more and more land on the continent, but was abandoned again in 850. The Norwegian Vikings, who usually stayed at sea for weeks at a time, needed timely supplies, so they cut the monastery’s cattle’s throats and brought them aboard their ships in dragon form, stealing all the treasures and murdering the monks.
The Northerners invaded Ireland, upon which the catastrophe was unleashed in 820. ‘The sea threw up waves of strangers upon Erin, and there was no port or place or fortification or burgh or haven without fleets of Vikings and pirates,’ report the annals of Ulster. The northerners fell upon England and from there increasingly invaded the Frankish empire, especially western Franconia with its long and attractive coastline; and from 799 they also attacked Frisian territory. They seized valuables and took hostages for ransom money. And not only did they ravage the coastal places, but with their swift sailing ships they sailed up the rivers, burning cities such as York, Canterbury, Chartres, Nantes, Paris, Tours, Bordeaux and Hamburg, where they reduced the episcopal see to ashes. They gladly attacked the monasteries, as they did, for example, those of Jumiéges and Saint-Wandrille. On the Atlantic coast, in 836, the monks had to abandon the monastery of Noirmoutier, which had been under attack since 820.
It is hardly coincidental that Norman attacks began to become alarmingly frequent at a time when Carolingian family feuds were at their fiercest and when the defensive strength of the empire was at its weakest externally, i.e. in the mid-thirties of the 9th century. Nor is it a coincidence that the Nordic pirates, especially the Danes, then the most formidable enemies, returned year after year. From then on and throughout the century the Norman tide invaded the Christian world.
In 834 and 835 the Danish Vikings fell upon the most important trading centre in the north, ‘the famous Wijk of Duurstede, and devastated it with unheard-of cruelty’. But of ‘the pagans,’ men who were still fervently attached to their old gods, ‘no small number fell’ (Annales Xantenses). Also between 834 and 837 Dorestad, an important trading centre in the Netherlands was abandoned (near the mouth of the Rhine and south of today’s Wijk bij Duurstede): the temporary or permanent seat of the Bishop of Utrecht, it was sacked four times and partly burned.
In 836 the Normans fired on Antwerp and the port town of Witla at the mouth of the Meuse River. In 837 they made a surprise attack on the island of Walcheren, ‘killed many and completely stripped an even greater number of inhabitants of their goods; after settling there for some time and having collected an arbitrary tribute from the inhabitants, they continued on their raid towards Dorestad and there exacted tribute in the same way’ (Annales Bertiniani). In 838 a storm prevented a new attack, but in 839 they ravaged Frisia again. They also devastated the territories of the Loire as far as Nantes: a ‘scourge of God’ of which monastic writers still lamented, perhaps also exaggerating: ‘Pirates, murderers, robbers, profaners, devastators, bloodthirsty, diabolical and, in a word, heathens…’
Ah, how much better the Christians were in their military expeditions!
But why did the Vikings also devastate in this way? Wielant Hopfner writes: ‘They had had their first experiences with Christianity. Their contemporary Charlemagne had issued the Saxon Laws to impose forced conversion on the Saxons. The most frequent expressions in them sound like this: “He shall be punished by death…, he shall be put to death…, it is forbidden on pain of death…, it belongs to the property of the Church…, he shall be put to death”…’ Charles’ bloodthirsty laws, which could be described as a derivation of the Good News, threatened with a stereotypical morte moriatur everything that was intended to be extirpated among the Saxons. Of the fourteen provisions of the Capitulate imposing the death penalty, ten refer exclusively to crimes against Christianity.
The Normans knew that the Carolingians ‘had enriched the Church beyond measure’ with treasures that came ‘primarily’ from the plundered ‘pagan places of worship’. The Christian chroniclers reveal that monasteries and churches ‘had been magnificently built’ or ‘wonderfully decorated’. They also wrote: ‘Where could these riches have come from, if not from the property and the personal provision of the Germanic population?’