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The Xenophile Historian

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A History of Europe


741 to 1000

This chapter is divided into two parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Iconoclasm: Act II
The Carolingian Renaissance
Wessex and the Carolingian States
The Fury of the Northmen
Alfred the Great
The Atlantic Saga
Commerce in the Viking Era
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Part II

The Church Backslides and Splits
Basil the Magnificent
The Macedonian Revival Continues
Introducing Basil II
The Caliphate of Cordova
The First Reich and the Recovery of Christendom
A New Beginning

Iconoclasm: Act II

In 741 the Byzantine emperor Leo III was succeeded by his son, Constantine V. Early in his reign he went on several campaigns against the Arabs in Syria, Armenia and Iraq; the Byzantine fleet also destroyed an Arab fleet off Cyprus in 747. These campaigns were successful because the Arab government, the Umayyad Caliphate, was coming apart at this time, to be replaced by the Abbasids. Success on this front allowed Constantine to spend the rest of his reign concentrating on the Bulgars and--his favorite subject--religious reform at home.

Constantine's first "reform" was to order the Empire's Jews and Montanists (the followers of a second-century heresy) to be baptized as Orthodox Christians. This must have looked a bit odd, because his first wife was a Khazar princess, and the Khazars were starting to convert to Judaism at this time. When Constantine felt he had converted all his subjects, he persecuted icons and their followers even more vigorously than his father did. Often the iconodules (icon-lovers) were excommunicated and exiled, and there are unverified reports that they were even mutilated. The iconoclastic decrees were extended to abolish the cult of saint-worship, by ordering the destruction of relics and condemning prayers made to the saints. To the iconoclasts, the only acceptable Christian symbols were the cross, the Bible, and the elements of the Lord's Supper. And because the icons contained large amounts of precious metal, their destruction also had the benefit of giving the treasury a much-needed boost in gold and silver. In 754 Constantine convened a general Church council at Constantinople to outlaw icons everywhere, but it wasn't considered an ecumenical council, because (1.) there was no patriarch present (the patriarch of Constantinople had recently died, and a replacement hadn't been chosen yet), and (2.) because the pope and the Western Church refused to support the council or endorse its rulings.

The strongest supporters of icons were the monks, who had made a living by making and selling them. Between 730 and 760 one monk, John of Damascus, wrote what later became the official defense of icons. He agreed that it was wrong to worship an icon, but pictures of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and the angels are useful tools for teaching Christianity to new believers. Furthermore, it is okay to give icons respect and reverence, since the same would be done if the people they represented were here. For this, the Orthodox Church today venerates John as the last of the great teachers who put down in writing who a Christian is and what he should believe, the last of the so-called “Church Fathers.”

By the time Constantine's reign ended in 775, the iconoclastic controversy had been going on for nearly fifty years. All iconodules had been purged from the upper ranks of the government, military, and clergy--with one very special exception. Constantine had six sons, and the wife he chose for his eldest, Leo IV, was a stunningly beautiful woman from Athens named Irene. Apparently Constantine only cared about Irene's looks, because she proved to be cruel and ambitious as well. When Leo became the next emperor, Irene let it be known that she liked icons, and didn't care what Moslems might think of the images. Leo was an iconoclast, but not a very determined one; during his short reign (775-780) he let Irene have what she wanted, recalling those exiled for their beliefs, and even appointing an iconodule patriarch to please Irene. Soon Leo died of tuberculosis. He and Irene had a nine-year-old son, Constantine VI, and Irene immediately declared herself the boy's regent, to keep the power she had tasted.

The army didn't want Irene in charge, because the troops were thoroughly iconoclast, and they knew that the empress was on the other side. They tried to install a brother of Leo IV as the next emperor, and when the mutiny was suppressed, Irene had all five surviving sons of Constantine V tonsured and sent to a monastery; as clergymen, they would be seen as ineligible for the throne later on. Then she purged the army of her opponents, which left it too weak to do well in the next wars. The only successful campaign fought under Irene was against the Slavs in Macedonia and Greece, in 782. On the eastern front, the Arabs had invaded again, coming as close as Nicomedia before Irene agreed to pay a huge tribute for three years. In the west, the general commanding Sicily revolted, and while that rebellion was put down, the general in question defected to the Arabs. When a brief war broke out between the Lombards and the Frankish king Charlemagne (see below) in 788, Irene intervened on the side of the Lombards, because a proposed marriage between her son and Charlemagne's daughter did not take place. Irene lost again, allowing Charlemagne to take Istria (the peninsula of modern Slovenia) and temporarily hold Benevento.

Irene's finest hour came in 787, when she convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. She picked Nicaea as the meeting place not only because it reminded people of the original Council of Nicaea, but also because it was far enough from Constantinople to be safe from rioting civilians and mutinous soldiers. This council overturned the iconoclastic policies, and the position presented by John of Damascus became the official one. Because of this, the Orthodox Church later canonized Irene as a saint (her feast day is on August 9), which is remarkable when one considers what else she did.

By the time of the council, Irene was concerned that her regency was about to end; Constantine VI would soon come of age and demand his right to rule. To put off the day when she would have to step down, she picked a lady from a friendly, iconodule family in Armenia to be the wife of Constantine, and when Constantine tried to take the reigns of power in 790, she imprisoned him and ordered the entire army to swear an oath of loyalty, declaring that as long as she was alive, the army would not accept Constantine as ruler, and that in official proclamations, her name would always be mentioned before his. The troops in the capital did this willingly, but the Armenian theme, still iconoclast, proclaimed Constantine VI the sole ruler. More than half the army joined the Armenians, and assembled in Bithynia; realizing how little support she had, Irene let Constantine go when the troops demanded it. They put Irene under house arrest in one of her palaces, but she was not formally deposed; both her portrait and Constantine's were still stamped on coins, the difference being that Constantine 's name now appeared on the obverse side, instead of the reverse.

It didn't take long for Constantine VI to prove that he was a totally incompetent emperor. His only military campaign, against the Bulgars, resulted in him fleeing from the battlefield, after which he resorted to buying off any enemy who made trouble for the Empire. By the beginning of 792 he felt he needed Irene back, so, incredibly, he recalled her and restored her position as senior empress, taking precedence over him even on coins. For his supporters this was unacceptable, and the next plot in the army sought to get rid of both Irene and Constantine, replacing them with Nicephorus, one of Constantine's uncles in the monastery. Constantine, perhaps under pressure from his mother, responded by having Nicephorus blinded, and just to be sure no more plots involved the uncles, he had the tongues of the other four cut out. This alienated whatever support he still had from his subjects; not only had he shown himself to be incompetent and cowardly, he now showed he could be cruel as well.

The reinstatement of Irene did not restore harmony in the imperial family. At some point after this, she decided she would have to get rid of her son, before Constantine tried to depose her again. During the next five years she hatched various schemes to discredit him. As for Constantine, he resented the wife Irene had forced upon him, and in 795 he divorced his wife, sent her to a convent, and married a mistress that he had fallen in love with. The Church strongly disapproved of this divorce and remarriage, so it stopped backing Constantine afterwards. Naturally this played right into Irene's hands. Seeing how unpopular he was, Constantine tried to restore his reputation by riding out and punishing the latest Arab raiders, but Irene sent him messengers with false reports claiming that the Arabs had already withdrawn across the frontier. Thus, Constantine returned without engaging the Arabs, who were still making trouble in the eastern provinces, and his reputation as a coward was even worse.

In August 797, Irene saw her opportunity to strike. A group of her supporters tried to arrest Constantine while he was attending the races in the Hippodrome; he escaped from Constantinople, but was captured and brought back to the palace where he had been born. There Irene had him blinded, and the job was done so brutally that he died a few days later. According to the historian Theophanes, the sky was darkened for seventeen days, persuading the superstitious that even Heaven was weeping at this atrocity. For the next five years, Irene ruled alone.

Irene's second reign was not a successful one. Although she had eliminated anyone else qualified to rule, she felt no more secure than before, disliked by just about everybody. She tried to buy popularity by spending money like crazy--on Easter Monday in 799 she left the Church of the Holy Apostles in a chariot drawn by four white horses, and the noble leading each horse threw gold coins to the crowd--but most of her subjects saw it as a crass bribe at the treasury's expense. In 800 Pope Leo III decided that the throne was vacant, because it lacked a male occupant, so he crowned Charlemagne as an emperor. Byzantines saw this as a crime, if not a sin, against the sacred state. In 802 another palace revolution threw Irene out, replacing her with the finance minister, who became Emperor Nicephorus I. Irene was exiled to a monastery on the the island of Lesbos for the rest of her life; this time she was guarded closely to prevent any more revolutions.

Meanwhile to the north, the Bulgars helped the Franks in the destruction of the Avars, and thus were able to take all of Romania and eastern Hungary for themselves. The new emperor was busy recovering parts of Thrace and Greece from the Slavs, but once he got finished with that, he turned his attention to Bulgaria. He knew that the Bulgars would be tougher and better organized than the Slavs, so to teach the Bulgars a lesson, he raised the best army Byzantium had seen in many years. It wasn't good enough. The Bulgars had an unusually vigorous leader, Khan Krum (803-814), and in 811 he trapped and annihilated the Byzantine force in the mountains along the Byzantine-Bulgar frontier. Nicephorus was among the dead; his skull became a decorated drinking cup on Krum's dining table.

The son of Nicephorus, Stauracius, had been paralyzed by a sword wound near his neck, in the same battle that killed his father. Because Byzantium needed an emperor, he was crowned anyway, at Adrianople instead of Constantinople. However, his wound did not heal, and from the start he could not really rule, so nine weeks later the court persuaded him to abdicate and go to a monastery, where he only lived for three more months. He was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Michael I, who ruled for two years (811-813) and then also abdicated, when he sensed that the army was turning against him and his headstrong wife. Predictably, the next emperor was Michael's senior general, Leo V (813-820, also called Leo the Armenian).

Since Irene had first become regent, the Empire had suffered military defeats, diplomatic humiliations, and economic hardship. Thinking the icons were to blame, Leo V brought back iconoclasm, vigorously deposing and imprisoning those Church leaders who spoke out in favor of icons. The last iconoclastic emperor, Theophilus (829-842), even decreed death or exile to anyone who spoke out against iconoclasm. This was going too far and it made the emperor too unpopular, so in 843, a new council was called in Hagia Sophia, which again undid all the rulings against icons, and condemned all iconoclasts except for Theophilus, who had died a year earlier. This council was led by the Empress Theodora (also called Theodora the Armenian), who was now acting as regent because the next emperor, her son Michael III, was only three years old. For her actions, the Orthodox Church canonized Theodora, and ever since that time it has celebrated the first Sunday in Lent as the "feast of Orthodoxy," commemorating the end of the iconoclastic controversy.

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In the previous chapter, we saw how the iconoclastic controversy helped to weaken the Byzantine hold on Italy. By the mid-eighth century, the only part of the peninsula the Empire still controlled was the Venetian lagoon, part of the heel and the toe, and the Bay of Naples. Rome and Ravenna also technically belonged to the Empire, but now the pope was the real ruler of those cities. We saw Liutprand, the Lombard king, enjoy considerable success in the resulting power vaccuum. The two kings after Liutprand, Hildeprand the Useless (744) and Ratchis (744-749), though, weren't strong enough to follow up on Liutprand's victories, and both were removed by their dukes. Ratchis was succeeded by his brother Aistulf, who dreamed of conquering all of Italy; in 751 he seized Ravenna and was standing at the gates of Rome.

The pope may not have cared much for being the Byzantine emperor's puppet, but he didn't want a Lombard king for his overlord, either. For more than a decade he feared that he would become the Lombards' next target; in 739 he called on the Franks to save him from Liutprand, offering the title of patrician to Charles Martel. However, Charles wasn't interested, and the pope had to wait until Charles was succeeded by his sons Carloman and Pepin, before his pleas got a response.

At first, the two brothers followed tradition: Carloman became majordomo over the eastern half of the kingdom, while Pepin (also called Pepin the Short) took charge of the western half. In 743 they searched for a Merovingian to wear the king's crown, and chose a witless weakling named Childeric III. Then in 747, Carloman felt such a need to atone for his sins that he abdicated and became a monk. Now effectively ruling alone, Pepin showed that while he may have been less of a warrior than Charles, he was a better politician. Carloman's resignation, and Pepin's friendship with St. Boniface (they had cooperated in reforming the Frankish Church), suggested a solution to the kingship problem; if Pepin could get God's approval, it would be all right for him to replace the royal family with his own. In 750, with the encouragement of Boniface, he sent a letter to Pope Zacharias that asked a loaded question: should one man hold the title of king when another man holds the power?

This was an opportunity every pope had been waiting for since Gregory the Great. By giving Pepin the answer he wanted, Zacharias would put the most powerful man in the West in his debt, and get the help he needed to keep the Lombards away. Since Pepin had already proved himself a suitable ruler, in both his accomplishments and in his private life, the pope answered in his favor: "It is better that he who possesses power be called king than he who has none." Using this statement to justify his actions, Pepin convened a meeting of Frankish nobles and got himself "elected" king of the Franks. Childeric III was shorn of his long blond hair (which made him unfit to be a king, but fit to be a priest) and placed in a monastery, where he conveniently died within a year.

Pepin spent the rest of his reign repaying the pope for the favor. He told the Lombards to lay off Rome and when they failed to do so, crossed the Alps, brought them to heel, and gave the land they had taken back to the pope. Pepin also conquered Septimania, driving the Arabs back into Spain (759), and put down a major rebellion in Aquitaine (760-768). He died two months after that revolt ended, and the kingdom he bequeathed to his sons Charles and Carloman was both strong and primitive at the same time.(1)

Charles has gone down in history as Charlemagne, meaning "Charles the Great" in Latin. This is because he was a determined and successful soldier, a talented statesman, and a patron of learning all rolled into one. There were 54 military campaigns during his 46-year reign, often on more than one front at the same time. When the Lombards made trouble by breaking treaties and seizing Papal lands, he finished off their kingdom, annexing all of north and central Italy (774). At the same time he added Byzantine Ravenna to Pope Adrian I's estates around Rome(2), but kept most of the lands taken by the Lombards, even those Pepin had given to the pope previously. Charlemagne treated both Adrian and his successor Leo III with great kindness, but made sure they never forgot who was the boss.

Charlemagne had his greatest military successes on the eastern front, where he pushed the frontiers of the Frankish kingdom to the Elbe and upper Danube. Most of the time he declared he was advancing the cause of Christianity, though a few high-minded clerics deplored his method of conversion, which they called "baptism with the sword." In 784-5 he conquered the Frisians; by crushing the seafarers of the North Sea, he left a vacuum that the Vikings would soon fill. In 788 he took over Bavaria, which had shown an alarming tendency toward self-rule after it submitted to Frankish rule. In 796 he ended an old threat to the West by destroying the Avars in Hungary. To guard the East he set up a series of "marks" or "marches", special military districts in what is now east Germany, Austria and Slovenia. This established supremacy of a sort over all of the Slav tribes on the eastern frontier, from the Sorbs of the Oder River to the Croats on the Adriatic.

The still-pagan Saxons of northern Germany were his toughest opponents. It took 32 years of campaigning (772-804) to vanquish and pacify them. Since they were disunited, he had to conquer one tribe at a time, and between campaigns they launched savage raids into the Rhineland and France. On one occasion, he ordered the beheading of 4,500 captives after they surrendered; on another, after one tribe's forced conversion, he chopped down the Irminsul, the great oak tree that they had worshiped previously, and out spilled the tribe's golden treasury into Charlemagne's lap! The Saxons eventually accepted Christianity, though they never were very cooperative subjects.

The only direction in which Charlemagne did not win much ground was to the south; all he got for attacking the Moslems in Spain was the county of Barcelona and the Pyrenees mts. ("the Spanish March"). It did, however, give France protection from a possible Moslem revival.(3)


By the end of the century Charlemagne had brought nearly all of western Christendom under his rule.(4) The Arabs sent him gifts worthy of a valiant foe; his favorite gift was an elephant named Abu-al-Abbas. The pope, however, presented the most impressive gift of all. It came about because medieval popes had trouble getting along with the people of Rome; as the saying goes, "familiarity breeds contempt." In 799 Pope Leo III was attacked by a gang of his enemies; he was beaten up, and they attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue and gouge out his eyes. When he recovered from that ambush, he was charged with a number of crimes, including adultery, simony(5) and perjury, and formally deposed. He could only get his name cleared and his job back by standing trial, so Leo fled to Germany, where he met Charlemagne, and Charlemagne went to Rome in December of 800, to testify on his behalf. Sure enough, the king's testimony won the pope's acquittal and reinstatement. Christmas came two days after the trial, and that's when Leo sprung his surprise. While Charlemagne was attending a mass in Rome, the pope placed a crown on Charlemagne's head, proclaiming Western Europe reunited as a "Holy Roman Empire," with Charlemagne as its first emperor. The congregation shouted, "To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peace-giving emperor, life and victory!" Then Leo prostrated himself before Charlemagne, a gesture which popes had previously practiced only before the emperors of Byzantium. Though somewhat alarmed, Charlemagne went along with the idea.(6)

Charlemagne's coronation
Charlemagne's Christmas present.

Theoretically only an emperor in Constantinople could bestow the imperial crown upon anybody, but a legal loophole presented itself, in the form of Empress Irene. Although there was no law saying that a woman could not run the Empire, it had never been done before, so some--including the pope--felt that the throne was vacant so long as Irene had it. That gave the pope the legal justification to crown his own emperor. At the same time, the pope granted an even greater honor to himself; by crowning Charlemagne, he shrewdly made it look like the title of emperor was a gift from the Papacy. In the next chapter, we'll see what happened when popes got the idea that they could take away the title, as well as give it. One thousand years after Charlemagne, Napoleon Bonaparte remembered the trouble that started with Charlemagne's coronation, so when he staged his own coronation, he crowned himself (see Chapter 12). Charlemagne had his own plan to reunite the East and West, by marrying Irene. According to the reports he heard, Irene was still beautiful, though in her late forties, and because of her unpopularity at home, she probably would have accepted the offer; it was the only way left for her to keep the throne in the East. The Byzantines would have none of it, though, and when they overthrew Irene, they also ended Charlemagne's chance to do things his way.

Actually the whole thing was nonsense. For one thing, it must seem absurd to the modern reader that two non-Italians--a Greek woman and a German man--could be accepted so easily as "Roman emperors." After the coronation, Charlemagne still ruled like an old German chief, uniting men through ties of personal loyalty rather than by laws. A century of three strong leaders--Charles Martel, Pepin the Short and Charlemagne--had made the Frankish kingdom look more impressive than it really was. The only thing it had resembling a legislative body was the annual meeting of the army. This was called the "Field of March" under the Merovingians, but Pepin had moved it back two months and invited clergymen to attend, so now it was the "Field of May." The only administration was the network of bishops and archbishops; the bureaucratic apparatus that should have managed the empire for Charlemagne's weak successors was totally non-existent. Consequently, the empire worked best wherever its ruler happened to be. For example, Charlemagne was so busy on the distant frontiers that he never found time to finish subduing the Celts of Brittany, right in his own backyard.(7)

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The Carolingian Renaissance

During Charlemagne's time, long-distance trade started to increase, despite that fact that Moslem navies now controlled the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, it was because the Mediterranean was a Moslem sea that Charlemagne gave legal protection to Jewish merchants, since they could travel through both Christian and Moslem territories without being automatically viewed as agents for the other side. The yields from farming also increased, for reasons covered later in this chapter (use of the heavy plow, the water mill, and the three-field system). In fact, the empire prospered to the point that Charlemagne could live off his personal estates without imposing a general tax on his subjects; obligations to the crown were always paid with service rather than with money. By modern standards western Europe was still not very rich or productive, and plagues and famine would remain a problem for centuries to come. However, now there was peace at home, and the only wars to fight were "good Christian wars" against far-away enemies of the Church, so Europeans could believe that life was getting better at last, and that they owed a lot of it to their just and powerful king, Charlemagne.

Early on Charlemagne realized that he would need educated and responsible men to keep his government working. His efforts to find these men and to train the up-and-coming generation began a small-scale cultural flowering that we call the "Carolingian Renaissance." By this time education of any type had all but disappeared; only among the clergy of England and Ireland was there a decent literacy rate, and things like wars, barbarian raids, and neglect had caused many classical works, like portions of the writings of Livy and Virgil, to be lost forever.

In Guizot's History of Civilization in France there is a list of the names and works of twenty-three men who were either grouped around Charlemagne as his advisors, assigned by him as advisors to his sons Pepin and Louis, sent by him to all points of the empire as his commissioners, or put in charge of important negotiations in his name. Those he did not employ at a distance formed a learned and industrious society, a school of the palace. Since learned men were in such short supply, Charlemagne recruited many of them from abroad. For example, the Visigoth poet Theodulf came from Spain and served as the imaginative bishop of Orleans. A short German from the east named Eginhard was both minister of public works and the official court historian. But it was in England that Charlemagne found a scholar with the skills of organization and leadership needed to manage his cultural revival everywhere in the empire--Alcuin of York.

Alcuin started by setting up the empire's first school, right in Charlemagne's capital at Aix-la-Chapelle (modern Aachen, Germany). Here both the sons of noblemen and their mustachioed fathers gathered in seminarlike classes to learn what would become the basic medieval curriculum: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and Latin literature. To us it would have seemed like a meager amount of learning, but Europe had been intellectually starved for so long that this must have seemed like a feast for the students. When not on a campaign or tour of the realm, Charlemagne would also participate, which generated some lively discussions. He eventually learned to read, but claimed that his hands were too callused from use of the sword to write, so all he did with a pen was sign his initials.

The enthusiasm of the school spilled over into the rest of the court. Sometimes Aachen was called a "Second Rome," and once Alcuin flattered the emperor by telling him, "If your zeal were imitated, perchance one might see arise in France a new Athens, far more glorious than the ancient--the Athens of Christ." Students gave themselves classical or Biblical names; Alcuin became "Horace," Charlemagne became "King David," and Eginhard chose for himself the name Bezalel, after the craftsman who built the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant for Moses. Times of socializing thus became an improbable spectacle where war-hardened nobles, pious clerics and notorious womanizers (the latter included Charlemagne(8) himself) engaged in contests of self-improvement, testing each other with riddles, witty remarks and scraps of ancient pagan poetry.

In ancient times, understanding any text was often an intellectual crap-shoot, even after the introduction of the alphabet. Ancient authors did not use many of the features in modern writing that we take for granted, like punctuation and spaces between the words.(9) Thus the typical reader had to examine the text closely, especially if the scribe used an unusual style of penmanship, and ponder the meaning of every line; he couldn't read it at the same speed as a spoken conversation. We believe Alcuin was the one who promoted the idea of separating words with spaces; sentences became much easier to understand when they didn't run on for an entire page! The monks who copied texts (see below) accepted spaces and introduced periods, but they did so cautiously, lest these innovations use up too much of their precious parchments. They also invented lower-case letters and a smaller font, the Carolingian Minuscule script, for the same reason, to get more words on a page.

Because the Carolingian scholars were imitators rather than innovators, we must thank them for rescuing many classical works that might otherwise have been lost. The actual work of copying the manuscripts was very tedious; a trained scribe usually took three to four months on a single manuscript, much of it spent on the elegant decorations known as "illuminating." Some monasteries kept twelve or more monks working full time just on the task of copying, and the effort meant that by the ninth century there were some priestly "libraries" boasting a collection of a few hundred volumes. Their effort shows in the number of surviving classical-era manuscripts; we have about 140 that were copied in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, but 6,000 from the ninth century alone. What this means to us is that no Roman work that survived long enough to be copied by Charlemagne's scholars was ever lost again. It is because of these dedicated copyists that the entire writings of Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Juvenal, Martial, and many other classical authors are available to us today.

Ironically, the work of the Carolingian scholars also killed Latin as a living, evolving language. Because they were careful to make sure they always wrote Latin correctly, they fossilized its structure. Latin remained the language of the educated until about 1600, but over time it had less and less in common with the languages used in everyday life, because the common people continued to add new words and change the rules of grammar, often without knowing they were doing so. Consequently, after 800 we can stop calling the main language of western Europe "Latin," and start calling it French, Italian, Spanish, etc., depending on what country the speakers are in. One of the first signs of the change came when Charlemagne's grandsons signed the Treaty of Verdun (see the next section), and they took an oath in two modern languages, French and German, instead of using Latin. For more on the transformation of Latin into today's Romance languages, see also footnote #25 in this chapter, and footnote #18 in Chapter 6.

After so many years of war and toil, Charlemagne spent more time at home, finding rest in this work of peaceful civilization. He embellished the capital with a palace and a domed octagonal basilica, the latter magnificently adorned. He fetched from Italy clerics skilled in church music, which he recommended to the bishops of his empire. In the outskirts of Aix-la-Chapelle "he gave full scope," says Eginhard, "to his delight in riding and hunting. Baths of naturally tepid water gave him great pleasure. Being passionately fond of swimming, he invited not only his sons, but also his friends, the grandees of his court, and sometimes even the soldiers of his guard, to bathe with him, insomuch that there were often a hundred and more persons bathing at a time."

When age arrived, he continued his daily habits, but at the same time, was taken up with the thought of death, and prepared himself for it with stern severity. He drew up, modified, and completed his will several times over. Three years before his death he made out the distribution of his treasures, his money, his wardrobe, and all his furniture, in the presence of his friends and his officers; two thirds of it was divided into twenty-one portions, which were to be distributed among the twenty-one metropolitan churches of his empire. Those were put under seal immediately, while he kept for himself the third share to maintain his lifestyle. After his death, what was left of it would be subdivided into four portions, which would go to the metropolitan churches, his sons and daughters, the necessities of the poor, and to the servants of both sexes in the palace for their lifetime. As for the books which he had amassed, they would be sold at their proper value, with the proceeds thus raised going to help the poor.

He did not seem too sorry to leave this world. A terrible famine swept the empire in 809. He lost his second son, Pepin, whom he had made king of Italy, in 810. In 810 he marched against the Danes, who had refused to acknowledge his authority, but before he got to the frontier his trusty elephant Abu-al-Abbas died, and he called off the campaign. Another constant companion in wartime, his eldest son Charles, died in the following year. Finally he wore himself out haggling with the Byzantines; it took until 812 to make them recognize him as the Western Roman emperor, and accept the passing of this title to his last surviving son, Louis. He died in January of 814, at the age of 70 or 71; his ponderous corpse was reportedly buried sitting upright on a throne, in his chapel at Aix-la-Chapelle.(10)

Charlemagne's empire, 814 A.D.

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Wessex and the Carolingian States

Charlemagne played a hand in starting the unification of England, by giving shelter to Egbert, the young king of Wessex, when Offa of Mercia drove him into exile in 789. Egbert stayed at the emperor's court for several years, before returning to claim his rightful throne. Over the course of his reign (802-839), Egbert conquered Sussex, Essex, Kent and Cornwall, bringing all of England south of the Thames River under one crown. In 825 he inflicted a major defeat on the Mercians (the battle of Ellendun), and even ruled Mercia briefly. Consequently the three Angle kingdoms submitted to his overlordship, the title of Bretwalda passed from Mercia to Wessex (829), and Wessex was always the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom after that. Even so, Egbert and the five kings after him, including Alfred the Great, never claimed any crown for themselves besides that of Wessex.(11)

Egbert left the whole kingdom to his son Ethelwulf, but Ethelwulf went back to the old Germanic custom of dividing the inheritance; he gave Essex, Sussex and Kent to his son Athelstan. He did well in battles against the Welsh and the Mercians, only to be deposed in 856 by his eldest son, Ethelbald. Since Athelstan had died by this time, the kingdom was reunited under Ethelbald, but now the crown passed rapidly through a series of short-lived brothers: Ethelbald (856-860), Ethelbert (860-865), and Ethelred I (865-871). Under them the raids on England by Danish Vikings (see below) multiplied, and the kings of Wessex were unable to do much about this new menace. Things got so bad that Ethelred crowned his youngest brother, the future Alfred the Great, as co-king in 866, so that there would be no power struggle should he fall in battle. It was a prudent move; the same year saw the Danes launch a fullscale invasion of England. In 870 Ethelred and Alfred got involved defending Mercia from the Vikings, and the next year saw nine Viking-Saxon battles. Alfred won a handsome victory at Ashdown (January 8, 871), but Ethelred died in April, meaning that from now on Alfred would be on his own.

Back on the Continent, Charlemagne was succeeded by Louis I (the Pious). Louis forced the long-neglected Breton peninsula to submit to Frankish authority in 825, but for the rest of his reign (814-840) he was on the defensive. Thus, his chief accomplishment was keeping the empire united, a job made a lot easier because he had outlived all his brothers. Louis tried to break with tradition and leave most of the empire to his eldest son, Lothar; as early as 817 Lothar had himself crowned regent of Italy by the pope, a move which made him co-emperor with Louis. Lothar's brothers each got a single province: Aquitaine for Pepin, Bavaria for Louis the German, and Alamannia (southwest Germany, later called Swabia) for Charles the Bald. As you might expect, the brothers wanted a bigger piece of the pie than this, and they revolted twice, in 830 and 833. In the second revolt the father's knights went over to the sons, and they briefly removed Louis from the throne, but later reinstated him to keep Lothar from getting too strong.

Another civil war broke out upon Louis I's death in 840. This time Charles the Bald and Louis the German (Pepin had died in 838) carried everything before them. At the Treaty of Verdun (843) the empire was divided three ways: Charles got France (minus Brittany, which revolted and regained its independence in 846), and Louis got Germany, while Lothar kept the Low Countries, the west bank of the Rhine, Switzerland, Burgundy and Italy. Lothar died in 855, and his illogical central kingdom ("the bowling alley") was split between his three sons, Lothar II, Charles of Provence, and Louis II of Italy. Thanks to it having two kings named Lothar, the land north of Switzerland was called Lotharingia in the ninth century, and Lorraine later on. Between treaties the kings fought frequently for more land and prestige, all of them jealously seeking to lord over as much as possible; meanwhile the real problems of their time went unattended. As they bickered, most of their political power and royal estates were usurped by counts and dukes who were just as greedy and irresponsible. This left Western Europe a tempting target for marauders like the Vikings.

Treaty of Verdun, 843
The first partition of the Carolingian Empire, 843.

By 870 Lothar of Lorraine and Charles of Provence were dead, so the three remaining kings divided up Lorraine and Provence between them. The result of this second partition was that the empire was split into portions roughly corresponding to the modern nations of France, Germany and Italy. This was a natural division in terms of both geography and people; the languages spoken by the inhabitants in each region can now be recognized as French, German and Italian.

The Carolingian kingdoms, 870
The second partition of the Carolingian Empire, 870.

Louis the German died in 876, and the East Frankish kingdom split between his sons: Bavaria for Carloman, Alamannia for Charles the Fat, and Franconia, Thuringia and Saxony for Louis III. But Charlemagne's descendants were now dying faster than they were growing up. Charles the Bald's successor, Louis the Stammerer (don't you love these nicknames?), only lasted on the throne for two years (877-879), and the two sons of Louis had reigns just as short. Carloman and Louis III didn't do any better, so the empire came together again under Charles the Fat in 884. Then in 888 Charles was forced by the Diet of Tribur to abdicate and the empire split up for good. While Arnulf of Carinthia, a son of Carloman, took charge over Germany, two barons fought for the crown of Italy, two other barons carved out little kingdoms for themselves in Burgundy and Provence, and one more, Odo of Paris, became king of France. In theory they all acknowledged Arnulf as superior, because he was the only remaining adult member of the Carolingian dynasty; in practice they were independent monarchs. Although Europeans would bandy about the title "Holy Roman Emperor" for nearly a thousand more years, what they meant was a powerless elected ruler over a confederation of German states, quite a different animal from what Charlemagne had set up and which now had ceased to exist.(12)

The Carolingian kingdoms, 870
The third and final partition of the Carolingian Empire, 888. The kingdoms formed by this split were France (green), Germany (dark brown), Italy (yellow), Burgundy (red), Provence (orange), and the Patrimony of St. Peter (also yellow, see footnote #2).

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The Fury of the Northmen

Charlemagne's conquest of Saxony brought his frontier to the base of the Danish peninsula. This gave the Franks new neighbors, the Scandinavians. Nobody thought this was important, because Scandinavia was off the beaten path, primitive, and pagan.(13)

Denmark was the largest and most advanced Scandinavian country at this time. The Danes had absorbed their neighbors to the south, the Angles, and lorded over the southern part of Sweden. These lands gave Denmark a total population of nearly half a million. North of the Danes lived the Norwegians, also called the Norse. About 100,000 of them lived on the shores of the Vik, facing Denmark.(14) An equal number lived in settlements scattered along the Atlantic coast as far north as Trondheim.

The third group, the Swedes, originally lived on the shores of Lake Malaren, near present-day Stockholm, with a tribe called the Getes between them and the Danes. The Getes were the parent tribe of the Goths who had colonized east Germany in the first century A.D., migrated to the Black Sea in the third century, and then played such an important part in bringing down the Western Roman Empire. At some point between 550 and 750, the descendants of those Goths who stayed behind were conquered by the Swedes. The names of Götaland and Gotland (Goth-land) remain in use as place names for southern Sweden but the people were absorbed. This brought Swedish numbers up to a figure nearly as high as the Danish one.

As cold as Scandinavia is, it also has a special feature on its Atlantic side--the famous Norwegian fjords. These inlets were carved during the ice age, when glaciers came down from Norway's mountains to reach the ocean. The fjords gave Norway more harbors than the rest of Europe put together, and they provided both shelter from storms and places to hide, should an enemy fleet approach from the sea. No wonder the Norwegians have always been good sailors!

In Charlemagne's time Denmark and Sweden had their own kings, and both countries have traditions of a line of kings going back to 500 A.D., or even earlier. Of course the first kings were legendary figures, and we can't be sure if the stories about them are true. Runic writing was available (see Chapter 3, footnote #1), but it seems to have been used mainly for magic; only later was writing considered suitable for chronologies and other historical material. Also, Denmark was apparently divided into several states, because the Danes couldn't agree on who was really king; often more than one king is reported ruling at the same time, and there were three occasions in the seventh and eighth centuries when one king may have lorded over both Denmark and Sweden. The picture starts to make sense in the reign of Denmark's Gorm the Old (936?-958), when the first historical records appear, and the next Danish king, Harald Bluetooth (958-985) was the first who could credibly claim that Denmark was united under his rule. It was a similar story with Sweden, where a unified kingdom first appeared under Erik VIII the Victorious (970?-994). Politically, the Norse were behind the other two; the first monarch in Norse legend, Olaf Tretelgia, claimed descent from an early Swedish king, so his family must have been younger than the other royal families (by contrast, the Danish and Swedish kings traced their ancestry to the god Odin). Harald I Fairhair (863-930) was the first king who even claimed to be ruler over all of Norway.

Charlemagne's arrival on the Danish border wasn't the first contact between the Scandinavians and civilization; in 5 A.D. a Roman fleet made it to Jutland. The Roman historian Tacitus noted that the Danes were fierce fighters, and they already traveled in rowboats that had high prows on both ends. After that the Scandinavians disappeared from the sight of civilized men; for the next 600 years or so they kept to themselves, except when they wanted to trade with the tribes and nations of the south.

The Scandinavians may have stayed at home, but they had not become peaceful. We learned that with the discovery of Sandby Borg, a fifth-century fort on Öland, an island off Sweden's coast, in 2010. The fort was surrounded by dozens of skeletons, which had marks on the bones showing they had died violently. Obviously a battle took place here, but there was also something odd about the place. For one thing, the bodies were not buried or cremated, but simply left where they fell. Even stranger, the archaeologists found several jewelry boxes, beads and gilded brooches, suggesting that the inhabitants of the fort were either rich or made jewelry for a living. Despite this, whoever attacked the fort left those valuables behind, and there is no evidence of anyone else coming to the ruins for centuries to come. Were the attackers so loaded with treasure that they couldn't take all of it away? Or did they believe the place had a curse on it, and that belief was so strong that it kept treasure hunters away for a long time afterwards?

Anyway, the Scandinavians burst from their homeland in the last years of the eighth century. The Norse crossed the North Sea, while the Swedes crossed the Baltic, and they hit the rest of Europe like the proverbial ton of bricks.

The first reason why the Scandinavians did this was because in the eighth century they became the first Europeans to build a really efficient sailing ship. For thousands of years there had been simple square-sailed ships in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean that could sail with a tailwind. In most cases their captains sailed by day and kept the shore in sight so they could quickly find a place to drop anchor when the sun went down or the wind turned against them. Sailing ships of this type were not very useful in the tricky winds of the Atlantic, and the big holes that galleys had in their sides for oars meant they weren't even very seaworthy. For getting around in the Atlantic, the Celts had built coracles, tub-shaped boats covered with leather, which stayed afloat better than galleys but didn't do much else. Now the Norse added sails to their rowboats, because they figured out that if you build a mast so that a sail can rotate around it, you can tack into a crosswind and even into a headwind. By adding a sturdy keel to their ships they made them strong enough to stand up to Atlantic gales; it also gave the ships enough grip in the water to sail against the wind. At the same time they kept the ships light enough to drag onto a beach, or from one river to the next; that is how Swedish Vikings managed to sail across Russia to reach the Black and Caspian Seas. And by making the hulls twice as wide as they were high, the Vikings created a structure that was less likely to run aground in the shallows; one Irishman declared that Norse ships could sail in any place with water, even on wet grass!(15)

At first they used the new ships for trading, not raiding. Early in the eighth century a marketplace was built at Ribe, on Denmark's west coast. This was Scandinavia's first town, and by 725 it had become the main trading center for both Norway and Denmark. We know the Norse were there because archaeologists have found quite a few combs at Ribe, made from reindeer antler. These combs were popular all over Scandinavia (contrary to what you might think, Vikings took very good care of their hair!), and while there are plenty of reindeer antlers lying around in Norway, after the reindeer shed them every year, reindeer don't live in Denmark, so the combs had to come from Norway. The voyages to and from Ribe gave the Norse the seafaring skills they would use later to strike England.

The other reason why they left home was overpopulation; Scandinavia's climate was so harsh that one million people, the grand total for the figures quoted in the second and third paragraphs of this section, was enough to fill up all land that was fit to live on. When the Goths moved out they left behind a thinly populated wilderness, dotted with crude villages that made a living through farming, fishing and a little trade. A series of unusually warm years just before 800 allowed these communities to grow larger than they normally would have. At the same time the climate bred bold people with an urge to go adventuring. This desire to explore was increased by two customs commonly practiced by Scandinavian chiefs: polygamy and the leaving of one's entire inheritance to the eldest son. The result was a surplus of younger sons who inherited nothing, and they went forth to find new homes for themselves. If these sons had retainers, they went as well, serving their masters as farmers at home, as sailors at sea, and as soldiers in foreign lands.


What do you think of when you hear the word "Vikings"? Probably football players from Minnesota, or big warriors with horned helmets on a dragon-ship, like in the picture above. While the dragon figurehead on the bow of the ship is accurate, Vikings did not wear horns; that style of headgear appeared more often in Wagnerian operas than it did in real life. The helm shown below, with a small crest on top and goggles around the eyes and nose, is in the style Vikings preferred. A similar but fancier Anglo-Saxon helmet was found in a seventh-century grave at Sutton Hoo, England.

A real Viking helmet

The first recognizable Viking raid took place in 789, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that the "first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers" came to England.(16) Around 790 the Norse of Hordaland discovered the Shetland Islands, and soon after that, the Faeroes and the Orkneys. These served as stepping stones for further expeditions to the British Isles. In 793 they plundered the monastery of Lindisfarne, the headquarters of Christianity in northern England. Lindisfarne, being on an offshore island, was in a shockingly exposed location; the Anglo-Saxon builders of the monastery did not think it would be attacked because they were the worst raiders to strike the British Isles. Until now; the eleventh-century chronicler Simeon of Durham reported that the Vikings "laid everything waste with grievious plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet . . . and seized all the treasures of the holy church."

The next year they returned and sacked the monastery at Jarrow. This time they met stiffer opposition, so they made their next voyages down the west coast of Great Britain. Since sailing conditions were easier here (Ireland blocked off the worst of the Atlantic storms), they quickly explored the whole coastline from the Hebrides to Cornwall. In 799 they entered the Bay of Biscay. You can get an idea of how much better the new boats were by comparing these voyages to ones made previously. The cautious shuttle of the Frisians and the Anglo-Saxons across the North Sea was quite outclassed by the bold Norse explorations.(17) And there was much more to come.

Norse stories of easy pickings in the west took a few years to reach Denmark. It was only in the 830s that the Danes began to join in. Then life immediately became very precarious for the people living near the English Channel. As the Danes and Norse learned the way up the rivers it became dangerous for people inland, too. People in churches began to pray regularly for deliverance from "the fury of the Northmen."

Despite these fervent prayers, nothing stopped the Vikings or altered their course. The only thing that could keep them away was bad sailing weather. In one case, an Irish monk was copying a manuscript when he heard a fierce storm brewing outside, and the sound gave him so much joy that he scribbled a note about it in the margin of the text he was working on: "There's a wicked wind tonight, wild upheaval in the sea; no fear now that the Viking hordes will terrify me."

Charlemagne was reportedly frightened of the Vikings, but they didn't give him much trouble; while he was alive the only part of the Empire they raided was the coast of Frisia (810). His weak successors, however, didn't get off so easily. In 834 the Vikings looted and destroyed Dorestad, the rich trading center of Frisia, thereby putting the Frisian merchants out of business. In 845 the king of Denmark, Ragnar Lothbrok, led a fleet of 120 ships in the first Viking attack on Paris. The only thing Charlemagne's grandson, Charles the Bald, could do to save the city was pay Ragnar 7,000 pounds of silver.

The Vikings did not limit their raids to the British Isles and northern France. Under reckless leaders with ominous names like Eric Bloodax and Ivar the Boneless, they ranged far and wide. Every major town in northwestern Europe--including London, Bordeaux, Paris, Rheims, Rouen, Aachen and Cologne--was sacked at least once. They raided Moslem Spain in the 820s and destroyed half of Seville, something no Christian army could do. Between 853 and 903 they put Tours to the sword six times. And in one way the Vikings were worse than the barbarians who brought down Rome. Many fifth-century barbarians were Christians, so clergymen could protect themselves and their property by warning the raiders that God would get them if they messed with anything belonging to the Church; even Attila the Hun was impressed when he got to meet the pope. By contrast, the Vikings made churches and monasteries their favorite targets, because they (1) had lots of easily carried wealth in the form of gold and jewel-encrusted objects and (2) because unlike castles, they were not likely to have armed men protecting the premises. Sometimes they timed their attacks to occur on holy days, so that they would find not only treasure but also lots of food, and captives to sell as slaves.

Viking does not mean any Scandinavian, but it does mean any Scandinavian raider. Their victims had difficulty telling the difference between Norse and Danes, so the term fits both. It was a different case with the Swedes, who concentrated their attention on the lands east of the Baltic (mainly Russia), and the Norse and Danes did not intrude there. For that reason the Swedes are usually called Varangians, though from contemporary accounts it seems that they were just as much the ferocious Viking type as their Norwegian and Danish kinsmen.(18)

The Vikings worshiped a pantheon of gods as warlike as themselves, like the great chief Odin and the storm-god Thor. But one of them voiced what he really believed when he said, "I believe in my own strength." Most feared of all were a special class of religious warriors called berserkers, who worked themselves into a frenzy just before a battle started (often by chewing on a shield) until they could die laughing, oblivious to both their own wounds and their leader's commands.

The aim of every Viking was to do something worthy of a saga--a long poem that celebrated heroic deeds. Most Vikings expected life would be short (a Viking who reached the age of thirty was considered an old Viking), so they wanted to do something that would get them mentioned in a saga, where at least their names would last forever. As one saga, the Havamal, explained, "Cattle die, kindred die, every man is mortal; but the good name never dies of one who has done well. Cattle die, kindred die, every man is mortal; but I know one thing that never dies, the glory of the great deed."

An example of the stuff of which sagas were made was Bjorn Ironside's raid into the Mediterranean. This was a three-year-long running fight (859-862) in lands the Vikings were unfamiliar with: Spain, Morocco, the French Riviera and Italy. The high point of the adventure was the sacking of a city which Bjorn claimed was Rome. From other sources we know it was really Luna, a little town just north of Pisa, but one can forgive Bjorn for pitching his claims high: he had to live up to his father, the aforementioned Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar appears in so many sagas that he must have been both a great warrior and a talented liar.(19)

The Vikings believed that if they fought bravely in this life, they would fight alongside the gods at Ragnarok, the great battle at the end of time. Accordingly, the sagas glorified combat above all other deeds, and if these legends can be trusted, the battle of Bravoll, fought in eastern Gotland around 700 A.D., was the greatest Viking battle of all. Because Scandinavian records are so sketchy at this early date, all we know for sure is that the battle was fought between Harald Wartooth and his nephew, Sigurd Hring, over who would be king of both Denmark and Sweden. The way the sagas described it, an all-star cast of champions fought and died at Bravoll, making it a real-world version of Ragnarok; the participants even included several female warriors, called "shield maidens." Readers will love the names of the Vikings who were there: Dag the Stout, Egil the Squinting, Erling the Snake, Gerdar the Glad, Glismak the Good, Grette the Evil, Hadd the Hard, Hothbrodd the Indomitable, Hrolf the Woman-Loving, Hrut the Rambler, Odd the Wide-Traveling, Svein Reaper, and Thorleif Goti the Overbearing.

The shield maidens say make your own damn sandwich.

From the victim's point of view the worst part of the Viking age was the second half of the ninth century. Now that the raiders were done exploring around Great Britain, they stopped going home for the winter, choosing instead to camp near the rivers that they used as highways. On Ireland's east coast they set up a permanent winter base at Dublin (from the Gaelic Dubh Linn, meaning Dark Pool) in 841, thereby founding the future Irish capital. Likewise the Isle of Thanet, at the mouth of the Thames, became an advance base for raids on England. At this stage Viking forces were not very large; a typical fleet numbered a dozen boats with about 600 men altogether. But even so, their victims had difficulty coping. Only a full army with cavalry could defeat the Vikings, and because it took months to get enough knights together, the Vikings always had plenty of time to get away.

Each time a Viking raid succeeded, they were encouraged to come back again--and in greater numbers. In November 885 a reported armada of 700 ships and 40,000 men sailed up the Seine River and laid siege to Paris--probably the greatest fleet Western Europe had seen so far. They could not take Paris because the defenders had ballistas and catapults, which they used every time the Vikings got close enough to the city walls. However, they did beat off the first relief expedition, led by Duke Henry of Saxony. Then the Holy Roman emperor, Charles the Fat, arrived in the late summer of 886 with a larger army, but in the end he resorted to another exchange of cash. Charles paid the Vikings to attack Burgundy instead of France, because Burgundy refused to recognize his imperial authority.

The experience of Paris prompted some Frankish communities to set aside a large sum in the hope that they could pay the invaders to leave without wreaking slaughter and destruction. The Viking chieftains eagerly accepted the "protection money", and some even honored the bargain. However, bribes can easily be turned into blackmail; before long the Vikings were making regular visits to collect their payoff. In England the Anglo-Saxons paid this tribute as regularly as taxes; they called it Danegeld (Dane-money) and counseled each other: "Buy off the spear aimed at your breast if you do not wish to feel its point." Not long after that, the biggest Danish saga began, with the landing of the "Great Army" on the east coast of England (866). The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Heptarchy crumbled under this assault; Northumbria, caught in a civil war at the time, became the first target, with the Danes killing both rival kings and capturing York (867). Then they conquered East Anglia (870), and began to attack Mercia and Wessex. By 876 they had finished off Northumbria as well. Meanwhile Sigurd the Mighty, the first Norse Jarl (Earl) of Orkney, landed in Scotland and conquered half of the Highlands, thereby threatening to eliminate the Scots, Picts and Strathclyde Welsh (874).

Although the Vikings were in the Orkneys to stay (they would rule those islands until the thirteenth century), one of their victims had his revenge, in a way so hideous that you wouldn't believe it if you saw it on "Game of Thrones." In 892 Sigurd the Mighty agreed to talk peace with a Scottish earl, Maelbrigte Tusk or Maelbrigte the Bucktoothed (you'll see in a minute why we call him by that nickname). One of the rules was that each party could have no more than forty men attend the meeting, but by putting two men on each horse, Sigurd managed to bring eighty men. Maelbrigte saw this treachery from a distance, and because no Scotsman has ever run away from a fight, he and his followers stood their ground and were all slain. Then the Vikings cut off the heads of their enemies and tied them to their saddles. But as they rode home, when Sigurd spurred his horse, the long teeth of Maelbrigte's head scratched his calf. This happened a thousand years before people learned how germs work, and this was an age when dental hygiene was virtually nonexistent, so the mouth of that dead head gave Sigurd's leg a nasty infection that killed him slowly. You can decide whether this should be classified as poetic justice or a stupid death.

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Alfred the Great

It was Alfred, the king of Wessex (871-899), who saved the day for the Anglo-Saxons. In the first two years of his reign he nearly succumbed to the Viking attacks, and was forced to buy peace, paying the enemy to bother somebody else. The peace lasted until 876, when the Danish leader, Guthrum, broke the truce, slipped past Alfred's border garrisons, and took Wareham and Exeter on the southern coast. Alfred pursued the Danes, and besieged Exeter until the invaders agreed to leave. They withdrew to Gloucester in Mercia, but then at the end of 877 surprised Alfred by moving out and taking Chippenham (since this was mid-winter, it was a very unexpected action). With most of Wessex now in Danish hands, Alfred was at the lowest point of his career; according to legend, he and his retainers had to hide in the forests and marshes of Somerset until he could regroup his shattered forces.

After Easter of 878, Alfred established himself at Athelney and began assembling an army. In May he was ready, and won a decisive battle at Edington, which allowed him to move on and liberate Chippenham fourteen days later. Guthrum sued for peace, and in the agreement he reached with Alfred, accepted baptism as a Christian. This did not mean a total end to the fighting, however, because Danes from the Continent could still come across the Channel to make trouble. These reinforcements allowed the Danes to overthrow the last independent king of Mercia, Ceolwulf II, in 879. Then in 886, Alfred got tired of the raids, crossed the Thames and took London (previously, the capital of Wessex had been at Winchester). A more thorough treaty with Guthrum was signed in the same year, which agreed to a 50-50 split of England; everything north and east of a line running from London to Chester was recognized as belonging to the Danes, while Alfred got the English territory south and west of the line. Because he was the only king who had succeeded in beating back the Danes, Alfred was now the champion of all Anglo-Saxons. The treaty only lasted for the lifetimes of Guthrum and Alfred, but it was a milestone in diplomacy; it meant that a Viking kingdom could be accepted into the belligerent European community.

When he wasn't busy with the Danes, Alfred promoted the education of his people. He had seen first-hand the general deterioration in learning and Christianity, caused by the Vikings' destruction of monasteries, and knew if the trend continued, it could make his kingdom impossible to govern. Accordingly, he imitated Charlemagne by opening a school at his court, and invited non-English scholars, like the Welsh monk Asser and the Irish-born philosopher and theologian John Scotus Erigena. Alfred learned Latin while in his late thirties, and translated into Old English such works as The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman Boethius, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The History of the World by the Spanish priest Paulus Orosius, and Pastoral Care (a manual for bishops) by Pope Gregory I. He also patronized work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, (see footnote #15), and reorganized the law code, in the process making the first laws that made no distiction between his English and the Welsh subjects.

Alfred's son and successor, Edward the Elder (899-924), began to take back the lands occupied by the Danes, now known as the Danelaw.(20) He recovered Essex (913) and East Anglia (918), and put first his sister Aethelflaed, then his son Athelstan, in charge of Mercia. Edward wanted to leave the growing realm to his favorite son, Aelfweard, but when he died chaos broke out; Wessex backed Aelfweard, but Mercia wanted Athelstan as the next king. Within sixteen days Aelfweard was also dead, apparently murdered while traveling to his coronation, and to prevent an all-out civil war, Athelstan put forth a proposal. He had made so many friends among the Mercians that they enthusiastically supported him, but because his birth was illegitimate, Athelstan was unacceptable to Wessex. His solution was to take an oath, promising to never produce an heir of his own, and also promising to bequeath the crown of Wessex and Mercia to a legitimate half-brother at the end of his reign, if he could be king for now. It took a year to negotiate the details, and then Athelstan was crowned in 925.

As a warrior, Athelstan did better than Edward. The Viking king of York, Sihtric, had bitterly resisted Edward's advances, but when he saw all of England except his little corner solidly united behind Athelstan, he agreed to make peace and accepted an offer to marry Athelstan's sister. In 927 Sihtric died and Athelstan promptly annexed York, becoming the first Saxon king of all England. After a brief war in the same year, Athelstan forced Scotland and the five Welsh kings to submit to his authority, and when they revolted, he defeated a combined force of Scots, Strathclyde Welsh and Vikings in the battle of Brunnanburh (937, location unknown). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that five enemy kings and seven earls, including the heir to the Scottish throne, were killed there, so Brunnanburh has been called the greatest Anglo-Saxon battle before 1066. Athelstan's total victory earned him recognition as the foremost ruler in the British Isles.

Athelstan had a harder time leaving a legacy, though. Upon his death in 939, the crown, as promised, went to a legitimate half-brother, Edmund I (939-946). The Viking king of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithson, had been one of those defeated at Brunnanburh, and he took advantage of the change in kings to invade northern England, take back Northumbria, and invade Mercia. Edmund managed to drive the Vikings back from Mercia, but was assassinated before he could do anything about Northumbria. Because Edmund's sons were small children, the next king was the last legitimate son of Edward, Edred (946-955, also spelled Eadred). It was Edred who conquered the Danelaw for good, in 954(21); by then the Irish had likewise expelled the Norse and the Danes who had terrorized them.

On the Continent, conditions also turned against the freebooters in the tenth century. In 911 the French king, Charles the Simple, gave the Viking chief Rollo (also known as Rolf) the lower Seine valley, on condition that he keep his fellow Vikings from attacking the rest of France. At that point it must have seemed that Charles had lived up to his nickname of "the Simple," since Rollo had not been a promising leader so far; just before Charles singled him out he had besieged the city of Chartres, only to run away for no apparent reason. It looks like Charles saw something in Rollo that others didn't, because the plan worked. Rollo's fief became the Duchy of Normandy, "land of the Northmen." Many Vikings settled there, gave up their roving ways, converted to Christianity, learned the French language of the natives, and married French women, becoming the Normans who played such a critical role in eleventh century politics.(22) Indeed, it was the settlements in the Danelaw, Normandy and Russia that brought the Viking attacks to an end. Now the landless sons of Scandinavia finally had land--or graves--overseas.

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The Atlantic Saga

The events of the ninth century showed that while the Vikings enjoyed plunder, what they really wanted was new land to settle. In Ireland the Norse heard about a big island to the north. The Irish had discovered it around 795, but only about half a dozen hermits lived there at this point; this was Iceland. The Norse looked it over, found the climate the same as what they were used to at home, and in 874 they began moving in. By 910 Iceland was a thriving Norse colony. To govern it they set up a council called the Althing, made up of members from the local communities, which convened once a year to pass laws, punish criminals and resolve disputes that could not be settled locally. The Althing still runs Iceland today, and is the West's oldest parliamentary assembly.

Greenland was first sighted around 900 by Gunbjørn, a Norse captain who got blown past Iceland. No one did anything with his discovery for eighty years. Then Eric the Red, an Icelander who had been banished for three years for committing murder, decided to spend his exile checking it out. In the course of his exploration (982-985) Eric found a spot where settlement was barely possible, and on his return to Iceland he painted a glowing picture of his discovery. He also thought up the name Greenland, one of the greatest advertising gimmicks in history.(23) Enough Icelanders believed Eric to join him when he went back to set up an "Eastern settlement" (actually it was just to the west of Greenland's southern tip). What they said when they found out that "Greenland" was mostly covered with ice is not recorded, but they stayed, and the colony survived. A second colony, called the "Western settlement," was founded a few hundred miles up the coast, ten years later.

North America was discovered the same way Greenland was--by accident. In 985 Bjarni Herjulfsson journeyed west to join his father in Greenland, but a storm caused him to overshoot the mark. He got a look at the American coast, then promptly turned back; he was in a hurry to get to Greenland before winter began. Eric the Red's son, Leif Ericson, followed up this tale in the year 1000. The first stretches of coastline he sailed on were forbidding; he named them Helluland ("Land of Stones," Baffin Island?) and Markland ("Land of Forests," possibly Labrador). But before he turned back he reached a more promising country, Vinland, the Land of Wild Grapes. This was almost certainly Newfoundland.(24)

A year or two later Leif's younger brother Thorvald Ericson found a problem with America. It was already inhabited by an unfriendly people the Norse called Skraelings--either Indians or Eskimos (more likely the latter). Thorvald was killed by them in Markland and when three boatloads of Icelanders tried to colonize Vinland, the Skraelings made life too hot for them. In 1006 the Vikings gave up and sailed home. Although Greenlanders came back occasionally to Markland for timber, there was no further attempt at colonization.

Map of the Viking voyages.

The Viking expeditions.

At the peak of this adventure there were between 50,000 and 60,000 Icelanders and one tenth as many Greenlanders. The distances were too great and the resources too few to carry them the last step of the way, to the more temperate parts of America. Scandinavian sailors had opened up a big new realm to the European world, but it was a realm of grey seas, ice and emptiness. On the threshold of the New World the saga ended.

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Commerce in the Viking Era

The trading and raiding of the Vikings dominated the northern part of the world from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. While the Norse boldly ventured to Iceland, Greenland, and "Vinland," Danes took over the Frisian North Sea traffic in fish, wine, beer, salt and metals, and connected it with other Viking trade routes. It was probably they who first supplied English wool to the Flemish cloth industry when it began to outrun the supply from France. In the east, the Swedes opened up routes that followed the rivers across Russia to the Black and Caspian Seas, breaking the Khazar grip on trade with Constantinople and Baghdad. As before, amber, furs and slaves were the main Russian products that the Byzantine and Islamic empires would buy, but wax and honey were also exported. Wax and tallow candles were steadily replacing vegetable-oil lamps, thanks to the liturgical needs of the Church. Honey was valuable because it was the only sweetener known in the West; at this time sugar was an expensive spice, used only in medicine. Whatever they sold had to be extorted from the Lapps, Finns, Slavs, and anyone else they met on the way; the Scandinavians produced nothing besides the trade routes themselves.

Wherever the Vikings went, they brought home exotic goods: silver and spices from Arabia, brocades from Constantinople, and leatherwork from Persia, to name a few. These attracted merchants from Germany, Frisia, France, and England; ports like Birka in Sweden and Hedeby in Denmark became bustling trade centers. Viking activity, ranging from Canada to Afghanistan, from the Mediterranean to the Arctic circle, covered nearly 110 degrees of longitude. There probably never was a single Viking who saw every part of this network, but it wasn't unusual for one to have adventures over a widely scattered area; Harald Hardrada, for example, served as a mercenary, first in Russia and then in Constantinople's "Varangian Guard," before becoming king of Norway in 1047. It is sad that in an enterprise of such vitality and daring, so much of the effort was wasted in plundering. The northern heroes did not trade until they could no longer raid, preferring bloodstained, glorious loot to a steady mercantile profit.

The typical Viking protected his money and jewelry by putting it in a pot or bag and burying it somewhere on his property. Judging from the large number of these treasure hoards we have found, it appears that the Norsemen made a good profit from their activities. However, we have to guess at how much of the loot was ill-gotten. What they brought back from England as ransom payments must have far outweighed anything they earned by trade, but Arab coins (40 percent of the total dug up in Gotland) probably came from honest business, because the Middle East was too far away for raids to have much chance of success. What these coins do show us is how dangerous the Viking's life must have been, for every such hoard belonged to somebody who never came back for it.

The Vale of York treasure hoard, in the British Museum.

Here is a particularly rich Viking treasure, the Vale of York hoard. It was buried in northern England around 927, discovered in 2007, and is now on display in the British Museum. The contents came from places as far apart as Afghanistan, Ireland, Russia, Scandinavia and continental Europe.

Meanwhile the urban population of Europe was increasing; hamlets grew into villages and villages became small towns. Still, we must emphasize that most European communities were small, and the new towns did not become cities until after the period covered by this chapter. Hedeby, for instance, numbered perhaps 2,000 inhabitants, while Birka was only half that size. In fact, every community in Western Europe that had more than 15,000 people was in Moslem territory: Palermo, Toledo, Cordova and Seville.

In the areas that belonged to Christendom, the biggest success at this stage was Venice; by 1000 it probably had 8-9,000 people. Its rise came in time to compensate for the decline of Ravenna and the eclipse of Rome. Venice owed its success to its political independence, its location on an offshore island, and its shrewd acceptance of a formal Byzantine authority which was too far away to enforce, but allowed Venice to monopolize trade between Italy and Constantinople. They identified themselves as Byzantine subjects well into the ninth century, but when a Venetian fleet took out Commachio, a rival seaport, in 886, it was clearly acting without Constantinople's permission, so history texts mark Venice as an independent city-state after that. The Venetians also persuaded the Moslems to grant them trading rights in Alexandria, where, so the story goes, two of them stole the body of St. Mark in 888. In return for the loan of their fleet, the Venetians got a reduced rate on the taxes they paid to Byzantium (992).

There were many other communities where life was gradually getting better. The little towns of Italy may not have had more than a few thousand residents apiece, but most of them probably doubled their size in the course of the tenth century. Baldwin Iron-arm, the Count of Flanders, built two of Europe's first castles at Bruges and Ghent in the 860s; by 1000 they were holding regular fairs within their walls. When Alfred the Great captured London, he found a city which had been deserted since the fifth century; by 1000 it was England's most important community again, contributing as much as 12 percent of the Danegeld raised. The towns of France and Germany tell the same story; for the first time in centuries they were more than a handful of hovels crowded around decaying church buildings.

When transportation is costly and uncertain, a local source of a raw material, even a poor one, is worth working. Iron ore, for example, is common in western Europe; people did not care much that Sweden and Germany produced the best iron until transport costs came down. At the other end of the scale, England had an effective monopoly of tin, and Spain was the main producer of mercury, simply because no one else had very much at all. Similarly, most European gold came from Bohemia.

Lead, silver and copper came between the extremes listed above; most countries had workable deposits, but from the tenth century onwards Germany and to a lesser extent Scandinavia were the main producers and exporters of these metals. A lot of this went east, where the mines of antiquity were largely worked out. Only Armenia and southern Iran still had any decent amount of ore; for their other needs the countries of the Middle East had to import, Byzantium from Western Europe, the Islamic states from Western Europe and Central Asia.(25)

This is the end of Part I. Click here to go to Part II.


1. Carloman deserves no more than a footnote, because he lived only three years after his father. Charles is memorialized as one of the founding fathers of France, so remember that his family was from Austrasia originally, meaning that he was not French or even Frankish: he was German.

2. The territory ruled directly by the pope was called the "Donation of Pepin" while Pepin was alive, then the "Patrimony of St. Peter" under Charlemagne. After Charlemagne's empire broke up it was called the Papal State.
Charlemagne also conquered the Duchy of Spoleto, leaving only Benevento to the Lombards. Its duke immediately upgraded Benevento's status by declaring it a principality, to remind everyone that he was still independent.

3. Charlemagne's rear guard was ambushed by some Basque freebooters in Roncesvalles pass, as it returned from a Spanish campaign in 778. Over the next few centuries, minstrels turned this disaster into an epic poem, The Song of Roland; the military expedition became a holy Crusade against the Paynim (pagans), and the identity of Roland's murderers switched to the Moslems.

4. The exceptions being the British Isles, the Breton peninsula, the Kingdom of Asturias in northwest Spain and the Lombard principality of Benevento in south Italy.

5. Simony refers to the practice of becoming a priest or bishop by paying for the job, whether or not you are qualified, rather than by ordaining someone with the right knowledge or character. The name come from Simon, the wizard in the New Testament (Acts 8:18-24) who thought he could buy the Apostles' miracle-working power. Here we have a rare example of a sin that has become obsolete; though common in the Middle Ages, it has all but disappeared from the modern world.

6. Afterwards Charlemagne stated that he would not have entered the church had he known what the pope was planning. Many people, both then and now, believed that he knew about the coronation anyway, since he was dressed properly for the occasion.

7. Most of Germany had been Christian for less than a century, so the lands east of the Rhine were managed by two archbishops, in Mainz and Salzburg. This made the archbishop of Mainz one of the most powerful men in the Empire.

8. We believe eight of Charlemagne's sons and daughters were legitimate. He confessed that ten illegitimate children were his own, too.
Though it was probably unintentional, Charlemagne encouraged the same behavior among his offspring, because he only allowed one of his daughters to marry. The official explanation was that he didn't want the daughters to produce an heir to his throne. This was an outgrowth of Salic law, the law code that Clovis established three hundred years earlier. Later on we'll see how this led to trouble when these laws, or similar ones, prevented monarchs from bequeathing anything meaningful to their daughters, or to the children of their daughters (see Empress Maria Theresa in Chapter 11, or the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein and Luxembourg in Chapter 13). Or maybe he didn't like the suitors, or maybe he just didn't want to see his daughters move out. However, Charlemagne didn't object when his daughters took lovers on the side, and had babies with them; we're talking about France, after all!

9. Sometimes it wasn't even clear what direction the words ran in. For about a century after they learned the alphabet, pre-classical Greeks would write one line from left to right, then the next line from right to left, and so on. They called this style Boustrophedon, meaning "as the ox plows," because it reminded them of the back-and-forth motion an ox makes while plowing a field.

10. Charlemagne was seen as a giant; we have on record that his height was seven times the length of his foot, but we don't know how big his foot was. 6' 1" or 6' 3" seems like a safe guess, when one remembers that people were shorter back then; the average knight was 5' 4".

11. In his will Alfred called himself Occidentalium Saxorum rex, or King of the West Saxons; his son Edward the Elder was the first to put the title of Rex Anglorum (King of the English) on his coins.

12. After Odo of Paris a grandson of Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Simple (898-922), recovered the throne of France for the Carolingians, while Odo's descendants ran the affairs of the country. Thus for the next century we have a situation just like that under the Merovingians, where one family had the crown and another had the power. Likewise, Odo's family would eventually produce the Capetians, the next royal dynasty.

13. The Scandinavian ethnic groups lived entirely in the southern half of what we now call Scandinavia. As for northern Scandinavia, it hadn't changed much since the ice age. Its only inhabitants were a few thousand Lapps herding reindeer on the Atlantic and Arctic sides of the mountains and a few thousand Finns fishing the rivers on the Baltic side.

14. The Vik was the original name of the strait dividing Norway from Denmark, now called the Skagerrak. Any fjord could also be called a vik, so the word Viking means something like "men of the inlets."

15. The typical Norse "dragon-ship" could carry nearly 100 men, but needed only 15 to sail it. We know a lot about how they were constructed because the Vikings did not always burn their ships in funeral pyres, as is commonly believed; some splendid vessels were buried with their captains, to be uncovered by modern archaeologists.

16. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a list in outline form of the historical events that happened in England, from Julius Caesar's invasion onward. Click here for a modern English translation. Originally written in Old English, Alfred the Great produced a Latin translation around 892, and until 915 all editions are similar. After that the events recorded diverge on details. The last entry, dated 1154, is in the manuscript written at Peterborough Abbey.
Or so it was, until our own time. Since 1997 The New Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has kept this tradition up to date, by translating current events into Old English.

17. The Germanic tribes of the pre-Viking era used rowboats, each carrying about 30 men. These were all right for traveling from Frisia to England, but they weren't seaworthy enough to go out on the open sea, so their crews never discovered any new lands.

18. The beginning of the Varangian saga is covered in Chapter 1 of my Russian history, so it won't be repeated here. Read Chapter 10 of my Middle Eastern history for a remarkable Viking raid on Azerbaijan.

19. Bjorn used a cruel trick to capture Luna. When the Vikings arrived they claimed that their leader was a Christian who had just died and asked permission to bury him in the local church. Once inside the church Bjorn leaped from his bier, and the men drew their concealed weapons and proceeded to loot the town, starting with the church.

20. The capital of the Danelaw was York, called Jorvik while the Danes were in charge of it. Five fortified towns (Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham, Stamford and Derby) were also important, and came to be known as the "Five Boroughs."

21. Dark Age coronations were less formal and more interesting than the ones practiced later on, as Charlemagne showed us. When Edred died heirless in 955, the Witan, the Saxon high council, decided to split the realm between two sons of the former king Edmund: 15-year-old Edwig (also spelled Eadwig) got the crown of Wessex, and 12-year-old Edgar got the crown of Mercia. At his coronation feast, Edwig noticed a very attractive girl named Aelfgifu, and in a burst of hormones, sneaked away with her to a bedchamber. After a while, Dunstan, the most influential bishop in the country, noticed that the guest of honor was missing. A man with a fierce temper, Dunstan went looking for the young king, found him having sex with both Aelfgifu and her mother(!), and dragged him back to the banquet hall.
Of course Edwig was also mad about this, and soon exiled Dunstan. But that wasn't the end of the matter; those of you who have read other papers on this site know that trouble is on the way when two people are forced to share supreme power. Edgar wanted to rule the whole kingdom like his ancestors, not just part of it, and Dunstan had many friends, so one by one the barons switched their loyalties from Edwig to Edgar. The result was a civil war, which ended with the deposing of Edwig in 959. As for Edgar, he brought back Dunstan and made him the Archbishop of Canterbury, so he was one of the few Anglo-Saxon kings who got along well with his chief clergyman. Thus, here we have a fine example of how fornication isn't as harmless as some would have us believe!

22. A fifth-generation descendant of Rollo would become William the Conqueror.

23. Meteorologists call the ninth through twelfth centuries the "Medieval Warming Period," because worldwide, temperatures were higher than they are now, so Greenland was somewhat "greener." Still, you have to admit that with Iceland's name you know what to expect!

24. Vinland's identity was clinched in the early 1960s by the discovery of the remains of an ancient longhouse at L'Anse Aux Meadows, on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Some detractors suggested it was built by Eskimos, but the presence of iron nails at the site makes this very unlikely.

25. The Varangians suddenly stopped bringing home Islamic silver in the 970s. This may have been the doing of the Petchenegs, the nomadic Turkish tribe that lived between Kiev and the Black Sea. When they killed the Russian prince Sviatoslav in an ambush (972), they effectively closed down the trade routes that went through their territory. However, we also know that the mines in the Pamir mts. ran out of silver during this time, so across much of Asia, from the Middle East to China, alternative forms of payment arose, like the use of silks as money. Thus the opening of new silver mines in places like Saxony had quite an impact on the east-west trade balance.

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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