by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the July 1983, A.S. XVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
The Scandinavians are probably the best known of the barbarian groups. They are best known as Vikings, though this is something of a misnomer. Strictly speaking, a Viking was a warrior in one of the small roving bands which went raiding from the eighth to the tenth centuries. To the chroniclers of the day, they were the Northmen, or in England, the Danes.
As a race, the Scandinavians were German tribes who settled on the northern peninsulas of Europe. While they had contact with the Roman Empire, which included some trade, they did not join the general Germanic migration following the collapse of the Empire. In stead they retreated into obscurity for three centuries, to explode in to European consciousness with a violence that marks their memory to this day.
The reasons for this explosion are debated. But it seems that population pressure, internal feuds, and the repression of emerging kings were the primary causes. Whatever the reason, their initial raids were devastating, particularly on the monasteries. Charlemagne could foresee the destruction they would wrought, and in his lifetime was able to check them, but his successors were not up to the task. Vikings ravaged deep into France, using captured horses when their boats could go no further up the rivers. They took Paris three times, and besiege it a fourth time. Half of England fell t them before they were halted by Alfred the Great. They shook the emerging European civilization to the core, nearly destroying it.
After about a century, the original impetus began to wane, and the Scandinavians began to settle the land they had formally ravished, trading instead of raiding. In England, the successors of Alfred the Great gradually re-acquired the lands of the Danelaw, assimilating the invaders into the Anglo-Saxon culture. In France King Charles the Simple, in 911, granted the Viking chieftain Rollo the lands of the lower Seine, which became the Duchy of Normandy. Not that the Scandinavian military activity cease, but increasingly it was under the control of kings, the day of the independent band was over. The climax, and the end, came in 1066 when from the north, King Harold Hardrada of Norway, and Duke William the Bastard, a Norman, from he south contested King Harold Godwin, a Viking descendant, for England.
Lesser known exploits of the Scandinavians were the colonization of Russia and their association with the Byzantine Empire. Again they first came as raiders, under the name Varangians. After bumping up against the Byzantines, they began a system of trade that lasted until the 13th century. The empire also absorbed some of these bands into a special guard unit, which distinguished itself. In the meantime, they began to settle the land though which they moved, absorbing the native Slavic culture, and using the name the Slavs gave them: Russ.
The basic Scandinavian culture is Germanic. In fact, much of what is known of early Germanic culture derives from Scandinavian sources. But unlike the rest of the German tribes, the Scandinavians did not maintain their culture in foreign lands, but in almost all cases adapted into the native culture in which they found themselves. But while they were culturally assimilated, they did not disappear, for they installed a sense of adventure and enterprise that invigorated the local civilization. Paradoxically, they reopened the trade routes that propelled Europe into economic growth. They also had a flair for government. The strongest and most durable governments during the Middle Ages were formed by relocated Scandinavians.
Contemporary with the Viking raids were the raids by the Magyars, equal in their destructiveness. They were later to form the Hungarian State, but in the meantime they spread death and destruction though Eastern and Southern Europe, mirroring the effects of Vikings to the north. Their raids occasionally carried afar afield as Western France.
The Magyars were yet another nomadic Turkish tribe from out of the Russian steppes. Pushed west by the even fiercer Petchenegs they occupied the Hungarian plain that had been left relatively vacant by the Avars. The Avars were an earlier nomadic tribe from the steppes that that been crushed by Charlemagne. From the plain, the Magyars launched their raids to the west.
They were first checked in 933 by Henry I when he defeated them at Unstrut. His son Otto I completed the process by defeating them again at Lechfield in 955. It has been argued that the true cause for the raid's end was elsewhere, namely their reduced profitability and the increased levels of settlement and cultivation in the Hungarian plain. By the end of the century, under St. Stephen, the Magyars became Christian, and formed a kingdom.
The Magyars were the last barbarians to form a kingdom in Europe, but not the last to invade. The last invaders were the Magyars’ cousins, the Mongols. By 1235 they had already smashed Asiatic Islam, and turned their eye westward. By 1240 they had conquered Russia. Splitting their army in two, they moved into Poland and Hungary. They annihilated all opposition. Only the death of the Khan, and the resulting internal feuds saved Europe from this onslaught.
Never again was Europe invaded by barbarians, though the victims of the Turkish expansion in the 15th century might have disagreed. The barbarians with the most impact were the Scandinavians, who directly and indirectly did much to restructure medieval society. The feudal system of government was, for the most part, a response to their vicious attacks. But while it is for their destructiveness that barbarians are most remembered, it should not be forgotten that they also had a peaceful side. They farmed and traded, had laws and literature, and above all else, a cultural identity.
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Sydney, Painter. A History of the Middle Ages: 284-1500. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1961.
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Wilson, David. The Vikings and Their Origins. New York: A & W Visual Library, 1980.
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