I’ll admit, this one had me stumped for weeks. I wrote this article several times over, and I’m still unsure if I’m really happy with it. Such are my pains, my beloved audience. Bear with me as we bear through this.
I think we need to understand, to begin, that Western Civilization did not always mean “Europe,” and for a while it meant much beyond. Western Civilization only traveled as far as the Macedonians and Romans could carry it, the nascent ovum derived from the Athenian city-state. Rome never traveled to the far North, barely extended into Eastern Europe whatsoever. These absent peoples were assuredly Europeans but, at the time, “Westerners?” Hardly. The Vikings represent one example of a people that self-westernized, rather in the way that cats self-domesticated, eventually assimilating with the arrival of Catholicism upon their shores, which they nevertheless fought viciously, invited really by their importance generated by all their military adventurism. To the greater fold of the West, they brought with themselves the new blood and vigor that the West would need to continue developing along new ideas and fronts while remaining indelibly “Western.” It would be finally, and partly thanks to the Scandinavian influence, the absorption of Eastern Europe predominantly into the Western and Eastern Churches that brought about the completion of what would become the West before at last the launch into the Americas.
But this wasn’t a unique phenomenon. I had a history teacher who, when teaching about the fall of the Western Roman Empire, indicated that the invading Germanic tribes were not merely destroyers who loathed all represented in the Empire, but were indeed something in the way of adherents seeking purchase into this franchise, even if they had to do so at the point of a sword. Indeed, in the later period of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes were actually induced as a matter of policy to settle predominantly in regions of Gaul under the agreement that they would defend the Empire’s borders when called upon. This became an unfortunate necessity because the Italian composition of the legions, what was once their backbone, was so minimal; they were unwilling to die for their own civilization. They needed that infusion of vigorous blood. As aforementioned, this wouldn’t be the last time it happened.
Well that’s basically what happened to the Normans. The King of France invited a Viking army under the leadership of a man named “Rollo the Walker,” called so because he was too large to ride a horse, to settle in Normandy under his vassalage. It was a good deal, considering the natural wealth of the region and the natural poverty of Scandinavia, so he accepted and attracted many other Vikings looking for the same opportunity. Eventually they adopted French Carolingian customs, dress, language, and military equipment.
Glorious, but apparently you just can’t take the Viking out of a Viking; doesn’t matter how sound his sibilants or the fanciness of his dress. The lust for battle, that mean individualistic strike, that love of glory and copper, even a frankly rabid piousness towards the Catholic Church, a Norman innovation–altogether familiar with their forebears, both a great irony and altogether nothing at all surprising. The Normans came from a land we nowadays not surprisingly call “Normandy.” Anyone male and living in the anglosphere will know of this place without any explanation, what became the landing zone for the beach-head of Operation Overlord in the Second World War. At the time of the tenth century, however, it was just a strip of land, as it remains today. During that period, various raiders predominantly from Scandinavia were making a mess of Coastal Europe, sometimes even sailing down difficult rivers in their shallow-drafted boats. The sack of Paris comes to mind. These Vikings even raided throughout the Mediterranean, many of them choosing to remain in various locales as expensive mercenaries, some of whom settled down in their adopted societies.
Now to interject, I have made of the mistake of typically treated the Medieval Period as something of an intervention in Western Culture between the Classical Period and the Modern, part of something that really wasn’t truly western. But I couldn’t be failed for thinking so. Not only did the western sphere of influence shrink markedly, but the West was typified by a broad arrangement of generally petty kingdoms whose consideration for self-determination and the rights was generally absent, and in a lot of ways this is true, certainly in part thanks to the rise of feudalism, which placed in bondage the large majority of the population of Europe. Sometimes though, you just find things that buck the trend so strangely. But what I missed, and this is essential, is the medieval period was a transformative time of development in which the few powers that were happened to be were increasingly drawing other European peoples into the fold. The Vikings were but one. Germany (The Holy Roman Empire) drew in several tribes into its sphere of influence that would eventually become the Czech Republic and Poland, just for example; and the Eastern Roman Empire westernized by incidental policy the slowly activating Rus tribes that would eventually constitute the monolith state of Russia and Ukraine. Western ideas were being spread out by those that had only barely received the franchise, and many of these states would prove powerful in the years and centuries to come.
Anyways, back to the Normans. In a few years, the Normans had made a name for themselves, fighting with anybody worth fighting, it seemed. They conquered Sicily, including much of Southern Italy. They conquered England, Ireland, and viciously mauled Scotland. They even raided all the way to Thessalonica in Greece.
The humor is that much of this was pure happenstance. For example, returning from pilgrimage in the Levant, before the Crusades, several Norman knights were received by the Prince of Salerno in Sicily. During their stay, a Mohammedan army besieged the city, demanding a ransom. While the prince was gathering the resources to provide payment, the Normans mocked him, told him to put his money away, and sallied forth themselves against the Muslim army, who were all put to flight. The prince was stunned, asked them to remain as his vassals, but they said they had better things to do, but they would tell all their friends in Normandy. This precipitated a long policy of inviting Norman knights as vassals to Sicily, vassals that would eventually overthrow their masters in an uncoordinated series of wars over several decades time.
Post-Thessalonica, I find it amusing to mention, there were even Danes and Swedes and Norwegians serving in the Varangian guard alongside Norman mercenaries–one big happy family of Northern Germanic love.
The Normans were markedly successful in almost everything they did, and their neighbors took notice, adopting even cultural features that are nevertheless remarkable but virtually unheard of today. They wanted a share of that success, quite naturally. Presumably, if the Normans could do it, couldn’t any similarly equipped and trained soldier?
The truth is a resounding “No.” The crusades in particular were multinational organizations in which various heads of state, all of whom had been used to getting their way, butt heads over matters large and small. They all spoke their own languages and within those languages different dialects. There were also the logistical concerns about moving such a large body of men, and even beyond that, the issues of disease snowball geometrically the more men you have in an army, particularly when you’re bound for foreign shores. This isn’t even to consider the culture-wide esprit de corps that the Normans seemed to possess so absent in other nations. Must be inherited, a Viking thing. It’s remarkable that the First Crusade was such a success, but then again, the Normans were a big part of it, and their involvement would diminish in succeeding campaigns.
Above all, I derive no sense of cruelty from the Normans. They were implacable soldiers, powerful fighters, deeply religious, and bold adventurers. It is this last quality that made them so influential. In a time where even aristocrats feared to tread far from their mother clay, the Normans by intention or by accident were making a name for themselves throughout the western world, the true recipients of the very spirit of inexorable Achilles and his undying glory, which may have formed the very basis of the chivalry culture of Europe for which the Normans formed the very basis.
The Normans did much to define the medieval period, what it meant to be a knight, a soldier, a man, and they comprised a spirit of adventurism that would again take shape during the colonial and imperial period loathed by so many, but which nevertheless had so much potential.