Viking raids on Carolingian France (9th century)

From the middle of the 9th century, theCarolingian Empire weakened is the target of viking raids. Fierce warriors from Scandinavia sow terror on the coasts of northern Europe, and ascending the rivers aboard their famous boats, the longships, infiltrate into the interior. Their favorite targets: the monasteries, which they plunder with their precious objects before disappearing as quickly as they came. Unable to oppose them an effective resistance, the heirs of Charlemagne will end up settling them on what will become Normandy ...

Climate, people and events

The origin of the Viking word is multiple: the ancient Scandinavians called "víkingar", those of them who went on war expeditions over the seas while the expression "fara í víkingu" - to go on an expedition - is common in the sagas. But the term viking can also be compared with the word "vík" which designates the bay, with the verb "vikja" which means to run from the edges or with the Latin vicus, the village.

On June 8, 793, the looting of the Lindisfarne monastery in Scotland marks the beginning of a two-century long period, during which the Scandinavians - Danes, Swedes and Norwegians - will not cease to flood the lands of Europe. . Several causes for this expansion have been put forward:

- global warming which, associated with the practice of polygamy, will lead to a demographic explosion in Scandinavia linked to more abundant harvests and breeding;
- legislation on inheritance which does not divide the property between the descendants, but leaves the paternal property to the eldest only, thus obliging the younger ones to settle elsewhere and possibly to emigrate;
- justice ignoring the death penalty, but banning the guilty;
- a search for commercial outlets, a thirst for wealth, the desire for a less harsh living environment.

The sea routes followed during this expansion differed according to the Scandinavian peoples:

- The east, towards the Baltic countries, is the favored direction of the Swedes. Through the great Russian rivers (Dvina, Dnieper, Volga), they go to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to eventually reach the Bosporus and Constantinople. The Scandinavians soon formed the ruling elite. This dynasty took root, around 860, with the Varègue Riourik, called by the Slavic tribes to rule them. Vladimir the Great was baptized in 988. Anne of Kiev, his granddaughter, became Queen of France by marrying Henry I in 1050. The Byzantine emperors recruited among the Swedish warriors their personal guard, the Varangian guard, from the term "Varègues", which more specifically designates the Swedes who went to the East while the term "Vikings" more readily designates the Scandinavians who left for the West.

- The west and the southwest are the prey of the Norwegians and the Danes - the Vikings -. The Norwegians won the Scottish archipelago (Shetland, Orkney, Hebrides), the Isle of Man and Ireland. From there, some go down to the coasts of Francia and Spain, they enter the Mediterranean, then they go to the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland. The Danes, for their part, cross the North Sea, reach England, then the lands of Francia. They are generally better organized and they are the ones with the largest fleets. The purpose of their expeditions is above all lucrative, each Danish warrior aiming above all to strengthen his own wealth and therefore his power on his return home. It is therefore readily that the Danes agree to receive large sums (the danegelds) in exchange for their departure.

Viking expansion is usually divided into three main phases:

- The first phase extends approximately from the year 800 to the year 850. It is a period of trial and error during which raids and looting are used to test the adversary. In France, the defense put in place by Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious made it possible to repel the first attacks.

- The second phase which extends until the end of the 9th century constitutes for the Scandinavians a period of consolidation and real exploitation, on the one hand of their achievements, on the other hand of the absence of serious opposition to their progress. Raids and looting are growing, while the first wintering begins and the danegelds appear (payment to the Danes), ransoms paid to the Vikings in exchange for their departure. This second phase is followed by a long period of respite, installation and colonization, an important example of which is the installation in Normandy of the Scandinavians led by Rollo, following the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911.

- The third phase begins around 980 and ends around 1050. Its magnitude is smaller. The assimilation of the Scandinavians on the colonized lands and the establishment of centralizing powers in Scandinavia gradually stopped the movement.

The Vikings sow terror

Let's take a look at how Viking raids are viewed in the countries we discuss. The least we can say is that it is blowing, especially in France, a real wind of terror that the Scandinavians do not fail to exploit and fuel. This wind of terror is spread in particular by the religious who, taking into account the wealth amassed in churches and monasteries, are privileged prey. It is reinforced by the inability of the Carolingian authorities to successfully oppose the assailant. A feeling of total powerlessness in the face of this scourge of God, powerlessness notably illustrated by the addition to the Our Father, of an “a furore Normannorum, will liberate our Domines! , ”Quickly arises from this wind of terror and means that, soon, leaks, transfers of relics and contritions are required. The Scandinavians, at the same time avenging arm of God and son of Satan, are then shrouded in a double aura, one fateful, the other satanic, which easily feeds exaggerations both on their number and on their ferocity and will until forging images such as those of Vikings drinking the blood of their enemies in the skull of these.

The following text, taken from Paschase Radbert's Commentary on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, illustrates this state of mind:Who would have believed what our eyes saw and made the object of our groans, that a troop of pirates composed of men picked up at random had come as far as Paris and would have destroyed with impunity the churches and the monasteries on the banks of the river? Seine. Who would have thought that a kingdom so famous and so vast and so populated was destined to be humiliated by barbarians? Yes, all our misfortunes have come because of the sins of priests and princes, this is the source of the calamities that surround us. It has been a long time since justice has been banished from judgments, since discord born among the citizens of the same empire has caused blood to be shed. We see nothing but fraud and deception everywhere. The sword of the barbarians is drawn from the scabbard and it is God who put it in their hands to punish us.

Viking raids on the Frankish world

Ragnarr loðbrók (literally hairy breeches, nickname referring to the goatskin breeches he wore with the hair outside), Björn járnsíða (iron ribs, nickname due to the breastplate he probably wore for protection), Hásteinn, Véland, here are intrepid Danes, brave warriors, undoubtedly colorful and feared throughout Frankish land! Ragnarr loðbrók appears in Francia in the spring of 845 where, going up the Seine, he launched a first attack against Paris without encountering resistance. Charles the Bald, a refugee in the abbey of Saint-Denis, remains powerless and ends up paying Ragnarr 7,000 pounds of money so that he can leave.

Ten years later, in 856, it was one of his sons, Björn járnsíða, assisted by Hásteinn, who again attacked Paris, before leading a great expedition to the Mediterranean coasts between 859 and 861, expedition to during which it passes the Strait of Gibraltar, plunder Algeciras, Murcia and the Balearics, then Nîmes, Valence and Luna. In 858, Hásteinn ventured to Chartres; he plundered the cathedral and massacred the bishop as well as all those who took refuge in the church. Evreux is devastated, Bayeux is attacked and its bishop is also slaughtered. In 861, Charles the Bald paid the Danish Véland (he had just looted the monastery of Saint-Bertin) so that he dislodged Hásteinn, Björn and their men from the island of Jeufosse where they had set up their camp. Veland first received 3,000 pounds of silver, then another 2,000 pounds from King Charles before actually embarking on the blockade of the island, once again leaving Paris to be attacked. Eventually, he receives another 6,000 pounds of silver from Hásteinn and Björn to let them escape. Hásteinn and Björn leave in 862; Véland, converted to Christianity, passes definitively to the service of King Charles. Until 866, Hásteinn stayed in Aquitaine, which he looted and conscientiously attacked. In 866, he went up the Loire and devastated the city of Le Mans. Pursued by Count Robert the Strong, in charge of a command against the Vikings, by Count Ramnulf I of Poitiers and Count Hervé du Maine, he and his men find refuge in the small church of Brissarthe, north of Angers .

The Franks exhausted by the road imprudently take a moment of rest, it is then that the Danes take the opportunity to rush out of the church. Count Robert the Strong quickly rallies his troops and pushes back the Danes, but he falls pierced by blows in front of the church door. The count of Poitiers and the count of Maine are also killed.

In 872, Hásteinn attacked Angers, he left the Loire ten years later to ravage Flanders and the south of England. From 879 to 891, the Danes were on the Elbe, the Scheld, the Meuse, the Somme, the Seine, the Loire, they attacked Cologne, Paris, Bayeux, Soissons, Sens, Aix-la-Chapelle ... In 881 , King Louis III defeats them in Saucourt-en-Vimeu (south of the mouth of the Somme).

In 882, Charles the Fat came with a strong army made up of Franks, Alamans, Thuringians, Saxons and Lombards to besiege the Danes in their fortified camp of Elsloo, not far from Maastricht. After twelve days of waiting, far from attacking, Charles suddenly prefers to negotiate. He then paid 2,800 pounds of silver to the Danes and even allowed Godfried, one of their leaders, to settle in Friesland. In 884, Count Henri de Saxe, son of a count of the country of Fulda, also responsible for a command against the Vikings, prevents the Danes from invading Saxony and even drives them out of the Rhine valley, after the assassination of their leader Godfried, who rebelled against the emperor.

The forces involved

The Scandinavian warrior

The armament of the Viking includes the ax, a sword, a spear, a bow and arrows, a knife hanging from his belt. He wears a helmet, chain mail and a shield to protect himself. The ax of several types (broad head, long handle, horned) is a formidable weapon. This is the typical Viking weapon. The sword is long, easy to handle with one hand, double edged. It ends with a handle isolated from the blade by two parallel guards. It is not certain that it was of very good quality - in the Sturlunga saga, the fighters are obliged to take breaks to straighten the crooked blade of their weapon under their heels - which probably pushed the Vikings to covet the Frankish swords. The lance is either a throwing weapon (javelin), or a thrusting weapon (spear) that the use of stirrups allows to use with force. The iron, in the shape of a diamond, is fixed to the handle by nails which have a religious and legal value.

The helmet is conical and extended by a nasal; it also features a gorget and cheek pads. The shield is round, made of wood covered with painted metal. The chain mail is either a chain mail of the broigne type, or a chain of metal plates connected to each other.
The Vikings are masters of the helping hand (strandhögg) and more readily fight on foot. Their preferred technique of attack is as follows: with their boats, they settle in a small well-placed island, not far from a rich city or an opulent abbey. When the right moment comes, they disembark very quickly, using the horses brought there, and they rush on their target which they quickly plunder, without disdaining to take slaves. Then, they set fire before leaving, making it difficult for any pursuit.

The Frankish Warrior

Due to his offensive and defensive armament, the Frankish warrior is quite similar to his Scandinavian counterpart, except that the ax is not his favorite weapon, but rather the sword. The sword, whose hilt and scabbard are often richly decorated, is the pride of the Frankish warrior. He usually received it from his father at the age of puberty. He often gives it a name: like Joyeuse, the sword of Charlemagne or even Durendal, the sword of Roland. It is here a high quality weapon which, together with the broigne, forms in the equipment of the Frankish warrior two elements of exceptional value. Both are in great demand and many capitulars forbid their export, so that merchants smuggle them. The Scandinavians readily acquire it and they do not disdain to strip their victims of it.

The horse is another important element of the Frankish warrior, a companion that he will hardly give up. "Destroy my mother, I don't care," cries an Aquitaine warrior to a Saracen, "the horse you are asking of me, I will never deliver it to you." Miserable, it is not made for your brake. Any citizen of the empire, any free man, is required to perform military service and must respond to military summons from the count or the king. The Carolingian army is undoubtedly for a good part composed of infantrymen, of lightly armed combatants, because the equipment of the rider - horse, helmet, broigne, sword, leather leggings, shield, lance, dagger, bow and arrows - is expensive. In fact, the Carolingian cavalry is in the hands of the Frankish aristocracy. This heavy cavalry is however the queen of battles and it is famous for mowing everything in its path.

The young aristocrat was destined for war from his early childhood. He learns to ride a horse, to endure hardness and adversity, hunger, cold, the heat of the sun. A proverb says: "He who cannot be horseman at the age of puberty will never be able or with difficulty at a later age. Or again: "Whoever stays in school without riding a horse until twelve years old is only good at making a priest." "...

Scandinavian successes

The Vikings' first and most important asset is their boat. It is fast, extremely manoeuvrable, with a flat bottom making it easy to approach and go up rivers. It thus allows the Vikings to be extremely mobile and to freely choose their points of attack. Everywhere, therefore, they occur unexpectedly and all the more quickly as they move by water. The Frankish cavalry, unable to foresee their points of attack, cannot concentrate and they cannot follow them either, due to the speed of their movements. Either way, the Vikings carefully avoid open country encounters with the Frankish army. If they can not avoid this, they take refuge in defensive behavior and play on the morale of their opponents.

The fortified defense policy initiated by Charles the Bald (Capitularies of Pitres, 862) gradually called into question this mobility of the Scandinavians: imperceptibly, the erection of dams on rivers, of fortified bridges, of various fortifications, of palisades completed with ditches around towns and monasteries will force the Scandinavians on the one hand to abandon their boats to venture on horseback, on the other hand to engage in long and static siege operations.


• Boyer Régis, The Daily Life of the Vikings (800-1050), Editions Hachette, 2003.
• Boyer Régis, Les Vikings, Editions Plon, 1992.
• Renaud Jean, Les Vikings en France, Editions Ouest France.

Video: Rollo and the Viking Colony of Normandy - documentary (January 2022).