Normans on the world stage


You’ll remember that one of the early steps to pacifying the North was the deal the Franks made with Rollo the Dane to have land in exchange for peace. The Northmen who settled in Normandy were probably warriors who took local wives, because their descendants were speaking French within one generation. Their names, especially for boys, remained North Germanic; their version of French had a Danish accent. But their identity as Normans was more French than Danish.

The Normans were still distinctly different; they were the most aggressive ethnic group in Europe. They seem to have had the worst case of military-themed Christianity, although the Anglo-Saxons shared this theology and may have helped spread it among the Normans. In their minds, Jesus was the leader of a war band. He came to earth as an act of aggression against Satan, the rival (and rebel) king. They didn’t find it strange that he died on a cross as an act of war, since Northern mythology was full of mysticism about death. In the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Dream of the Rood,” the cross reminisces about how frightening it was when the young, strong warrior leaped onto it to give his life. Being a Christian meant loyalty to Jesus as warrior-king, which easily included acts of aggression against Christ’s enemies.

Norse culture did not value literacy, scholarship, or peaceful negotiation. The Norman aristocrats could be extremely pious and ignorant at the same time. They cared deeply about their faith, but simply did not (could not) read the parts of the Gospels that might disabuse them of their militant notions. Faith was about rituals, vows, and loyalty to God’s heavenly Hall. Wanton killing might be murder, therefore a sin; but much killing was lawful, and it was generally justified if the warrior was as careless of his own life as he was of others’.

You’ll remember, too, that the Normans followed primogeniture inheritance customs. Oldest sons inherited the estate and all its income; younger sons inherited a solid education (in the arts of war) and a network of family relationships. It’s not surprising that Normandy became the backbone of the Frankish feudal system, and at the same time a great exporter of arrogant, pious, callous knights. Younger sons had to seek their fortune through conquest.

Normans on pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem discovered that southern Italy was often attacked by Saracens. Nobody was firmly in control of southern Italy; it was nominally Byzantine, but often at civil war with Lombards. Sometimes there were joint Byzantine-Roman attempts to defend the coast or take back Sicily, but the overall effect was a power vacuum that the Normans happily filled. First as pilgrims, then as mercenaries, then invaders, they began to control the region. Ironically, the most violent Normans were most likely to be on pilgrimage doing penance for the sin of murder. And as devout Catholics, they had the Pope’s blessing to begin dominating Arab and Byzantine parts of Italy and Sicily.

Norman lords became Counts in southern Italy beginning in 1038. In 1061, the Pope appointed Robert Guiscard to be “Duke of Sicily.” It was an empty title, but Robert and his brother Roger set out to make it real. The brothers spent the rest of their lives conquering Arab Sicily town by town. By 1091, Roger was Count of all Sicily for real; in the same year he reconquered the island of Malta. The language of Malta remained Arabic at the core, with borrowed Norman words. Eventually Sicily became a Norman kingdom, often including parts of southern Italy. Normans set up new titles for themselves, including Robert’s son Bohemond as Prince of Taranto. (Bohemund became a Crusader.)

The Byzantine Emperor was not pleased to have Sicily and Italy under Norman control, even if they were nominally Christians. They had no historic fondness for Constantinople (as Charlemagne did) and they were loyal only to the Pope, the Emperor’s rival. Norman dominance in the Mediterranean did not contribute to regional peace; if anything, it was another early step toward the Crusades. The most aggressive strain of Christianity was now at home in the heart of the Mediterranean world, directly challenging Byzantine and Arab power.


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