Finding out about Vikings in Normandy

I mentioned a while back that I’d been reading a volume of essays about the Vikings in Normandy, which was actually the papers from a 2002 conference, edited by Pierre Bauduin as Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie : colloque de Cérisy-la-Salle (Caen 2005). I bought this at Leeds in 2006 and, disgracefully, have only recently got round to actually reading. You might ask what the point of reading up-to-date books several years late is, and a fair point, but I don’t work on Vikings as you can easily tell, and really I was just looking for a mise-au-point on the general scholarship.

Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie

Actually it’s pretty good for that. The conference’s original purpose, as Bauduin tells it in his introduction, was to wrestle with the surprising absence of Viking archaeology and the difficult textual evidence from the area by adopting a wide comparative perspective. What came out of this was not just that Normandy, where we know many Scandinavians settled but where the language and culture was hardly affected at a material level, is unusual, but that really there is no `usual’ Viking experience. The Danelaw soaks up a reasonable (but uncertain) number of settlers who seriously bend the language, material culture and political landscape, but who are ultimately swallowed into England, the two cultures blending more or less fully. Ireland has several centuries of Viking settlement but it’s kept on the fringes in trading towns that Ireland otherwise pretty much doesn’t have, and it’s only when the kings decide they need some and swallow them that this stops. The Western Isles, Orkney and so on become Norse political outcrops. Iceland on the other hand, while strongly linked to Norway, is independent. In Frisia there are several attempts to found a state like Normandy but none of them take. In Normandy a self-consciously Scandinavian state is formed: but its material culture and language is almost entirely Frankish/Old French. And so on.

Because a lot of the people contributing came from all over—James Graham-Campbell gives an excellent short survey of the archaeology of the British Isles in contrast to Normandy, Stéphane Lebecq covers Frisia (as almost no-one else can), Lesley Abrams does the Danelaw, Olivier Viron does Ireland—there is a lot of background. So for example if you wanted to know what the Vikings did do in Frisia, actually this will tell you quite neatly, and similarly with the others. Only in Normandy, the papers covering which are a bit less than half the volume, is a certain amount of knowledge assumed but really there’s such a surprising lack of material for early Normandy that you pick most of it up anyway.

The tomb of Duke Rollo of Normandy in Rouen cathedral

The papers I found most interesting were Niels Lund‘s, talking about why Scandinavian warlords got baptised by Western monarchs and what that meant, his conclusions being that they did it when they’d lost, and that while they mostly accepted the religion they don’t seem to have thought it to impose a political obligation; and Régine Le Jan‘s, as her “Le royaume franc vers 900 : un pouvoir en mutation?” starts several hares about the supposed disintegration of Frankish royal rule and really offers good grounds for starting whatever we call that transformation of circa 1000 a few years early in some respects. That paper and Bauduin’s own, which is all about how the incoming Scandinavians, especially good old Rollo the Ganger, fitted themselves into the existing competitions for power or, sometimes, remained aloof from them, are most of what fuelled the Charles the Simple post of a few days ago. So there’s loads of interesting stuff here, if you can read French at least, and it’s nice to come to the end of a volume of conference papers and actually feel quite well read about something, rather than hideously under-educated.

This however did leave me wondering: why do people work on the Vikings? All the results one can expect are so small, inches of progress by dozens of scholars slowly pushing our ignorance back. I realise they’re fascinating but, other than digging up seemingly endless hoards of metalwork, which are problematic to interpret in themselves, there’s nothing one person can do to radically change the way we think about these things, not now Peter Sawyer already exists. I wouldn’t choose this field if I were hoping to make a mark. But maybe if you can fairly sure of doing something, and there is a lot of small inching to be done, that’s good enough.

Edit: m’learned colleague Ms Chester-Kadwell points out to me that actually archaeologists can hope to do quite a lot, because actual identified Scandinavian sites in other countries are still woefully under-represented in the record compared to contextless metalwork finds. So if, for example, you can excavate a big burial in an area where they’re hardly known, actually you will be cited for a long time…

9 responses to “Finding out about Vikings in Normandy

  1. You may be undersestimating the sex appeal of the field. Not just sex appeal, of course, although that will undoubtedly have an effect on a young graduate student choosing a field of study. Compare the social impact of saying your field is Vikings compared to, say, Carolingians. “Charles Martel? Isn’t that a cognac?” But everyone has heard of, and thinks they know about, Vikings. The Vikings have Hagar the Horrible. The Carolingians–no comic strips. Vikings win.

  2. If Another Damned Medievalist and I had only been able to agree about the casting of the Carolingians movie we might have changed all that by now dammit :-)

  3. Its only a matter of time…..after all, we’ve had Beowulf, Alexander, Troy, A Knight’s Tale, can a movie on Charlemagne be far behind? It must have a role for Angelina Jolie though…..otherwise, it just isn’t a movie. ;)

    Sounds to me though that this book needs a review written about it at the least…..hint hint.

  4. Jonathan, why do you think that the lack of documentation for early Normandy is surprising? It’s certainly frustrating, though I don’t think that surprising given the nature of the region in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries and accidents that befell archives in more modern times. Speaking as one who is branching out backwards (into 10th century Normandy and earlier), the Vikings are most definitely exciting and I shall be compiling a new undergrad course on the topic next year. This is not a shameless attempt to corrupt the little modernists, oh no…

  5. Larry, it’s not exactly a new book by now, and anything I would write would be very much in the lines of that blogpost with fuller examples. But, given that by that token I’ve already written a lot of it, I guess I could do something for you. Not before the other stuff I have promised to people however, which may make it a little while coming.

    Gesta, I think I’ve dealt with so many archives that the Vikings left something in that finding an area where they didn’t is quite odd. It rarely makes so much direct sense, anyway. One of the very few places in the area that claims to have been sacked is Landevennec—and there the cartulary survives. Charter preservation is subject to so many factors that when you try and work out general patterns for Francia at large the Vikings just disappear into a sea of possibilities.

  6. Precisely. There are many other factors at work in ninth, tenth and eleventh-century ‘Normandy’. It’s not just the Vikings who are being disruptive and various monastic communities move site among other things. Add to that the loss of archives due to fire (we have lots of documented cases of fires); the French Wars of Religion and the Revolution, not to mention the archives at St-Lo being taken out by the Allies in 1944, then the lack of documentation is not surprising! What is more surprising is the lack of Scandinavian archaeology in places like Rouen.

    On a more positive note, the relative lack of archives led to some interesting things going on in the hagiography of the late tenth and early eleventh-centuries. Have you read Samantha Kahn Herrick’s book ‘Imagining the Sacred Past’? I don’t necessarily agree with it all, but what she is doing is certainly interesting.

  7. I haven’t read it, or I admit heard of it, and given the to-read pile I can’t see it making it into relevance very quickly. I’m more an Amy Remensnyder sort of boy these days, but when my area has basically no narrative evidence anyway, the use of work like that for me is essentially to critique other people. I do that too much anyway :-)

  8. I’m very glad I stumbled upon your blog, Jonathan. I found it while trying to determine if there are any specific Norman burial sites (who knows, but archaeology, as mentioned, could prove that there are many). I suppose I am hoping for a Sutton Hoo-esque find one day!

    For several years, I have been interested in the roots of my maiden name, which is Searles. There was barely anything online in the mid/late 2000s, and all I found was a little of Tancred de Hauteville whose son was Serlo, a Norman name from which Searles derives. Thankfully more is emerging these days.

    And thanks to the DNA craze, I’ve discovered that my lineage is found in Normandy and that little peninsula thought to have been inhabited by the de Hauteville tribe. I don’t have absolute documented proof, but could their Serlo be my great-x1000 uncle? :) It boggles the mind.

    Thank you for the links to further studies and papers. That is greatly appreciated. Looking forward to reading them and more of your site.


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