The Normans in Normandy: When did the Vikings become Norman?



There are paradoxes in the history of tenth-century ‘Normandy’: violent invasion, but in the longer term a settlement which preserved many essentially Carolingian features… In the end, we must think of a fusion of cultures." The Viking settlers took up the Frankish customs way of life so completely that within a few generations of their arrival little of their Viking heritage remained. One explanation for this is that the number of settlers was few and that they were quickly absorbed into the local population. Or perhaps there was a brief violent takeover, after which the Vikings adopted the customs of their neighbours out of necessity and political pressure.


Contemporary Latin sources called these settlers Northmanni but this described both the Vikings and, much later, the Normans. It was a general term used to describe the Scandinavians who had become active in northern Francia in the ninth and tenth centuries. But no distinction was made in the tenth century between the Vikings of Neustria and the Vikings in other parts of the rest of Francia and elsewhere. The major problem with uncovering the history of the early Viking settlement of Neustria is the lack of sources from the early decades of the tenth century, when the settlement was formalised. The Vikings recorded their history later and the sources we do have are written by the Franks. The later Norman histories are problematic because of their interest in buttressing and legitimate the infant state[2]. The sources viewed the tenth-century as a violent time. Frankish lords fought for political dominance and, on the fringes of the Frankish kingdom, smaller groups of peoples fought for supremacy against each other and against the Franks. In the ninth-century, mobile Viking forces had often sailed up the Seine and besieged Paris, or simply ravaged areas inside Francia. It is hard to tell where these war-bands wintered, though it becomes clear in the annals that the gains for Viking raiders were so great that they began to winter in Francia instead of returning to Scandinavia.


In the early part of the tenth-century, the Neustrian or Breton March was still regarded as part of the Frankish kingdom by the Franks. The Viking raids reached their height during a period of instability in the Frankish kingdoms. An element of luck had played a part in allowing the Frankish kings to rule over an undivided kingdom for many years, in spite of the custom of dividing lands equally between sons on the death of their father. Peppin the Short, Carloman his son and Charlemagne his grandson ruled over an unbroken kingdom. But on the death of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious in 840, Francia was at last split. There was a period of fragmentation, with Francia divided into three kingdoms: West Francia, Lotharingia, and East Francia. Charles the Simple, King of West Francia (later to become France) from 898 to 922, regained pre-eminence in the Frankish lands after this period of struggle, though other factions existed. It was this political instability that Viking leaders exploited as they fought and befriended their Frankish counterparts.



How do the chronicles help?

Historians who attempt to reconstruct the early history of Normandy face a number of problems[3]. The sources are few and, worse still, their accuracy is often to be doubted. Palgrave[4] warned that "if you accept the task you must accept Dudo or let the work alone." Today, the chronicle of Dudo of St Quentin is viewed with so much suspicion by historians that, even where his account tallies with other contemporary writers, he is still distrusted. But without Dudo we have little evidence. The Frankish historian Flodoard of Reims[5] provides some information about Normandy in the first half of the ninth-century, there are a few references to early Normandy in Scandinavian sources and even a late Welsh source. Later Norman sources for this period do exist, but many of these are based on Dudo’s account, so must be treated with caution. With such a lack of literary material, historians are left with the results of research from archaeology and analysis of place-name. The interpretation of archaeological evidence is difficult and the conclusions that can be drawn from it can be even vaguer than literary sources. The historian’s task in chronicling early Norman history is thus a difficult one, and the conclusions reached are, by necessity, limited in nature.


Dudo of St Quentin was born c. 960 in Vermandois. He wrote De moribus et actis primorum Normanniæ ducum (The Deeds of the Early Dukes of Normandy) from about 996 to the time he became Dean of St Quentin in 1015[6]. The earlier history, including some highly questionable and fictional details, was based on Virgil’s Aeneid and Jordanes’ Getica. His main informant for the details of his history was Count Rodulf of Ivry. Commissioned originally by Duke Richard I, the chronicle ended with the death of Richard in 996[7]. Dudo appears to know a great deal about Rollo[8], and he is the only source for the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, where Charles the Simple granted Rollo the lands around Rouen in 911. Rollo is baptised and, in return, receives the grant of land. The bishops said to Rollo, who was unwilling to kiss King Charles’s foot: "You who receive such a gift ought to kiss the king’s foot." And he said: "I shall never bend my knees to another, nor shall I kiss anyone’s foot." Compelled, however, by the prayers of the Franks, he ordered one of his soldiers to kiss the king’s foot. The man immediately seized the king’s foot, put it to his mouth and kissed it while the king was still standing. The king fell flat on his back. This raised a great laugh and greatly stirred up the crowd." A great story, but almost certainly a legend. Dudo was the official chronicler of the Rollonid dynasty, and he portrays Rollo as the leader of the Vikings in many campaigns and battles, perhaps too many for historians to believe it. The facts of Rollo’s early years as leader of the early Normans are therefore lost in the illusion of later myths. Nonetheless, some of the essential details in Dudo’s story have some validity. Though Dudo is the only source who dates the agreement between Rollo and Charles at 911, this does appear to be a highly plausible date for the agreement.


It is unclear when Viking raiders began to settle in the coastal area, but there is some evidence from the few documents that survive from this period. A Carolingian charter of 905 records Charles the Simple’s grant of two serfs of the Crown from the pagus of Rouen to his chancellor Ernestus. This was the last royal charter in Normandy. Three months later, some idea of the turmoil in the region can be concluded from a charter of 906 that records the transfer of relics from Saint-Marcouf (now in Manche, Basse-Normandie) to Corbény "because of the excessive and prolonged attacks of the pagans." In 918, Charles the Simple granted the lands of the old abbey of La Croix-Saint-Leufroi to the abbey of Saint-Germanin-des-Prés "except that part of the abbey’s lands that we have granted to the Normans of the Seine, namely to Rollo and his followers, for the defence of the kingdom." The treaty recording this land grant to Rollo no longer exists, but it is clear that between the dates of these two royal proclamations, Rollo and his followers had established themselves.


The decisive event may have been a battle at Chartres in 911. Later Norman tradition tends to agree with this and places Rollo at the centre of events, though some historians question this. One reading of the sources is that as a result of this battle, the Vikings were appeased with a grant of land in order to contain and control them. Flodoard of Reims tells us that the Vikings had been granted the lands around Rouen "had some time ago been given to the Northmen on account of the pledges of Charles who had promised them the breadth of the country." Flodoard’s account is important because it appears to give a contemporary view of the period. He was a canon of Reims, and wrote his annals from c. 925 until his death in 966. The only problem is that he was some distance from Normandy, and the history of Normandy was not his principal concern.


It is clear from his account that the Vikings and the Franks were in constant struggle. In 925, Flodoard records that "the Normans of Rouen broke the treaty which they had once made and devastated the districts [pagi] of Beauvais and Amiens. Those citizens of Amiens who were fleeing were burned by a fire for which they were ill-prepared." The Franks responded by plundering Rouen: "they set fire to manors, stole cattle and even killed some of the Normans." Count Herbert led another force against the Vikings towards the east, and surrounded them in a camp on the coast. "It was this very same camp, situated on the coast and called Eu that the Franks surrounded. They broke through the rampart by which the camp was surrounded in front of its walls and weakening the wall, climbed all. Once they had won possession of the town by fighting, they then slaughtered all the males and set fire to its fortifications. Some, however, escaped and took possession of a certain neighbouring island. But the Franks attacked and captured it, although with a greater delay than when they had seized the town. After the Normans, who had been preserving their lives by fighting as best they could, had seen what had happened and had let slip any hope of survival, some plunged themselves into the waves, some cut their throats and some were killed by Frankish swords, while others died by their own weapons. And in this way, once everyone had been destroyed and an outrageous amount of booty had been pillaged, the Franks returned to their territory."


This vivid description gives historians a sense of the violence of the age. The Vikings were marauding all across the northern coastal regions of Francia, though Neustria does seem to be the main area of their settlement. However, they were certainly not confined to this area, or prepared to accept its boundaries. In 937, Flodoard tells us, "The Bretons retreated to their homeland after their long peregrinations fought in frequent battles with the Normans, who had invaded the territory which had belonged to them, next to their own. They ended up the stronger in many of these battles and reclaimed their own territory." Rollo is mentioned in 925 as princeps (leader) of the Northmen at Rouen. Although not mentioned at the time, evidence from the 918 charter strongly suggests that the Norman chroniclers are correct in saying that Rollo led the army from the start. However, Dudo’s reference to the Treaty of St Clair-sur-Epte is uncorroborated and should be dismissed as unreliable. Dudo was also misleading when describing the terms of the settlement. The granting of "the land from the river Epte" tallies with the other sources, but the granting of Brittany does not. Neither does the scene of the utter wilderness hold true: if the land granted by Charles to the Vikings was "uncultivated by the ploughshare, entirely deprived of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and lacking in human life", then why do Scandinavian place-names only form a minority of all place-names throughout Normandy? Entertaining though Dudo’s tale may be, his chronicle, and those of his followers and imitators, cannot be trusted for the early history of Normandy and historians must resign themselves to establishing a few bare facts in the midst of later distortions.


The extension of Normandy’s borders can be seen in Flodoard’s history. King Ralph conceded Bayeux and Maine [Cinomannis et Baiocae] in 925 according to Flodoard, though there are doubts about the concession of Maine. Later in 933, the Normans were given Avranchin and Cotentin. Excluding Maine, this established Normandy in the approximate form that it existed in 1066. The Cotentin peninsula was also settled by Vikings independently of the Vikings under Rollo at Rouen. These early years were violent times. The Normans were constantly warring, fighting with the Franks in 923, but principally concerned with expanding their own sphere of influence. The people of Bayeux revolted against Viking rule in 925, a year after they had been transferred to the control of the counts of Rouen. Dudo recalls a revolt against William Longsword by a certain Riulf: "fiercely filled with infamous perfidy".


Against all the stresses and the strains, against internal revolt and external threats, Normandy had secured its position by the middle of the tenth-century and, though its security was threatened many times, the Norman territory was strongly governed and able to throw off its enemies. This might perhaps lead us to view the treaties between the Franks and the Vikings as more significant than they were at the time. All the evidence suggests that the boundaries were relatively fluid. Agreements were made, and Vikings baptised, but these baptisms often proved temporary affairs. In the 920s, the archbishops of Rouen and Reims both wrote letters on the subject of Vikings who remained pagan despite having converted. Herveus of Reims asked the Pope: "What should be done when they have been baptised and re-baptised, and after their baptism continue to live in pagan fashion, and in the manner of pagans kill Christians, massacre priests, and, offering sacrifices to idols, eat what has been offered?"


There is little evidence for the widespread introduction of Scandinavian institutions or lifestyle. Although in 1013 Duke Richard II welcomed a group of Vikings at Rouen, too much should not be read into this. The leaders, Richard and Olaf, may have felt some commonality, but this cannot be discovered. Just as Frankish nobles and kings had welcomed Vikings and baptised them as Christians, in the hope of converting them into a friend and not making them an enemy, so Richard did with Olaf and his Vikings. Olaf had ravaged Brittany, but had allowed himself to be converted by Richard. The Normans were really now more Franks than Scandinavians. Dudo claims that at the time of William Longsword, Scandinavian speech was obsolete at Rouen, and it is indeed probable that the native tongue was soon adopted. On the eve of the first Crusade, the Norman knight Bohemond was able to ask, rhetorically, "Are we not Franks?"



How does archaeological and place-name evidence help?

The land divisions in Normandy appear to have remained unchanged from the Frankish to the Norman eras. Jacques Le Maho’s[9] study of the Pays de Caux shows a continuity of seigneurial residences, and it has been argued that there was greater continuity in this region than in other parts of Francia. The Vikings did bring slavery with them, but this did not last beyond the first century of occupation. The Normans seems to have been highly integrated with the Franks. One piece of evidence for this is the Fécamp coin horde, including some coins struck at mints in Cologne, Arles and Pavia. In Scandinavia, Norman coins cease to appear in hordes after the early eleventh century, appearing instead in Francia and Italy. This suggests a continuation of trading links with Scandinavia for a while, but with a steadily increasing Norman emphasis on contacts with the continent. Frankish justice was adopted; the Scandinavian thing did not become established.


The study of place-names provides an insight into early Normano-Viking settlement. The comprehensive study undertaken by Jean Adigard des Gautries[10] tells the story of the Viking influx. Taking all place-names with a possible or definite Scandinavian influence, it can be seen that these are especially numerous in the Cotentin peninsula and along the coast, with another large cluster in the Pays de Caux. They were also numerous "all along the great invasion route that was the Seine" and down the other rivers as well: evidence of the Vikings carrying on their raiding, travelling by ship across sea and along rivers. It seems quite likely that when Rollo had his territorial claims to Neustrian March recognised, he based his administration around a coastal group of settlements already in existence due to the activities of other Vikings over a number of years. However, Scandinavian place-names never formed a local majority over pre-existing Frankish names, even in the areas of highest Scandinavian place-name density. One explanation for this is the swift adoption of the local tongue by the Normans.


Frank Stenton made a good point when he compared place-names in Normandy and the English Danelaw. He pointed out that place-names with Viking personal name elements also had Scandinavian suffixes, for example Grimsby: the Viking personal name Grim and the suffix -by, the Scandinavian word for village. He compared this to Normandy, where place-names that have Viking personal names very often have native endings, for example, Grémonville, the ending of which comes from the Latin villa. The former indicates a large settlement of Vikings, who named places in their own tongue. The latter might only show that while the Viking incomers founded and took over places, it was the local population who actually named these places. This could be an indication of the extent of the Viking settlement in Normandy.


Archaeological evidence can tell us little about early settlement. Patrick Perin, examining the evidence found around the lower Seine, admits that the "archaeological documentation is singularly lean." There is evidence for Scandinavian presence: Viking swords and axes have been found, although Perin points out that despite two finds in the ground that were probably buried as part of a funeral, the arms found were all in the river. While this shows that Vikings were present here, it is not clear whether the finds are mainly from settlements or mainly from marauding hordes before the settlement era. This evidence adds little to our knowledge. It is clear that Northmen were present in Normandy for a long time, but the archaeology is scarce and cannot be pinpointed in time to give a clearer picture of the early years of the Viking settlement. The lack of finds does not trouble David Bates unduly, though. "If an extensive colonisation can be argued for in England despite the absence of significant archaeological finds, then the same conclusion seems feasible for Normandy." The lack of Viking finds does not automatically discount a sizeable Viking settlement, but if this was the case then the settlers very quickly adopted Frankish customs.


Whatever the size of the settlement, there is another debate on the speed of integration. "Whichever way we turn", writes Ralph Davies, "we have to admit that the Viking society of Rollo and his companions was something quite different from the Norman society of the eleventh century. The one developed from the other, but the development was not effective until the two races had merged and the Northmen had, for all practical purposes, become Frenchmen." The level of integration is difficult to tell, and David Bates and Eleanor Searle hold different views on this. Bates believes that the Viking incomers quickly became integrated into the native society, so that they had soon adopted Frankish manners and institutions. Searle’s position is that they remained self-consciously Viking until the mid-eleventh century

The evidence for this period is patchy and often inconclusive. The early history of Normandy can be told authoritatively only in very bare and plain terms. Tempting though it is to use more expansive and colourful Norman documents, these tell us more about the needs of the developing Norman state than about its early history. For the period he records, 923-966, Flodoard of Reims seems to be a reliable source, though his main focus is not Normandy. As for the Scandinavian impact on Normandy, there does not appear to have been an overwhelming upheaval. Scandinavian tongues appear not to have been spoken more than three generations after the settlement. Administrative districts were kept intact, estates seem to have survived, and on the whole the Normans ruled through Frankish-style institutions. But Michel de Boüard warns against the simple assumption of continuity simply because of a lack of institutional change. He talks of the "vigour, the effectiveness of ducal power in Normandy" and warns that we should never forget the "human factor" in all this. Certainly, Normandy grew as a power once the Vikings had taken control. There is evidence here for both continuity and discontinuity. Since the sources tell us so little, it is a debate that will be hard to resolve

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