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How the Normans Shaped Modern Europe

This post is a tribute to the Normans and how they came to shape modern Europe.  It draws primarily from the book The Normans: From Raiders to Kings by Lars Brownworth and also from a recent essay in Unherd by Ed West.  

The Normans were Vikings who in the ninth century conquered a piece of France along the English Channel — Norseland — which became known as Normandy.  Heavily outnumbered, they went native, adopted the French language, and “learned how to govern a people without alienating them.”  There they adopted a new technology of warfare that gave them a huge advantage on the battlefield, abandoning the Viking style of fighting on foot in favor of armored knights on horseback, who became the scourge of Europe.

Especially in the English tradition, Normans developed notoriously bad press, since they were the ones who defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings (remember William the Conqueror?) in 1066 and then went on to take over England.  It didn’t help that the early days of their rule were brutal.  

Within twenty years of the conquest it’s been estimated that two hundred thousand French and Normans settled in England, and one in five of the native population were either killed or starved by the seizure of farm stock or land. French replaced English as the court language and nearly every major Anglo-Saxon figure disappeared. The English were forced to watch as their leaders were reduced to poverty, thrown into dungeons, mutilated or killed. Heavy taxes were imposed, huge swaths of the country were depopulated to act as royal hunting forests, and vindictive laws were passed to the disadvantage of the natives. Most hated of all were the castles that William had built all over England, visible symbols of their oppression which were constructed and paid for with English labor and wealth. 

Normans Cover

A longstanding rallying cry of the freedom-loving English patriots over the years were calls to “throw off the Norman yoke” and restore the good old days of Anglo-Saxon liberty.  Even today, Brits with Norman names are wealthier than the average and aristocrats have a disproportionate amount of Norman blood.  But somehow this myth overlooked the fact that the Anglo-Saxons were Germanic invaders who had displaced the previous population of England — or that about one-fifth of the pre-Norman English were slaves.  After William took charge, he abolished slavery.  Oh, yes; and one other thing.  By blending French into the Anglo-Saxon, the Normans also created the English language.

As Brownworth goes on to explain,

There is much more to the Norman story than the Battle of Hastings. These descendants of the Vikings who settled in France, England, and Italy – but were not strictly French, English, or Italian – played a large role in creating the modern world. They were the success story of the Middle Ages; a footloose band of individual adventurers who transformed the face of medieval Europe. During the course of two centuries they launched a series of extraordinary conquests, carving out kingdoms from the North Sea to the North African coast. 

Within a generation of the arrival of the Normans, much of Europe was transformed from a collection of feuding states to a culturally united and politically strong region. In place of a patchwork of French fiefdoms, they created an Anglo-Norman empire, stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. In Italy they found Lombard, Byzantine, and Saracen princes controlling a confused array of provinces, and replaced them with a single Norman kingdom. The Byzantine Empire was driven out of Italy, the Saracens were expelled from Sicily, and a revived papacy began the Western offensive against Islam that would spawn both the Reconquista and the Crusades.

Norman power also coincided with several more fundamental shifts. From the eleventh century to the twelfth, the population of Europe nearly doubled. With a larger workforce came a greater specialization of labor, the founding of guilds, and technological innovations like the windmill and stern-mounted rudder. The growth of cities and towns encouraged the formation of communes and the first medieval experiments with democracy. Trading organizations like the Hanseatic League brought the West into contact with the Byzantine and Islamic worlds and partially reintroduced Europe to Greek learning and advances in medicine and science. The new Gothic form of architecture began to spread from France to the rest of the continent, and with it came a reform movement fostered in Norman monasteries that resulted in a revival of learning broad enough to be called the Renaissance of the twelfth century. Vernacular literature emerged, Latin poetry and Roman law were revived and the first European universities were founded.  Lastly, the stability that the Normans gave to the Italian peninsula allowed the reforming pope, Gregory VII, to spread his idea of a universal Christian society far beyond Italy – and with it the concept of a united Europe.  

Not bad for a band of blood-thirsty Viking adventurers.

After England, the other great Norman success story was Sicily.  As Brownworth explains, 

Sicily had been a witness to most of the great Mediterranean empires. The Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs had in turn ruled over the island. But for all of these it had been a mere conquered province exploited for its grain, forever passed between more powerful neighbors and considered important only for what resources it could provide distant capitals. 

But when the Normans defeated the Arabs in one of the great battles in history, outnumbered 70 to 1, they came to rule the island with a soft hand.  They hired the able Arab administrators to keep running affairs, expanded trade, increased the standard of living, and managed to live in peace with a population that was overwhelming Arab and Greek, creating the richest and most powerful state in the Mediterranean.  Sicily had never been so well off and never would be again.

Here’s how Brownworth sums up the Norman story and its impact on Europe.

…For two magnificent generations, they had the world at their fingertips. William the Conqueror, Robert Guiscard, and the great count Roger were all contemporaries – as were their children William II of England, Bohemond of Antioch, and Roger II of Sicily. In each case an exceptional conqueror had been followed by an effective administrator who consolidated the gains and laid the foundations of a lasting state. In 1054 the three men who would become the most famous Normans were an illegitimate duke, a glorified pirate, and a penniless knight. A hundred years later their descendants ruled over the two most powerful and glittering courts of Europe [England and Sicily] , and the greatest of the Crusader states.

There was also a more enduring and important change. The Norman centuries of dominance had seen a fundamental shift. No observer in the tenth century would have guessed that anything lasting would come out of Western Europe. It was surrounded by powerful Byzantine and Muslim neighbors, and fragmented into dozens of minor, decentralized states that incessantly squabbled and seemed incapable of unifying themselves. It was defensive and inward-looking, buffeted by Viking attacks from the north, Arab raids from the west, and Magyar invasions from the east. By the twelfth century that had changed. Europe was confident and expansive on all sides, beginning to roll back the Muslim conquest in both Spain and Asia Minor. In the place of weak feudal states were centralized kingdoms poised for the explosive growth which would eventually see it dominate the globe.  

The Normans are at the great tipping point of European history. It was their energy and daring that transformed Europe, their dynamism that was at the forefront of the new spirit of the Age. 

Read the book.  You’ll be amazed.


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