Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vikings to Brits: "Charlemagne made me do it!"

From Medieval News comes this item on a new book by Robert Ferguson, in which he claims the Vikings were not truly the aggressors in the bouts of pillaging and raiding that made them so famous. In fact, it was all Charlemagne’s fault. According to Medieval News,
"A new theory about what drove the Vikings to raid Western Europe in the late eight and ninth centuries has been published. It suggests that the Vikings in Denmark were reacting to a threat from the Carolingian ruler Charlemagne, who was seeking to destroy their society and impose Christianity on them."
Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read this book, nor am I familiar with Robert Ferguson’s scholarship or credentials. But whenever someone comes along who turns cherished master narratives on their heads - or at least makes us think again about long-held assumptions - my interest is always piqued. On the face of it, though, this seems like a pretty radical reinterpretation of the Viking invasions. (I’m sorely tempted to make a glib comparison between Ferguson's depiction of Viking aggression-as-defence and reactionary men’s rights activists who claim dysfunctional and violent men are simply the sad victims of expansionary feminism.)

The Medieval News article continues -
‘With the accession of Charlemagne in 771, the Carolingians began to implement a new program of converting their pagan and neighbors and promoting Christianity. Charlemagne launched numerous invasions of the Saxon peoples led by Widukind.

In a podcast interview [available through the BBC History Magazine website], Ferguson adds the goals of Charlemagne were to force the Saxons "to abandon their culture, political system, beliefs and everything, and make them part Christians ['part Christians'? I think this is a typo, unless Charlemagne was happy with superficial expressions of faith versus full and genuine conversion] and part of his empire."

Ferguson notes an episode of "ethnic-cleansing:" when, in 782, Charlemagne's armies forcibly baptised and then executed 4,500 Saxon captives at Verden, a town close to Denmark. The Danes would have been well aware of what was happening with the Saxons anyways, as Widukind was married to sister of the Danish king, Sigfrid, and often took refuge in Denmark to escape the Carolingians.

Considering the situation, Ferguson writes, "Should the Vikings simply wait for Charlemagne's armies to arrive and set about the task? Or should they fight to defend their culture?"

But the Norse could not fight the Carolingian military directly - instead they went after soft targets, such as monasteries, which were symbols of the growing Christian encroachment. Ferguson says, "everything points to a hatred that goes beyond just robbers who just wanted money."’
I’m no expert on the earlier Middle Ages/Charlemagne/pre-Conquest England, but I know some of you reading this are. Out of curiosity, I’d love to know what you make of Ferguson’s assertions. Has his theory been canvassed before? Is it crazy-talk? Can the Vikings really be rehabilitated as victims of Charlemagne’s attempts at ‘ethnic cleansing’ and forced Christianisation?


stu said...

It's an intriguing theory, and one which sort of fits with existing ideas of the Danes as reactive to the political situation around them (currently as taking advantage of it). Obviously, not having read the book, I'm just going from what you've quoted.

A couple of issues though:

Firstly, it says nothing about Norse, Swedish or indeed Finnish strands of viking activity. Perhaps less relevant to England in the latter two cases, but still important.

Secondly, it all seems very period specific, when there were at least two phases of 'viking' activity in britain, a couple of 'viking' kings, and some invasions. Is ALL of that down to Charlemagne?

Steve Muhlberger said...

Ditto what Stu said, though I think this theory is a half-baked overgeneralization rather than "intriguing." When a historical phenomenon lasts for over a generation, then you've got to look for longer term factors.

Janice said...

I'm amazed at how quickly one can go from the Saxons to the Danes to the entire Scandinavian world. What's going on with the Danes and the Saxons seems much more complex than this.

I'll see if I can get a look at the book and find out if he's arguing for something more sophisticated, but if it is in essence that the Danes and the Saxons were peace-loving people that Charlemagne bullied and started the whole Viking raids as a result? Well, no, Skippy. That doesn't work with what I know of the archaeological evidence let alone the texts.

tenthmedieval said...

Ferguson has been doing this for a year or so online, but the publication is a step further, and to my mind a good indication that peer review for books is basically missing; someone will always publish it if it looks as if it will sell, which of course this will.

To my mind there are three big problems with the ideas as stated in that article:

(i) firstly the Danes spend quite a lot of time at war with the Saxons in this period and indeed Charlemagne sometimes has peaceful relations with the King of the Danes while at war with the Saxons, e.g. 804 (Royal Frankish Annals) and vice versa (RFA 810), and Louis the Pious of course leads a Danish king to the font while Viking raiding builds all round them (which is *why* he's leading a Viking king to the font...) This is related to the second problem:

(ii) the Danes and Norse are not all one unit, or even two; the kings do not command all the raiders, raids go on even when kingdoms are at peace, one of the things the Carolingian pressure on the Danish kings is intended to do is to get them to police raiders better, and anyway that says absolutely nothing about the Norse (or, as Stu points out, any of their activity in the (pagan) Baltic zone. Then:

(iii) Argh Charlemagne's empire does not include England or any part of it so why on earth would you divert force to raid England in massive strength and try to take it over if the threat was from the Franks IT MAKE NO SENSE.

So in summary I don't think I'll buy this one.

magistra said...

I'd second the views above that Charlemagne can't explain Norwegian raids on Scotland, which start around 800. And the Danish kings did fight back against Charlemagne directly: as Chris Wickham points out the Danish kingdom was the only polity that not only resisted Charlemagne, but actually managed to attack back (invading Frisia in 810).

On the other hand, I have a certain amount of sympathy for a view that points out that the Vikings aren't the only forces around in the early Middle Ages prone to unprovoked aggression, since there is a strand of modern English thought that appears to consider that the sole violent events in Anglo-Saxon history were Viking raids and Harold getting an arrow in his eye.

RPS77 said...

I'd swear that I've seen this idea before - I think it was in some military history of the early middle ages. It was just a suggestion, though, not developed.

Like everyone else says, it might help account for some raids in some places for a particular time period (i.e., from Denmark against the Frankish kingdoms), but it doesn't explain military and commercial activity stretching through much of Europe and beyond for almost 200 years!

I thought that the men's rights activists were mostly concerned with men getting greater custody rights after divorces.

Bavardess said...

Ha! I had a feeling you guys would be able to blow this one out of the water :)

Steve, 'half-baked generalization' is pretty close to my first reaction, too. Based on what little I know about the period, it just seemed way too simplistic and mono-causal an explanation (though no doubt quite attractive to a mainstream publisher).

Janice - If you do get a look at the book, it would be interesting to know if his theory is indeed as simple as it appears, or if the interviewer has just focused on the most controversial angle.

Tenth, I take it this is one of those 'sticky' ideas with general appeal that keeps resurfacing despite logical arguments to the contrary (like yours here). It reminds me of that 'Links of concern' post you did recently on the way pseudo-scholarship or mistakes in older scholarship keep resurfacing and taking on new life via the internet.

Magistra - I like your point about the need to not see the Vikings in simplistic terms as 'the bad guys'.

RPS77 - I wonder if this theory has indeed been floating around for quite some time, and is now being polished up and re-packaged for a new audience? On the men's activists, I was thinking of the more extreme fringes of the movement, who claim violence by young men is a reaction to their 'emasculation' by feminist women and their resulting perception that they have no place in society. But as I said, it was really a throwaway comment.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I feel a little uneasy amongst such scholars as yourselves.

However, didn't the Vikings accept Christianity readily enough after Alfred the Great repulsed them from Wessex? These events seem close still to one living within a stone's throw of the site of the Battle of Ashdown and Churn Knob where St Birinius preached.

Meanwhile, weren't the monasteries merely easy and relatively undefended targets that happened, all to often, to be located at the coast or nearby?

Talliesin said...

The bit I'm learning as someone not well-educated in this period isn't the theory that pressure from Charlemagne led to an increase in raids upon the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe, but that it was as such a minority view as the comments here would seem to suggest.

It's at least a decade ago that I first heard it, though not so much a matter of self-defence but of the pressure of dealing with the Carolignian attacks upon resources and population movements made raids upon relatively easy targets desirable.

Interesting to learn that this isn't particularly accepted.

Bavardess said...

White Horse Pilgrim - welcome, and please don't fell uneasy :) My research area is the late Middle Ages, so I probably know no more than you (and quite possibly less!) about the earlier period and the Viking raids. It must be fascinating to live in a spot where all this stuff *actually* happened.

Talliesen - interesting that this seems to have been a theory that has been kicking around for a while. I wonder if it is partly publisher interest that has suddenly made it worthy of a book?