History of the Normans: Origins, Military, and Culture

NormansIllustration by Angus McBride

Oddly and quite disappointingly, the legacy of the Normans in England has sometimes been vilified on account of them being foreigners and ‘French’ who supposedly invaded the Anglo-Saxon sanctity of the island. However, beyond such stereotypes and ethnic characterizations, there was more to the Normans – both in terms of their resourcefulness and military prowess. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at the enthralling history of the Normans that might set some things right about the misconceptions about the ‘invaders’ from the northern part of France.

Origins – Normans Were of Viking Heritage


Those who had watched their fair share of the Vikings TV series on History Channel would surely remember the boisterous character of Rollo (Ragnar Lothbrok’s brother). Well, it turns out, this fictional character is based on a real-life counterpart of ‘Duke’ Rollo (though the timeline is completely mismatched).

In terms of history complemented by some semi-legendary anecdotes, Rollo was a Viking chieftain (his name being probably derived from Ganger Hrólf) who commanded a large band of followers and operated in the Seine valley with their usual bouts of raiding and plundering.

Afflicted by such military actions, Charles III (also called ‘the Simple’) – the King of West Franks (Carolingian Franks), invited Rollo and his followers to settle on the eastern side of Normandy (Upper Normandy) in 911 AD, in return for nominal allegiance and possibly Rollo’s conversion to Christianity. But more importantly, the newly formed, autonomous duchy of Normandy was to act as a buffer state to stop the incursions of their brethren – the northern Vikings from Scandinavia.

Thus started the reign of illustrious Rollo and his ‘Norman’ successors, after the signing of this momentous Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. But as was usually the case with his Viking predecessors, Rollo was not content with the initial amount of territory he was assigned to. By 924 AD, he managed to add other proximate areas to his newly-formed duchy, including the districts of Sees and Exmes. His son William Longsword further added the territories of Cotentin and Avranchin by 933 AD.

The Very Name Normandy Comes From the Normans


As we mentioned earlier, it was by the agreement of the Frankish crown and the Viking raiders that Normandy was formed. Before this timeline, the area probably encompassed the bigger (and very rich) province of Neustria – known for its prevalence of Gallo-Roman villas and treasure-filled abbeys. However, by the time the first ‘batch’ of Vikings settled in the land, the territory was rechristened as ‘Normandy’, derived from the Latin Nortmanni – denoting the Northmen (or Norsemen) raiders.

The old province of Neustria comprised a well-established Gallo-Roman population that was partly influenced by the cultural overtures of their Frankish kings. The newly arrived Scandinavians were pretty quickly assimilated into this melting pot of ethnicity and culture – with the resultant ‘admixture’ contributing to the flowering of the Normanni or Normans.

And quite interestingly, in spite of having such mixed characteristics, the Normans of the future generations regarded themselves as being ‘separate’ from the rest of France. This sense of identity and even common destiny was often espoused by their indigenous labeling (of themselves) as Gens Normannorum (‘the Norman people’).

From Pagan Raiders to Warriors of Christianity


As history has proven, the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was a masterstroke by Charles III – if not for himself, but for future generations of French rulers and church officials after the 10th century AD. To that end, the early Normans clearly demonstrated their Viking military heritage by operating in a similar manner – that entailed fast movements and decisive actions, all pinched with the element of sheer ruthlessness.

But the Gens Normannorum showcased another evolving nature that was seldom found in their Northmen predecessors – the nature of adaptability. This societal force soon allowed them to wholesomely adopt the ‘foreign’ Carolingian culture and feudalism, thus transforming the Normans into a European entity that combined the viciousness of the Vikings and the acumen of more ‘advanced’ factions.

One major effect of this scope of adaptability was the substantial adoption of Christianity by the primarily pagan Normans (under Rollo). Their future generations turned out to be the ‘sword arm’ of Christianity, with Norman conquests and influence reaching the far-flung corners of Europe and the Levant. Interestingly, the Normans also established a long-standing yet transparent relationship with the Papacy, as is evident from William the Conqueror’s alliance with the Vatican.

In that regard, many of the ecclesiastical leaders of the church came from the Norman aristocracy, while secular Norman lords quite freely founded medieval monasteries in their realms. Many of these ‘church lands’ owed military service to their Norman overlords, and as such the first knights were probably related to such resource-rich abbeys.

The Normans Versus the Vikings


While the earlier Normans welcomed the Vikings as their brethren from across the seas, the gradual integration of the Norman culture into European politics made such relationships far more complex in the coming decades. For example, there might have been an incident in 1000 AD when Anglo-Saxon forces from across England attacked Viking raiding parties that were given refuge in the Norman lands.

However, by the following decades, the Duchy of Normandy went through various crucial societal changes, including the adoption of both Christianity and the French language – thus effectively making them part of a cultured (and rich) front that stood against the incursions of the Scandinavians. As a result, by the early years of the 11th century, many Norman dukes maintained strategic military liaisons with their Anglo-Saxon counterparts in England, in a bid to block the English Channel from Viking fleets.

This relationship took a new turn when the Normans actively supported Edward and the kingdom of Wessex against the invasion of King Cnut and his Northmen forces from Denmark. In fact, the political connection between the Normans and the Scandinavians (‘Vikings’) deteriorated to such a degree that the great William the Conqueror even managed to strike up an alliance deal with his long-time French rivals in Flanders, so as to counter the Viking threat in 1066 AD.

Such a desperate measure was perhaps an outcome of the persistent Scandinavian raids on the Channel Islands (Iles Normandes) that belonged to the personal dependency of the Duke of Normandy. In essence, it was the reputation of the Normans and their rulers that directly conflicted with the audacity of their Viking brethren.

The Rise of the Medieval European Knight


The rise of the Normans mirrored the rise of the horse-mounted European knights in the ‘age of mail’. By the late 11th century AD, these knights came to dominate the battlefields of the medieval world of West Europe, and as such their prowess perfectly suited the Norman mode of fast and brutal warfare.

The brutal side came from the tactical development and adoption of the couched lance, which was gripped firmly between the upper arm and the chest. This allowed the knight to mount a forceful charge through the ranks of enemy infantry (that were often loosely formed), with the heavy lance epitomizing the momentum of the heavily armored cavalryman in his full motion.

And as can be surmised from this description, the infantrymen (especially the lesser trained ones) also had to deal with the devastating psychological impact of an imposing war-horse and its expert rider in their full panoply and armament, riding towards them in their greatest speed and momentum. On the other hand, historians are still not sure if the same ‘charging’ tactic (and its psychological impact) could be applied when it came to war-hardened infantry forces with tighter formations and better nerves.

In any case, the adoption of the couched lance was not a singular case of improvisation on the part of the heavy Norman cavalry. In fact, the very posture of carrying and gripping a couched lance came from a set of technological improvements, including a higher-set war saddle with the protective pommel, a cantle for the hip, and a breast strap for absorbing the shock. The armor was also ‘streamlined’ to suit the Norman knight, with the increased sizes of the mail hauberks complemented by padded garments (worn beneath the mails) and accompanied by kite-shaped shields.

The helmets were also evolved by the 13th century, with the ‘great helm’ possibly making its debut in the year of 1200 AD. It should also be noted that by these later years, Normans were instrumental in transmitting many of the advanced military technologies from the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire and the eastern Islamic realms, to the very heartlands of Europe.

Note – One can check out our detailed article on the evolution, arms, and tactics of Norman Knights.

The Triumph of Mixed-Tactics and the Prestige of Bow


While the Normans were among the earlier proponents for heavy shock cavalry in the European battlefields, the adoption of such tactical measures was not just for show and pomp (as opposed to later knighthood traditions that morphed into chivalrous and romantic ideals that went beyond battlefield practicality). Rather such military endorsements paralleled the Normans’ penchant for adaptability, thus making for an ‘odd’ combination of an armored Norseman and his horse – a unit that was seldom seen in the lands of their predecessors, the Vikings.

However, even before the adoption of the couched lance and other military technologies, the Normans favored mixed-tactics on the battlefield that mirrored their more progressive approach to fighting. This is evident from the momentous Battle of Hastings fought in 1066 AD, where William’s ‘mixed’ Norman forces of both cavalry and infantry played their crucial roles in defeating the traditional Germanic-Scandinavian formations of the Anglo-Saxons.

Unsurprisingly, given their preference for adaptability in battles, the bow was raised to be a prestigious weapon after the Norman conquest of England. And once again, practicality played its role alongside ceremonious affairs – with the bow achieving its ‘prestige’ solely due to its sheer effectiveness in the hand of specialized archers who defended northern England from the encroaches of the lightly-armored Scots.

From Mercenaries to Rulers of Sicily – A State Richer Than England


The first bands of Norman mercenaries had started infiltrating the southern parts of Italy that were still under Eastern Roman rule, by 1017 AD. And after a steady trickle of settling and raiding, the first military conquests were initiated by the famed Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard and his small party (which consisted of only five mounted riders and thirty followers on foot – according to Byzantine princess and historian Anna Comnena) in 1041 AD.

Over the course of the next thirty years, many towns of southern Italy fell to Norman forces, thus effectively ending the influence of the Eastern Romans. This period also coincided with the repeated incursions and ultimate Norman conquest of the rich island of Sicily. This was a significant event in European history since the island with its dominant Christian population had been under the suzerainty of Arab rulers for more than 150 years.

But beyond just an event with religious implications, the subsequent formation of the Kingdom of Sicily resulted in a synergistic cultural domain that was seldom seen in the rest of Western Europe. In fact, the ‘adaptable’ Norman rulers were thoroughly influenced by the previous Islamic cultural ambit, and as such even adopted many Islamic traditions and styles, including their dress, language, and literature.

However, in spite of such progressive overtures, the newly conquered Sicily continued to attract the Latin elements from mainland Europe – thus ultimately leading to its definitive Catholic scope and waning of the ‘melting pot’ heritage of Lombards, Arabs, Jews, Eastern Romans, and the Normans.

The Crusader State of Antioch in the Holy Land


Yet another feather in the cap of the Normans was the conquest of a swathe of land even further than Sicily. We are talking about the ‘Holy Land’ in the Levant, and how the Normans played an active role in the First Crusade by establishing their state around the ancient city of Antioch (that encompassed parts of modern-day Turkey and Syria).

Keeping up with their reputation as the ‘sword arm’ of Christianity, the Principality of Antioch was initially formed by the Normans (mostly from Italy) as a buffer state that would guard the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the northern passages.

However, by the time Tancred (nephew of Bohemond – who was the son of Robert Guiscard) came to rule the lands, he established strict European feudal norms while encouraging Normans from France and Italy to settle in the regions of northern Syria.

And, as was often the case with the Norman sense of adaptability, Tancred actively also sought out the support of local communities, including native Christians, proximate Armenians, and fringe Turkish chieftains – thus once again leading to a briefly synergistic realm that was often at odds with the neighboring Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, such a ‘symbiotic’ status was not kept for long, with the future generations of Norman minority failing in the cultural pliancy exhibited by their predecessors. Moreover, the once-rich trade and industrial networks of the city of Antioch continued to suffer after being superseded by the emerging commercial hub of Aleppo under Islamic rule.

*Note – The article was updated on 6th November 2019.

Sources: Britannica / Etrusia / Gov.uk / BestofSicily

Book References: The Normans in Sicily: The Normans in the South 1016-1130 and the Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194 (by John Julius Norwich) / The Normans (David Nicolle)

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