The Normans

“Normans” is the name given to the most culturally-prominent descendants of the savage “Northmen” (the Vikings) who descended upon Western Christendom in unpredictable raids for nearly three centuries beginning in the mid-ninth century.:”(For outstanding summaries of these invasions and their impact upon Western Christendom, see Henry Hart Milman, History of Latin Christianity, Including That Of The Popes to the Pontificate of Nicholas V, Vol. 3 [London: John Murray, 1883], pp. 260-266, and John Marsden, The Fury of the Northmen [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993], pp. 30-56. The latter source reproduces a number of contemporary accounts which cannot fail to impress the Modern reader with the apocalyptic horror experienced by the Christians of that period, who uniformly believed God was visiting his Church with destruction on account of her sins.)”: The Normans were a mixture of French and Viking bloods, which had come about in the aftermath of the defeat of the Vikings in England by King Alfred the Great (849-899), and their subsequent defeats at the hands of Alfred’s successors. Turning their attention to France, they came to a position of great influence there through the political instabilities associated with the decline and fall of the Carolingian Empire.

In the year of the Lord’s incarnation 911, the territory we know as “Normandy” was ceded by King Charles the Simple (r. 898-922), an embattled descendant of Charlemagne, to the marauding Northman ruler Rolf, or Rollo the Viking, (ca. 860-932), as part of an agreement to alleviate the Norman raids. Rolf publicly humiliated the king by upending him from his horse when the latter presented his foot to be kissed, but he nevertheless accepted the Christian religion with all of his subjects. Rolf passed the throne of the new domain of Normandy to his son William “Longsword” (d. 942) sometime around 927. William was an ardent supporter of the Church. There is some debate to this day whether the position with which Rollo was invested and which he passed down to his successors was more akin to that of a “count” (comte) under Charlemagne or a “duke” (dux) in the style of later Medieval rulers. Whatever the case, within only a few generations his descendants would be unambiguously called “Dukes of Normandy”. William “Longsword” was followed by Richard I, Richard II, Richard III, Robert I, and at last the most famous of their lineage, William the Conqueror, who planned and oversaw the Norman Conquest of England in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1066. It was also the Normans, under Robert Guiscard, who would march to rescue Pope Gregory VII from the invading army of Emperor Henry IV, and who, finding the emperor already gone when they arrived, decided to sack Rome itself and carry the pope off with them to southern Italy, where he died in exile.

Intriguingly, although they started out as savage marauders, the story of the Normans is nearly a textbook case of the Gospel transforming an entire people over the course of a number of generations. Rollo’s conversion to Christianity is often thought of as a merely formal occasion helping to ratify a political treaty with a Christian king (Charles the Simple). It may be that Rollo “reconverted” to paganism on his deathbed. As well, it is apparently the case that Rollo and his people’s immediate effects on the Church in their new domains were not positive–the Frankish Church generally speaking was in a state of decline in this period, as is notably seen in the great gaps in succession lists of some of its bishops (Lisieux, gap from 832-990; Avranches, gap from 862-990; Sees, gap from 910-936, etc.).

But while this may be the case with Rollo himself, and with some of his followers and successors, it is nevertheless true that by the time of the Norman Conquest the savage Northmen of Rollo had been to no small degree tamed by the Gospel and had become dynamic cultural leaders in the societas Christiana which was then nearing a point of stable consolidation. From their loins, both physical and cultural, would come, for instance, the reforming movement of Lanfranc of Bec, which would have a great impact on the English Church in the aftermath of the Conquest, and the work of one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the second millennium, St. Anselm of Canterbury. These reforming movements, along with that of the Cluniacs, were supported by the line of Norman dukes emanating from Rollo, and in this respect the cultural triumph of the Gospel may be seen. Even the savage Northmen could not forever withstand the conquering crusade of King Jesus.

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