741 to 1000

By: Charles Kimball

Due to the size of this chapter, it has been divided into three parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

Population in the Dark Ages

The term Dark Ages is commonly used to describe European history between 400 and 1000 A.D. It is so called because Europeans during this time were not very bright, and darkness of the mind nearly closed on the West forever. During this period Europe all but ceased to produce the sort of evidence historians need; in many places no records were kept at all. For that reason we know much less about this period than about the times before and after, and most of what we do know is bad. Many of the skills essential to civilization were lost; the European's horizon shrank and superstition increased. Consequently we often feel we have more in common with the Classical Greeks and Romans than we do with their feudal successors.

Those who study tangible objects also have very little to go on. Museums have practically nothing from this period except weapons and jewelry. As for architecture, there's hardly any standing today. All this points to a society less literate and less orderly than it had been in Roman times. And the fact that it left so little behind shows how poorly people lived. Life may have been fun for the bullies in charge, but for everyone else it was a disaster.

Because no government in the west regularly counted its people, our population figures for this era are sketchy. Currently we estimate the Roman Empire had 45 million people in its heyday, the second century A.D. Thereafter the population declined slowly; by 400 the Empire probably had 36 million subjects, a 20% drop. This fall did not cause the subsequent collapse of the Western Empire, for the Romans still outnumbered their German opponents by at least two to one, but it certainly made defending the realm tougher. The Empire needed farmers and slaves, and the loss of both forced it to operate on a smaller scale in the fifth century.

This contraction continued for most of the period covered by the previous chapter. Between 400 and 600 it dropped another 25%, bringing the Mediterranean world down to 27 million. As farmers abandoned their land, it became harder to feed those people remaining, encouraging them to move away. In the west there weren't enough German immigrants to offset the population losses; in the east nomads poured in everywhere, declaring a dramatic triumph for the pastoral way of life.

The term "Dark Ages" does not work well with non-European civilizations. Obviously it does not apply to the Arabs; this was their golden age. Nor to the Chinese; their Tang and Song dynasties mark the all-time high of Chinese civilization, and before the period was over they spread their cultural achievements to their neighbors. In the New World we have the classic age of Mayan civilization, so the term isn't correct until the ninth century. One place where it does fit exactly is India; there the collapse of the Gupta Empire in the fifth century was followed by several hundred years of turmoil, in which legends replace historical records and kingdoms rose and fell that were even less stable than their counterparts in western Europe.

But while the whole world did not suffer from a cultural slump, it does appear that there was an economic one--a dramatic universal slowdown. The total change in world population from 400 to 1000 is now figured at 205 million at the beginning of the period, and 235 million at the end--a 15% increase. In the previous 600 years the increase had been nearly 100% and it would be 100% in the following 600 years. Nowadays we are worried about too many people, and rightly so--a 100% increase takes less than 60 years, not 600. But at a time when many areas of the world were empty and its resources were not efficiently used, a static population meant that life was too short and that civilization could not solve its social, economic and technological problems.

We probably ought to guess at what made life so difficult before we go back to the narrative. One popular candidate is changing climate, caused by a Krakatoa-like volcanic eruption or several occurrences of the "El Nino" effect. If the world got a little cooler, or otherwise less favorable, the length of the growing season would shrink, and so would crop yields. Maybe some day we'll have enough data on ancient climates to declare that bad weather caused the fall of Rome, but currently we don't. In addition there is one group of people this theory doesn't work well with-the Vikings. Though they lived in an area where the climate was never very pleasant, their population grew while other European communities were still shrinking.

Disease epidemics are another possibility. We know that a really bad one can reduce population by at least a third, because that is exactly what happened with the Black Death and the Irish Potato Famine. We also know that a plague hit China around 160 A.D., spread to Rome twenty years later, and caused a series of aftershocks until 250. Another wave of outbreaks hit the Eastern Roman Empire from 540 to 590. Together these plagues could have done the demographic damage we see. The problem lies in the amount of time involved. Europe only needed 150 years to recover from the Black Death, so the seven or eight hundred years it took to get population back up to Roman levels seems a bit on the long side. If epidemics are the main culprit, they didn't work alone.

Iconoclasm: Act II

The seventy years after Constantine V saw a seesaw struggle. The next Byzantine emperor, Leo IV (775-780), was not as determined an iconoclast as his predecessors, and his widow Irene favored the other side; unlike her predecessors, she came from a western province, and thus did not care what Moslems might think of the images. When she took over, she summoned the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which convened in Nicaea in 787. This meeting overturned the iconoclastic policies, and the position presented by John of Damascus became the official one.

Officially Irene was just a regent, acting for the youthful Constantine VI, but her dazzling beauty was matched by cruelty and ambition. Constantine looked for a way to be free of his mother's influence, and he thought he could do it by marrying a daughter of Charlemagne, the most powerful king in the West. Unfortunately, Irene thwarted this plan, so Constantine, who had now come of age, persuaded the army to support him in a coup (790). Irene was banished from the palace, but for the next seven years she planned one conspiracy after another, until she succeeded in having Constantine imprisoned and blinded. Thus in 797 she returned to power, this time ruling in her own name.

Irene's second reign was not a successful one. In 800 Pope Leo III decided that the throne was vacant, because it lacked a male occupant, so he crowned his personal favorite, Charlemagne, as an emperor. Byzantines saw this as a crime, if not a sin, against the sacred state. In 802 another palace revolution threw Irene out, and she was exiled to the island of Lesbos for the rest of her life; this time she was guarded closely to prevent any more revolutions.

Since Irene had first become regent, the Empire had suffered military defeats, diplomatic humiliations, and economic hardship. Thinking the icons were to blame, Emperor Leo V (813-820) brought back iconoclasm, vigorously deposing and imprisoning those Church leaders who spoke out in favor of icons. The last iconoclastic emperor, Theophilus (829-842), even decreed death or exile to anyone who spoke out against iconoclasm. This was going too far and it made the emperor too unpopular, so in 843 a new council was called in Hagia Sophia, which again undid all the rulings against icons, and condemned all iconoclasts except the former emperor Theophilus. Ever since that time the Orthodox Church has celebrated the first Sunday in Lent as the "feast of Orthodoxy," commemorating the end of the iconoclastic controversy.


In the mid-eighth century the Byzantine forces in Italy grew so weak that the Lombards went after Ravenna. The pope expected to be their next target, and had no wish for a Lombard king as overlord. He called on the Franks to save him, and though he offered the title of patrician to Charles Martel (739), his appeal fell on deaf ears. However, when he called for help again, to Charles' son and successor Pepin the Short, he was more successful. Pepin was less of a warrior than Charles but twice the politician. He was already in good graces with the pope for cooperating with St. Boniface in reforming the Frankish Church.

Pepin, like his father Charles, was king of the Franks in all but name; in 743 the Merovingian family found one more witless weakling, Childeric III, to wear the crown. But in his growing friendship with the Church Pepin saw a solution to the kingship problem; if he could get God's approval, it would be all right for him to replace the royal family with his own. In 750, with the aid of Boniface (if not at his suggestion), he sent a letter to Pope Zacharias that contained a loaded question: should one man hold the title of king when another man holds the power?

This was an opportunity every pope had been hoping for since Gregory the Great. By giving Pepin the answer he wanted, Zacharias would put the most powerful man in the West in his debt, and get the help he needed to keep the Lombards away. Since Pepin had already proved himself a suitable ruler, in both his accomplishments and in his private life, the pope answered in his favor: "It is better that he who possesses power be called king than he who has none." This gave Pepin the argument he needed when he convened a meeting of Frankish nobles and got himself "elected" king of the Franks. Childeric III was symbolically shorn of his long blond hair and placed in a monastery, where he conveniently died within a year.

Pepin spent the rest of his reign repaying the Pope for the favor. He told the Lombards to lay off Rome and when they failed to do so, crossed the Alps and brought them to heel. Pepin also conquered Septimania, driving the Arabs back into Spain (759). It was a vigorous, if barbaric kingdom that he passed to his sons Charles and Carloman in 768.(1)

Charles has gone down in history as Charlemagne, meaning "Charles the Great" in Latin. This is because he was a determined and successful soldier, a talented statesman, and a patron of learning all rolled into one. There were 54 military campaigns during his 46-year reign, often on more than one front at the same time. When the Lombards made trouble by breaking treaties and seizing Papal lands, he finished off their kingdom, annexing all of north and central Italy (774). At the same time he added Byzantine Ravenna to Pope Adrian I's estates around Rome(2), but kept most of the lands taken by the Lombards, even those Pepin had given to the pope previously. Charlemagne treated both Adrian and his successor Leo III with great kindness, but made sure they never forgot who was the boss.

Charlemagne had his greatest military successes on the eastern front, where he pushed the frontiers of the Frankish kingdom to the Elbe and upper Danube. Most of the time he declared he was advancing the cause of Christianity, though a few high-minded clerics deplored his method of conversion, which they called "baptism with the sword." In 784-5 he conquered the Frisians; by crushing the seafarers of the North Sea, he left a vacuum that the Vikings would soon fill. In 788 he took over Bavaria, which had shown an alarming tendency toward self-rule since it had gotten a Slav king named Samo in the 620s. In 796 he ended an old threat to the West by destroying the Avars in Hungary. To guard the East he set up a series of "marks" or "marches", special military districts in what is now east Germany, Austria and Slovenia. This established supremacy of a sort over all of the Slav tribes on the eastern frontier, from the Sorbs of the Oder River to the Croats on the Adriatic.

The still-pagan Saxons of northern Germany were his toughest opponents. It took 32 years of campaigning (772-804) to vanquish and pacify them. Since they were disunited, he had to conquer one tribe at a time, and between campaigns they launched savage raids into the Rhineland and France. On one occasion, he slaughtered 4,500 captives after they surrendered; on another, after one tribe's forced conversion, he chopped down the Irminsul, the great oak tree that they had worshiped previously, and out fell the tribe's golden treasury into Charlemagne's lap! The Saxons eventually accepted Christianity, though they never were very cooperative subjects.

The only direction in which Charlemagne did not win much ground was to the south; all he got for attacking the Moslems in Spain was the county of Barcelona and the Pyrenees mts. ("the Spanish March"). It did, however, give France protection from a possible Moslem revival.(3)


By the end of the century Charlemagne had brought nearly all of western Christendom under his rule.(4) People were impressed, and his Arab enemies sent gifts worthy of a valiant foe; his favorite gift was an elephant named Abu-al-Abbas. The pope was probably impressed most of all. On Christmas Day of 800 Charlemagne attended a Mass in Rome and Pope Leo III sprung a surprise. He placed a crown on Charlemagne's head while the king was kneeling, and proclaimed Western Europe reunited as a "Holy Roman Empire," with Charlemagne as its first emperor. The congregation shouted, "To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peace-giving emperor, life and victory!" Then Leo prostrated himself before Charlemagne, a gesture which popes had previously practiced only before the emperors of Byzantium. Though somewhat alarmed, Charles went along with the idea.(5) Eventually (812) even the Byzantine emperor recognized his title.

Theorectically only an emperor in Constantinople could bestow the imperial crown upon anybody else, but a legal loophole presented itself, in the form of Empress Irene. Although there was no law saying that a woman could not run the Empire, it had never been done before, so some--including the pope--felt that the throne was vacant so long as Irene had it. That gave Charlemagne and the pope the legal justification to use the title of emperor in the 800 coronation. Charlemagne probably intended to reunite the East and West through a dynastic marriage with Irene, but the pope shrewdly crowned him first, making it look like the title of emperor was a gift from the Papacy. Whatever chance Charlemagne had of doing things his way ended in 802, when Irene was overthrown in favor of an emperor who was both legal and male.

Actually the whole thing was nonsense. After the coronation, Charlemagne still ruled in the same old German way, uniting men through ties of personal loyalty rather than by laws. A century of three strong leaders--Charles Martel, Pepin the Short and Charlemagne--had made the Frankish kingdom look more impressive than it really was. It functioned because when Charles called the warrior barons to the "Field of May," the annual meeting of the army, they came. If they did not show up, as they did under Charlemagne's weak successors, the empire would fall apart. The only administration that existed was the network of bishops and archbishops; the bureaucratic apparatus that would have guided the empire through a bad period was totally non-existent. The lack of a proper administration showed in the fact that the empire worked best wherever its ruler happened to be. For example, Charlemagne was so busy on the distant frontiers that he never found time to finish subduing the Celts of Brittany, right in his own backyard.(6)

During Charlemagne's time, long-distance trade started to increase, despite that fact that Moslem navies now controlled the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, it was because the Mediterranean was a Moslem sea that Charlemagne gave legal protection to Jewish merchants, since they could travel through both Christian and Moslem territories without being automatically viewed as agents for the other side. The yields from farming also increased, for reasons covered later in this chapter (use of the heavy plow, the water mill, and the three-field system). In fact, the empire prospered to the point that Charlemagne could live off his personal estates without imposing a general tax on his subjects; obligations to the crown were always paid with service rather than with money. By modern standards western Europe was still not very rich or productive, and plagues and famine would remain a problem for centuries to come. However, now there was peace at home, and the only wars to fight were "good Christian wars" against far-away enemies of the Church, so Europeans could believe that life was getting better at last, and that they owed a lot of it to their just and powerful king, Charlemagne.

Early on Charlemagne realized that he would need educated and responsible men to keep his government working. His efforts to find these men and to train the up-and-coming generation began a small-scale cultural flowering that we call the "Carolingian Renaissance." By this time education of any type had all but disappeared; only among the clergy of England and Ireland was there a decent literacy rate, and things like wars, barbarian raids, and neglect had caused many classical works, like portions of the writings of Livius and Virgil, to be lost forever.

In Guizot's History of Civilization in France there is a list of the names and works of twenty-three men who were either grouped around Charlemagne as his advisors, assigned by him as advisors to his sons Pepin and Louis, sent by him to all points of the empire as his commissioners, or put in charge of important negotiations in his name. Those he did not employ at a distance formed a learned and industrious society, a school of the palace. Since learned men were in such short supply, Charlemagne recruited many of them from abroad. For example, the Visigoth poet Theodulf came from Spain and served as the imaginative bishop of Orleans. A short German from the east named Eginhard was both minister of public works and the official court historian. But it was in England that Charlemagne found a scholar with the skills of organization and leadership needed to manage his cultural revival everywhere in the empire--Alcuin of York.

Alcuin started by setting up the empire's first school right in Charlemagne's capital at Aix-la-Chapelle (modern Aachen). Here both the sons of noblemen and their mustachioed fathers gathered in seminarlike classes to learn what would become the basic medieval curriculum: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and Latin literature. To us it would have seemed like a meager amount of learning, but Europe had been intellectually starved for so long that this must have seemed like a feast for the students. When not on a campaign or tour of the realm, Charlemagne would also participate, which generated some lively discussions. He eventually learned to read, but claimed that his hands were too callused from use of the sword to write, so all he did with a pen was sign his initials.

The enthusiasm of the school spilled over into the rest of the court. Sometimes Aachen was called a "Second Rome," and once Alcuin flattered the emperor by telling him, "If your zeal were imitated, perchance one might see arise in France a new Athens, far more glorious than the ancient--the Athens of Christ." Students gave themselves classical or Biblical names; Alcuin became "Horace", Charlemagne became "King David", and Eginhard chose for himself the name Bezalel, after the craftsman who built the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant for Moses. Times of socializing thus became an improbable spectacle where war-hardened nobles, pious clerics and notorious womanizers (the latter included Charlemagne(7) himself) engaged in contests of self-improvement, testing each other with riddles, witty remarks and scraps of ancient pagan poetry.

Because the Carolingian scholars were imitators rather than innovators, we must thank them for rescuing many classical works that might otherwise have been lost. The actual work of copying the manuscripts was very tedious; a trained scribe usually took three to four months on a single manuscript, much of it spent on the elegant decorations known as "illuminating." Some monasteries kept twelve or more monks working full time just on the task of copying, and the effort meant that by the ninth century there were some priestly "libraries" boasting a collection of a few hundred volumes. What this means to us is that no Roman work that survived long enough to be copied by Charlemagne's scholars was ever lost again. It is because of these dedicated copyists that the entire writings of Julius Caesar, Tacitus, Juvenal, Martial, and many other classical authors are available to us today.

After so many years of war and toil, Charlemagne spent more time at Aix-la-Chapelle, finding rest in this work of peaceful civilization. He embellished the capital with his own palace and a domed octagonal basilica, the latter magnificently adorned. He fetched from Italy clerics skilled in church music, which he recommended to the bishops of his empire. In the outskirts of Aix-la-Chapelle "he gave full scope," says Eginhard, "to his delight in riding and hunting. Baths of naturally tepid water gave him great pleasure. Being passionately fond of swimming, he became so dexterous that none could be compared with him. He invited not only his sons, but also his friends, the grandees of his court, and sometimes even the soldiers of his guard, to bathe with him, insomuch that there were often a hundred and more persons bathing at a time."

When age arrived, he continued his daily habits, but at the same time, was taken up with the thought of death, and prepared himself for it with stern severity. He drew up, modified, and completed his will several times over. Three years before his death he made out the distribution of his treasures, his money, his wardrobe, and all his furniture, in the presence of his friends and his officers; two thirds of it was divided into twenty-one portions, which were to be distributed among the twenty-one metropolitan churches of his empire. Those were put under seal immediately, while he kept for himself the third share to maintain his lifestyle. After his death, what was left of it would be subdivided into four portions, which would go to the metropolitan churches, his sons and daughters, the necessities of the poor, and to the servants of both sexes in the palace for their lifetime. As for the books which he had amassed, they would be sold at their proper value, with the proceeds thus raised going to help the poor.

He did not seem too sorry to leave this world. A terrible famine swept the empire in 809. He lost his second son, Pepin, whom he had made king of Italy, in 810. In 810 he marched against the Danes, who had refused to acknowledge his authority, but before he got to the frontier his trusty elephant Abu-al-Abbas died, and he called off the campaign. Another constant companion in wartime, his eldest son Charles, died in the following year. Finally he wore himself out haggling with the Byzantines until he got them to accept the passing of the title of emperor to his sole surviving son, Louis. He died in January of 814, at the age of 70 or 71; his ponderous corpse was reportedly buried sitting upright on a throne, in his chapel at Aachen.(8)

Charlemagne's empire, 814 A.D.

The Carolingian States

Charlemagne had planned to follow Frankish custom and divide the empire between his sons. But as noted above, only one son, Louis I (the Pious), outlived him. So the empire remained united while Louis was in charge (814-840). Louis tried to break with tradition and leave most of the empire to his eldest son, Lothar; as early as 817 Lothar had himself crowned regent of Italy by the pope, a move which made him co-emperor with Louis. Lothar's brothers each got a single province: Aquitaine for Pepin, Bavaria for Louis the German, and Alamannia (southwest Germany, later called Swabia) for Charles the Bald. As you might expect, the brothers wanted a bigger piece of the pie than this, and they revolted twice, in 830 and 833. In the second revolt the father's knights went over to the sons, and they briefly removed him from the throne, but later reinstated him to keep Lothar from getting too strong.

Another civil war broke out upon Louis I's death in 840. This time Charles the Bald and Louis the German (Pepin had died in 838) carried everything before them. At the Treaty of Verdun (843) the empire was divided three ways: Charles got France, Louis got Germany, while Lothar kept the Low Countries, Switzerland, Burgundy and Italy. Lothar died in 855, and his illogical central kingdom ("the bowling alley") was split between his three sons, Lothar II of Lorraine, Charles of Provence, and Louis II of Italy. Between treaties the kings fought frequently for more land and prestige, all of them jealously seeking to lord over as much as possible; meanwhile the real problems of their time went unattended. As they bickered, most of their political power and royal estates were usurped by counts and dukes who were just as greedy and irresponsible. This left Western Europe a tempting target for marauders like the Vikings.

By 870 Lothar of Lorraine and Charles of Provence were dead, so the three remaining kings divided up Lorraine and Provence between them. The result of this second partition was that the empire was split into portions roughly corresponding to the modern nations of France, Germany and Italy. This was a natural division in terms of both geography and people; the languages spoken by the inhabitants in each region can now be recognized as French, German and Italian.

Louis the German died in 876, and the East Frankish kingdom split between his sons: Bavaria for Carloman, Alamannia for Charles the Fat, and Franconia, Thuringia and Saxony for Louis III. But Charlemagne's descendants were now dying faster than they were growing up. Charles the Bald's successor, Louis the Stammerer (don't you love these nicknames?), only lasted on the throne for two years (877-879), and the two sons of Louis had reigns just as short. Carloman and Louis III didn't do any better, so the empire came together again under Charles the Fat in 884. Then in 888 Charles was forced by the Diet of Tribur to abdicate and the empire split up for good. While Arnulf of Carinthia, a son of Carloman, took charge over Germany, two barons fought for the crown of Italy, two other barons carved out little kingdoms for themselves in Burgundy and Provence, and one more, Odo of Paris, became king of France. In theory they all acknowledged Arnulf as superior, because he was the only remaining adult member of the Carolingian dynasty; in practice they were independent monarchs. Although Europeans would bandy about the title "Holy Roman Emperor" for nearly a thousand more years, what they meant was a powerless elected ruler over a confederation of German states, quite a different animal from what Charlemagne had set up and which now had ceased to exist.(9)

The Fury of the Northmen

Charlemagne's conquest of Saxony brought his frontier, and the frontier of civilization, to the base of the Danish peninsula. This gave the Franks new neighbors, the Scandinavians. No one thought much of this; Scandinavia was off the beaten path, poor, pagan, and likely to remain that way.(10)

Denmark at this time was bigger than it is today. The Danes had absorbed their neighbors to the south, the Angles, and lorded over the southern part of Sweden. A population of nearly half a million made them the most important of the Scandinavian peoples. North of the Danes lived the Norwegians or Norse. About 100,000 of them lived on the shores of the Vik, facing Denmark.(11) An equal number lived in settlements scattered along the Atlantic coast as far north as Trondheim.

The third group, the Swedes, originally lived near the Baltic around Lake Malar, with a tribe of Goths between them and the Danes. This was the parent tribe of the Goths who had colonized east Germany in the first century A.D., migrated to the Black Sea in the third and then played such an important part in bringing down the Western Roman Empire. Near the end of the sixth century the descendants of those Goths who stayed behind were conquered by the Swedes. The name Gotland (Goth-land) remains in use as a name for southern Sweden but the people were absorbed. This brought Swedish numbers up to a figure near the Danish one.

In Charlemagne's time Sweden and Denmark had their own kings, though usually the Danes were quarrelling over who the king was. The Norse had not yet reached the stage where they could think of themselves as a nation: if you asked a Norseman what his nationality was, he would think of his home fjord and say he was a Hordalander or a Trondheimer or whatever.

What made the Scandinavians appear on the stage of history with such destructive force? It now appears that the first factor was overpopulation; their homeland was so harsh that the figures quoted above were enough to fill up all land that was fit to live on. When the Goths moved out they left behind a thinly populated wilderness, dotted with crude villages that made a living through farming, fishing and a little trade. A series of unusually warm years just before 800 allowed these communities to grow larger than they normally would have. At the same time the climate bred a bold people with an urge to go adventuring. This desire to explore was increased by two customs commonly practiced by Scandinavian chiefs: polygamy and the leaving of one's entire inheritance to the eldest son. The result was a surplus of disinherited younger sons, who went forth to find new homes for themselves.

The most important reason why the Scandinavians came into their own is because in the eighth century they learned how to make something no one else had: a really efficient sailing ship. For thousands of years there had been simple square-sailed ships in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean that could sail with a tailwind. In most cases their captains sailed by day and kept the shore in sight so they could quickly find a place to drop anchor if the wind turned against them. Sailing ships of this type were not much use in the tricky winds of the Atlantic. For that reason the Scandinavian ships always used oarsmen to supplement the sails. Then the Norse figured out that if you build a mast so that a sail can rotate around it, you can tack into a crosswind and even into a headwind. By adding a sturdy keel to their ships they made them strong enough to stand up to Atlantic gales; it also gave the ships enough grip in the water to sail against the wind. By making the hulls twice as wide as they were high, they created a much more seaworthy structure, and one less likely to run aground in the shallows; one Irishman declared that Norse ships could sail in any place with water, even on wet grass!(12)

The first recognizable Viking raid took place in 789, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that the "first three ships of the Northmen from the land of robbers" came to England. Around 790 the Norse of Hordaland discovered the Shetland Islands and the nearby Orkneys. From there they made a series of voyages to the south. In 793 they plundered the monastery of Lindisfarne, the original headquarters of Christianity in northern England. The next year they returned and sacked the monastery at Jarrow. This time they met stiffer opposition so they made their next voyages down the west coast of England. Since sailing conditions were easier here (Ireland blocked off the worst of the Atlantic storms), they quickly explored the whole coastline from the Hebrides to Cornwall. In 799 they entered the Bay of Biscay. You can get an idea of how much better the new boats were by comparing these voyages to ones made previously. The cautious shuttle made by the Frisians and the Anglo-Saxons across the North Sea is quite outclassed by the bold Norse explorations.(13) And there was much more to come.

Norse stories of easy spoils to the west took a few years to reach Denmark. It was only in the 830s that the Danes began to join in. Then life immediately became very precarious for the people living near the English Channel. As the Danes and Norse learned the way up the rivers it became dangerous for people inland, too. People in churches began to pray regularly for deliverance from "the fury of the Northmen."

Despite these fervent prayers, nothing stayed the "Vikings" or altered their course. Under reckless and heroic leaders with ominous names like Eric Bloodax, Harald Bluetooth, and Ivar the Boneless, they ranged far and wide. Every major town in northwestern Europe--including London, Bordeaux, Paris, Rheims, Rouen, Aachen and Cologne--was sacked at least once. Between 853 and 903 they put Tours to the sword six times. And in one way the Vikings were worse than the barbarians who brought down Rome. Even Attila the Hun was awed enough by the pope to leave Church property alone, but the Vikings made churches and monasteries their favorite targets, because they (1) had lots of easily carried wealth in the form of gold and jewel-encrusted objects and (2) because unlike castles, they were not likely to have armed men protecting the premises.

Viking does not mean any Scandinavian but it does mean any Scandinavian raider. Their victims had difficulty telling the difference between Norse and Danes so the word does well for both. It was a different case with the Swedes, who did their raiding (and later trading) across the Baltic to the east, in areas where the Norse and Danes did not intrude (mainly Russia). For that reason the Swedes are usually called Varangians, though from contemporary accounts it seems that they were just as much the ferocious Viking type as their Norwegian and Danish kinsmen.(14)

The Vikings worshiped a pantheon of gods as warlike as themselves, like the great chief Odin and the storm-god Thor. But one of them voiced what he really believed when he said, "I believe in my own strength." Most feared of all were a special class of religious warriors called berserkers, who worked themselves into a frenzy just before a battle started (often by chewing on a shield) until they could die laughing, oblivious to both their own wounds and their leader's commands.

The aim of every Viking was to do something worthy of a saga--a long poem that celebrated deeds of unusual bravery or daring. An example of the stuff of which sagas were made was Bjorn Ironside's raid into the Mediterranean. This was a three-year-long running fight (859-862) that took in lands and seas which no Viking had seen before, like Spain, Morocco, the French Riviera and Italy. The high point of the adventure was the sacking of a city which Bjorn claimed was Rome. From other sources we know it was really Luna, a little town just north of Pisa, but one can forgive Bjorn for pitching his claims high: he had to live up to his father, the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar appears in so many sagas that he must have been both a great warrior and a really talented liar.(15)

From the victim's point of view the worst part of the Viking age was the second half of the ninth century. In the 850s the raiders stopped going home for the winter and began to camp instead at the mouths of the rivers that they used as highways. At this stage Viking forces were not very large; a typical fleet numbered a dozen boats with about 600 men altogether. But even so their victims had difficulty coping. The Vikings could cut up anything short of a full army with cavalry, and it took months to get a full army together--far too slow to catch any Vikings.

Each time a Viking raid succeeded, they were encouraged to come back again--and in greater numbers. Around 886 a reported armada of 700 ships and 40,000 men sailed up the Seine and laid siege to Paris--probably the greatest fleet Western Europe had seen so far. This caused some Frankish communities to set aside a large sum in the hope that they could pay the invaders to leave without wreaking slaughter and destruction. The Viking chieftains eagerly accepted the "protection money", and some even honored the bargain. However, bribes can easily be turned into blackmail; before long the Vikings were making regular visits to collect their payoff. In England the Anglo-Saxons paid this tribute as regularly as taxes; they called it Danegeld (Dane-money) and counseled each other: "Buy off the spear aimed at your breast if you do not wish to feel its point." Not long after that, the biggest Danish saga began, with the landing of the "Great Army" on the east coast of England (866). The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the Heptarchy crumbled away as it left its boats behind, marched up to Northumbria, and then south to eliminate Mercia.

It was Alfred, the king of Wessex (871-899), who saved the day for the Anglo-Saxons. Early in his reign he nearly succumbed to the Viking attacks, and according to legend, at one point he had to hide in the forests and marshes until he could regroup his shattered forces. While fighting the Danes Alfred also made the other surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms his vassals, and did it more permanently than Mercia ever had. By forming a united Anglo-Saxon front that succeeded in driving back the Danes, Alfred the Great persuaded the Danish leader, Guthrum, to agree to truce in 886 that established a fixed boundary between Wessex and Danish England. Alfred's peace died with him, but his treaty was a milestone in diplomacy; it meant that a Viking kingdom could be accepted as just one more belligerent member of the European community.

Many Danes settled in their half of England, which came to be known as the Danelaw, but leaving Wessex unconquered eventually cost them their freedom. By 900 the men of Wessex were on the offensive; by 954 they had conquered the Danelaw and the kings of Wessex became the kings of all England.(16) By then the Irish had likewise expelled the Norse and the Danes who had terrorized them for three generations.

On the continent conditions also turned against the freebooters in the tenth century. In 911 the French king, Charles the Simple, gave the Viking chief Rollo (also known as Rolf) the lower Seine valley on condition that he keep his fellow Vikings from attacking the kingdom. At that point it must have seemed that Charles had lived up to his nickname of "the Simple," since Rollo had not been a promising leader so far; just before Charles singled him out he had besieged the city of Chartres, only to run away for no apparent reason. It looks like Charles saw something in Rollo that others didn't, because the plan worked. Rollo's fief became the Duchy of Normandy, "land of the Northmen." Many Vikings settled there, gave up their roving ways, converted to Christianity, and learned the French of the natives, becoming the Normans who played a critical part in eleventh century politics.(17) Indeed, it was the settlements in the Danelaw, Normandy and Russia that brought the Viking attacks to an end. Now the landless sons of Scandinavia had finally found farms--or graves--abroad.


1. Carloman deserves no more than a footnote, since he lived only three years after his father. Charles is memorialized as one of the founding fathers of France, so remember that his family was from Austrasia originally, meaning that he was not French or even Frankish: he was German.

2. The territory ruled directly by the pope was called first the "Donation of Pepin," then the "Patrimony of St. Peter." After Charlemagne's empire broke up it was called the Papal State.

3. Charlemagne's rear guard was ambushed by some Basque freebooters in Roncesvalles pass, as it returned from a Spanish campaign in 778. Over the next few centuries, minstrels turned this disaster into an epic poem, The Song of Roland; the military expedition became a holy Crusade against the Paynim (pagans), and the identity of Roland's murderers switched to the Moslems.

4. The exceptions being the British Isles, the Breton peninsula, the Kingdom of Asturias in northwest Spain and the Lombard principality of Benevento in south Italy.

5. Afterwards Charlemagne stated that he would not have entered the church had he known what the pope was planning. Many people, both then and now, believed that he knew about the coronation anyway, since he was dressed properly for the occasion.

6. Most of Germany had been Christian for less than a century, so the lands east of the Rhine were managed by only two archbishops, Mainz and Salzburg. This made the archbishop of Mainz one of the most powerful men in the empire.

7. We believe eight of Charlemagne's sons and daughters were legitimate. He confessed that ten illegitimate children were his own, too.

8. Charlemagne was seen as a giant; we have on record that his height was seven times the length of his foot, but we don't know how big his foot was. 6' 1" or 6' 3" seems like a safe guess, when one remembers that people were shorter back then; the average knight was 5' 4".

9. After Odo of Paris a grandson of Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Simple (898-922), recovered the throne of France for the Carolingians, while Odo's descendants ran the affairs of the country. Thus for the next century we have a situation just like that under the Merovingians, where one family had the crown and another had the power. Likewise, Odo's family would eventually produce the Capetians, the next royal dynasty.

10. The Scandinavian ethnic groups lived entirely in the southern half of what we call Scandinavia. North Scandinavia was an empty Ice Age world. Its only inhabitants were a few thousand Lapps herding reindeer on the Atlantic and Arctic sides of the mountains and a few thousand Finns fishing the rivers on the Baltic side.

11. The Vik was the original name of the strait dividing Norway from Denmark, now called the Skagerrak. Any fjord or stream could also be called a vik, so the word Viking means something like "men of the waterways."

12. The typical Norse "dragon-ship" could carry nearly 100 men, but needed only 15 to sail it. We know a lot about how they were constructed because the Vikings did not always burn their ships in funeral pyres, as is commonly believed; some splendid vessels were buried with their captains, to be uncovered by modern archaeologists.

13. The Germanic tribes of the pre-Viking era used rowboats, each carrying about 30 men. These were all right for traveling from Frisia to England, but they weren't seaworthy enough to go out on the open sea, so their crews never discovered any new lands.

14. The high points of the Varangian saga are covered in Chapter 1 of my Russian history, so they won't be repeated here. Read Chapter 10 of my Middle Eastern history for a remarkable Viking raid on Azerbaijan.

15. Bjorn used a cruel trick to capture Luna. When the Vikings arrived they claimed that their leader was a Christian who had just died and asked permission to bury him in the local church. Once inside the church Bjorn leaped from his bier, and the men drew their concealed weapons and proceeded to loot the town, starting with the church.

16. The capital of the Danelaw was York, called Jorvik while the Danes were in charge of it.

17. A fifth-generation descendant of Rollo would become William the Conqueror.