Barbarian and Noble - Marion Lansing

Vikings from the North

When Emperor Charlemagne was an old man, nearing the end of his life, he came, so the story goes, to the Frankish seaport town of Narbonne. As he sat at meal in the hall, he looked out and saw white sails on the horizon. The townspeople watched the ships as they came nearer, and commented on their strange appearance. Some thought that they were Jewish merchants, some that they hailed from African ports, and others that they came from Britain. But the wise king, knowing from the shape and swiftness of the vessels what sort of crews they carried, said to those about him, "These ships bear no merchandise, but cruel foes."

The Franks marveled at his words and prepared to defend their city should the strangers attack it. But there was no need. The Northmen, hearing that there stood the man whom they were wont to call Charles the Great, were afraid lest all their fleet should be taken in the port and broken to pieces. Their flight was so rapid that they "soon withdrew themselves not only from the swords but even from the eyes of those who wished to take them." The Franks rejoiced at their speedy departure, congratulating themselves that the danger was so soon overpast. But the wise Charles, seized by a deep foreboding, rose from his seat at the table and looked out of the window toward the east. Long he remained in that position, and those who watched him saw tears in his eyes. No one ventured to question the venerable emperor, but turning to his followers he said: "Know ye why I weep? Truly I fear not that these will injure me. But I am deeply grieved that in my lifetime they should have been so near landing on these shores, and I am overwhelmed with sorrow as I look forward and see what woes they will bring upon my posterity and their people."

Thus the great emperor, who had reorganized the whole Christian world and driven back barbarians without number, saw in his old age the beginning of the great Viking invasions, which were to change the face of northern Europe and the British Isles.

Men of the south had always since the days of the Romans looked upon the far north as a region of mystery. Drusus had won great fame by being the first Roman captain who had ventured to set sail on that dread Northern Ocean, of which a Roman historian had written: "Beyond Germania lies the Northern Ocean, and in it lies an island rich in arms and ships and men. Beyond that is another sea, which we may believe girdles and encloses the whole world. For here the light of the setting sun lingers on till sunrise, bright enough to dim the light of the stars. More than that, it is asserted that the sound of his rising is to be heard, and the forms of the gods, and the glory round his head may be seen. Only thus far, and here rumor seems truth, does the world extend."

What happened in these far northern regions the men of heathendom did not venture to say. Perhaps the souls of the dead dwelt there, and these boatmen who appeared from time to time rowed the souls of those who were departing this life across to the better land of the sunrise and the sunset whence none might return. It was all mystery to the superstitious Teuton, and those who came forth from the north were therefore invested with a strange terror.

The dragon ships which appeared in their peaceful harbors did not make the men of Christendom less fearful. On the curved prow of every Viking ship was the head of a dragon or worm or other fantastic creature, and in the vessel were tall, blue-eyed barbarians with terrible two-handed axes, which they wielded with fearful force and dexterity. Swiftly and silently a fleet of such vessels would enter a French port, or sail up the mouth of a wide river, and proceed inland, stopping at every rich farm to seize produce, plundering the cities for treasure, attacking the merchantmen which lay along the wharves; and then, before a force could be summoned to beat them off, they would be gone, and none knew whether it would be a year or a month or a generation before they would come again. Only, as the ninth century went on, it became certain that they would come oftener and oftener, till the forebodings of Charlemagne were realized and the terrified and helpless people inserted in the ritual of their church a new petition, "From the Northmen's fury, O Lord, deliver us."

Vikings in Paris

There came an hour when the Franks believed that no human power could have saved them, and gave thanks that their prayer had been answered. The Northmen, or Vikings as they were called, for the word "Viking" had come to mean sea robber, made their way up the Seine River to Rouen. Then, having taken that city and made their progress thus far unchecked, they sailed farther up the river into this inland realm, with its walled cities and tilled fields, which was as strange to these foreigners from the bleak Northland as their mountain islands would have been to the Franks. On and on they sailed, a fleet of one hundred and twenty dragon ships, till for the first time Vikings and Viking boats lay under the walls of Paris. That was as strange an hour in history as that day, more than four hundred years before, when Alaric and his barbarians stood before the city of Rome; and not the least strange part of it was that in the great family of races these Northmen and the Goths of that former day were kindred peoples.

Ragnar, the Viking leader, stood at the prow of the foremost ship and gazed with wonder and fierce longing at the turrets and towers of the fair Frankish city. Then he landed, and his men after him,—the crews of one hundred and twenty ships,—and rushed through the gates. They took the people of Paris wholly unawares, for no one had dreamed that the northern pirates would ever come so far inland. Up and down the streets the wild bands of Northmen went, slaying those who came in their way, till the people fled in terror to their homes, leaving their city in the hands of the barbarians.

For a few hours the Vikings pursued their work of destruction, unchecked save by groups of brave men who withstood them here and there in the city. They robbed the palaces and public buildings of their treasures, and set fire to each before they left it. They had no respect even for the churches, but entered them and tore down pillars of marble and precious stone and stripped the altars of their gold and silver vessels. But while the marauders were in the church of St. Germain a thick fog fell upon the city. To the religious Parisians it seemed that "God blinded the heathen by the darkness of their own wickedness," and in the Viking accounts of this "Raid of Ragnar" we read that on this voyage the ships went too far inland and "came into a strange region of mists and enchantments."

The Vikings came out from their plundering to find the face of Paris changed. A thick gray mist shut everything from their view. Before they had gone a dozen steps, the church from which they had come was hidden, from them. They could not tell which way the street turned, but blundered about in the narrow ways. In their haste for treasure and slaughter none had noticed carefully where they were going, and now a cry of panic arose in the gloom when they realized that they did not know which way the ships lay. They lost each other, and many were killed in the fights in the darkness when no one could tell which was Frank and which was Northman. Those who found their way back to the ships waited as long as they dared for the others, but at last terror seized them lest they should never be able to escape to the broad ocean. In a panic they drew up their anchors, and setting their black sails and pulling on their oars besides, they departed with all haste down the river Seine.

When they came into their own waters, the Vikings had thought they could shake off forever the spell of that evil day in Paris. But they found, so the story goes, that the enchantment followed them. The fog had been a sickness breeding mist, one of those warm mists, blown up from the river lowlands, which were more terrible than the sword to the mountain dwellers of the north. The sickness pursued them to their own land, and there many died; until the heart of Ragnar was smitten with fear, and he went to the king and confessed to him that he had robbed the churches and had brought back many Christian prisoners, and that he feared the God of the Christians was sending this sickness as a punishment. The king hearkened unto Ragnar's word and returned all the Christian prisoners to the Franks, and with them a wondrous porphyry pillar (which Ragnar had wrenched from the church of St. Germain, where the fog fell upon him) and a host of silver vessels. "When this offering had been made," the legend reads, "the God of the Franks was satisfied, and our men recovered of their sickness."