Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Coming of the Northmen

In the last chapter we saw the dim beginnings of France, Italy, and Germany. But hundreds of years were to pass before these kingdoms really became settled. The period which followed the Treaty of Verdun was one of constant turmoil and bloodshed, for the kings were often feeble, sometimes bad, and their subjects were turbulent and rebellious. Even a strong king had endless difficulties to face.

First, there was the lack of roads. One of the first things the Romans did in a conquered country was to build roads. They knew that roads were great conquerors and great civilizers. But the barbarians who split up the Roman Empire did not know the value of roads, so the wonderful Roman highways were allowed to fall into disrepair. In Saxony, which the Romans had never conquered, there were no roads at all. The difficulties, therefore, of travelling from one part of the kingdom to another were immense, the transport of an army extremely difficult. Without roads, too, commerce languished.

Secondly, the king was almost always poor, for the system of taxation was very imperfect. Being unable quickly to travel all over the kingdom himself, the king was obliged to depute much of his authority to dukes and counts. Having little money, he paid them for their services in land, and their possessions often became so great that they were really more powerful than the king himself, and rebelled against his authority. So civil wars were constant.

Besides these and other internal disturbances, there were frequent attacks from without to be repelled, and these alone were enough to prevent Europe from settling into peace.

Soon after the death of Charlemagne the Saracens seized the island of Sicily, overran a great part of the south of the Italian Peninsula, and even threatened Rome itself. Avars and Hungarians from the wilds of Asia swept over Germany and northern Italy, and reached even to the borders of France, and at length settled in the land which is now called Hungary. And lastly, there came the Northmen. They were the last of the German tribes to attack the civilization of Europe, and they left more impression on it than almost any other, although they themselves became absorbed in the peoples they conquered.

The Home of the Northmen

Of their early history we know little or nothing. For while in southern and central Europe new kingdoms were being hammered out of the old Roman Empire, Europe beyond the Baltic was a region unknown. Until the end of the eighth century we know almost nothing of Scandinavia. Nearly all the Teutonic tribes, it is true, who took possession of the Empire came, or had traditions of having come, from the far north. They came from beyond the sluggish sea where dwelt a mighty people well skilled in the building of boats; they came "from the edge of the world." But little was known of this far-distant country.

Those of you who have read the "Germania" of Tacitus may remember how he speaks of these northern peoples and their land. "They live on islands in the sea," he says. "Their strength lies not in military forces only, but also in their ships. . . . Beyond the islands there is another sea which is sluggish, and nearly always still. It is believed to encircle the earth, for here the light of the setting sun lasts until the sun rises again, and the light is bright enough to make pale the stars. Moreover, it is said that you can hear the sea hiss as the sun rises out of it and see the god's face, and the halo about his head. This is the end of the world, it is said, and it may well be so."

The Northmen as Raiders

Hundreds of years passed, and people knew little more about this strange northern country than they did in the time of Tacitus. At length, however, towards the end of the eighth century, driven by poverty and the necessity of finding new homes, or merely by the love of adventure, the heathen Northmen began to sail forth from their bays and fiords, and attack the Christian kingdoms of Europe. They came from what are now Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, but in those days men called them all indiscriminately, Danes, Northmen, Vikings, or men of the bays and fiords. The English chronicles generally call them Danes, the French chronicles generally call them Northmen. But, by whatever name they were known, they made themselves for a hundred years the terror of seaboard Europe.

For the attacks of the Northmen differed from those of any other barbarian people in that they came from the sea, and not from the land. They sailed in long, narrow vessels, capable of holding fifty or sixty men. Bow and stern were alike, so that the ship could be steered either way, and they were decorated with the head of a swan or dragon, or some other animal. But the dragon was the favourite. Rowers sat along the sides of the vessels, and there was also one large sail.

Used as we are now to great sea-going monsters, the Viking ships seem the merest cockle-shells, and we marvel how men could venture forth upon the stormy North Sea in such frail craft. But venture forth they did, even upon the pathless ocean, and there seems now little doubt that five hundred years before Columbus the hardy Norsemen had landed upon the shores of North America.

These dragon-ships became the pest of the seas and a terror to all seaboard dwellers. It was a new terror, too. For hitherto there had been peace upon the seas. Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Goths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, and all the other lesser tribes which had swept over Europe in turn, had made their attacks by land. Except for Saracen or Vandal pirates, the seas had still remained the peaceful routes of trade. Now that was changed. War and bloodshed came from the sea, just when it seemed as if the beginnings of peace might dawn on land.

The sea was the Northman's element. Yet, born sailor although he was, he seemed equally at home on land, where he proved himself a skilful, cunning, and absolutely cold-blooded fighter. They were blue-eyed, fair-haired, tall, and sinewy men. They wore their hair in long plaits, and dressed in gay colours, scarlet being much loved by them. They wore coats of mail and great horned helmets, and were armed with bow and arrows, hatchet, spear, and sword.

They loved war and the ways of war and the weapons of war. Their songs were all of war and the mighty blows of heroes, and in these songs they gave poetic names to their ships and weapons. But more than any other weapon they loved their swords, and to them they gave the most poetic names, such as "the lightning of war," "the thorn of shields," "the helmet biter." The hilts and scabbards of these swords were often beautifully inlaid with gold and studded with jewels, and were handed on from hero to hero, and prized as no other gift was prized.

Armed, then, at all points, these joyous, blood-thirsty pirates set forth in their dragon-ships. Along the sides they hung their gaily painted shields, ringed and bossed with metal, and leaning upon their spears, they stood in the prow, while the short oars flashed, and the wind sang through the sail. When storm winds blew and others sought the shelter of the shore, the dragon-ship sped forth, spurning as if in joy the foaming waves. Then, as day dawned, some sleeping village would hear the Viking battle-cry. Then bright swords gleamed, and sparing neither man nor woman, these Northmen plundered at will. At length, their fury and their greed sated, they mounted into their ship once more and sped away as swiftly as they had come, leaving behind them only smoking, blood-stained ruins where, but a few hours before, peaceful homes had stood.

The first of these attacks of which we have any record was upon England, towards the end of the eighth century. But soon England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy all knew and dreaded the terrible Northmen. Their coasts were dotted with ruins, the bones of the dead lay bleaching on a thousand battlefields, and a new petition was added to men's prayers, "From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord deliver us."