The Normans (adapted from the name "Northmen" or "Norsemen") were Scandinavian invaders (especially Danish Vikings) who began to occupy the northern area of France now known as Normandy in the latter half of the 9th century. Under the leadership of Hrolf Ganger, who adopted the French name Rollo, they swore allegiance to the king of France (Charles the Simple) and received the small and lower Seine area from him in 911 which they later expanded to become the Duchy of Normandy.
The Norman people adopted Christianity and the Gallo-Romance language and created a new cultural identity separate from that of their Scandinavian forebears and French neighbours. Norman culture, like that of many other migrant communities, was particularly enterprising and adaptable. For a time, it led them to occupy widely dispersed territories throughout Europe.
The original Normans were quite similar to (but should not be confused with) other Viking groups, such as the Vikings known as Danes in England and the Vikings known as Varangians in Russia.
Geoffrey Malaterra characterized the Normans as
- "specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skilful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war."
That quick adaptability Geoffrey mentions expressed itself in the shrewd Norman willingness to take on local men of talent, to marry the high-born local women; confidently illiterate Norman masters used the literate clerks of the church for their own purpose. Their success at assimilating was so thorough, few modern traces remain, whether in Palermo or Kiev.
Normans and Normandy
Geographically, Normandy was approximately the same region as the old church province of Rouen. It had no natural frontiers and was previously merely an administrative unit. Its population was mostly Gallo-Roman with a small Frankish/Germanic admixture, plus Viking settlers, who had begun arriving in the 880s, and who were divided between a small colony in Upper (or eastern) Normandy and a larger one in Lower (or western) Normandy.
In the course of the 10th century the initial destructive incursions of Norse war bands into the rivers of Gaul evolved into more permanent encampments that included women and chattel. The pagan culture was driven underground by the Christian faith and Gallo-Romance language of the local people. With the zeal of new converts they set forth in the 11th century from their solid base in Normandy. Characteristically it was younger sons, like William the Bastard who were largely dispossessed at home, that headed the adventurous raiding parties.
In Normandy they adopted the growing feudal doctrines of France, and worked them, both in Normandy and in England, into a logical system.
The Norman warrior class was new and different from the old French aristocracy, many of whom could trace their families back to Carolingian times, while the Normans could seldom cite ancestors before the beginning of the 11th century. Most knights remained poor and land-hungry; by 1066, Normandy had been exporting fighting horsemen for more than a generation. Knighthood at this time held little social status, and simply indicated that a man was a professional warrior.
The Norman language forged by the adoption of the indigenous oïl language by a Norse-speaking ruling class developed into the regional language which survives today.
The Normans in England
Main articles: Norman Conquest; Anglo-Normans
In 1066, the most famous Norman leader, Duke William II of Normandy, conquered England. The invading Normans and their descendants replaced the Anglo-Saxons as the ruling class of England. After an initial period of resentment and rebellion, the two populations largely intermarried and merged, combining languages and traditions. Normans began to identify themselves as Anglo-Norman; indeed, the Anglo-Norman language was considerably distinct from the "Parisian French ", which was the subject of some humour by Geoffrey Chaucer. Eventually, even this distinction largely disappeared in the course of the Hundred Years war, with the Anglo-Norman aristocracy increasingly identifying themselves as English, and the Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon languages merging to form Middle English.
The Normans in Scotland
One of the claimants of the English throne opposing William the Conqueror, Edgar Atheling, eventually fled to Scotland. King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland married Edgar's sister Margaret, and came into opposition to William who had already disputed Scotland's southern borders. William invaded Scotland in 1072, riding as far as the Firth of Tay where he met up with his fleet of ships. Malcolm submitted, paid homage to William, and surrendered his son Duncan as a hostage, beginning a series of arguments as to whether the Scottish Crown owed allegiance to the English King.
Normans came into Scotland, building castles and founding noble families who would provide some future kings such as Robert the Bruce as well as founding some of the Scottish clans in the Highlands. The Norman feudal system was applied to the Scottish Lowlands, but the influence on Scots language was limited.
See also History of Scotland
The Normans in Ireland
The Normans had a profound effect on Irish culture, history and ethnicity. While initially the Normans in the 12th century kept themselves as a distinct culture and ethnicity, they were quickly subsumed into Ireland, and it is often said that they became more Irish than the Irish themselves. The Normans settled mostly in an area to the east of Ireland, later known as the Pale, and also built many fine castles and settlements, including Trim Castle and Dublin Castle. Both cultures intermixed, borrowing from each other's language, culture and outlook.
See also: Castles in the Republic of Ireland
The Normans in Italy, Sicily, and the Mediterranean
Opportunistic bands of Normans successfully established a foothold far to the south of Normandy. Groups settled at Aversa and Capua, others [?] conquered Apulia and Calabria.
From these bases, more organised principalities were eventually able to capture Sicily and Malta from the Saracens. Areas ruled by Normans eventually included Abruzzi, Apulia, Calabria, Campania, and Naples in Italy, Palermo and Sicily, and Thessaloníki in Greece.
Normans were to become very influential in the affairs of Italy (especially Southern Italy). As a prime example, Robert Guiscard, a Norman leader, was the only support to be found for Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) in his conflict with Emperor Henry II. This support was to lead to a fight between the Normans and the Romans in which a large part of Rome was burned down or sacked.
- Brown, Elizabeth (see Feudalism)
- Maitland, F.W., Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England (feudal Saxons)
- Muhlbergher, Stephen, Medieval England (Saxon social demotions)
- Reynolds, Susan (see Feudalism)
- Robertson, A.J., ed. and trans. Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I. New York: AMS Press, 1974. (Mudrum fine)
European Commission presentation of The Normans Norman Heritage, 10th-12th century.