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Summary Article: Normans
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Introduction In 911 Charles III, king of the Franks, and known as ‘The Simple’ because he was reluctant to deceive anyone, gave Rollo, leader of a group of Danish adventurers, the newly-created Duchy of Normandy (‘the land of the north men’). He hoped that these Viking poachers would turn gamekeepers and guard the strategic NW approach to the Île de France against other adventurers. Rollo and his men were the first Normans. However, the Normans who conquered England in 1066, and whose activities in the Mediterranean culminated in the creation of the kingdom of Sicily in 1130, do not conform to the popular image of the marauding Viking, except perhaps in their energy and ruthlessness. Indeed, the Normans at the time of the Bayeux tapestry would have been indistinguishable from their French counterparts, while William the Conqueror and Robert Guiscard spoke Old French, not Old Norse. Equally, in S Italy the Normans soon adopted Mediterranean ways, within two generations taking inspiration from Greek or Arabic traditions rather than those of their ancient homeland. So it is doubtful if we should treat 11th- and 12th-century Normandy, England and its Celtic territories, and southern Italy as parts of the same ‘Norman’ cultural and political sphere.

The merging of the French and Normans Rollo and his band of followers did not make Normandy politically or culturally ‘Scandinavian’: the major change they made to the ethnic composition of Normandy was to replace the Frankish elite. Normans everywhere were keen to attract adventurers of any nationality to their service, in the process further diluting their northern blood. By the 11th century, the French and Norman races had virtually merged into one. The Normans' propaganda may be partly responsible for our habit of seeing them as different from the French. After distancing themselves from the pagan Vikings during the 11th century, Norman writers began to emphasize their links with their Scandinavian forebears in the 12th century, as if to create a separate identity from the French, from whom they were in most respects indistinguishable. Second- and third-generation Normans may have felt a nagging inferiority to their French neighbours, but by the 11th century the cultural gap between Scandinavians and other west Europeans was not great. After all, one of the most successful rulers of late Saxon England was the Dane King Cnut, while some of the greatest vernacular literature of medieval Europe was written in 11th- and 12th-century Iceland.

Norman government One distinctive feature of 11th- and 12th-century Normandy was the quality of its government. Its dukes presided over one of the strongest and most centralized administrative systems in continental Europe. The native Frankish nobility had been replaced by rootless adventurers, but when the Normans were surrounded by hostile natives, they learnt the habit of obedience to their duke to avoid being overwhelmed. William the Conqueror and his followers (many of whom were not Normans at all) found themselves in similar circumstances in 1066. In contrast to the Normandy of the 10th century, England had a more efficient and centralized, better-funded (through national taxation – the geld) system of government than any other country in W Europe. It also had a richer and deeper-rooted culture than that of the Normans. Perhaps the misconception that the Normans brought superior civilization to Saxon England is another victory for Norman propaganda.

Historical debate about the Normans The debate over the extent to which the Normans introduced, rather than adapted, existing features of Saxon England began in the last quarter of the 19th century, when the historian J H Round argued that there had been a ‘Norman revolution’ which marked a decisive break from ‘backward’ Saxon culture and dragged the English into the High Middle Ages. This was set against Edward Freeman's gradualist, evolutionary model stressing the elements of continuity after 1066. The argument centres around feudalism and the extent to which this is purely a Norman introduction.

Conclusion Since the 1950s the general historical consensus has shifted towards the evolutionary view of change in 11th-century England. While not denying the Normans' significant impact, many now see them as a catalyst for changes already in hand. Perhaps the debate tells us as much about historians' perceptions as it does about medieval history.

articles

Frank

Normandy

Norman

Scandinavia

Viking

Rollo

Saxon

Charles (III) the Simple

France

Cnut

Norman Conquest

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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