The Viking Age and Viking people in general have been capturing people’s imagination for centuries. Just look at the popularity of The History Channel’s hit series “Vikings”or the numerous ads that pop up online for Viking-related fantasy games. But the Vikings definitely weren’t very popular in their own time. To be fair, sacking and raiding churches and monasteries didn’t generally grant you a good reputation in early medieval Christian Europe. In this post I want to take a look at how one chronicler in particular, Richer of Rheims, described the Vikings in his Historiarum libri IIII.
The Viking Age
Between roughly 800 – 1000 C.E. the Vikings traveled from their homeland Scandinavia (specifically Denmark, Norway and Sweden) to Russia and to the northern and western coasts of Europe to conduct raids and plunder churches and villages. They didn’t just plunder though, they also traded, settled, worked crafts and farmed. Famous example were the settled Vikings who lived in the region that became known as ‘Normandy’, a part of today’s modern France and the ‘Danes’ who settled in England. It was, however, mostly their disruptive influence that was written down and passed along through time, starting with the raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne in 793.
“Contemporary churchmen unanimously regarded the Vikings as God’s instrument: they were scourge, predicted in the Bible, and the only remedy against them was to strengthen piety and improve observance of the rules of Christian life.” – Niels Lund
Although we could say that the Viking raids came as a surprise to the European people, historian Niels Lund pointed out that that was only true in the sense that they were barbarians from the North who claimed a share in the game of tribute-taking and plundering from close neighbors. The game, however, was definitely not new. Lund points out that the Europeans might have been most upset with the fact that the Vikings were successful at playing this game and managed to reverse the flow of money. Which honestly still makes me laugh.
While political leaders (such as Charlemange) reacted practically and started building fortresses and trying to make deals, the reaction of the church is the most prevalent in primary source material. The biggest reason for this is that the church was the institution that traditionally was responsible for writing down and chronicling recent history. One of those churchmen who wrote about the Vikings, was Richer of Reims.
Richer of Reims and his Historiarum libri IIII
Between 991 and 998, the monk Richer wrote a big history of Francia in four books, called the Historiarum libri IIII. As one of the few narrative sources of that time that we can still consult today, the Historiarum is pretty invaluable. Even though it is by no means an objective source (to the modern eye, Richer seemed to have been more concerned with poetic license than with telling an accurate story), it still holds a number of clues about early Frankish culture, and about tumultuous political times and how they were received.
“It ranks with the work of Flodoard as one of the most valuable and important narrative sources for the study of early medieval France and, among select others, for the study of the tenth century.” – Jason Glenn
The Historiarum chronicles the recent history of Francia from 888 to 998, which means that he based the first two books of his history on another source, namely the annals of the monk Flodoard of Reims. And this is where it gets interesting, because where Flodoards annals are very dry and concisely record what has happened on a certain day in a certain year (anything from raids to the weather), Richer used those annals to craft his own story around Flodoards facts. He added motivation and causality to the characters and interpreted what happened to make it into an enjoyable narrative, with its own agenda.
“Wilelmus dux piratarum”
How did Richer see the Vikings, though? The Viking raids on Francia mostly happened before Richer’s time, which means we could make the assumption that his information about Vikings was mostly based on oral traditions and sources such as Flodoards annals. Richer was a monk and therefore looked at the world through ‘Christian goggles,’ as becomes very clear in his writing.
Richers view of the Vikings in general isn’t a positive one, as you might have guessed. He highlights the destruction and fear the Vikings caused and follows a tradition in which he describes cruelty, carnage and violence as intrinsic to their personality. He uses words such as Nortmannis (Northmen), piratae (pirates), barbaros (barbarians), tiranni (tyrants) and gentiles (heathens) and saw them as enemies of Christianity. Here’s an example of how he writes about them:
“He marched to the stronghold, and by laying siege to it, broke through the rampart that encircled it, whereupon the new recruits climbed over the inner wall and overran the enemy. Once they had taken control of the stronghold, they slaughtered all the men, but spared the women, leaving them unmolested.” – Richerus Remensis (translation by Justin Lake)
Richer had literary ambitions, and especially looked up to the works of classical writers such as Sallust. To transform Flodoards annals into a captivating and coherent narrative, he used a few narrative techniques to act on these ambitions. The first of those techniques is othering. By explicitly describing the Vikings as alien and different, he could point out how barbaric they were as opposed to the cultured and Christian Frankisch people. Moreover, Richer used oratory techniques inspired by the works of Cicero and Sallust to put a clear moral judgment in his work and dramatize his narrative. This lent his story historical credibility to contemporary readers. Besides othering and reasoning, Richer tampered with numbers. He presented victories for certain Kings as more glorious by claiming the battle was bigger than recorded in Flodoards annals (I see some parallels with Donald Trump here).
Even though Richer clearly took the side of the Frankish, Christian kings, there was one particular Viking leader that he did show sympathy for: William Longsword. He highlighted William’s assimilation into Frankish society and talked about him with a certain respect. Furthermore, William was presented as the most loyal subject of king Louis IV, even though we know from other historical sources that it was mostly an opportunistic relationship for both of them.
But why did he present the Vikings this way? Since Richer wrote during the feudal revolution and the Frankish civil war, there’s something to say for the traditional way in which he described the Vikings in general, and the more favorable way in which he described William Longsword, a strong Viking leader. Richers Vikings were used to glorify or judge Frankish lords and kings and to present a common ‘other’ against which Frankish people could unite themselves in divisive and tumultuous political and religious times. Ring any bells about Trump’s Muslim ban?
Sources and further reading:
(This post was adapted from my undergrad thesis, which i wrote in 2013-2014. Yeah, I’m getting old.)
Allies of God or Man? The Viking Expansion in a European Perspective (Lund, 1989)
Politics and History in the Tenth Century: The work and World of Richer of Reims (Glenn, 2004)
Richer of Saint-Remi: The Methods and Mentality of a Tenth Century Historian (Lake, 2013)
History of the Vikings
World History International Project: Vikings
Encyclopaedia Britannica: Viking (people)