Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians
“The Norsemen enslaved and murdered the people of Christendom, tore down churches, destroyed walls, and burned villages. The streets were strewn with the decaying corpses of clergy, nobles and other laity, women, children, and babies. There were no places where the dead did not lie. Distress and anguish were everywhere. In all directions one could see the destruction of the Christian people to the point of extinction.” Annals of St. Vaast
Such are the words of an unknown monk from the monastery of St. Vaast in the Kingdom of the Western Franks, in 884 A.D.
At the beginning of the 9th century, a northern wind blew in the first invaders from Scandinavia to the islands of Northumbria in Britain, and to the shores under the control of Charlemagne.
But by the last quarter of the century, these Norsemen, known to us as Vikings, had overrun nearly every kingdom in northern Europe, settled down all over England, and were a permanent threat to all living in what is now France.
In the process, they changed the geographical boundaries and destroyed the Carolingian dynasty that had been in power for over 100 years.
Vikings have always been a popular topic of history, but probably never as as popular as they are now, thanks to the History Channel, Vikings TV show. The greatest value of such entertainment is that it leads people to ask interesting questions.
Who were the Vikings?
- Were they illiterate, mindless barbarians bent on the destruction of Christendom?
- Swashbuckling, Ragnar-Columbuses living wholely unaware of the larger world around them? “There’s nothing on the other side of the North Sea, Ragnar! Everyone knows that!”
- Disorganized, violent heathens, thrashing out at the civilized, Christian Europe, like undisciplined teenagers?
- Just plain evil? Agents of karma from hell, allowed to punish the wayward children of a jealous god?
Why did they suddenly decide to invade their European neighbors?
- Why were they so successful?
- How come the Carolingians couldn’t kick them out?
- How many of them were there?
- Did women come with them? Short answer: yes.
What was the world like in the 9th century?
- A sparsely populated Europe after the collapse of Rome?
- Was life really dirty, nasty, brutish and short?
- Were people in the early middle ages ignorant and stupid?
- Would they be alien to us? Was human nature different then?
- What happened to the descendants of Charlemagne? How could they fall so far?
- Was war really like in the movies? Did they just run at each other all willie-nillie like in Braveheart?
To answer those questions, one must return to the original sources. And The Annals of St. Vaast, are an excellent source for just that purpose.
Set in the last quarter of the 9th century, they cover the height of Viking invasions on the continent of Europe, specifically in the area we now call France. Then, of course, it was simply The Kingdom of the West Franks.
The annals are a great companion for anyone interested in the perspective of the Christian world in this turbulent century.
They work well with the other primary sources from the period, and help to round them out.
The Annals of St. Bertin cover the first three quarters of the century, up to around 877, but leaves a gap just when things really heated up under the Viking onslaught.
The Annals of Fulda are focused mainly on events in the eastern Kingdom of the Franks, roughly what we know as Germany. It covers the entire century, but leaves out much information about what was happening in the West.
The Bellum Parisciae Urbis, or Siege of Paris by the monk, Abbo, covers in some great detail the events of 885 to 887 and the major siege of that city by the Vikings. But the Annals of St. Vaast are the best source to put the former into context.
In Vaast we get to see the lead up to the great siege, and much more about the campaign on the way to Paris, as well as the aftermath of that campaign, which lead to the dissolution of the Carolingian dynasty.
If you’re looking for a companion source to the others, or one source to dive into the late 9th century, the Annals of St. Vaast are hard to beat.