Sun Ra - Column for 11/4

Vikings and Saracens and Magyars, oh my!

So, it's the late 700s. AD that is, the years of God. Known to posterity as the middle of the Dark Ages. And, looking back, the last few hundred years have been pretty rough. In 378, the Roman army was crushed by the Goths at Adrianople. Constantinople and the East were fairly well off, had big strong walls, and survived. The West, well, it got sacked. End of the original Roman Empire.

Now, if your local area wasn't burned out or looted to penury by the waves of invading Germanic barbarians, you probably managed to hang in there. The Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Lombards, Burgundians, Angles, Franks... all of them, luckily, were not hell-bent on destruction, like the Huns were. Unlike the Huns, though, the Germanic tribes didn't leave when they were done. See, what they wanted was food. So, often as not, they'd simply set up house next to you, maybe take some of your land, maybe take some land that no one was using. It's not like you (the Romanicized locals) could stop them.

See, thats the problem with civilization. Most Romans, farmers or horse breeders or accountants or whatever, didn't know how to fight. And the army has been destroyed, and the much smaller army that got formed to replace it is off in the East protecting those parts. So you, the former Roman citizen living in Gaul or Hispania or Brittania, you basically have to grin and take whatever the local German chief gives you. Because these German types, they do know how to fight. All of them (at least, all the men). So when they want something, they get it.

But as I said, mostly they just want to feed their people. So after the initial looting and pillaging, they settle down and tend to just live and let live. In fact, with them around, you are better off than before, because in the course of protecting themselves, they protect you, too. It's not the Roman army, but it's a whole lot better than nothing. And by and large they're willing to let you live the way you always have. You should be grateful, right?

Well, no. Because by now, in the 400s and 500s, that shiny new creed called Christianity has splintered into all sorts of interpretations. And, as luck would have it, these Germans happen to believe in the interpretation promulgated by one Arianus. An interpretation you, and your Roman - which is to say Catholic - friends happen to see as a particularly heinous heresy.

Yes, your new neighbors are heretics of the blackest sort.

So you shun them. Sure, they have the swords, they make the rules, but you go out of your way to not help them. So, in Spain and Northern Africa and Italy, when the Empire comes back, a hundred years later (once it has its wind back), you cheer as they slay these Vandal or Visigoth or Ostrogoth heretics and take over again. Back into the arms of the true church! The Empire is back in the West!

Well, for a little while. Because the Empire really can't afford to garrison those areas, and guess what? They just killed off the people who could. All those Germanic warriors, gone. So when the Arabs come sweeping through at the start of the 700s, why, they wash right through the feeble defenses the Empire was able to put there, and conquer their way all the way up into France.

Where they are stopped. And the people who stop them are a group of those Germanic barbarians, the Franks. But the Franks are Germanic barbarians with a difference. Alone among the Germanic sorts, the Franks are Catholic.

So the Franks were the people all the Romanized inhabitants begged to come and save them from their Arian overlords, and were the people those same Romanized inhabitants did their best to aid. Quick enough, the Franks are the strongest by far of the new, Germanic inhabitants. Thus in 732, the Arabs are met and crushed by a Frankish army under Charles Martel ("Martel" meaning "the Hammer", which gives you an indication of how tough the guy was) at Poitiers. France, at least, is saved for the Christians.

And that's the end of the first half of the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne, who becomes king of the Franks in 768, has the full support of the Catholic church, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, all these Catholic subjects are now very happy to support him and his armies. He founds a court at Aachen that preserves and copies all manner of endangered literature. Bibles are made for even the smallest and most remote diocese. Charlemagne becomes famous not only for kicking ass (on all those Germanic tribes who aren't Catholic), but for saving the Western soul. So having the support of the Christians is good. On the other hand, he has to keep doing things for them. It gets problematic.

For instance. In 800, the Pope is run out of Rome by angry mobs, incited by the nephew of the previous Pope. (Not a terribly uncommon occurance, sadly. Rome has become a mob-rule sort of place.) So the Pope writes to his good buddy Charlemagne to come and save him, and put him back on his papal throne.

Charlemagne, who's had to do this sort of thing before, undoubtedly sighed in annoyance. The Frisians were giving him trouble on his northern border, and he was realy quite busy. But the Pope was the Pope, so Charlemagne rounded up his court and went down to Rome, where he restored the peace - and the Pope. Amazing what armed warriors can do for you.

It happened to be Christmas.

Before skeedadling back up to Aachen (his capital), Charlemagne took in a mass at the Lateran. A mass given by the Pope himself. And during this mass, to everyone's surprise, when Charlemagne was kneeling to be blessed, the Pope put a crown on his head, and dubbed him 'Imperator et Augustus', i.e. the Roman Emperor.

Which was kind of silly, really, since there was already a Roman Emperor. Everyone knew it. He was in Constantinople. But what the Pope had done was to affirm the position of the Franks, and the King of the Franks, as the true Christian defenders of Rome. As it turned out, it was a nice title for Charlemagne, and the real Roman Emperor, though grumpy, never got around to doing anything about it.

Unfortunately, although Christian, the Franks were still a tribal society at their core. And the way inheritance was dealt with in a tribal society was to divvy everything up equally among the sons. Including the kingdom. So at Charlemagne's death, rather than having one son inherit, his three sons each got a third of the kingdom. And immediately began fighting each other.

It was a bad time for it. Because just as the heirs of Charlemagne began to squabble, there were new threats blowing into Western Europe. Three of them, to be precise.

From the north came the Vikings. They erupted out of Scandinavia and pillaged with a fury that the inhabitants of Western Europe had never before seen. Anything on the Atlantic was sacked and carried away, from France, England, Ireland, Germany. During the course of the 800s and 900s, they turned everything within twenty miles of the Atlantic Ocean into an uninhabited waste.

To the south, in the Mediterranean, the Muslims who had settled in North Africa turned to piracy, and soon were doing to the south coast of France and to Italy what the Vikings were doing in the north. Nothing near the ocean was safe from these marauders.

And then came the Magyars. Nomadic horsemen much like the Huns, they raided the interior of the Frankish kingdom with increasing impunity, carrying off anything not secure within city walls. The heirs of Charlemagne, and their heirs in turn, were entirely unable to deal with them.

Europe was perforated.

Now, this part of the world had been sacked only a few hundred years before. And it hadn't really recovered. Frankly, Europe was dirt poor. So what did these new invaders want? Why did the Vikings, and the Saracens, and the Magyars come back for year after year?

One word: Slaves.

Western Europe during the 800s became what Western Africa was to become during the 18th and 19th centuries. A prostrate source of slaves. The invaders would round up anyone they could catch and sell them to the rich Muslim states of Spain, of North Africa, of the Middle East. And to the Byzantine Empire. Kiev was founded as a town for the Vikings to sell their rounded-up human goods to the heirs of the Roman Empire. Slaves did all the work in Constantinople. European slaves.

One of the drivers of the trade, of course, was that the slave population was not self-sustaining. And this is because male slaves, who were in the greatest demand (mostly as agricultural workers and general motor power), were uniformly castrated. All of them. It's just how it was done. You didn't want a slave distracted by having children to think about. So you castrated them all.

A practice the Arabs kept up until the twentieth century, by the way. Why do you think there aren't any black Arabians? African slaves were poured into Arabia for almost a millenium. But they were all castrated.

Back to our story. Europe is prostrate. Every year raiders return to steal as much human livestock as they can. Charlemagne's last grandson dies without an heir. How can the people of Europe possibly save themselves?

Well, they did so by going back to basics. Back to local bosses. Back to regional strongmen, in the same way that the survivors of the Western Empire's collapse survived by sucking up to the Germanic chiefs. By forgetting about some Carolingian prince you had only heard of, and pledging your loyalty to a local who you had seen kicking ass. To Alfred 'the Great' of Wessex, who drove the Vikings back out of central England. To Robert 'the Strong' of Paris, who defeated the Vikings when they attempted to sack the city. And particularly to Otto 'the Great' of Saxony, who started as the King of Saxony (A title his father had created, having elevated himself from a Duke when the last of Charlemagne's grandchildren died) and died the Holy Roman Emperor.

Otto began his rise by proclaming himself King in Aachen, Charlemagne's old capital, and then crushing all his rival dukes from Bavaria, Franconia, Lorraine. After Germany was entirely his, he marched over the Alps to conquer northern Italy. Then he returned to the north and in the single year 955 crushed the Wends (allies of the Vikings) at Recknitz and followed that up by defeating the Magyars (at Lechfeld) so soundly that they never again raided western Europe, settling down in the Eastern lands that later became known as Hungary.

How was Otto able to come up with the men to do this? By the invention of a new system of government. The feudal system. Where what the King needs most of all is warriors, and all he has to pay with is land. And that's the swap he makes. You come fight for me, this land is yours. It could be the King's, it could be the church's, it could be someone else's entirely. All that mattered was that the King would recognize your right to it, and you would fight when the king needed you. It was a system that worked wonders in generating fighting men. Two hundred years later, the monarchs of Europe would curse the system that gave the nobility so much power. But in the 900s, the feudal system gave rulers like Otto the power to save Europe.

In 962, just as Charlemagne had, Otto returned to Rome to stomp out another outburst of anarchy. And, just as with Charlemagne, the grateful Pope crowned Otto the Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Emperor. Only this time, the Empire would not fall prey to outside invaders. Instead, it would grow in population and power, along with the rest of Western Europe. The 'double dip' of the Dark Ages was coming to an end. It was time for Europe to rise again.

- Sun Ra

Comments received on this article:

I just read your very entertaining article on "Vikings and Saracens and Magyars". I'd probably be perfectly content with it if I didn't happen to be running an Ars Magica campaign set in A.D. 875. I thus noticed a number of minor (yet to me quite glaring) inaccuracies. For shame!

1. Charlemagne intended to split his empire among his sons, but at the time of his death only one was alive. It was that son, Louis the Pious, who actually split the empire up among his sons, ungrateful boys who didn't even wait for him to die before plunging the empire into civil war. And there were actually four of them -- Pippin tends to be forgotten because he died before his father, but his son Pippin II inherited an independent Kingdom of Aquitaine, which he held onto for some decades before it was absorbed into Charles the Bald's Kingdom of the West Franks.

All correct. I oversimplified. Damn.

2. Despite the disruption and terror engendered by the Viking raids, they never made any real dent in the coastal populations of northern Europe. In fact many of them ended up settling down after raiding, just as the Germanic tribes did centuries earlier, creating a slew of quite wealthy Viking-dominated lands such as Normandy, Dublin, York, Orkney, the Hebrides, and Sutherland (an odd name for the northernmost part of Scotland until you realize who chose the name).

This I disagree with - the Vikings did contribute to significant depopulation of coastal areas. Check the history of places like Iona in Scotland, Dorestad in Frisia, and Reric in northern Germany.

3. While slaves were the primary "booty" sought by the Rus (who turned the Slavs into a generic word for slaves) and the Muslim pirates of the Mediterranean, it was not the chief goal of either the Magyars or the western Vikings. To tribal/nomadic societies like those, even backwards and impoverished Dark Age Europe was a treasure trove of wealth and civilized goods, not to mention good arable land. They certainly did take some slaves, but it was of minor economic consequence.

Although the vikings did prefer and seek out gold and other treasure, such booty was exhausted fairly quickly. Slaving became a major occupation for later viking raiders, and was of significant economic consequence.

4. Otto's father, Henry I, was never "King of Saxony". He started as the Duke of Saxony and was subsequently elected king of Germany after being named heir by the previous German king, Conrad I. (The election was contested, naturally, but after three years of warfare Henry came out on top.) Otto inherited as both King of Germany and Duke of Saxony, but the two titles were separate.

Absolutely true. Damn.

- S.M.


Columns by Sun Ra