European Middle Ages
The Normans

   In 911, a group of Scandinavian raiders under the leadership of Rollo sailed up the Seine and forced the French king to cede French territory. The price the king asked was that Rollo become a subject of the king and swear loyalty. This he did, and the Norsemen settled a very small area in the north of France. Rollo, however, considered himself to be an independent ruler and aggressively set about increasing the territory under his control. This constant expansion of territory would become the hallmark of the Norman experience in history.

   Normandy was in name a duchy of France, but the Norman dukes ruled the area as if it were an independent kingdom with little interference from the French king. By the eleventh century, the duchy of Normandy had become one of the most powerful regions in western Europe. There were, however, even more promising times ahead—in 1066, the Norman duke, William the Bastard, conquered the English forces of Harold Godwinson and became king of England. Norman culture and political structure would cross the channel and dramatically change English culture and history.

   The Scandinavians who settled Normandy very quickly adopted the religion, customs, and language of the surrounding French populations. Rollo converted to Catholicism, but the adoption of French culture and language did not immediately alter the social structure of the Norman lords. From 911 until 980, the history of the Normans is one of constant blood-feuds and territorial battles, a history similar to that played out in early Scandinavia, the Danelaw in England, and Iceland.

   Around 980, however, the Normans began to develop a unique set of institutions that would catapult them into the front-rank of European power and cultural influence. The most significant event in early Norman history was the placing of Hugh Capet on the throne of France—the Capetians only gained the throne through the help of the Normans and in gratitude, they allowed the Normans to operate independently.

   Once free from monarchical intrusion, the Norman dukes began to solidify an administrative system over their territories. This system became the model for subsequent medieval government: the feudal system. The Normans faced sporadic resistance from nobility within their domains. To counter this nobility, the Norman lords made clergy, who were largely drawn from the nobility, as their vassals since the monastic and church lands were on lands owned by the duke. All the knights resident on church and monastic lands the dukes forced into military loyalty. They used this core of vassals and knights to overcome the nobility which were forced to enter into feudal obligations to the duke.

   The word, "feudal," comes from the word, "feud." A feudal obligation, then, was essentially built off of clan or tribal protection. For the early tribal Scandinavians, the only way to enforce law was through clan protetction and blood-feuds. Should a crime be committed against a member of the clan, it was the job of the entire clan to either seek retribution or enforce a penalty. It was on this ground that the dukes of Noramndy built their feudal system. Under this system, lay nobility were allowed to control a certain amount of territory. They were required, however, to enter into oaths to the duke; these oaths required their military service should the duke require it.

   The feudal system allowed the Norman dukes to control a vast amount of territory independently of the Capetian kings. It gave the dukes large military resources guaranteed through a network of loyalties. From Normandy, the feudal system spread rapidly first to Italy and then France—with Duke William II, the Bastard, this new and powerful form of government would cross the channel to England.

   As with the Scandinavian settlers of Iceland, the Normans did not stay put in Normandy. With a growing scarcity of land in the eleventh century, some Norman lords migrated to Italy where they carved out their own independent Norman duchies. Italy had remained a largely non-urbanized and backward country after it had been devestated by Justinian's attempt to retake the western empire at the beginning of the sixth century. The establishment of Norman duchies and the feudal system in Italy was the primary reason for the recovery of Italy in the later middle ages.


William   The turning point in European history, however, was the Norman invasion of England in 1066. England had seen Scandinavian invasions before; these invasions and the subsequent emigrations had carved out an entire Danish kingdom in the north of England, the Danelaw. When the Norman descendants of Scandinavian raiders returned in the eleventh century, they gained control over Anglo-Saxon England and would eventually be responsible for English supremacy over most of Britain.

   The man responsible had been born to the Duke of Normandy before that Duke had married; he would be called William the Bastard and his claim to the duchy was tenuous at best. For all that, however, he would effectively rule the duchy for fifty years (1035-1087).

   It was under William that the feudal system attained its final form. He completed the process of making the lay nobility vassals and perfected the form of military service they would provide. Each vassal would provide a certain number of knights or horsemen—the number was determined by the amount of land that had been granted to them. The tenants-in-chief of the various lands could not build castles without permission; this allowed William to prevent untrustworthy nobility from having defenses against the duke. Finally, while the tenants-in-chief had almost complete control over their lands and the revenues from those lands, the administration of law and the collection of taxes was in part controlled by an official of the duke, the viscount. However, many of the nobility that were vassals of the duke had made knights and others sub-vassals under themselves. So while the nobility owed loyalty to William, the sub-vassals owed their loyalty to the various nobility. Under William, however, all sub-vassals became vassals of the duke. The network of loyalties always snaked back to the powerful figure of the duke—should their be a conflict between a nobleman and the duke, the sub-vassals of the nobleman were required to run to the side of the duke.

   This system of government, an elaborate and adminstrative extension of the older logic of clan protection, allowed William to assemble a military of over one thousand knights—quite possibly the largest military force in Europe in the eleventh century. After securing the peace in Normandy through the elaboration of feudal government, William began to look across the channel in the 1050's and hatched his schemes to seize English territory and the Anglo-Saxon monarchy.

   England, though larger, wealthier, and more progressed than Normandy, was administratively the contrary of the small duchy. While the Normans had concentrated power and resources, the Anglo-Saxons had allowed their monarchy to decline. The country was divided into a myriad of earldoms which were run as more or less independent kingdoms. Individual earls controlled not only their lands, but royal revenues, law, and privileges.

   William claimed the throne of England based on a promise given him by the Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon king. Having been captured by the Normans and then ransomed, Edward, according to Norman propaganda, promised to William the throne of England when he passed away. Needless to say, the throne of England was not granted to William on Edward's death, but instead fell to Harold Godwinson.

   William used this insult as a pretext to invade England. However, Harold had also to deal with a Norwegian claim to the throne and a subsequent invasion. He successfully held back that invasion, but as soon as he was finished, William landed in England. William faced an Anglo-Saxon army that had just fought an invading Norwegian and had been marched south to meet him. This, combined with the incredibly superior military concentration of the Norman forces, allowed William to easily defeat the Anglo-Saxons and kill Harold. The Anglo-Saxon period in England effectively came to an end, but the importation of Norman culture and government would open up a radically new and dynamic tangent in English history.

   When William took the crown, his first order of business was to break the power of the Anglo-Saxon earls who were the real powers in England, not the king. The history of William's reign in England, and that of his predecessors, would be to develop the feudal system into a full-out political monarchy. That is the history of medieval England, a history that coincides with a gradual dissemination of a common European culture and society.

Richard Hooker

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-5-98