How important were the Vikings? Viking raids are very flashy and get a lot of press, but were they that much of a danger to late Carolingian rulers? The difference between the British Isles and Gaul is noticeable: whereas most of the former was actively conquered by Vikings in the latter part of the ninth century, only the North Sea littoral of Gaul was ever subject to Scandinavian rule (whatever that meant in practice…).
The thing is, Viking attacks got a lot of press at the time, and the Carolingian response was traditionally derided. In part, this is because one of our major sources, the Annals of Saint-Vaast, are just miserable as all get-out. An old colleague of mine once compiled the ‘Saint-Vaast Table of Pessimism’, categorising all of the different ways the annals say ‘They tried X and it didn’t work’. Thing is, this is so consistent and so clearly this one source’s particular bias that it shouldn’t be taken as Gospel – we know that Frankish responses to Viking attacks were often fairly successful, both in terms of winning battles and in terms of changing the strategic picture.
The problem at the start of the 880s, though, was that the West Saxons were currently more successful. Dealing with Viking raids has a lot of similarities to the old saw about running away from a bear – you don’t need to be fast, just faster than the slowest person in the group. The same is true with Vikings: you don’t have to construct impregnable fortifications, just make it more inconvenient to raid you than your cross-Channel neighbour. Thus, when in the late 870s Alfred the Great defeated the Great Army at Eddington and signed an agreement known as the Alfred-Guthrum Treaty, Wessex suddenly seemed like a rather poorer opportunity than the Frankish kingdoms. Remember how they were in the middle of a succession dispute in 879? Vikings love that. It means the Frankish kings are too distracted to respond… A veritable Norman storm fell on the northern shores of Gaul, particularly Flanders; and although the Carolingians had a number of military successes against them, there were too many different Viking bands to have real success.
So, we need to balance the sources written by pessimistic churchmen – monasteries being famously rich and in theory undefended – with the recognition that Vikings might have provoked genuine trauma. And then there’s sources like the one which follows:
DD LLC no. 55 (5th June 881, Pouilly-sur-Loire)
In the name of God Eternal and our saviour Jesus Christ, Carloman, by grace of God king.
Whatever We strain eagerly to do for the advantage and need of servants of God, We are, far from doubt, confident that it will benefit Us in more easily obtaining eternal blessing and more happily passing through the present life.
And thus, let the skill of all those faithful to the holy Church of God and to Us, both present and future, know that the venerable man and religious abbot Ralph of the monastery of the blessed Florentius, along with the monks soldiering for God therein, coming before Our Sublimity – lamentable to hear –exposed to Our Mildness by his lamentable intimation the misfortune of the aforesaid monastery and other woes of that region cruelly and frequently inflicted for Our sins by those cruellest enemies of God the Northmen, such that the same province, once very beautiful to see, appears reduced to the appearance of a wilderness. Wherefore, there was no dwelling-place at all in the same place, as with other former inhabitants of that countryside, but much worse for the monks of the said monastery overseen by the care of that religious man the same abbot. Therefore, the same venerable abbot Ralph suppliantly prayed that We might deign to concede to him, as a refuge for his monks and to receive the most hallowed body of the blessed Florentius, a cell by the river Loire, sited in the district of Berry, which is called Saint-Gondon, as We are known to have done for his predecessor the late abbot Dido, in which cell the grace of Saint Gundulf is reverently honoured, so that, rejoicing that they have slipped through the hands of the aforesaid enemies of God, they might finally deserve to find a rest therein from such persecution, with Christ propitious, and be able to enjoy a respite in praise of divine mercy.
But We, proffering beneficent assent to the beseechments of the same Abbot Ralph and the prayers of his monks, commanded this precept of Our Highness to be made, through which We concede and bestow the said cell of Saint-Gondon, with dependents of both sexes and the total of all other things to be held by the said venerable abbot Ralph and his successors: that is, so that, in the name of God and for the washing-away of Our sins, that monastery with everything pertaining to it might be lead in accordance with order of the institution of the Rule by the same reverend Abbot Ralph and his successors, and be disposed of in accordance with the Rule without the disturbance of any contradiction, for the advantage and need of the servants of God serving and attending upon the Lord therein in Our and future times in accordance with the norm of the sacred institution of Saint Benedict.
And We concede to the aforesaid monastery four ships in every waterway which flows through Our realm, and permission to sail them without any impediment, that no officers should take river-fees or toll, nor should the aforesaid abbey pay any kind of price for them.
Finally, We wish and decree and command through this precept of Our authority that no public judge or anyone with judicial power should dare to enter into the churches or places or fields or other possessions of the said monastery, which it justly and reasonably possesses in modern times within the domain of Our realm or which hereafter divine piety might wish to bestow upon the said monastery, to hear cases or exact peace-money or tribute or make a halt or claim hospitality or take securities or distrain the men of the same monastery both free and servile dwelling on its land, nor require any renders in Our and future times. Rather, let the said abbot and his successors be permitted to possess the goods of the aforesaid monastery in quiet order under the defence of Our immunity.
In fact, it pleased Our Highness to decree by royal authority that We should establish a privilege for the aforesaid place through a precept of Our authority that if anyone is seen to infringe anything from the aforesaid at any time, they should be compelled to pay an immunity of six hundred solidi to the rulers of the same place. And whatever hereafter Our fisc can hope for, We concede entirely to the aforesaid monastery for eternal repayment, so that it might accomplish an increase in the alms for the poor and stipends for the monks serving God therein for all time. And when, by divine summons, the aforesaid abbot and the others following him depart from the light of this world, let the monks serving God therein through Our permission and consent, in accordance with the order and rule of the blessed Benedict, always have permission to elect an abbot from amongst themselves, so that it might delight these servants of God who serve God therein to constantly exhort the Lord for Our grandfather, father, for Us and the stock of Our bloodline and to conserve the stability of Our whole realm. Let them have an advocate whom they rightly elect, and for Our repayment We remit all torts to him.
But that this authority of Our munificence might be held more firmly and be more diligently conserved in future times, We confirmed it below with Our own hand and We commanded it be signed with Our signet.
Sign of Carloman, most glorious of kings.
Norbert the notary witnessed on behalf of Wulfard [of Flavigny].
Given on the nones of June [5th June], in the third year of the reign of Carloman, most glorious of kings, in the 13th indiction.
Enacted at the township of Pouilly-sur-Loire, happily, amen.
The venerable abbot Hugh [the Abbot] ambasciated.
First of all, again, there have been questions about the authenticity of this diploma. The modern editor, Bautier, reckons it’s legit, and I agree with him, but it is still within the realms of possibility that this is a later fake. In any case, in terms of its text, the first half is largely a copy of an 866 diploma of Charles the Bald. What that means is that all of the Viking depredations it’s describing had happened twenty years previously. This is a major problem – it doesn’t take very long for Viking raids to become a canard, a fossilised excuse to explain monastic behaviours. This community, which had formerly been located at Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, had now been relocated upriver from Orléans, a region which was passed over by the Viking attacks of the years around 880.
This isn’t to say that the old site of the abbey was peaceful by now. In addition to a Frankish succession crisis, the late 870s also saw the beginning of a civil war in Brittany, and although we don’t know about any Viking raids there during those years, we do know that Vikings were active on the lower Loire during that period and it would surprise me if they weren’t ratcheting up their raids in Brittany and the region west of Angers. Thing is, this wouldn’t necessarily have any impact on the new community in Berry!
In fact, the main object of the diploma appears to be to exempt the abbey’s shipping from river tolls. What we have, then, is a diploma where the rhetorical spectre of the pagan menace overlies a much more mundane goal. This is actually a fairly nice illustration of what I, at least, think is happening with the Vikings: their shadow is much larger than their presence, but that shadow can be quite important in and of itself. It might have been that what the monks of Saint-Gondon wanted was relief more from toll-collectors than Danes, but anti-Viking activity provided a useful cover for royal action. (The parallels between Viking attacks and terrorism in the modern world are there to be found, and I wouldn’t be the first one to notice that by a long shot…)
(I did also do a search for ‘vikings + terrorists’ and… oy. Don’t go down that snake-hole…)