The Coast of Normandy

Early Normandy

A splendid overview of the history of Early Normandy and its cultural formation in the latest issue of Anglo-Norman Studies

In 911 (or around that time) the French king, Charles the Simple, entered into a treaty with a Viking chieftain, Rollo, and his comrades in arms. Although the exact nature of the power wielded by the Vikings at that time is as obscure as the extent of the lands, which was ceded to them, this – at least in their own thinkin – marked the beginning of the territorial principality, which later became the Duchy of Normandy.

However, the history of how this mighty power came into being – both in a political, socio-economical and cultural sense – is not easy to write. As it happens a few historians, Flodoard and Richer, occasionally wrote about what went on in this corner of France in the 10th century. However in general, the written sources are few and far between.

For a long time historians fought to make some sense of what went on by twisting and turning the few written sources – (absent) charters, chronicles etc. – into something approaching a consistent narrative [1] . (Much like the way in which historians reflected upon the Viking diaspora and its impact on Anglo-Saxon England in much of the 20th century.)

However, where as the last 50 years of medieval archaeology have contributed immensely to elucidate the impact of the Vikings and the nature of their achievement in new and quite astonishing ways in the other corners of the Viking diaspora (and thus fundamentally changing the history-writing) the same has not happened in connection with the writing of the history of Normandy. Basically this has had to do with the pitiful numbers of archaeological finds of traditional Viking artefacts (tortoise brooches, swords, silver-hoards) plus the very “Frenchy” approach to the whole set of questions.

This lack” has usually been explained away in two (interconnected) ways: Either the Vikings were simply quickly subsumed, overwhelmed by France and the irresistible French culture, thus loosing their cultural identity inside a few decades (There is nothing-to-find-argument). Or there were simply not very many Vikings around, thus creating an understandable void of archaeological traces. Somehow, Normandy thus succeeded in creating its own position as “the wayward child” in Viking studies. On one end of the continuum might be placed the thoroughly Scandinavianized Northern Isles of Scotland. On the other end the thoroughly “Frenchified” Normandy.

Rollo at Rouen
The Myth of Rollo – at Rouen in the midst of Roses

Very careful sifting of the available sources – archaeological or otherwise – is however beginning to pay off and presenting us with a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which the Vikings formed their cultural identities in the different corners of the diaspora. In a recent article Lesley Abrams have delivered a very important introduction to this complicated set of questions and not least an overview of what we currently know . This is of course not the place to summarize all her findings. The article itself should be munched carefully by anyone trying to get a grasp on the field of Early Norman Studies (read: it should be standard reading on any curriculum). However, a few points deserves to be mentioned:

1) Is the lack of archaeological finds “real”? Lesley Abrams points in this connection to the fact that private metal-detectoring is prohibited by law in France. This means that a huge amount of archaeological evidence might be hidden in the ground. To compare: before the 1990’es only 20 “Scandinavian” brooches were known to stem from the English Danelaw. Today more than 550 have recently been catalogued and discussed by Jane Kershaw [2]

2) Sculpture may also have gone missing. It was customary to reuse earlier carved stones in later medieval church buildings or renovations (as it was customary to reuse Runic stones in this way in Scandinavia). Maybe French art-historians have neglected to report such finds.

3) Norse was definitely used in day-to-day contexts. At least 145 words (mainly substantives) were imported from Norse into the local dialect in Normandy and have been preserved until now. Significant themes were of course anything concerning ships, their equipment and boating in general. Other words, however, had to do with the rural sphere and the organisation of the tilling of land. To this should be added a large catalogue of place-names and personal names, which is continuously growing. It seems “radical renaming occurred in the countryside” (p.54). In this connection, though, she leaves out the fascinating and very compelling results, which the linguist Damien Hearst has been able to wring out of a study of modern dialects in Normandy. Basically he shows that the distribution of the Scandinavian toponyms reflects the use of specific issoglosses (a linguistic element) plus that these a akin to their corresponding issoglosses in modern Danish.

Rollo at Falaise
The Myth of Rollo II – Rollo at Faliase

4) It seems the Viking presence in Normandy was never totally monolithic. Although traces are few and far behind, it seems as if different chieftains apart from Rollo may have operated inside Normandy in the 10th century. Perhaps they descended from such different cultural spheres, as have been identified archaeologically inside the Scandinavian Viking world, causing a less than homogenous picture of what went on in the 10th century. This heterogeneity had at a later stage to be tackled by the dukes at Rouen, working to create a new identity through a new myth, the Gens Normannorum (as it was formulated by Dudo of St. Quentin). More than anything it was the creation of this new myth, which erased their essentially Scandinavian origin in the 11th century.

It is a carefully crafted article and Lesley Abrams works diligently to soften up her conclusions. At one point, she even writes that “words and names are not being enlisted here to suggest that the Scandinavians who came to Normandy overwhelmed the locals, nor that they brought a packaged, ethnically defined way of life with them, which they imposed when they settled” (p58).

However, we – the readers – are left with an enormous appetite. Somebody with a proper archaeological and historical-anthropological background simply has to master all this evidence, that we may learn more.

Perhaps Lesley Abrams is that person.

Karen Schousboe


Early Normandy.
By Lesley Abrams.
In: Anglo-Norman Studies 35: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2012, pp. 45 – 64
Boydell & Brewer 2013



[1] For a very early example, see Indledning til Normannertiden. By Johannes C. H. R. Steenstrup. Rudolph Klein 1876 (1972).

(More) recent statements and/or treatments of this debate are:
Nordica and Normannica: recoil d’études sur la Scandinave ancienne et medieval, les expeditions des Vikings et la Fondation de la Normandie. By Lucien Musset. Paris 1997. (Basically a selection of Musset’s earlier work from post WW2)

Histoire de la Normandie. By Michel Boüard, Toulouse, Privat, 1970. New edition, Rennes, Éd. Ouest France, 2001

Normandy before 1066. By David Bates. London and New York 1982

La Première Normandie (Xe –Xie Siècles). By Pierre Bauduin. 2nd edition, Caen 2006

For a more controversial overview, see: Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power, 840–1066. By Eleanor Searle, Berkeley, California University Press 1988)

[2] Viking Identities. Scandinavian Jewellery in England. By Jane Kershaw. Cambridge University press 2013.

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