The Normans: From Raiders to Kings, by Lars Brownworth


I’ve recently taken a little detour into the Middle Ages, starting with Helen Hollick’s The Kingmaking, a well-researched novel about Arthur Pendragon’s rise to power in 5th century Britain. Then I jumped ahead to the 12th-15th centuries, viewing a four-part series hosted by historian Dan Jones called Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets.

I also read Judith Merkle Riley’s witty novel, The Master of All Desires, about a young woman who finds herself at the center of Queen Catherine de Medici’s intrigues at the French Court and looks to the Queen’s Astrologer, Nostradamus, for advice. The story is set in the 16th century, thus putting it over the historians’ line and into the Renaissance, although the reliance on seers and spells seems more apt for the Middle Ages.

Finally I tackled this book on the Normans, set in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is relatively short at a little over 200 pages and immensely readable. Maps, family trees, descriptive lists of people and places, and endnotes explaining possibly unfamiliar terms, make this history accessible for a reader with little or no foreknowledge while not boring one who knows quite a bit about the Normans already.

I knew that the Normans who invaded Britain came from—surprise!—Normandy and were descended from Viking raiders who’d settled there in the 9th and 10th centuries. I knew about the Battle of Hastings and have my list of English monarchs well situated in memory.

What I didn’t know was that the Normans played a huge role in the rest of Europe, creating kingdoms as far south as North Africa, going on crusades, and taking on the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire (aka the German Empire) and the Byzantine Empire. And that much of that was accomplished by members of a single family, the de Hautevilles.

The question Brownworth sets out to answer is: “How did Western Europe, which was militarily, technologically, and socially far behind its immediate neighbors in the Middle East, manage not only to catch up with them, but to rise to global dominance?”

He finds much of the answer in the Normans. Without downplaying their ruthless suppression of local languages and customs, he does explain how they eventually assimilated with their conquered peoples. While some of the Normans he describes were warriors first and last, others actually found creative ways to govern, becoming respected and even beloved.

Still, the net result for me of all this reading and viewing was a sickening sense of the brevity of life in the Middle Ages, not only for the conquered peasantry and the waves of warriors thrown at various foes, but for the rulers themselves. Intrigue is too mild a word for the fostering of revolts in a brother’s country, the poisonings and outright murders. And then there were the frail, inbred children placed on thrones, controlled or fought over by power-hungry nobles.

None of this was new to me, but the span of this little detour of mine showed how prevalent it was. Yet another person murdering all of his brothers to gain a throne, in turn murdered by another claimant. Over and over.

In this season of the U.S. presidential election, a time I loathe, one that has me avoiding the saturated media, I actually found the slaughter of the Middle Ages comforting. Yes, the airwaves are dominated by amoral pretenders, each trying to stir up more hatred than the next, making the U.S. a laughingstock in the international arena where people cannot believe such clowns could even be considered for office. But at least they are not killing each other. At least they are not cooking up charges to have each other’s entrails dragged out or having their opponents beheaded or poisoned or burned at the stake. And this season, at least, there are a few who are refraining from even verbal attacks in favor of—shocking as it may be—a discussion of the issues.

I will take comfort where I can find it.

What do you know of the Normans’ involvement in the Crusades?

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