“The success of the Normans had to do with their self-confidence”

Thanks to television, video games, literature, and modern history books, the Vikings are very popular today.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
15 March 2023 Wednesday 23:26
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“The success of the Normans had to do with their self-confidence”

Thanks to television, video games, literature, and modern history books, the Vikings are very popular today. But this town is nothing but the prologue to an even more decisive culture that Levi Roach, a professor at the University of Exeter who researches the history of Western Europe, addresses in his latest book: Normans, The Vikings Who Created Europe (Critic).

Roach, a member of the prestigious Royal Historical Society and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine or the Times Literary Supplement, follows in his latest work the trail of the adventures of prominent Normans, from the mythical Rollo to the adventurers who were about to conquer the current Turkey, not forgetting William the Conqueror, Roberto Guiscardo and, of course, the crusader Bohemond of Taranto.

Some may remember that, at the funeral of Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, golden lions on a red background covered her coffin. They were very similar to the ones on the cover of Roach's book. And it is no coincidence, because the lions that accompanied Queen Elizabeth on her last walk did so because Ricardo Corazón de León, heir to the Normans, wanted to honor his ancestors by borrowing the lions on a red background from the Normandy coat of arms for his royal shield. .

It is an example that can be trivial, but it perfectly expresses how the Normans, about whom Roach has a lot to tell us in Historia y Vida, have influenced what surrounds us.

Let's start by talking about you. Do you have habits or passions inherited from the Normans?

I hope not… At least in the terms in which I analyze them in the book! The Normans had a major impact on European history, but it was often a violent one. And when it wasn't overtly violent, it was based on the threat of force.

Who is your favorite Norman? Ours, we confess, would be Roberto Guiscardo.

After what I just said, "favorite" is probably not the most appropriate word, but the figure I found most fascinating when writing the book was Bohemond of Taranto, the son of Roberto Guiscardo. He was an excellent general, but also a very astute politician who was interested, above all, in his own luck. Since his father decided to eliminate him from the line of succession, he was forced to go in search of his fortune. And boy did he look for her!

There are many books today that deal with Vikings and Normans. What's new about yours?

What is new about my book is that it brings together the history of the Normans in the different theaters in which they operated. Northern France, UK, Southern Italy, Spain, North Africa, Holy Land, Greece, Portugal, Turkey and Ireland. In each of these settings I analyze the activities of a Norman, or group of Normans, to gain from there an idea of ​​the immense political and cultural impact they had.

Explain the difference between a Viking and a Norman.

A Norman is what happens to a Viking after several generations living in northern France. The Normans were proud of their Scandinavian heritage, but in certain cultural ways they were very French. The term also encompassed many people from Normandy who were probably not of Viking descent, but who came to identify politically with the ruling dukes. The latter, of undoubtedly Scandinavian origin.

The history of the Normans begins with Rollo. Do you imagine him similar to how he is characterized in the Vikings series?

I have to admit that I only watched the first episode, or at most two of the series! But, frankly, we have very few certainties about him.

William the Conqueror is a key figure in his book. He was a great warrior, but was he also a great propagandist?

Yes, William the Conqueror was a highly successful ruler. And like every successful politician in our modern world, he was an expert at projecting a studied image of himself. This is especially evident when looking at the rather tenuous justifications he used to execute the conquest of England, which he presented as an act of natural succession, rather than an opportunistic appropriation of territory.

Was Scotland a second Normandy?

Insofar as the Normans settled there by agreement with the local ruler and mixed with the natives, yes. But the crucial difference is that in northern France they established their own distinct political community, the duchy of Normandy, while in Scotland they became an essential element of a kingdom that continued to exist as it had hitherto.

Why didn't the Normans succeed in the Iberian Peninsula?

His failure to achieve a lasting conquest in Iberia is a matter of numbers. Only a small contingent of Normans traveled to the region, so their impact was probably fleeting. But it was also a matter of luck.

In places like southern Italy, the Holy Land, or even England, luck played a big part in Norman success. If the Battle of Hastings had ended differently, the history of England would be very different. Similarly, if Robert Bordet had been more successful in Tarragona, the Norman impact on Spain and Catalonia could have been much greater.

About Byzantium, would its fate have been different without the Normans?

It's hard to know for sure, but it could have been different, yes. The Normans caused great trouble for the Byzantine emperors in the 1070s, just as the Seljuk Turks were putting great pressure on the empire. Had this not been the case, they might well have been able to exert much greater control over Anatolia, then the Byzantine breadbasket.

And do you think they could have created a Norman Turkey?

As on the Iberian Peninsula, the odds were always against him in Turkey. But yes, it would have been possible! At their height of power they were able to defeat the emperor in battle, lay siege to Constantinople, and even place their own puppet emperor on the throne.

Can we understand the crusades without the Normans?

I would say we couldn't. Not only because several major crusaders were Normans, most notably Bohemond of Taranto, but also because the very idea that you could march to the edge of the known world and conquer it would have been inconceivable without the Normans having first managed to make a voyage of proportions similar to England and southern Italy.

The history of the Normans is full of men. What about the women?

Norman women also had a role to play, often as vectors of Norman cultural and political influence. Scottish monarchs, for example, first became familiar with Norman culture through their wives.

Similarly, it was the marriage of the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II to Emma of Normandy that first linked the ducal family to England's ruling dynasty, a link that would eventually lead to William the Conqueror's famous claims in 1066. Just as important, however, was local nobles marrying Norman conquerors, such as Roberto Guiscardo's wife, Sichelgaita.

Why were the Normans so successful in their day?

I think it had to do mostly with their self-confidence, that made them stand out. They were superb warriors, but obviously no better than their neighbors in France and Germany. It was their willingness to risk everything for fortune and glory that made them so influential.

What remains of the Norman world?

Two things: quantity and nothing at all. They helped to redraw the map of Europe in ways that still influence us to this day, ensuring, for example, the conquest of Lisbon for the fledgling kingdom of Portugal and integrating Sicily into the political and religious world of Italy rather than the world. north of Africa.

And finally, does any current public figure remind you of a Norman warrior?

I wouldn't dare answer!