How do you defeat the Vikings? - Episode 2 of the Medieval Warfare Podcast

In this episode we follow the Norse raiders who attacked much of Western Europe from about the ninth to the eleventh centuries. What made them such a threat and how did rulers of Europe respond to them?

We are joined by Danielle Turner, a historian who specializes in the Vikings and the author of the featured article in the latest issue of Medieval Warfare – ‘The Viking Sieges of Paris: Brilliant Warfare or Pragmatic Decision?

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Transcript of this episode:

Peter Konieczny: Before we begin, I just wanted to ask you Danielle about your experience of working on the History Channel's Vikings?

Danielle Turner: So I originally got involved in it because my master’s advisor was involved in season two of Vikings and the producer had ended up reading some of my articles and actually saw one of my conference presentations and they invited me on for season three. From there I guess they liked my on-camera delivery and knowledge so I was invited back for season four, and then now we’re looking forward to season five, which without giving too many spoilers is going a very different direction, but it should be very exciting.

Peter: You get insider information?

Danielle: Well now that you haven’t seen the end of season four we’re now dealing with Ragnar’s sons, so we’re going to be seeing what they’re going to be up to now in the Viking world.

Peter: Very cool. I’ll have to get spoilers from you another time. But for today, I wanted to talk about these Norse people - essentially raiders – who are attacking various sites in Western Europe at the turn of the ninth-century. Essentially these are small groups that seemingly are acting on their own, and yet they’re so successful. Can you tell us why? Why are they winning?

Danielle: We have to always remember that we’re dealing with a bit of an extraordinary case with the Vikings because in history it’s usually the victors that are writing it, but in this case it’s very much the victims we’re hearing. The Scandinavians were not writing for themselves until about 300 years after the Viking age, and post-Christianization and all of these other cultural influences. So when we’re dealing with sources that are actually talking about the Vikings, they’re coming from the Frankish and from England and of course they’re not going to say, “these guys pulled in and we couldn’t really defeat them,” so they’re going to be these huge heathens and all of these things. So it’s really important to read against the grain, if you will, and participate in an interdisciplinary study including archaeology and linguistics and things like that.

Beyond that, the Vikings were incredible in many ways, but in two ways specifically. They could work simultaneously within large groups and small at the same time. They could participate in small raiding bands but then come together for greater causes. Another thing is that the long ship, the ingenuity of the long ship gave them a lot of their distance and allowed them some advantageous positioning to sail down the Seine and into Paris and places that were often thought unreachable. Another thing with that is it has a symmetrical keel, so a Viking ship could go not only in shallow water but deep ocean and even carried for a while over land. They could also move forwards and backwards quickly, which is an interesting feature and was not really being used in ships at that point yet. So that’s some of their good things.

Peter: Their mobility really allows them to go places where they can be unexpected. They can attack areas that were thought to be safe.

Danielle: Exactly, and that was a lot of the places were just almost in shock. A lot of times with the Viking Age it seems like they just exploded out of nowhere, but it wasn’t like that. Northern Europe is very interconnected so people were more surprised that these long-term trading partners are all of a sudden raiding and doing all of these things. So yes, they were able to reach all of these places that were thought completely unreachable. It was a bit shocking to see them pull up, I can imagine.

Peter: You said there’s other kinds of factors you think that kind of contributed to their success?

Danielle: It’s really important to remember that we’re not dealing at this point in time with a completely unified England or France. You were dealing with a lot of the smaller kingdoms who at many times employed Vikings to either fight or terrorize their counterparts.

Peter: The article you have in our issue is about the Viking attacks on Paris. Can you tell us more about what happens there?

Danielle: So, I look at, it’s basically a juxtaposition of the two major of sieges of Paris – one in 845 and one in 885. This is dealing a lot too with what I mentioned before with the smaller kingdoms. Especially in 845 you’re dealing with Charlemagne’s three grandsons who have all kind of at this point broken up his large kingdom and are fighting against each other. Again, a lot of times the Vikings were employed to help with these things and there’s not a unified front against them. So not everyone is opposed to dealing with them. It’s hard, too, because in 845 the only main sources that are there are some medieval annals and chronicles written either from a royal side or from a monastery, and these are very short entries. You’ll have one year the harvest was bad, the king went here, the Vikings attacked. So again you have to really read deeper into what the sources say and use that interdisciplinary to be able to put the story together.

In 885 we have a little bit of a better idea because we have the account of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, or Abbo, he’s actually an eye-witness account so he’s telling a lot of… you hear a lot more about battle tactics and you get a lot more of the imagery of what’s happening. This siege actually lasted a year, where the other one was a fairly quick one. So the Parisians really went through a lot. Even though France was able to gain quite a bit, what I mention in my article, quite a bit of military and political cohesion, it still really ended up as a decision of the rulers to just kind of pay them off, which was very angering to the Parisians who had fought very hard and dealt with the Vikings for over a year. Because not only were the Vikings paid off, they were also allowed by the king to continue raiding down the scene a little bit more, which was even more frustrating. But even with Abbo’s piece, it’s important to read closely as well because a lot of times it was used as a very political writing to be able to further this count Odo who kind of emerged as the hero from the case. So the writing is really making a cause for Odo to become emperor instead of the anointed king.

Peter: I really love Abbo’s poem, by the way. It’s just a wonderful thing to read if you ever have a chance. It’s pretty much an account of the siege and what’s going on, but it’s very kind of romantic almost of an account.

Danielle: It is. It falls under the area I believe of an epic poem because you were dealing exactly a lot with that, and you get a lot of the imagery. The nice thing too is that going through archaeology we know that a lot of the things that he’s talking about did really happen or were practiced by Viking warfare, so it gives a little bit more credibility to his account instead of just being a political push for Odo to become the emperor.

Peter: My kind of final question, main question is what did it take to defeat the Vikings, or at least stop them from targeting your territory? If you were advising a count or a duke, what would you say?

Danielle: Well, a lot of them, and in most cases we just see, okay, they were paid off or they were utilized and paid to fight other people in similar areas. The biggest I think defeat of the Vikings that we’re looking at in this specific geographical area would be the 1066 at Stamford Bridge which is the defeat of the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada against Harold Godwinson. This is a very significant loss because it kind of is considered the end of the Viking age because it was such a slaughter. One of the reasons why is that the Norse army had decided to travel a bit lighter and leave a lot of their armor behind, but left them at an extremely distinct advantage against them.

Peter: I think we’ll hear more about that particular battle in an upcoming issue of Medieval Warfare.

Danielle: Maybe a little preview there.

Peter: Before I let you go, I just wanted to ask you what other kind of research are you doing right now?

Danielle: Right now I work a lot with warfare, so this is a very valid subject for me. I’m also doing some research on medicine and weather, dealing with that in the Middle Ages. So I’m really excited to see where that research comes. I’ll be presenting this paper exactly at a few conferences this year. So that will be very exciting to get some feedback on my theories of Viking invasions in France.

Peter: With that I want to thank you Danielle Turner for being our guest here on the Medieval Warfare podcast, and to Angus Wallace for producing this episode. And, finally thank you for listening and please spread the word about us, especially if you like us.

Our thanks for the transcription from Kabro Co.

The Medieval Warfare Podcast is hosted by the History Network

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