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Assault on Christian Europe in the Early Middle Ages Essay

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Updated: Sep 4th, 2021

Introduction

The largely concurrent and persisting (i.e., 8th through 10th centuries) incursions of Norsemen (Vikings), Magyars, and North African Arabs on the frontiers of Europe both destabilized the prevailing social order and set in train a reorganization of the existing western European political entities along more militarized lines. However, each of these incursions took a somewhat different historical trajectory.

Impact of the invasions

All three of the invasive tides resulted in the establishment of long-lasting political entities, albeit in different formats. In this, the three above-mentioned incursions differed from that of, say, Attila, the 5th century Hunnish commander whose forces destroyed so much of Germany, Gaul, and northern Italy. In Attila’s case, the Hunnish cause was a function of his generalship. After his assassination (453AD), the Hun army—dividing along clan lines—lost its cohesive strength and no longer posed the same challenge to residual western political and religious interests. Such was not to be the case with the three groups under consideration in this report.

Norsemen: There is a body of evidence, admittedly exiguous, that the Scandinavian population increased significantly during the medieval warm period (during which food production—and hence population growth rates—expanded significantly). This provided the ‘push’ factor, in conjunction with the Continental relative wealth ‘pull’ factor, which drove the Viking invasions of France and the British Isles. The first such efforts were little different from piratical raiding. However, in 865, Danish raiders established themselves as political rulers in East Anglia, reducing the local inhabitants to second-class status, or worse. The Danish purpose was to shift from haphazard ‘booty’ collection to more regularized (albeit brutally enforced) tax collection, commonly called ‘Danegeld.’ Similar permanent Viking polities were established in Ireland (e.g., Dublin), with the original inhabitants either forced to vacate or reduced to a subordinated status. In both instances, however, residual political leaders were able to reassert political control. In practical terms, the descendants of the original invaders adopted the social coloration (and values) of the earlier inhabitants.

In the case of France, matters took a somewhat different turn. Invading Norsemen established a polity (Normandy) on the northern French coast that maintained an official (albeit sometimes tense) relationship with the French monarchy. The response to initial incursions was the emergence of a new class of warriors, mounted knights, a fighting class at considerable remove from the traditional Roman infantry formation, and, at the same time, functioning as a political class exercising local sovereignty.

Magyars: The Magyars, Finno-Ugric nomads, began their incursions into Carpathian Basin in the first years of the 10th century. In ensuring decades they defeated several German princes and succeeded in devastating portions of Provence (southern France) and the northern Italian peninsula. However, unlike the Norsemen, they were unable to sustain themselves as a permanent political presence. After their decisive defeat at Lechfeld (955), Magyars settled on the steppe-lands east of Vienna, in what is now Hungary. Soon thereafter they officially adopted Christianity and, with it, many of the normative values of early medieval western European society.

Arabs: The successful North African invasion of Iberia resulted in the establishment of a number of Muslim emirates. Successive military ventures north of the Pyrenees were less long lasting. (These actually took the form of military ‘razzias,’ whose purpose was as much the collection of booty as it was expansion of political control and religious influence. The social impact in Provence, however, paralleled the impact of the Vikings further to the north. The traditional economy—not all that dissimilar to that which prevailed at the time of the contraction of the Roman Empire—was devastated. And, as in northern France, that same class of professional armed nobility emerged, one that combined mounted skill at arms with the exercise of local sovereignty.

In Iberia itself Arab emirates evolved into polities that to varying degrees accommodated both Christians and Jews. Indeed, Cordoba became the major intellectual center of Western Europe in the 10th century. (The future Pope Sylvester II studied in Cordoba in the years before his investiture in 1002.) The Iberian emirates were conquered by their Christian enemies during the period spanning the 12th-15th centuries. In this respect, those emirates differed from their Viking counterparts. Their political orientation always remained directed toward the larger Muslim world. Thus, while they lasted for several centuries, at least in one case, they were never integrated politically integrated into the larger Castilian polity that had gained so much strength during the 14th and 15th centuries. One long-term impact of the reconquista, however, was a Spanish self-identification with the preservation of Christian civilization against alien opponents. This would reverberate through ensuing centuries.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Assault on Christian Europe in the Early Middle Ages'. 4 September.

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