How the Normans changed the history of Europe – Mark Robinson

In the year 1066, 7000 Norman infantry and knights sailed
in warships across the English Channel. Their target: England,
home to more than a million people. Theirs was a short voyage
with massive consequences. And around the same period of time, other groups of Normans
were setting forth all across Europe, going on adventures that would reverberate
throughout that continent’s history. So who were these warriors and how did they leave
their mark so far and wide? Our story begins
over 200 years earlier, when Vikings began to settle
on the shores of northern France as part of a great Scandinavian exodus
across northern Europe. The French locals called
these invaders Normans, named for the direction they came from. Eventually, Charles,
the king of the Franks, negotiated peace with
the Viking leader Rollo in 911, granting him a stretch of land
along France’s northern coast that came to be known as Normandy. The Normans proved adaptable
to their newly settled life. They married Frankish women, adopted the French language, and soon started converting
from Norse paganism to Christianity. But though they adapted, they maintained the warrior tradition and conquering spirit
of their Viking forebears. Before long, ambitious Norman knights
were looking for new challenges. The Normans’ best-known achievement
was their conquest of England. In 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, disputed the claim of
the new English king, Harold Godwinson. Soon after landing in England, William and his knights met Harold’s army
near the town of Hastings. The climactic moment in the battle is immortalized in
the 70-meter-long Bayeux Tapestry, where an arrow striking Harold
in the eye seals the Norman victory. William consolidated his gains
with a huge castle-building campaign and a reorganization of English society. He lived up to his nickname
“William the Conqueror” through a massive survey
known as the Domesday Book, which recorded the population
and ownership of every piece of land in England. Norman French became the language
of the new royal court, while commoners continued
to speak Anglo-Saxon. Over time, the two merged
to give us the English we know today, though the divide between lords
and peasants can still be felt in synonym pairs such as cow and beef. By the end of the 12th century, the Normans had further expanded
into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Meanwhile, independent groups
of Norman knights traveled to the Mediterranean, inspired by tales of pilgrims
returning from Jerusalem. There, they threw themselves
into a tangled mass of conflicts among the established powers
all over that region. They became highly prized mercenaries, and during one of these battles, they made the first recorded
heavy cavalry charge with couched lances, a devastating tactic that soon became
standard in medieval warfare. The Normans were also central
to the First Crusade of 1095-99, a bloody conflict that re-established
Christian control in certain parts of the Middle East. But the Normans did more than just fight. As a result of their victories, leaders like William Iron-Arm
and Robert the Crafty secured lands throughout Southern Italy, eventually merging them
to form the Kingdom of Sicily in 1130. Under Roger II, the kingdom became a beacon of
multicultural tolerance in a world torn apart
by religious and civil wars. Muslim Arab poets and scholars
served in the royal court alongside Byzantine Greek sailors
and architects. Arabic remained an official language along
with Latin, Greek, and Norman French. The world’s geographical knowledge
was compiled in The Book of Roger, whose maps of the known world would remain the most accurate
available for 300 years. And the churches built in Palermo
combined Latin-style architecture, Arab ceilings, and Byzantine domes, all decorated with
exquisite golden mosaics. So if the Normans were so successful,
why aren’t they still around? In fact, this was a key part of
their success: not just ruling the societies
they conquered, but becoming part of them. Although the Normans eventually
disappeared as a distinct group, their contributions remained. And today, from the castles and
cathedrals that dot Europe’s landscape to wherever
the English language is spoken, the Norman legacy lives on.

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