Who Were the Normans?

Judith A. Green

The author of a new history describes the extent to which Norman influence spread well beyond Normandy.
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Who Were the Normans?

1066 is a very familiar date in English history, conjuring up William the Conqueror and his Normans on horseback defeating the English king and his footsoldiers. The story plays out on the Bayeux Tapestry, whose illustrations are regularly used in newspaper cartoons. The overriding impression is thus of armed warriors and victory in battle. In England the country was brought under French-speaking conquerors, in Italy Normans were busy establishing themselves against Lombards and Byzantines and, in Sicily, against Arabs. They had won a notable battle at Civitate in 1053 and through wars of attrition and siege they were bringing more and more of the south under their control. Then, in 1095 Normans both from Normandy and from southern Italy answered the pope’s call for a crusade to liberate the city of Jerusalem. The former were led by their duke Robert, eldest surviving son of William the Conqueror, and the latter by Bohemond of Taranto, each of whom was to prove successful commanders in the great battles of the first crusade. Why were the Normans so successful?

The Conqueror

The Normans themselves believed that they were a people whose victories showed they enjoyed God’s favour. More prosaically, historians have explored the ideas that there were features special to Norman society or critical to their success in battle, but it is hard to prove either point. The duchy of Normandy had evolved from a Viking settlement in the early tenth century, and by the eleventh century it was relatively strong and cohesive, but Norman society was broadly similar to that of neighbouring regions. It was not just Normans who emigrated, but Bretons and Flemings too. Families often had a ‘surplus’ of sons to provide for, and it was hard to juggle the desire to provide for all sons with the need to keep family lands together to pass on to the next generation. Sons for whom a career in the church was not an option would have received a training in arms. Although it has been suggested that the splendid stallions shown on the Bayeux Tapestry show that the Normans were exceptionally well mounted, it is hard to see that they had weapons or horses not available elsewhere. How then do we explain Norman success?

The first point to make is that in the eleventh century relatively small groups of men could achieve military success. Pitched battles were uncommon and usually small scale. Hastings was unusual in the numbers involved and was the only major battle of the conquest of England. Sieges were much more likely, and here the key was to persuade a garrison to surrender. Leadership was key, and it is undoubtedly the case that William the Conqueror, Robert Guiscard, and Bohemond were amongst the outstanding leaders of their day. Not only were they immensely capable, but they could attract men into their followings. It is worth remembering, too, that many of their men were not Norman, and they recruited locals as needed.

Then it is worth thinking about the theatres of war in which they fought. The British Isles had been an object of ambition for Scandinavian societies, and the Danish kings Swein and Cnut had conquered England which thus became part of a Danish empire. It effectively ended in the later 11th century when the Danes were unable to eject the Normans. In Italy, both western and eastern emperors had claims to authority, but in practice the localization and contested nature of power gave opportunities to the Normans as soldiers of fortune. The near east, too, was a region contested between different powers including the Abbasids of Egypt, the rulers of Baghdad and the Byzantine emperors as well as local rulers. Such rivalries obviously provided opportunities for the Normans.

In those regions where they were established, they have been seen as modernisers, bringing reform to both church and state. They have been credited with creating strong kingdoms in England, Scotland and Sicily, and establishing a framework of territorial dioceses in Britain, Italy, and Antioch. More recently different perspectives have come into play. Power relations are not only studied from the top down to lords, but also those between lords and their dependants, to see how far new lords sought to tie peasants ever more closely to the soil, and when and how slavery disappeared from the British Isles. Contacts between different cultures are now given more weight, thinking about how the newcomers interacted with the natives and how far they brought with them Norman culture. Archaeology and related disciplines have opened new veins of evidence. In castle studies there is greater awareness of diversity of form and function, of castles as characteristic of a noble way of life sitting in planned landscapes. The study of ancient DNA from archaeological digs is throwing light on subjects such as changing diet and perhaps ethnic identity.


Norman historical writing tended to focus on men, but it is clear that women were essential building blocks in their rise to power. Marriage was a means of gaining wealth and of sealing alliances, as well as establishing a family and a lineage. Reading medieval authors through the prism of gender and sexuality has thrown light on ideas about masculinity and femininity, of where the warrior fitted into a Christian landscape which valorised qualities which were the opposite of physical courage and militancy. In southern Italy and Antioch especially, there were different varieties of Christian as well as Jewish and Muslim communities to take account of.

Recent research has thus highlighted the diversity and complexity of the different worlds into which the Normans arrived, and there was far more to their story than that of war. Nevertheless, in exploring context and interaction we must never forget that at the heart are individuals who were undoubtedly charismatic leaders. When Bohemond visited France in 1106 in a speaking tour to raise funds for the east, for instance, many are said to have been so impressed that they christened their sons after him. They were not sympathetic characters. William the Conqueror was a violent man even by the standards of the day. Robert Guiscard’s nickname ‘Guiscard’ meant ‘the wily’, and so he was. But ruthless and opportunistic, they changed the face of Europe.

Judith Green Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of The Normans: Power, Conquest and Culture in 11th Century Europe.

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