Brief History of the World Wiki
Viking Age
Period Early Middle Ages
Dates 840-978 AD
Preceded by
Age of Charlemagne
Followed by
End of the Early Middle Ages
The number of ships increases, the endless flood of Vikings never ceases to grow bigger. Everywhere Christ's people are the victims of massacre, burning and plunder. The Vikings overrun all the lies before them, and none can withstand them.

–Ermentarius of Noirmoutier

The Viking Age lasted from about 84 the end of the Early Middle Ages (476-978 AD). It began with the intensification of Scandinavian Viking activities from 840 AD, after the sporadic early raiding that began with Lindisfarne in 793 AD. It then ended with the reign of King Ethelred the Unready of England, which would set in motion the events that led to the Norman conquest of England.

On 8 June 793, the Vikings exploded onto the historical record with their raid on the island monastery of Lindisfarne in north-eastern England. There is nothing very unusual in history about a barbarian peoples erupting from their homelands to devastate a weak but relatively rich society, but a few factors made the Vikings uniquely terrifying. Firstly as pagans, they recognised no special sanctity in Christian churches and monasteries, appearing out of "the frozen north" like something out of a nightmare, and showing no mercy. Secondly they were masters of the sea, with their characteristic longships taking them far and wide, and up rivers far inland; since none of the Western realms were confident sailors, raiders could easily outrun pursuit. The third factor that made the Vikings different from other raiders was their ability not just to settle lands but to leave behind lasting communities, based around a well-established tradition of assembly politics known as the Thing. At the same time as the Viking were falling time and time again on coast and river valleys of the northern Europe, another group of pagan marauders played a similar role in the east. The Magyars, a pagan people originating north of the Crimea, established themselves on the Hungarian grasslands, and raided west into Germany and Italy, as well as Burgundy and France.

These incursions had a profound impact on the cultures they interacted with; and far from entirely negative. Some of them responded to the threat by drawing together. Anglo-Saxon England is a good example, where only one of the kingdoms could successfully stand up to the wave of Viking attacks and settlement. This was Wessex and it gave England its first national hero, Alfred the Great. In 871 Alfred inflicted the first decisive defeat on a Danish army at Edington, and his descendants went on to consolidate all of England under a single king; it has remained in political unity ever since. Another example is Scotland, where the Celtic peoples were drawn together by constant Viking pressure into a kingdom under the House of Alpin. Others responded to the threat by fracturing, with France being the classical example, where royal authority almost completely collapsed. The great nobles were able to draw more and more power into a dozen or so feudal territories, because they could offer protection against Viking hit-and-run tactics, more effectively than the sluggish royal armies. In 911 Charles III, unable to expel the Vikings, conceded lands in what was later Normandy to them; the Normans would soon become French in speech and law, as one of the most powerful feudal states of Western Europe. Still others were a mix of these two responses. In Ireland, the Vikings founded a number of settlements, the most significant in the long-term being Dublin. Although Ireland was almost drawn together under Brian Boru who broke Viking power at the Battle of Clontarf (1014), he failed to establish a stable dynasty and the country fragmented again. Another example is Germany, where the great dukes recognised the need for a strong leader against Viking and Magyar raiders. One of these, Otto the Great, inflicted a defeat on the Magyars that ended their threat for ever, and went on to forge a vast realm covering much of central Europe into the Holy Roman Empire. It was a remarkable achievement and undoubtedly the most powerful realm in Europe of the 10th and 11th century, but the paradox of a monarch elected by great nobles proved fragile in the long term.

Trade with the Byzantine and Muslim world rather than plunder was the main reason that the Vikings penetrated deep into Eastern Europe via the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers from the 9th-century. There they intermingled with the Eastern Slavs to form the sprawling realm of Kievan Rus, the cultural origins of Russia. It was heavily influenced by the Byzantine Empire, which at the time was enjoying a spectacular Golden Age under the dynasty established by Emperor Basil I. The very zenith of Byzantine power came under Basil II, who conquered Bulgaria, establishing the Danube once again as a stable and secure northern frontier. Meanwhile in the east, Byznatines was now the ones on the offensive, the armies of the Prophet retreating as the Muslim world entered a period of decline and regional powers. Perhaps the most spectacular achievement of the Vikings was their colonisation of remote islands. Settlement in Iceland and Greenland placed them in an ideal position for further exploration; historians no longer dispute the evidence that the Vikings reached North America, over five-hundred years before Christopher Columbus. Once the traumas of their raids had passed, what the Viking left behind everywhere was a more developed commercial culture and a vast trading network connecting parts of the world that had previously had little or no connection. Gradually the story of pagan incursions became the story of the Christianisation of northern and eastern Europe, and establishment of stable kingdoms: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Bulgaria, the Slavs, and Russia all accepted either Roman or Orthodox Christianity by the end of the 10th-century or shortly afterwards.


The Vikings[]

Viking towns of Scandinavia.jpg

In the year 793 in England, the monks on the island monastery of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumbria, were unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of a fleet of dragon-headed longships filled pagan marauders bearing wicked axes and ruin covers swords. If the hysterical accounts of Alcuin of York (d. 804), a prominent scholar at Charlemagne's court. are to be believed, they proceeded to burn the buildings, plunder whatever looked valuable, and either kill the monks.or carry them away as slaves. It was but the first of many such raids, and is traditionally used to mark the beginning of the Viking Age (793-1066). The Lindisfarne attack was not the first encounter with the people of Scandinavia who had long used to the North Sea to trade in amber, honey, wax, fur, and walrus ivory. Indeed, four years earlier, three Viking ships had beached in Wessex where an official was killed, though this was probably a trading expedition that went wrong. Yet the attack on one of the most prominent monastic communities in Europe shook all of Christendom to its core. In western European tradition, the portrait of these fascinating Scandinavians was from the start obscured by their horrific impact as marauders. Certainly, they had some very nasty habits, but so did most barbarians. Some exaggeration must also be allowed for, especially because our main sources comes from monks doubly appalled, both as Christians and as victims, by attacks on churches and monasteries. The Norse Sagas, do bear-out the fact that they were more than partial to a bit of sacking and skull-crushing; none were written down before 12th-century, centuries after the Viking Age, predominantly in Iceland based on long oral tradition. Yet the Viking colonial and mercantile activities were their most spectacular achievement.

The Oseberg Ship, a well-preserved Viking ship in the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. It was an ocean going vessels before it was hauled onto land to be used in burial rituals for its wealthy owner near Tønsberg in Norway.

The Vikings were not a race; the origin of the word is unknown but it possibly simply means “raider” in Old Norse. Most came from settlements around the coast of the areas now known as Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Their common trait was that they came from a foreign land, and were not “civilized” in the local understanding of the word. The Viking Age was simply the last and most dramatic period in the long story of folk-movements from Scandinavia; this may have been the original homeland of the Goths, Burgundians, and Lombards. Scandinavians again began to move outwards from the 8th century onwards. As in the case of many other folk-movements, the reasons are by no means clear, but are possibly rooted in over-population and land-hunger. The coastlines were dotted with fishing and farming communities, in a region with a very short growing season; they could thus go from population growth to over-population very quickly. Invariably it was the young men who would coalesce into warbands and seek opportunities elsewhere. As the Sagas make clear, some were motivated to leave by Internal feuding and by the exile of a communities bad-seeds. Finally, Scandinavia had a cult of personal valour even more intense than that of Christian Europe. A man's social worth was defined by his skill as a warrior, and death on the battlefield the surest route to the afterlife in Valhalla. There is nothing very unusual in history about a barbarian peoples erupting from their homelands to devastate more settled communities; the same phenomena has already been seen in the late Roman Empire and the Muslim conquests, among others. Yet a few things made the Vikings uniquely terrifying. Firstly, as pagans, Vikings saw no special sanctity in the poorly defended concentrations of precious metals and food so conveniently provided by such places churches and monasteries. Some historians have speculate that the Vikings were in part retaliating for Christianity's encroachment into pagan lands, especially Charlemagne's conquest and forced conversion of Saxony on the Baltic coast from 772. These merciless pagans, hardened by their harsh northern existence, inspired berserker madness, and clothed in the skins of wolves or bears, must have appeared like something out of a nightmare of "the frozen north"; alas the horned helmets, impractical in battle anyway, are a modern myth popularised by 19th-century theatre. The second factor was the mastery of the sea and rivers by the vikings. At home, they lived in small independent communities around the coast, where the mountainous terrain and fjords made the sea the easiest way of communication with one another. Originally invented for trading, the Viking would negotiate the seas in their superbly streamlined longships, equipped with oars along almost the length of the boat, and a rectangular single-mast sail. These were wide enough to be stable on the open ocean, with a shallow enough draft to sail up rivers as little as one meter deep, and light enough to be carried overland. This advantage cannot be overstates. None of the Western realms were confident sailors; the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain had been the last to seriously put to sea. In a single day, the Vikings could raid a monasteries, check-out another monasteries for later, and be back on the water before any local forces could be mustered. If an army was encountered, they could pick-and-chose their battles, or easily outrun their enemies to look for easier targets. The Vikings were never especially capable at siegecraft, yet they would capture a great many well-fortified cities through surprise attacks or clever deceits. The third factor that made the Vikings different from other raiders was their ability to construct governments. They were not a literate peoples in terms of producing a literary legacy, at least not during the Viking Age, though they did use runes in worship. But assemblies of all the free men of a community were a well-established tradition. At the Thing, the community would gather to discuss matters of justice, to amend laws, and to assess the response to any new situation. They would thrust out across the water for four centuries, and not just settle lands but to leave behind lasting communities which in the end stretched from Greenland to Kiev.


The Vikings of popular imagination thus differ considerably from the complex historical reality. Not all sought the same things. The Norwegians who struck-out to the Scottish islands, Iceland, and the far west were searching for land to settle, grow crops and raise animals. The Swedes who penetrated Russia were much busier with trading for goods. The Danes did most of the plundering and piracy the Vikings are remembered for; extortion not to raid was equally effective way of getting rich. But all these themes of the Scandinavian migrations wove in and out of one another, and no branch had a monopoly of any one of them. Invariably they began with opportunistic raiding, and their subsequent behaviour depended on the cultures they encountered: in Iceland, they found no people, so they settled; and in Byzantium and Muslim world, they found powerful enemies, so they mostly traded. It was in the wealthy but relatively weak British Isles and France where the Vikings truly earned their reputation. Yet once the traumas of murder, rape, enslavement and destruction passed, the Vikings left behind a more developed commercial culture, and a vast trading network connecting parts of the world that had previously had little to no contact.

Vikings in the British Isles[]

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, founded by the Irish monk St. Aidan before 634. After the Viking raid, the monastery continued to flourish until the monks fled the island in 875, taking with them the bones of St. Cuthbert. It was re-established in Norman times in 1093 and continued until its suppression in 1536 under Henry VIII.

The Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793 was a story repeated time and again. The coast of the British Isles was now dotted with monasteries, not yet rich by the standards of continental monasticism but with sufficient wealth to attract hit-and-run raids. Within two years on Lindisfarne, there were raids recorded on the nearby monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria, on Iona off Scotland's west coast, and Rathlin in the Irish Sea. By the 830s, the constant threat increasing prompted the abandonment of coast monasteries for safer sites away from the coast, and the pattern to change: inland settlements along waterways were targeted; and encampments were established on islands to remain throughout the winter. In Scotland, it was the northern and western Isles that bore the brunt of the Vikings’ unwanted attentions, where they established a semi-autonomous earldom owing fealty to the Norwegian crown, that lasted until the 13th-century; the Kingdom of the Isles. And there were political consequences. The cohesion of Dál Ríata, which spanned southwestern Scotland and northeastern Ireland, had long been under strain. Viking control of the sea lanes now made communications more and more difficult. and, before long, the two halves of the territory had gone their separate ways, with the Scottish half gradually coalescing with Pictish society to form the embryonic Kingdom of Scotland. Ireland was the focus of much of the early Viking attention. Ireland was particularly weak; a patchwork of a hundred or so petty-kingdoms, whose rulers wouldn't allow the arrival of foreign marauders distract them from their own feuding. At the same time, the great Irish monasteries were relatively rich, as local rulers often used them as rudimentary banks. Moreover, in a land that had never been part of the Roman world, where roads were all but unknown, they were invariably located on the coast or rivers. By the 830s, the Vikings were beginning to establish fortified encampments, longports, along the Irish coast and overwintering in Ireland instead of retreating to Scandinavia. One settlement on the River Liffey founded in 841, soon became a thriving trading-post; from these small beginnings grew Ireland's capital city of Dublin. Other cities founded by the Vikings include Waterford, Wexford, Cork, and Limerick. These quickly settled down as just another type of petty-kingdom among many. The Irish language records their importance by its adoption of Norse words in commerce.


From the 835, the Vikings refocused their energies on Anglo-Saxon England which went on regularly year after year, the same towns being plundered again and again; Canterbury was plundered in 842 and again in 851. In 850, Vikings overwintered for the first time in England to extend their raiding season. Having realised how vulnerable all the English kingdoms were, things dramatically escalated. In 865, a Viking army of unprecedented size arrived on the east coast, equipped to settle as well as to raid; the Great Heathen Army. It is said to have been led by the three sons of a Viking chieftain killed at the hands of the king of Northumbria; traditionally identified as the semi-legendary Saga figure Ragnar Lodbrok, executed by being thrown into a pit of venomous snakes. The Viking army wintered in East Anglia, and then headed north over the River Humber into Northumbria. At the time, Northumbria was in the midst of a civil war. Before long the Vikings had killed both rivals, and captured the Northumbrian capital of York; the old Roman city of Eboracum. For the next 90-years, it would be the centre of the Danish realm in England known as Danelaw (866-954). In 869, one portion of the army headed south, and conquered East Anglia, after capturing and killing its king. Two years later, the Vikings were further reinforced by a new host from Scandinavia, the Great Summer Army under Bagsecg.

Portrait of Alfred the Great from the 18th-century by Samuel Woodforde. His reign is regarded as pivotal in the eventual emergence of the English nation, after he famously defended Wessex and southern England against the overwhelming Viking onslaught.

Only one Anglo-Saxon kingdom seemed capable stand up to the wave of Viking attacks. This was Wessex, and it was to give England its first national hero, Alfred the Great (871-899). When he was born, it must have seemed unlikely that Alfred would ever be king as he had three elder brothers. He may have been destined for a clerical or scholarly life, for he was well-travelled in his youth, accompanying his father on a pilgrimage to Rome twice, and spending some time in the French court. Nevertheless, Wessex was ruled by his three brothers in succession before Alfred acceded to the throne in April 871. He would proved a wise ruler and a brilliant warrior-king; the only monarch in English history to earn the epithet "the Great", except the Scandinavian king Cnut the Great (d. 1035). Alfred's early reign was a struggled for survival against a roaming Viking army under Guthrum, which had been plaguing southern England for a decade. Many battles were fought in Wessex, including the first significant English victory at the Battle of Ashdown (January 871). According to English tradition Ashdown persuaded the Vikings to withdraw for a few years, but in fact Alfred almost certainly bribed them to leave; a precursor of the Danegeld of later less fated rulers. This merely shifted the problem to Mercia, which had lost the eastern half of it's territory by 877. Nevertheless, for five years Wessex was left in peace, and Alfred made good use of the time. He reorganised his people on a war footing, based around a network of fortified strongholds at strategic points known as Burghs, manned by a local militias levied from the surrounding Shire, and under a centrally appointed royal official called the shire-revee (or sheriff); many of the boundaries established by Alfred would remain in use until a major overhaul in 1974. Some of these Burghs were twin strongholds straddling rivers, and connected by a fortified bridge that would block the passage of Viking ships; a French innovation that had been used for a generation or so with some success. These Burghs would later have unforeseen benefits; market towns gradually grewing around them, helping to revive urban life in England. Alfred also established the beginnings of a navy, and by 875 could boast a modest victory against seven Danish ships. After 876, the Vikings were regularly breaking the peace treaty, and perhaps came to appreciate that the greatest barrier to conquering all England was the king of Wessex himself. In the winter of 878, they launched a surprise attack on the royal hunting lodge of Chippenham, which Alfred barely escaped with his life into the nearby swamp. There is a famous legend that the king was sheltered by a peasant woman who, unaware of his identity, left him to watch some baking; preoccupied with the problems of the realm, he let the cakes burn and was roundly scolded upon her return. This was the low-water mark for the Anglo-Saxon cause, the nearest that the Vikings ever came to conquering the whole of England. But within a few months Alfred had regrouped, and launched a surprise counter-offensive, winning a decisive victory at the Battle of Edington (May 878). He then pursued the Vikings to their encampment, and exacted a new peace agreement. The Treaty of Wedmore (878) effectively formalised the status quo; the mutual co-existence of Alfred's dominion over south-western half of England and Viking Danelaw of the north-east. Perhaps more significantly, Guthrum, the Danish ruler of East Anglia, agreed not only to withdraw from Wessex but to accept baptism as a Christian. This registered that the Vikings were in England to stay, but also that the Vikings might be divided from one another. The next time a Viking warband harassed England in 885, the Danes of East Anglia were just as motivated to defend their new homeland as the Anglo-Saxons. Moreover Alfred used this raid as a pretext to seize London, crucial for the defence of Wessex since the River Thames flowed right into its heartland. Soon Alfred was leader of all the surviving English kingdoms; he was the only king left. He borrowed heavily from the Franks to rule his kingdom. His laws resembled, and even quoted from, Carolingian law codes. The appearance of a hierarchy of judicial assemblies for shires parallels Frankish procedures. Alfred also deliberately undertook the cultural and intellectual regeneration of his people. The scholars of his court, like those of Charlemagne, proceeded by way of copying and translating classics deemed "most necessary for all men to know"; the Anglo-Saxon nobleman and cleric were to learn of Bede and Boethius in their own English vernacular. Alfred's successors went on marry into the Carolingian and Ottonian royal families. England was thus a heir of the Carolingian project as much as France and Germany; an irony which Charlemagne could never have imagined. While he never used the title for himself, Alfred the Great is traditionally considered the first King of England.

Carved figure of King Athelstan from the 15th-century in Ripon Cathedral, Yorkshire. His reign has been overshadowed by the achievements of his grandfather, Alfred, but he was the first king of all England.

This was a basis for his Alfred's successors to conquer the Scandinavian kingdom, and unite, indeed create England for the first time. His son Edward (889-924) won a crushing victory against a large-scale Viking incursion at the Battle of Tettenhall (August 910), and by the end of his reign had wrestled East Anglia, Essex and eastern Mercia away from the Danelaw. Each advance was secured with fortified strongholds on Alfred’s model. For the most part, the Danes welcomed incorporation into of England, with civilisation and Christianity having done their slow work; people settled on the land wanted law and order, and protection from roaming warbands. Moreover, wherever the Vikings settled lands, we see a strong tendency to assimilate with the rest of the population; when the the Norman descendants of Viking turned to the conquest of England in 1066 they were really Frenchmen. In 927, Alfred’s grandson Athelstan (924-939) conquered Northumbria and took York, thus becoming the first king to have direct rule of all England. The unification however was not yet certain. Athelstan's successors repeatedly lost and regained control of Northumbria, until Eric Bloodaxe, the last Viking ruler of Northumbria, was expelled in 954. Edgar (959-975) ruled long and stabilty over the same expanse as Athelstan, creating the strength of the late English state; it has remained in political unity ever since. It was only when ability failed in Alfred’s line under Ethelred the Unready (978-1013) that the Anglo-Saxon monarchy came to grief and a new Viking offensive took place.

Donald II (889-900), commonly considered the first king of Scotland. A 17th-century portrait from Holyrood.

Just as England was coming of age, at almost exactly the same time a new kingdom was forming in Scotland. in the early 9th-century, there were at least four distinctive ethnic groups in the northern-most part of the British Isles: the Picts in the north and east, the Gaelic speaking Scots in the west, while the south was contested between Celtic Britons and Anglo-Saxons. Like the rest of the British Isle, Scotland was raided repeatedly by the Vikings. In 839, a large Viking fleet invaded via the River Tay and River Earn, and reached into the heart of the Pictish kingdom. There they defeated and killed the king of the Picts, along with much of Pictish aristocracy in battle. The sophisticated kingdom, which had been stable for more than 100 years, fell into chaos. According to tradition, Scotland's first national hero, Kenneth MacAlpin (d. 858), stepped into the power vacuum, and led a united force of Scots and Picts to drive the Vikings out of Scotland; he was then accepted as the first king of the unified Kingdom of Alba, the future Kingdom of Scotland (889-1707). A nice heroic story but sadly a myth. Modern historians reveal a more complicated and gradual process of unification. Kenneth was a Pictish noble, presumably with ties to previous kings, who became king of the Picts after the Vikings finally move-on, presumably when there was no more plunder to be had. With Pictland left devastated, it came under intense pressure from its neighbours, and eventually the throne was usurped by a Gaelic Scots noble. Two of Kenneth's grandsons, Donald and Constantine, fled Scotland and grew-up in exile in the north of Ireland. In 889, they returned and seized-back the throne of the Picts, with Donald II Alpin (889-900) and then his cousin Constantine II Alpin (900–943) becoming king; two kings of Pictish descent who had grown-up steeped in the Gaelic way of life, language, and religious tradition. Gradually Pictish ways fell out of favour, and Gaelic culture prevailed throughout the united Kingdom of Alba, especially during the long stable reign of Constantine. He introduced an important new ceremony, being crowned in the royal city of Scone upon the sacred Stone of Destiny, a simple block of sandstone whose origin has sadly been lost to the mists of time. It would form the basis for all future coronation of Scottish monarchs. The young kingdom's survival was touch-and-go from the outset. In 934, king Athelstan of England invaded Scotland for uncertain reasons, probably a border dispute since there was no clearly defined border between the two kingdoms. Constantine never engaged the large Anglo-Saxon force, instead withdrawing to the virtually impregnable fortress of Dunnottar, where he negotiated a withdrawal on acknowledging Æthelstan as overlordship of Scotland. Dissatisfied with this arrangement, Constantine built an alliance with Viking king Olaf of Dublin, and invaded England in turn. The two sides clashed at the Battle of Brunanburh (937), about which little is known except that it was an English victory and it was known in Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Irish, and Norse sources simply as "the great battle" for decades afterwards. Even the location of the battle has been the subject of lively debate. Æthelstan's victory preserved the unity of England, but the two kingdoms were destined to be each others most persistent foes, culminating in the English invasion of Scotland of 1298. Meanwhile, the legacy of the Viking Age would not end for Scotland until the 15th-century. The Scandinavians had settled the islands around the Scottish coast as the Kingdom of the Isles (c. 840-1266), including the Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, and the islands of the Firth of Clyde, as well as the Isle of Man. Most of these islands were brought into Scottish hands in the Treaty of Perth (1266), and the last two groups - the Orkneys and Shetlands - with the marriage of James III of Scotland and Margaret of Denmark in 1496.

One of the earliest depictions of Brian on the 1723 publication of Dermot O'Connor's translation of Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The History of Ireland), originally written in Irish in 1634.

Key to the birth of nationhood in England and Scotland was the establishment of a stable dynasty; the House of Wessex (871-1013) and House of Alpin (889-1034). During the 9th and 10th centuries, frequent Viking raids on Celtic Wales forced the patchwork of petty-kingdoms to cooperate, but attempts at political unity proved only partially successful and impermanent. Rhodri Mawr (d. 878), the king of Gwynedd, won a notable victory against the Viking in 856, and was widely accepted as king of almost the entire region by the end of his reign. But according to Welsh custom his realms were divided between his sons upon his death. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (d. 1063) was the only ruler to be able to unite all of Wales under his rule. The Vikings did not colonised Wales heavily, though evidence of some settlement in the south remains in place names such as Swansea. In Celtic Ireland, Viking raiding forced a greater measure of political aggregation in order to resist them. We begin from here on to find petty-kings who ruled wider areas than they had done in the past, or even claimed the title of "High King of Ireland". The Irish annals list an almost unbroken sequence of holders of the titles dating all the way back to the 4nd-century, but most modern historians believe the concept of national kingship is no older than the 8th-century; regional-kings projecting their houses back into the remote past to legitimise their current status. The High King, who sat at Tara in Meath, supposedly ruled over a hierarchy of petty-kingdoms under the regional-kings of Munster, Leinster, Connacht, Ulster, and Meath. Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid (d. 862) is regarded as the first genuine High Kings, though his power was limited to Ulster and Munster. In truth, with a population of fewer than half-a-million people, Ireland had up to 150 greater or lessor petty-kingdoms, whose allegiance to a High King was given when it suited and withdrawn just as quickly. The 10th-century Viking strongholds of Dublin and other around the coast simply took their place in the shifting power struggles. As power was being consolidated across the water in England and Scotland, such developments could hardly have escaped the attention of an ambitious Irish king. Brian Boru (d. 1014) was the chieftain of a kingdom on the River Shannon, which had grown in power under his father and elder brother to be the most powerful in Munster in the south-west. Within two years of becoming king in 976, Brian had defeated his last rivals in Munster, Viking Limerick and Cashel, and been proclaimed overking of the province. He demanded tributes of all kinds from his vassal, especially the most precious commodity of the age, cattle; Brian Boru means "Brian of the cattle tributes". With a might army, he set about trying to control the whole island of Ireland. By 997, he had force Leinster in the south-east into submission, and reached an agreement with the Uí Néill whereby they recognised their respective halves of the country; the Uí Néill in the north and Brian in the south. But this peace was short-lived. Three years later, Brian resumed his attack on the Uí Néill home province of Meath, and forced them to surrender the title of High King in 1002. For ten years, Brian was the undisputed king of Ireland. He seems to have sought to establish a new form of kingship in Ireland, modeled on the English example; simply one king who had power over a unitary state. But no sooner had all of the regional rulers in Ireland acknowledged Brian's authority, than it was lost again. In 1012, Leinster and Viking Dublin rose in a rebellion that culminated in the Battle of Clontarf (April 1014) outside the walls of Dublin. The battle lasted from sunrise to sunset, and in the end the rebel forces were utterly routed; the provincial king of Leinster and the Viking king of Dublin were both slain. Brian Boru didn't live to enjoy the fruits of his victory. It is said that some fleeing enemies founded him in his tent after the battle and killed him; his eldest son had already died in the battle. Without Brian, Munster descended into civil war between his younger sons, and the provincial kings reasserted their independence; there would be no all-powerful High King of Ireland. The Battle of Clontarf later took on a greater role in the popular imagination, with Brian Boru uniting the native Christian Irish to free the land from pagan Viking occupation. A nice story but utter nonsense. The Vikings had been a lessor power long before Clontarf; twelve Viking earls had died at the Battle of Brunanburh (937), many of them from Ireland. Viking Ireland certainly dwindled after Clontarf, with Dublin formally incorporated into Leinster in 1052, and left few traces, except introducing red hair and freckles into the Irish gene pool. Meanwhile if anything, Brian's example led to even greater anarchy over the title of High King, which was almost always "High Kings with opposition" in the parlance of the Irish annals; one scholar wrote how competing kings had turned the island into a "trembling sod". This remained the case until a new group of invaders of Viking descent arrived on the Irish coast in 1169, the fateful conquest of the Anglo-Normans.

Vikings in France[]

Viking siege of Paris, 19th century portrayal

The first recorded Viking raid in France occurred during the reign of Charlemagne (d. 814) in 799, with an attack on the island monastery of Noirmoutier, near the estuary of the River Loire. Systematic raiding did not begin until 835, with the activity alternating between the two sides of the English Channel. Taking advantage of the civil wars between the sons of Louis the Pious, big raids took place on Antwerp and Noirmoutier in 836, on Rouen on the Seine in 841 and on Quentovic and Nantes on the Loire in 842. Within a few years a Frankish chronicler bewailed that "the endless flood of Vikings never ceases to grow". In March 845, a fleet of 120 Viking longships with more than 5,000 men entered the Seine, under a Danish chieftain tentatively identified as the semi-legendary Saga figure Ragnar Lodbrok. On their way up river, Ragnar's forces raided Rouen again, and defeated a small Frankish army sent against them; 111 prisoners were hanged on an island in the Seine to honour Odin and incite terror in the remaining Frankish forces. King Charles the Bald (840–877) could assemble no effective defence, and on reaching Paris, they plundered the city and only left when paid a ransom of 5,600 lbs of silver and gold. By 850s, towns as far inland as Limoges, Orléans, Tours and Angoulême were attacked, and the Vikings were over-wintering in the lower Seine valley. They rowed to Paris three more times in the 860s, leaving each time only with sufficient plunder or bribes. This not only convinced the Vikings that the Franks were weak, but further aggravated the already grave internal problems of the French kings. 


Central authourity crumbled away in the face of their ravages, as men grew increasing resistant to handing over their valuables to royal tax collectors, and looked more and more towards their local lord for protection. Nevertheless, the French did eventually devise a method of stymieing the Vikings. This was with fortified bridges, that prevented their longships from passing without fighting. In 864, two were built in Paris, one on each side of the Île de la Cité. Significantly this was not a royal initiative, for France suffered under a series of short-reigning kings after Charles the Bald, and in 884 the French nobles elected, Charles the Fat, already king in Germany and Italy, as their king. Instead the bridges were commissioned by Robert the Strong (d. 866), count of the region around Paris, and they served admirably in the Siege of Paris (885-886). When an unprecedented Viking fleet of 700 longships carrying as many as 30,000 men again attacked Paris, Robert's son and successor Count Odo of Paris (d. 898) refused their demands for tribute, though he could muster no more than 200 men-at-arms. When an initial assault on Paris was repulsed, the Vikings settled in for a protracted siege. For almost a year, they kept-up the siege, periodically attempting assaults. With each failure, the Viking numbers steady dwindled as members drifted way to find easier targets. In October 885, Charles the Fat (876-888), finally arrived with his army and drove-off the last stragglers. His handling of the siege greatly damaged Carolingian prestige, and when Charles died, Odo was chosen by the French nobles to be their king as Odo I Robertian (888-898). Throughout the next century the Carolingian and Robertian lines vied for the French throne, with support for one or other depending on where the great nobles considered their best interests, further undermining royal authority.

Rollo on the Six Dukes statue in Falaise town square, Normandy, France

By the reign of Charles III Carolingian (893-929), the Vikings had been settled in the lower Seine valley for decades, in what would later be Normandy. The new settlers frequently quarreled among themselves until a Viking name Rollo (d. 927), who had built his reputation in Britain and Ireland, emerged as the outstanding personality among them. He was known as Rollo the Walker because he was so large that horses could accommodate him and had to go everywhere on foot. In 911, Rollo made another wild attempt on Paris, and when this failed, he besieged the smaller city of Chartres. King Charles was able to lift the siege but not drive-off the Vikings completely, so with no more gold to offer in tribute, he made Rollo an astonishing offer. In what became known as the Treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte (911), Charles officially granted Rollo feudal rights over the city of Rouen and the surrounding territory. In exchange, Rollo pledged vassalage to the French king, agreed to be baptised a Christian along with his entire army, and promised to guard the River Seine from further Viking attacks. True to his word, Viking raids on French soil did gradually subside from this point on. No doubt King Charles believed that his grant of land to the Vikings was a temporary measure that could be taken back later, but in Rollo he had unwittingly found a brilliant adversary. Rollo instantly recognised what he had; a premier stretch of northern France possessed of some of the finest farmland in the country, criss-crossed with rivers full of fish, and rich in forests and game for the hunting. To survive in his new home meant abandoning most of his Viking traditions, assimilating with and winning the loyalty of his French subjects; he himself married the daughter of a French noble and encouraged his men to find French wives too. Within a generations, the Normans, as they became known, had taken to the French language, feudal social structure, administrative and legal systems, customs, and style of warfare; Viking armies always fought on foot, but the Normans would ride into their battles mounted. One final change took a little longer to sink-in; the conversion to Christianity. Rollo himself hedged his bets, having 100 prisoners sacrificed to Odin on his death. The descendants of Rollo and their French wives faced an uncertain future, surrounded by predatory neighbours and the French crown always looking for an excuse to reclaim its lost territory. Yet they would not only survive but thrive, becoming one of the most powerful feudal states of Western Europe.

Hugh Capet, the founder of the Capetian Dynasty (987-1328).

By the reign of Louis IV Carolingian (936–54), the French king controlled only a few counties directly. For the rest, France was divided into a dozen or so feudal duchies ruled by nobles of varying standing and independence. Nor did this change when the Robertian candidate, Hugh Capet (987-996), definitively took the throne away from the Carolingian line. In truth, Hugh and his immediate successors were hardly more than crowned lords of a domain around Paris, and some of his nominal vassals ruled territories far larger. This was hardly indicative of a dynasty that would rule one of Europe’s most powerful countries for the next 800 years, if the cadet branches are included. Yet by a happy accident Hugh Capet's descendants, the Capetian Dynasty (987-1328), would succeed to the French throne without conflict until 1328. This longevity was seminal to the foundation of the nation state of France. These kings would slowly but steadily increased their power, prestige, and influence, until it grew to encompass almost the entirety of the realm during the reigns of Philip II and Louis IX in the 13th-century.

Vikings in Russia[]


Although there was no doubt plenty of sporadic raiding, the main reason predominantly Swedish Vikings penetrated deep into eastern Europe during the 9th-century was trade rather than plunder. Like their cousins in the Humber and Seine, the Vikings used the much longer and deeper Russian rivers. Flowing north and south, the Dvina, Dnieper, Volga, and Don rivers made it remarkably easy for ships and goods to travel between the Baltic and the Black or Caspian seas. We hear of contacts with the Byzantine Empire in 838, and Abbasid Caliphate sources mention them by 846. In the East, the Vikings were known as the Rus', probably deriving from the Old Norse word for "rower", and would ultimately give their name to Russia. The birth of the Russian state is usually identified with the founding in 862 of Novgorod near Lake Ilmen, well positioned at the headwaters of the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers. Here, according to the earliest sources, a group of Vikings led by a chieftain called Rurik (d. 879) and his brothers established a settlement, and set themselves up as overlords of the local Eastern Slavic tribes. Rurik and his follower then traded and raided south in true Viking fashion. In 860 an expedition with 200 ships reached Constantinople, not exactly threatening the great city, but certainly giving the citizens a good scare; "a people has crept down from the north, ... the people is fierce and has no mercy". In 882, Rurik's son Oleg Rurikovich captured the city of Kiev from the Turkic Khazar Khaganate, a huge but loose state to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Kiev was so well-situated on the north-south trade routes between Scandinavia and the Byzantine Empire, that he moved his capital there. The Rus' seemingly brought with them no women, and were in time demographically swallowed by the Eastern Slavs. Yet there is justice in this small group of Vikings giving Russia her name. They brought with them important commercial techniques, great skills in navigation and the management of their longships, as well as formidable fighting power. Oleg of Kiev again attacked Constantinople in 907, while the Byzantines fleet was scattered widely across the eastern Mediterannean. He is said to have carried his ships overland right into the imperial harbour, and blockaded the entrance until he extracted an unusually favourable trading privileges; an even more comprehensive and detailed treaty was concluded four years later. Half a century or so after the semi-legendary Rurik, it was a reality, a sort of river-federation known as Kievan Rus (882–1240), centred on Kiev and connecting Rus' settlements over a vast region in the common interest of maintaining trade; these included Novgorod, Rostov, Vladimir, Suzdal, Chernigov, Halych, Minsk, and Smolensk, among others.

The Baptism of Vladimir, a fresco by Viktor Vasnetsov

By the reign of Vladimir the Great (980-1015), Grand Prince of Kiev, the settled and prosperous Rus state had begun to seem something new and different from Vikings or Slavs; they were Russians. Vladimir took the step that, more than any other, would give Russia its characteristic identity; the conversion of his pagan realm to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. There was already a Christian church in Kiev in 882, probably for Byzantine merchant, and some Rus' merchants are believed to have been baptized; indeed the trade agreements with Byzantium allowed Christian missionaries to travel freely throughout the Rus' lands. Vladimir had probably been exposed to Christianity in his youth though his grandmother, Olga, who was baptized in 957, but at first he showed the ostentatious paganism expected of a Russian prince. Then around 987 he began to enquire of other religions. Legend says that he had their different merits debated before him; Russians treasure the story that Islam was rejected because it forbade alcoholic drink. Emissaries were sent to visit the Latin Christian Germany, but saw no beauty in their churches. It was Constantinople that won their hearts. Of Hagia Sophia, they could only report, in words often to be quoted, "we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we know only that there God dwells among men". The choice was accordingly made; Vladimir accepted Eastern Orthodox Christianity for himself and his people. Yet for all the zeal Vladimir showed in imposing baptism on his subjects, by physical force if necessary, it was not only enthusiasm which influenced him. There were diplomatic dimensions too. Vladimir had been giving military help to Emperor Basil II, and was now promised a Byzantine princess as a bride. This was an unprecedented acknowledgement of the standing of a prince of Kiev. The emperor's sister may be forgiven her obvious reluctance; her future husband already had four wives and 800 concubines. Vladimir’s choice of Eastern Orthodoxy was decisive of much more than diplomacy. Two hundred years later his countrymen acknowledged this; Vladimir was canonized a saint.

The Golden Gate of Kiev, the main gate in the 11th-century capital of Kievan Rus. The original was built by Yaroslav the Wise in 1024, but was destroyed by the Mongols in 1240. This is a somewhat controversial reconstructed by the Soviet Union for the 1500th anniversary of Kiev in 1982; no accurate idea exists of what the original gate looked like.

The peak of Kievan Rus' as a medieval state came under Vladimir's son, Yaroslav the Wise (1019-54). Yaroslav followed Justinian's example by promulgating Russia's first law code, the Russkaya Pravda, which remained in use until the legal reforms of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th-century. His reign also saw one of the first great works of Russian literature, The Primary Chronicle, an interpretation of Russian history in Christian terms. In the 10th and 11th century, Russia had in many ways a richer culture than most of western Europe could offer. Its cities were prosperous and vibrant trading centres where goods of all kinds were exchanged. Scandinavia and Russia offered amber, honey, wax, fur, walrus ivory, and above all Slavic slaves; the word "slave" derives from Slav. While slaves were particularly sought after in the Abbasid Caliphate after the Zanj Rebellion (869-883), a massive African slave revolt. On their return trip, ships brought silks, spices, wine, fruit, and other luxuries available in the Byzantine and Muslim worlds. Kiev became famous for the magnificence of its churches, decorated with fresco by Byzantine masters; one western visitor thought it rivalled Constantinople. Unfortunately for modern tourists, being of wood, none have survived. The Byzantines also introduced Russia to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography. Russia was then culturally as open to the outside world as it was ever to be for centuries. Yaroslav played the medieval game of matrimonial diplomacy as astutely as any of his contemporaries. Having himself married a Swedish princess, he found husbands for the royal womenfolk in the kings of Poland, France, Hungary, Norway, and Germany. A harried Anglo-Saxon royal family found refuge at his court, following their defeat by Cnut the Great. After Yaroslav's death, Kievan Rus' as a political entity gradually disintegrated into several independent regional principalities.

Germany of Otto the Great[]


Political fragmentation was to characterize German history down to the 19th-century, but in the 10th and 11th century things looked otherwise for a while. In 1000, imperial Germany was by far the militarily strongest western power, as well as the largest, including what we would now call the Low Countries, Switzerland and Austria throughout the Middle Ages. This dominant position might have looked stable enough, but was far from that, as the next century showed. Germany was hard to control in depth, given that most of it had never been Roman, was still heavily forested, and had few roads - the only real north–south route was along the River Rhine. Moreover, while it contained a portion the traditional Frankish heartland, most of the rest had been incorporated in the 8th-century, where Charlemagne's ideological project had least traction. In Germany, the assertiveness of regional nobles, combined with deep-rooted pre-Carolingian ethic, linguistic, and cultural identities, to produce a half-dozen sharply defined duchies. The four whose distinctions mattered most were the Franks of Franconia in the centre, the Alemanni of Swabia in the south-west, the Saxons in the north-east, and Bavarians in the south-east; a fifth duchy, Lorraine in the west, would frequently be disputed between France and Germany. As in France, internal challenges were further aggravated by external threats, which Germany faced from both the west and east. In the west, the Vikings used the River Rhine to penetrate deep into the German heartland. Their most significant expedition was in the winter of 881-82, when elements of the Great Heathen Army turned to the Rhinelands, after their defeat at the Battle of Edington (May 878) by Alfred the Great. Cologne, Bonn, Neuss, Jülich, Xanten, Trier, Andernach, and numerous monasteries were either plundered or coerced into paying huge bribes. One example, Cologne, bribed the Vikings sailing up the Rhine, but then couldn't pay on their return and the city was sacked and partially razed. In the Rhineland, the Vikings encountered the old Roman road network, and used it to plundered the old imperial capital of Aachen, even desecrating the cathedral where Charlemagne was buried. Yet, the Viking impact on Germany was nowhere near as dramatic as in France or the British Isles. Historians typically speculate that the shared-border with Denmark help in this, for it facilitated more direct political engagement with Scandinavia; we often hear of Viking raids followed by apologies and some recompense from Danish rulers. The Viking threat largely receded when they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Leuven (September 891), in modern-day Belgium. Contemporary German sources were much more concerned with incursions from the east by the pagan Magyars.

Grand Prince Árpád of the Magyar, whose descendants would rule Hungary until 1301.

The region north of the River Danube had long been Europe's doorway to the semi-nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppes. Here the Huns and Avars first presented themselves to the Roman Empire, demanding tribute. The Magyars, a pagan Finno-Ugric speaking people, had been living for several centuries in south Russia, near the mouth of the River Don, as vassals of the Turkic Khazar Khaganate (650-969). Around 862, they split from the Khazars, and began migrating westwards. After spending a few years in the Balkans in the service of the Byzantine emperors, they moved. Around 895, they were settled in the Hungarian Basin under their first great king, Árpád (d. 907). Although his people numbered no more than 25,000, they subdugated the scattered Slavic population of the region within the space of a few years. Árpád is traditionally regarded as one of the founders of the Hungarian nation, which somehow, in all the upheavals of central Europe, and surrounded by Slavic and German-speaking neighbours, has retained its identity and language down through the centuries. For several decades, the pagan Hungarians were a profoundly disruptive force in the region, constantly raiding into Germany and Italy, and occasionally as far west as Burgundy and France. Like other peoples of the Asian steppes, Magyar armies consisted almost entirely of mounted-archers. Attacking without warning, they would plunder the countryside, and then depart before any response could be mustered. If forced to fight, they would harass their enemies with arrows, then feign retreat, luring their enemy into pursuit and an ambush.

Statue of Henry the Fowler at the town hall of Hamburg, Germany.

When in 911, Louis the Child, last of the Carolingians, died without leaving a male heir, the only claimant descended from Charlemagne was King Charles III of France. Rather than reunite the old Frankish realm, the great German dukes elected one of their own to the vacant throne, Conrad of Franconia (911-18). The German dukes recognised that Viking and Magyar incursions required some coordinated response, but wanted a weak king in order to safeguard their own independence. But Conrad, as it turned out, was too weak. He was unable to halt the Magyar raiding, lost Lorraine to the French sphere of influence, and faced ducal rebellions. On his deathbed, Conrad nominated one of the rebels his successor and the dukes agreed; Henry the Fowler (919–36), Duke of Saxony. His descendant ruled Germany until 1024. Perhaps this was the moment at which there emerges a German state distinct from the Frankish realm. Henry is justly considered the founder of the medieval Germany, preventing a collapse of royal power, as had happened in France. He had on his side great advantages: the loyalty of the Saxon people, great family property and wealth from rich silver mines in the Harz Mountains, and a strong army, which trained by raiding and enslaving the Slavic-speaking peoples to the east. Henry spent the first six years of his reign fighting other dukes; only Franconia was cooperative, with the dukes of Swabia and Bavaria resenting his pretensions. He ultimately brought them into line by proving himself a good soldier. From 921, the Magyar escalated their raiding into Germany. At first, Henry seemed to regard his role as duke of Saxony as more important than defending all of Germany. But in 924, he capture of a Magyars prince, and managed to secure a ten-year truce for the region, in return for paying an annual tribute. By doing so he gained time to persuade the other dukes that only a strong state could defend their lands against the barbarians, to build an extensive system of fortifications, and to train a new elite heavy cavalry force. By 932, he felt strong enough to refuse further tribute payments to the Hungarians. When they launched a punitive expedition, Henry led an army of all Germans to victory at the Battle of Riade (933), crushing the Magyars so completely, that they didn't raid Germany again for 21 years. Later in his reign, he won back Lorraine from France, and pacified the north, where the Danes and Wends had been harrying the German coast. The former was made a tribute payers and the latter's territory annexing.

Replica of the Magdeburger Reiter, an equestrian monument of Otto I, Magdeburg, original c. 1240)

Henry's achievements gave him sufficient status that there to be no opposition to the succession of his son, Otto the Great (936-973). Otto made good use of the substantial inheritance from his father. Where Henry had allowed the dukes considerable leeway in their own regions, Otto insisted on strong kingship able to effect his will throughout the realm. This immediately led to a revolt by Franconia and Bavaria, which Otto was able to swiftly crush, deposing the former and pardoning the later. Two more revolts followed in 939 and 941, this time led by Otto's younger brother Henry; Otto's style of rule was in stark contrast to Frankish and Saxon tradition which dictated that all the sons of a former king were to receive an equal portion of the kingdom. All those involved were punished except Henry himself, who was twice forgiven. Otto's mercy worked; Henry was henceforth loyal to his brother, and was rewarded with the duchy of Bavaria. The other great German duchies also went to Otto's relatives, or were brought into his extended family through marriage. Throughout these internal difficulties, Otto still found time to strengthen and expand the frontiers of his realm. In the east, he used a combination of force and Christianity to pacify the frontier, bringing Slavic Bohemia (modern-day Czechia and Solvakia) firmly under German suzerainty. In the west, he act as mediator in France's internal troubles, and extended his influence into Burgundy. Like Charlemagne before him, Otto was drawn into Italy. Ever since the Carolingian line had petered-out in 924, Frankish northern Italy had fallen into confusion, with various local and neighbouring noblemen disputing over the crown. Princess Adelaide, daughter and widow of previous two kings, became involved in the complicated fight, as a legitimizing figure. She was abducted by one of the claimants in an attempt to cement his political power by forcing her to marry him. Adelaide fiercely refused, and appealed to Otto for protection. In 951, Otto invaded into northern Italy without opposition, and married Adelaide himself, thus claiming the title of King of the Lombards. He was at least partly motivated by fear that his own dukes of Swabia or Bavaria would claim her lands. Indeed, Otto was unable to consolidate his position in Italy, because his son Liudolf of Swabia had risen in revolt. The position of the rebels rapidly deteriorated when the Magyars used this opportunity to recommence raiding Germany. Liudolf was accused of complicity with heathen enemies, and had to submit to his father by the end of the year. The Magyars, encouraged by their success in 954, raided Germany again the following spring. This time Otto marched south at the head of a force to which nearly all the dukes had sent contingents, and annihilated them at the Battle of Lechfeld (955). Though outnumbered nearly two to one, the German heavy cavalry withstood a volley of arrows, and smashed the Hungarian lines, giving the lightly armed and armored nomadic warriors no room to use their preferred shoot-and-run tactics. The victory halted Hungarian raiding westwards for good; they gradually abandoned their nomadic culture and settled down in the Carpathian Basin. In 975, the Hungarian ruler Géza, great-grandson of Árpád, was baptized into the Western Christian Church, and, by the end of the long reign of his son, Stephen I Árpád (997-1038), Hungary had become a strong feudal Christian state. The battles of Lechfeld sealed Otto's hold on power over Germany, with the duchies firmly under royal authority. Otto also made a loyal instrument out of the German Church; it was to his advantage that the clergy tended to favour a strong monarchy as protection against predatory laymen. He personally appointed all bishops and abbots throughout his kingdom, and then endowed them with numerous gifts of land and royal prerogatives. Since Church offices were not hereditary, this made them a most useful and dependable counterweight to the secular nobles. It was as master of much of central Europe that Otto returned to Italy in 961, responding to an appeal from Pope John XII (955-964) against a troublesome Italian noble. This time the Pope agreed to Otto's long-desired coronation as Holy Roman Emperor, reviving a title that had fallen into abeyance since 924. Thus began the unbroken association between the imperial title and Germany that would last more than eight centuries.

St. Michael's Church in Hildesheim. An outstanding example of Ottonian architecture.

Otto, his son Otto II (973-83), and grandson Otto III (983-1002), henceforth ruled stably over more than half of Charlemagne’s old empire, with no other European monarch of remotely the same level of power. This stability was in no means diminished during the 13 years when Otto III was a child, under the regency of the queen-mother, a Byzantine princess. Otto III died at age of 21 leaving no heir, but the direct Saxon line was not exhausted; Henry II (1014-24), who was elected after a struggle, was a great-grandson of Henry the Fowler, and great-nephew of Otto the Great. These emperors went so far as to depose Popes and installed replacements more to their liking, which the Carolingians had never done, however much they may have been tempted. Otto III made a cousin pope, the first German to sit in the chair of St Peter, and followed him by the first French pope. The imperial army was the largest in the west, by far. The Ottonians were also wealthy: they had their own family lands in Saxony, to which they added the old Carolingian royal lands around Aachen and Frankfurt, and those around Milan and Pavia. Their patronage spurred the so-called Ottonian Renaissance (936-1002), a modest cultural flowering notable especially for the arts, architecture, and the growth of libraries. It was centred on the imperial court and a small group of monasteries that received direct sponsorship from the emperors. The most famous was the island monastery of Reichenau on Lake Constance, which produced perhaps the greatest work of the period, the Codex Egberti, an exquisitely illuminated gospel. The architecture of the period was also innovative, drawing on Carolingian and Byzantine influences, as can be seen at St. Michael's Church in Hildesheim, an early example of the later Romanesque style. The Ottonian Empire was a remarkable achievement, but its structure would prove not very solid; it rested on playing off great nobles against one another, and the political manipulation of the Church, rather than on government. Things began to gradual unravel with the rise of the Papacy in the mid-11th century. The struggle for power between Church and State would effect every medieval state, but took on a particularly intense and political character with imperial Germany, beginning with the Investiture Controversy.

Mieszko I, commonly considered the founder and the principal creator of the Polish state.

At about this time, another enduring national identity began to crystallize to the east; that of Poland, which bursts onto the historical record with unparalleled suddenness. Its origins lay among the many small western Slav tribes struggling against German land-hunger, and raids for loot, tribute, and above all slaves. Poland derives its name from one particularly successful group, the Polanie, who controlled an area on the banks of the Warta River centred on the town of Gniezno. It may well have been politics, therefore, that dictated the decision of their leader Mieszko I Piast (960-992) to accept Christianity as a religion for himself and his people in 965. His choice was not the Eastern Orthodox Church, as in the case of their fellow Slavs of Russia; Mieszko plumped for Rome. Thus Poland would be linked throughout her history to the West, as Russia would be to the East. Following the conversion, Mieszko did what most early Christian rulers did; he rapidly expanded and consolidated his realm. His vigorous successor Bolesław I Piast (992–1025) built on this, creating an administrative system using the structures of feudal Europe, and conquering north through Pomerania to the Baltic coast, west into Silesia, and south through Małopolska. In just fifty years, Poland had been turned into a powerful kingdom comparable to older Western monarchies. There were grim times to come, but a sovereign Polish state was henceforth a historical reality.

Vikings Elsewhere[]

Parliament House of Iceland at Austurvöllur in Reykjavík, founded in 930 and considered by many the oldest parliament in the world.

Viking wanderlust took them far and wide. They set up a permanent base at the mouth of the River Loire. and soon Chrisian Spain suffered and the Arabs too were harassed. In 844, they stormed Muslim Seville and Lisbon. From 859-862 a sustained Viking "tour' was undertaken probably by Björn Ironside, another son of Ragnar Lodbrok. Sailing from the mouth of the Loire, they plundered their why down the French and Iberian coasts, hitting Lisbon again on the way. After fighting their way through the Straits of Gibraltar, they raided Morocco, the southern coast of Spain, the Balearic Islands, and Barcelona. The Vikings then spent the winter on the mouth of the Rhone near Marseilles. In the next year, they raided throughout southern France, and then turned east, sacking Pisa and Luna in Italy, which according to legend they mistook for Rome. Ironside's forces then returned home via the same route over the next years, though they suffered heavily at the hands of an Arab fleet and storms. But it was the Viking colonization of remote islands that was arguably their most spectacular achievement. Iceland was discovered by a Viking called Naddodd around 825, who was sailing from Norway to the Scottish Faroe Islands but got lost; archaeological evidence suggest that Irish hermits may have settled in Iceland before the arrival of the Norsemen. In 874, Viking settlers together with their families, retainers, and livestock beached their longships near where Reykjavik now stands and established a settlement. Others similar groups soon followed and by 930 there were perhaps 10,000 Norse Icelanders, living by sheep farming and fishing, in part for their own subsistence and in part to produce commodities such as salt fish which they might trade. In that year, the ruling chiefs established an assembly called the Althing, which would convened each summer to amend laws, settle disputes, and elect a Lawspeaker. It followed earlier Norwegian practice, and some historians would dispute Iceland's claim to be the world's oldest parliamentary democracy, but her continuous historical record from this date is still a remarkable one. Two centuries later, the population of Iceland was already about 75,000, a level not exceeded until the 20th century. 

Leif Eriksson and his crew off the coast of Vinland, the first known European to have discovered continental North America, five-hundred years before Christopher Columbus.

From high ground of western Iceland the peaks of Greenland can sometimes be glimpsed across 175 miles of sea. According to the Norse Sagas, a Viking called Erik the Red (d.1003) was a man so difficult and violent that he was exiled from both Norway and Iceland. In about 986 he sailed west with his family, and landed near what is now Julianehaab. At the end of his exile, Eric returned to Iceland to persuade more settlers to join him. With a better sense of public relations than of accuracy, he gave his territory the attractive name of Greenland. There were eventually three separate colonies along roughly 400 mile of the eastern coast. There were to be Norsemen in this inhospitable environment for 500-years, until the climate turned for the worse with the Little Ice Age in the 15h-century, and Greenland was abandoned to the native Inuit peoples once again. Of discovery and settlement further west, historians no longer dispute the archeological evidence that Vikings from Greenland reached North America, over five-hundred years before Christopher Columbus. The Sagas give various versions of how Leif Erikson, a son of Erik the Red, came to spend a winter at a place west of Greenland which he names Vinland; he was either himself blown off course, or following-up reports of another Viking called Bjarni Herjólfsson fifteen years earlier. Either way around the year 1000, Leif landed in the Americas on the northern peninsula of present-day Newfoundland, over five-hundred years before Christopher Columbus. He returned to Greenland, and a few years later Icelandic colonists established a settlement in Vinland; the root Vin in old Norse could imply either that grape vines or flat grassland characterised the region. The settlers survived only three winters, before being discouraged by the hostility of the native Americans.

Decline of the Vikings[]

Denmark's famous Jelling Stones. The older of the two runestones was raised by Harald Bluetooth celebrating his conversion of the Danes to Christianity in about 960.

Gradually the story of the Vikings became the story of the struggle to establish stable kingdoms in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and the Christianization of Scandinavia; feasting in Valhalla and the end-of-days vision of Ragnarök were superseded by heavenly harps and the Last Judgement. Missionaries had been at work for a long time but the first Christian monarchs only appear there in the 10th century and not until the next were all Scandinavian kings Christian. Unlike the rest of Scandinavia, Denmark has good farmland and can sustain a dense population; already by the 5th-century it had four or five fairly prosperous petty-kingdoms. Frankish sources considered Denmark more or less unified during the reign of Gudfred (804-810) and later his son Horic I (827–54); they certainly had the control of manpower which allowed the building of major earthworks to defend the border with Germany, the Danevirke. But another century passed before we find another king ruling most of Denmark again. Viking activities brought back serious wealth, but also political instability; rival claimants to kingship into the 10th-century were invariably returning Vikings. Some of these kings allowed Chrisian missionaries into Denmark, but did not themselves convert, likely seeing conversion as too close to accepting Frankish hegemony. It was under Gorm the Old (936-958) that all of Denmark was solidly ruled again by a single king, and his son, Harald Bluetooth (958-986), was baptised a Christian some time before 965; in the way of royal converts, he saw this personal event as the conversion of all the Danes. Harald was a contemporary of Otto the Great, and no doubt his reasons were largely political, to neutralise the threat of invasion. These event are commemorated in Denmark's famous Jelling Stones raised by Gorm and Harold. Danish royal power was from now sufficiently solid for Harald's son Sweyn Forkbeard (986-1014) and grandson Cnut the Great (1016-35) to conquer England in 1013, and to establish intermittent hegemony in Norway as well. Norway was unified later and unevenly. The Norse Sagas associate the first attempt to unify the whole with the semi-mythical Harald Fairhair (872–930), who was apparently spurned by a woman because his kingdom wasn’t even as large as tiny Denmark. After uniting all the Viking settlements of the southern Norway by force, he ruled with so harsh and despotic that many Norwegians left for Iceland, the British Isles, and Greenland. He then had so many sons by his 10 wives that his acheivement descended into anarchy after his death. One son, Eric Bloodaxe (929–934), killed most of his brothers to claim the throne, only to be overthrown, and exiled; he ended up as the last Viking ruler of York in England. The next two kings who tried to establish some level of wider power were Olaf Tryggvason (c. 995–1000) and Olaf Haraldsson (1015–28). Both had become Christian while fighting abroad, and their expansionism was associated with more or less forced conversion. As kings, neither man was successful for long, both brought down by Danish intervention, even though the latter Olaf was regarded as a martyred saint almost immediately after his death; today he is the country’s patron saint. A rising against Danish rule restored Olaf's son Magnus Olafsson (1035-47) to the throne, and his successor Harald Hardrada (1046-66) established a stable kingdom and dynasty, though regional loyalties continued to be powerful; the rule of the kings was never strong, and was contested if too ambitious. Sweden achieved similar unity rather later and much of its early history is obscure. The first known attempt to Christianise the Swedes were made by St. Ansgar in 830, who was able to secure permission to build a church in Birka. Her first Christian king was Olof Skötkonung (995-1020) who is said to have been baptised in 1008, and ruled over the kernel of the Swedish state. Two centuries later Sweden was still consolidating and disintegrating over dynastic squabbles. Not until the dynasty established by the statesman Birger Jarl (d. 1266) did the Swedish kingdom have the stature to match Denmark or Norway; he is traditionally credited with founding Stockholm around 1250. In Iceland the entire population converted to Christianity at the same moment. Missionaries effects in the 10th century had succeeded bringing some chieftains into the Christian fold. Violent clashes were avoided by the Althing of 1000, where all agreed the incumbent law speaker should decide on the issue of religion. After a day and a night of silently pondering on the matter, he decreed that everyone in Iceland should be baptised, although pagans were allowed to practise their religion in private. Although the Scandinavians became nominally Christian, it took considerably longer for actual Christian beliefs to establish themselves, and the clergy were still condemning paganism well into the 14th-century.   

After the Viking Age, Scandinavia tends not to be a major actor in European politics. The story of the intervening 500 years is one of Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian dynasties struggling to maintain stable kingdoms, two closely related methods of shifting the balance of power in the region; warfare and dynastic marriages. One such marriage led at last to the personal union of all three crowns; the so-called Kalmar Union (1397-1523) was only briefly a political reality, but remained an aspiration for over a century.   

Byzantine Revival[]

For the Byzantine Empire, the two centuries before 850 had been effectively one long crisis; from the devastating Roman-Persian War, to the vast territorial losses to the Muslim conquests, from the slow overrunning of the Balkans by the Bulgars and Slavs, to the internal turmoil of the Iconoclasm Controversy. The empire's problems seemed insurmountable, but like Scipio Africanus after Cannae (216 BC), Aurelian during the crisis of the 3rd-century, and Theodosius after Adrianople (378), a dynasty would emerged to drag the Eastern Roman Empire into one last Golden Age (842-1025).

Michael III is generally seen as the last of a long line of weak Byzantine emperors, but as one historian put it, "he was not great, but there was greatness in his time".

Emperor Michael III (842-867) himself proved just another in a long series of beastly or incompetent rulers; he was known by his detractors as Michael the Drunkard for his love of wine, women, and song. Nevertheless, his reign saw the first hints at the Byzantine; as historian George Ostrogorsky put it, "he was not great, but there was greatness in his time". Ascending to the throne at just 2-years-old, Michael’s minority was dominated by his mother, Theodora, who brought an end to the social and political upheavals of the Iconoclasm Controversy. At the same time, Theodora's gifted minister, Theoktistos (d. 855), was steadily rebuilt the imperial treasury with shrewd and careful policy, as well as fostering the cultural and artistic revival later known as the Macedonian Renaissance. As an adult after 855, Michael’s decision to leave matters of state mostly to his uncle, Bardas (d. 866), was probably one of the best in his reign. The coherence of the Abbasid Caliphate was beginning to slip, with a two-decade-long civil war from 861. Bardas took advantage, leading two seasons of campaigning in eastern Anatolia in which the Muslim governor, Emir Umar, was defeated and slain; thus striking the first blow against the infidel in almost a hundred years. Bardas is also credited with reorganising and enlarging the imperial university in Constantinople, which once again became the leading center of Christian higher education of its day. However, the contributions of these three talents were dwarfed by Photios (d. 893) as archbishop of Constantinople. More than any other single person, he exemplified the cultural rebirth and missionary zeal of a new age. A few weeks before becoming archbishop in 858, Photios wasn't even a member of the clergy; when archbishopric fell vacant, Bardas hurriedly had the respected statesman inducted into the priesthood, and confirmed as the new archbishop of Constantinople. Photios had little real interest in theology and even less ecclesiastical experience, but he came to the office with a remarkably clear vision. As a scholar, we are indebted to Photios' critique for almost all we possess of classical authors such as Ctesias, Memnon of Heraclea, Conon, Diodorus Siculus, and Arrian. But Photios' greatest contributions was commissioning two monks, Cyril (d. 869) and his brother Methodius (d. 885), and sending them to bring Christianity to the Slavs, Bulgars, and the Rus; Eastern Orthodox missionary work cannot neatly be distinguished from Byzantine diplomacy, bringing dangerous neighbours into Constantinople's sphere of influence. These missions would all bear fruit in time, beginning with Bulgaria; the Bulgar Khan, Boris I (d. 889), accepted Christianity in 864, and his government became highly Byzantine in style. The brothers did much more than convert. Realising that the Slavs lacked an alphabet, St. Cyril set to work devising one; the Cyrillic alphabet, commemorating his name, became the basis for many alphabets in the Balkans and Russia. This not only made possible the spread of Christianity, but the crystallization of Slav culture.

Basil I, called the Macedonian, who rose from a humble background to the imperial throne.

Emperor Michael III did make one other consequential decision for himself; befriending an uncouth peasant called Basil. A decision that lead to his own ruin. The life of Basil the Macedonian is a classic tale of rags-to-riches. He was born in Thrace near Adrianople; his epitaph comes from an administrative division called Macedonia, rather than the former province. He was apparently of Armenian descent, so his family had probably been forcibly relocated to one of the military theme, as part of a regular Byzantine policy to repopulate frontier regions. Totally illiterate and dirt-poor, Basil sought his fortune in Constantinople, where his skill with horses got him job in the imperial stables. There, he somehow caught the eye of Emperor Michael, a keen charioteer. The emperor's uncle Bardas had recently forced him to give-up his favourite mistress Eudokia, and Michael was looking for a way to respectably keep her at court. On the emperor's orders, Basil was divorced his own wife and married Eudokia, while the emperor kept her for himself. In return, Basil gained a prominent position at court, from which he manipulated his way onto the imperial throne. By far the biggest threat to Basil's position was Bardas, the real power behind Michael's throne. He leaned hard on the emperor's naivety, persuading him that his uncle coveted the throne himself. In 866, Basil personally murdered Bardas on Michael's orders. and thus became the new power-behind-the-throne. He even somehow stepping into the now vacant role of Caesar (heir) for the childless emperor. When Michael began favouring another courtier, Basil decided to get rid of his benefactor once and for all, brutally murdering him in his bedchamber. There was little political outrage at the murder of the unpopular emperor, and the next day he was crowned in Hagia Sophia as Emperor Basil I (867-886). Achieving power through a series of calculated murders would seem contemptable, but Basil become a respected and respected emperor. Despite having no formal education, the administrative, legislative, military, cultural and economic situation continued to improve during his 19-year reign. In the east, Basil continued the military success against the Muslims, recovering the city of Divriği; the empire was now the one on the offensive, the armies of the Prophet retreating. In west, Basil carefully rebuilt relations with the Papacy in Rome and the Holy Roman Emperor. With their active support, he stemmed the Muslim tide in southern Italy, giving the Byzantines an excellent bridgehead from which virtually all of southern Italy would be conquered by the end of the century; it would remain in Byzantine hands for the next 200 years. Meanwhile, Basil patiently strengthened and modernised the Byzantine navy, which once again became a strong presence in the eastern Mediterranean, clearing the sea of pirates, and paving the way for increased trade and an economic boom. There was suddenly a energy and daring in the air, not seen since the days of Justinian the Great. At home, Basil, like Justinian, introduced a flurry of legal activity, updating the Code of Justinian and producing two smaller legal manuals that made it more accessible to judges and lawyers; ironically work begun under Bardas who was murdered by Basil. Again imitating Justinian, he poured the newly prosperous treasury into a massive building program; buildings, monuments and walls across the capital were given a much-needed revamp after decades of neglect. He also stamped his own mark on the city, personally overseeing the construction of the Nea Ekklesia cathedral (New Church); Basil's Hagia Sophia. Topped by five cascading gilded domes and its inside covered in marble and mosaics, by all contemporary accounts it was a truly remarkable building. Unfortunately for modern tourists, the church was accidentally blown-up by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, who were using it as a gunpowder store. In almost every respect, Basil had had a spectacular reign, bringing miitary glory back to the empire, and spurring a renaissance of architecture, the arts, and learning, that would see the Empire achieve one last great flowering over the next century-and-a-half. But perhaps it was fitting that his reign ended as it had begun; in treachery and murder. To Basil’s great distress, his eldest son by his first marraige died in 879, a blow from which the emperor never fully recovered. He had always hated his younger son, Leo, suspecting, probably rightly, that the boy was actually Michael's son. Relations between the pair deteriorated very badly, and Basil died in mysterious circumstanced in 886. The tale was a tall one even by Byzantine standards; Leo almost certainly arranged for his father to be helped off his throne. Apparently, the 74-year old emperor was hunting alone, when his belt became caught in a stag's antlers, which then dragged him for 16-miles through the woods, to be eventually found dead by the father of Leo's mistress.

Nikephoros II Phokas, one of the finest soldier-emperors Byzantium ever produced. The Phokas family would repeatedly try to get their hands again on the throne, and almost succeeded when Nikephoros' nephew, Bardas Phokas, rebelled against Basil II.

Until 1025, Basil's Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056) went on to produce some of the ablest emperors in Byzantine history. For a dynasty that achieved so much, the family was far from untroubled by internal drama; the dynastic principle was never strong in Byzantium. Three of the first seven emperors were usurping generals, who pushed aside a legitimate heir after marrying into the royal family. But the family maintained a legitimacy that was constantly returned to, and the periodic infusion of new blood proved to the long-term benefit of the empire. The first of the generals, Romanos I Lekapenos (920-44), reconquered most of eastern Anatolia and parts of Syria; lands which had fallen more than two centuries earlier, during the first wave of the Muslim conquests. This paved the way for perhaps the two finest generals Byzantium ever produced, who became emperor in turn; Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and his nephew John I Tzimiskes (969-976). In 962, the great city of Aleppo in Syria was recovered. The Muslims were definitive expelled from Crete in 963 and Cyprus in 965. For 150-years, the Muslims had been effectively using these islands as pirate bases to terrorise the Aegean. Thus, Byzantine naval supremacy was restored in the eastern Mediterranean, allowing trade to flourish once again. This was only the beginning. Nikephoros' crowning achievement was recovering the great city of Antioch in 969, seat of one of the five great archbishoprics of Christendom. His successor, John Tzimiskes, went on to expand the empire well into Syria, taking Damascus, Beirut, Acre, Sidon, Caesarea, and Tiberias. At one point, his army was within sight of Jerusalem itself. On the western front, his achievements were more mixed. Around 927, Bulgaria and Byzantium had entered a long period of peaceful relations. Then in 971, Bulgaria was overrun by the Kievan Rus'. With the Rus amassing forces right on the Byzantine border, John Tzimiskes invaded and compelled them to leave the Balkans in 971. He proclaimed Bulgaria a Byzantine province, but could not hold it, leading to fourty years of increasingly bitter warfare. Despite this setback, Byzantium was resurgent. The empire of the 9th-century looked very different from that of 6th. It was of course far smaller, but what remained was less geographically dispersed and more politically integrated. Its centre of gravity had moved, no longer built on a Constantinople–Egypt axis, but a Constantinople–Italy one. Its economic heartland was the network of commercial exchange across the Aegean and on around the Italian coast, all looking to Constantinople itself, which was still large and economically active as a city. Inland the picture was less bright. Many unfortified cities in Anatolia and the Balkans had been abandoned, and the region had become much less economically complex than in Justinian's day.

Basil II, widely considered among the most capable emperors in Byzantine history. By the end of his reign, the empire stretched from Armenia in the east to southern Italy in the west.

During the long-reign of Emperor Basil II (976-1025), the Byzantine Empire reached its zenith. Basil was the legitimate heir of the Macedonian Dynasty, but by this time generals expected to become emperor; afterall the last two general-emperors had been supurb rulers. As a result, the first eleven years of his long reign were spent suppressing challenges to his throne against three rivals; two were generals, Bardas Skleros (d. 991) and Bardas Phokas (d. 989), and the third was the capable statesman, Basil Lekapenos (d. 985), who had been effectively running affairs-of-state while John Tzimiskes went on military campaigns. With boundless energy and an iron will, Basil outmaneuvered and outlasted them all. Lekapenos hoped the young emperors would be his puppets, but in 985, he forcefully asserted his independence, accusing him of plotting with the rebellious generals. Basil's first order of business was dealing with Bulgaria, which had reasserted its independence under Tsar Samuel (d. 1014). Samuel had used the troubled succession to raid imperial territory, sacking Byzantine city of Larissa, selling its populations into slavery, and carting-off its holiest relic. Such an insult had to be avenged. Although he had never commanded an army, with boundless self-confidence Basil gathered a 30,000-strong force, and marched into Bulgaria. Unfortunately the soldiers didn't share his conviction. After just three weeks, Basil decided to turn-back for home, concerned at Samual's harrying raids and his own men's wavering loyalty. The wily Tsar chose the perfect moment for an ambush, in a narrow pass called Trajan's Gate. Basil escaped the rout, but this convinced Bardas Phokas, in exile in Baghdad, that the time was right for another bid for the throne. To defeat this final revolt, Basil sought new allies abroad, and found them in Vladimir the Great of Kievan Rus'. In return for the emperor's sister's hand in marriage, Vladimir provided 6,000 Rus-Viking mercenaries; known to the Byzantines as Varangians. As soon as the Varangians arrived, Basil attacked, catching the rebels completely by surprise and routing them. Phokas himself escape to fight another day, but when next they met, he died of a stroke in the midst of the battle, and the rebellion rapidly collapsed in the face of this clearer sign of divine judgement. Meanwhile, the Scandinavians had so impressed Basil, that he organised them into what would become the Varangian Guard, which would faithfully serve the empire for more than 300 years, as both the emperor's personal bodyguard and an elite force capable of turning battles. Perhaps their best-known member was Harald Hardrada (d. 1066), who became rich in Byzantine service, then returned home to claim the throne of Norway, and tried to conquer England in 1066.


In 989, Basil had been on the throne for fourteen years, but had precious little to show for it. Undeterred, he had hardly settled the civil war before he set-off to discipline the Bulgarians definitively. The Byzantine-Bulgarian War (986-1018) was a campaign like no other. Trajan's Gate had taught Basil well, and he would never walk into an ambush again. Instead, this was a slow methodical advance, winter or summer, snow or rain; relentless and absolutely irresistible. Samuel's opportunity to recover ground seemed to come in the fourth years of the war, when Fatimid Egypt invaded Syrian and besieged Antioch. For a man known for his glacial pace, Basil moved with astonishing speed. He mounted his entire army of 40,000 men, and made the 600 mile journey in just 16-day, catching the Fatimid army completely by surprise and routing them. Returning through Anatolia, Basil was not best pleased with what he saw. The wealthy landed aristocracy had become over-powerful, avoiding taxes and expanding their estates at the expense of the free-holding peasantry and tenant peasantry of the theme estates, the backbone of the army. Arriving in Constantinople, he promulgated comprehensive punitive legislation against the landed families, protecting the property right of the lower classes, confiscating illegally seized land, and introducing a new Allelengyon tax which obliged landowners to cover the tax-arrears of poorer tenants. Meanwhile, Basil's absence in Bulgaria had allowed Samuel to recover lost ground. Beginning in 1000, the emperor set to work again with grinding persistence, while opening a second front in the war by inviting the Venetians to invade the Dalmatian Coast, whose forests they were eager to exploit for their navy. It wasn't until the 28th years of the war that the decisive battle to place. With the Byzantines taking more and more of his territory, a desperate Samuel staked it all in one last battle, appropriately enough in another narrow ravine in the Belasica Mountains. At the Battle of Kleidion (July 1014), Basil outmaneuvered Samual, finding a narrow path behind the fortified Bulgarian line, and then attacking from both sides. It was a rout from the outset; Samuel himself escaped, but virtually no one else did. It was here that Basil earned the nickname by which he's commonly known to history; Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. The emperor, remembering Trajan's Gate, extracted his cruel revenge; he blinded 15,000 prisoners, sending them home in groups of 100, each led by a one-eyed guide. Samuel is said to have died of shock at the sight of his blinded army. If Basil had wanted to break the Bulgarian resistance, it did not work. They fought on for four more years, until finally submitting in 1018. Bulgaria became a Byzantine province once again, where it remained under a relatively light Byzantine yoke for almost 200 years. Basil II continued campaigning until his death in 1025, winning further success in the east, and extending the borders into Armenia.

By force of will alone, Basil had become a brilliant soldier-emperor, expanding the empire more than any man since Heraclius, and reestablishing the Danube as a stable and secure border. Had anyone even half as capable followed him, the empire's prosperity would have been assured. But his successors squandered their inheritance, allowing the empire to fall into the hands of a poisonous court and self-interested nobles, neglecting the army, and engineering in only 46 years such a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Manzikert (1071) that the empire never recovered. The historian John Julius Norwich (d. 2018) probably said it best, "Basil II died on 15th December. By the 16th, the decline had already begun".

Rise of Regional Muslim Powers[]


From the 9th century the central authority of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad was forced onto the defensive. Even though Baghdad remained preeminent in cultural prestige, important initiatives were being taken from surrounding provinces. The Abbasids were a violent lot, who quickly and ruthlessly quenched opposition and religious nonconformists. Loyalty to the dynasty, rather than the brotherhood of Islam, was increasingly the basis of the empire, which bridled former allies. Moreover, pre-Islamic ethnic and cultural distinctions remained very real. Governorships tended to become hereditary, and exercise a greater and greater power in appointments and the handling of taxation. A civil war between the sons of the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (d. 809), weakened the cohesion of the Caliphate. Al-Ma'mun (d. 833) emerged victorious, but much of his reign was consumed by costly campaigns to pacify rebels and the rise of local warlords. He turned to tax-farming as a way to replenish the treasury alienating the subject populations, while he lacked the same respect for his faith losing the support of the devout. The Abbasids gradually lost control of their empire, beginning at the peripheries. It was difficult to exercise effective control over the western half of empire from Damascus, and even harder from Baghdad, which has to its west a broad swathe of desert; the Wadi Rum. Spain was lost to the Abbasids from the start, when an Umayyad prince, who escaped the fate of his house, proclaimed himself Emir (governor) of Umayyad Spain (756–1031). In 788, the local Moorish dynasty of Idrisids (788–974) set up a state from Fez in Morocco, commencing a cycle of rising and falling Moorish dynasties, including the Almoravids (1062–1147) and Almohads (1147–1269). Further east in Tunisia, a family of governors under the Abbasids became increasingly independent until they founded the Aghlabid Dynasty (830–909). The weakness of the Abbasid Caliphs tempted them into a short-sighted measure that only hastened their decline. They acquired slaves from the Turkic steppe nomads of Central Asia and utilized them in their armies. Known as Mamluk, these excellent fighters distinguished themselves in the service of the Caliphate, and were often given positions of military leadership. Thus, barbarians were incorporated within the structure of the Caliphates as had been the western barbarians within the Roman Empire. Well-placed to advance their own interests, they frequently took the opportunity. One of the first to seize power was the Turkic-Mamluk general Ahmad ibn Tulun (d. 884) who seize control of Egypt as the Tulunid Dynasty (868–905). ibn Tulun went on to rapidly conquering the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria, a region easier to effectively control from Cairo than Baghdad. In the eastern half of the empire, Yaʿqub al-Saffar (d. 879), a low-born copperworker turned warlord, seized the province of Sistan, and used as a power-base to conquer Kabul and Herat in the name of Islam; these cities had held for almost two-centuries under Buddhist rulers. He brought back so much plunder from this campaign, that he went on to conquer most of Persia and Afghanistan, before his eventual defeat by the Abbasids. In the aftermath, al-Saffar's shord-lived empire was cannibalismed by two native Persian dyasties, the Samanid Dynasty (892-999) in the east and Buyid Dynasty (934–1062), which presided over the first conscious revival of the Persian language, history, and traditions since the Arab conquest. The loss of Abbasid power was made official in 945, when the Buyids took all of Iraq under their rule, deposed the Caliph and installed a replacement more to their liking. For the next century, Abbasid Caliphs had little political power outside the confines of Baghdad itself, though were still acknowledged as the spiritual leaders of the Islamic world. The situation changed further with the rise of the Fatimid Dynasty (909–1171). Originally from Tunisia, in 969 they conquered Egypt and moved their capital to a newly built city on the Nile, Al Kahira ("the victorious"), more commonly known today as Cairo. They were of the Shi'a branch of Islam, rather than orthodox Sunni Islam, and set up their own Caliph. For the next two centuries, the Fatimids would be the chief political and ideological antagonist of the Abbasids, for even nominal authority over the Islamic world. Less conspicuous examples could be found elsewhere in the Abbasid dominions as local governors began to term themselves Sultan or Emir.

Image of the Persian physician Rhazes from Gerard de Cremona's Recueil des traités de médecine (1260). Interest in Islamic medical science was intensified by the Crusaders, who relied on Arab doctors on numerous occasions. Gerard de Cremona translated numerous works.

Although Abbasid prestige would recover to some degree in the 11th-century thanks to the Seljuk Turks, the great days of Islamic Empire were over. No empire remained to resist the centuries of invasion which followed, beginning with the Crusades and culminating in the Mongols, who slaughtered the last Abbasid Caliph in 1258. Yet we should not rush to label this a political failure; holding together this vast empire stretching from the Atlantic to the border with China for three centuries was already a logistical and organisational triumph, for all its ultimate collapse. Moreover, the various regional Islamic states were more compact and practical to govern, with pragmatic Sultans who continued to patron the culture and learning of the Islamic Golden Age. The outstanding example was probably Umayyad Spain (756–1031), one of the most prosperous and spectacular realm of 10th-century Europe. The Umayyads did not have an easy start. Islam had never conquered the whole peninsula, and there were Christian kingdoms in the north always willing to help stir the pot of Arab-Moor infighting, as well as making tentative beginnings at Reconquista. Moreover, Spain was one of the only places conquered by the Arabs that did not have a strong system of taxation already in place. Nevertheless, by the 10th-century, Umayyad Spain was fiscally stable, and made use of it to encourage agriculture through the construction of irrigation systems, and commerce by building markets and developing sea-power. Cordoba grew rapidly as a capital, and by 1000 was challenging Constantinople as the largest city in Europe, with a population of over half-a-million. Spanish Islamic culture was at its height in the 11th and 12th century, in a golden age which rivalled that of Abbasid Baghdad. This produced great learning and philosophy, as well as seven hundred exquisite mosques, of which one can still be thought the most beautiful building in the world; the Mezquita of Cordoba. The relative tolerance of Christians within Muslim Spain made it of enormous importance to Europe, a door to the learning and science of the East. Norman Sicily, after the reconquest in the 11th-century, would be another region of positive Christian and Muslim intermingling.


For all the comings and goings of regional rulers and invaders, nothing disturbed the deep-rooted foundations of Islamic society. This unity, of social and cultural institutions, of law, and of certain assumptions, far transcended centuries of political division. It could be illustrated in many ways. It kept women in an inferior position, but gave them legal rights over property not available in most European countries until the 19th-century; even slaves had rights. Inside the community of the believers there was inherited status. Besides having a great political, material, and intellectual impact on Christandom, Islam also spread far beyond the heartland of the Arab Empire, to Central Asia in the 10th-century, to the Niger River and Swahili city-states of Africa, as well as India in the 11th-century. Between the 12th and 16th centuries still more of Africa would become Muslim; Islam remains today the fastest-growing faith of that continent. Thanks to the conversion of Mongols in the 13th-century, Islam would also reach China. By the 16th-century it was carried by merchants across the Indian Ocean to Malaya and Indonesia. There would even be a last, final extension of the faith in south-east Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Ottoman Turks. It was a remarkable achievement for an idea at whose service there had been in the beginning so few resources. But despite this majestic record, no state was ever again to provide unity for Islam after the 10th-century. Even Arab unity was to remain only a dream, though one cherished still today.