For more than two hundred years during the Middle Ages the Christian
countries of Europe were attacked on the southwest by the Saracens
of Spain, and on the northwest by the Norsemen, or Northmen. The
Northmen were so called because they came into Middle Europe from
the north. Sometimes they were called Vikings (Vi'-kings), or
pirates, because they were adventurous sea-robbers who plundered
all countries which they could reach by sea.
Their ships were long and swift. In the center was placed a single
mast, which carried one large sail. For the most part, however,
the Norsemen depended on rowing, not on the wind, and sometimes
there were twenty rowers in one vessel.
The Vikings were a terror to all their neighbors; but the two
regions that suffered most from their attacks were the Island of
Britain and that part of Charlemagne's empire in which the Franks
Nearly fifty times in two hundred years the lands of the Franks
were invaded. The Vikings sailed up the large rivers into the heart
of the region which we now call France and captured and pillaged
cities and towns. Some years after Charlemagne's death they went
as far as his capital, Aix (aks), took the place, and stabled their
horses in the cathedral which the great emperor had built.
In the year 860 they discovered Iceland and made a settlement upon
its shores. A few years later they sailed as far as Greenland,
and there established settlements which existed for about a century.
These Vikings were the first discoverers of the continent on which
we live. Ancient books found in Iceland tell the story of the
discovery. It is related that a Viking ship was driven during a
storm to a strange coast, which is thought to have been that part
of America now known as Labrador.
When the captain of the ship returned home he told what he had
seen. His tale so excited the curiosity of a young Viking prince,
called Leif the Lucky, that he sailed to the newly discovered coast.
Going ashore, he found that the country abounded in wild grapes;
and so he called it Vinland, or the land of Vines. Vinland is
thought to have been a part of what is now the Rhode Island coast.
The Vikings were not aware that they had found a great unknown
continent. No one in the more civilized parts of Europe knew anything
about their discovery; and after a while the story of the Vinland
voyages seems to have been forgotten, even among the Vikings
So it is not to them that we owe the discovery of America, but to
Columbus; because his discovery, though nearly five hundred years
later than that of the Norsemen, actually made known to all Europe,
for all time, the existence of the New World.
The Vikings had many able chieftains. One of the most famous was
Rollo the Walker, so called because he was such a giant that no
horse strong enough to carry him could be found, and therefore he
always had to walk. However, he did on foot what few could do on
In 885 seven hundred ships, commanded by Rollo and other Viking
chiefs, left the harbors of Norway, sailed to the mouth of the
Seine (San), and started up the river to capture the city of Paris.
Rollo and his men stopped on the way at Rouen (rö-on'), which also
was on the Seine, but nearer its mouth. The citizens had heard of
the giant, and when they saw the river covered by his fleet they
were dismayed. However, the bishop of Rouen told them that Rollo
could be as noble and generous as he was fierce; and he advised
them to open their gates and trust to the mercy of the Viking chief.
This was done, and Rollo marched into Rouen and took possession of
it. The bishop had given good advice, for Rollo treated the people
Soon after capturing Rouen he left the place, sailed up the river
to Paris, and joined the other Viking chiefs. And now for six long
miles the beautiful Seine was covered with Viking vessels, which
carried an army of thirty thousand men.
A noted warrior named Eudes (Ude) was Count of Paris, and he had
advised the Parisians to fortify the city. So not long before the
arrival of Rollo and his companions, two walls with strong gates
had been built round Paris.
It was no easy task for even Vikings to capture a strongly walled
city. We are told that Rollo and his men built a high tower and
rolled it on wheels up to the walls. At its top was a floor well
manned with soldiers. But the people within the city shot hundreds
of arrows at the besiegers, and threw down rocks, or poured boiling
oil and pitch upon them.
The Vikings thought to starve the Parisians, and for thirteen months
they encamped round the city. At length food became very scarce,
and Count Eudes determined to go for help. He went out through one
of the gates on a dark, stormy night, and rode post-haste to the
king. He told him that something must be done to save the people
So the king gathered an army and marched to the city. No battle
was fought--the Vikings seemed to have been afraid to risk one.
They gave up the siege, and Paris was relieved.
Rollo and his men went to the Duchy of Burgundy, where, as now,
the finest crops were raised and the best of wines were made.
Perhaps after a time Rollo and his Vikings went home; but we do not
know what he did for about twenty-five years. We do know that he
abandoned his old home in Norway in 911. Then he and his people
sailed from the icy shore of Norway and again went up the Seine in
hundreds of Viking vessels.
Of course, on arriving in the land of the Franks, Rollo at once
began to plunder towns and farms.
Charles, then king of the Franks, although his people called him
the Simple, or Senseless, had sense enough to see that this must
So he sent a message to Rollo and proposed that they should have
a talk about peace. Rollo agreed and accordingly they met. The
king and his troops stood on one side of a little river, and Rollo
with his Vikings stood on the other. Messages passed between them.
The king asked Rollo what he wanted.
"Let me and my people live in the land of the Franks; let us make
ourselves home here, and I and my Vikings will become your vassals,"
answered Rollo. He asked for Rouen and the neighboring land. So
the king gave him that part of Francia; and ever since it has been
called Normandy, the land of the Northmen.
When it was decided that the Vikings should settle in Francia and
be subjects of the Frankish king, Rollo was told that he must kiss
the foot of Charles in token that he would be the king's vassal.
The haughty Viking refused. "Never," said he, "will I bend my
knee before any man, and no man's foot will I kiss." After some
persuasion, however, he ordered one of his men to perform the act
of homage for him. The king was on horseback and the Norseman,
standing by the side of the horse, suddenly seized the king's foot
and drew it up to his lips. This almost made the king fall from
his horse, to the great amusement of the Norsemen.
Becoming a vassal to the king meant that if the king went to war
Rollo would be obliged to join his army and bring a certain number
of armed men--one thousand or more.
Rollo now granted parts of Normandy to his leading men on condition
that they would bring soldiers to his army and fight under him.
They became his vassals, as he was the king's vassal.
The lands granted to vassals in this way were called feuds, and
this plan of holding lands was called the Feudal System.
It was established in every country of Europe during the Middle
The poorest people were called serfs. They were almost slaves and
were never permitted to leave the estate to which they belonged.
They did all the work. They worked chiefly for the landlords, but
partly for themselves.
Having been a robber himself, Rollo knew what a shocking thing it
was to ravage and plunder, and he determined to change his people's
habits. He made strict laws and hanged robbers. His duchy thus
became one of the safest parts of Europe.
The Northmen learned the language of the Franks and adopted their
The story of Rollo is especially interesting to us, because Rollo
was the forefather of that famous Duke of Normandy who, less than a
hundred and fifty years later, conquered England and brought into
that country the Norman nobles with their French language and