Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Pirates Own Book: Bloody Vikings

The first chapter in Charles Ellms’ now famous tome is entitled “Danish and Norman Pirates”. In it, Mr. Ellms sets himself the daunting task of cataloguing the general history of the Viking hordes from the dawn of the Dark Ages to the beginning of the Crusades. Considering that he’s covering something in the neighborhood of 1,000 years of complex history, I have to say he does a rather impressive job.

This chapter differs quite a bit from the others, which are more specific to an individual freebooter. Here, Ellms attempts a dissection of not only the Viking culture and what made them head out to far flung places in search of land and pillage but also the socio-economic outcome of the period they dominated. A huge task that could be – and has been – sorely under-evaluated in a text of hundreds of pages is nicely boiled down to just one chapter.

Ellms starts with the Saxons who he says carried out many depredations in the “German Ocean”. Here he seems to imply, although he does not come out and say, that the barbarian Saxons were the direct ancestors of the Scandinavian Vikings. This is a curious theory that I am not familiar with in modern research but it may have been a pre-Victorian mainstay of general history. On the other hand, Ellms is very confident in his theories throughout the four hundred plus pages of The Pirates Own Book, so this idea might fall into that category.

At any rate, Ellms spends no more than a page on the Saxons before moving on to the adventures of the lady pirate Alwilda whose objection to an arranged marriage with Alf, prince of Denmark, led her to a life of piracy.

Charlemagne is next on the list and here Ellms, quite courageously for his era, castigates the Holy Roman Emperor for his barbaric treatment of pagans in his lands. Ellms proposes that Charlemagne’s policy of “convert to Christianity or die” probably drove some northern people to retaliate, thus encouraging Viking raiding in France. As he puts it:

Another division of Normans, some years afterwards, in the same spirit of emigration and thirsting, perhaps, to avenge their injured ancestors, burst into the provinces of France, which the degeneracy of Charlemagne’s posterity… rendered an affair of no great difficulty.

Ellms talks us through the Viking sieges of Paris and the outrageous sums of money paid to Viking marauders by monarchs like Pepin and Charles the Bald. These ransoms, bribes and tributes, which became known as the Danegelt in England, were very similar to the tributes demanded by North African states prior to the First and Second Barbary Wars.

Alfred of England, who Ellms clearly admires, is highlighted as the first conqueror of Vikings who had settled on his soil “This prince,” Ellms notes, “too wise to exterminate the pirates after he had conquered them, sent them to settle Northumberland… and by this humane policy gained their attachment and serviced.” It would all be for naught when that other descendant of Vikings, William of Normandy, showed up at England’s door.

The Vikings continue to rove and, though Ellms does not touch on their forays into the New World, he does follow them to Russia. From here they descend on Constantinople, where they are “… only… repulsed by the dreadful effects of the celebrated Greek fire.”

By the time the Crusades are in the offing, piracy has become an interest of wealthy coastal lords, particularly in England. The famous Cinque Ports ships are not only preyed upon but take up their own depredations of any unfortunately unarmed vessel they may happen upon. Ellms tells us that Henry the III tried to put these practices down but could do very little in the face of Simon de Montfort’s private fleet which sacked and burned Portsmouth in the mid-13th century.

The rush to the Holy Land caused by the Crusades turns maritime interest to the business of getting men, arms and livestock to the East. This shift in focus allows for the rise of the Barbary corsairs and in turn the Maltese pirates who fought them. Ellms ends his chapter with a short lecture on how the Crusades, though a political disaster, were in fact a social boon. They allowed the West to not only improve itself through the acquisition of forgotten knowledge but also they broke down the crushing feudal system:

… thus taming the ferocity of men’s spirits, increasing agriculture in value from the safety it enjoyed and establishing a base for permanent prosperity.

Well, at least until the Black Death – born on stout ships – showed up to really change things.

Header: A Priest thrown from the Ramparts of an Abbey from The Pirates Own Book


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, that is quite a lot of ground to cover in one chapter... or one post. Nicely done.

Pauline said...

And that's why I love Charles Ellms; crazy good stuff as always.