The Three Waves. Why Ninth And Tenth Century Europe Sucked.

by Daniel Russ on July 10, 2012

Magyar Warriors

Magyar Warriors

There are some stubborn romantic notions of Kings ensconced in cozy castles, in repose by vast fireplaces, the air thick with the scents and sounds of feasts warming in brick ovens tucked near ornate halls. Chicken fat spitting and roiling on hot coals, minstrels strumming ancient tunes, and wine. Some of this was in fact true. The Early Middle Ages were neither soporific nor baroque. Governments were iffy things back in the day. But there was little comfort in the Early Middle Ages. The grandchildren of Barbarian invaders who settled the outskirts of the Roman Empire, who were now organized into distinct bands with their own governance and technology, lived a barely post bronze age existence. They were farmers and had cattle and even though many had fine art, life was not  idyllic. It was chaotic and unpredictable and filled with passionate tensions. These Europeans were themselves being invaded. Indeed, life was sometimes brutally hard for the new owners of the former Western Roman Republic.

 

The Germanic tribes that once were poor and nomadic and forced out of their own homelands by Huns or Tartars were now the very seat of civilization. Now news towns arose by the dozens. Where there are towns there are people and industry and trade and farming and agriculture. The Franks had nice villages with functional infrastructures that could make food, and weaponry and breed cattle and horses. Serf like governance was emerging and as such, Kings could raise forces, cavalry and infantry and sometimes siege weapons. Kings would then use them to defend their own territories.

 

 

Otto I

 

 

But the increase in population forced tribes to abrade each others’ borders. More land was needed to settle and one of the reasons why people fight is simply to have a place to grow up.  The invasions came as often in the tenth century by sea as by land. From North Africa, grimly fueled with religious fervor came the Muslims. From the East led by a madman, came the Magyars. And from Scandinavia came the Vikings.

 

First let’s talk about the Muslims. The Moors, or Spanish Muslims began raiding the ports of southern Iberia taking loot from Galleons, landing and taking islands, occupying Sicily, and establishing outposts in Southern Italy. These raids were fast and furious affairs in the mid ninth century. On a moments notice, a galleon’s crew on the morning before launch would awake to hear the screams of seamen jumping over their gunwales and firing point blank into sailors manning sail masts. In a few minutes, sailors were killed or taken as slaves, and riches were purloined. This went on for decades and it was in this way that the southern Iberian peninsula became Muslim.

 

Then came a wave of Magyars who occupied the Carpathian Basin around 900 and made dozens of vicious looting raids against the Franks, the Bulgars, the Bavarians, the Saxons and Burgundians. At this point Arpad, the Hungarian military leader had control of more land than Medieval France. Their victory at Augsberg over the Franks was impressive in 910. It was not until Otto I the Duke of Saxony brought a well prepared armored cavalry force over the Danube and defeated them that something slowed them down. Not only did Otto defeat them, his forces pursued the remainder Magyars in a rout that lasted several days. Otto I was a charismatic and confident leader who made the Franks and Alans believe in themselves in face of these warriors. His son was no great general and thusly lost most of his army in a disastrous encounter with a Muslim Force in Southern Italy. At the Battle of Cotrone, Otto II did well breaking the Muslim line and killing their leader but the Franks had no answer for a counterattack by Moors pouring out of a boscage to their flank. The Magyar dynasty was short lived, mainly because there was only really one Magyar strongman and that was Arpad.

 

Then came the Vikings. Starting in 793, a flotilla of Viking warships sacked Lindisfarne in Northumbria, and surrounding town. The next two centuries saw massive invasions of Northern Europe by these white Scandinavian invaders. Ultimately two things saved the Europeans from the Vikings. One was the fact that the Vikings, fierce as they were, simply did not possess enough siege engine technology to over take European fortified cities. Vikings were likely to surround a walled town and put up perfunctory siege towers and after a few months they simply left. This scenario repeated itself. The second thing that stopped the Vikings was the good life. Vikings who settled into Germanic and English towns often assimilated and preferred the lifestyle afforded by trading versus raiding.

 

Vikings

Vikings

 

It was the three waves of invasion of Western Europe in the ninth and tenth century that created feudal societies. The Germanic tribes of Western Europe needed to create organizations that could effectively counter war like raiders. So Kings and patricians worked together to formulate a draft system so to speak. In some kingdoms, each town had to be able to produce a group of willing soldiers depending on how big the town was in population and land. Farmers were expected to pay a tribute to a local lord in terms of food or money in return for protection from knights. Peasants and craftsmen all had to learn to create weapons in short order when raiders were around.

 

The Western Europeans were significantly behind the Byzantines to the East in naval technology. The three waves forced them to improve their force structures. Primarily a mercenary force, the Byzantine Army was huge and it maintained a Naval fleet of 200 ships and 40,000 oarsmen. While the English Fleet under Alfred the Great could not stave off Vikings, and while the Muslim navies ruled the Western Mediterranean Byzantine fleets regularly made short work of enemies, it was the Byzantine fleet during the tumultuous ninth and tenth centuries that kept the Muslims at bay, quite literally. At the end of the early Middle Ages, warfare had grown more professional, more effective, and more brutal.

 

It had to.

 

 

 

 Source: The Timeline of Medieval Warfare, Phyllis G. Jestus,  Thunder Bay Press

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Szabo March 18, 2013 at 7:19 am

“Otto I the Duke of Saxony brought a well prepared armored cavalry force over the Danube and defeated them that something slowed them down. Not only did Otto defeat them, his forces pursued the remainder Magyars in a rout that lasted several days.”

What bosh! Otto was King of Germany, as well as Saxon Duke, but he only defeated an expeditionary force at Lechfeld, deep inside Germany and never came within a hundred miles of the Danube!! As for pursuing the Magyars, not only is that not true, but he never attacked the Hungarians, although his armies fanned out in every other direction.
I wonder why? Maybe because their power was unbroken?
I feel sorry for young people reading this…

Daniel Russ March 19, 2013 at 6:33 am

From Wikipedia “The Battle of Lechfeld (10 August 955), often seen as the defining event for holding off the incursions of the Hungarians into Western Europe, was a decisive victory by Otto I the Great, King of the Germans…”

Otto may not have advanced to the Danube. But troops under his command did.

Thanks for the visit.

Daniel Russ March 19, 2013 at 6:35 am

One more thing. I don’t feel sorry for young people reading this. This blog is crammed full of good stories, stories that young people should read and remember. While I appreciate the visit, I can never understand why military history afficionados talk like dogs to each other.

Louis September 15, 2017 at 5:11 am

The moors (or Maures) mostly came from Morroca, Algeria and Mauretania (which is not called Mauretania (land of the Maures\Moors) for nothing.
And they toppled the Visigith kingdom of Hispania with a proper invasion by one of their leaders, named Al-Tariq. In fact, (or at least according to history), they landed at the Jabal Tariq, today better known as Gibr-Al-Tar.
From Wikipedia: The name Gibraltar is the Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق), meaning “Mountain of Tariq”. It refers to the Rock of Gibraltar, which was named after the Umayyad general Tariq ibn-Ziyad who led the initial incursion into Iberia in advance of the main Umayyad force in 711 under the command of Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid I. Earlier, it was known as Mons Calpe, a name of Phoenician origin and one of the Pillars of Hercules.[16]

Louis September 15, 2017 at 5:14 am

Oh, and about the tone of the discussion between military history people: Most of them are ussually not trained historians, so they invest quite a lot of their own in the study, and so tend to see any divergent opinion as a personal attack, or at least a major afront. I do confess that I too fall victim to this occasionally.

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