Gens Normannorum: What is Norman Identity?

In 1829 Sir Walter Scott delighted his readers with Ivanhoe. The novel for sure was a product of the romantic nationalistic movement that most of Europe was embracing but, possibly without meaning to do so, he also depicted the landscape of England after 1066, and its occupants. The image he provides about the Norman invaders is one of their military and political power, that of those French tyrants ruling over the Saxons with no wish to mix with the native population. This description usually comes to mind when thinking about the Normans and who they were. But the myths create confusion in the understanding of their identity. Perhaps we require some clarification of terminology first of all. Starting with the term ‘Norman’-  this is the modern concept that derives from old French and Latin words like Nordmanni or Normanni, which means men from the north. These would have been used by the Franks and their contemporaries, and not the Normans themselves. Then you will be thinking: what actually is the Gens Normannorum? The word ‘gens’ in Latin can refer to an extended group of people with particular characteristics. As per G.A.Loud definition, “a nation would be made up of several ‘gentes’, usually related to each other, but none the less separate and distinct”, which is precisely the concept around which the Normans build their realm. The Normans were a faction that survived by means of political union, adaptation and strong territorial bonds. Therefore, recognising a Norman identity per se is a difficult task.

Despite the fact that the Normans were a wonderful collage of different people, it is true that they are usually associated with certain features. Some of these were an invention of their own, but some others were the perceptions of their contemporaries, being the most prominent their so feared military skills. Not only Walter Scott portrayed these people as powerful warriors, so did the Greeks when they saw them conquering their lands in the Mediterranean. The same sentiment was shared by multiple Popes. It seems likely that the feudal system they started to follow from their settlement in Normandy provided a good military service in which the aristocracy got involved quite eagerly, turning to be more efficient than anywhere else in Europe. So maybe this was the genesis of this Norman ideal. Living in such a militarised society, discipline and cooperation evolved quickly, which made possible having a single ruler to lead these diverse people. This ruler would the seek support within his lineage, which becomes another important issue in Norman identity: family. William the Conqueror serves us – funny that – as a perfect example here. Just look at his retinue for the conquest in England: half brothers like Odo of Bayeux, cousins and other distant relatives. It was this power and unity, linked with their adaptable Scandinavian mind which allowed them to create great institutions, like their new bodies of law and government.

Moreover, these pretensions took also a tangible form which is very characteristic of the Normans: castles. These could serve as residences, fortresses and symbols of authority. The typical Norman castle would have been the motte and bailey construction, although it is known that in the southern Norman territories they recycled pre-existing Muslim castles that were more elegant and rather appealing to their ‘greedy’ minds. Therefore, castles seem to represent everything the Normans were; a bellicose race with hunger for new lands. But that was not just the point, though, was it? It happened that the Normans were quite good and efficient architects that helped to develop a whole new architectural style: the Romanesque. Furthermore, we have the issue of monastic revival and all that religious work the Normans did…Let’s not forget that their conversion only happened in the 10th century. Just like the Carolingians did before, they promoted Christianity through learning and pious charity, and they embraced their new religion as a vital part of their lives. Many religious buildings were built with the money and patronage of the different noble families, in order to provide for their souls but also to improve their status, and to portray themselves as Norman pious rulers. So, it seems that not only were these Northmen warriors, but people with cultural sensibility and religious devotion. How did they end up being related to such different concepts, and why is the first one the prevailing one?

Sadly, those to blame are the Norman historians from the 11th century, as they built up the Gens Normannorum around the idea of their military prowess. It is likely that the intention was to portray them as tough survivors, particularly considering their Viking origin. Consider that, what Rollo and his companions managed to do by 911 was, in medieval terms, extraordinary and epic. They found themselves a new context in a land whose ancestors had ‘terrorized’ for decades. They managed to grasp power and survive, of which they were obviously be proud, as Dudo of St.Quentin reflects in his text History of the Dukes of the Normans. According to him, the Normans were descendants of the Dacians; the heirs of Antenor, who was known to be a Trojan survivor. Not only was he giving them a legitimate legacy to rule over their new lands by linking them with an ancient culture, he was establishing a bond between them and the Trojans who were warriors and survivors, just like the Vikings. Even more, he was establishing a parallelism: the Aeneid gives the Romans a Trojan background and origin, the same than Dudo is doing to the Normans…What else could the new European power desire that being equal to the Roman Empire? This was all a matter of legitimacy. The Normans were lovers of history; heroic history. And so this historical snowball got bigger and other authors came and  reinforced the ideal. Then with William the Bastard, they just elevated their might to holy standards. His chaplain, William of Poitiers, describes his great religiousness while participating in mass before battle. Furthermore, he is praised and elevated to the level of Christian icons such as David and Salomon, even Jesus or God as “he heals where he wounds…peace and war obey him sympathetically”, like it is stated in the poem Jephthah. So not only the Normans were now warriors: they were crusaders.

And so, from the 12th century onwards the crusader image begun. Figures like Tancred, who managed to get control of the Principality of Antioch that brought more glory to the Southern Normans. But then, there is a sudden twist. The issue of the 12th Century for the Normans and their identity is a problem of generational change.  They had now spent several decades in Normandy, but also in the Mediterranean and England. In England, they tried to suppress the ‘English’ traditions, but it was impossible, as the Saxon customs had been there for a longer period. The Normans assumed an ‘English’ past at the same time that the Norman myth got introduced within the Saxon population; now both the ‘gentes’ Normannnorum and Anglorum were not easy to separate. In addition, there were family crisis shaking the Norman rule: Henry against Robert, then Matilda and Stephen, and even in the South William I had trouble with the Sicilian aristocracy. There are even evidences of decline in Norman art: the further they expanded, the weaker the influence of Romanesque was. In addition, their military prestige disappeared as the age of Conquest came to an end…and considering that in Southern Italy and Sicily they had to deal with the Islamic and Orthodox population, one can even doubt their religious unity.

So, what was in truth Norman identity? It was everything and anything at the same time. It is clear, though, that as Marjorie Chibnall puts it “the Norman people were product, not of blood, but of history”. One could argue that, the only true Normans were those that lived in Normandy – centuries later they would promote their independence. Perhaps, Norman identity was nothing more than a Viking wish of adventure and expansion with a French touch of creativity and piety more appealing to their neighbours, therefore making it easier for them to fulfill their objective. Others might blame the imagery on the 11th Century chronicles that promulgated the Norman pragmatism and opportunism to satisfy their lords and their own minds. Maybe this is hypocritical, and just a pure modernist judgement, from which scholars should try to learn and focus on what the Normans thought of themselves and why. There is still much to consider and revise about the subject. Until then, I am happy to keep in mind, and N.Webber advises that Norman “identity evolved in these years, through changes of patria, of language, of enemy and of religion…’Norman’ was used in Normandy, in England, and in Italy and Sicily, to do so was to assert different claims in different areas, and in different times”.

-Chibnall, M., The Normans (Oxford, 2000)

-Davis, R.H.C., The Normans and Their Myth (London, 1976)

-Dudo of Saint-Quentin, ‘History of the Dukes of the Normans’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

Haskins, C.H., The Normans in European History (New York, 1959)

-Fulcouis of Beauvais, ‘Jephthah Poem’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)

-Kennedy, H., Crusader Castles (Cambridge, 1994)

-Loud, G.A., ‘The Gens Normannorum- Myth or Reality?’, Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol. IV, (Woodbridge, 1982), pp. 104-116

-Potts, C., ‘Atque unum ex diversis gentibus populum effecit: Historical Tradition and the Norman Identity’, Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies, Vol. XVIII, (Woodbridge, 1996), pp. 139-152

-Searle, E., Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power 840-1066 (Berkeley and London, 1988)

-Ville de Caen, ‘Les Normands, peuple d’Europe’, accessed 20th May 2011,

-Webber, N., The Evolution of Norman Identity (Woodbridge, 2005)

-William of Poitiers, ‘Deeds of Duke William’, The Normans in Europe, (on-line version)



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