Norman origins: or why it’s more complicated than DNA

A friend linked to this piece of news from Norway (in translation; French report here): specialists in DNA analysis have opened the tombs of Dukes Richard I and Richard II of Normandy in order to determine their origins. The reason the specialists feel this needs to be done lies in the differing traditions of how Rollo (grandfather of Richard I) arrived in what is now Normandy in the first place: at its simplest, as recorded in the newspaper, was Rollo Danish or Norwegian? The actual questions should be does this change our understanding of history? Is it good history? Is it good science?

No.

That’s the short answer to all three questions and ultimately the only one that matters, so here’s why.

The two main traditions that describe Rollo’s arrival in Francia and the agreement that allowed him and his men to settle in the Seine valley around Rouen come from Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s History of the Normans, written in the early eleventh century, and Snorri Stuluson’s Heimskringla dating from the thirteenth. Let’s start with Dudo.

Dudo was commissioned by Richard I shortly before his death to write a history of the Normans. He continued to write under the patronage of Richard’s son, Richard II. The idea that Rollo and his men were ‘Danish’ comes from Dudo’s work, but it is not merely a case of these Vikings came from a country to the north of Germany. Dudo creates, in a very literal sense of the word, a history for his subjects. He gives them a classical ancestry that links them to the Trojans, something that was very common in origin myths of the early middle ages. Then, by geographical and linguistic slight of hand, he equates Denmark with the Roman province of Dacia (in what is now eastern Europe). At the stroke of Dudo’s pen, a people with ostensibly no history, suddenly have a classical past and a shared ancestry with their neighbours, the Franks (who also claimed descent from the Trojans). Dudo was writing in Latin, he was learned and understood what he was doing. The fact that he held a position at the Norman court would also indicate that Richard II was more than happy to go along with this.

So to Snorri, who was writing in Iceland in the first half of the thirteenth century. The Heimskringla is a collection of sagas about the Norwegian kings, starting with the legandary Yngling dynasty located in Sweden. If Dudo was writing a century after Rollo first appeared on the Seine, then Snorri was writing three hundred years later at a time when Iceland was struggling to negotiate its relationship with Norway after losing independence. He places Rollo in Norway as ‘Rolf the Ganger’ who was forced into exile during the time of Harald Finehair’s growth in power. Although the Heimskringla itself is late, it does contain a skaldic poem by Rollo’s mother Hild. This type of poetry was passed down orally, so Hild’s verse might well have been composed contemporaneously with Rollo’s exile, but we can’t be sure.

It is also worth considering the point of view of Frankish writers. Terms used to describe Vikings like Rollo tended to focus on their religious otherness – pagan, heathen, devil worshippers- or their violence – barbarians, pirates etc. ‘Dane’ is used, but as a way of saying ‘people from over there’ rather than as an indicator of any particular ethnicity. For the Franks, one set of Vikings was very much like another and it didn’t matter where they came from. To that end, Dudo’s origins of the Normans are very much a way of creating acceptable history that spoke, not just to the Normans, but also their Frankish neighbours.

Then there  is the word Viking itself. The very definition of that word (a verb) is to go sea-raiding, i.e. to move about. We know people called the Vikings moved about and they did this a fair bit, so any indication of origins from DNA requires a healthy dose of scepticism.

And finally what of ‘Denmark’ and ‘Norway’? These are terms that simply had no credible meaning in the tenth century. Rollo wouldn’t have recognised himself as either Danish or Norwegian; locality and lineage were far more important.

So what of the bad history and bad science bit? For a start, Richard I and II were dug up and reinterred by Henry II of England in the mid-twelfth century, so the specialists are not dealing with a sealed uncontaminated context. It seems the DNA analysis proceeds from a desire to arbitrate between two very different, non-contemporary source traditions, neither of which might contain ‘factual’ evidence of Rollo’s ancestry and origins. To me, this plays on the worst sort of nationalism; a desire for one country to claim Rollo, who founded a dynasty that went on to conquer England in 1066, as its own. This is dangerous.*

Myth-making and stories are part of history. Studying them reveals lots of interesting and valuable information about the way people created their pasts and understood them, the process of writing history and placing people within shared frameworks. Not only does this desire to categorise figures such as Rollo and the Richards as one thing or another risk simplifying to the point of nonsense, it also robs them of their agency in creating their own history. We should be very wary of that indeed.

*There is plenty of vile racist literature written in nineteenth-century Britain claiming Rollo as the ultimate ancestor of the British empire and how northern blood rejuvenated the dissolute ‘Saxon’ race. In the context of the EU referendum in the UK we are seeing claims to British exceptionialism based on a selective understanding of history. We are also witnessing the rise of the far right in contemporary politics.

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Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

6 thoughts on “Norman origins: or why it’s more complicated than DNA”

  1. And where is Rollo’s DNA? An article I read said “it was not possible to get DNA from Rollo.” Is Rollo’s coffin empty? Or did the French government not allow it?

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    1. Rollo’s tomb in Rouen cathedral is a modern copy of a thirteenth-century original. I think, but don’t quote me on this, that his bones were seriously disturbed during the revolution.

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  2. Love it, already trying to discredit the pending results because it doesn’t fit with someone’s agenda. Unbelievable this stuff is still alive and strong.

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  3. I don’t think contamination of the DNA is an issue at this time, the have a stricted cleansing and testing procedure. Scientist’s have extracted DNA from far older samples than these remains. I say why not?!

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