Normans and identity

This post is a response to some questions on Twitter about the nature of Norman history and identity, particularly


I responded on Twitter, but it’s not a great medium for extended discussion, so I’ll do my best here.

I will take the second question first as I am on surer ground with that one.

Normannitas is a concept used by historians to understand Norman identity, though recently its utility has been questioned.[1] It means the essence or characteristics of what it meant to be Norman and I would add, particularly seen through the chronicles. R.H.C. Davis memorably referred to the Norman myth, the idea that this identity was a creation of twelfth-century chroniclers like Orderic Vitalis, but other scholars, e.g. G.A. Loud and C. Potts have argued that the Normans did have a sense of themselves as a group, and crucially as E. Albu and E. Johnson has shown, this changed according to time and circumstance. Historians have tried to trace identity through looking at some key elements that occur in the sources including connections to Scandinavia, the significance of Normandy, behaviours and characteristics, naming patterns and lineage.

Connections to Scandinavia are stressed much more by Norman and English chroniclers, even into the mid-twelfth century in terms of battle rhetoric or poetry. In southern Italy, however, Scandinavia as the origin of the Normans does not figure at all. This is perhaps unsurprising as by the point Amatus of Montecassino was writing, it was nearly two centuries since Rollo and his followers had left their homeland. England had more enduring connections with what are now Denmark and Norway and so the connection stayed current.

Normandy itself figures in chronicles from Normandy (obviously), England and southern Italy. For the writers based in Normandy, particularly Dudo, the province is something akin to the promised land as shown in Rollo’s prophetic dream that led him there in the first place. There is a strong connection between territory and certain people described as Normans. However, while an anonymous twelfth-century poet might acclaim Roger II of Sicily as a son of Rouen, it is clear through Roger’s use of material culture and Fatimid court style that he had very little in common with, for example, King Stephen or Empress Matilda.

Behaviours and characteristics lead to interesting questions about who can be considered Norman. Traditional scholarship sees military prowess, tactical nouse and cunning as particularly Norman, but if, as Nick Webber says, anyone born in Normandy was Norman,[2] then are peasants who don’t, on the whole, exhibit the martial qualities of the aristocracy? Are women? Certainly aristocratic women and peasants could be called upon to fight or command and equally men, notably Robert Curthose, could exhibit behaviour that called into question his ability to lead, but where does that leave any notion of a coherent Norman identity? What happens when the chroniclers’ heroes turn bad?

This is where lineage and family ties can add to our understanding of how the Normans were perceived. When Normans were accused of cowardice in the first crusade, it was their lineage that was shamed. When Tancred sacked the Temple Mount and massacred all he found there regardless of faith, Ralph of Caen said in not so many words, ‘he’s a relative of Guiscard’s: why did we expect better?’.

What this very brief description shows I hope, is that there are many ways we can talk about Norman identities and the plural is important. Why should we, given that that historical writing about these groups of people continued for a couple of centuries and beyond the loss of Normandy in 1204, expect there to be a stable concept of identity. Besides which, ‘Normans’ were to be found in diverse geographical areas. Those that conquered England, were not the same as those who went to southern Italy and the Anglo-Normans who colonised Ireland were quickly known as English. We must be sensitive to these inflections.

Now to the first question, which took me by surprise. As a medievalist working in the UK, plugged into various international Norman studies networks, whose undergraduate modules recruit well and who gives a number of public talks a year, it hadn’t occurred to me that people weren’t interested in the Normans. The OP clarified by suggesting that the Normans had avoided being incorporated into anyone’s nationalist histories. Now the whole question of nation as a medieval idea is a vast topic and one I am not equipped to comment on, but certainly political use has been made of the Normans from the time of their settlement in Normandy in the tenth century onwards.

The OP was particularly interested in nineteenth- and twentieth-century political uses of Norman history. There’s a couple of things we need to bear in mind here. Historians do not write in a vacuum. We are the products of our own time and that affects the type of questions we ask our sources, the way we frame our research and the type of historian we describes ourselves as. In the nineteenth century history was emerging as a profession and an academic discipline; there was no clear demarcation between professional and amateur and men like J.H. Round had private means to finance their scholarship. History, as it does now, found its way into politics, the news and popular media like tour guides.

During the nineteenth century, various scholarly bodies began compiling collections of primary sources including chronicles, law codes, ecclesiastical documents, charters, letters and so on into big national compendia. Many of these editions in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Recueil des historiens des Gaules et de la France, the Rolls Series and so on are still used today; indeed, the MGH still produces work. These volumes collated texts seen as culturally important for areas connected to Germany (based on the lands of the Carolingian empire), France and Great Britain. At the same time, scholars were interested in how nation states were created and developed.

If we take Britain as an example here, with a decidedly English parochial slant, then the work of E.A. Freeman demonstrates that to try and make a distinction between the writing of political history and the political uses of history is a vain task for this period. For Freeman history was all about the emergence of a triumphant English nation (Harold Godwineson was his hero) and the continuity of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ institutions post-conquest. Freeman was born three years after Walter Scott published Ivanhoe (1820) and some of that romanticism spills over into his writing.[3]

Nineteenth-century authors were writing as part of an imperial power that had violently colonised vast areas of the globe and some were greatly interested in what in the British/English character had enabled that. Some were out and out racists like Acton Warburton , for whom his contemporaries had harsh words. He regarded the Normans as supreme.[2] Reading that book on a research trip made me physically ill and Warburton writes in terms that would be unrecognisable to any of the Norman chroniclers.

In other places and other decades, Napoleon examined the Bayeux Tapestry while planning an invasion of England and urged the citizens of Bayeux to preserved ‘this fragile relic, which records one of the most memorable deeds of the French nation.’ [4] Himmler was also aware of the propaganda potential of an artwork that depicted an invasion of England and the Nazis regarded it as a masterpiece of Germanic art.[5] These examples, like that of Warburton, make us feel uncomfortable and angry and they are certainly not good history of the Normans. They are, however, products of particular moments in time.

In the context of commemoration, the Bayeux Memorial for the allied landings in 1944 (D-Day) makes an explicit connection  between 1066 and the Second World War in its inscription: ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.’ This speaks to a sense of shared history between either side of the Channel/La Manche all the more poignant for what happened last year in UK politics.

More recently the UK referendum on EU membership has resurrected political comment invoking the Norman conquest in terms of relations with continental Europe. I’m not going to write about that here as I’ve been mulling over a post on how to write history in the wake of 2016 sometime. It is, however, interesting that the Spectator, which called out Warburton for a lack of rigour, has published some pretty dire articles in this regard. All of this demonstrates that the use of the past is by no means neutral and as scholars we need to be aware of that and challenge it where necessary.

Further reading

Brownlie, S. Memory and Myths of the Norman Conquest (Woodbridge, 2013) mainly deals with twentieth-century understanding of the conquest and its American sister Haskins Society Journal

Chibnall, M. The Debate on the Norman Conquest (Manchester, 2000). Chapter 4 is very useful in terms of nineteenth-century understanding of the Norman conquest in particular, touching on the development of history as a discipline and its uses more broadly. The book as a whole traces the historiography of the conquest from the eleventh to the late twentieth century. See also the final chapter in Chibnall’s The Normans (Oxford, 2000)

Hicks, C., The Bayeux Tapestry: the Life Story of a Masterpiece (London), 2007)

Making History: Edward Augustus Freeman and Victorian Politics, eds G. Bremner and J. Conlin (Oxford, 2015

See also the various volumes of Anglo-Norman Studies, which sometimes have articles on the nineteenth-century historiography of the Normans and its American sister Haskins Society Journal.


1. This is a summary of ch. 7 of my Short History of the Normans (London, 2016).

2. N. Webber, The Evolution of Norman Identity, 911-1154 (Woodbridge, 2005), p. 39.

3. M. Chibnall, The Debate on the Norman Conquest (Manchester, 2000), ch. 4.

4. A. Warburton, Rollo and his Race, 2 vols (London, 1848), vol. 1, p. xv. This really is the nastiest and most racist thing I have read on the Normans.

5. Chibnall, Debate on the Norman Conquest, p. 54; C. Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry: the Life Story of a Masterpiece (London), 2007), ch. 8.

6. Hicks, Bayeux Tapestry, ch. 17.



Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

One thought on “Normans and identity”

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