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The Most Ignored Viking Destination in History

Brittany

brittany

When thinking of the Vikings, most will think firstly of their exploits in England. To my chagrin, this also happens to be the focus of nearly every plot line of films, miniseries, and documentaries with a historical theme revolving around the Vikings. Authors of historical fiction such as Bernard Cornwell, Giles Kristian, and Robert Low all center on England as the hot zone for Viking activity. This is no surprise considering all of these authors are British, and the largest reading audience in the world is anglophone. The trend is not necessarily bad—Viking Age England was an interesting place. But the Vikings did not stay in England. In fact, England was a tiny chapter in an otherwise massive historical volume covering interactions in lands from Byzantium to Ireland. The most ignored area affected by the Vikings, in my opinion, is likely one you’ve never heard of—the region of Vendée in France.

Nominoe

Nominoë swearing vengeance on the Emperor for the death of his emissary.

During the Viking Age, the region of Vendée did not exist by that name. It was instead referred to as the Breton March. The Frankish Empire struggled repeatedly to keep the impetuous and fiercely independent Bretons (of Brittany) under their rule, and found themselves frequently embroiled in violent revolts. Charlemagne managed to keep the Bretons happy for a time, but his son Louis had little luck with them. Thus they set up what we might consider today to have been a neutral zone—a march that neither side crossed unless to initiate war. In the 820’s, the Breton leader Wihomarc led a successful revolt for several years against the Franks until he was eventually killed. His successor, Nominoë, continued the revolt and eventually broke away from the empire successfully. His timing could not have been worse.

Just as Brittany gained its independence, the Vikings began more aggressive incursions into the region, leading to a series of military and political catastrophes that plunged the entire region into chaos. In 847, the Vikings initiated a mainland invasion, claiming massive swaths of Breton lands for themselves, and brokering a deal with the Breton leader Salomon to keep them. There the Vikings stayed for nearly seven decades, during which time they conquered the city of Nantes, helped the Normans to seize more lands from the Franks, helped the Franks fend off the Normans, and bankrupted an entire province of the Frankish Empire. Not until the Breton reconquest of the early 10th century under a leader by the name of Alain Barbe-Torte was the city of Nantes liberated from occupation, and the region of Brittany restored to its former independence.

The tale of the Vikings in Brittany is one rife with all the elements that would make a good Game of Thrones episode, with assassinations, botched marriages, coups, and betrayals. It was even the first stop of the Moorish emissary Al-Ghazal on his way to visit the Northmen in Ireland. Hastein, supposed son of Rangnar Lodbrok, earned his reputation as the scourge of the Loire and Somme and made a home for himself in the Vendée for a time. Unfortunately, this century-long history is seldom acknowledged in the anglophone world mostly because all of the scholarly work pertaining to the subject is in French.

audibookMy Kindred of the Sea series delves into the history of the Viking invasions of Brittany. The first volume, The Line of His People, introduces the Vikings to the region, and the planned future of the series (totaling 9 books in all) will follow them until the reconquest of Alain Barbe-Torte. I hope that through my efforts, I am able to shed some light on, and increase interest in, the region and its history.

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This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. I’ve heard of this place! A French friend of mine who is getting his masters in history was telling me about it once. If only I had any real inclination to visit France I’d go by the area and search for Viking related landmarks.

    1. My old stomping grounds. I’m from the island of Noirmoutier, the location of the first Viking attack on the Carolingian Empire. My family traces back to the Norse settlers of the region who, as it turns out, never left!

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