The Viking Historian: the Siege of Paris and Abbo the Monk
On the 21st of September, 1989,
Hugo, a threatening category four hurricane bore down on the South Carolina coast.
By the time it made its way back to sea a few days later it had cut a swath of destruction over most of the East Coast of the United States, killing 34 people and leaving over 100,000 homeless.
But on the afternoon of the 21st, it was headed straight for the small town of Beaufort, S.C., a low-lying area which most certainly would have been devastated, if not for the quick thinking of the local Salvation Army officer, my father, Major Sam Bivans.
Major Bivans was a veteran of four decades of disasters, and a man of God, so he did what he had been trained to do, he led his parishioners in prayer.
Miraculously, by that evening, Hugo had turned to the north and missed tiny Beaufort, slamming instead into the larger city of Charleston and sweeping through much of SC on its way to Charlotte, NC.
Major Bivans will tell you to this day that it was God, or as I like to call him, Capt. G, that saved tiny Beaufort, not the influence of of the Gulf Stream, or some such natural phenomenon.
The Siege of Paris
In 885 A.D., a different kind of hurricane slammed into the Seine River valley,
and broke upon the walls of the glimmering city of Paris for nearly a year.
Yes, I know, that was a rather abrupt segue, but hang on, I’ll try to connect it before long.
According to Abbo, a monk in the monastery of St-Germain-des-Prés, the Northman Sigfried and 40,000 of his bloodthirsty Vikings rushed up the Seine river in 700 boats and besieged the glimmering city of Paris for nearly a year, only deigning to depart after Charles the Fat paid them 700 pounds of silver.
For much of the twentieth century, scholars more or less accepted Abbo’s account at face value, but since the 1960s at least, there have been attempts to discredit or verify the poet’s account.
There are at least two problems with accepting Abbo’s version of events at face value: his salvific agenda, and his apologetic attitude toward King Odo I.
Scholars also occasionally point to Abbo’s use of classical terminology and tropes as an undermining factor to his historicity.
While I agree with the first two reasons, I take serious issue with the latter. While Abbo certainly employed classical terms and tropes, and exaggerated some facts as well as the roles of particular participants, especially Odo, the exaggeration of SOME facts do not suggest, or prove that he exaggerated ALL facts.
I will also argue that he employed classical language to describe the events he personally witnessed because for an educated, cleric living in the ninth century, he really had no choice but to employ such language. Hopefully, if I am successful, we can rescue this valuable source from the proverbial bathwater, before we throw all the babies out.
Abbo the Preacher
Nirmal Dass, the most recent translator of the Bella Parisiacae Urbis, or the Siege of Paris, argues that we should essentially disregard Abbo’s historical data, because “The Bella is concerned not with historical accuracy…but with theology.”1 That because Abbo’s purpose, as preacher, is “salvific,” (in more modern terms, his goal, much like Major Bivans, was to save souls); he tends “toward exaggeration.”2
As Dass points out, Abbo’s main point is a teleological one: to explain how human events fit into God’s, or ‘Capt. G’s’ ultimate agenda. As such, the Vikings serve, for Abbo and many of his contemporaries, as God’s wrath on earth, sent to punish the sins of wayward Christians, especially wayward Kings and Emperors, such as Charles the Fat.
Dass sums it up this way, “…France is being ravaged by the Vikings for a reason: her body is diseased by sin, while her rulers are weak and negligent, not caring for the flock that God has put in their trust.”3
On Abbo’s main agenda, I would have to agree with Dass, but I would caution everyone to take a step back before we discard all that Abbo had to say about the Siege of Paris as mere exaggeration or fabrication. Some bathwater should be thrown, but let’s get the baby out first.
There are at least a handful of reasons why Abbo might be prone to exaggerate or fabricate SOME of the facts, but also an equal number, and I would argue, stronger reasons, why Abbo would not fabricate everything.
Why Write It?
First, we should examine what the author had to say about his purpose in writing this work:
“…it is good, I think, to make known the two reasons for which I decided to undertake this little work. The first was to embark on a literary exercise [he was quite enamored with Virgil]. The second was my intention of leaving behind an enduring example to those who are guardians over other cities.”4
Dass would emphasize the first purpose, while I would point a stiff finger to the second, which is the more important one, because it alludes to his intended readership, namely, the Frankish nobility, in particular, the rulers, be they secular: kings, dukes, and counts, or ecclesiastical: bishops and abbots.
Did Abbo intend that his work be read at all?
One argument against an assumed readership is that only one copy of the first two books of Abbo’s poem exists, while the third book, which is exclusively a sermon having nothing directly to do with the siege, exists in 12 different manuscripts, and served as a sort of sourcebook of Greek and Latin terminology for churchmen.
One might argue, that because the first two books were not distributed, they were never intended to be read by anyone.
This is a dangerous assumption, and most certainly erroneous. To write such a manuscript in the ninth century was a major academic undertaking, not to mention financial; the material costs of producing manuscripts was high. So we should assume that Abbo intended for his book, in its entirety, to be read by Frankish leaders. That only one copy has survived should not undermine this assumption, though it might suggest that it was not widely read, or that the other copies are no longer extant.
One person we can be sure was meant to read it was Count Odo of Paris, who had been lucky enough to be elected king, after the deposition of Charles the Fat in 887/8.
Abbo dedicates the poem to Odo “the most notable prince, the foremost of all the leaders of men that this kingdom has produced down to the present day…”5
It is apparent throughout the work that Abbo thinks highly of Odo and as such, is likely to have exaggerated the count’s role in the defense of the city, but as Odo was the ranking noble in charge, his role must have been significant, so elevating his role may not have been difficult. His gained reputation certainly earned him enough support among the nobility to replace Charles as king in 888. This was no simple matter. It signaled the beginning of the end for the Carolingian Dynasty after all. It was most likely Charles’ lack of ability to protect the realm against the vikings, and Odo’s success against them at Paris, that lead to Charles’s deposition in the first place.6
Another thing Abbo certainly seems to have exaggerated, and one that has been rightly challenged, was the size of the Viking force, and as well, the size of the defending force inside Paris, which he numbers as 40,000 and 200 respectively. There is no need to go into this discussion at present. For more on the numbers, read my post Size Matters.
Suffice it to say that no serious scholar now accepts these at face value, though there is much discussion about how much they should be whittled down.
Abbo certainly had reason to inflate the numbers of Vikings, as this fed directly into his main argument: that it was God who saved Paris from the Nordic scourge, not the power of men. It is a classic, Old Testament, David and Goliath story. What the numbers were on either side, we may never know, but we can be sure Abbo exaggerated them.
But must we assume that he exaggerated everything?
I will argue here that he probably did not, for a couple of reasons.
One, he was most certainly an eyewitness to the events he describes at the siege.
This is an important point, because it is rare in the middle ages that we have an eyewitness account, making it doubly important that we take care not to throw it out just because it has inherent biases. As an eyewitness, writing the events down some ten years later (at best guess), he was in an excellent position to get the facts straight, as he saw them. Not only did he have his own experiences to rely upon, but he could query other witnesses to round out his account.
While the Bella is a work of epic poetry, a genre often accused of gross exaggeration, Abbo is careful to distance himself from the poets of old, and seems to anticipate future nay-sayers by including a disclaimer in his intro letter:
Here you will see none of those fabrications often found in the work of grand poets. Indeed, nowhere have I gathered Fauns and wild animals dancing, singing, or frolicking… [referencing the great poets of the classical age he says]…It is perfectly obvious that I have never had such a desire, nor do I have the ability to accomplish such an undertaking. Therefore I do not take on the name of poet, and these are not fictions that I present. Rather, I have used the means available to me [i.e. Latin poetry] to complete my task.7
So the author himself asserts that the events he portrays were not “fictions”, and he reiterates this point later in the poem after a passage about the fall of the Petit Pont, where the last twelve defenders were overtaken by Vikings:
Therefore, let no man speak of this fight, as if he knew more. Indeed, no man may speak of these events more truly than I, For I saw everything that happened with my very own eyes; And my account agrees with the one related by a man who was there, and who dodged Danish swords by swimming across.8
So at least one other eyewitness to this particular event survived the violent attack on the bridge to retell his story, probably to Abbo, as well as others.
I suppose one might argue that if Abbo lied or exaggerated any part of his account then he may well have done the same with all of it. This is of course ridiculous on the face of it, for Abbo would have to answer to other eyewitnesses, if ever they came across his version of events and found it to be a complete fabrication.
This leads to the second reason his account should be given more historical credit:
If Abbo exaggerated too much of his account, for instance, if he inserted exotic animals or creatures, imagined fortifications and infrastructure, or fanciful weapons and military equipment, his plausibility and therefore, credibility would have been greatly, if not completely, undermined. And any ‘sermon’ that he was attempting to convey would have died a flaming, smoking wreck, much as the tower on the Petit Pont.
No matter how much he might exaggerate some things, numbers for instance, his story must be set within a believable world, one that all Parisians and Franks would recognize.
Among other things that Abbo gives us, we can glean much about the layout of 9th century Paris, its fortifications, as well as the weaponry and military tactics employed both by the Franks and the Vikings. Time permits us only a glimpse at two of these today: fortifications and siege weapons.
We know from Abbo, and also from the Annals of St. Vaast (AV), another contemporary 9th Century document, that sometime before the vikings arrived, Charles the Fat ordered the fortification of Paris’s two bridges, the Grand Pont on the right bank (the larger of the two) and the Petit Pont on the left bank.
Several things can be gleaned about these structures thanks to Abbo’s poem, and from corroborating information from AV.
First, the one on the Grand Pont was at least in part — most likely the foundations, if indeed not the entire structure — constructed of stone, because during the assault the Vikings “sought to dig beneath the walls with iron picks,” which would not be necessary if the foundations were wooden, a simple spade would suffice9.
This tower, or towers, was not complete when the vikings arrived;
“for it was far from finished. But its foundations were solid and stood firmly grounded. Proudly it rose; its fenestris were sound.”10
Dass translates fenestris as ‘crenels’, but ‘loopholes‘ is probably more accurate.
Abbo continues his description,
“..there are towers that guard the bridges; some of these face the city; others face out to the river.”11
So we can glean from this that there were probably two towers on either end of each bridge, and the Grand Pont towers were most likely of stone, complete with loopholes. It’s possible that the Grand Pont tower was wooden, with a stone foundation, but as it survived the siege, it must have been better constructed than the one on the Petit Pont.
The tower or towers on the Petit Pont were most likely of wooden construction, as the one on the far bank (left bank) was burned to the ground by the Vikings after the bridge washed out in a flood on 6 February, 886. 12
Abbo describes the conflagration leaving little doubt as to its composition;
“…fire leaped onto the tower; engulfed it completely. Oppressed by the flames, the stout oaken planks further groaned greatly.”13 Abbo also gives us a subtle clue as to the location of the tower in relation to the river, “…they [the defenders] got hold of a small firkin (lagenam) with which they could haul up the clear water of the Seine…”14
Whether this was a ‘firkin’ or ‘flagon,’ which might be a better translation, matters not, but the fact that they were able to lower it straight down into the river to draw drinking water, tells us that the tower was directly adjacent to the river. This stands to reason if you’re attempting to block land troops from gaining access to the bridge.
We know also, thanks to Abbo, that the island city was walled, and that the walls, at least in most places, ran right down to the waterline.
Speaking of the city he says
“and a river stretches out around you in a perfect embrace that caresses your walls (muros).”15
At least in one section, however, these walls were lower than the others and as a result, received more attention by the Viking attackers,
“…three hundred ferocious Danes came on to the island, as was their wont, hard by that place where the walls were low.”16
In a note, Dass states that this was in the northwest sector of the city, but does not explain how he came to that conclusion. There is a lot more that can be extracted from the Bella about the layout and fortifications of Paris, but for time’s sake, let us take a short look at some of the siege-craft mentioned by Abbo.
It is in his description of siege-craft, both weapons and tactics, Abbo dispels the accusation that he is merely employing classical terminology, with little understanding of the terms he uses. He seems to have a good grasp of the terminology and uses specific terms for specific applications.
Abbo mentions several different siege weapons and tactics, and he is descriptive of them, at least enough to tell that he is distinguishing between the different types.
The Vikings and Franks employed several weapons and tactics, including balistae, catapultis, fireships, rams (arrietes), and the Roman infantry tactic of testudo. For the purposes of this paper, we will focus on the rams, the testudo, and one other siege weapon.
According to Abbo, the Vikings constructed at least three large battering rams, complete with protective ‘cats’, and large wheels with which to push them up to the gates of Paris;
…the Danes began to construct sixteen monstrous wheels, as never before seen, grouped into threes; made of sturdy oak, each wheel had a battering ram (argete/ariete) shielded by a roof. Now it was within the secret hiding places found all along the sides of these huge wheels, that men were concealed…there were sixty men, girt in their helmets…they had hardly finished building one … when, without delay, they began on the second, then the third.17
In response to the Viking siege-weapons, the Franks may have employed a new style of weapon, the traction trebuchet, a weapon that Caroll Gilmor argues made its way from the Far East via Islam, and possibly through Italy and Spain, to appear in Western Europe by the late ninth century.18
She argues that Abbo describes such a machine at the siege of Paris, and she may be right. Abbo says these machines were used to combat the three Viking rams:
[the Danes] pushed forward the battering rams (arrietes) — one at the East side, hard against the tower; another North by the seven hills, up against the gates; and a third stationed at the Western part. All the while our [Franks’] men made ready hefty shafts of hard wood, each one pierced at the far end with a keen tooth of iron, with which to strike rapidly at the siege engines of the Danes. With thick planks, doubled and of equal length, our men swiftly constructed mangonels (mangana), as they are known in the common tongue, from which they shot forth great, massive stones that landed cruelly, smashing utterly the humble shelters of the vile Danes.19
Gilmore makes a good case for these being a new form of engine, and Abbo uses a specific term for them, mangonel, to distinguish them from the other various engines balistae, catapultis, fundae (slingshots), and some sort of ram (carcamusa) that he mentions.
In comparison, the Annals of St. Vaast, which also describes the siege, in brief, uses the generic term machina, twice to describe the siege weapons involved and only once does it refer to a specific type, a ram (arietus).
Abbo, then, is much more precise in his language. Not only does he use precise terms, in some cases, as above, he actually describes the engine to us, as he does for the infantry formation, the testudo.
Roman Infantry Tactics: the Testudo or Tortoise
In the classical, Roman testudo, or tortoise formation, troops in the front line hold their shields vertically to the front, overlapping each other, while the men in the back ranks raise their shields to cover the top thereby protecting the unit from projectiles from all directions.
This would be prudent when marching up to a wall or tower, where the defenders can easily drop, shoot and pour all manner of nasty, deadly projectiles down upon your head, and the Franks did just that.
It has been argued that the Vikings’ testudo, was really no more than a ‘shield wall’, and essentially, this is true, but what is a testudo, if not a shield-wall with a roof! Abbo leaves no doubt about this, mentioning the tactic not once but twice:
“they advanced, hard-packed, in a testudo”20,
and in another passage,
a “painted testudo (picta testudine) to form a life-preserving vault (confecere/conficere polum, vitam nutrientem).”21
Why it’s shocking that the Vikings would employ Roman style infantry tactics in the ninth century — after several centuries of contact with the Roman and post-Roman world — baffles me.
A testudo, while requiring some practice and drill, is not rocket-science, and anyone who had come up against it in battle once (as the Scandinavians and other Germanic tribes did many times), and did not attempt to copy it immediately, should be judged incompetent, or just plain stupid. And the Vikings were far from stupid.
They also employed another Roman infantry tactic, a cuneos, caput porcinum, or in Norse, a svinfylka, or ‘boar’s head formation, that is to say a wedge formation with overlapping shields.
Abbo mentions it once,
[the Danes] “formed three cruel cuneos (wedge-formations)” which then split and attacked three different targets.22
Abbo mentions numerous other tactics employed by both sides in the struggle for Paris, but time and space limit their discussion here.
Given Abbo’s intended readership, i.e. King Odo and the nobility, it is reasonable to assume that the author saw, and was more or less accurately describing, real fortifications, siege weapons, and tactics, employed by both the Vikings and their Frankish counterparts.
If Abbo exaggerated these details, he would have surrendered his credibility with his readers, who were present at the siege, and who could remember exactly what weapons and tactics they faced and/or employed themselves.
My father, Major Bivans, in describing the events of Hurricane Hugo in 1991, can emphasize the role of prayer in turning the massive storm away from his small, Southern city, but would lose the faith of his congregation if he attempted to invent the storm all together, grossly exaggerate its destructive nature, or its path.
When describing a pivotal event to ones contemporaries, one may exaggerate the role of a participant, be it Vikings, hurricanes, a king, a bishop, a Salvation Army Officer, or Captain G, but they may not INVENT the EVENT, entirely, or they run the risk of being swept out under a storm surge of disbelief.
Enjoy this article? You’re gonna LOVE my upcoming book (June 11th, 2017)!
Vikings, War and the Fall of the Carolingians!
more information on the book page…
Are you a Viking fanatic?: Check out my other articles…
- Size Matters: The Vikings, the Siege of Paris and the Bridge at Pontoise
- Bones, Burials, and the Viking Great Army in Repton
1 Abbo, Bella Parisiacae Urbis, Trans. Nirmas Daas, (Paris, 2007): 3, hereafter abbreviated as Bella.
2 Ibid., 12. 3 Ibid., 11. 4 Ibid., 23. 5 Ibid.
6 The Annals of St. Vaast, entry for the year, 887 A.D., hereafter abbreviated as AV.
7 Bella, 23.
8 Bella, I:593–99.
9 Bella, I:99.
10 Bella, I:79–80.
11 Bella, I:18–19.
12 AV, 886.
13 Bella, I:548–9.
14 Bella, I:544–5.
15 Bella, I:15–16.
16 Bella, II:187–8.
17 Bella, I:206–12.
18 Carol Gilmor, “The Introduction of the Traction Trebuchet into the West,” Viator 12
19 Bella, I:357–67.
20 Bella, I:302. 21 Bella, I:266. 22 Bella, I:249.