The barbarian invasions

The barbarian invasions

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  • Count Eudes defends Paris against the Normans in 886

    SCHNETZ Jean Victor (1787 - 1870)

  • The landing of the barbarian army


  • Norman pirates in IXe century

    LUMINAIS Evariste Vital (1821 - 1896)

Count Eudes defends Paris against the Normans in 886

© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / image RMN-GP

The landing of the barbarian army

© RMN-Grand Palais / René-Gabriel Ojéda

Norman pirates in IXe century

© RMN-Grand Palais / Daniel Arnaudet

Publication date: December 2019

Historical context

A threat from the north

Major phenomenon of the IXe century AD, the new barbarian invasions immediately threatened the fragile balance established by the first Carolingian monarchs. Interest in these Barbarians, neither Celts (Gauls) nor Franks, developed in the second part of the 19th century.e century to the point where an anonymous artist takes up the subject with one of the symbols of the Vikings: their longships, whose Bayeux Tapestry rediscovered under Napoleon has fixed the image in mentalities. He specialized in evoking the distant past, notably the Gauls and Merovingians who have started to be rediscovered, as well as the "Men of the North".

Image Analysis

Irresistible conquerors?

In 1837, the representation of the Normans was not yet rigorously codified. For the Galerie des Batailles, Schnetz places in the center of the composition the Count Eudes of Paris, on a white horse which is the frequent attribute of the heroes celebrated at Versailles in the 1830s. Like Saint George slaying the Dragon, he is in the process of to put out of harm's way an adversary on the ground, who brandishes a Franciscan against all historical truth. In general, the weaponry is not very detailed, the costumes rather fanciful and if a thick black smoke hangs over the stage, the simple slingshot held by the warrior in the foreground does not highlight the threat posed by the warrior. enemy who just asks to go up the river towards rich Burgundy. No element allows the viewer to identify Paris either, while the Seine plays a recurring role in the images relating to this episode. Without the thick walls and the tower of the Grand Chatelet still under construction, the battle could just as easily pit soldiers against ordinary brigands.

The anonymous painting now in the Château-Musée de Nemours does not seek historical accuracy either, but testifies to a clearer characterization of the Viking profile. With the exception of one oddly brown and tan figure on the far right, possibly a slave figure, all of the visible men have blond hair and beards. They are pale, plainly dressed, just armed with helmets, but are best identified by their shallow draft ships, the longships. The Normans pulled them on land in accordance with the memory left in the sources, in a posture more reminiscent of hauling along the canals than an army in the field. The high white chalk cliffs that block the horizon situate this scene of the Normandy landings. The painter pleads both the power of numbers, symbolized by the multitude of masts and sails which completely cover the surface of the sea, and a certain vulnerability. While no armed opposition has come to thwart their arrival, the invaders mourn several deaths from the elements. It is therefore an uncertain footing that the artist depicts.

Luminais tightens the focus on three figures seen from behind, joining a ship which anchors near the coast. It is a kidnapping scene that symbolizes all the politics of plunder that so marked contemporaries at the time while playing with the famous iconographic theme of the kidnapping of Europe. The sky and the sea, whose colors evoke the landscape of the English Channel seem to attest to the practice of painting from nature, serve as a frame for two dressed men and a naked woman. Helmets, shield and ax identify the first two as combatants, and the bow of their boat, archetype of the representation of longships, identifies them as Vikings. The blondness and nudity of the young woman who struggles in vain contrast with the red hair and military costume of the two pirates: she is a pure civilian victim of an arbitrary kidnapping.


Building the nation against the barbarian

The later painting (1894) takes up the original black legend invented by the monks of northern France, who depicted the Vikings as violent pirates sparing peaceful civilians and places of worship, living on plunder on the land. back of populations but not settling. This homecoming goes against the trend of the century, which gradually saw the idealization of this seafaring people as opposed to the Germanic barbarian invasions. The choice of Luminais also goes against the mythification by his Norman contemporaries of a link of descent with the Vikings, or else he crudely exposes it as the result of a series of rapes. In the three representations that punctuate the century, the figure of the Viking takes advantage of the development of a painting that readily takes the national past as its subject and questions the origin of the non-Christian peoples who in a way made France. Alongside the Gauls and the Franks, the Vikings figure in a story made of battles against external invasions which are as many an opportunity to civilize the barbarians (by converting them), but above all to create a national identity, to strengthen its cohesion and to deepen the feeling of adhesion. What the Viking draws, whatever the political regime, is a country whose wealth (natural, human, commercial) stirs up envy, a nation with a strong military culture that serves as the basis for a solid state, a people who intend to develop in peace but know how to wage war if necessary.

  • barbarian invasions
  • Carolingians
  • Normans
  • Versailles
  • Museum of the History of France
  • Louis Philippe
  • barbarians
  • Vikings
  • longships
  • Gallic
  • Merovingians
  • Eudes of Paris
  • horse
  • Paris
  • Normandy
  • Europe
  • Francs


Régis Boyer, The Viking myth in French letters, Paris, Éditions du Porte-Glaive, 1986.

Caroline Olsson, "The Viking Myth between Reality and Fantasy", in Phantasmagoria of the Middle Ages. Between medieval and middle ages, Aix-en-Provence, University Press of Provence, 2010.

Elisabeth Ridel (dir.), The Vikings in the Frankish Empire. Impact, legacy, imaginary, Bayeux, OREP Éditions, 2014.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The barbarian invasions"

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