A colony in Gascony ?
Renée Mussot-Goulard, a french medieval historian, mentions the Scandinavian presence in Gascony as « The longest occupation of a French territory by the Norsemen”. Strangely, this presence is never mentioned in the books on the invasions. Local historians conclude: “If the specialists of the Vikings do not mention Gascony, it means the Vikings did not establish anything of interest in the area. Consequently why should we mention them? As everybody agrees to ignore them, let’s also ignore them!”
Another argument to ignore them is the absence of archeological remains. Of course weapons have been uncovered in river beds, of course the Tuc de Panassac excavated in the 19th century revealed Viking artefacts, but such discoveries don’t justify any serious study. This position may change very soon.
Since 2001, archeologists have been excavating the bed of river Charente at Taillebourg. The name Taillebourg (Traileburcenses, 1007,Tralliburgo, 1074, Talliburgo, 1050) comes from Trelleborg - the castle of the slaves in Scandinavian. Pr Mariotti and his team have already discovered more Viking artifacts than have been discovered in the last 150 years in Normandy. He has also discovered a pier and a jetty built during the Viking period that lasted 80 years in Saintonge -the area north of Garonne River. It’s time to wonder if Björn’s kingdom was not located in Gascony.
The conquest of Gascony
Adjacent Photo. The Roman walls of Dax, Bayonne and other cities of Gascony didn’t resist very long the massive attack launched by 840. After its fall, Norsemen did not occupy the city. They just destroyed a part of the walls and inform the locals that if they tried to restore them, their army would come back and kill everybody. All the cities of Gascony are surrounded by place names with Germanic origins. They may have been the strongholds left by the Vikings to survey the cities.
The majority of historians of Gascony know little of the Vikings. They have a thorough knowledge of the Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Iberians and Basques, but Vikings being up imaged of the invaders who colonized Normandy, far away from Gascony. Of course, ancient texts mention Vikings in Gascony, but the common belief is that these mentions evoke short lived raids. What else?
However, this interpretation of the local charts is not very honest. The Bréviaire de Lescar, lost today, mentioned:“Every year, launching a fleet, Visigoths (Vikings) came from across a sea confined in the middle of the lands (the Baltic Sea) and landed in Mimizan (on the coast of Gascony), from where, more cruel than ferocious beasts, they were ravaging, according to their habit, all the Vasconia.” This text adds the name of the destroyed cities: Bazas, Bayonne, Dax, Eauze, Lectoure, Auch, Sos, Lescar, Oloron, Tarbes, St-Bertrand-de-Comminges and St-Lizier. All these places were the bishop sees of Gascony.
The Cartulaire de Tarbes (also lost) is mentioned by Nicolas Bertrand, who wrote La Geste des Toulousains in 1515. The author wrote: “By that time, the countries of Gascony were ravaged and annihilated. Danes crossed the sea with powerful fleets bringing fear. They landed on the seashore close to the fortified place of Bordeaux (probably around the ancient port of Anchises), and rushing out of their ships, they flooded, as we say, all the surface of the earth. The inhabitants of this area could not resist their terrifying intrepidness and the wildness of their attack.”
Bertrand Compaigne wrote in 1663: “Before the death of Louis le Débonnaire appeared a wonderful eclipse which was held to foretell the desolation of the church and confusion of the state. Two years later, Norsemen ravaged Gascony, put to fire and blood the cities of Bazas, Aire, Lectoure, Dax, Tarbes, Bayonne, Oloron and Lescar.”
The Cartulaire de Bigorre, written between the 11th and 13th century, said: “Not only did they exterminate men by blade and by hunger, but they dismantled towers and walls of defense, delivered basilicas, oratories and the most humble chapels to the flames, knocked over altars, desecrated the graves of the saints and scattered their bones.”
The Chronique de Bazas concluded: “The destruction committed by these people among the most barbarian that are commonly known as Norsemen, transformed nearly all Gascony in a complete desert, after the countrymen were killed or fled.” “They destroyed everything, killed and looted in such a way that everything in the county was ruined.” “As there was nothing left standing in Vasconia, most of these incendiaries came back to the coast.” It is possible to see that not all of them came back to the coast. Some of them stayed inland. The western bishoprics, provided with titulars until 840, fell into total abandon.
What these texts do not describe is a raid. This is a massive, absolute and total war resulting in the conquest of Gascony.
The invasion of Gascony according to the local charts.
On this map, one can see that four armies simultaneously attacked Gascony. The one in the south attacked the cities controlling the passes across the mountains, exploring the routes to Spain. This army probably arrived on the Mediterranean seashore around Perpignan. Cape Bear, the eastern end of the Pyrenees, may refer to Björn, who was commanding this army. Another army sailed up the river Adour rivers and conquered the hilly countryside between Toulouse and the ocean. It was commanded by Hastein. He left many place names, such as Estigarde (Hasteingard) or Estibeaux (Hasteinborg). The third one departing from the base of Mimizan was led by Asgeir. The capture of Bazas cut Gascony from its capital, Bordeaux. Like the army of Hastein, his army reached the Garonne River. A fourth army occupied the area around Bordeaux. This last one must have been commanded by Ragnar, himself who left many place names like Royan in the river mouth of Garonne. The city of Bordeaux was ravaged as early as 840 the fortress resisted but was finally taken by 848 by Asgeir. This massive and merciless attack gave Gascony to the Vikings.
Gascony in local charts.
Side photo. The coastal city of Hossegor, like the neighboring village of Angresse, is a clear reference to Asgeir. The lake of Hossegor is a vestige of the presence of river Adour. In front of the port of Capbreton, the sandy coast is clearly changing direction. This is due to the presence of the Gouf the Capbreton, a gigantic submarine canon. In the sky-line, Pyrenees mountains and Spain.
This installation in Gascony has been denied by numerous historians, arguing that there are no ancient texts validating its truth. Of course, we’ll never find a royal act granting Gascony to a Viking chief. There has been no written treaty for the granting of Normandy to Rollo. But texts do exist.
The Annales Bertiniani, or Annals of St. Bertin, our main source concerning this period mention that by 866, at the end of the first wave of invasions, the king of France, Charles the Bald, ordered the restoration of the walls of Saintes, Angoulême, Périgueux and Agen, fortified cities of Aquitaine located on the right bank of the Garonne River. This meant that he was taking back the control of the area. However Bordeaux, capital of Aquitaine, his kingdom since 843, located on the left bank, was not restored. Who prevented the Frankish king from taking back his capital? Not Pépin, who was in jail since 864. Who then? We have an answer.
By 876, the bishop of Bordeaux left the town because he didn’t want to live among the pagans. The pope himself complained of his escape and by 887 protested because the bishop was still in Bourges instead of converting the pagans. By 892, the pope ordered Leon, a clergyman coming from Normandy, to convert the pagans of Gascony. He was murdered in Bayonne. A text mentioned that in the 880s, the western part of Aquitaine –-Gascogne-- was still dangerous because of the pagans and that no traveler crossed it. By 930, a Danish fleet rowed up river Adour and ravaged the cities of Dax and Saint-Sever, but not Bayonne, which was still under the control of the Danes. By 976, the count of Bordeaux lost a battle and was executed by the Vikings. In 982, a huge army led by the Duke of Gascony came into the plains to fight the Danes. The Viking army led by Aigrold (Harald) advanced and met its fate. The Charte de Condom told us it was a terrible battle with so many pagans left on the battlefield that “even years later one could see more bones than vegetation.” This was the first and the last defeat of the Danes in Gascony. After this victory, the Duke restored the church in Gascony. The “black historical gap” was over. It had lasted 142 years.