Varangian: Norse Influences Within the Elite Guard of Byzantium
Master’s Thesis, Dartmouth College, 2013
Middle Eastern and European relations, before, during, and after the Crusades are often depicted as a clear delineation between Frankish and Muslim armies in struggle over spiritual and physical control of the Levant and near-eastern city centers such as Constantinople. Whilst this is true in many respects, much of the historiographic details surrounding migratory and refugee movements from Northern Europe to Byzantium have been egregiously glossed over and left out of the Crusade discussion in favor of categorizing the neglected material as solely a Byzantine historical issue; not central to the discussion of the Crusades and the eventual outcomes of each one. The concept of explicating the make-up of the alleged mercenary armies conscripted to serve in various capacities within the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople proper, is vital to the understanding of why certain Crusader and Muslim led events came to pass. Knowing bout who was involved in various travels, negotiations, and struggles, aids to more adequately portray the disaffected, dislocated, and potentially opportunist migrants throughout the European continent. Furthermore viewing a more complete perspective of the whole of Europe and the near East is necessary in order to more clearly understand the complexity of Frankish, Arab, and Byzantine relationships. Constantinople maintained hundreds of years of dutiful employment of what has been often referred to by scholars as a mercenary force. The elite of which was charged with the primary duty of defending the seat of the Byzantine Emperor and defense of the realm at the emperor’s order. This group of elite mercenaries known throughout the West as the Varangians, gained notoriety and fame as an axe wielding barbarian force. Comprised of northern European Viking, Russian and Norse descendants, Varangians maintained a lengthy history of fierce battle and conquest. That the Greek army from Byzantine controlled lands didn’t have a history of sole participation in battles leading up to and during the Crusades, nor did they comprise such a force of elites, presents a significant difference to the commonly accepted notion that the army of Byzantium was made of the Byzantine Greeks purely and that the forces of the Emperor were reflective of the historical peoples of the immediate geographical areas, despite any call for mercenary forces following the Battle of Manzikert.