The Sons of Raghnall: The Dacian War

Sigh. I intended to write a paragraph or two about the Huron, as an aside before turning to the European conflict…

Although the flareups of violence in 1459 and again in 1477 are referred to as the First and Second “Indian Wars” in Norwegian historiography, it should be understood that they were not formal campaigns waged by Erik I MacRaghnall in his capacity as Emperor of the North Sea and using the regular troops and feudal levies that he would have deployed against, say, Bavaria. There was, indeed, absolutely no reason for him to fight any such wars; even the utmost outposts of his realm, the hardscrabble colonies in Newfoundland and Canada, were hundreds of miles through trackless forest from the Huron Federation – and that is after crossing the Atlantic! Logistically the thing was impossible; diplomatically it was unnecessary – what was there to quarrel about? – and politically it would have been ridiculous; what sort of influential groups in Norway had anything to gain from the conquest of such distant lands? For the reconquest of Holstein or a campaign against Russia a coalition might have been found, and indeed both projects were more-or-less seriously contemplated at various times; but for adventures across the Atlantic, there could be no serious support at the level of the State.

However, ‘adventure’ is the key word: What was impossible for a regular army of thousands of men supported by the MacRaghnall elite was quite conceivable for a band of a few hundred landless younger sons, ambitious commoners, habitual criminals, incorrigible peripatetics, and general riffraff, eager to get rich quick and with shoestring funding from lesser noble families like the Ynglings. Although the word had fallen out of use, the concept was very much alive in land-poor Norway: The invaders of the Great Lakes were, in short, Vikings.

It was, however, one thing to fall upon monasteries full of monks sworn to obedience, poverty, and chastity; extracting wealth from villages full of warriors-from-birth who in effect did nothing but fight, forage, and fornicate was quite another. Firstly, of course, the wild tales of cities of gold between the lakes were completely untrue. The Huron did have golden artifacts, traded hand-to-hand from the distant Aztecs, and probably more per capita than an equivalent European population full of downtrodden peasants; but they were not concentrated enough to make wealthy a shipload of buccaneers. They also had considerable wealth in furs, already a continent-wide article of trade due to demand through the English conquests in the south. A few bands did manage to happen upon trade gatherings ready to head south, and capture enough furs to fill their ships – an event which could, and did, found a family fortune even for the rank and file. But these were rare, lucky happenings; the average American venture likely lost money – not to mention the risk to life and limb.

Like the European venturers of a few centuries before, then, the new Vikings found that portable wealth did not pay in the long run, and turned instead to territorial conquest. Here they were aided, at first, by the loose organisation of the Federation. One warband against one Huron village was a reasonably even match; while the Huron knew iron and gunpowder – introduced by the Aztecs through their continent-wide trading network after their amazing Golden Age in the thirteenth century – they did not themselves make large amounts of either. Their warriors preferred to hunt and fight; digging in the ground (whether for crops or ore) was women’s work. Of course, as in any large society, a few did buck this trend and become blacksmiths, and that trade did eventually acquire a certain prestige; but per capita, iron output remained very low. Thus Viking and Indian warbands might be similarly armed: Metal-headed axes, bows, a few firearms used mostly for their prestige value; but the Vikings had the enormous advantage of metal armour. In any stand-up fight this was usually decisive.

Thus, many Viking warbands did succeed in overcoming the resistance of a few settlements, and set themselves up as overlords; although the Huron could theoretically have put ten thousand braves in the field and overrun any such incursion, their central institutions had no tradition of, or mechanism for, mobilising all their men at once. Raid, razzia, vendetta, and feud at the tribal level they were familiar with, and indeed they had subdued many of their neighbours by such means. But they did not organise their entire nation for conquest or defense, at least not initially – warfare was the business of the individual tribe.

Tribes did, however, have marriage alliances. The famous “warp-and-weft” structure of clans cutting across tribes ensured that even a successful Viking band would eventually find itself faced with that unending series of raids and razzias that made the land unlivable for them, simply through temporarily-submissive villages calling on their neighbours and allies. The would-be overlords could not rely on their prowess in pitched battle to keep them safe; it was not practical to wear a mail shirt at all times. In the end, every Norse incursion was annihilated or absorbed.

The Huron practice of adopting some of their defeated enemies did, nonetheless, eventually have far-reaching effects. No new Viking succeeded in securing lordship for his posterity by force; but several did become influential and wealthy after adoption, and for several generations thereafter there were men with reddish-blonde hair and blue eyes high in the councils of the Huron. This was to matter greatly in the Third Indian War; but in 1480 it was a distant consolation to those would-be adventurers whose Great Host, an attempt at combining several raiding partnerships into an army that would conquer a large enough territory to be self-defending, was savagely defeated in a series of forest ambushes. By this point the Huron central institutions were aware of their danger, and although they still could not mobilise their full theoretical manpower for war, they did manage to put enough men in the field – or rather, the forest! – to effectively annihilate even the “Great Host”.

By this time, even the court at Edinburgh was taking an interest, perhaps mostly due to the example of the wealth that flowed to England from her more southerly conquests. Economically the project of Indian conquest was still preposterous, but late-medieval kingdoms knew little of economics. Distant lands and fur-producing colonies were now a fashion, a far more dangerous trend than any cool-headed cost-benefit analysis; and besides, the logistics had gradually become somewhat less impossible due to the, literally, trailblazing efforts of the raiders.

The late fifteenth century, however, was not the appointed time for speculative projects in far distant lands. The attention of the crowned heads of Europe was about to be riveted on subjects much closer to hand. The Dacian crisis was the outcome of a long series of diplomatic maneuvers; its underlying cause, however, was the lack of any dominant, stabilising power in Central Europe. The resulting tension between the smaller powers – Hungary, Italy, Greece, Bavaria – had led to the formation of a network of Great-Power alliances, with Moslem Spain, Orthodox Rome, and Mammonite Russia each backing one or more client states. For a long time this had been sufficient to ensure peace; in the latter half of the fifteenth century, however, ambitions to control the growing Danube trade led Italy, most powerful of the interior states, to break free from its entangling Spanish alliance and make a bid for dominance in Central Europe. This attempt failed miserably, but destabilised the entire region into a free-for-all cauldron of diplomacy and war, as every ruler and his princeling cousins sought to invent the hegemonic power that did not exist, preferably with someone else’s money. Thus in 1487, when Italy again went to war to recover the Dacian plain, a continent’s worth of tangled peacetime alliances collapsed into warlike reality: Italy was backed by Russia and Rome. Greece and Norway, respectively fearing the resurgence of Italy and honouring a treaty obligation, went to the aid of Hungary. Spain, not wanting its two Great-Power rivals to be the ones dictating the eventual settlement of Central Europe, invaded Italy across the Alps, bringing in its remaining vassal-ally Bavaria. France, seeing an opportunity to recover the southern half of its linguistic area, fell upon the flank of this movement while loudly proclaiming its intention to restore the general peace of Europe. This caused Spain to call on its ally Britain, thus completing the roster of European powers! Even then the tangle was not complete: Benin, attracted by the scent of weakness, began a campaign to re-map its doubtful Sudanese border with Greece to its satisfaction, and even isolationist Persia bestirred itself sufficiently to declare its support for the agenda of Rome. Nations as far east as Japan (!) considered intervention at least by naval forces. Only Qin, contemptuous as ever of the doing of Foreign Devils, abstained even from diplomatic inquiries about the price of warships.

— From Vikings, Vandals, and Victors: Norse power-projection in the Age of Sail.


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