Friday, December 11, 2015

Charlemagne's Saxon War: Religio-Cultural Elements, Part Three

Click here for Part One and here for Part Two of the article.

Charlemagne by N.C. Wyeth (1924)

The Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniæ was issued by Charlemagne at Paderborn around 785, most likely in the same violent spirit of wrath that seems to have consumed the Frankish king from the Verden executions three years earlier through the removal of Widukind from the conflict.

The “terror capitulary” was issued in 785 as “a harsh law of occupation” and a provision “by which an infuriated general attempts to break the resistance of an entire people through terror.” There is no specific evidence for the duration or extent to which the capitulary was actually disseminated and put into practice, and it survives in only one manuscript.


The Capitulatio contains thirty-four laws, many of which proscribe putative pagan practices. Since the only contemporary sources for pagan Saxon religion of the period are those generated by the Franks, we cannot assume that the practices described by the capitulary accurately reflect the realities of the Saxon religion. Exaggeration of pagan ritual may be part of a propaganda effort to dehumanize the Saxon enemy as a monstrous Other.

The Capitulatio states that it is punishable by death to burn and eat a witch “after the manner of pagans.” Although this appears a bit outlandish, the Old Norse poem Hyndluljóð makes references to this very act, albeit in a mythological context. The capitulary also makes cremation (as opposed to Christian burial) a capital crime for those who carry it out, and pagan mound burials are forbidden outright. Refusing baptism and “wish[ing] to remain a pagan” brings a death sentence, as does human sacrifice to “the devil” and “the demons” (i.e., the pagan gods).

Engaging in pagan marriage rituals brings a monetary fine, as does making “a vow at springs or trees or groves” or “partak[ing] of a repast in honor of the demons.” The latter phrase seems to refer to “one of the most important forms of sacrifice among the Germanic peoples, in which the slaughtered animal was eaten by the sacrificing community.”

The laws stipulating fines include a provision that anyone who cannot immediately pay “shall be given into the service of the church” until the fine is paid. The capitulary also states that “[d]iviners and soothsayers shall be given to the churches and priests,” but it does not make clear exactly what will be done with these religious figures.


In addition to these prohibitions of pagan practice, the Capitulatio enforces adherence to Christian ways. Eating meat during Lent is punishable by death. The newly converted “parishioners” are required to give property, servants and tithes to the church. Refusing to baptize a newborn child within its first year brings the Capitulatio’s largest fine, twice what is levied for sacrificing to pagan gods.

The church is given primacy in many other ways, as well. The first law states that all new churches in Saxony “should not have less, but greater and more illustrious honor, than the fanes of the idols had had”; a century later, the Saxon Poet was able to celebrate that churches “now shine where the ancients used to worship pagan temples.” The Capitulatio declares these new churches inviolable places of sanctuary and states that the confession of any of the stipulated capital crimes to a priest and willing acceptance of penance frees the criminal “by the testimony of the priest from death.”

Charlemagne by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

On the other hand, crimes against the church and churchmen are singled out for strict punishment. Theft of church property; church burnings; killing of bishops, priests or deacons; and “form[ing] a conspiracy with the pagans against the Christians” are all capital crimes.


As a final blow to traditional Saxon cultural practices, the last item in the Capitulatio outlaws the Saxon assembly; the Saxons now may gather en masse only by royal decree. The assembly’s judicial function is given to counts and priests.

A parallel institution to the well-documented Icelandic Alþing, the annual assembly of the Saxons at Marklo on the Weser River brought together around 3,700 representatives – “the heads of the hundred political districts (Gaue) with thirty-six elected representatives from each district, twelve each for the three estates of the nobles, freeman, and tenant farmers.” Given the large area of the Saxon lands and the various regional and tribal subdivisions, this massive assembly was the “only unifying instance” in Saxon cultural life. In the absence of a single monarch on the Frankish model, the assembly of “the sophisticatedly organized albeit pagan people” was a key component of cultural cohesion.

The annual assembly may have also included large-scale religious rituals; the Life of Saint Lebuin mentions that pagan Saxons prayed to their gods at the meeting. Written between 840 and 865, most likely by a Saxon author, the hagiography portrays the mid-eighth-century Anglo-Saxon missionary addressing the Saxon assembly and telling them that they must convert:
“But if you are unwilling to accept God’s commands, a king has been prepared nearby who will invade your lands, spoil and lay them waste and sap away your strength in war; he will lead you into exile, deprive you of your inheritance, slay you with the sword, and hand over your possession to whom he has a mind: and afterwards you will be slaves both to him and his successors.”
The speech is attributed to Lebuin in a passage “heavy with hindsight”; a catalog of the later acts of Charlemagne is retroactively placed in a supposed previous prophecy delivered at the massive gathering.

The Saxons were not a single people but a confederation of several smaller groups, and the annual assembly was a major element in determining a pan-Saxon identity uniting the various subgroups. To outlaw the assembly was to destroy one of the core cultural elements of Saxon society.


With Widukind neutralized and the capitulary issued as the law of Saxony, the pagan threat was seemingly over. In 786, Pope Hadrian sent Charlemagne a letter congratulating him on what was thought to be the final submission of Saxony. The pontiff celebrated that the king had, with the help of God and saints, “bent the necks of the Saxons to his power and authority, and led their entire nation to the holy fount of Baptism.” The pope ordered that special litanies celebrating Charlemagne’s triumph be celebrated “wherever Christians lived.”

However, Charlemagne faced criticism from his own bishops and abbots, who began to believe that, in order to convert pagan populations, “it was not sufficient to force them into a river at swordpoint.” The Anglo-Saxon cleric Alcuin, originally from Northumbria but now a close advisor to Charlemagne, decried the imposition of tithes and fines on the newly converted Saxons, writing that “tithes are a good thing, but it is better to give them up than to destroy belief.”

Charlemagne and Alcuin by Jean-Victor Schnetz (1830)

Charlemagne drew back from the extreme sanctions of the Capitulatio – not for ethical reasons, but because they proved impossible to enforce; “[h]is despotism is restrained by his scanty resources rather than by the ethics of his political ideology.” His attempt to use “the church more as a tool of government than an ally” was unworkable; the priests assigned to the supposedly pacified Saxon lands complained bitterly about being forced to give precedence to material concerns over spiritual work.

In 797, a second capitulary was issued that was far milder than the original. Monetary fines replaced capital punishment. This time, Saxons were included in the decisions regarding capitulary contents, and it seems that the Franks were willing to include elements of older Saxon law.

Charlemagne also called for a codification of Saxon legal customs in a written Law of the Saxons as part of his project of transcribing the laws of all the Franks’ subject peoples after his own coronation as emperor in 800. Although the most draconian measures of the Capitulatio were rescinded, Charlemagne continued to require Saxons to turn to Frankish Christian clergy for religious instruction that condemned pagan practices such as sorcery, divination, and praying at trees, stones or springs.


After Widukind’s capitulation, no further Saxon rebellion occurred until 793, when there was a “general revolt of the Saxons.” The fact that nearly a decade passed between Widukind’s submission and a large-scale uprising suggests that the Saxons patiently waited for a new generation of men to reach fighting age after the mass killing at Verden, an event that may have served as a long-term motivating factor in a reputation-conscious society.

After being surrounded by Frankish forces in 794, “they promised, with no such thing in mind, to become Christians and be loyal to the lord king.” In 795, Charlemagne “heard that the Saxons had, as usual, broken their promise to accept Christianity and keep faith with the king.” To the usual description of Frankish reprisals, the revised Royal Frankish Annals entry adds that this rebellion “further persuaded the king to beat down the Saxons promptly and made him hate the treacherous people even more.”

Charlemagne “laid waste” to Saxony in 795 and, after rebellions in 797 and 798, did the same to “the whole of Saxony between the Elbe and the Weser.” The revised entry for 798 mentions that “the king was savagely aroused” by the latest events, implying that the scorched earth policy was a result of Charlemagne’s increasing fury regarding the repeated rebellions of the Saxons, a quarter-century after the conflict began.

Charlemagne receives oath of fidelity and homage from baron
Colored engraving based on 14th-century manuscript miniature

There is a suggestion that, as in 782, Charlemagne executed prisoners; “Four thousand of [the Saxons] were slain on the battlefield; the rest fled, escaped, and entered into peace negotiations; but many of them also perished.” The final clause is unclear, perhaps meaning that the frustrated Frankish king again executed those who had been taken prisoner. No Frank-Saxon conflict is mentioned until 802, when Charlemagne continued the new policy of destruction and “dispatched an army of [loyal] Saxons to lay waste the lands of the [rebellious] Saxons on the far side of the Elbe.”


In 804, Charlemagne’s Saxon strategy took a final turn. That summer, “he led an army into Saxony and deported all Saxons living beyond the Elbe and in Wihmuodi with wives and children into Francia and gave the districts beyond the Elbe to the Obodrites.” Einhard adds detail to this brief statement, stating that Charlemagne had finally had enough of the endless Saxon rebellions:
with all of those who were used to resisting him either struck down or else returned to his power, he transported ten thousand of the men who lived along the Elbe, along with their wives and little children, and dispersed them in little groups in various places in Gaul and Germany.

So the war that was drawn out for so many years was seen to be brought to a conclusion, on terms proposed by the king and accepted by the Saxons. They had to abandon the cult of demons and let go of their ancestral rites, receive the sacraments of the Christian faith and religion, and unite themselves to the Franks so that they might become one people with them.
Here is the ultimate extension of Charlemagne’s program of religio-cultural erasure that began with the three days spent razing the Irminsul site thirty-two years earlier.

Some Saxon warriors were resettled near the monastery at Corbie, where Charlemagne’s cousin Adalhard oversaw their instruction in Christian teachings. Their land was now controlled by Frankish counts ruling over transplanted Franks or given away to the Obodrites, a Slavic tribe then living beyond the River Elbe. The Annals of Lorsch state that Charlemagne “divided [the Saxons’] lands among his fideles.”


The relocation consciously demolished major factors that united Saxon culture: connection to ancestral lands, extended kinship relationships, inter-tribal alliances, and traditional religious practices. Aside from the personal suffering of the individual Saxons, the social structure of Saxony was fundamentally severed. The Saxon nations were forcefully broken up and integrated into Frankish society in groups too small to maintain discrete identities tied to past practices and relationships.

The program worked. There was no further Saxon rebellion against Charlemagne, who lived another decade. Saxon authors of the ninth century express Christian ideals, not pagan ones.

By the time of Charlemagne, ten generations had passed since the top-down conversion of the Franks under Clovis in the early sixth century. For the Saxons, conversion did not follow this institution-to-individual process, but was instead the imposition of a foreign worldview violently (and often fatally) forced on their entire society over the course of a struggle that lasted nearly one-third of a century.

The Saxon war had finally resulted in “a thoroughly efficient replacement and reform of previous communal institutions: a cultural revolution” imposed from the outside. The Saxons were required “to suspend themselves not only within time but also within culture – or more prosaically, within the basic evaluative patterning of their existence,” a process accomplished by “a making-over of their most fundamental cultural artifact – reality.”


It is difficult to resist seeing the Saxon wars through the lens of subsequent events, or at least to observe parallels with more recent history. The determined destruction of the Irminsul conjures images of ISIS soldiers bulldozing Nimrud. The willful intolerance of the Capitulatio is reminiscent of the most extreme Muslim law codes; according to one scholar, it may have actually been inspired by Charlemagne’s interactions with Muslim rulers and those who lived under them.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid receives Charlemagne's delegates
Painting by Julius Köckert (1864)

The erasure of a people and their culture through legal proclamations, military means, extensive slaughter of prisoners, and mass movement of civilians makes it tempting to refer to Charlemagne’s actions as “the final solution to the Saxon question,” and to brand those Saxons who handed over the rebels at Verden as quislings and collaborators. The forced relocation of entire communities recalls the darkest actions taken by European immigrants against Native American and Aboriginal Australian populations.

Einhard writes that “the Saxon war received a conclusion that was well suited to its long duration.” He makes no mention of the Verden massacre or the Capitulatio, and he blithely asserts that “not the slightest hint of unjust cruelty was alleged against [Charlemagne] by anyone.” The narrative provided above provides a clear response to Einhard’s assertions.


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lazycat said...

Karl was definitely on par with Oliver Cromwell!

Monk's Modern Medieval Cuisine said...

Such a pleasant, Christian fellow, Charlemagne. Thank you. Great series of posts.

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