View Full Version : Charlemagne and the Saxons

Monday, January 9th, 2006, 01:25 PM
Since early Merovingian times the Saxons had raided Frankish territory and the Franks had raided the Saxons in reprisal. But the Carolingians had special interests to protect. Their homeland was Austrasia, in the Ardennes, and in the country between the Meuse and the Rhine, rivers that were not barriers but rich trade-routes.

Further, the Carolingians had staked their reputation on building up the missionary churches of central Germany, in Hesse and Thuringia. The whole weight of royal interest had shifted towards the Rhine. The richer the Rhineland became the greater became the need to protect its approaches from Saxon raids - and the greater became the difficulty, since beyond the Rhine there was no natural frontier.

Frankish writers like Einhard and the annalists were more interested in Charlemagne's Saxon wars than in anything else that he did, for they rightly divined that the fortune of his house was bound up in the protection of the Rhineland.

The central Saxons or Angarians lived along the course of the Weser, with the Eastphalians on one side of them, along the Elbe, and the Westphalians on the other, east of the Rhine. These were the three main divisions of the Saxon people. They had no political cohesion and no need for it, except when threatened as a people. But they did have religious cohesion. They fought to preserve their paganism and its bloodthirsty rites with a tenacity the Franks called obduracy.

Their culture and way of life depended on the outcome. In 772 Charlemagne set out on his first Saxon campaign. It was little more than a reprisal raid of the familiar kind. However, he penetrated deep and garrisoned defence-points beyond and not in the lands he wished to protect. These defence-points were often Saxon fortresses cleverly sited on high ground or at strategic points on the banks of rivers. They must have been centres for trade as well as for resistance to the Franks since Saxon coinhoards have been found in their vicinity.

Not content with this, and with the taking of hostages, Charlemagne also destroyed the Irminsul, the great tree-trunk that supported the heavenly vault for the Saxons. Perhaps he had in mind the precedent of St Boniface, who had destroyed the Donar Oak at Geismar. Certainly he knew that the subjugation of the Saxons would mean first the suppression of paganism. The destruction of the Irminsul and the subsequent forced mass-baptisms were never forgiven: whenever Charlemagne was far away the Saxons would revolt, destroy the Frankish mission-centres and raid as far as possible into Frankish territory.

They found a natural leader in a certain Widukind. He was remembered for centuries in Saxon legend, and even made a new appearance as a Germanic hero under the Nazis. The Franks, too, were much impressed by him. In 782 Charlemagne held his court in Germany, near the source of the Lippe. All the Saxon chieftains except those following Widukind came and did homage to him. Probably they were also baptised, for Charlemagne was in deadly earnest about the extirpation of paganism. The Church had filled his mind with the missionary fervour of St Augustine's De Civitate Dei and had placed
in his hands a copy of Pope Gregory's letter to Aethelberht of Kent on the subject of racial conversion. His kingly task, and that of his Franks, was to convert the heathen, by fire and sword if necessary.

Later in the year 782, a Frankish army making its way southeast through Saxony was set upon and wiped out by the Saxons. Some important officers were among the killed, including two of Charlemagne's close friends. This was the last straw. The Franks entered Saxony in force. Charlemagne won a victory near Verden and massacred 4500 prisoners, quite possibly as an act of private vengeance. One scholar argues that what took place was not execution but deportation, and that scribes later confused the verbs delocare (to deport) and decolwe (to execute). The result, of course, was even more widespread rebellion, which it took three years to suppress.

Finally, Widukind surrendered and was baptised, his conqueror standing godfather. Some idea of the relief felt may be had from the Pope's letter of congratulation, in which he says that he has ordered three days of thanksgiving for this great Christian victory. The Rhineland and the East Frankish church were saved. For the Saxons, however, the victory meant still fiercer repression, and the imposition upon them of a church organisation that they did their best to negative. Frankish anti-pagan measures recorded for these years give a vivid picture of the power and resilience of ancient Germanic heathenism.

From: The Barbarian West 400-1000 by J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, revised 1967; ISBN 0631140832

Monday, January 16th, 2006, 01:02 PM
Letters of Alcuin: Advice to the King on Converting the Saxons

Alcuin spoke against the forcible conversion of the Saxons and other peoples in 796. Like Boniface, he believed that conversion, if sincere, should be a slow and thoughtful process of acceptance. Charlemagne's experience with Saxon conversion and Saxon treachery was, however, not at all gentle and not always thoughtful; in 782 he had 4500 Saxon rebels hung at Verden. To Charles, king of Germany, Gaul, and Italy, the most excellent and devout lord, and to the holy preachers of God's word, Albinus, a humble son of mother church, sends Christian greetings.

Glory and praise to God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, that through your good intent and devoted service to the faith by the power of the Holy Spirit he has spread the kingdom of Christianity and the knowledge of the true God and brought many peoples far andwide from the errors of irreligion to the way of truth! What glory will be yours, most blest king, when all these, who have been turned from the worship of idols to know the true God by your good care, follow you as you stand in happy case before the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ and your reward of eternal joy is increased through them all!

With what generous devotion to the spread of Christ you have worked to soften the hardness of the unhappy Saxon people with counsel on true salvation! But divine election does not seem yet to have been accorded them, so many of them still remain in the filth of their evil ways, to share the Devil's damnation.

But it has pleased Christ to reward your good purpose with greater glory and praise. He has brought the Hun peoples, who have long been feared for their ferocity and might, beneath your warlike scepter to his honor, and with prevenient grace has bound their necks, so long haughty, to the yoke of faith, pouring the light of truth on minds that have been blind from ancient times.

Now in your wise and godly concern may you provide good preachers for the new people, sound in conduct, learned in the faith and full of the teaching of the Gospel, intent on following the example of the apostles in the preaching of the word of God. For they gave their hearers milk, as the apostle Paul said: "I fed you milk to drink, not meat, as babies in Christ...", meaning that new converts to the faith must be fed on gentler teaching as babies on milk, lest minds too weak for harder teaching vomit what they have imbibed....

Therefore you should consider in your wisdom whether it is right to impose the yoke of tithes upon a simple people who are beginners in the faith, making a full levy from every house. We should ask if the apostles, who were taught by the Lord himself and sent out to preach to the world, required the payment of tithes in any place. We know it is good for our property to be tithed, but it is better to lose the tithe than destroy the faith. Even we who have been born and brought up in the catholic faith find it hard to agree to a full tithing of our property; how much harder it is for their tender faith, their infant will and greedy spirit. When their faith is strengthened and they are established in the Christian life, they may, as adults, be given harder teaching, which minds soundly based in Christianity will not reject.

Careful thought must also be given to the right method of preaching and baptizing, that the washing of the body in baptism be not made useless by lack in the soul of an understanding of the faith... The Lord told his disciples in the Gospel, "Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." The blessed Jerome in his commentary on Saint Matthew's Gospel explained the order of this commandment as follows:

"First they teach all nations, and then dip them in water. The body cannot receive the sacrament of baptism if the soul has not first received the truth of the faith" So infants who have not the use of reason but are guilty through the sins of others, can be saved in the rite of baptism through the faith and confession of others, if they keep the faith that has been professed for them, when they come of age....

So I believe we should be careful to keep the order in teaching adults which Saint Augustine laid down in his book, 'On Teaching the Catechism to the Uneducated.' A man must first be taught about the immortality of the soul and the future life and rewards for good and evil and both kinds of eternity, later the particular sins for which he must suffer eternal punishment with the Devil and the good deeds for which he may enjoy everlasting glory with Christ.

Then belief in the Holy Trinity must be carefully taught and the coming of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, into the world for the saving of mankind must be expounded, with the mystery of his passion, the truth of his resurrection and ascension into heaven and his coming to judge all nations; also the resurrection of our bodies and the eternity of punishment for the wicked and reward for the good must later be instilled in the novice's mind. After this preparation and strengthening in the faith he should be baptized. The teaching of the Gospel must be given in preaching frequently at suitable times, till he grows into the perfect man and is made a worthy dwelling for the Holy Spirit and a perfect son of God in works of mercy….

from: Carolingian Civilization: A Reader- edited by Paul Dutton - ISBN 1551110032
Source: trans. S. Allott in Alcuin of York, c. A.D. 732 to 804 (York: William Sessions, 1974)