[This post is a continuation from the post: Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism [ABHRM], Part Five)]
“Committed … to the ‘correction’ and education of their subjects.”
The generalized cultural collapse in Roman Italy and what had previously been the western Roman provinces severely weakened the Orthodox (Nicene) Church in the west during the fifth through eighth centuries AD. During this time various heresies (especially but not exclusively Arianism) and even Paganism had more breathing room. In some places, such as Britain, Christianity as a whole declined, at least for a while. But this was not in any way the result of a change of heart or any kind of “liberalization” on the part of the Church.
More than anything else, the somewhat greater religious diversity that is apparent in the west during the darkest of the Dark Ages reveals the extent to which the spread of Christianity (as well as the imposition of one and only one monolithic form of Christianity) had been and continued to be dependent on state sponsored violence. Without a strong, centralized and repressive state as an ally, Christianity in the west was in trouble. But a new saviour arrived late in the 8th century: Charlemagne.
As a direct result of the intervening Dark Age, the resurgent western Christianity that thrived in Charlegmagne’s bloody wake was a fundamentally changed religion. For one thing, a Church whose bishops and most prestigious “theologians” and “philosophers”, such as they were, could not read Greek (and had no interest in learning how) could make no serious claim of seamless continuity with the Christianity of the early “church fathers” who had styled themselves as the heirs and continuators of classical Hellenic culture and philosophy. Compare the Buddhists of Korea (2500 miles from India), who have maintained a strong continuous tradition of Sanskrit studies (because that is the language of the Mahayana Sutras) since soon after Buddhism was first introduced to the “hermit kingdom” in the 4th century AD up to the present day, with the new western Christendom whose “scholars” could not be bothered to learn the language in which the Gospels, the epistles of Paul, and the Nicene Creed had been written!
But what the new Christendom of the West lacked in intellectual curiosity and capacity it more than made up for in cruelty and ferocity, as becomes abundantly clear in the following extended excerpts from Alessandro Barbero’s Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, and also Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom.
Charles [Charlemagne] had not set himself the declared aim of converting the Saxons to Christianity right from the very beginning. Before him, his father and grandfather had fought against them, and on each occasion, after having defeated them, they were satisfied with the payment of tribute. Einhard [c.775-840, Frankish courtier and biographer of Charlemagne] who was writing when the wounds had had time to heal and could have easily attributed Charles’s campaigns beyond the Rhine to reassuring predestinations, actually asserts in very pragmatic terms that ‘there were too many reasons for disturbing the peace, for example the border between us and them crossed an open plain, except in a few places where great forests or mountain chains more clearly divided the two countries. Thus murder, raids, and arson were continuously committed by one side or the other.’ In the chronicler’s opinion, this insecurity of the frontier with the barbarians inevitably meant that ‘in the end the exasperated Franks could no longer be contented with returning each blow with another and decided to wage full-scale war against them.’
It is clear that religious motivations were inextricably bound up with political ones, as since the time of Charles Martel I [c. 688-741], Frankish swords had sustained missionary work beyond the Rhine. One of the conditions that Pepin [714-768] imposed on the defeated Saxons was the guarantee that the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon clergy working in the area would be free to continue their apostolic tasks without hindrance. It must have appeared obvious to some of these missionaries that Charles’s war had a religious justification. ‘If you do not accept belief in God,’ Saint Lebuin told the Saxons, ‘there is a king in the next country who will enter your land, conquer it, and lay waste.’ But the Saxons obstinately refused to believe, so in the end that king had to make his move.
It was a ferocious war in a country with little or no civilization, with neither roads nor cities, and entirely covered with forests and marshland. The Saxons sacrificed prisoners of war to their Gods, as Germans had aways done before converting to Christianity, and the Franks did not hesitate to put to death anyone who refused to be baptized. Time and again the Saxon chiefs, worn down by war with no quarter, sued for peace, offered hostages, accepted baptism, and undertook to allow missionaries to go about their work. But every time that vigilance slackened and Charles was engaged on some other front, rebellions broke out, Frankish garrisons were attacked and massacred, and monasteries were pillaged. Even the border regions of the Frankish kingdom were not safe. In 778, when Saxons found out that the king and his army were engaged on the other side of the Pyrenees, and would not be able to return before many weeks of forced marches, they appeared in the Rhine Valley. Local commanders had great difficulty in containing them, and then only after much devastation and plunder.
During the period of these rebellions, the figure of a single leader
emerged from among the Saxon ranks. His name was Prince Widukind, and his authority was acknowledged by all the tribes. Just at the time when Charles felt confident that he had pacified the region and gained the loyalty of the Saxon nobles, it was this leader who triggered the most spectacular rebellion by wiping out the Frankish forces hurriedly sent to confront him on the Suntel Mountains in 782. Beside himself with anger at the treachery that had also cost him the lives of two of his closest aides, his chamberlain Adalgisile and his constable Geilo, Charles bround in a new army and forced the rebels to capitulate, with the exception of Widukind, who took refuge with the Danes. The Saxons had to hand over their arms and then, when he had them in his power, he had 4,500 of them decapitated in a single day at the Verden on the Aller, a tributary of the Weser. This episode produced perhaps the greatest stain on his reputation.
Several historians have attempted to lessen Charle’s responsibility for the massacre, by stressing that until a few months earlier the king thought he had pacified the country, the Saxon nobles had sworn allegiance, and many of them had been appointed counts. Thus the rebellion constituted an act of treason punishable with death, the same penalty that the extremely harsh Saxon law imposed with great facility, even for the most insignificant crimes. Others have attempted to twist the accounts provided by sources, arguing that the Saxons were killed in battle and not massacred in cold blood, or even that the verb decollare (decapitate) was a copyist’s error in place of decolare (relocate), so ther prisoners were simply deported. None of these attempts has proved credible ….
In reality, the most likely inspiration for the mass execution of Verden was the Bible. Exasperated by the continual rebellions, Charlemagne wanted to act like a true king of Israel. The Amelkites had dared to raise their hand to betray God’s people, and it was therefore right that every last one of them should be exterminated. Jericho was taken all those inside had to be put to the sword, including men, women, old people, and children, even the oxen, sheep, and donkeys, so that no trace would be left of them. After defeating the Moabites, David, with whom Charles liked to compare himself, had the prisoners stretched out on the and ground, and two out of three were killed. This, too, was part of the Old Testament from which teh king drew constant inspiration, and it is difficult not to discern a practical and cruelly coherent application of that model in the massacre of Verden. Besides, the royal chronicler wrote a few years later, the war against the Saxons had to be conducted in such a manner that ‘either they were defeated and subjugated to the Christian religion of completely swept away.’
In the years that followed 782, Charles conducted a war of unparalleled ruthlessness. For the first time, he wintered in enemy territory and systematically laid the country to waste to starve the rebels. At the same time, he had published the most ferocious of all the laws enacted during his life, the Capitulare de partibus Saxonie, which imposed the death penalty on anyone who offended the Christian religion and its clergy, and in reality it constituted a program for the forced conversion of the Saxons. We can only shudder as we read the sections of this law that condemn to death those who fail to observe fasting on Friday, thus reflecting a harsh Christianity far removed from the original message of the New Testament [bollocks]. Yet we should be careful not to put the blame for this barbarity onto the times in general. The Capitulare de partibus Saxonie is one of those provisions by which an infuriated general attempts to break the resistance of an entire people through terror, and Charles must bear the moral responsibility, like the many twentieth-century generals responsible for equally inhuman measures. It is more important to emphasize that the edict provoked criticisms among Charles’s entourage precisely because of its ruthlessness. Particularly severe criticisms came from Alcuin, the spiritual adviser he most listened to.
The policy of terror and scorched earth initially appeared to pay off. In 785, after the Franks has ravaged the country as far as the Elbe, Widukind was obliged to capitulate, and he presented himself at the palace of Attigny in France to be baptized. The king acted as godfather. Pope Adrian congratulated the victor and ordered thanks to be given in all the churches of Christendom for the new and magnificent victory for the faith. But the baptism imposed by force did not prove very effective. In 793 the harshness of Frankish government ferocity provoked another mass insurrection in the northern regions of Saxony, which had been more superficially Christianized. ‘Once again breaking their faith,’ according to the royal chronicler, the Saxons burned churches, massacred clergymen, and prepared yet again to resist in their forests.
Charles intervened with now customary ferocity, indeed with even more drastic and frighteningly modern measures. Rather than limit himself to devastating the rebel country and starving the population, he deported them en masse and planned the resettlement of those areas with Frankish and Slav colonists. However, he was an able politician and soon understood the need to modify his approach to the problem. He intensified his contacts with the Saxon aristocracy and sought out their collaboration. At a large assembly in Aachen in 797, he isssued on their advice a new version of the capitulary that was considerably more conciliatory than the previous one. This twin policy proved immediately effective, because it guaranteed almost definitively the collaboration of the Saxon nobles with the new regime. Eigil, the monk at Fulda monastery who wrote the account of Abbot Sturmi’s life, stated during those very years that Charles had imposed Christ’s yoke on the Saxons ‘through war, persuasion, and also gifts,’ demonstrating that he well understood how a new flexibility had made it possible to integrate those obstinate Pagans into the Christian empire.
[Charlemagne: Father of a Continent, Alessandro Barbero, pp. 44-48]
Compare the above passage from Barbero with the following from Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom:
Charlemagne proved to be a man of truly “Napoleanic” energy and width of vision. He was constantly on the move and constantly planning. In one year alone (in 785) he covered 2,000 miles, pacing the frontiers of his new dominions. Such energy boded ill for the Old Saxons. The fate of the Pagan Saxons was crucial to Charles’ new concept of Christian empire. Not only were Saxons Pagan, they were a surprisingly aggressive warrior confederacy whose raids affected precisely the areas in central Germany werhe Frankish settlement and a Frankish style of life had begun to be established.
As had once been the case along the Roman limes, so now in the eighth century, part of the danger posed by the Saxon challenge came from the fact that Franks and Saxons had drawn closer to each other. Saxon noblemen had already come to adopt a large measure of Frankish customs. Yet, like King Radbod [of Frisia], they clung all the more tenaciously to Paganism so as to differentiate themselves from the Franks. It was all the more essential for the prestige of the Carolingian family that the Saxons, who come to adopt so much of Franksih ways, should be declared to be outside the pale as Pagans, and that, as Pagans, they should be well and truly defeated.
In 772, Charlemagne led the Franks into Saxony. They were said to have desecrated the great intertribal sanctuary of the Irminsul, the giant tree which uphead the world. They rode home again, with much plunder, in time for the hunting season in the Ardennes. Next spring the Franks were in northern Italy. In 774, Charles became king, also, of the Lombards. He even made a short visit to Rome. It was the first time that a Frankish king had set foot in Rome. It was also the first time since the fifth century that a western ruler of such power had been greeted in Rome with the sort of elaborate ceremonies which the Romans know so well how to put on. Charles entered Saint Peter’s and, next day, was led through the gigantic basilica churches of the city. In return, Charles proved to be a generous donor. An influx of Frankish silver marked a dramatic recovery in the fortunes of the popes, which was made plain by an unprecedented boom in buildings and repairs.
But it was in Germany, and not in Italy, that Charles showed himself to be a ruler as determined to be obeyed in all matters as any Roman emperor had been. The Saxon war was fought along the same routes into northern Germany as had been taken the legions of Augustus. But this time, unlike Augustus who lost his legions in the Teutoburger Wald, Charlemagne won. It was an unusually vehement war, characterized by the storming, one after another, of well-defended hill-forts. The very flexibility of the kingless society of the Old Saxons prolonged the misery. Total surrender of the Saxons as a whole was impossible. Fifteen treaties were made and broken in 13 years. One Saxon nobelman, Widukind, was able to avoid submission for decades on end. He fled to the Danes and involved even the Pagans of Frisia in his resistance.
For a decade, and entire Frankish order was challenged in the north. Charles found himself forced to take over more territory than he had, perhaps, at first intended to do. He pressed on from the Weser to the Elbe, entering the northern healthlands as far as the Danes. The populations of whole areas were forcibly relocated. In 782, he had 4,500 Saxon prisoners beheaded at Verden, southeast of Bremen….
In 785, Widukind finally submitted and accepted Christian baptism. In the same year, Charles issued his Capitulary on the Region of Saxony. A Capitulary was a set of administrative rulings “from the word of mouth of the king,” grouped under capita, short headings. These were very different in their brusque clarity from the long-winded rhetoric of Roman imperial edicts. They registered, in writing, the invisible, purely oral shock wave of the royal will. The royal will was unambiguous. In theory at least, the frontier was now definitively closed. No other rituals but those of the Christian Church could be practiced in a Frankish province.
“If anyone follows pagan rites and causes the body of a dead man to be consumed by fire … let him pay with his life.
“If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbapitized, amd of he scorns to come to baptism and wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, let him die.”
A small body of clergymen (notably Alcuin, a Saxon from Boniface’s Britain, who was himself connected with the family of Willibrod) were challenged by the brusqueness to restate, more forcibly than ever before, a view of Christian missions which emphasized preaching and persuasion. But, in fact, when it came to Charlemagne’s treatment of the Saxons, most later writers took no notice of Alcuin’s reservations. They accepted the fact that, as befitted a strong king, Charlemagne was entitled to preach to the Saxons ‘with a tongue of iron’ — as a later Saxon writer put it without a hint of blame. Force was what was needed on a dangerous frontier. Education began, rather, at home. IN the reigns of Charlemagne and his successors, a substantially new Church was allied with a new political system, both of which were committed, to a quite unprecedented degree, to the “correction” and education of their subjects.
[The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown, pp. 431-433]
See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones