“All denounced Widukind as the instigator of this wicked rebellion.”
Annales regni Francorum
The fierce Saxon opposition to Christianization is inseparably identified with the name of a Westphalian nobleman: Widukind. He is to the Saxons what Geronimo is to the Apache, or Sitting Bull to the Lakota, or Quanah Parker to the Comanche, or Tecumseh to the Shawnee.
It should really be no surprise that, despite the class divisions discussed in the first post in this series, the leadership of the Saxon resistance would fall to a member of the warrior elite (and one who also had strong ties to the warrior nobility of the Danish Heathens as well). If missionaries found a more receptive response among the aristocratic edhilingui than among the lower classes, that is nothing more than a reflection of the strategy pursued by the Christians themselves. This strategy focussed on first currying favor with Pagan nobles, who were then employed to do the dirty work of imposing the new religion on their inferiors. Whatever limited success this strategy might have enjoyed among some members of the Saxon upper class, others proved ready to fight for their old Gods in a sacred war that united all Heathen Saxons in a way that transcended mere distinctions of social standing and wealth.
Considering his central importance to European history, Widukind is a relatively little known figure in the English speaking world, even among Heathens and Pagans. For example, in their History of Pagan Europe, Jones and Pennick mention Widukind but once, and then only to remark upon his eventual baptism! [p. 127]
Here is a list of some works in English that discuss Widukind more than in passing:
- The English translation of Charlemagne: Father of a Continent by Italian historian Alessandro Barbero (2004).
- Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom (2003, 2ed).
- A paper by American historian Eric J. Goldberg, The Saxon Stellinga Reconsidered (1995).
- The anthology The Continental Saxons From Migration to the Period of the Tenth Century, edited by Dennis Howard Green and Frank Siegmund, which contains a chapter devoted to The Conversion of the Old Saxons, by John Hines, professor of history at Cardiff (2003).
- Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire by Bernard S. Bachrach (2001).
- Eric J. Goldberg has also written a book-length study titled Struggle for Empire: Kingship and Conflict under Louis the German, 817-876, in which he treats extensively with the Stellinga Uprising, but, because of the period covered, does not have much to say directly about Widukind (2006).
- The 1905 English translation of Hans Prutz’ The Age of Charlemagne, which, while obviously at least somewhat dated, has quite a bit to say on the subject of Widukind, and is very useful so long as one is also looking at more recent scholarship as well.
- Also, there are translations available of the primary sources, including the Royal Frankish Annals. A recent edition is Carolingian Chronicles, by Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers.
The remainder of this post will consist of excerpts from the first four works mentioned above. No attempt has been made to reduce the amount of overlap (or just plain repetition) between these excerpts, or with the material already presented in the other posts in this series (or elsewhere in this blog).
From Alessandro Barbero’s Charlemagne: Father of a Continent:
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 or 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.
From The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown:
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 unbaptized, and if 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.
From Eric J. Goldberg’s The Saxon Stellinga Reconsidered:
Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony was a momentous turning point that overthrew the distinctive political structures and Pagan culture of the Saxons. Before the conquest, Franco-Saxon relations had been a checkered history of wars, alliances, and Saxon payments of tribute. By the 770s Charlemagne resolved to incorporate Saxony into his growing empire, apparently in order to settle once and for all border disputes with the Saxons. The result was a series of wars, raids, treaties, and rebellions between 772 and 804 through which Saxony south of the Elbe was gradually incorporated into the Frankish empire. In the oft-quoted words of Einhard: “No war ever undertaken by the Frankish people was more prolonged, more full of atrocities, or more demanding in effort.” This was a war of conquest and conversion. Charlemagne equated Saxon submission to Frankish rule with the acceptance of Christianity; according to one Franksih author, Charlemagne resolved “to persevere until the Saxons had either been overcome and subjected to the Christian religion or totally exterminate.”
Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony actually fell into two distinct phases (772-85 and 792-804) separated by a seven-year armistice (785-92). Between 772 and 785 the war followed a similar annual pattern: almost every year a group of Saxons revolted and attacked a Frankish church, army, or fortress; the Frankish army then invaded Saxony and put down the rebellion without much difficulty; Charlemagne next negotiated with Saxon optimates and primores; and finally Charlemagne exacted oaths of fidelity and hostages from the Saxons and supervised mass baptisms. Between 777 and 785 Widukind, a Saxon Westphalian nobleman, and his socii repeatedly provoked these Saxon rebellions and eluded the clutches of the Franks by seeking refuge in Denmark. In the end Charlemagne bribed Widukind into submission: in 785 Widukind accepted baptism, and the king of the Franks received him “from the font and honored him with magnificent gifts.” By 780 Charlemagne began to extend the Frankish church hierarchy into Saxony. After a series of mass executions in 782, Charlemagne abolished the Old Saxon pagus administration under chieftains and implemented the Grafschaftsverfassung (system of countships) common to the rest of the Frankish kingdoms. This new administration placed Saxony under the governance of comites selected from the Saxon nobilissimi. By 785, therefore, Charlemagne had incorporated all of Saxony south of the Elbe into the Frankish kingdom. After a seven-year peace between 785 and 792, the Saxons revolted again, but this time primarily in the regions north of the Elbe. After a series of military expeditions, Charlemagne finally ended the northern war by deporting all Saxons north of the Elbe and in Wihimondia (the northern regions between the mouths of the Aller and Elbe) to Francia.
Charlemagne practiced two main strategies that proved crucial for his success in the wars against the Saxons. First, he secured key strategic locations, such as Eresburg, Paderborn, and Lippspringe, He also confiscated extensive lands along the Hellweg, the main east-west Saxon road between the Rhine and Paderborn, to ensure communication and troop movement in and out of Saxony. Second, as alluded to above, Charlemagne followed a policy of enticing the Saxon edhilingui with bribes and gifts to accept Christianity and Frankish overlordship, as in the case of his chief opponent, Widukind. As Egil (822) wrote in his Vita Sturmi, “The kind … converted the greater part of that people to the faith of Christ partly through wars, partly through persuasion, and also partly through bribes.” Clearly the prospect of appointment to newly created Saxon countships must have convinced many nobilissimi to ally with Charlemagne.
From John Hines’ The Conversion of the Old Saxons, found in The Continental Saxons From Migration to the Period of the Tenth Century, Green and Siegmund, eds.
The conversion of the Continental Saxons in the late eighth century stands out as an extraordinarily well defined flashpoint in European early medieval history . . . . The story of the conversion of the Saxons, enforced by the sword in accordance with Charlemagne’s imperial political ambitions, is a brutally clear and stark one. While recognition of the vital place political methods and political motives held in the advance of Christianity in medieval Europe is commonplace, the Saxon case is so pure an example of this as to be paradoxically both extreme and typical at the same time (cf. Fletcher 1997:258, in a slightly different context: “Saxony may be the exception which proves the rule”). In the course and aftermath of the capitulation of the Saxons one can observe a thoroughly efficient replacement and reform of previous communal institutions: a cultural revolution, designed to make Saxonia an obedient and profitable part of the Carolingian empire.
The first Saxon capitulary, probably of the mid-70-‘s, ferociously compelling Christian observance and outlawing paganism, offers some remarkable views of alleged pagan ritual practices. Divination and soothsaying (divinos et sortilegos) are condemned (para 23) … The cremation of the dead is condemned as a pagan practice … Three known deities are named — for renunciation — in a baptismal formula of the ninth century: Wodan, Thunaer and Saxnot. Woden/Odinn and Thunor/Thorr to given them their Old English and Norse names, are highly familiar, and were evidently major deities of the pre-Christian Angl0-Saxson religion (Hines 1997; Turville-Petre 1964). Saxnot, ‘companion of the Saxons’, is clearly specific to the Saxons, althought of sufficient antiquity to be included in Old English form, Saxneat, at the head of the geneology of the relatively minor East Saxon royal dynasty.
What then do we know of Widukind and his supporters? The sources offer no direct testimony as to his policies of motivation, setting aside the Revised Annals’ presumably fictional and certainly derogatory allusions to the selfish self-interest of a criminal. There is, however, just enough additional information to allow us to make political sense of Widukind. A crucial point appears to be that he could act with a refuge in Scandinavia — and thus presumably with the connivance and support of the Danish king. Widukind was thus fighting to be part of one politico-religious system — non-Christian and north Germanic — rather than another, the Carolingian empire. As represented in both Saxonia and Scandinavia, this preferred system was socially less rigidly hierarchical than the Frankish one, and this would very plausibly be one of its attractions to Widukind. Loyalty to, or a preference for, that which was traditional and familiar whould not be ruled out either, as long as there was, or appeared to be, real scope for this choice. What we do not see here is any evidence of the more sophisticated political strategy whereby Christianity may be accepted, but leaders would prefer to accept it from a distant source, not an overbearing neighbor. (cf. Mayr-Hrting 1994:5-9). Sources such as Einhard’s Vita Karoli scorn the Danish king Godfred’s apparent ambition to emulat eCharlemagne, and certainly in terms of any idea of wresting Chalemagne’s empire from hiim it would have been absurd (Einhard, XIV). But a Danihs king and the Frankish emperor were more closely comparable than one might thinkg. The strenght, capacity and ambitions of the Scandinavians were to be made manifest, in the course of the following century, in a vast Viking ’empire’, albeit one that was only haphazardly organized or co-ordinated in political terms.
A cult of warfare and violence, focussed primarily on the Gods Óðinn and Þórr, became central to Viking ideology and motivation. In this context, it is difficult not to bleieve that Widukind, the leader of pagan resistance, was more than simply a secular nationalist or regional if not personal freedom fighter but a religious leader of some sort — perhaps taking on some ofthe familiar characteristics of the traditionalist ‘prophet’ emerging to lead resistance to imminent Christianity.