Charlemagne destroys a pagan shrine

In the spring of 772 Charlemagne held the yearly gathering of the great in the town of Worms, on the Rhine river. From there he gathered an army and traveled north, to the Saxon fortress of Eresburg. After taking the fortress he pushed deeper into Saxon territory. He must have had good intelligence or local guides, for he “came to the Irminsul, destroying that sanctuary and carrying off the gold and silver which he found there.”1.RFA, year 772. The Annals, as always so terse, have little else to say about a skirmish that kicked off a war that would last more than thirty years.

What was it that Charlemagne had done? It is difficult to say, exactly. Irminsul is a Germanic word that roughly translates as “large pillar.” Other uses of the word over the centuries indicate a pillar or column, made of stone or wood. In and of itself a trifle, but this Irminsul had great spiritual meaning.

In the mid-8th century the monk Rudolf of Fulda wrote of the translation2.When a saint’s body or relics are moved from one place to another, it is called translating the remains. of Saint Alexander of Rome. In that work Rudolf mentions the Irminsul and the Saxons. “They also worshiped in the open air a vertically upright trunk of no small size, [called] in their mother tongue, Irminsul, or in Latin ‘columna universalis ‘… in the sense that it carries the All.”3.memim.com/irminsul.html. A strange site. I have cleaned up the translation a little. I take the Irminsul to be a great tree trunk, probably worshiped for generations, that they believed to a real or metaphorical pillar that held up the universe. There are obvious parallels to Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life. Evidently offerings were made to the trunk, although I’m not clear how that would help hold up the universe. Beyond that we don’t have much, except for the reaction of the Saxons, which we will get to in a moment.

One obvious question, one that all of the chroniclers avoid, is why did Charlemagne choose to make this incursion into Saxon territory at this time? Bernard Bachrach points out that the Pippinids up to this point (Pepin II, his son Charles Martel, and then Pepin the Short (Charlemagne’s father)) had avoided prolonged wars with the Saxons, as Saxony was not considered part of the historic Kingdom of the Franks.4.Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p44. There had been incursions back and forth over the decades, in part to the uncertain demarcation between the two peoples,5.Einhard, in talking about the Saxon wars, says “our borders and theirs ran together almost everywhere in open land, except for a few places where huge forests or mountain ranges came between our respective lands and established a clear boundary.” Life of Charlemagne, ch. 7. but sustained campaigns were avoided. Bachrach notes that Pepin the Short captured the Saxon leader Theodoric three times, and let him go each time. Hardly the behavior of a ruler intent on conquest.

Apparently the triggering event for Charlemagne was the burning of a church built by an English monk named Lebwin, in the region of Deventer (which is inside of Saxon territory, I must add), east of Utrecht.6.I can’t find much on this event, except for a site that transcribes a 19th century book of saints by a Reverend Alban Butler, who wrote in the 18th century. Welcome to early medieval research. Perhaps Charlemagne saw this insult as merely another transgression that required retribution in kind, and so he burned their church. In 772 Charlemagne was all of 25 years old, and had been sole king of Francia for less than a year. We can probably ascribe some impulsivity to the young king.

All of the contemporary chronicles mention the destruction of the Irminsul, so it was considered an event of some import. Less noticed were the Saxon responses. In 773 the Saxons crossed the border while Charlemagne was otherwise occupied in Italy. The Annals recorded the incident this way:

And while he was making his expedition for the defence of God’s holy Roman church at the urging of the supreme pontiff this year, the frontier-region over against the Saxons was left wholly unsecured by treaty. Indeed, those Saxons sallied forth against the Franks’ borderland with a great army, advancing as far as the castrum called Buraburg. But the inhabitants of the border-regions, alarmed at this, withdrew into the castellum once they had grasped what was happening.7.Annals, year 773.

Naturally this could not go unpunished. In 774 Charlemagne “sent four scarae into Saxony. Three joined battle with the Saxons and with God’s help emerged as victors; the fourth scara did not fight, it is true, but it returned home again unscathed and with great booty.”8.Annals, year 774. This was considered by Einhard merely a “retaliatory response.”

And away we go. While the Saxon response to Charlemagne’s revenge for the Saxon retribution to Charlemagne’s incursion to punish the Saxon church-burning went unrecorded, Charlemagne’s next act did not. In 775 he launched a full-scale invasion of Saxony. “No war ever undertaken by the Frankish people was more prolonged, more full of atrocities or more demanding of effort.”9.Life of Charlemagne, ch. 7.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. RFA, year 772.
2. When a saint’s body or relics are moved from one place to another, it is called translating the remains.
3. memim.com/irminsul.html. A strange site. I have cleaned up the translation a little.
4. Bachrach, Carolingian Warfare, p44.
5. Einhard, in talking about the Saxon wars, says “our borders and theirs ran together almost everywhere in open land, except for a few places where huge forests or mountain ranges came between our respective lands and established a clear boundary.” Life of Charlemagne, ch. 7.
6. I can’t find much on this event, except for a site that transcribes a 19th century book of saints by a Reverend Alban Butler, who wrote in the 18th century. Welcome to early medieval research.
7. Annals, year 773.
8. Annals, year 774.
9. Life of Charlemagne, ch. 7.

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