God wants us to kill Saxons

The hand of God appears with remarkable frequency in the Royal Frankish Annals. In battle after battle the annalist notes that a battle was won “by the hand of God,” or “by God’s help.” (Oddly, these invocations don’t begin until Charlemagne assumes the throne. Didn’t God smile upon his father Pepin?). But the Saxon wars seem to have inspired God with particularly manifest miracles of aid.

The streams had all dried up during the hot summer in 772, when Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul. But the job of destruction was not yet completed. What to do?

And there was a great drought, so that no water was to be had in the above-said place where the Irminsul stood. And while the aforesaid glorious king wanted to stay there for two or three days in order to destroy the sanctuary completely, but his men had no water, suddenly, by the bounty of divine grace, there poured forth along a particular watercourse – this was at midday, while the whole army was resting; no one knew what was happening – such an abundance of water that the whole army had sufficient.1.RFA, 772.

The very next year the Saxons retaliated, and started burning a Frankish settlement. But God intervened when they tried to burn a church.

[T]hey came to a certain church, in the place called Fritzlar, which Boniface of holy memory, most recent of martyrs, had consecrated and which, moved by the spirit of prophecy, had had foretold would never be consumed by fire. But the said Saxons began to apply themselves with the greatest determination to this church and to devising some means of burning it down. While their efforts were continuing there appeared both to the certain Christians inside the castellum and to the certain pagans who were members of that host two young men, dressed in baptismal white, who protected the church from fire; and because of them the Saxons were unable either to start a fire there or to inflict any damage on the church, inside or out, but were seized by terror, as the divine majesty willed, and took to flight, though no one was pressing upon them. Moreover, one of those same Saxons was afterwards found dead beside the church; he was in a squatting position and leaning forward with light and wood in his hands, as if he had been intending to blow upon them and so deliver the church to the flames.2.RFA, 773

From a story telling point of view, the detail about the kneeling Saxon is brilliant.

You would think the Saxons would start to learn, but of course they don’t. The next thirty years is a nearly unbroken string of battles, conquests, massacres, oaths taken and broken, and hostages given and sacrificed.

In 776, once Charlemagne began campaigning in earnest, the Saxons made a foray to the east, and took the fortress of Eresburg. Emboldened by success they continued east and attempted to take Syborg. The Franks resisted, “with the help of God,” so the Saxons brought up siege machinery. We would perhaps think it a bit of a stretch to expect a pre-literate tribal people to master siege engineering, but for the annalist “by God’s will the catapults which they had set up did more harm to them than to those within the fortress.” Even after that failure the Saxons persisted, so a more visible sign was evidently required.

One day, while they prepared for battle against the Christians in the castle, God’s glory was made manifest over the castle church in the sight of a great number outside as well as inside, many of whom are still with us. They reportedly saw the likeness of two shields, red with flame wheeling over the church. When the heathens outside saw this miracle, they were at once thrown into confusion and started fleeing to their camp in terror. Since all of them were panic-stricken, one man stampeded the next and was killed in return, because those who looked back out of fear impaled themselves on the lances carried on the shoulders of those who fled before them. Some dealt each other aimless blows and thus suffered divine retribution. How much the power of God worked against them for the salvation of the Christians, nobody can tell. But the more the Saxons were stricken by fear, the more the Christians were comforted and praised the almighty God who deigned to reveal his power over the his servants. When the Saxons turned to flight, the Franks followed on their heels as far as the River Lippe slaughtering them.3.RFA, 776.

The Franks, particularly the ruling families, were strongly religious and saw nothing odd about stories such as these. It was truly an age of faith (whether Christian or pagan) and the supernatural suffused the land and the society. The Annals record other unexplainable events, and barely distinguish between natural phenomenon like comets and heavenly visitations. Bernard Scholz notes that “divine activity is not presented as the immediate cause of political events. Rather it appears as a reminder that the natural order is forever maintained by the divine will and subject to sudden dispensation.”4.Scholz, Carolingian Chronicles, p9.

Of course, God is on our side, say both sides of every fight, and the Franks were no different. While the hand of God was clearly visible in every victory, his displeasure is conspicuously absent in the setbacks. But the Annals do not go in for theology.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. RFA, 772.
2. RFA, 773
3. RFA, 776.
4. Scholz, Carolingian Chronicles, p9.

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