Frankish travelogue: Saxony

“The appearance of the country differs considerably in different parts; but in general it is covered either by bristling forests or by foul swamps.”1.Tacitus, Germania, bk. 5, p.104

Thus did the late first century Roman historian and ethnographer Tacitus describe the country of what we (and he, for that matter) call Germany. The part of Germany called Saxony occupied the northeast portion of the country, east of the Rhine, south of the North Sea, to the southern hills. One of the tribes that occupied this area became known as Saxons, around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. We know the Saxons as one of the three tribes who began crossing that sea and invading Britain, along with the Angles and the Jutes, those the Venerable Bede called “the three most formidable races of Germany.”2.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. I, ch. 15, p. 63.

The tribesmen left in Saxony continued to develop their own distinct culture, apart from the Frankish Merovingian kingdoms to the west. The two most notable differences between east and west were religious and political. Where the western kingdoms developed Christianity ever more strongly over the centuries, the eastern Saxons stayed fiercely pagan.3.I swear, my post on early medieval paganism will come… This made them the target of many missions of conversion, as British priests and monks traveled to the continent in an “attempt to snatch some of them from Satan and bring them to Christ.”4.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. V, ch. 9, p. 278. Of the many who tried, the most notable was Boniface, who wrote in 738 that he prayed that Jesus “may turn the hearts of the pagan Saxons to the catholic faith, that they may free themselves from the snares of the devil in which they are bound…”5.Boniface, Letters, XXXVI [46], pp. 52-3.

There was no cross-cultural accommodation given by the Franks and the western church. Around 738 pope Gregory III wrote an open letter “to all the people of the Province of Old Saxony.” As ever, he was interested in converting souls. “Let no one henceforth deceive you with high-sounding words to seek salvation in the worship of idols made by hands, be they of gold or silver or brass or stone or any other substance. These lying deities, called gods by the heathen of old, are well known to be the dwelling places of demons.”6.Boniface, Letters, XIII [21], pp. 23-4.

In contrast to the Frankish kingdoms, the Saxons remained kingless, perhaps because they never had the Roman Empire as a governance model. Several early medieval sources made note of the singularly individualistic nature of Saxon rulership. Bede relates the tale of two brothers who went to preach in “Old Saxony” (as Britain was filled with new Saxons) in the late seventh century. They were both killed, of course, but not before they noted that “these Old Saxons have no king, but several lords who are set over the nation. Whenever war is imminent, these cast lots impartially, and the one one whom the lot falls is followed and obeyed by all for the duration of the war; but as soon as the war ends, the lords revert to equality of status.”7.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. V, ch. 10, p.281.

In the vita of Saint Lebuin, who died in 775 and knew Saxony well, Hucbald of St. Amand describes the nature of Saxon leadership.

In olden times the Saxons had no king but appointed rulers over each village; and their custom was to hold a general meeting once a year in the centre of Saxony near the river Yser at a place called Marklo. There all the leaders used to gather together and they were joined by twelve noblemen from each village with as many freedmen and serfs. There they confirmed the laws, gave judgment on outstanding cases and by common consent drew up plans for the coming year on which they could act either in peace or war. … When the day of the meeting came round, all the leaders were present, as were others whose duty it was to attend. Then, when they had gathered together, they first offered up prayers to their gods, as is their custom, asking them to protect their country and to guide them in making decrees both useful to themselves and pleasing to the gods. Then when a circle had been formed they began the discussions.8.Hucbald, Life of Lebuin.

This fragmented leadership model led to much frustration with the Frankish kings through the ages. The Franks expected that once they made a treaty and exchanged hostages, the Saxons would comply with those terms. But since what one war band leader agreed to imposed no obligation on his neighbor, the neighbor felt free to raid and loot without constraint. All of the sources remark on the perfidy and treacherous nature of the Saxons, when in fact that simply represented a failure to understand the Saxon way of life.

Which is curious, because in many other ways the Saxons and the Franks were much alike. Their material culture can’t be differentiated, they spoke a very similar language, dressed in a similar fashion, and shared the same personal names.9.Fouracre, Charles Martel, p. 116. “As we find them in their graves, we cannot as a rule distinguish the Franks of this age from Saxons or Frisians, let alone from each other.”10.Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p. 148. In one incident during the wars of Charlemagne a continent of Saxons sneaked into a column of Frankish soldiers without being noticed. There is an odd remark in Boniface’s letter cited above, where the saint also says, “Take pity upon them; for they themselves are saying: ‘We are of one blood and one bone with you.'”11.Boniface, Letters, XXXVI [46], pp. 52-3. Were the Saxons asking for relief from the steady pressure of conversion?

The sources, both written and material, reveal a few brief glimpses of Saxon society. The ninth century Carolingian historian Nithard wrote, “This whole tribe is divided into three classes. There are those among them who are called edhilingi in their language; those who are called frilingi, and those who are called lazzi; this is in the Latin language nobles, freemen, and serfs.”12.Nithard, Histories, bk. IV, ch. 2, p. 167. Obviously this is a Carolingian writing decades after the conquest of Saxony (more on that in the next couple of posts), and interpreting Saxon culture through a Carolingian lens.

The archaeological record illustrates farm-holding patterns. “[A]t Warendorf in southern Saxony, occupied from the mid-seventh to the late eighth, we find the chequerboard of farmsteads that was normal in Denmark, with a long-house in each surrounded by smaller buildings.”13.Wickham, Framing the Middle Ages, p. 499.

In another of Boniface’s letters from about 746 he describes the Saxon attitudes towards adultery.

In Old Saxony, if a virgin disgraces her father’s house by adultery or if a married woman breaks the bond of wedlock and commits adultery, they sometimes compel her to hang herself with her own hand and then hang the seducer above the pyre on which she has been burned. Sometimes a troop of women get together and flog her through the towns, beating her with rods and stripping her to the waist, cutting her whole body with knives, pricking her with wounds, and send her on bleeding and torn from town to town; fresh scourgers join in with new zeal for purity, until finally they leave her dead or almost dead, that other women may be made to fear adultery and evil conduct.14.Boniface, Letters, LVII [73], p. 105.

Not quite what one might expect given our present day depiction of wild wenches and debauched warriors.

This, then, was Saxon society around the close of the seventh century. It is difficult to know much of a non-literate culture, as anyone who has studied the Maya and the Aztec will attest. Nonetheless, we can know look at relations between Saxon east and Merovingian west as the eighth century dawned. It should perhaps come as no shock to learn that blood was spilled.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Tacitus, Germania, bk. 5, p.104
2. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. I, ch. 15, p. 63.
3. I swear, my post on early medieval paganism will come…
4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. V, ch. 9, p. 278.
5, 11. Boniface, Letters, XXXVI [46], pp. 52-3.
6. Boniface, Letters, XIII [21], pp. 23-4.
7. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. V, ch. 10, p.281.
8. Hucbald, Life of Lebuin.
9. Fouracre, Charles Martel, p. 116.
10. Wallace-Hedrill, Long Haired Kings, p. 148.
12. Nithard, Histories, bk. IV, ch. 2, p. 167.
13. Wickham, Framing the Middle Ages, p. 499.
14. Boniface, Letters, LVII [73], p. 105.

1 thought on “Frankish travelogue: Saxony

  1. This is a fascinating post with a lot of info I haven’t heard before – thanks for working it up. Yikes, cheating wives certainly didn’t have it easy, did they? Reminds me of the Apache Indians in Arizona. They would cut the end of a cheating woman’s nose off. I saw pictures and it was pretty awful looking.

    How interesting that the Franks and Saxons had such similarities. That’s good for my book though, haha!

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