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.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Tacitus, Germania, bk. 5, p.104
2. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk. I, ch. 15, p. 63.

Frankish travelogue – Frisia, under the Lamb

While spiritual battles raged in Frisia, secular affairs were no less intense. King Radbod and Pippin came to some kind of a peace agreement, and Radbod’s daughter Theudesinda married Pippin’s son Grimoald in 711. The new in-laws, however, did not make peace in their hearts. When Pippin fell deathly ill early in 714, “his son Grimoald hastened to visit him and, as he proceeded to prayer in the basilica of St Lambert the Martyr, and as he persisted a long while lying face down in his prayer, he was run through with a sword by a most evil man named Rantgar and he died.”1.Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.364. Other sources tell us that Rantgar was a Frisian.

Upon Pippin’s death later that year civil war broke out in Francia, and the Neustrian nobility made common cause with Radbod against Pippin’s Austrasian family. Radbod battled and defeated Pippin’s son Charles Martel, but that was Charles’ last defeat in the civil war (and, for that matter, in his life), and Radbod’s plan to recover his lost territory was destroyed. After that most of Frisia was considered a province or county of Francia, but it cannot be said that everything was peaceful.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.364.

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.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. RFA, 772.

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.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. RFA, year 772.