History of the Saxon War VI: "All denounced Widukind as the instigator of this wicked rebellion." Annales Regno 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:
  1. The English translation of Charlemagne: Father of a Continent by Italian historian Alessandro Barbero (2004).
  2. Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom (2003, 2ed).
  3. A paper by American historian Eric J. Goldberg, The Saxon Stellinga Reconsidered (1995).
  4. 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).
  5. Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire by Bernard S. Bachrach (2001).
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
[pp. 44-48]

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