Season Three, Episode Seven: The Fire of Paganism
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“You must get more aggressive with the Saxons!”
Bishop Lullus, the elderly Archbishop of Mainz, stormed into the room where King Charles had been conferring with his advisors. Despite his age, the bishop was agile and vital, his presence commanding. He had served Charles’s father for years, and he had served Charles since the younger man ascended to the throne in 768. He had spoken often with the new King about matters of the Church and had steered him as much, or more than, any other person in the Church - save the Pope. Still, despite their close ties and ongoing relationship, it was wildly out of character for the holy man to speak in such a way to Charles.
“Bishop, what are you talking about?” Charles began to ask, looking past the outburst. “What has you so upset?”
“They burned another Church, Your Grace. The unholy pagan Saxons went to Deventer and set fire to the church our brother Lebwin had established. He has been hugely successful in converting heathens to the True Faith, and the pagans don’t like it. So they burned down all Lebwin has worked for.”
Charles and his men had maps open before them to prepare plans for an entirely different campaign, and they looked over the large map of the region to point out where Deventer was located. One of his men found the city before him and pointed it out.
“It’s far to the north, east of Utrecht,” Charles noted, a note of uncertainty entering his voice. He and his advisors had been planning campaigns to the south. His recently deceased brother and anyone still loyal to his sister-in-law and two children were to the south, and more importantly, the Lombards were that direction. Everything Charles had been focused on was opposite of the problem that Bishop Lullus now brought to him.
“Yes, Your Grace, it is well north, but it is a problem requiring the utmost urgency. The Church, my priests and my monasteries and our holdings, are all under attack by the Saxons. They rebel against Christ and they worship trees, and when we show them the Light they retaliate with swords and fire. We need your help against these devils. We must take a more aggressive stance against them or they will push further.”
This last statement made Charles wince. An issue in the north was the last thing he wanted as he plotted and schemed for a mission to the south. He was looking to begin a campaign against the Lombards as soon as possible, and may have had to move already if it had not been for a literal stroke of luck: Pope Stephen III died in January 772, and with his death, the Lombards had lost a key bargaining chip. The new Pope, Hadrian I, was proving to be quite wily, and he was having some success in stymying the Lombards. Charles knew there was no way that he could keep it up forever, but still, this change of Popes had served to give the Frankish King a little bit of breathing space.
He regarded Lullus. “If we do as you would like, where would you send my army? What will make the Saxons stop?”
“Your Grace, these people recognize only two things: Power and pain. If you were to send forces against them, it would need to be a campaign that leaves them in no doubt as to the strength of your army and the timbre of your resolve. As far as pain, I would recommend taking an eye for an eye, just as the Old Testament recommends. The pagans burn our churches and make a mockery of our holy relics, so we should do the same to theirs. Just as Boniface did years ago, we should chop down one of their sacred trees and show them how silly it is to believe that anyone other than God Almighty holds up the skies.”
One of the King’s advisors chimed in to support the Bishop. “I have heard that these Saxons keep treasures at these sacred trees. Our coffers are low and we could certainly benefit from enemy plunder.”
At this, the thought of revenge and riches, the men at the table changed their approach to the coming fighting season. The Pope could hold on for a year, and the Lombards would never come north. Aquitaine was under control, and with Carloman gone, the whole of Francia had acquiesced to Charles’s leadership without so much as a bump. The Saxons were barely even a cohesive group, and attacking them would give the army experience before moving on to more important work. Finally, with Bishop Lullus calling for the campaign, Charles could use the entire episode to show the Pope how he is, was, and always would be the Protector of the Faith, spreading the Word further into the dark reaches of Germania than it had ever gone before.
Yes, Charles thought. God has provided once again. The Saxons will receive our attention this year, and the Lombards after that. They will submit. If they don’t, they will die.”
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season 3, Episode 7: The Fire of Paganism
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to take a look at what may be one of the great military miscalculations of all time. Charles was a solid tactician and an excellent logistician, and clearly very successful in most things he tried his hand at. Politics, religion, culture, war... there was no area in which he did not make an enormous impact during his life. Knowing this, how was it then that he so dramatically failed to see just how long and hard a campaign against the Saxons of all
people would be? Einhard, one of the first and most eminent biographers of Charlemagne, and a man who studied the whole of the great King’s life, would describe it this way:
“No war taken up by the Frankish people was ever longer, harder, or more dreadful.”
This is both factually correct and a huge understatement. After all, we are not talking about an extra battle or two; we are talking about nearly 30 additional years of battle, plus additional pockets of resistance that would not be fully squelched until well after Charles’s lifetime. Was it hubris, bad intelligence, an overestimation of his own military capabilities, or an underestimation of his enemies that led to all of this? Or was it a bit of all of the above? Finally, even with all of these factors in mind, did Charles really have a choice of whether or not to face the Saxons? I mean, was their fight inevitable, and if so, could it have been less bloody for both sides?
Starting with the last question first, I would argue that yes, the fight between the Saxons and the Franks was inevitable. Two cultures of conflicting faiths living on either side of a shared border but with limited interaction and communication have typically been ripe for some sort of conflict. It can easily become an us-or-them-type situation, with calls to shun or attack the “other” being readily accepted and easily digested. This is certainly not an attempt to say that two cultures cannot co-exist, or that people are destined to fight over perceived differences. However, the mentality of 8th century Nicene Christianity was not to accept; it was to convert. Going back to the first episode of T+M, I had noted then how Gregory of Tours was exceptionally adamant about his Catholic faith, saying on the very first page of his History of the Franks:
“I desire first of all to declare my faith so that my reader may have no doubt that I am Catholic.”
He later went on to diminish Arian Christians by saying:
“I reject them with curses, and call men to witness that they are separated from the church.”
And those were fellow Christians, not outright pagans. Long story short, “close enough” is fine for horseshoes and hand grenades, but absolutely not okay if one was an early missionary of the Roman Catholic Church. A person was either fully in, or doomed to Hell. There was no in-between.
This leads me to point number two on inevitability: Violent missionary interactions were on the rise on both sides of the Frankish/Saxon divide. We started off today’s story talking about the burning of a church established by Bishop Lebwin in Deventer, a city in the modern-day Netherlands. Now, whether or not this particular bit of arson was the real catalyst for Charlemagne’s initial Saxon campaign is open to speculation, but it did happen. The details surrounding the incident, as recounted by the 10th century Life of Lebwin, give us an insight to the back and forth of this time:
“Lebwin resolved to devote his life to the conversion of the Germans. After his ordination he proceeded to Utrecht... Hospitably received by a widow named Abachilda, he fearlessly preached the Gospel among the wild tribes of the district, and erected a little chapel at Wulpe on the west bank of the Yasel. As the venerable personality and deep learning of the missionary quickly won numbers, even of the nobles, to the Faith it soon became necessary to build at Deventer on the east bank of the river a larger church, after which a residence for Lebwin was also erected. This state of undisturbed development of his little fold was not, however to continue. Lebwin's wonderful success excited great hostility among the pagans; ascribing his conversions to witchcraft, they formed an alliance with the predatory and anti- Christian Saxons, burned the church at Deventer, and dispersed the flock.”
As we can see, it does not seem like Lebwin was himself all that intimidating. He comes off as a smart, charismatic guy who won over converts through preaching and persuasion, and the attack against his church seems a tad overkill on the part of the Saxons. However, when we read on a little further, we find that some of what Lebwin was preaching could have come off as taunting. The following passage from his Life describes an address given by Lebwin to the Saxon general meeting at a village called Marklo. Imagine, as you listen to this, a fancy sounding foreign preacher standing up in front of pretty much any Congress or any Parliament anywhere in the world, and think of what the reaction would be in even these modern times:
"The God of heaven and Ruler of the world and His Son, Jesus Christ, commands me to tell you that if you are willing to be and to do what His senants tell you He will confer benefits upon you such as you have never heard of before." Then he added: "As you have never had a king over you before this time, so no king will prevail against you and subject you to his domination. But if you are unwilling to accept God's commands, a king has been prepared nearby who will invade your lands, spoil and lay them waste and sap away your strength in war; he will lead you into exile, deprive you of your inheritance, slay you with the sword,
and hand over your possessions to whom he has a mind: and afterwards you will be slaves both to him and his successors."
Let’s face it: There is not a country in this world that is going to react in a positive manner to an outsider telling them to either convert or die. Now add in the traditional bad blood between the Franks and the Saxons, and well, it is not entirely surprising to think that the Saxons may have felt that a preemptive strike against the guy saying these types of things had really been that bad of an idea. And to top it all off, the Saxons may not have felt that they had been all that preemptive; the cycle of action and reaction between the two sides was already well underway, and had been for centuries. According to our old friend Fredegar:
“Since the time of the first Chlothar the Saxons had given 500 cows yearly. This ceased with Dagobert.”
Chlothar I died in 561, and Dagobert I ascended in 621. Depending on when in Chlothar’s 50-year reign this tribute system began and how soon in Dagobert’s reign it ended, this is a period of well over 60 years that the Saxons were giving up livestock to the Franks. Of course, tribute like this would only have come into play after a military defeat, so we can see that fighting was ongoing over 200 years before Charles showed up. Going back at Dagobert, if you recall, he was nearly killed by Saxons while he was still co-ruler of Francia with his dad, and it took nothing less than one of the most insane one-man cavalry charges in history by that father, Chlothar II, to save the young King’s life and territory. Once he was done cutting off the head of the Saxon leader at that time, Berthoald, with his ax, Chlothar gave an order to “not leave alive there any man who stood taller than his sword.” Genocide is hard work, however, and the Saxons survived this attempt and came back into the history repeatedly. Against Charles Martel:
“The Saxons were conquering bits of the old Frankish Volksland up to... 718. Westphalian Hatterun first became a Saxon possession after 694, perhaps as late as 715.”
Further Frankish-Saxon skirmishes occurred, at a minimum, in 724, 738, 741, 744, 747, 748, and 753. This left a 19-year pause between the last large-scale fighting, but certainly shows a consistent and ongoing rivalry between the two sides.
A story written very near to our current timeline, circa 768, the first year of Charlemagne’s reign, was written by Willibald von Mainz and actually glorifies a bit of Christian violence against the pagans that likely took place in the early 720s. As additional background, Willibald was a cleric in the monastery of Saint Viktor in Mainz, and was given the task of writing a somewhat accurate yet highly positive account of the life of Archbishop Boniface. Boniface was the cleric who conducted Pépin’s first coronation, and also happened to be the bishop of - guess where - Mainz! And the patron of his hagiography? That was none other than the new Archbishop of Mainz, Bishop Lullus. Put another way, the guy who paid for and no doubt approved the following story is also the guy who held the position that had recently assisted the Carolingians in overthrowing the Merovingians. This new Archbishop no doubt had access and influence with Charles. With that as context, we turn to Willibald:
“Many of the Hessians who at that time had acknowledged the Catholic faith were confirmed by the grace of the Holy Spirit and received the laying-on of hands. But others, not yet strong in the spirit, refused to accept the pure teachings of the Church in their entirety. Moreover, some continued secretly, others openly, to offer sacrifices to trees and springs... Boniface in their presence attempted to cut down, at a place called Gaesmere, a certain oak of extraordinary size called by the pagans of olden times the Oak of Jupiter. Taking his courage in his hands (for a great crowd of pagans stood by watching and bitterly cursing in their hearts the enemy of the gods), he cut the first notch. But when he had made a superficial cut, suddenly the oak’s vast bulk, shaken by a mighty blast of wind from above, crashed to the ground shivering its topmost branches into fragments in its fall. As if by the express will of God (for the brethren present had done nothing to cause it) the oak burst asunder into four parts, each having a trunk of equal length. At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens who had been cursing ceased to revile and began on the contrary, to believe and bless the Lord. Thereupon ... Boniface built an oratory from the timber of the oak and dedicated it to St Peter the Apostle.”
Here we have a story glorifying an attack against another group’s religious beliefs and one of their most potent symbols. More than just destroying the symbol, however, Boniface went an extra step and transformed the fallen oak into a place of worship for his church. We can see where an act like this would be unpopular with the pagans, yet this strong-arm tactic was glorified by Willibald and Lullus. Given Charlemagne’s subsequent actions, it would appear he glorified the action as well.
When all is said and done, we have a situation where two conflicting cultures lived in close proximity to one another. The Christian missionaries on the Frankish side took an aggressive approach to missionary work and conversion, and the Saxon pagans often retaliated. And on top of all of this, the Saxon and Frankish tribes had long been competitors and enemies, with broken oaths, encroached borders, and slaughters written all over the history of these two groups for centuries leading right up to the very time of Charles as a young Prince. So yes, given all of this, there is no way that a battle with the Saxons was not going to happen eventually. Taking a long-view look at events, one could make an argument that the battle between the two sides had never even actually stopped, but merely went on hiatus.
And that brings us to 772 and our opening story. As we noted there, the death of Pope Stephen III and the subsequent rise of Pope Hadrian I was fortuitous for Charles. Hadrian was able to stall Desiderius, the King of the Lombards, for almost a year, giving the young Frankish king breathing room to not have to worry about a near-term inevitable fall of the Papacy. Charles did need to get to Italy soon enough, and as we pointed out in the last episode, he did exactly that. In 772, however, Charles had a chance to fight elsewhere, and, given the history we just went over with the Saxons and the recent pagan retaliations against Christian settlements, he chose Saxony. So how did this first year go? From the Royal Frankish Annals:
“The most gracious Lord King Charles then held an assembly at Worms. From Worms he marched first into Saxony. Capturing the castle of Eresburg, he proceeded as far as the Irminsul, destroyed this idol and carried away the gold and silver which he found. A great drought occurred so that there was no water in the place where the Irminsul stood. The glorious king wished to remain there two or three days in order to destroy the temple completely, but they had no water. Suddenly at noon, through the grace of God, while the army rested and nobody knew what was happening, so much water poured forth in a stream that the whole army had enough.”
What was the Irminsul, you ask? Well, wouldn’t you know it, it was a giant tree - or perhaps a tree trunk or pillar - honored by the pagan Saxons. It seems to have been very similar in nature to the Life Tree of Norse mythology and many other cultures. This tree crossed worlds, with roots reaching into the netherworld of the afterlife and branches stretching out to the heavens. Cutting the tree down was a very real sign to the Saxons of Frankish might, and it also served to expose, at least to the Christian Franks, the fallacy of pagan beliefs. Charles felled the tree, yet the sky did not fall.
Now, whether or not Charles actually cut down a tree is irrelevant. If he did, it seems to have almost certainly been inspired by the story of Boniface cutting down the Jupiter Oak. Just as likely, the story could have been written to show an ongoing campaign of Christians knocking down pagan idols. Additionally, the miracle of the water being sent forth by God to aid the Franks in destroying the shrine is almost certainly apocryphal. Who needs water when you can instead have gold? From Johannes Fried:
“Huge amounts of treasure, consisting of “gold and silver,” had fallen into Charlemagne’s hands, plunder that may have been pagan sacrificial offerings; this booty also seemed to fire the enthusiasm of the king’s retinue for waging war. Charlemagne distinguished himself as a successful military commander on his Saxon campaign, a leader it paid to follow. He pushed farther forward to the banks of the Weser, “laying waste the countryside with sword and fire,” and after taking a number of prominent hostages withdrew once more with his forces.”
All in all, 772 sounds like it was a successful year for the Franks, yet another since young Charles had become King. He had done more than enough by this time to earn the following of his leudes. If he had been running for reelection in 772 - if such a thing had been needed - he would be able to run on the following platform from his first four years as King. He had:
Brought Aquitaine under control in a single, relatively bloodless show-of-force campaign;
Unified Francia under a single monarch, avoiding civil war;
Balanced the proverbial budget by adding the Irminsul plunder to his coffers, more than making up for the expenses incurred by his fideles over this time; and
Proven himself in multiple different times, places, and scenarios as a more-than- competent military commander, able to adjust strategy and tactics to match the situation at hand.
Staying with the reelection analogy, Charles promised more of everything everyone loved in the next four years. There was no reason to think that territorial expansion would not continue and that heathens would not continue to be converted. And of course, he had the Lombard campaign on tap for 773. Given his successes, it was almost impossible to imagine how things could possibly go wrong.
But of course, the moment that someone say something like that, things go wrong. For Charles, as with many military commanders throughout history, the problem lay with taking on too much all at once. You see, the Saxons were not subdued after a single incursion and the destruction of one religious idol. This group had been fighting the Franks for centuries, and had just come off of a nearly two decade-long break in the fighting to rest, rearm, and refit. On top of that, unlike the people of Aquitaine, the Saxons were actually a more diverse group and less interconnected within their territory. Basically, a group in the north of Saxon territory and a group in the south might both call themselves Saxons, but they were not necessarily a tight knit group just because of this tribal affiliation. Because of this decentralization, if the Franks were to attack and destroy one of these groups, they would not necessarily have succeeded in bringing the Saxons as a whole to heel. Again turning to Fried, he described them this way:
“The social order and the popular culture of the Saxons were completely unlike those of the Franks, making it difficult for the latter to properly grasp their adversaries. The Saxons had no integrated leadership; in fact, they were less a single people and more a group of small ethnicities. Saint Boniface, indeed, mentions eight groups by name in his letter (Epistle 43): the Thuringi, the Hessi, the Borthari, the Nistresi, the Uuedrecci, the Lognai, the Suduodi, and the Grafelti... Charlemagne had to vanquish every one of these peoples, or at least win over their noblemen to his side... The Franks’ ignorance of this foreign people was to come back to haunt them, however.”
So, there had been a 19-year hiatus in Frankish-Saxon hostilities, but that was all over now. The Saxons were not going to sit back and let the Franks destroy their religious sites without a response, and they certainly were not going to miss out on a chance to strike while the Frankish King had his hands tied in another conflict hundreds of miles away. According to the Royal Frankish Annals for 773:
“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.”
We can imagine what comes next: For every Saxon action, there would be an opposite, and very often unequal, Frankish reaction.
CONCLUSION: Starting off the episode today, I had asked: Was it hubris, bad intelligence, an overestimation of the Frankish military’s capabilities, or an underestimation of their enemies that led to this cycle of violence? We would say it was all of the above, except for overestimating the Franks’ organic capabilities. Was their hubris involved? Oh yeah! Throw in the whole idea of competing religions and we have got ourselves a stew of ego and self- righteousness. Was their bad intelligence? I don’t think you get much worse than Fried’s line: “The Franks’ ignorance of this foreign people was to come back to haunt them.” Did the Franks underestimate the Saxons? Absolutely; we just do not see how attacking a group, burning their sacred oak, and then running off to fight an entirely different campaign hundreds of miles to the south while leaving their frontier region “wholly unsecured” could be seen as anything other than an underestimation.
Out of everything else we have mentioned, the only thing that we can say was not necessarily pushing forward the cycle of violence at this point was the Franks overestimating their own abilities. They had seen their forces coming together, and Charles did have a good track record going until 773. They knew he could lead them to victory against any tribe in their vicinity, and he had just dismantled the Lombards. So they were right to believe they could beat the Saxons; there really was no question that they could. What they did not see coming was how bitter the struggle would become, or just how much resistance the group would give them. And they had not expected a leader to step up to lead the king-less Saxons, though, once things became truly existential for the pagans, it is not really much of a shock that they would begin to pull their forces together. And that’s where we are going to leave off this week. When we come back, we will meet the leader of the resistance, Widikund, and we will also see just how much worse things could get. Burnt churches and idols were most definitely just the beginning.
OUTRO: Alright, that is all for this episode. Thank you again for listening; if you enjoyed it and want to read the transcript or any of the transcripts for the now 50-plus episodes we’ve put out, we invite you to head on over to ThugsAndMiracles.com.There you’ll find those, our French Monarchy Tree, and a sign-up area for our newsletter. If you have already signed up for the newsletter, then you know a bit of exciting news that everyone else does not: Later this month, we are going to be speaking with Shelley Puhak, the author of the soon-to- be-released book The Dark Queens! Ms. Puhak has written all about Fredegunda and Brunhilda, and as you’ll remember from Season One, they were awesome! These two women are easily my favorite people we’ve met yet in the history, and I can’t wait to talk to Shelley Puhak about them and her new book. So if you need a refresher, or if you skipped over Season One, now is the time to head back and brush up on Episodes 15-25. We’ll be dropping that interview onto our feed on 23 February.
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Alright, again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. When we come back in ten days, we will have our interview with Shelley Puhak and talk all about those great Merovingian Queens, Fredegunda and Brunhilda. When we return to the show after that, it will be back to Saxony to see just how intense Charlemagne’s campaign against the pagans would become. All of this is coming up in the next two episodes of Thugs and Miracles.