Inform yourself with this exhibition accompanying website about the current state of research in the field of Saxony research.
Who are the
..., who are mentioned in ancient and medieval scripts?
Saxones is the Latin name which became the English word “saxones”. The question regarding who the saxones are, however, is not so easy to answer. Since there are very many different saxones: people who come from Dresden or Leipzig, for example, or Transylvanian saxones, whose home country lies in Romania. Or “Saksalainen”: this is a German in the Finnish language. And then there are, of course, the Anglo-saxones or the Lower saxones.
Therefore the first question that needs to be addressed is: which saxones do you actually mean? Yet this confusing diversity is in no way a modern phenomenon. Various saxones already existed in the 1st millennium. The most famous among these are surely the saxones against whom Carl the Great waged his legendary “Saxon Wars” in today’s North Germany in the 8th century. Their most well-known leader was called Widukind. Karl subjugated the saxones to his power, yet as early as 919 Henry I, a Saxon, ascended the East Frankish throne. His son, Otto the Great, became one of the most powerful men of the 10th century.
Are they a Germanic tribal union that resided in southern Schleswig-Holstein and that migrated from there to the Elbe-Weser triangle? Did the so-called Germanic tribe conquer the landscapes all the way to the Harz and the Elbe from there? As well as England and Westphalia? Were the Saxones a tribe that went their own way undauntedly over centuries up to the times of Carl the Great?
A clear answer: No!
The new history of the “old saxones“
... is more confusing but also more exciting!
But we can reveal this much now:
Saxones is a Roman name for groups that were highly mobile, dangerous but also volatile.
We cannot locate the settlement areas of so-called Saxones in North Germany before the 8th century.
A migration cannot be verified. Over 1000 years ago Lower Saxony was already a land of regions, whose elites were linked throughout Europe.
For a long time historians and archaeologists were in agreement about the chapter of expansion of a so-called West Germanic tribe: they took possession of the state starting from the third century. And at the same time conquered England and Westphalia: they were thereby always called saxones.
War ein weißes Pferd schon vor 2000 Jahren das Wappentier der »alten Sachsen«?
The popular “Lower Saxony Anthem” claims that people from “Duke Widukind’s tribe” had even driven out the Romans over 2,000 years ago. The white horse on the flag of the state is said to have been their heraldic animal. This has its origins between 1800 and 1950. In fact it was more complicated than this. And really exciting: Saxones were always those who people considered them to be. And »saxones« only changed from an external to a self-designation from the 9th century.
Meet nine men and women who used to live here: famous personalities, people like you and me,
winners and losers.
In »SAXONES TO GO« you will see selected details from some large-scale illustrations that you will also encounter in the exhibition. The illustrator Kelvin Wilson has created living images on the basis of archaeological find material. The basis of these reconstructions was almost predominantly burial objects from archaeological complexes that are located on this map.
100 - 150
220 - 250
500 - 550
750 - 800
A Saxon chronicle is created in the Abbey of Corvey
The Dukes of Brunswick use a horse in their seal
The Lower Saxony anthem is written
The Federal State of Lower Saxony is founded
Besides archaeological objects, historical written sources count among the tools with the help of which attempts are made to cast a detailed glance at the past. Reports about SAXONES are not always perfectly objective as you can see in the following example: In the 4 th century the term SAXONES was used for looters who ply one's dreadful trade somewhere at the Noth Sea. The adverse label imposed by others turned into an own identity in the 10th century. At the beginning of every period of time of »SAXONES TO GO« you will be introduced to written sources, where the name SAXON is mentioned (or even not). You will recognise them by the yellow symbols.
Our time travel starts in the period around 100: in those days Roman authors write the oldest reports about the land between the Rhine River and the Baltic Sea, which are handed down. In total just over a few hundred thousand people live in what is now Lower Saxony and Westphalia. The Romans count them among the “Teutons” and differentiate between various peoples, clans or tribes.
saxones are not among them.
..., Lombards, Chauci, Dulgubini, ...
The Roman Tacitus († in 120) was one of the first to set out in writing what is known about these groups – or believes to know. As he ascertains in his script “Germania“, the Romans “only recently [...] became aware of some tribes and kings, the war having made the Romans aware of“ to the right of the River Rhine. The Germanic people who he and others believed to have localised in the wide landscapes between the Rhine and Elbe Rivers include Sicambri, Ampsivarii, Bructeri, Chattuarii, Lombards, Chauci, Dulgubini, Angrivarii, Fosi, Suebi and Cherusci. Saxones or saxones are not mentioned here. The Teuton leaders from the 1st and 2nd centuries in the Roman Empire are called reges, kings. The Roman Tacitus reports they were “chosen according to noble lineage“.
The leaders in the Germanic region fight for supremacy, power and influence. Violent clashes are commonplace. Only the richest men win in this game: their followers and warriors expect a reward. The wealth required for this can be generated with cattle, for example. However, more profitable is surely an alliance with Rome, gladly against rivals. Good money flows for this. Even in the grave, some brazenly present themselves as beneficiaries of good relations to the empire: anyone who is anyone is buried with Roman tableware.
The links to the Roman Empire and the influence on the Germanic way of life can be illustrated, among other things, on the basis of grave inventories. As with the cremation burial of a warrior from Hankenbostel, near Faßberg in the Lüneburg area besides a sword, spear, lance, shield boss as well as drinking horn fittings, there are also Roman objects, such as a Roman trowel/strainer set and a Roman casserole that were buried with the dead person.
oman trowel, lance and shield boss from Hankenbostel, district of Celle © Landesmuseum Hannover, photo: U. Stamme
... raw materials: timber, ores, maybe cattle. And people: reinforcements for the flourishing slave markets of the empire. However, also in high demand is plumbum gemanicum, lead from Germania in order to build water pipes.
Großringe, municipality Ringe, district Grafschaft Bentheim © Landesmuseum Hannover
Tacitus noted that Mercury, the Roman God of shopkeepers and thieves, was the most popular divine patron with the Teutons. Seated in “Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium“, Cologne today, are high-ranking representatives of the Roman Empire from politics and administration since the 1st century. Emperor Augustus had made the place the centre of the Province of Germania. Since then much-travelled people from all parts of the empire could be encountered at the Rhine. Roman civilisation characterises life: a multi-cultural lifestyle, achievements from an advanced Mediterranean civilisation, urban prosperity – it is no longer necessary to cross the Alps to be a part of this. Mercury is often portrayed with the following attributes: Caduceus, the winged helmet, winged shoes and a moneybag.
Gravestone for the Roman Marcus Calius, killed in action in the »Varus Battle«
Xanten, district of Wesel, © LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn, photo: Jürgen Vogel
Emperor Augustus († 14) treated the region between the Rhine River and the Baltic Sea as part of the Roman province of Germania. There were friends of Rome there – but also resolute opponents. The head of the resistance was Arminius, son of a Cheruscan prince, formerly at the service of Rome. In the year 9 he inflicted a crushing defeat on troops of the emperor under the leadership of the commander Varus. After the death of Augustus the empire retreated. What did the Germanic clan leaders make of this? They didn’t record it: at this time no scripts were used in these parts. However, one thing is certain: contacts to the Roman Empire are upheld and maintained. Wealthy families bury their dead together with luxurious Roman goods. They are status symbols of the elite.
An efficient network of land and waterways brings Roman luxury to remote corners. A self-confident elite now has the say. The rich people in the land are part of a Europe-wide network of the Germanic upper class. Expensive gifts from all corners of the earth seal alliances. Now more than ever:
Even in death one shows what one has and who one is.
We have been searching in vain for the term Saxones (or ΣAΞONEΣ) in texts from the 3rd century.
Roman ivory comb, relief carvings with scene from antique mythology (1st century)
Grethem (Heath district) © photo: Christian Teppe, Museum August Kestner
burial object from the High Society
Hellweg, the old march route of the Romans along the lower mountain range is THE connection into Roman Rhineland in the 3rd century. There, but also everywhere else on the banks and estuaries of many rivers, transhipment places emerge. The confluence of the River Leine into the River Aller is a hub in the network. Archaeologists found the traces of a cremation there from the 3rd century: a Roman bronze vessel with a woman’s bone remains and a pit with the ashes from her funeral pyre. Both held the minute remains of burnt objects: local and imported crockery, Roman glasses, every possible utensil, even furniture. The dead person wore fine Roman gold and silver jewellery – in the style of rich women in the Roman Rhineland. The real highlight is an antique: a 200 year-old ivory comb, produced in Rome. Maybe a family heirloom? Fragments from ceramic vessels, as they were produced in the third century in central Germany using Roman technology, show: the family had contacts even as far as there. Links to other clans extend much further, to Scandinavia.
At “Harzhorn“ in the district of Northeim, weapons and armament parts of the Roman army from 3rd century were found, spread over some kilometres. Rome’s troops have come back – over 200 years after the Varus Battle! Have the networkers become too powerful?
The battle at Harzhorn
It was probably led by Emperor Maximinus Thrax in the year 235/ 236, setting off initially from Mainz towards central Germany, then returning going around the Harz. At “Harzhorn“ local warriors cut-off their return route. The assailants act in a focused manner, quickly and effectively. Many Teutons fight with Roman weapons. Their leaders equip them with all they need. To do this they possibly keep proper armouries, paid for from Roman protection money?
Dolabra (axe) with engraving: LEG III S A
© Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum, photo: I. Simon
In the year 260 the Roman governor Postumus proclaims himself to be an anti-emperor in Cologne. His soldiers had successfully defended the city against Germanic looters. A “Gallic Empire“ arises. Postumus and his successors have gold and copper coins minted, which also circulate in the north German lowlands. Up to now a great deal more of these were found there than coins of the “right” emperor in Rome. Coincidence? Not really. Even the emperors from Cologne knew:
Germanic bands of warriors are corruptible.
For money they keep their feet still – or they change sides.
The burial objects of this man are examples of evidence of a wide network.
Contacts in the Roman Rhineland: Roman silver spoons and sets comprising trowel and strainer
Contacts to Scandinavia: Germanic insignia, golden arm and finger rings, Scandinavian style
Contacts to the “Gallic Empire”: perforated gold coin of Postumus. Did he carry his coin as a sign of the close contacts, visible for all?
Objects from grave 2 of Emersleben
© Städtisches Museum Halberstadt
For decades Teutons have been nothing special in the Roman army. They serve Rome as simple soldiers, but also as »foederati«; this is what non-Roman leaders are called who fight with their own followers for money. In the 4th century such free merchants of violence have been the backbone of the armed forces of the empire. Even men from our region acquire great wealth through this.
The business is lucrative
SAXONES – looters?
Sometimes Saxones are enemies of the Romans, sometimes members of the Roman army. The name is a collective term for looters, who sail the North Sea on ships and plunder the coasts of Gaul and Britannia. Only from the years from 440 did the term acquire an additional meaning: Saxones are increasingly used now to describe people who are at home on the main British Island. In 441/442 Britannia is said to have been brought under the reign of Saxones. And not until 400 years later, approximately since the time of Carl the Great, are the Saxones on the main British island also called Anglo-Saxones. This became the name Anglo-saxones. Archaeologists have determined: in the 4th/5th centuries people from all continental coastal areas all around the North sea went to England. People from today’s lower Saxony were likewise included. We do not know whether they called themselves SAXONES.
Some returnees from Roman military service have really made it: they have a great deal of Roman gold and silver at their disposal in the shape of coins, jewellery and military insignia. They not only invest their wealth in maintaining and expanding their military followers. Fine drinking crockery is produced now in the Hellweg zone: according to Germanic taste and with Roman know-how. Things grow together here that have long functioned together.
In the Elbe-Weser triangle returnees successfully grab the power in the first half of the 5th century. They’re able to richly provide for their followers. Their dominion stretches to the Central Weser. Some researchers are convinced: a king is at the top of their hierarchy.
Around 410 the West Roman Empire gives up its province in England. The power vacuum that evolved entices Germanic Warlords from the continent. In many places they are successful in subjugating land and people. There from the very beginning: venturers from the Elbe-Weser triangle, recruited as soldiers, from the Romans or from British magnates. They bring Roman-British coins home with them. Some take permanent root on the other side of the North Sea, start families, fetch their relatives over there ...
... the North Sea is no one-way street
Soldiers from the Roman army are far-travelled men. Their identity has many facets. One of these is literally tailor-made: wide Roman military belts with magnificent fittings.
A distinguishing feature of a wealthy and influential »warrior community«
Fittings adorned with chip carving and figurative motives of a late Roman military belt from a boat’s grave near Wremen-Fallward, district Cuxhaven. © Museum Burg Bederkesa, photo H. Lang, Bremerhaven
For the people on the coast, the North Sea is the gateway to the world. Boats provide links. A rich man is even buried in a boat in around 430 near Wremen in the district of Cuxhaven. He too wears a splendid belt in Roman military style. The craftsmen in his home country assume the task of decorating the military belt fittings. They develop a type of military look – individual, unmistakable and prestigious. It becomes the insignia of the wealthy and influential »warrior community« in the Elbe-Weser triangle. The typical »chip carving« patterns adorn the women’s jewellery, but also wooden furniture like the excellently produced wooden objects burial ground at Fallward.
Ornaments of a »corporate identity«
chair from the burial ground from the 4th and 5th centuries at Fallward (district of Cuxhaven) © A. Hüser, Museum Burg Bederkesa
Ceramics and jewellery in the style of the rulers in the Elbe-Weser triangle also appear in England. The ornaments of their corporate identity are further developed on the island: this style of jewellery gives a feeling of belonging and joint heritage among the descendants of people from the continent.
In the Elbe-Weser triangle south Scandinavian magnates set the tone. In the hinterland the kings of the Thuringians are in power. In the 5th century the area to the left of the Rhine falls under the power of an ambitious family: the Merovingians. One of them, Childerich, makes it right to the very top: he dies as the king of a multi-ethnic population. His wife Basina is presumably the ex-wife of the Thuringian king. These Germanic elites fight for influence and power. They dominate like
...a large quarrelling family.
Code of power
Gold bracteates from Sievern (district of Cuxhaven). A hoard with 11 bracteates was found in Sievern in 1942. © Historisches Museum Bremerhaven
The men of the warrior community in the Elbe-Weser triangle belong to the significant players all around the North Sea. South Scandinavian magnates set the tone there now. Sievern is probably a centre of power since such precious items were found here buried in the ground not far from a fortification – a typical Scandinavian custom.
© Drawing Atelier Schubert
Who is the dragon man?
Golden neck rings and amulets, so-called gold bracteates with bizarrely twisted people or animal figures signalise a special social status. Presumably they were also adjudged to have protective effect. It is hard to decide who the creatures depicted there are: Heroes? Dragons? Demons? Or a schamanistic mix of all of these? Maybe. Only one thing is certain: where they appear people share Scandinavian values and social norms.
The wife of the Thuringian King is a niece of Theoderic the Great, ruler in the West Roman Empire since 493. Women from the upper-class marry young. Very young! In fact 11 or 12 year old child brides are nothing unusual. But the girls are not always completely powerless. A noble lineage grants them respect and room for manoeuvre.
On the basis of archaeological find material the illustrator Kelvin Wilson created this living image of a girl from Issendorf.
The girl is the bride for a man from a family from the lower Elbe, who wishes to maintain or make contacts to central Germany. She died as an adult woman in the 6th century and was buried in a large burial chamber on the burial ground of Issendorf in the district of Stade.
Jewellery can reveal the origin of rich women and the relationships of their families. Fashions are recognisable, but also typical designs of individual goldsmiths who work for the upper-class. Some women wear very valuable brooches around the year 500 at the central Weser and the lower Elbe, that have their best parallels in the central German area of the Thuringian kings. They show: even in North Germany there are allies of these potentates.
© Landesmuseum Hannover, photo: Kerstin Schmidt
Near Immenbeck at the lower Elbe a woman with unusual jewellery was buried in the 5th or 6th century: two small round brooches with gilded rolled silver and a bizarre motif.
Hanseatic city of Buxtehude, Denkmalpflege, photo: Bernd Habermann
One of two caul plate brooches from a grave AE 236 Immenbeck, AE 236, municipality Hanseatic city of Buxtehude, district of Stade
Six small faces with large moustaches that sit in the circle like slices of cake can be vaguely discerned Comparative pieces only exist in England. Was the jewellery a small gift from the island? Or was the owner herself the small gift?
Yet one didn’t only have a wide horizon at the coast. There were also English style pieces of jewellery deep inland. Men could also have set off to England from here, whose descendants stayed in contact with the continental relatives.
What maps reveal to us ...
Archaeologists like working with map material; by means of the following map we will show you why: as already explained above, there were various find places in North Germany, that could be dated around 450 until the middle of the 6th century. The find material thereby shows influences of various areas of control and style directions associated with this.
On the one hand there is the Scandinavian influence, on the other hand from the area of the Thuringian kings as well as the Merovingians. On the map you can now see, besides the mentioned find sites, coloured areas that should illustrate these areas (but are in no way to show a settlement area!). Which area is situated in between? The region of today’s Lower Saxony. But always remember that we are working here with artificial borders and that they could by all means also be located elsewhere in reality. You can therefore see: the interpretation of archaeological features and finds is used as a map basis to illustrate the interpretation pictorially.
There is a rigorous pecking order in the societies of Europe. Followers of the kings are themselves powerful masters, who in turn gather people around them. The graves of high-ranking leaders show: they belong to a warrior cast. Burying objects with the dead people almost appears like a kind of uniform: everywhere we see the same utensils.
They are the figures in the game of kings.
Saxones? Yes and no!
The oldest known text from which we can reliably conclude that the term »SAXONES« could also have meant people who live somewhere in a central to North German area, is an historical work from the 2nd half of the 6th century. It was written by the Frankish Bishop Gregory of Tours († 594). Gregor reports that in 547 »SAXONES« had risen up against a Frankish King Chlothar I. († 561). This happened 16 years after Chlothar together with his half brother Theuderich had broken up the empire of the Thuringian king. When Chlothar went to war with an army against the rebels, he devastated »totam thuringia«, the whole of Thuringia. Since the Thuringians had helped the SAXONES to defend themselves. Therefore were the SAXONES to the right of the Rhine, over whom Clothar I. raised a claim to power, the residents of Thuringia? Is SAXONES a collective term for rebellious followers of the Thuringian king for Gregory of Tours? Gregory of Tours also names other SAXONES in his book. But they are located at the Gallic coast, at the Loire or the Seine.
In the year 531 history takes a decisive turn ...
to the left of the Rhine, in old Gaul, the Frank Clothar I. and his brothers from the dynasty of the Merovingians rule. To extend their power they use any means available. They even murder their relatives. To the right of the Rhine one Herminafried is in the way, the powerful king of the Thuringians. He disposed of his brothers. Clothar I. and his half brother Theuderich I. advance together towards central Germany. A battle with Herminafried ensues. The Thuringian escapes but his days are numbered: the Frankish kings will lie to him, betray him and a little while later kill him.
Arguably included here are also five men who were buried together in their own small cemetery on Hellweg. It is located near today’s village of Hemmingen-Hiddestorf in the region of Hanover. The centre point is a chamber tomb. It contains everything a gentleman is due – full armament, plenty of crockery.
© Landesmuseum Hannover
»This dead person was not insignificant«
Spatha, lance, axe and arrows come from the central grave 1995 of the small burial ground Hemmingen-Hiddestorf. Included in the equipment was probably a shield and organic firearms.
The burial objects show: the warrior died around 530. There are more richly equipped graves, but this dead person was not insignificant. Were the four other men his followers who were killed with him? Was the leader of Hemmingen-Hiddestorf a supporter of the Thuringian king? This viewpoint is supported in particular by a dark, shining ceramic vessel, the finest tableware, so-called wheel-thrown pottery, from the 5th and 6th centuries, produced by experienced ceramic masters in central Germany. Did the men from Hemmingen- Hiddestorf try to stop the advance of the Franks against the Thuringian? A great deal points towards Clothar I. and Theuderich I. having advanced in the direction of central Germany via Hellweg. The features of the small burial ground are in any case unique throughout Europe.
© photo: Archaeofirm
The cards are reshuffled after the death of the Thuringian King. The Frankish kings now lay claim to the supreme authority in the area between Rhine and Elbe. In areas traversing the Hellweg, there is a self-confident, recognisable “Franked” elite. But not everybody in these parts dances to the Frankish tune.
They have a name for rebels: SAXONES!
SAXONES – rebels?
he Bishop Gregory of Tours (538– 594) calls them this. He wrote a history of the Frankish kings. This script is the oldest work we know in which people living somewhere between the Rhine and Elbe are described as Saxones. But once again: the inhabitants of the country right of the Rhine do not describe themselves as Saxones.
In the profit zone
Situated in the profit zone on Hellweg are obviously winners of the new political situation: in regions around the old trade routes women from rich families wear valuable jewellery in the style of noble ladies in the Frankish empire.
Burial mound near Klein-Vahlberg, © photo: Raymond Faure
Graves of the profit zone
On a foothill of the Asse, near Klein-Vahlberg in the district of Wolfenbüttel, a powerful clan buries a relative on the burial mound that can be seen from far and wide. The view from there stretches right over the land to the Harz – and one of the marked-out routes of the Hellweg.
Just as prominent: the famous »princely tomb« of Beckum in Münsterland. In addition archaeologists found twelve buried horses. You must be able to afford this type of »burial gift«. The sword of the dead person is something very special: a so-called “ring knob“ sword. Whoever owns such a weapon belongs to an elite group of leaders, spread over half of Europe.
Occasionally even gravestones of Christians are found in the Hellweg zone and there is even said to have been churches in some places. The Christian faith at this time is discreet: items of jewellery and small pendants show crosses or are shaped like crosses. If necessary, they can be hidden. Followers of the religion of the Frankish conquerors are surely not welcome everywhere.
We only know very few archaeological finds from there during the period between 550 and 700.
What is going on there?
Farming comes to a standstill in the 6th and 7th centuries in many places in the north German lowlands. Archaeobotanists who reconstructed the flora of this time ascertained this. When investigating sea and moor sediments that were deposited at the time, they see: the samples contain hardly any pollen from wheat and other crop plants, but a great deal of tree pollen. This means: the forest spread, farmland and fields reverted to wilderness and became overgrown. There have been many attempts to explain this: the Elbe-Weser triangle is depopulated, too many people emigrated to England from the 5th century. Or was the plague rampaging? Were there natural catastrophes? In 536, 540 and 547 volcanoes erupted in south-east Asia. Gigantic clouds of ash spread over the whole globe. It became colder in many regions of the world until the 660s. Poor harvests and hunger were often the consequence. In the North German lowlands as well? To be honest: we don’t know.
»Plague, natural disasters, bad harvest and starvation?«
LALIA – Late Antique Little Ice Age. The prominent icering was separately found in wood from North America, Europe and Asia. The damaged growth ring marks the starting point of LALIA in 536 which lasted until around 660.
With the aid of dendrochonoligies (Dendron = tree, chromos = time, logos = teaching) researchers were successful in reconstructing average summer temperatures from the 1st and 2nd centuries for large parts of Europe and Asia from the Russian Altai mountains and the Alps. The method of dendrochronology is based on the evaluation of growth phases of woody plants. On the basis of the growth rings it is possible to determine whether it was warm or damp in a year, the growth rings are thus wider or whether the tree rings are narrower through cold and dry phases. Under laboratory conditions growth ring samples and their sequence can be accurately ascertained up to 1/100 mm. When the growth patterns of trees living at the same time (or historical, archaeological or subfossil) and the curves resulting from this can then be compared with each other and (relatively) synchronised, then the first step in the direction of chronology has been made! If the measuring curves overlap, the chronology expands in the respective direction.
In the 8th century the Frankish kings grapple with rebellious Saxones. The people the Franks call »saxones« comprise various groups. Westphalians are mentioned, Angrarii and Austreleudi Saxones, »Eastern saxones«. Their leaders only subjugate themselves in order to break concluded contracts at the next opportunity.
saxones means henceforth: dishonourable pack of heathens!
SAXONES – people to the right of the River Rhine
The only authentic information about the social structure of the inhabitants of today’s Westphalia and lower Saxony in the period of the Saxon Wars comes from the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, that the monk Beda Venerabilis 731 completed in Jarrow Abbey (North England). Beda determines that they are not an homogenous group and are led by different dukes.
The religion of the saxones initially doesn’t matter to the Frankish kings. But Carl the Great tackles this. He accuses the rebels of hostility towards Christianity. With God at his side Carl cracks down on the infidels. He gives them the choice:
baptism or death
In »Saxonia« there are mass executions and deportations, sacred places are destroyed. In today’s terms this is called terror.
»Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae«
The saxones are accused of all kinds of devilish customs: idolatry, witchcraft, they are even said to sacrifice people. This is what is written in the »Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae«, a decree by Carl the Great from the period between 770 and 800, that forbids all of this. Hardly any of this can be proven. Even the way the dead are treated is regulated in the Capitulatio: corpses aren’t allowed to be burnt, christened people are not allowed to buried on the »burial mounds of the heathens«. Whoever resists the decree faces the death penalty.
Forsàchistû diabolae? et respondet: ec forsacho diabolae. end allum diobolgelde? respondet: end ec forsacho allum diobolgeldae. end allum dioboles uuercum? respondet: end ec forsacho allum dioboles uuercum and uuordum, Thunaer ende Uuôden ende Saxnôte ende allum thêm unholdum thê hira genôtas sint. Gelôbistû in got alamehtigan fadaer? ec gelôbo in got alamehtigan fadaer. Gelôbistû in Crist godes suno? ec gelôbo in Crist gotes suno. Gelôbistû in hâlogan gâst? ec gelôbo in hâlogan gâst.
Old-Saxon christening vow in original wording
By Lutz E. von Padberg, the Christianisation of Europe in the Middle Ages (1998).
The person baptized must affirm a vow. He must renounce the devil and other gods and say out loud: »I believe in God, the Almighty Father!« The christening vow is written down at the end of the 8th century, as it was spoken: in the Old Low German language.
The Saxon wars of Carl the Great are also a battle against the ideologies. With an uncertain outcome: who will have the say in future? Widukind, the legendary leader of the Westphalians, has himself christened after a long period of resistance.
For or against the powerful Christian king – this lays ground work for the future.
The king of the Franks builds his house
Mosaic from »Karlsburg« © photo: LWL/Martin Kroker
Carl the Great comes to stay: In Paderborn at Hellweg, on the march route into “Saxonia“, he builds a castle with stout walls. The fortifications protect the church and cemetery, residential and service buildings and a large hall. The royal owner of the “Karlsburg“ knows how to impress. There are mosaics there, colourful window glass, mural paintings and delicate stonemason work.
Carl repeatedly gathers his army here, even holds an Imperial Diet. Yet even the rule of Carl the Great has its limits: it is to end to the right of the Rhine at the Elbe. Did Carl want a border there based on the Roman model? A large river as a clearly recognisable line, safeguarded by a castle with a permanent garrison? Evidence suggests that this is the case: we hear about castles that were built at the Elbe, for example on the Höhbeck in Wendland. Archaeologists have found them.
When Emperor Carl the Great dies in 814, he has achieved what the Roman Emperor Augustus failed to achieve: today’s north German land between the Rhine and the Elbe is under his rule. The Frankish power is now also borne there by a powerful ideology:
One God, one King!
he one stands for the other – and both stand above everything.
Who are the saxones?
Opinions differ greatly in the 9th century. Einhard (around 770 – 840), the biographer of Carl the Great writes at the time about the most stubborn opponents of the emperor: »The saxones were the wild people, worshipping idols and hostile towards Christianity; they also didn’t find it dishonourable to breach and break all godly and human laws.« Families from the upper classes have to nurture their image: they are good Christians and also have this written down. The nobleman Waltbert procured as a relic the head of Saint Alexander in 850 for a monastery that he founded in Wildeshausen. A few decades before this his grandfather had fought bitter battles against the Christian King: Walbert is a grandchild of Widukind, the leader of the Westphalians. After the Alexander relic had been transferred from Rome, Waltbert commissions a monk by the name of Rudolf in Fulda Abbey to report on this. Without being asked to do so Rudolf goes much further: he talks about the origin of the saxones. However, he has no clear ideas about this. We know: the monk throws what was written down together in any way, even passages from the Germania by the Roman Tacitus from the 1st century. However, as you have already discovered, there is no mention here whatsoever of any saxones. Rudolf claims they came from England.
Kingdom and church develop and structure the land hand-in-hand. Carl’s son, Louis the Pious (814 – 840), furnishes the Imperial Abbey of Corvey at the Weser with privileges. At the end of the 9th century eight new dioceses exist in Saxony. The bishops are aid workers of God – and the king. Baptism promises salvation – and power-sharing.
The Christian cult ...
... also becomes the new media of representation for the noble families in Saxony.
The noble families emulate the king and the church:
The noble families emulate the king and the church: they found monasteries and set up foundations, especially for women. The founding families arrange to be buried there as well. This approach is particularly clever with regard to maintaining the assets of the family; if this is converted into a foundation, the assets remain in the family’s possession.
Monastery – access to education and power
The bastion of the new faith is the Abbey of Corvey. The founders brought many valuable hand-written books with them. Their library also contains antique works of philosophy, history, geography, land surveying or natural history. Corvey is an educational institute, an ambassador of knowledge, faith and culture.
At the time only a few people could read and write, even kings are often illiterate. There are no schools, it is only possible to learn in a monastery. Only a very small learned circle masters dealing with the written word – where writing is, that’s the top! This is the code of the new power. With the Christianisation of Saxony, the written word finds its way into the region for the first time where no tales or the like had ever been written down before or orally transmitted.
One of the most genteel Christian foundations of nobility in Saxony is created in Gandersheim. The patriarch of the founding family is called Liudolf. He is very influential: he represents the king as “Dux“. A foundation requires holy relics. Liudolf and his wife Oda bring mortal remains of the popes Anastasius and Innozenz from Rome in 852. The donated assets remain in the family: their daughter Hathumod becomes the first abbess of the convent at the age of 13 or 14. Two sisters follow her. Maybe not quite voluntarily. But it is a privilege: the girls acquire access to education and power.
In the year 919 the great names in the Frankish Empire face an important decision. Who should be their next king? They opt for a nobleman called Henry. He is the grandson of Liudolf, representative of the King in Saxony and founder of the convent in Gandersheim. For the first time with Henry ...
...a Saxon is on the Frankish throne..
Deeds of the saxones
It could not have been foreseen that a man from the Saxonian clan would rise to the throne in the shape of Henry I. Yet undoubtedly the result of a far-sighted strategy. His grandfather Liudolf had given the Frankish king Ludwig (the younger one) a daughter to be his wife; the son Otto was married to a niece of the Frankish king. These two are Heinrich’s parents. Therefore he is not a true genuine Saxon. The “liudolfingi“ clan has many rights of occupation in the land surrounding the Harz, mainly to the west and south of the mountain range. Seen from this angle the Liudolfings are more Thuringians than saxones and Franks. Henry’s family generates more possessions in Saxony with its own marriage policy: his second wife is the heir from the Westphalian family of Widukind.
Widukind, a monk in the Abbey of Corvey writes its biography, the Res Gestae Saxonicae, »Deeds of the saxones«. Widukind probably comes from the same family as his namesake, the old leader of the Westphalians. Both families are incredibly proud of being »saxones«. Widukind quite bluntly depicts their recipe for success: malice, deceit and much violence. He determines what future generations should recall and dedicates the biography of Heinrich I. and Otto I. to Mathilde, the daughter of Otto I. and Abbess of Quedlinburg. He supplements it with a saga about the origin of the saxones – to the young female reader »pleasantly dispersing« when reading the book. Where the saxones once came from is not so important for Widukind. He knows: »the all too distant time obscures almost every certainty.« The story from the 10th century reads like a fabric of tales from a famous TV series from the viewpoint of the winning party in the Game of Thrones.
Only a good 100 years beforehand did defamed noble families bow to the rule of Carl the Great as “heathen saxones” – and now one of them rules in the Empire of the Frankish king. And Heinrich’s son becomes the most powerful ruler of the time in Europe: Emperor Otto the Great.
What a success story!
The exhibition »SAXONES – the first millennium in Lower Saxony« shows you by means of over 700 exhibits and the fusion of the latest research results:
History and identities are made!
And not only 1000 years ago.