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Viator, 37, pp.33-51 (2006)


In 772, shortly after annexing his brother’s share of the Frankish kingdom, Charlemagne launched his first campaign against the Saxons. “No war taken up by the Frankish people was ever longer, harder or more dreadful,” wrote Einhard almost half a century later. For more than three decades (from 772 until 804) Charlemagne and his army were occupied with a bloody and protracted attempt to pacify and subdue the Saxons.

A standard textbook narrative of the Saxon wars would go roughly like this: Charlemagne’s successful raid into Saxony in 772 opened the first phase of the Saxon wars. The reasons behind it are not at all clear. The so-called Annales regni Francorum, that is, the supposedly official court-based Frankish history, simply state that from Worms, where Charlemagne had held an assembly, he marched into Saxony. No Saxon rebellion or any other Saxon aggression are mentioned in connection with the Frankish attack, and it seems that once Charlemagne had managed to pacify Aquitaine, he decided to finish the job his father had already started in Saxony. Following the capture of Eresburg, Charlemagne and his army continued northwards, destroying on their way the enigmatic Irminsul. Charlemagne would have liked to continue his campaign in Saxony, but a desperate call for help from the pope forced him to leave Saxony and head southwards. The Saxon reaction was not late in coming. When Charlemagne and the Frankish army were busy in Italy, the Saxons invaded Hesse, plundering and destroying everything on their way. Charlemagne arrived too late to prevent this assault on Frankish territory, and only in 775 did he launch a renewed campaign, this time conquering larger parts of Saxony. The Frankish success did not deter the Saxons, and in the following years the armies of both sides met time and again in the battlefield.

In 782, after almost two years with no clashes in the Saxon front, Charlemagne led his army into Saxony once again. This time, the main purpose was to subdue the Saxons who rebelled under the leadership of Widukind. It was a brutal campaign, during which, our sources relate, more than 4,500 Saxon rebels were beheaded in one day at the order of Charlemagne. It was then that Charlemagne had published his notorious capitulary, commonly known as the Capiltulatio de partibus Saxoniae, in which he ruthlessly imposed new taxes, bluntly attempted to crush Saxon identity, and carelessly decided on the forced conversion of the Saxons. This wave of violence ended in 785 with a spectacular Frankish victory. Widukind surrendered, and subsequently accepted Christianity and was baptized with his son Abbi. Saxony, so it seemed, was subdued, and a new era of peace and quiet had begum.

This, of course, was not the end of the story. The Saxons, who, according to Einhard, “were always so quick to break their promises,” took advantage of the political turmoil caused by Pippin the Hunchback and his supporters, and rebelled again. This happened in 792, and only in the autumn of 794 did Charlemagne react. More ruthless than ever and determined to wipe out the Saxon threat once and for all, Charlemagne invaded Saxony with an unprecedented military force and annexed the entire region. Exasperated with the Saxons’ past behavior, Charlemagne was not to be satisfied with promises and exchange of hostages anymore. He looked for a permanent solution, and as early as 799 he begun to expel Saxon families from their land and redistribute them as serfs and laborers throughout the Frankish kingdom. This process, and apparently the Saxon problem, was over in 804, when, as the royal annalist puts it, “the emperor … led an army into Saxony and deported all Saxons living beyond the Elbe and in Wihmuonsi with [their] wives and children into Francia and gave the district beyond the Elbe to the Obodrites.”

To this narrative of events most, if not all, present-day historians subscribe. This reconstruction is based almost exclusively on the information yielded up by a rather limited group of sources, namely the Royal Frankish Annals and their revised form, supplemented by various bits and pieces of information gleaned from a handful of minor annalistic compositions, such as the Annals of Lorsch, the Moselle Annals, and the Annals of Petau. The sources are clear and straightforward in this respect, and Charlemagne’s military maneuvers can be reconstructed with a fair amount of accuracy. Things, however, are more complicated and much less certain when Charlemagne’s policy in Saxony is considered. While our sources, especially the Annales regni Francorum and Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, describe in great detail the merciless Frankish policy of the 790s, the very same sources say next to nothing about Charlemagne’s supposedly bloody policy between 782 and 785. The reconstruction of Charlemagne’s policy during that period is based solely on a single document—the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae—which unfortunately cannot be dated accurately. In what follows, I concentrate on the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae and the policy it prescribes, arguing that this Capitulatio should be associated with Charlemagne’s final campaign in Saxony and that in order to understand these unusual instructions one should examine the Capitulatio against a broader political and cultural background.