Go away and learn

J.L. Nelson

In the summer of 782, ‘4500 Saxon prisoners were beheaded on a single day at Verden on the River Aller in northern Saxony, on the orders of Charlemagne, King of the Franks.’ So, bluntly, reported the author of the Royal Frankish Annals, the main Frankish narrative for the period, which were written up in 790 or so. By the time those annals had been put into print at Cologne in 1521, Charlemagne had come to be venerated as a saint, and also, with more historical justification, celebrated as the founder of both France and Germany. The annals made the beheadings at Verden known to a wide audience just as Germany’s identity was becoming contentious; Charlemagne’s reputation survived because the Saxon victims were thought to have been pagans, their fate necessary to his Christianisation of Saxony. By the 18th century, however, that no longer washed. French as well as German writers were appalled by the barbarian warlord whom Voltaire called ‘a thousandfold murderer’, and in the 19th century the events at Verden made Charlemagne a problematic hero for German nationalists. The issue was revisited by historians in the 1930s. To those, mainly northerners, who denounced the brutality, others, often southerners, replied that the exemplary punishment was justified by its outcome. Non-historians took sides as well. While Himmler put up a monument to the Saxon dead, Hitler forbade his chief ideologue, Rosenberg, from calling ‘a hero’ like Charles the Great ‘the butcher of the Saxons’, adding that ‘without violence, no one either in Charles’s times or in ours could have brought together the German peoples with their thick heads and their particularities.’

Charlemagne is still widely regarded by Western Europeans as a foundational figure. In 768 he inherited a Frankish kingdom covering modern France plus Belgium and Luxemburg, and extended it to include the Netherlands, much of Italy and most of modern Germany: by the time of his death in 814, he ruled an area almost exactly co-extensive with the original European Community. Scholars in all those countries have contributed to the huge modern historiography on Charlemagne. Aachen, where he made his capital from the 790s onwards, and where the Charlemagne Prize is awarded every year to the politician who has contributed most to European co-operation, is a site of memory for 21st-century Europeans. That his name is less well known in the UK is symptomatic of British isolation within Old Europe.

Yet Verden 782 stubbornly resists euphemism. Alessandro Barbero, in Carlo Magno: Un padre dell’ Europa (2000), notes that even before 782 the Franks were represented as new Israelites, and interprets the massacre as inspired by Old Testament precedents such as the slaughter of the Amalekites and Moabites. In Charlemagne (1999), a large book, Jean Favier mentions the event in a single line, without comment. Dieter Hägermann, in the still larger Karl der Grosse (2000), devotes four pages to exculpation. But German historians still differ sharply: what one recently characterised as ‘an orgy of violence’, another minimised by suggesting that the word decollare in the annals, meaning ‘behead’, was a medieval typo for delocare, ‘relocate’.

Matthias Becher’s ‘little book’ (Bändchen), as he modestly describes it, was published in Germany in 1999, in time to catch the 1200th anniversary of an even more celebrated event in Charles’s career: Christmas Day 800, when he was crowned emperor in Rome. Becher effectively starts his book with this coronation, which he sees uncompromisingly, and a shade teleologically, as ‘the high point not only of his reign, but also of the entire course of Frankish history’. He then backtracks to a more conventional chronological account, reaching Verden 782 just half way through. ‘There has been a great deal of discussion about the so-called blood-bath of Verden,’ he writes,

and it clearly shows the brutality of contemporary warfare even if the number ‘4500’ was greatly exaggerated by the royal annals . . . Charlemagne’s reaction shows how surprised he was by the renewed rebellion of the Saxons. He believed that he had incorporated this territory within his kingdom, and now he had been forced personally to end the largest rebellion since the beginning of hostilities against them.

Becher acknowledges the ‘brutality’ involved, puts it in its historical context, makes plain the annals’ tendency to exaggerate, and describes what preceded the massacre: ‘large numbers of Saxons’ had ‘rebelled yet again’, and a Frankish force including ‘several counts, and even Charlemagne’s chamberlain and his marshal’, had just been killed in the Süntel hills some sixty kilometres north-east of the source of the River Lippe.

Latin’s lack of definite and indefinite articles leaves ambiguities in the annals that modern writers in German or English tend to iron out by inserting ‘the’ whenever Saxons appear. This can mislead. Becher helpfully explains that ‘the Saxons’ were not united, and that some had been with the Frankish force that came to grief in the Süntel hills. In East Germany before 1989, Verden was seen as a class conflict: Saxon aristocrats collaborated with the Franks: those beheaded were peasants. Becher, no Marxist, accepts that in the longer run the Frankish conquest ‘increased the social distance between the nobles and the rest’ of the Saxon population. As an example of a Saxon noble collaborator, he neatly presents Hessi, identified in the annal for 775 as leader of the Eastphalians – the Saxons living around the upper reaches of the rivers Aller and Oker – who accepted a countship and prospered under Frankish rule.

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