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.

Though collective names distinguish Eastphalians from Westphalians, the annals suggest a north-south divide: southern Saxons were mostly inclined to collaborate, while northerners on and beyond the lower Elbe continued to resist, in a thirty years’ war that lasted right up to 804 when, as Becher puts it, all the Saxons accepted ‘pacification’ (Befriedung), and as Charlemagne’s ninth-century biographer Einhard put it, ‘they were made one people with the Franks.’ Becher ends his chapter with talk of ‘subjugation’ (Unterwerfung) and Saxons ‘oppressed [unterdrückt] by the conquerors’ imposition of the Christian faith’. There has been a longstanding tendency among historians to ignore the extent of Saxon conversion in the years before 782, and to assume that Christianisation was the goal of Frankish conquest rather than a post hoc justification of it. Political opportunism wasn’t always Charlemagne’s sole motive, but it seems the best explanation for his original unprovoked attack on the Saxons’ great sanctuary in 772. The thirty years’ war that followed was certainly much more than the Franks had bargained for.

Is ‘4500 beheaded’ so obviously an exaggeration? Numbers are seldom mentioned in Carolingian annals. Four thousand Saxons are said by the annals to have been killed in battle by the Franks in 798, though another contemporary annalist puts the figure at 2901. But warfare may not be the appropriate context in which to assess the plausibility of the figure 4500. The massacre at Verden has to be understood as a political event. It would be better perhaps to compare the victims not to battlefield casualties but to hostages or deportees. The author of the Royal Annals says that ‘7070 were taken away’ from Saxony in 795; another says ‘1600 leading men were brought away from Saxony and distributed throughout Francia’ in 798. According to the Royal Annals for 804, Charles ‘transported all the Saxons who dwelt beyond the Elbe and in Wihmodia’ – the region between the lower Weser and the Elbe – ‘together with their wives and children into Francia’; another annalist reports with reference to 782 that ‘the Franks slew a multitude of men of the Saxons and they led back many Saxons into Francia in fetters.’ Dealing with 4500 men in a single day, not in battle but in cold blood, was well within their capabilities.

Becher is wrong to give Verden short shrift. Its immediate spur was not so much the new Saxon revolt as the near total loss of the Frankish army fighting in the Süntel hills. Not so very far from there, in 9 AD, Augustus had lost three legions – 18,000 men – to Arminius and his warriors. Charlemagne’s losses in 782, according to the Royal Annals, ‘mattered less for their numbers than for their quality’ – some of the king’s closest companions and counsellors, his tent-sharers and the men of his hall. A good lord could not fail to respond ‘with alacrity’ to the news of their loss. In contemporary values, the beheadings were doubly justified, punishing the crime of oath-breaking and avenging very special deaths.

Scholarly expectations of Becher’s book were raised by two earlier pieces of work that were both judicious and subversive of historiographical orthodoxy. In an article published in 1992, he proved that Charlemagne was born not in 742, the previously accepted date, but in 748. The new chronology entailed multiple explanatory readjustments. The politics of the 740s look different when one delays Charlemagne’s advent; those of the period from 750 to 771 look different when the age gap between Charlemagne and his brother shrinks; and the death of his brother in December 771 looks even more important for Charlemagne. Second, in a book on oaths of fidelity published in 1993, Becher showed the Royal Frankish Annals to be, to a far greater extent than historians had assumed, a propagandistic work aimed at the destruction of Charlemagne’s enemies, above all his cousin Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria, who was brutally displaced in 788.

A biographical Bändchen may not have been thought the place to subvert settled readings, and in this deftly constructed book, Becher concentrates on setting Charlemagne credibly in his own time. An introductory sketch based on Einhard’s biography, which was written within fifteen years or so of the subject’s death, gives a sense of Charlemagne’s personality: the big man with a gift for friendship; the keen swimmer and horseman ‘following the custom of his people’; the listener to the songs of old; the watcher of the stars; the incorrigible guzzler of roast meat (defying doctors’ advice). Then the hero is given his place in the long run of Germany’s history: the imperial coronation made him the founder of ‘the medieval empire that would later continue on as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation until 1806’, while a rather long account of Frankish history from the fifth century to Charlemagne’s accession in 768 shows how the way was paved for empire. Becher’s brisk, uncluttered style has been nicely reproduced by his translator. The tone is positive without being triumphalist.

Even short history books, however, ought to do more than settle. Indeed, and especially if they address large, contentious and evidently topical subjects, they ought to unsettle. Becher underplays several features of Charlemagne’s regime which are unsettling, not least because they are equivocal, and don’t point to a single or simple conclusion. First, big-hearted Charlemagne, preacher of Christian virtues, could behave brutally not just to recalcitrant Saxons or Bavarians but to his own family. By placing a chapter on the family at the end of the book, after the chapters on war, politics and government, Becher makes it hard to see that often fraught kin relations shaped the making and running of the empire. Early medieval politics have to be understood as family politics, with the paradoxical consequence that rulers couldn’t manage without their kin, and political conflict centred on the ruling family. Only the premature death of Charlemagne’s brother saved their ruling partnership from degenerating into war (they were co-heirs). Charlemagne’s sister-in-law fled with her sons (‘for reasons unknown’, Einhard wrote) to Italy and the protection of the Lombard king. They were pursued by Charlemagne, and the nephews were captured and never heard of again. The conquest of the Lombard kingdom can perhaps be seen as a by-product of all this. On the whole, however, Charlemagne managed his own sons well, making them viceroys in far-flung provinces so that the empire could be run as a kind of confederacy, and the sons had enough power to satisfy their ambition and to enable them, in turn, to satisfy their followers.

Several of Charlemagne’s first cousins were his chief counsellors for much of his reign, and especially after 800. Yet the fact that Duke Tassilo was Charlemagne’s first cousin made him a dangerous rival, and provoked the violent destruction of the autonomous Bavarian ducal dynasty. The man put in charge of Bavaria in 791 was Gerold, brother of Charlemagne’s late queen, Hildegard, and uncle of the three sons destined to be his heirs. The revolt of a fourth son whose mother was not Hildegard was hardly coincidental. Supported by ‘a very large number of nobles young as well as old’, the rebel son planned to kill his father and Hildegard’s sons. When Charlemagne had crushed the revolt, he held a big assembly of ‘Franks and other faithful ones’ at Regensburg, Tassilo’s former capital, where death sentences were meted out to the wicked son (Charlemagne commuted it to monastic confinement) and some of his supporters (these were carried out), while at another assembly at Regensburg the following year (793), he rewarded those who had not been ‘accomplices in this abominable plot . . . with gold and silver, silk and numerous gifts’. This, relatively late in what’s conventionally represented as a story of steadily growing power up to 800, was probably Charlemagne’s narrowest squeak. In his brief discussion of the fourth son’s rebellion, Becher acknowledges that ‘establishing his lordship within the empire was more difficult than one might have imagined given Charlemagne’s numerous successes in foreign affairs.’ Yet the ligatures between inside and outside, familial and governmental, needed further investigation at this sensitive point.

Charlemagne’s relationships with women were no less complicated. Though Becher’s claim that ‘he lived a polygamous life’ is a little wide of the mark, there was a succession of wives, two of whom were repudiated, early on, when political considerations required, and a number of concubines who may, pace Einhard, have lived with Charlemagne while he was married: he went on fathering children well into his fifties. Einhard says he refused to allow his own daughters to marry because he could not bear to live without their company. The legitimate offspring of daughters would have resulted in too extensive a diffusion of Carolingian blood. Illegitimate offspring were another matter: two of the daughters living at court were unmarried mothers, while Charlemagne himself continued to produce children by concubines. The royal nurseries remained busy in the years after 800. In the palace, political and liturgical formalities which were managed exclusively by men coexisted with more informal women’s power-broking; and the daughters were evidently such important figures that the reign of Charlemagne’s heir, Louis, began with the expulsion of a ‘feminine crowd’. Modern students have found it awkward to reconcile Charlemagne’s deep piety with the ruthlessness of his sexual desires and his politics, but it’s unlikely that this troubled contemporaries, lay or ecclesiastical, during his lifetime.

Charlemagne’s was only the second generation of his dynasty to rule the Frankish kingdom, and one of his key achievements was to convince the Franks that the Carolingians were good news. A recognition of this development unsettles conventional readings of the reign. Becher associates strengthening the family with keeping the nobility at a distance; and he endorses a widely held view that a self-interested, obdurately entrenched nobility was the Achilles’ heel of the regime. The secret of Charlemagne’s success, however, was to mobilise family and elite at the same time, thereby securing their more or less harmonious coexistence within the regime. So extensive were the ties woven across the generations by marriage alliances between the Carolingians and other Frankish noble families that few individuals, with the exception of some foreign literati, can be said to have been outside Charlemagne’s network of extended kin. Nobles seldom figure as individuals in the modern historiography of the reign, and yet theirs was the company in which Charlemagne lived and worked. Becher infers from Einhard ‘certain weaknesses’ in Charlemagne’s ‘character’, including ‘the need to be always at the centre of a large group’. He may have had such a need, but if so, it was no weakness: rather, it was part of kingship’s job description, something that if not innate would have to be acquired. The nobility were the necessary partners of the king in government as in war; and in the later years of the reign, after the swift conquest of the Avars and the acquisition of their riches in 796, government loomed larger than war.

The poetry of Charlemagne’s court can be read as a code which, once cracked, introduces some of the men around him. Audulf, for example, was a noble on whom he relied from 799 onwards as his chief official in recently acquired Bavaria. Audulf already had a powerbase there, and he embodied the connection between province and court. As a Frank married to a Bavarian noblewoman, Keila, he used the classic entrée to provincial standing. In the 790s, he had established his reputation in the office of seneschal, responsible for feeding the royal household. The court scholars gave him the nickname Menalcas, the shepherd in Virgil’s Eclogues. Theodulf, the Spanish theologian and future bishop, evoked ‘Menalcas coming from his apple-rich estate./ He wipes the sweat from his forehead,/ enters supported by battalions of bakers and cooks,/and ius synodale gerit’ (‘he presides over the company’s good manners’ or over its ‘sauce’: both are meanings of ius). The Northumbrian polymath Alcuin greeted ‘Menalcas who personally chastises the cooks in the blackened kitchen hall/so that Flaccus can have hot porridge by the bowlful’. Court poetry also dealt with more serious subjects. In a verse treatise on justice, for example, Theodulf draws on his own experience as a judge to attack the wickedness of giving or accepting bribes, then praises Charlemagne for offering his courtiers a lesson in appropriate gift-giving:

I have scorned to spurn what the ruler gives
me out of friendship,
what he gives so that he makes an alliance of

. . . while he possesses much yet teaches that nothing is his.
. . . I used to take small things willingly . . .
that is, the fruit of trees and of flourishing gardens,
eggs, honey, bread, and things for the horses to eat,
while we have eaten tender chickens, and little birds . . .
Oh happy is all virtue, if only discernment,
the nurse of virtues, moderates, adorns and nurtures it.

This good lord didn’t so much impose discipline as inculcate self-discipline for all, himself included.

Like many previous scholars, Becher sees the years after 800 as a period of decline and failure, and lays the blame squarely on the self-interest of the nobility which hardened as the élan of conquest faded. Charlemagne can seem a rather Stalinesque figure, with a style of reform which meant that he controlled and everyone else obeyed. This is a picture that needs redrawing. Aachen was anything but drab. A culture came to life in this new imperial capital which, for all the harking back to the past, dramatically transformed earlier medieval traditions of thinking and doing, just as they also disturb modern historians’ assumptions. Literary genres were used for surprising purposes, and humour was, as the poetry shows, by turns precious, brutal, banal, profoundly moral and morally profound. Court life produced unexpected combinations and crossovers of lay and ecclesiastical roles and careers, monastic self-denial and fleshly desire; reforming zeal challenged old corruption; the New Testament rather than the Old was appealed to; there was brash confidence in divine favour and recurrent anxiety about divine wrath and retribution. From the mid-790s, and with an old man’s sense of urgency, Charlemagne set about creating the kind of courtly society that Norbert Elias thought imaginable only in the early modern period and under quite other conditions. Charlemagne was determined to close the gap between ideal and reality across the empire, embarking on a great enterprise of social renewal. Nobles at court were to co-operate with monks and clergy and engage in serious debate about theology, doctrine and liturgy. The quest for justice committed them not only to judge and govern but to teach and reform. ‘Unsettling’ is too gentle a word for this project. This was, literally, a conversatio, a turning-around of a way of living, individual and collective.

For Becher, Charlemagne’s ‘unimaginably large’ empire was ‘probably only "governable” because far fewer demands were made on the state by contemporaries than today’. Yet Charlemagne’s state was at least as much a welfare state as Elizabeth I’s England; its people demanded similarly effective deployment of prayer and charity, and they demanded justice, too. As for the state’s demands on its people, they were, for us unexpectedly, in some senses more numerous, if also more intermittent, than those of modern states, because unimpeded by modern notions of rights and liberties that entail protection from the state. Becher isn’t alone in neglecting these aspects of Charlemagne’s mature regime. ‘In the end, it was only Charlemagne’s educational reforms that had wide-ranging effects and laid the foundations for a standardised culture of the Latin West.’ Becher’s doubly damning judgment must be reckoned a double underestimate.

On the one hand, Becher fails to take into account Charlemagne’s influence on the development of what Timothy Reuter, in his essay in The Medieval World (2001), called ‘assembly politics’. While they were not invented by Charlemagne, it was thanks to his efforts that assembly politics were practised and recorded with such energy over so extensive a geographical area, and for such a long period of time, that they acquired both form and substance. The form of assembly politics allowed the staging and managing of collective action by means of more or less ritualised behaviour and with a certain regularity; the substance dealt with the relations between ‘rulers and the political community’. A distinctively participatory politics entered European practice and consciousness, not just at the level of kingdoms but in regions and localities, and remained there.

On the other hand, despite what he says, Becher fails to consider the wider bearing of the educational reforms. Education in this reign meant a literate elite, with the emphasis on reading rather than writing, and, for the rest of the people, a basic knowledge of Christian teaching: all godparents, for example, were expected to know and understand the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, and when Charlemagne encountered at Aachen a group of red-faced would-be godparents who could not answer their imperial catechist, they were summarily told to ‘go away and learn’. The object of the exercise was to attain knowledge of righteousness, and hence the capacity to practise it: in that wider context, ‘only’ seems the wrong word. ‘Standardised’ isn’t an entirely happy choice of word either, not only because it risks flattening what Reuter called ‘the lumpiness of the past’, but because local plurality within a general framework of orthodox belief and lip-service to ‘Roman’ authority was characteristic of earlier medieval practice. Charlemagne was intent on reforming the nobility first and foremost, but beyond them the faithful in general, by spreading the practice of private prayer and of penance, and drafting local communities into the regime’s pursuit of justice. Self-discipline and self-knowledge were the means to keep the favour of an often wrathful and inscrutable God. To this end, participation in a courtly society and assembly politics crucially supplemented the official ministrations of the Church.

Charlemagne died in 814: he had not had many years to effect his cultural revolution. Did he fail? Even if he had, the experiment would have been exceptionally interesting. But the answer, surely, is that he achieved an astonishing degree of success. Records of assembly activity and local dispute settlement, of book ownership and individual piety, even the chansons de geste, are all evidence of Charlemagne’s enduring impact not so much on Old Europe’s social memory, for that has to do with other stories, other and later myths, but on its social practice.