The Carolingian Frontier III: points north and east

Picking up the now-legendary backlog once more we find me still in Cambridge in early July 2014 for the third day of the Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference already described. This was the morning only, and so there were only four papers, in two pairs as follows.

  • Robert Smith, “Hedeby after Ansgar: the continued contacts with Carolingian Christianity in the border emporia of Hedeby”.
  • As you can see we started in Denmark, and indeed we were not wholly to leave it for the rest of the day. We started in Hedeby, founded by an aggressive transplantation of traders from the Baltic seaport of Reric by King Godefrid of Denmark in 808, and the last paper would come back to it. Mr Smith’s paper was however about how deep the impact of the Carolingian mission to Denmark in the 820s and 840s-850s was, and in fact there is thin evidence for continuing Christianity in the town into the 880s and beyond. It’s always hard to assert religion from material culture, especially when one’s main evidence is burials because the dead don’t bury themselves, but one surprising piece of evidence is a pair of church-bells that have been recovered from the harbour, one cracked as if the other might have been its replacement. I’m not sure how we date them, mind…

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour

    The unbroken church bell recovered from Hedeby harbour, dated by the website where I found it (linked through) to 850, but seriously, how?

    Mr Smith’s point was that conversion did not bring any kind of political control, but that cultural exchange and mixing happened all the same. This raised the question of whether we were in fact on a frontier here or just at a port, but I think it’s probably arguable that a port of entry is a frontier of sorts… There were also arguments about whether coin finds necessarily demonstrate trade, which of course they do not, but that took us into the next paper.

  • Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian coins in Denmark: commerce and prestige”.
  • For Dr Moesgaard, his initial scepticism about that question had now somewhat reluctantly turned to acceptance; for him sites like Hausmarken, which has so far thrown up twenty single-finds of Louis the Pious deniers, are approaching the inarguable, so we have to accept that there was trade between Denmark and the Carolingian Empire coming through the Danish emporia, but he also noted that it very much died off in the 840s, and coin finds then become rarer as well as more international (and also less: Hedeby and Ribe start minting their own in the later ninth century, and Ribe seems never to have kept Carolingian coins so as to deposit them). That doesn’t however mean that all Carolingian coin finds are relics of trade, not least because as the discussion drew out, they seem often to have been recovered from relatively wealthy dwellings and also treated differently, being very rarely cut, unlike Islamic dirhams. That might be because they were largely arriving earlier, or it might be, well… Many possibilities remain but here there is at least the chance of a continuing increase in evidence to make patterns clearer.

Then there was coffee and then we resumed with what turned out to be quite the longest haul of the conference.

  • Joachim Henning, “The Fortified Carolingian Border Line with the Slavs along the Elbe and Saale: military defense and cultural exchange”.
  • I am quite conflicted about this paper, because it was extremely interesting and you can see how it would be vital comparative data for some of my interests, but on the other hand it was also twenty minutes longer than it was supposed to have been. It also raised some quite important questions that somehow never got asked, onto which I will come. We were introduced to a series of problems that have dogged the interpretation of fortress archæology on the German-Slavic border of the Carolingian Empire as was which modern archæological techniques, especially scientific dating, are beginning to solve. One has been even finding very many Slavic fortresses, which as we were told began to unstick once it was realised that they were probably small and earthen-ramparted rather than being big stone structures. The second has then been dating them, but with enough animal bone and radio-carbon tests that is also now being done and the problem is now that there are almost none to be dated before about 900. This apparent sudden fortress boom could be a reaction to campaigning by the Ottonians, as some would indeed have it, but raises some questions about what this frontier was like before then which are now harder to answer.1

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe

    The Weinberg at Hohenwarthe, where the fortress dug by Professor Henning has now gone under the Autobahn, if I understand the German article linked through correctly. Photo by Sigrun Tausche.

    Professor Henning did have some suggestions, however, including that Hohenwarthe, upriver from Magdeburg in Saxony, may be one such early Slav fortress in some sense. It was raised during Frankish campaigns of 806 according to the Chronicle of Moissac but according to the finds evidence is much older, going back to the second century. Other such fortresses built by others and thus hard to identify as Slavic typologically can be added to such a list: Professor Henning named Höhbeck and Potzlow, where there was also a battle grave including men, women and children, some killed with what seemed to be Viking arrowheads. All of this would indicate how dangerous an area and how many players there might be in it (and the next paper would also work to this effect), if I was only sure that identifying the users of a site by a culture remained viable now that archæology accepts that material culture was a choice made from what was available for many reasons that don’t have to be to do with ethnicity, and that doing so by the shape of buildings (since Professor Henning was ruling some sites out of being Slavic, whatever that would actually mean, because they were “too rectangular”) can survive in a context in which fortified settlements were being reused by forces other those that had built them, and could very easily change hands in quite short timeframes. As it was, while I’m intrigued by the empirical quality of this data—there’s lots of it, it’s been very well recovered and thoroughly analysed—this paper made me more, not less, suspicious that we cannot, in fact, say who was in any of these sites without resorting to textual evidence that we already had…

  • Daniel Melleno, “Between Borders: the place of the Slavs in the northern politics of the Danes and Frabks in the ninth century”.
  • In the little time that was left him, Dr Melleno then took us succintly through the various testimonies of the narrative sources for the groups we think of as Slavic who were part of the political contest between the two kingdoms of Franks and Danes in the long ninth century. His basic contention was that the Obodrites, a difficult group to pin down as we have discussed, were the most successful of several such groups in profiting from Carolingian support as a buffer state to get into a position where they were actually coherent and united enough as a polity to start interacting with the Carolingians, and indeed the Danes, on their own terms. Unfortunately for them, this left them much more obvious targets than the Franks once the Danish kingdom descended into Frankish-backed civil war in the 820s and they more or less ceased to be that coherent polity in the subsequent warfare. My only complaint about this paper was that it took everything in any source used as absolutely straightforward, and I did wonder what might have come out of trying to read the Carolingian presentation of these groups as either faithful or faithless allies as a product of the annalists’ political stances, rather than the Obodrites’.

Still, it was reasonable to close with a reminder that we had almost all, coins, Christianity and trade not withstanding, seen the Carolingian frontier as a warzone first and foremost. Dr Melleno was right to end with the famous line from Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne: “have a Frank for a friend, not for a neighbour”!2

1. This is a conclusion warmly adopted by, for example, David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), where see pp. 24 & 151.

2. Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1960), online here, transl. David Ganz in idem (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (Harmondsworth 2008), pp. 17-44, cap. 16.

7 responses to “The Carolingian Frontier III: points north and east

  1. Allan McKinley

    All of this brings one question to mind: how sure are we that the things that we study around frontiers are genuinely manifestations of frontiers as opposed to being things we look for around frontiers because we expect them to be there; or, to put it more bluntly, do our own preconceptions endow frontiers with an exceptional status that they may not have had?

    As examples I offer fortifications and trade. We often look for fortifications around frontiers, although now more in zones than lines. But in early-medieval situations the best-defined system of fortification is in fact not based on a frontier but rather across a whole kingdom: the Burghal Hidage system in the West Saxon Kingdom. Whether or not we see this as the whole kingdom acting as a frontier we have to acknowledge that fortifications could be a feature of a polity in its entirety (or excluding Cornwall and Kent as in this example).

    Traders within the Franks Empire did not only have to deal with royal agents at the border. There were internal tolls and therefore collection points as well. I think the same can be argued (without checking notes) amongst the Anglo-Saxons and Lombards as well.

    It may be that fortifications and trade were still materially different on frontiers, a point of view I would likely agree with, but probably due to my own preconceptions. Yet to study anything as a phenomenon of a frontier it is surely necessary to go beyond these assumptions and actually show that what is being studied is a manifestation of the frontier rather than simply something observed at a frontier location which has not been tested to see if it occurs further from the frontier? This is not to imply any of the Cambridge papers were not about frontiers, and indeed many of them may have addressed these issues, but my worry with frontiers as with many historical areas of debate, is that we may create them as much as elucidate them.

    • These are actually issues which were coming up in my Leeds sessions just done these few days ago, so you are very much on message here Allan! And you’re quite right, and in fact I think that some of the Frankish portui on the eastern borders were a long way into Slavic territory, at the end of routes into Francia. In this respect I tend to find the Arabic model of thughur, which are zones through which you pass to the enemy/beyond, rather than spaces marking you off from him/it, a bit more useful than Luttwak-style zone-or-line alternatives. What discussion in the sessions focused on was contact with an alternative power focus and danger from warfare, and if those be allowed to stand, while I agree that it makes most of Wessex a frontier—and against a seaborne enemy, it kind of was—it does mean that the speakers at Cambridge were also pretty much all on target, even if I do see your point that looking for frontier characteristics may have got ahead of identifying them from frontiers in some cases.

  2. I dunno how you date bells, though it seems you needed permission to have them. Wikipedia’s German edition has the bell you picture dating from about 950 at the point Haithabu became a bishopric.

  3. As to the bell from Haithabu: it was found in the top silt in the harbour together with other fragments of bells and could not be precisely dated. It is hotly debated whether it was part of a metal-hoard meant for melting down and reuse or whether it was “the bell of Ansgar’s”. Source: Kurt Schietzel: Spurensuche Haithabu. Wachholtz 2014, p. 425

  4. Wasn’t it in Hedeby that the earliest church established (and that briefly) were complained about for disturbing the peace with their bells? Though I admit, with reference back to notes, it mayn’t have been Hedeby. It’s just that would be poetic when these bells are found in the harbour there.

  5. There was, apparently, an episode recorded in which a ninth-century king of Denmark threw the Christians out of Hedeby, but that record appears not to be very trustworthy given the archæology. At least, if any of its evidence actually means Christianity…

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