Seminar CCXV: class warfare in ninth-century Saxony—or not

We now push on through my awful backlog to 19th November 2014, which was a great day because on it I was able to walk into the Institute of Historical Research in London for the first time in some years, it having completed its lengthy refurbishment. This made me very happy; it has been as close as I’m ever likely to get to having a London club for some years and I had missed it sorely. I’m not a huge fan of the new æsthetics of the Common Room but the tea and cake is the kind of value you don’t see elsewhere in London and they have expanded the Spain and Portugal Room to more than twice its previous size, so I could go and commune with my source materials knowing that it was no longer possible for one person determined to spread out the day’s newspapers together on the table to make it impossible for anyone else to work in there. But leaving such personal glee aside, what was I doing back in the old IHR? Why a seminar of course, namely Dr Ingrid Rembold, presenting to the now-legendary Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title “The Stellinga, the Saxon Elite and Carolingian Politics”.

You see there is this odd moment recorded in the sources for the wars between the sons of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840 as I’m sure you know) over their succession, in which something that looks suspiciously like a popular revolt flared up in the not-long-conquered province of Saxony. The reluctant and unfortunate historian Nithard gives the fullest account:

“… The gens is divided into three orders, and indeed they are called in those parts edhilingui, frilingi and lazzi, that is in Latin noblemen, freemen and serfs. Yet a part of the Saxons, who are held to be noble in those parts, was divided into two factions in the dissension between Lothar and his brothers, and one part followed Lothar; the other, Louis. Considering these things, Lothar recognised that, following the victory of his brothers [at Fontenoy, 841], the people who had been with him might wish to defect, and, being obliged by various necessities, he sought help from whomever he could in any way possible. He therefore started putting public property to private use, giving freedom to some, promising others that he would reward them after victory, and he also sent into Saxony for the frilingi and lazzi, of whom there are an innumerable multitude, promising that if they would follow him, he would let them have from then on the law which their ancestors had had in the times when they were worshippers of idols. Desirous of this above all, they established a new name for themselves, that is Stellinga, and having pressed together into one group almost expelled the lords from the kingdom and were living by whatever law they wished in their former manner.”

This ended badly for them: once it had become clear that despite this and Viking backing Lothar was not going to be able to keep his younger brother Louis the German out of Saxony, in 842, Louis was more less left free, as Nithard put it, to ‘nobly curb the mutineers in Saxony… with lawful slaughter’. And thus ended the rebellion, though there was another brief burst of it a year or two later.1

Rather worryingly, there seems to be a lot of modern film made about this episode. I omit the one that manages to segue from a dramatisation of a Frankish rape of a Saxon woman straight to an interview with Johannes Fried—I kid you not—and instead use this one which seems mainly to be darkness and fire

Other sources vary the picture somewhat. The Annals of St Bertin, being written in the Western kingdom claimed by Charles the Bald, the other two’s younger half-brother, come much closer to saying that the Saxons went pagan again, choosing “to imitate the habits of the pagans rather than to preserve the sacraments of Christian faith”, and says that Louis executed 154 ringleaders. The Annals of Xanten, however, from Lothar’s kingdom, more or less explicitly call it a slave revolt that seriously weakened the local nobility, whereas the Annals of Fulda, from Louis the German’s side, say something similar but call the rebels liberti, ‘freedmen’ or ex-slaves and only mention the 842 part of the episode.2 It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lower-class revolt angle that’s been picked up by most modern writing about this so far, at the most extreme seeing it as a kind of proto-communism fuelled by the kind of Germanic democracy described by Tacitus seven centuries before by way of signalling to Rome what it had lost by abandoning the Republic for an emperor. The Stellinga thus get lumped together with the similarly ambiguous Bacaudae of the fifth century and the unfortunate ninth-century Frankish peasants who banded together against the Vikings, causing their nobility to put down such initiative “with fire (and according to certain obstinate historians, the sword)”.3

That tendency is understandable, since it looks like things we recognise from much more recent eras, but it has the whiff of anachronism about it, and Ingrid duly called it into question. If I read back through my notes well enough, she argued for an initiative by relatively low-level élites in Saxony looking to climb into the higher levels of status in the area by means of the imperial generosity, and finding themselves with either more liberty or less support than they had expected, and perhaps both, leaving them with no way back and their only hope being to take what they could now get and hope to hold onto some of it, in other words a not very abnormal power-grab entirely within the usual operation of Carolingian power politics.4 And this does make much more sense in terms of contemporary categories than proto-Communism, but I can’t help but object that it isn’t what the sources say. There was a language for such operations, which is focussed on leaders and the justice or otherwise of their claims, and I felt an alternative reading could easily be constructed and that Ingrid’s involved taking a rather fastidious route through the sources. To be fair, although questions forced her to broaden her admission of this dissonance, she managed to defend the basic core of her argument.

Weapons from the early Saxon cemetery of Liebenau

It’s hard to find very many illustrations for early Carolingian Saxony; these weapons, from the Liebenau cemetery, have at least a decent claim to be actually Saxon and have apparently been dated between the fourth and ninth centuries. Foto: Axel Hindemith / , via Wikimedia Commons.

I remain a bit uncomfortable with it, though. Chris Lewis made a point that I thought was probably right, that the sources’ authors seem to be recording something unusual which they don’t understand, and we have inherited their confusion. The things that emerge from all the reports for me are that this was a large-scale movement, involving people under lordship threatening those lords’ control, and that (to editorialise a little) Louis was therefore able to win those lords for his party by enforcing their lordship again. Some of our sources however seem to have remembered that in Saxony a deep hierarchy of lordship was a comparatively new phenomenon, and that the Saxons had used to be such a range of unconnected groups that it had been very hard to impose treaty terms made by any one of their leaders upon them at large.5 It seemed to me that what our sources feared was a return to those bad old ways in which there were fewer and less organised leaders and therefore less outside control, especially since many of those lords (domini, as Nithard and the Annals of Fulda both put it) were presumably immigrant Franks ruling over people whose background they did not share. This seems to me to fit well with how Nithard sententiously winds up his report: “And thus died by authority what had presumed to rise up without authority”; in other words, what killed them—Carolingian top-down lordship—was what they had aimed to escape. That said, Ingrid is right that this obviously didn’t seem like a danger to Lothar and she may therefore be right that the group’s aspirations changed as the war went on, but I still think that the roots of this revolt were more likely to be a wish for a return to older and lighter hierarchies of lordship (though not no lordship at all!) rather than certain people trying to climb higher in them.6

1. Nithard, Historia, ed. Philippe Lauer as Histoire des fils de Louis le Pieux (Paris 1964), rev. Sophie Glansdorff (Paris 2012), transl. in Bernhard Walter Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Ann Arbor 1972), pp. 127-174, IV.2, IV.4 & IV.6 (where quoted, quoted in Ingrid’s translation modified by me).

2. Annals of St-Bertin, ed. Félix Grat, Jeanne Vielliard & Suzanne Clemencet as Annales de Saint-Bertin (Paris 1964), trans. Janet L. Nelson as Annals of St-Bertin (Manchester 1992), s. aa 841-842; Annals of Xanten, ed. Bernhard von Simson in idem (ed.), Annales Xantenses et Annales Vedastini, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XII (Hannover 1909, repr. 2003), online here, s. aa. 841-842; Annals of Fulda, ed. Friedrich Kurze as Annales Fuldenses sive Annales regni Francorum orientalis, MGH (SRG) VII (Hannover 1891, repr. 1993), online here, transl. Timothy Reuter as The Annals of Fulda (Manchester 1991), s. a. 842.

3. References are collected in Eric J. Goldberg, “Popular Revolt, Dynastic Politics and Aristocratic Factionalism in the Early Middle Ages: the Saxon ‘Stellinga’ reconsidered” in Speculum Vol. 70 (Cambridge MA 1995), pp. 467-501, which until Ingrid gets this into print remains the best available treatment of the episode. The quote, however, is from W. C. Sellar & R. Yeatman, 1066 and All That: a Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates (London 1930, many reprints), p. 6.

4. Depending on what you think was usual, of course; cf. Matthew Innes, “Property, Politics and the Problem of the Carolingian State” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 299-313.

5. A perspective that I admit starts with a straight reading of Einhard, Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, MGH (SRG) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), trans. D. Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, cap. 7.

6. Lothar’s perspective is obviously harder to get at than his brothers’, given the lack of an obviously partisan source such as they have in the forms of the Annals of St-Bertin and the Annals of Fulda, but Elina Screen, “The Importance of the Emperor: Lothar I and the Frankish civil war, 840-843” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 25-52, is a good attempt at balance. Other relevant references might be Warren Brown, Unjust Seizure: conflict, interest, and authority in an early medieval society (Ithaca NY 2001), which is a good account of the imposition of Carolingian rule in Bavaria and which I don’t cite half enough, and Innes, “Property, Politics and the Problem of the Carolingian State”, to which see my suggested addition here.

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