|Capitulary for Saxony
An Examination of Charlemagne and his Edicts
Saints and Heroes
Charlemagne was the king of the Franks, leader of the Carolingian Empire, and the man credited for reconnecting Western Europe and ushering in the Carolingian Renaissance. Charlemagne was born in 742 AD and became king in 768 AD following the death of his father. Charlemagne fervently supported the Church throughout his life and his advocacy and support of Christianity became his main focus as king and later, emperor, as he battled Pagan and Muslim armies for control of the region. The Saxons provided the most frustration for Charles as the repeated uprisings in the region stole his focus and destabilized the region. In response to the Saxon threat, Charlemagne created a document known as the Capitulary for Saxony, which laid out the laws which would govern the conquered Saxon nation. These laws concentrated on the application of a Christian moral code and social framework that would reshape the Pagan Saxon society. Charlemagne believed that converting the Saxon nation would lead to harmony within the region and better political stability. The Saxons did not prove receptive to this strategy as the Christian ideals differed greatly from their traditional way of life. Over the course of thirty-three years, Charlemagne fought hard and long against the Saxons as he was determined to convert the population and create regional stability.
Charlemagne’s feud with the Saxons officially began in 772 and included four wars upon the Saxon territories. Einhard, friend and biographer of Charlemagne, stated that “No war ever undertaken by the Frank nation was carried on with such persistence and bitterness, or cost so much labor”. (Einhard, 2013) Time and again, the Saxons undermined Charlemagne’s rule, killing priests and destroying churches in their attacks. The Pagan nature of the Saxons was the point of contention for Charles as he was a devout follower of Christianity. Charlemagne was of the opinion that the uprisings and violence were the result of a lack of Christian ideals and beliefs. Charlemagne resorted to ever more force as the wars continued and the Saxons continued to rebel against his laws. After repeated defeats and uprisings, the Saxons proved they “were no less ready to violate these terms than prompt to accept them”. Eventually, Charles “took ten thousand of those that lived on the banks of the Elbe, and settled them, with their wives and children, in many different bodies here and there in Gaul and Germany” (Einhard, 2013), essentially annihilating the Saxon culture and assimilating its people into the greater empire. The Saxons exhibited their unwillingness to bend to the new social order of the time while Charlemagne showed his unwillingness to concede matters of faith and politics. In the end, the Carolingian Empire proved victorious and another step was taken towards the unification of Western Europe.
The capitulary set forth by Charlemagne sent a message not only to the Pagan Saxons but also to the citizens within the Carolingian empire. Charlemagne sent the message that the Saxons would either cease the terrorism of the empire or risk punishment or death. The decree was Charles’ attempt to create a well-defined control structure and it laid out the terms that the Saxons would be required to adhere to from that point on. It provided the groundwork for Charles’ ultimate goal of Christianizing the Saxon populations. The capitulary also instilled confidence within the kingdom, as the citizens saw Charlemagne as a leader who dealt with the empire’s problems head on. The strong leadership ability and unwavering faith of Charlemagne commanded the respect of his people and gave him the determination to convert the Saxon nations.
After so many years of war in the region, the laying down of strict and thorough laws in conquered territory would certainly put other citizens of the empire at ease. Einhard explains that “the line between ourselves and the Saxons passed almost in its whole extent through an open country, so that there was no end to the murders thefts and arsons on both sides.” (Einhard, 2013) With a potential enemy living in such close proximity to the Frankish citizens, a method of control and co-existence was needed to prevent further hostilities. The imposed rule and forced Christianization of the Saxons would provide this control. It also demonstrated the authority of Charles and discouraged rebellion against his governance. By instituting a structure of laws and attempting to Christianize the population, Charlemagne was attempting to change the behaviour of the Saxons to match that of the Frankish empire.
The capitulary’s many references to God and rules regarding proper Christian behaviour and obligations clearly exhibit the religious nature of the decree. The laws set forth were designed to create a harmonious Christian society, overseen by the Church and guided by religious ideals. Charlemagne saw the Pagan Saxons as inferior, “given to the worship of devils”. (Einhard, 2013) By furthering Christendom within Saxon society, Charles intended to improve the lives of the Saxons while spreading his faith to more of his subjects. Charles’ religious beliefs were integrated into every area of his life and he believed that all citizens of his empire should follow the word of God wholly and obediently. The fervent nature of Charles’ beliefs is shown through the severe punishments for undermining the Church. The capitulary’s fourth law states that if anyone “out of contempt for Christianity, shall have despised the holy Lenten fast and shall have eaten flesh, let him be punished by death.” (Charlemagne, 2013) Laws of this nature show Charles’ determination to convert the Saxon population. Charlemagne was willing to use all manners of force in order to Christianize and control the population. The zealous nature of Charles simply could not accept the Saxon’s refusal to abide by the Christian teachings and the beliefs that he ardently stood by throughout his life.
To control the Saxon nation, Charlemagne used the Church and its moral and organizational framework as a tool to reinforce his Carolingian ideals upon the Pagan population. The Church provided the format for a way of life very different from the Pagan, semi-nomadic life the Saxons had always known. Charlemagne’s attempt to reform the Pagan society with brute force was met with dogged resistance from the Saxon people. The capitulary was Charles’ attempt to submit the Saxons to the values and conduct of the Church. Charlemagne believed that if the Saxons became Christian, they would naturally fall in line to become obedient members of the empire. Charles’ decree was used to tighten his control over the hostile territory by instilling a Christian value system within the Saxon population.
Charlemagne was focused on spreading Christianity because it provided a familiar and predictable social structure on which to build his empire. The volatile Pagan society was a risk that had to be mitigated by Charles in order to sustain a strong and stable empire. With political strife and war across Europe, Charlemagne could not afford to have such a significant threat to the stability of his empire located within his borders. By promoting the Church and its inherent social structure, Charles endeavoured to quell the Saxon violence and rebellion. With the Church controlling the Saxons, Charlemagne would have the ability to assimilate and govern the nation without further conflict. Spreading Christianity to the Pagans provided the first step for Charlemagne in his attempt to conquer and rule the Saxon populations.
Throughout the course, the concept of societal and philosophical growth has been very important to understanding the progression of human civilization throughout the early medieval period. The growth of societies such as the Roman Empire, or Charlemagne’s own kingdom, exhibit the human desire to constantly strive towards something greater. On reflection of the coursework, one can begin to see the rise of Christianity over the centuries and how it came to be the world’s most prevalent religion. Beginning with the examination of the Roman Empire, one saw the beginnings of Christianity as a major religion with its endorsement by Constantine in 313 AD. After the collapse of the empire, elements of Christian beliefs were seen in Beowulf, where characters exhibit a moral code and value system with influences of Christianity along with common attitudes of the time. Many parts of Europe had exposure to Christianity by the time the Carolingian empire was in the height of its power. The explosion of Christian religion and philosophy throughout the continent can be regarded as one of the greatest theological expansions in the history of civilization.
Charlemagne was a war-hardened leader that won on battlefields through determination and brute force. When it came to the conquering the Pagan nations, Charlemagne used the same type of forceful tactics to win over or crush the hearts and minds of his Saxon adversaries. Charlemagne’s capitulary was a reflection of his own personality: religious, structured and authoritative. The decree was Charles’ attempt to create what he saw as a perfect Christian society within the Saxon nations. Though the attempt ultimately failed after thirty-three years of feuding, resulting in the division and assimilation of the Saxon people, The Carolingian Empire remained a symbol for the perseverance and determined nature of human civilization. As the first man to reconnect Western Europe since the Roman Empire, Charlemagne shows that he is one of the greatest leaders in medieval history.
Charlemagne. (2013). Medieval Sourcebook: Charlemagne: Capitulary for Saxony 775-790. Retrieved April 14, 2013, from Fordham University: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/carol-saxony.asp
Einhard. (2013). The Life of Charlemagne. Retrieved April 14, 2013, from Fordham University: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/einhard.asp#Saxon War
Knox, E. L. (1999). Charlemagne. Retrieved April 14, 2013, from The ORB: http://www.the-orb.net/textbooks/westciv/charlemagne.html