The reign of the Frankish king and later, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne is
often viewed as one of the milestones in the establishment of European Christian civilization. In recent times, with the increasing strength of pan-European institutions in the framework of the European Union, Charlemagne is seen as an early herald of European unity. His rule is often praised as a “ Carolingian renaissance” for fostering great accomplishments in arts and learning, in partnership with the institutions of the Christian church. There are, however, other dimensions of Charlemagne’s reign which are less often discussed, because they do not fit well with the pleasing image of a wise,
benevolent monarch in whose name religion and culture flourished.
Consider Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons. This was a series of fierce
conflicts from 772 to 804, for some 32 years, with numerous treaties and truces that inevitably gave way to further battle. In the biography of Charlemagne produced by the court official Einhard in about the year 830,it is stated that the war was undertaken by Charlemagne to put an end to the incessant raiding and other misdeeds of the Saxons on the borderlands of the Frankish kingdom. Einhard would therefore have us believe that
this was a purely defensive war, but it is obvious that Charlemagne had territorial ambitions that were far more imperial than defensive.
Einhard also informs us that Charlemagne was dead set on the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity. He notes at one point that “ the war could have been brought to a more rapid conclusion, had it not been for the faithlessness of the Saxons.” According to Einhard, the Saxons’ continuing refusal to fully accept the Christian religion and, in Einhard’s phrase, “ abandon their devil worship,” was the main factor prolonging the state
of war. From Einhard’s Christian-privileging perspective, the Saxons were stubborn, deceitful infidels, whose unchristian ways fully justified the use of massive force against them.
However, if we consider the situation from the point of view of the Pagan Saxons, it takes on a quite different aspect. From this perspective, the Franks, and especially their king Charles, were warrior-fanatics with a relentless desire to impose their religion on the Saxons. Whatever else might be said against the Saxons, there is no indication that they were trying to force their religion on the Franks. If we take seriously that the Saxons had
their own religious traditions which they were trying to preserve from the Frankish onslaught, then their sustained refusal to accept a foreign religion being imposed on them by force takes on a very different aspect from that suggested by Einhard. It is not stubbornness or deceit, but steadfast piety and the willingness to give their lives to defend their own faith.
From the Pagan perspective, there is also reason to be skeptical of Einhard’s
insistence that the Franks’ war against the Saxons was merely a necessary response to Saxon banditry and raiding. Though this was an age rife with such behavior, there are other factors to consider. Long before the onset of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons, Christian missionaries had become active in the lands of the Saxons and other Germanic peoples. When gentle methods such as preaching and reasoning failed to convince Germanic Pagans to abandon their ancestral traditions, these missionaries often resorted to more forceful methods. The Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface chopped down a sacred oak tree in the village of Geimar, in the region of Hessia, in order to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian god to the Pagan god associated with the oak.After this act of destruction, Boniface confiscated the wood from the fallen sacred oak to use in
building Christian churches, as if to add insult to injury.Such desecration and destruction of Pagan sacred sites and objects became an accepted missionary practice in this period, one which Charlemagne himself used to
inaugurate his hostilities against the Saxons. This happened in 872, when Charlemagne’s army invaded a Saxon town on the river Drimel and hacked to pieces a sacred wooden pillar, apparently a decorated tree-trunk, known as the Irminsul, which was highly venerated in the religious observances of the Saxons as a representation of the worldtree. 8 With this attack on one of the holiest Saxons sites, Charlemagne left no doubt as to his intention to use military force to obliterate the Saxons’ religion, as well as to conquer
their lands. Charlemagne’s destruction of the world-tree proved to be an apt metaphor for his wholesale devastation of Saxon people, property, society and culture over the next 32 years. This attack on highly sacred sites and objects must have aroused the most powerful feelings of shock and outrage among the Saxons and possibly other Pagan peoples as well, perhaps not unlike the recent attack on the World Trade Center in New York.
Christian sources such as saints’ lives and missionary correspondence routinely claim that such acts of destruction were highly successful in gaining converts to Christianity.This supposed success is explained with rather curious logic. The missionaries believed that their ability to destroy Pagan objects without incurring the wrath of the Pagan deities proved the nonexistence of the Pagan gods and, by extension, the total absurdity of the religion. These authors never ask themselves whether the same
might not apply to their own religion, that is, if the merits of the Christian faith would be disproven by God’s refusal to forcefully respond to the burning down of a church or the cutting in half of a crucifix.At any rate, the same sources which boast of missionary successes through such acts of religious terrorism as the Irminsul destruction cannot hide the facts of massive
retaliation by the Saxons and other peoples when their sacred traditions were threatened by Christian attacks. The Saxons repeatedly attacked and burned Christian churches;often carrying off their treasures in much the same way as Boniface had carted away the wood from the sacred oak at Geismar. In a letter of 755 to Pope Stephen III, Boniface apologizes for a delay in writing because he has been busy restoring 30 churches plundered and burned by Pagan rebels. Above all, the bare fact that Charlemagne’s
destruction of the Irminsul ushered in thirty-odd years of warfare before the Saxons would surrender to Charlemagne and accept the religion of the Franks underlines that such actions were as likely to incite resistance as win converts.
Although one would expect 32 years of war and destruction to produce an
abundance of violence and bloodshed, there is one particular action of Charlemagne’s which stands out for its excessive cruelty. On one horrific day in 782, Charlemagne had more than 4,000 Saxons beheaded for rebelling against Frankish rule and resuming the practice of their traditional Pagan religion, after having previously signed a treaty agreeing to accept Christianity and Frankish domination.
Such harsh measures did not end with the final surrender of the Saxons in 804.Charlemagne imposed stringent conditions of surrender upon the Saxons that prescribed capital punishment for a wide range of offenses, including many which were religious in nature. Anyone who stole from a church, ate meat during the Christian fast of Lent,remained a Pagan and refused to undergo baptism, or engaged in a conspiracy of Pagans against Christians was to receive the death penalty. At the same time, Saxons were required to provide labor, food and other support to churches and priests. Looking at this
from the Christian point of view, there is some discomfort at the harshness of the measures employed by Charlemagne, but there is no doubt about the rightness of his ultimate goal, the Christianization of the Saxons as part of the larger project of uniting Europe in a Christian empire.
Charlemagne’s cruelty and intolerance in the war against the Saxons have never detracted from his popular image as a wise and benevolent sovereign. Such actions also appear to cause no concern to those people in the present day who see Charlemagne as an attractive symbol of European unity. If we take the Pagan point of view, however,Charlemagne appears to be the exemplar of nothing so much as religious intolerance,persecution and imperialism, the forefather not of European unity, but of some of the
most problematic and shameful tendencies in European history. Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons set the tone for such highpoints of European civilization as the Crusades and the Inquisition, and paved the way for the religious wars, persecutions and pogroms of the future.
From the Pagan point of view, we can ask what might have happened if
Charlemagne had chosen a different path. What if he had pursued a policy of religious tolerance instead of religious persecution? What if he had offered the Saxons the option to join his empire without giving up their ancestral traditions? Perhaps 32 years of war could have been avoided, and the stage set for a European civilization of tolerance and pluralism, rather than one of intolerance and fanaticism. If Charlemagne had chosen a different path, perhaps he really would be an appropriate hero and symbol for our time.