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The Saxons within Carolingian Christendom: post-conquest identity in the translationes of Vitus, Pusinna and Liborius

The Saxons within Carolingian Christendom: post-conquest identity in the translationes of Vitus, Pusinna and Liborius

By Eric Shuler

Journal of Medieval History, Vol.36:1 (2010)

Abstract: The Franks incorporated Saxony into the Carolingian empire through a long, brutal struggle coupled with forced conversion. When Saxons themselves began to write a few decades afterwards, they had to make sense of this history and of their role and identity in their contemporary Carolingian world. In contrast to the portrayal of Saxons in writers such as Einhard and Rudolf, three ninth-century Saxon accounts of relic translations — those of Vitus, Pusinna and Liborius — reinterpreted history to claim a place for the Saxons as a distinct group equal to the Franks within the populus Christianus under the Carolingian monarchs. As a key part of their literary strategies, these authors attempted to salvage from the story of their defeat and forced Christianisation an account of God’s sovereignty, native agency and virtue (especially fidelity) as a foundational element of Saxon identity. These texts prefigure the debates about post-conquest Saxon identity which would underlay the later and better-known Ottonian triumphal self-conceptions. Moreover, the concerns of these authors led them to remarkable hagiographical innovations in grappling with paganism, conversion, miracles, social class and faith.

Introduction: Charlemagne’s conquest and conversion of the Saxons was a protracted, bloody affair. Only 33 years of incessant warfare (772–804) subdued them and created a nominally Christian province. Reflecting on those events in his biography of the conqueror, Einhard wrote that the defeated Saxons ‘were joined to the Franks and made one people with them’. As Timothy Reuter observed, ‘it is not clear, incidentally, that the Saxons agreed. […] Tenth-century Saxon writers often also showed considerable hostility to the Franks.’ That is hardly surprising in light of the tenacious Saxon resistance, which resulted in massive forced deportations and draconian laws before the Franks succeeded in crushing or co-opting the Saxon leadership.

Debates concerning the status of Saxons and Franks began long before the tenth century. This article examines how, in comparison with non-Saxon sources like Rudolf of Fulda’s Translatio sancti Alexandri, the Saxon authors of the accounts of the translations of the relics of Saints Vitus, Pusinna and Liborius (written between 836 and 909) used history, theology and hagiographical topoi to balance their new Christianity and loyalty to the Carolingians with pride in their ancestry and political ambition. From the story of their defeat and forced Christianisation, these authors attempted to salvage ideas of God’s sovereignty, native agency and virtue (especially fidelity) as foundations for defining Saxon identity and to refute negative stereotypes. The areas which generated these translationes — Saxony’s relatively prosperous southern region bordering other Carolingian peoples — made questions of identity especially acute. The authors wrote not only to promote the relics but also to address contemporary concerns. By articulating a positive identity, they constructed narratives to help the Saxon elites navigate their role in the political calculus of the Carolingian rulers. These illustrated both possibilities for and limits to the Carolingian empire’s absorption of different ethnic groups. Moreover, the concerns of these authors led them to remarkable hagiographical innovations in grappling with paganism, conversion, miracles, social class and faith.

Scholarship has generally concentrated on Saxon self-conceptions during Charlemagne’s conquest or in the tenth century, but said little about the century in between. Before and during that conquest, the idea of a unified Saxon people was largely a fiction. Instead, regional groupings dominated within ‘Saxony’. Matthias Becher has suggested that Saxon identity began to acquire political force in the regnum Francorum et Saxonum of Louis the Younger (876–82), but this new process of ethnogenesis did not flower without royal and aristocratic interaction in the mid-tenth century (his primary interest). While the Saxons never emerged as an ethno-political power bloc before the Ottonians, nonetheless ideas about a group identity and its political implications were latent under Carolingian rule. The ninth-century Saxons laid the foundations for their descendants’ ideas, although, like them, I am concerned first with their contemporary setting.

Group identity within the Carolingian realm had to balance diverse regional loyalties with the benefits of imperial unity. The monarch, the triumphant Franks and Christianity all offered possible centres for that unity. The Frankish annals, with their ‘unprecedented’ focus on the unstoppable Franks as a gens (tribe or people), created a narrative of how they ‘swallow up all other gentes who in due course become appendages to the Franks’. Some incorporated regions retained a local identity as, for example, Alemani, but on a supra-regional level identified themselves as Franks. Aquitaine and Italy retained a degree of autonomy and distinctive regional identities. As part of their efforts to resist absorption, the Bretons waged a campaign through hagiographical texts and history to construct a laudable, independent identity.

The conditions for debating Saxon identity emerged from Saxony’s conquest. The aristocracy, both native and new, began to establish bases of power throughout the area that transcended earlier regional divisions and so gradually helped make the new province a political reality. Mid-ninth century sources assumed the existence of a ‘Saxon’ people, descended from the earlier pagan Saxons, within this coalescing region, but debate centred on two points: what traits defined Saxon identity and what political dimensions ought Saxon identity to have in relation to the Franks?

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