Charlemagne’s Jihad

Charlemagne’s Jihad

Yitzhak Hen

Viator,Vol.  37 (2006)


In 772, shortly after annexing his brother’s share of the Frankish kingdom, Charlemagne launched his first campaign against the Saxons. “No war taken up by the Frankish people was ever longer, harder or more dreadful,” wrote Einhard almost half a century later. For more than three decades (from 772 until 804) Charlemagne and his army were occupied with a bloody and protracted attempt to pacify and subdue the Saxons.

A standard textbook narrative of the Saxon wars would go roughly like this: Charlemagne’s successful raid into Saxony in 772 opened the first phase of the Saxon wars. The reasons behind it are not at all clear. The so-called Annales regni Francorum, that is, the supposedly official court-based Frankish history, simply state that from Worms, where Charlemagne had held an assembly, he marched into Saxony. No Saxon rebellion or any other Saxon aggression are mentioned in connection with the Frankish attack, and it seems that once Charlemagne had managed to pacify Aquitaine, he decided to finish the job his father had already started in Saxony. Following the capture of Eresburg, Charlemagne and his army continued northwards, destroying on their way the enigmatic Irminsul. Charlemagne would have liked to continue his campaign in Saxony, but a desperate call for help from the pope forced him to leave Saxony and head southwards. The Saxon reaction was not late in coming. When Charlemagne and the Frankish army were busy in Italy, the Saxons invaded Hesse, plundering and destroying everything on their way.

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