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How the Saxons helped Charlemagne become Emperor

Charlemagne as emperor on this coin - Photo PHGCOM

What role did the Saxons have in Charlemagne’s imperial coronation? The question was examined last month by Christopher Landon at the Canadian Society of Medievalists Annual Meeting. In his paper,’Charlemagne and the Saxons: Imperial Self-Representation in the Late Eighth Century’, Langdon finds that the Carolingian leadership saw war with the Saxons as their opportunity to fashion their own imperial image.

Charlemagne as emperor on this coin - Photo PHGCOM

Prior to the second half of the eighth-century relations between the Carolingians (and the Merovingians before them) and the Saxons (a confederation of Germanic tribes in what is now northern Germany) were not overly hostile – Langdon notes that their was friendly interactions and that some Saxons were known to be Christians.

However around 750 Carolingian writers began to portray the Saxons in very hostile terms, branding them both rebels and pagans. For example, Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard writes:

The Saxons, like almost all the peoples living in Germany, are ferocious by nature. They are much given to devil worship and they are hostile to our religion. They think it no dishonor to violate and transgress the laws of God and man. Hardly a day passed without some incident or other which was well calculated to break the peace.

When war broke out between Charlemagne and the Saxons in 772, the Carolingians soon cast the conflict as one between a heathen enemy against the defenders of the church. By 775 Charlemagne’s campaigns into Saxony had the duel purpose of conquering these people and converting them. Mass baptisms would take place after Carolingian victories, and brutal punishments would be given out to those who continued to rebel – such as the infamous mass execution of 4500 Saxons in 782.

The Carolingian actions against the Saxons fit neatly into ideas of what imperial duties and responsibilities meant in Western Europe, chief among them which was to protect the Catholic church and expand the faith. Charlemagne and his administration were keen to promote this fact, especially to the Papacy. At the same time, Popes Adrian I (772-795) and Leo III (795-816) were also eager to encourage the Carolingians to carry out this task.  Landon notes that Papal letters to Charlemagne were using increasingly imperial language to flatter him, congratulating him on his victories with words such as “most triumphant”.

Langdon adds that the Popes also had a vested interest in the conversions of the Saxons, not only because they wanted to expand to Christian faith, but also because they wanted to establish their own power base outside of the influence of the Byzantine Empire.

Both the Carolingians and the Papacy were happy to portray the Saxons as an ‘enemy par-excellence’ and wage war on them. By defeating and converting the Saxons, Charlemagne was able to expand on his role as ‘defensor ecclesia’ and give him the reputation necessary for him to seek out a new title: Emperor.

Christopher Landon is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is writing his dissertation, Conquest and Colonization in the Early Middle Ages:  The Carolingians and Saxony, c. 750 – 840.

See also: Was Charlemagne a Mass Murderer?

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