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CONFERENCES: The Stellinga, the Saxon Elite, and Carolingian Politics

Battle of Fontenoy - The battle as depicted in the fourteenth-century Grandes Chroniques de France. Grandes Chroniques de France, France, Paris, Cote : Français 73 , Fol. 150
Battle of Fontenoy - The battle as depicted in the fourteenth-century Grandes Chroniques de France. Grandes Chroniques de France, France, Paris, Cote : Français 73 , Fol. 150
Battle of Fontenoy – The battle as depicted in the fourteenth-century Grandes Chroniques de France. Grandes Chroniques de France, France, Paris, Cote : Français 73 , Fol. 150

CONFERENCES: The Stellinga, the Saxon Elite, and Carolingian Politics

Ingrid Rembold

This is my summary of a paper presented at the Institute of Historical Research on the causes of the Stellinga uprising in the Carolingian period. 

Most papers I attend focus on the high and later Middle Ages. I love the Early Middle Ages and I think it’s an area that often gets overlooked so I was very pleased to hear that a paper was being given on the Carolingians. This session at the IHR focused on the Stellinga uprising in 841 AD during the height of the Carolingian Civil War. This paper challenged the commonly accepted notion that the Stellinga were trying to revert to Paganism by adopting old tribal laws and customs outside of the Lex Saxonum (The Law of the Saxons); the laws created by Charlemagne in 785 AD. This paper offered a different way of looking at the Stellinga uprising and the impact it had on Carolingian politics. It compared several contemporary Carolingian sources: Nithard (Grandson of Charlemagne and cousin of Louis the Bald), Rudolf of Fulda (a Benedictine monk), Gerward (a royal chaplain) and Prudentius of Troyes (Bishop of Troyes).

“Hence granting the res public towards private usage, he bestowed freedom on some, he promised that he would reward others after his victory, and he even sent into Saxony for the frizzling and lazy, of whom there are innumerable multitude, promising that if they allied with him, he would permit them thereafter to keep the law which their ancestors kept in the time when they were worshippers of idols. Desirous of this above all, they established a new name for themselves, that is Stellinga…” Nithard, Historia

Who Were the Stellinga?

The Stellinga, a name meaning ‘comrades’ or ‘companions’, were a lower caste in Carolingian society. The Stellinga were mainly composed of half freed and freemen. They lived by their old Pagan laws but were not necessarily practicing Pagans.

During the peak of the Carolingian Civil War, Louis the Pious appealed to the Stellinga for help. By 842 AD, however, the Stellinga were put down by force by Lothair I, Louis the German and their colleagues. The Stellinga movement has been called an aberration. It is remembered as an inversion of social order. Scholars consider the Stellinga as a ‘class conflict’ but Rembold believes this is half the story and that it’s only been approached as a class based movement. The uprising was extremely unusual; a group of essentially lower orders were able to rise up and take control in the mid-ninth century. What made it more interesting was there was no clear conception of Saxony as an order based society prior to the Stellinga. There was no evidence that society there was perceived as structured and stratified. In the decades following the Stellinga, Saxon culture was dived into three levels, with more rigid and legal social categories. Social and legal hierarchy became important, but this was as a result of the Stellinga uprising, not the cause.

In the practice of customary law, the community came together to dispense justice; a continuation of local conflict resolution methods. They undertook direct action together and took oaths together. The practice of collective justice was the law in rural communities. The Stellinga might be understood as loosely formed communities. They first emerge on the Carolingian scene in July 841 AD. They were promised by Lothiar to be able to keep their ancient customs and laws. This insistence on keeping with the old Pagan customs has been taken as evidence as the Stellinga being anti-Carolingian, anti-elite and anti-Christian. Lothair’s grant does not automatically make them anti-Christian. It was not likely that they were a Pagan movement. The attribution of Paganism on the Stellinga is based on their use of laws by their ancestors who worshipped pagan idols. It was believed they chose to imitate the laws of Pagans but Rembold suggests that their observation of pre-Christian law was more about using what was advantageous for them than about keeping with ancient Pagan customs and being anti-Christian or anti-Carolingian. She also pointed out that there was no innate Carolingian opposition to their laws and their practices can be seen as fitting into Carolingian realism.

The Stellinga’s initial goals were not utopian, they weren’t interested in reverting to Paganism. This helps explain their interactions with Carolingian politics at large and their relationship with Lothair. It also helps understand them not as an aberration but as a more normative group. Saxon nobles were divided into two factions: the ones who followed Lothair and the ones who followed Louis. Lothair, at some point, decided he needed to court people to his favour. Louis the German had enjoyed large Saxon support in the early part of the war. As a result, Lothair was trying to entice followers to his side. Through his messengers, he allowed these communities the ability to keep their laws. By doing so, he wasn’t offering a return to Paganism, but making a smart move to garner their support. This worked and they rallied to Lothair’s side. It didn’t compromise his relationship with the East Frankish elite, which if the Stellinga were truly Pagan, would have caused problems in their relationship. Lothair’s support of the Stellinga also didn’t appear to alienate the ecclesiastical groups. If they truly were anti-elite, anti-Christian and anti-Carolingian, Lothair would not have had continued support from his followers and the Carolingian nobility.

In February 842 AD, Louis the German commanded the support of a unified Saxon elite. He had supporters in Saxony at Lothair’s expense, however, Lothair didn’t lose all his followers. He retained the support of some Saxons, and there is evidence of this in documents dating to 843 AD.

After Lothair’s defeat at the Battle of Fontenoy, on June 25, 841 AD, by June 842 AD, the three brothers met and a truce was set. The following year, in August 843 AD, the Treaty of Verdun divided the Frankish kingdom into East, West and Middle Francia. At this time, the Stellinga became unhappy and began their revolt. Louis the German proceeded to Saxony and put down their insurgence and 843 AD is the last we hear of the Stelling.

~ Sandra Alvarez

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