Friday, January 24, 2014

Charlemagne's Enemy

Much is made of Charlemagne and his unification and christianization of much of Western Europe. What is the other side of the story, however? What of the peoples he attacked and conquered? Charlemagne didn't just proclaim that Christianity was the way to go and let people flock to his standard, begging for conversion. He deliberately set out to convert his part of the world to Christianity.

Widukind gathers support to rebel against Charlemagne
When Charlemagne and the Franks went into Saxon territory and destroyed the irminsul, he provoked the strongest possible reaction. Initially, Charlemagne was successful, even though the Saxons dealt some serious damage, like striking into Frankish territory and destroying property. Charlemagne subdued many of the Saxon tribes and had their leaders attend his court.

One of them refused to attend. The leader of the Saxons (according to the Royal Frankish Annals) who retaliated was called Widukind. (That was probably not his name; it means "Wood Child" and may just be a nickname by which the Franks knew him.) While the other nobles were pledging their faith to Charlemagne at Paderborn, Widukind was off planning insurrection. In 782, while Charlemagne was in Spain, Widukind convinced the Saxon nobles to join him in fighting back against Frankish rule. On his return from Spain, Charlemagne retaliated by capturing and executing rebels—thousands of them.

Despite the Widukind-led opposition, Charlemagne and Franks were eventually victorious. In 785, all resistance was finally crushed. Widukind surrendered on condition that he would not be harmed. His new king was not interested in harming him: he wanted to convert him. After all the years of fighting and trying to preserve his way of life, Widukind was baptized a Christian.

We have very little factual data about Widukind, especially after his conversion. Frankish sources say Charlemagne was his godfather and that Widukind accompanied him on a military campaign.  For later generations of Saxon culture, however, he took on a legendary quality as a symbol of Saxon independence against Charlemagne.

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