Pagan, Pirate, Subject, Saint : Defining and Redefining Saxons, 150-900 A.D.

by R. Flierman

Institution: Universiteit Utrecht
Year: 2015
Keywords: Saxons; Charlemagne; Late Antiquity; Early Middle Ages; Barbarians; Identity; Representation; Historiography
Record ID: 1256407
Full text PDF: http://dspace.library.uu.nl:8080/handle/1874/308548


The student of the early medieval Saxons faces a number of methodological challenges. First, before the ninth century, the Saxons can only be known through reports composed by outsiders. Either Saxons left no writing of their own, or more likely, none of it survived. Second, what little reliable evidence we do have with regard to the political organisation of the pre-conquest Saxons, suggests that they were deeply fragmented. In all likelihood, it was only as a result of their incorporation into the Frankish realm under the Frankish king Charlemagne (d. 814), that the Saxons became a well-defined people. This study tries to side-step these complications by adopting a different focus. Rather than taking ‘the Saxons’ as its point of departure, it focuses on the ethnic label Saxones and its use in late antique and early medieval texts. Following recent insights into the flexibility of ethnic terminology, this study abandons the assumption that this label always denoted members of a single homogenous people, i.e. ‘the Saxons’. In fact, it leaves open the question whether there existed such a people prior to Charlemagne’s Saxon Wars. Instead, it takes as its object of study the Roman, Frankish and finally Saxon authors writing about Saxons. Who were the people writing about Saxons? What were their literary intentions? And how did they react to larger geo-political developments: the political disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, the migrations to Britain, Frankish military expansion, the Saxon mission, etc.? Moreover, this study approached these texts not just as passive meditations on reality, but also as active attempts to influence and shape reality. Each text offered an individual interpretation of the label Saxones and imbued it with certain territorial, religious, social and/or political connotations. The resulting pictures may or may not have been ‘accurate’. Either way, they served to perpetuate and spread a particular understanding of the term Saxo. In this way, they contributed to an ongoing discourse on Saxon identity. This study has looked into four ‘stages’ of this discourse: Saxons from a Roman perspective (ca. 150-500), Saxons from a Merovingian perspective (ca. 550-750), Saxons from a Carolingian perspective (ca. 750-830) and Saxons from a Saxon perspective (ca. 830-900). It has become evident that the term Saxones became ever more narrowly defined. In Roman texts, Saxones typically functioned as a blanket term for barbarian pirates attacking the coasts of Gaul and Britain. In the course of the Saxon Wars (772-804), Frankish historians and legislators came to offer a rather more strict definition of who the Saxons were, or rather, who they should be: a people residing north-east of the Rhine, that stood under Frankish rule and had embraced Christianity. In the eighth century, this definition was still very much contested. Yet it is precisely this definition that stands at the heart of ninth-century Saxon self-perception. Post-conquest Saxons thought of themselves as Christians inhabitants of the…