Who are the Saxons?

Germanic tribes, such as the Franks, Alemanni or Bavarii, had a decisive influence on the political and historical evolution of Europe in the first millennium. Even today, their names and history have given various European regions and countries their territorial identity. This is also true of the Saxons. Their name is still found in various contexts, for example when speaking of the Anglo-Saxon world.

In late classical antiquity, prior to the 5th century, the term ‘saxones’ or ‘Saxons’ was at first only used for pirates and plundering armed bands from the North or for units of Germanic mercenaries in the Roman army. In the Frankish chronicles, from the 6th and 7th centuries onward, the term also describes inhabitants of the area between the Rhine, the Elbe, the central mountainous region of Germany and the North Sea coast. As the immediate northern neighbours of the Frankish Kingdom, the people living in this area increasingly became the focus of the hegemonial ambitions of the Frankish kings. Military campaigns and punitive expeditions by the Christian Franks against these heathen ‘Saxons’, who had no king, were not willing to pay the required tribute and always broke their promises, finally culminated in Charlemagne’s successful ‘Saxon Wars’ between 772 and 805. The decades of resistance against the invader, the forced renunciation of their traditional non-Christian beliefs brutally inflicted on them by Charlemagne, and the imposition of Frankish and ecclesiastical administrative structures, totally changed the social fabric of the early medieval Saxons and destroyed their autochthon culture, which had no written tradition. Certain members of the Saxon elite with their excellent Europe-wide networks were able to make use of this far-reaching and irreversible process to extend their own power and territories. One of the leading families in the 9th century achieved an unparalleled ascent: after being awarded the title of Duke of the Saxons by the Franks, the family – also known today as the Liudolfings – attained royal status in the Frankish Kingdom at the beginning of the 10th century in the person of Henry I. Under Henry’s rule and that of his son and successor, Otto I, the present-day southeastern part of Lower Saxony became a core area of what was henceforth the East Frankish-German Kingdom.

Numerous archaeological finds and features, together with the continuous development of scientific methods and a change in paradigms in the study of ethno-genetic processes in the early Middle Ages, have fundamentally revised the traditional understanding of the history of the Saxons, which in many aspects had been dominated by research carried out in the 19th century. Earlier views held that the early medieval Saxons, against whom war was waged by the Frankish kings, were an ancient Germanic tribe that had originally inhabited the Lower Elbe area and, from the Roman Iron Age (1st – 4th centuries) into the 6th and 7th centuries, gradually settled on the North German Plain as far as the central mountainous area – or had at least brought these areas under their control. From the 5th century onwards, members of this expanding tribe, together with some of the Angles, took part as conquerors and immigrants in the momentous Germanic invasion of Britain.

Today, we know that this expansion theory is false. Archaeologists have been able to demonstrate that the inhabitants of northwestern Germany in the first millennium consisted of autochthon groups that, almost without exception, from the Roman Iron Age to the High Middle Ages were firmly settled and very different from one another in many ways. It was with the confrontation with the Frankish Kingdom and, especially, the supra-regionally organised resistance against Charlemagne that these people slowly developed a common, unifying ‘Saxon’ identity that went beyond the individual regions and groups. This Saxon identity first manifested itself in a discernable common territory on the lands belonging to the Dukedom of Saxony, which had been officially established by the Franks in the 9th century.

The contribution made by these people to the germanization of Britain can already be observed in the texts written by British, but also continental, historians of the day: from the 8th century onwards, they speak of the inhabitants of England as ‘anglisaxones’ or ‘Angli Saxones’ and thus obviously refer to their historical connection – whatever its nature – with the Saxons on the Continent. This thus recorded participation of Saxons (and Angles, who probably came from the North German-Danish area) in the ethno-genesis of what is still known as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ population of the British Isles is seen today as an extremely complex process, which had already started in the first half of the 5th century and which, over many generations, was based on a constant exchange – for whatever reasons – of goods, people and ideas between the inhabitants of the North Sea coastal regions of the Netherlands, northwestern Germany and Denmark, and the then inhabitants of England, i.e. a multi-factor migration process that cannot be adequately defined as an ‘invasion’ or ‘emigration’ and is at present the subject of heated scholarly debate.

Author: B. Ludowici

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