Saxon Capitularies

Saxon Capitularies
   Two laws issued by Charlemagne during his prolonged conquest of Saxony, 772-804, the Saxon Capitularies were intended to promote the conversion of the Saxons to Christianity, which was an essential component of Charlemagne's conquest. The two capitularies, issued about twelve years apart, reveal two different approaches to conversion of the Saxons, approaches determined, in part, by the progress of the conquest of Saxony.
   The first capitulary, the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae (Capitulary concerning the parts of Saxony), was issued by Charlemagne at an assembly at the palace at Paderborn in 785. It was issued shortly after the suppression of the revolt of the Saxon leader Widukind, during a period in which extreme acts of violence and brutality were committed by both sides. Beyond the revolt against Carolingian authority, the Saxons attacked and destroyed churches and harmed and killed priests and monks who had been engaged in missionary activity. In his turn, Charlemagne not only put down the revolt but also massacred some 4,500 Saxons at Verdun and forcibly moved a large number of Saxons into Frankish territory. Consequently, the Saxon capitulary of 785 was a draconian law that sought to impose Christianity on the Saxons by the same force that Charlemagne applied in imposing Carolingian political authority. The various decrees in the first Saxon capitulary included penalties of death for forced entry into a church, stealing from a church, eating meat during Lent, killing a priest or bishop, and refusing baptism. Death was also imposed on those who follow pagan burial rites, perform human sacrifice, or burn anyone believed to be a witch. Charlemagne also enacted a number of heavy fines in the capitulary, including fines for contracting an unlawful marriage, refusing to baptize an infant, and praying in groves of trees or at springs. The capitulary further demanded payment of the tithe to the church and forbade meetings other than church services on Sundays. Finally, the capitulary of 785 included a number of chapters establishing Carolingian government and administration.
   The second capitulary, the Capitulare Saxonicum (Capitulary concerning the Saxons), was issued at the new imperial capital of Aachen in 797. This capitulary was also conditioned by events in the conquest of Saxony and also followed a revolt of the Saxons that was mercilessly suppressed by the great king. But the revolt and enactment of the capitulary followed a long missionary and military campaign in Saxony. Indeed, following the first publication of the first Saxon capitulary, Charlemagne continued to engage in the process of evangelization in Saxony that followed the harsh conditions set out in the ruling of 785. His treatment of the Saxons was so harsh that his closest advisor, Alcuin, complained to the king about it. By 797, Charlemagne contended that the conversion of Saxony had been completed, even though the military campaigns continued for several more years. The Capitulare Saxonicum, therefore, was shaped to fit the new conditions and was, therefore, a much less harsh law. It offered the milk and honey of the faith rather than the iron of the sword. Although there is no indication that the earlier capitulary was no longer in effect, the capitulary of 797 abandoned the rigid regime of death sentences and instead proposed various fines for any failure to live as a good Christian. Charlemagne's efforts ultimately bore fruit; the region eventually accepted Carolingian rule and the Christian faith, and in the tenth century Saxony was one of the great centers of medieval Christianity as well as of a resurgence of Carolingian political ideas.
   See also
 ♦ "Paderborn, 785 (Capitulary concerning the parts of Saxony)" and "Concerning the Saxons, 797," in Readings in Medieval History, ed. Patrick J. Geary. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1989, pp. 316-320.
 ♦ Ganshof, François Louis. Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne. Trans. Bryce Lyon and Mary Lyon. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1968.
 ♦ Halphen, Louis. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Trans. Giselle de Nie. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1977.
 ♦ Loyn, Henry R. and John Percival, trans. The Reign of Charlemagne. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Carolingians and the Written Word. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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