This lecture was held in Spring 2018
This text, is based on the book “At Elder shrines” – Exploring the Pagan Franks, and was slightly edited to prepare it for publication. It was originally written in German, but as interest arose outside Germany I translated it in English and Dutch.
Yet, actually it should have been proofread and edited by a skilled native English speaking person, but no one was found at that time. So, please take this raw translation as it is, and put your focus on the contents rather than on correct grammar. 🙂
When is talked today about the Franks, then, the name of Charlemagne is often mentioned early in the conversation; that famous Frankish ruler, who died in 814. In addition to much positive about him, especially when is argued against the church of those time, also negative things on this ruler is brought in. Tho the latter, usually in the first place the “Verden blood court” in 782 is mentioned, where 4500 Saxons should have been killed by order of Charles. That at that time actually something intervening happened, is not denied, because quit soon after that year the resistance of the Saxons broke together largely. Historians today, however, doubt this event partially or at all. On the one hand there is the view that many Saxons were not killed, but resettled or enslaved, because in the area of this place no evidence of such a massacre was found – such massacres are usually proved by soil finds, and there are no grave fields found that could indicate such numerous deaths. On the other hand, it is believed that quite a few Saxons indeed were killed, but then their number is disputed, e.g. the view exists that only the ‘ringleaders’ were executed.
Adducing Björn Emigholz, the Verden city archivist, who even does not want to commit himself to a number, although he is convinced that something very dramatic must have happened then,
“… even if he is convinced that something very dramatic must have happened at that time. After all, shortly after that the resistance of the Saxons collapsed. That is why Emigholz starts out from a particularly deterrent action by Charlemagne – to which he had otherwise every right. “He had been betrayed by the Saxons, and according to both Frankish and Saxon law, he could have had 4500 or even more of them executed,” explains the Verden city archivist.
For two reasons however, such a high number does not seem realistic to him: Firstly, the area was not heavily populated at the time and therefore it would have been difficult to even get together 4,500 people. And secondly, the logistical and personnel expenditure for Charlemagne to capture so many people and then execute them would hardly have been possible at that time.
But all this is just told as an introducing sideline, more important in the context of this lecture is, that in 768 Charlemagne took up an inheritance whose foundations had been laid several centuries earlier. It all began as early as the third century, when Germanic bands of robbers raid Roman Gaul in search of rich prey, and in this context the name ‘Franks’ appeared for the first time.
It is the time period of Late Antiquity. This name is a term for a transitional period between Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, which is recorded only since the mid-19th century. This transitional period began in the late 3rd century and ended in the 2nd half of the 6th century, it lasted a little less than 3 centuries.
The power of the Roman Empire was declining; in Late Antiquity it no longer had the military dominance that existed at the time of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus.
The Roman army was seething, it had been long spoiled with many benefits, and emperors who wanted to reverse this trend had to pay for it with their lives. The demanding attitude of the soldiers may have been one of the reasons for later emperors to rely more and more on ‘barbarian’ warriors.
High expenditure on the army also made the economic situation in Rome threateningly bad, and at various borders of the empire subjugated peoples and neighbors started bestirring.
In the east of the empire there was a century-long war; first with the Parthians and then with the Sassanids who had taken over the Parthian Empire.
A German map of the Parthian Empire shown by the clear green and yellow parts. The Sassanids extended it to the detriment of the Roman Empire. -The red borders mark the Sasanid Empire.
Not only did thousands of soldiers die, it also tied entire armies in that area, and the financial outlay was gigantic.
In addition, from the East Asian steppe peoples and the Goths approached, and as they reached the borders of the Roman Empire, additional heavy border conflicts arose.
Even in the heart of the Empire, things did not stay calm; There was a constant coming and going of Emperors, and usually they did not die in a natural way.
It was no longer possible to permanently control the borders with armies, it even happened quite often, that hardly any border protection existed, because some emperor needed the soldiers to fight counter-emperors.
And at that time along the Lower Rhine there was a group of small Germanic peoples, whose warriors in previous years had served in the Roman army, and therefore knew well of the wealth of the Romans, but they possessed that themselves scarcely or not at all.
On the one hand, they were certainly attracted by the prosperity of the relatively peaceful and thriving Gaul. On the other hand were their own settlement areas endangered by other Germanic peoples and by the first fleeing tribes from eastern areas. Thus, it may have been quite possible that those small Germanic peoples sought new residential areas or treasures to protect the security of their residential areas with tribute payments to stronger neighbors.
When the Roman imperial border was no longer continuously guarded, these smaller peoples united their warriors and started raiding the rich Roman Gaul – together they were strong enough to defy the remaining Roman army units. These purposeful alliances were called Franks by Gaulish and Roman people.
A=North Sea, B=Zuiderzee (IJsselmeer – Lake IJssel), C=Rhine, D=IJssel, E=Maas (Meuse), F=Schelde, G=Seine, H=Marne
This map can not make it definitely clear, that these peoples were indeed the first Franks. Which ones those exactly were, remains hidden in the fog of history, probably Roman historians could not really differentiate the various Germanic tribes on the other side of the Rhine. It is even probable, that their references relied on centuries-old writings in which the names of those peoples were documented. But since some of these peoples have been associated with the Franks early on, their mentioning may be rather correct here. In any case, the peoples, whose names are written in red on the map, are counted among the first Franks.
The early Franks themselves have not left written records of their life and their undertakings, but their actions ensured that Roman and Gallo-Roman authors did so.
A Roman writer tells about Frankish robber bands around the year 250:
… the tribes of Franks plundered Gaul and established themselves in Spain, where they devastated and almost plundered the city of Tarraco [Tarragona]; yes, some of them invaded Africa on ships that had been fallen into their hands …
According to this, it would be reasonable to assume that from about the middle of the third century some Germanic peoples joined forces to form the ‘Franks’.
These and other reports on the Franks were observations from the outside, in many such references the Franks had to serve as losers to praise Roman emperors.
The first written report with this intention was a praise in the solemn speech to celebrate the birthdays of the two emperors Diocletian and Maximian (284-305), which was held in 291. The section in which Emperor Diocletian is praised reads:
… I also do not mention those acts which are accomplished by the sheer terror of your arms, as by your own arms: the Franks, who came with their king to ask for peace, and the Parthian, who with miraculous gifts and blandishments sought to win your friendship.
Several Roman sources report that the Franks raided not only by land, but also by water. Previously, the coasts of Spain were already mentioned in this context. But along with allies they also attacked London (Londinium).
Besides, the Franks, with their extensive raids in Gaul, were not the first to do such things in that century. From 213, the Germanic peoples of the Alamanni began to cross the Upper Germanic Limes border in the southern half of Germany for their robberies at Roman territory. In the years 233/234 they even undertook raids as far as southern Gaul. The early Franks are very likely supposed to have followed this example, which they certainly knew of. For the small Germanic tribes from the Lower Rhine basin, this might even have been the impetus to combine their warriors to intertribal bands, to undertake forays following the example of the Alamannic raids.
So, it is not unusual that the Franks continue to appear in many Latin and Greek writings. Once formed, they were quite active, both as enemies of Rome and some time later also as their federates; this term refers to peoples allied with Rome. There are also reports in the sources of Franks who were in Roman military service elsewhere in the Empire.
As enemies of Rome, it did not just stick to a few raids. Not even after Roman army units chased plundering Franks, beat them and drove them back across the Rhine. For a long time there was no end to the Frankish ‘undertakings’. In the following years, the Franks repeatedly crossed the Limes (frontier of the Empire), destroyed Roman camps and forts near the cities of Xanten, Krefeld, Nijmegen and Tongeren, plundered the cities of Bitburg and Trier and left a trail of devastation on their way along the Meuse deep into Gaul. After they had destroyed in 275 several Roman camps, like that of of Vetera II (Xanten), the Rhine border in the northern section between the city of Arnhem and the North Sea seems to have remained largely unsecured temporarily. Finally, the then Roman emperors succeeded in securing the borders again to some extent, but this was not least due to the fact that Emperor Probus under conditions authorized Franks to settle on Roman territory south of the Lower Rhine.
And also under Emperor Maximian, who ruled together with Diocletian as emperor of the Roman Empire from 286 to 305, smaller groups of Franks were allowed to settle in somewhat emtied areas of the Gaulish Nervii and Treveri peoples in northwestern Gaul.
And under Emperor Julian, the last pagan emperor, who died in 363, more Franks were allowed to settle in Gaul.
The historian Ammianus wrote about it:
After such preparations he first turned against the Franks, namely to those who were usually called Salians, and who once boldly dared to build their residences on Roman soil in the area of Toxandria. […] because of his victory he was swayed to a fair share of leniency and accepted them who surrendered with their fortune and their children.
About the reason why Emperor Julian allowed the Salians to stay in Toxandria, different opinions exist. It could be that Julian wished to win them as allies (federates), instead of battling them, it would also be possible for him to accept them as subjugated inhabitants of the empire, who were obliged to contribute to the army with auxiliary troops. Regardless, this is probably the first time that und Julian a whole Frankish tribe had been able to settle permanently at Roman territory in Gaul.
In addition, quite a time before this happened, it is assumed that continuously individual Germanic families migrated to and settled in Gaul and mingled there with the local population.
This map shows the progress of the settlement of Frankish peoples in Gaul. We should not just associate the name of Gaul or Gallia with today’s France. In Late Antiquity, it included a larger area, as shown here:
To make things a little more confusing, my one and only treat, and its reason is certainly not easy to understand: the Roman administrative areas were reorganized in Late Antiquity. A group of provinces together formed a diocese – it may now be clear where this term comes from, which is used today in church administration. This is a map of the Roman diocese of Gaul:
Regarding the Franks in the west and those in the east, a different treatment by the Romans can be observed; while those in the west could remain in the area where they had settled or even been resettled, those who lived south of the northern Lower Rhine area on the right bank of the Rhine, were mercilessly driven back each time they wanted to settle in new territories under Roman rule. The ‘Western Franks’ were able to live as a ‘people’ inside the Roman Empire and, although initially confined to certain degrees, could increasingly participate in the Gallo-Roman culture. This Roman concession will undoubtedly have contributed to the later rise of these Franks.
So far only this short sketch.
Let me return now to the initial beginnings of the Franks, several indications exist for the assumption that the instigators of the Frankish merger came from the Salian people. For that I would like to make a small digression:
In the first century, the Roman historian Tacitus mentioned the people of the Chauci, who lived along the North Sea coast in the north of Germany and the Netherlands. He wrote about them:
… the Chauci; a people the noblest of the Germanics, who choose to maintain their greatness by justice rather than violence. Without ambition, without ungoverned desires, quiet and retired, they provoke no wars, they are guilty of no rapine or plunder; and it is a principal proof of their power and bravery, that the superiority they possess has not been acquired by unjust means. Yet all have arms in readiness; and, if necessary, an army is soon raised: for they abound in men and horses, and maintain their military reputation even in inaction.
Germania, Ch. 35
The Latin name Chauci probably refers to two peoples, called ‘Greater’ and “Lesser’ Chauci. The Lesser Chauci are said to have lived west and southwest of the Greater Chauci until far into the Dutch province of Groningen. These Lesser Chauci certainly did not designate themselves with that Latin name, which probably originated from the verbal Germanic wording spoken to Romans. This name may have been Hugas or Hugons. Its core area was probably Hugmerki or Hugumarchi, the name of a landscape in the Dutch province of Groningen, an area between the city of Groningen to the Wadden Sea and a part of the adjacent German Emsland. The passed-down name can be translated as: The Land, the Mark or the district of the Hugas.
It is believed today that this people did not want to submit to the invading Saxons and therefore moved southward.
Perhaps it is based on what Pliny the Elder wrote about them, telling they were a poor people who lived on a barren coast, but that, even though they had nothing of value, they would deeply resent any attempt to conquer them.
On their migration they wandered through the territory of other small peoples and these either joined voluntarily because they too were harassed, or were defeated and then absorbed. The resulting mixed people first settled in the basin of the river IJssel, a tributary of the Rhine. This people got their new name from the Romans, who often designated peoples with geographical names. In Roman times the river IJssel was known under the names Isala, i-sala and Sala. Other old names are Isla or Isala. The Latin name Salii in this context, in current English Salians, may well be related to this river name.
Several circumstances caused that they after awhile moved further south and when they crossed the homeland of the Batavians, probably also the remains of this once famous people integrated in the Salians. Before that, probably the Tubanti, the Cugerni and (parts of) the Sugambri peoples also were incorporated in the Salians.
On the next map this migration trail is explained:
When the name ‘Franks came into use, the Salians had probably formed a coalition with other neighboring tribes, they possibly had even taking the initiative for that with the aim to undertake forays on the rich Gallic territory – after all, they did had experience with such raids. This view is supported by the fact that it is often assumed that the first incursions took place by sea with the Scheldt estuary as the starting point – and the Chauci were once known as famous sailors and pirates.
Through a chain of circumstantial evidence the assumption is supported that while the ‘Greater Chauci’ were integrated in the tribal confederation of the Saxons, the ‘Lesser Chauci’ were a major factor for the coming into being of the Franks.
In addition, the view is a widely accepted that the ‘birth’ of the Franks took place in and north of the Dutch Rhine area – including the river basin of the river IJssel, extended to western Munsterland in today’s Germany.
So far this digression.
Of course, the state of flux was going on, very much happened before Frankish kings dominated almost all of Western Europe. The first Frankish leaders were literally first and foremost warlords, leading their followers on forays. The more successful the warlord, the more followers he got. So, there would be much more to tell, but I leave it at this sketch, for I would like to say also a few words about the hopeless struggle of the pagan Franks, Gauls, and Romans against the advancing Christianity.
As the in Gaul settled Franks, who gradually became Gauls with a Germanic immigrant background, rose to serious power factors – filling the military gap created by the withdrawal of the Roman army – the Christian church had already largely consolidated throughout Gaul Their bishops came almost exclusively from noble Gallo-Roman families, who previously had provided members for the Roman senate. They were both secular and religious leaders, and because they joined up with pagan Frankish warlords, they also had armies at their disposal. For, not religion had priority for bishops and Frankish leaders, but power and sway.
With the expansion of their territory in Gaul, the pagan, polytheistic Franks also incorporated urban areas in which the population was predominantly Christian. However, this difference in religion was not an issue – the basis of the Frankish territorial expansion was based on secular claims to power and had no ‘missionary’ goals.
While Christianity in Gaul consisted of two streams, which were Catholic and Arian, each of which was fairly uniform and well organized and interconnected, paganism consisted of Franks and partially Gauls, was a completely disorganized cluster of many autonomous cults, and had neither the structure nor the religious Principle to oppose Christianity in a similar way, and thus were fighting a losing battle.
Because of the clear social advantages there may have been many pagans who, at least formally, joined the Christian communities for practical reasons. Because, from the 3rd century, for example, these communities laid out and maintained their own cemeteries to provide their members with appropriate burials. And because they were well organized for the time, they were also able to provide shelter and protection to the needy.
Emperor Julian who himself was a pagan and tried to restore Rome back to its pagan roots and to get rid of the Christians, gave some clues how early Christianity was able to spread successfully, telling:
Atheism has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal … that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
The term ‘atheists’ was at that time the branding for the Christians, because of their phisically godless and imageless worship.
Emperor Julian. (Latin: Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus, 331 – 363). Because of his promotion of paganism the Christian church called him Julian the Apostate.
Emperor Julian was the pagan emperor and he abhorred Christianity, all subsequent emperors were Christians.
At first very careful, evangelization developed throughout Gaul; The pagan Franks, who possessed military power, were initially largely left in peace with that, but in the 6th century, according to the sources, there appeared to be compulsory conversion and forced baptism in the Frankish kingdom and among the Franks. No wonder that at the time there were people who were formally Christians, but secretly practiced their pagan beliefs. For all missionaries the pagan deities were devils – that was reduced to a simple denominator: the god of Christians is good, other gods are evil (devils) and accordingly the followers of the Christian God are the good and all the others the bad ones.
In the 6th century, paganism was pushed back to the point where pagan practices took place only in the private sphere, in homes, in forests, and in deeply hidden places of worship in nature. They had become an ‘invisible problem’ and, like secret cults in the Roman Empire, this secrecy was viewed as a threat by the emperors. It was probably also rightly assumed that there were people who publicly professed Christianity, but secretly pursued the old pagan customs. By that, they at least partially defied the control of the church.
In the transitional period between practiced paganism and the spread of Christianity, differences between religions certainly in the countryside had little meaning for the people. They took what was available and their religious practice was often a mixture of Christianity and paganism. Pagan customs were placed in a Christian context, the God of Christians was worshiped together with pagan deities, Christian and pagan statues were put together – the practical countryman hedged his bets. At old pagan places of worship, where stones were erected, additional crosses were placed. There were Christian priests who foretold the future they ‘read’ from the entrails of animals. The Christian followers of the Druids mixed ‘magical practice’ of works of Roman paganism and turned it into new Christian-magical practices.
In the intermarriage of ordinary pagans and Christians, both Christianity and paganism may have had its place in the beginning, but later, in many cases ,pagans may at least have publicly become Christians. Therefore, when the famous King Clovis was baptized, the Christian faith had partially established itself already among the Frankish Gauls.
Many Acts of the Saints narrate about the effort of proselytizing and other experiences related to pagan gods. Some examples can underline this. This is added by the commentaries of the editor of my book about the Pagan franks while she worked on it:
Gregory of Tours tells in his “The Life of the Fathers” about an event that happened to Bishop Nicetius of Trier (525 / 26-566):
One day while on a journey he descended from his horse to answer a call of nature among thick bushes, and behold! there appeared to him a frightful shade, of great height, of huge size, black in colour, with an immense number of sparkling eyes, like those of a furious bull, and a large mouth that stood open as if ready to eat up the man of God. But when he made the sign of the cross against it, it vanished like ascending smoke. There is no doubt that the prince of crime had shown himself to him.
Edward James, p. 110
My editor commented:
I really would like to know, what those, who had such apparitions, had consumed previously, to let me avoid such stuff.
The Holy Radegundis (520–587), a daughter of King Berthachar of Thuringia, was forced into marriage with the Frankish Merovingian king Clothar I (Also: Chlotachar, ca. 495–561). After she had left her husband, she founded the first convent (nunnery) of Europe. Her vita (hagiography) was for the most part written by Venantius Fortunatus (540–ca. 605) and was shortly after the year 600 completed by the nun Baudonivia. The addition of the latter narrates about something Radegundis experienced while she one time was traveling through the lands:
… about a mile from the blessed queen’s route, there was a fane where the Franks worshipped. Hearing that, she ordered her servants to burn the fane revered by the Franks with fire for she judged that it was iniquitous to show contempt for God in Heaven and venerate the Devil’s instruments. Hearing of it a crowd of Franks tried to defend the place with sword and clubs shouting and all stirred up by the Devil …
Yitzhak Hen, p. 192
The comment of my editor:
One would like to congratulate Chlothar belatedly on the loss of this lovely wife.
Many pagan sanctuaries had been destroyed, the map below shows those ones, whose existence has been documented:
This affects both Gaulish and Germanic places of worship. But certainly, there will have been existed much more of those sacred places, especially those that had no buildings, but were marked. just with some wood or stones at places in the forests.
Members of the Catholic clergy thought to recognize signs of demonic acting in many larger and smaller events i.e., the presence of pagan gods. When a candle in a church was doused by a bird passing by, or when instead of in the morning a cock crowed in the night, those things were considered bad signs, caused by pagan gods (demons). For deformed or abnormally grown plants and trees, which did not flourish at ordinary times, similar was thought.
When a fly tried to sit in a presbyter’s mug and could not be simply chased away, he made the sign of the cross with his right hand above the mug, whereupon it broke to pieces and the drink flowed in large arcs to the ground.
Translated from Margarete Weidemann, vol. 2, p. 161
My editor commented:
He was so drunk that he hit the cup itself, he did not strike at something above it at all.
The sacrificial meals obviously were not only held inside the house, as an imperial decree of the year 407 documents:
It is also completely forbidden to hold in honor of a godless rite, banquets at burial sites, or to commit there any kind of solemn act.
Translated from Karl Leo Noethlichs in Oort etc., Heiden und Christen, p. 30
The ironic comment of the editor:
Uch! funeral meals are to be prohibited at once! Immediately! No more sitting together after a burial and eating and drinking! It is all pagan! Yuck!
Many followers of pagan cults in Late Antiquity, both civilians and soldiers, have religiously ‘conformed’ themselves under the various Roman emperors and later under Clovis after his baptism.
Public sacrifices were only celebrated at times when they were permitted or prescribed (the latter, for example, under Emperor Julian), and they were omitted when appropriate prohibitions were issued by Christian emperors. Because in Gaul, both Roman emperors and army commanders, as well as Clovis I and his sons, basically could not trust in the loyalty of the people to their leaders, they were, by no means voluntarily, more or less forced to show religious tolerance to not give in this respect reasons which could cause tension and discontent among the soldiers and the population.
And what was practiced of pagan cults in the private sphere, remained for a long time entirely outside the control of the church leaders. Later it was the church leaders in particular, who ‘dictated’ their kings to issue bans on such things.
Therefore, if it is asserted for a particular region that Christianization was accomplished at a specified time, then such a statement should be viewed with restraint. Officially, the people in the area may have been labeled as Christians, their religious behavior, which is often characterized pejoratively as remnants of isolated ancient customs, may have been well living paganism for a longer time. Moreover, according to the sense of the term, it is unknown how long a secret worship of the ancient gods existed. It is unlikely that in the ninth century on the Western European mainland only Saxons were still in great numbers pagans. In more remote areas of Gaul, there must have been practiced hidden paganism in the forests, probably also under the Franks.
There are no names of the native gods of the Franks passed down. Various Christian sources name gods who were worshiped by Franks, however, not the native names are used, but Roman equivalents instead. A description of a wedding procession as an example:
The procession was concomitant jewelry and armament: they carried curved lances and throwing axes in the right and covered their left side with shields whose outer side shone silver and the shield bosses golden, which expressed likewise the prosperity as well as the diligence of the owner. As for the rest, everything was in such a way that in the whole wedding procession the splendor of Mars and that of Venus was expressed equally.
Which Frankish gods may be meant here can only be guessed. And not only Germanic gods come into consideration, but also Gaulish and Roman ones – because meanwhile the Franks were largely Gallo-Romanized.
The votivaltar of the picture above is dedicated to the Rhine god, Latin: Rheno Patri, father Rhine. But we do not know his real name, the name he was called by the local population. He was probably worshiped by Franks, but it is not even known whether he was originally a Germanic or Gaulish god.
This also applies to the small statue of a river goddess, which was found in the Dutch Lower Rhine area. She will probably have been Germanic, but her name is unknown.
Therefore, when it comes to Frankish gods, we must rely on names of deities that were worshiped before the Franks appear in history, venerated by the peoples who later became Franks. And then we can choose from a large number of Germanic, Gaulish, Roman and even Sarmatian gods.
I would like to conclude this lecture by briefly mentioning the two main factors as to why the Franks could act as they did and even could grow to a major European power.
First, there was the strong Sasanian Empire in Asia Minor, which was hostile to Rome. Due to that, the Roman Empire could not deploy its full military power in the West; the Frankish peoples likely would not have survived that.
And probably the Franks owe it even more to the Vandals, who, in the fifth century, with their conquest of territories in North Africa, stroke the Empire in its economic heart, where the emperor’s most important “granary” at that time was located. And that turned away definitely the attention of the Western Roman administration from Gaul and Germania.
There is much more to tell about this time of the early Franks, only fragments could be included in this talk. If your interest has awakened, you might be interested in a book I published about it. The book is called “At Elder Shrines – Exploring the Pagan Franks”.
You will find the book together with other ones I wrote by going to the top menu-item Books, and click at Bookshelf. Click there at the book and you will get some info about it, including a link for ordering.
And that completes this talk, thank you for your kind attention.