EPISODE 104 – The Making of Holstein

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In today’s episode we finally get closer to the history of the Hanseatic League. We will take a closer look at some of the fundamental changes in the Saxon policy towards the east that were ushered in during the reign of Lothar of Supplinburg and shaped events for a long period thereafter. It is in these decades that the Saxon magnates will realise that raiding and plundering of the lands east of the Elbe is no longer the financially most attractive option. A great organised migration from the overpopulated Rhineland, Holland and Flanders into Northern Germany begins.

What we will look at specifically is the county of Holstein and its brand-new counts, the lords of Schauenburg. These ambitious and proactive family will develop these lands and found or re-found two of the most significant cities of the Hanseatic league, Lubeck and Hamburg.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 104 – The Making of Holstein

In today’s episode we finally get closer to the history of the Hanseatic League. We will take a closer look at some of the fundamental changes in the Saxon policy towards the east that were ushered in during the reign of Lothar of Supplinburg and shaped events for a long period thereafter. It is in these decades that the Saxon magnates will realise that raiding and plundering of the lands east of the Elbe is no longer the financially most attractive option. A great organised migration from the overpopulated Rhineland, Holland and Flanders into Northern Germany begins.

What we will look at specifically is the county of Holstein and its brand-new counts, the lords of Schauenburg. These ambitious and proactive family will develop these lands and found or re-found two of the most significant cities of the Hanseatic league, Lubeck and Hamburg.

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Anders B., Sherrylyn B., Felipe A. and Andreas A. who have already signed up.

Last week we talked about Lothar of Supplinburg and how he transformed the political structure of the duchy of Saxony, turning it from a loose federation under a nominal duke into a much more centralised entity. Part of his success was down to his HR policy. He installed loyal men into key positions, often by disregarding the wishes of his emperor Henry V who he had comprehensively defeated at the battle of Westenholz.

These men, and at this stage they are all men, will found dynasties that will determine the fate of Northern Europe for centuries to come. And these are Konrad of Wettin, whose family will become the electors of Saxony and ultimately kings of Poland, Albrecht the Baer, who will create the margraviate of Brandenburg and whose family, the Ascanier or dukes of Anhalt will rule lands in Sachsen Anhalt until 1918, Henry the Proud, head of the house of Welf whose family will be best known to the Anglo Saxon listeners as the kings of Hannover and then the kings of England. The fourth of these men was Adolph of Schauenburg who was given the county of Holstein, and Holstein is what we will talk about today.

Geographically Holstein is the lower part of the Jutland Peninsula, that piece of land that separates the North Sea from the Baltic. Its southern border is the river Elbe and its northern border is the river Eider, or in terms of cities, it stretches from Hamburg to Kiel and from Lubeck to the North Sea coast.

Holstein first appears in the historic records when Charlemagne shows up in the 770s. The people who lived North of the Elbe were the most obstinate of the Saxon tribes. To break their resistance Charlemagne had large numbers of them deported into the south. If you see names like Sachsenheim or Sachsenhausen in Franconia, these may be places where these unfortunates have been brought. Then Charlemagne invited the Slavic Obodrites, specifically the tribe of the Wagrarians to settle in Holstein. In 811 Charlemagne had confirmed Denmark in its control of Schleswig, the territory north of the Eider River. The Wagrarians were supposed to form some sort of buffer state against an invasion by the Danish Vikings.

However, by 814 some of the Saxons had returned and Holstein was split between the Wagrarians and other Obodrites in the eastern parts and the Saxon population in the west. Between them lay what Adam of Bremen called the Limes Saxoniae. That was a bit of an exaggeration suggesting a sort of Hadrian’s wall similar to the Roman Limes that separated the Roman empire from the Germans. In reality it was just a no man’s land between the two populations made up of bogs and thick forest with barely any walls or fortifications.

The Wagrarians were part of the Abodrites Federation, the same federation you may remember that was led by our friend Gottschalk. These Federations are relatively loose arrangements and as we will see the Wagrarians were not always aligned with the other Obodrites.

As for the Saxons in the western parts of Holstein, they comprised three distinct groups. There were the Holsten who gave their name to the county, then the Stormarns who lived around Hamburg and the Dithmarscher who settled along the North Sea coast.

These groups had retained their ancient Germanic traditions well into the 12th century. That means that instead of succumbing to the feudal order under some count or baron, the free peasants of Holstein bowed to no one. They organised their society through the ting where all decisions were taken, and temporary military leaders were chosen should the need arise. This system of a free peasant’s republic persisted in Dithmarschen until the late 16th century. Dithmarschen is today a part of Holstein, but had remained under the rather theoretical overlordship of the counts of Stade and later the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen until the 16th century, not the Schauenburg counts of Holstein.

Interspersed within the western part of the county were some castles initially built and maintained by the dukes of Saxony and now enfeoffed to the Shauenburgs.

In terms of towns or larger villages, there was Hamburg. But at the time, Hamburg, despite being formally the seat of an archbishop was not much to write home about. The first archbishop, Ansgar had built a wooden cathedral, but in the subsequent centuries the settlement had been regularly attacked and burned down by Vikings and Slavs, so that the population had shrunk to maybe a few hundred huddled around the sole church that stood on what is today the Domplatz.

The major trading centres in the region were Stade, on the western shore of the Elbe and hence not in Holstein and Haithabu, the Danish trading port just outside modern-day Schleswig, i.e., also not in Holstein.

The major settlement of the Wagrarier was Oldenburg and it seems that Ploen had also become at least a large village. And finally as we have heard in the episode about Gottschalk and Adalbert, the son of Gottschalk and his successor as leader of the Abodrites, Henry had based himself in Liubice, or old Luebeck, a Slavic settlement at the mouth of the Trave River just outside the modern city of Luebeck.

As for the relationship between all these groups, we can read in Helmond von Bosau that the Saxon communities in Holsten and Stormarn would regularly come to the aid of Henry, the prince of the Abodrites in his conflicts with other Slavic tribes, be that the Wagrarians or the Rani. The Rani, inhabitants of the island of Ruegen had replaced the Lutizi as guardians of the most important shrine of the pagan deities and general shield bearer of the old gods.

In 1111 this patchwork of peoples and castles was granted to Adolph of Schauenburg as the County of Holstein. He was a nobleman from further south. Their castle, the Schaumburg lay between Minden and Hannover.

The County of Holstein was, to use modern management speak, an opportunity. Not only did the new count have to deal with the Slavic neighbours, the hostile Wagrarians who had just killed his predecessor as well as Henry, the powerful prince of the Abodrites. On top of these two he also had to contend with the local Saxon population that had as much desire to subject themselves to some southern aristocrat as their Slavic neighbours. In terms of resources, he had a handful of castles and that was pretty much it. And before I forget, his other neighbours, the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen and the King of Denmark both did not much like ducal authority in their backyard either and that animosity extended to the duke’s vassal, the count of Holstein.

At this point the question for our brand-new count is, what shall he do. Until now the standard strategy for a count put in charge of a territory bordering the Slavic lands was simple. Raise an army or failing that a band of thugs and go burning and plundering in the east.

This has been going on for nearly 200 years now and the strategy has run its course. There is only so many times you can steal the same man’s purse. Economic activity and population in the Slavic territories has likely shrunk under the permanent onslaught. In particular after the defeat of the Lutizi in the 1060s the Saxons had taken the last large remaining stores of gold held at the temple in Radegast. The only large temple and treasure left was now the one on Cap Arcona on the island of Ruegen. Helmond of Bosau tells us that Henry, the prince of the Abodrites had already picked up some of that treasure when he forced the Rani of Ruegen to part with 4,400 mark of silver to avoid their destruction. Plus Ruegen was a long way from the border and any attack required the consent of Henry, who was after all a Christian and technically an ally.

Not only were there no more valuables to be found, the slavery business was also struggling. The end-markets, the Muslim kingdoms in Spain and the court of Constantinople had had begun their 300-year long fight for survival. The former from the Reconquista as small Christian kingdoms led crusades south, and the latter from the dual pressure of Turkish tribes and Frankish crusaders. There was simply not much money available for such fripperies as a root and stem eunuch.

And then we have the gradual Christianisation of the Slavs which made it harder to justify the constant raiding. There is a new generation of missionaries heading east. The first waves led by Adalbert of Prague and Bruno of Querfurt had often been very brief and ineffective affairs. Its protagonists seemed keener on a spectacular martyr’s death than on actual conversion of the heathens.

This next group is better organised and more focused on getting the job done. Two men stand out here, and they could not be more different. On the one hand there is the bishop Otto of Bamberg, scion of the dukes of Meranien. He took it upon himself to convert the Pomeranians, or so we are told. There are some doubts a grand prelate like Otto would actually have spent years going from hovel to hovel convincing the victims of chivalric brutality that Christianity is the religion of forgiveness and love. This work was probably done by members of his church whose names are lost to history. Still he staged two missionary journeys into Pomerania accompanied by 20 priests and a large retinue that so impressed the locals, 22,000 of them took baptism in one great session in 1128.

His counterpart was Vizelin, a man, as Helmond of Bosau writes, who was born to parents who were distinguished more by the probity and goodness than by nobility of birth. Translate – poor people. Vizelin had studied in Minden and Paderborn, had led the cathedral school in Bremen and went to France to further his studies. Vizelin’s first posting as a missionary was in Wippendorf, a nominally Christian village near the no-man’s land that Helmond of Bosau described as an empty wasteland full of misguided half heathens. Vizelin founded a monastery there that he called new minster or Neumünster the name the city has to this day. Vizelin and his comrades did proper missionary work. Preaching relentlessly and where possible protect their flock from attacks.

Vizelin had initially put his hopes in Henry the prince of the Abodrites who was a Christian and hence sympathetic to missionaries. But Henry died before Vizelin really got going and the two sons of Henry began a civil war that killed both of them. After the last member of the family, a small boy, was murdered Knut Lavard, one of the claimants to the ever-disputed Danish throne brought the Abodrites under his control. That did not last long either since Knut too was murdered in the endless Danish succession wars. At that point the Abodrites split up, one part, the Wagrarians were led by Pribislav and the other, based around Mecklenburg by Niklot. Neither of them were Christians and so missionary work slowed down.

In his last act in Holstein, Vicelin convinced the emperor Lothar to build a castle in Segeberg. This castle, one of only three mountaintop castles in Schleswig Holstein became the key military position from where the counts of Holstein controlled their territory. After that Vicelin departed to proselytise amongst the Hevellers in the Northern Marches.

So, thanks to the efforts of Otto of Bamberg, Vicelin and presumably hundreds of unnamed others, the Slavic peoples of the north gradually became Christians making it increasingly difficult to justify attacks on them.

With the plundering model becoming less and less attractive, the question arises, what to do in its stead. For the counts of Holstein and many other territorial lords in the east, the answer came from events elsewhere and well outside their control.

By the 12th century the great economic boom that started around 950 through a combination of climate change and improvements in agriculture is slowly petering out. Not that things got worse, just they did not get better at the same rate they did before. Or more precisely, economic growth did not keep pace with population growth. That means cities and villages are still growing in wealth and power, merchants got rich and tax income for the bishops and princes was still expanding, but the average income per head of population did not.

The region where this was most impactful were Flanders, Holland and the Rhineland. These regions had already been fairly well developed at the beginning of the millennium and by the early the 12th century they reached the end of the line. Most of the forests had been cut down and turned into fields. Wherever it was possible land had been reclaimed from the sea, the swamps had all been drained and the riverbeds straightened. Farmers were using modern ploughs and horses and field management had been refined.

At the same time the traditional landowners who had seen their holdings fragment be it by inheritance, donations to the church or simple mismanagement were replaced by more entrepreneurial ones who reconsolidated holdings and expelled smallholders wherever they could generate more income than the rents they collected. By the 1100s we find a huge population of landless paupers in the western parts of the empire who are living day by day, eating only when they find work.

Bad harvests and freak weather events such as the flooding of the recently reclaimed Dutch lowlands could quickly turn a precarious situation into catastrophic famine. People are leaving their homes to seek new lands where they could farm and feed their children. Hearing of the vast and by now almost depopulated rich farmland in the east many are prepared to leave to seek their fortunes.

The first wave of migrants we hear about dates back to 1106. The Archbishop of Hamburg, Frederick I signed an agreement with a group of settlers allowing them to take land between the Weser and Elbe Rivers. This was uninhabited swampland that was regularly flooded when the tidal Elbe and Weser rivers breached its banks. The Dutch and Flemish immigrants had experience with building dams and ditches and the idea was that they could drain these lands and make them fertile.

The deal sets out that each settler would get a very long and thin strip of land, 140m wide and 3,400m long. This he would hold as a tenant with the right to pass the tenancy to his descendants. The initial rent was extremely generous at just one penny a year and they were released from paying the tithe at least for a time. Where exactly this group went is not explicitly stated but may have been either in what is today called the Alte Land near Hamburg or the mouth of the Weser downriver from Bremen, a region that is still today called Hollerland and where later settler’s contracts have been agreed.

The settlers were allowed to live by their own rules, had their own lower jurisdictions, their own priests and probably maintained their language. Many terms they used in particular as it relates to agriculture and the construction of dykes and ditches remain in the lower German dialects to this day, as do the shape of the fields.

These early waves may have been initiated by the desperate people in Holland or Flanders, but the territorial rulers in the east quickly realised how profitable these new settlements could be and set up a veritable immigration pipeline.

The lord would identify a suitable piece of territory, initially lands that had lain fallow for a long time, either because nobody had ever lived there, or the previous Slavic inhabitants had been wiped out in one of the incessant raids of the last centuries. They would then send agents, so called locators to the large cities in the west and recruit settlers for this territory, offering terms not dissimilar to what had been offered by archbishop Frederick. The locator would organise transport and – once they had arrived – the allocation of the strips of land, the supply of materials and seeds, the design of the villages etc. These guys would then either appoint or become a Schulze, a sort of lower magistrate/mayor of the settlement who would dispense lower justice and collect the rents and tithes for their territorial lord.

If you find villages not just in Holstein that have a first name and -dorf at the end, such as Petersdorf, Sipsdorf, Lubbersdorf, these are typically named after the locator who had brought the settlers there.

The settlement process in Holstein started on the Elbe River as Dutch and Flemish immigrants drained the swamps on the Northern shore. They built dykes for instance in Vierlande south of Hamburg that turned this empty stretch into a breadbasket famous for its fruit and vegetables. Other centres of colonisation were in the no-man’s land between the Holsten and the Slavs, around Segeberg, Neumuenster and Oldesloe. After the Slavic Wagrier had been comprehensively defeated in the 1140s, the colonisation moved further east. The first settlements there were around Eutin and Lutjenburg. Oldenburg in Holstein had been an old Slavic settlement and you may remember that Gottschalk established a bishopric there that had to be abandoned after his fall. The bishop now returned, and a new church is constructed.

After 1160 recruitment spread wider and locators were sent into Westphalia and Eastphalia as well as the low countries. TheWestphalians settled further south around Ratzeburg.

A church tax inventory gives an idea of the scale of the change. In 1194 the bishopric of Ratzeburg counted 35 villages as payers of tithes in its area. By 1230, 35 years later, this had risen to 125. In the next 70 years it would grow by another third.

All this gets us to the question to what extent these settlements were created at the expense of the Slavic population who had lived there before, a question that is obviously highly contentious.

As far as we can see the population density in Holstein was very low at the start of the 12th century. This was frontier country and as we said, there was a large strip of no-man’s land between the Saxon and the Slavic peoples. And there were large areas that were continuously flooded and hence had not ever been used for agriculture. These latter territories are genuinely new lands not taken from anyone. As for the no-man’s land there are two ways to look at it. One way is to argue that these places were empty before the colonists arrived. The other is to say that the constant raids and attacks were the reason population density was low and that these lands were empty.

And finally, we can find German villages with names that indicate they had initially been founded by Slavic peoples. Charles Higounet counted as many as 50 out of the 125 villages that were mentioned in the Ratzeburg register of 1230. We also hear that the count Adolph II of Schauenburg had granted the Wagrarians the island of Fehmarn and territories near Oldenburg as a sort of reservation, suggesting they had been expelled from their homes. And finally we find villages with names that start with wendisch-such and such, which indicates that these were Slavic villages within areas now mainly inhabited by German speakers. And finally we find evidence that in some villages Slavs and Germans lived side by side.

I have seen commentators comparing the colonisation of the lands north and east of the Elbe to the colonisation of the American west. And there are some similarities, namely the organisation of the treks, the allocation of equal strips of land to the settlers, the perception that the land was empty and the creation of reservations for the indigenous population. But there are also material differences. One fundamental one is that both Slavs and Germans were a settled people making a living from agriculture. Hence what we do not have is an equivalent of the destruction of the herds of American Bison as a means to starve out the locals.

That does not mean that there weren’t periods the process of eastern colonisation in the 12th century descended into outright genocide. One of those was the so-called Wendish crusade of 1147, initiated by the famous Saint Bernhard of Clairvaux, very much my candidate for Worst Saint ever. The background to the Wendish crusade had been political. Lothar III’s successor, the new king, Konrad III had taken the cross in 1146. His reign was dominated by his conflict with the House of Welf, led by Henry the Lion, the new duke of Saxony.

Konrad III could not dare to leave for the Holy Land whilst his adversary remained in the German lands. On the other hand, Henry the Lion had no desire to serve under a king he despised and had deprived him of his ancestral duchy of Bavaria. To break the gridlock, Bernhard devised a separate crusade for Henry the Lion and the Saxons to go and convert the heathen Slavs. That crusade, called the Wendish Crusade would keep both sides apart and busy.

What distinguishes this effort from the previous raids into Saxon territory was the instruction Bernhard of Clairvaux, via his pope Eugene III issued to the crusaders. The crusaders were to receive the same absolution for all their sins on condition that they would not make peace until (quote) “either the heathen cult or its nation has been utterly destroyed”. That is different to what we had before. Before the raids were done for plunder and as Adam of Bremen stated, there was no mention of Christianity or conversion at all. Saint Bernhard’s instruction is an order to force conversion by the sword and where there is resistance to kill those who refuse. Forced conversion is by the way uncanonical. Hence catholic sources had tried to re-interpret these instructions as solely an obligation to break the nations, i.e., the political infrastructure of the Wends. I doubt that is what Bernhard meant, but then I am biased against pretty much everything he stands for.

If you want to contemplate whether this makes a difference, here the definition of genocide as set out by the UN: (quote)

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily harm to members of the Group
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”


The crusade started slowly. Many of the participants, including our friends, Albrecht the Baer, Konrad von Meissen and Adolph of Schauenburg were hesitant. Part of that hesitation was because the whole policy framework had already shifted, and they all had arrangements with their Slavic neighbours. Mostly they were paying tribute and had promised not to attack the new settlements. Adolph of Schauenburg had gone furthest and had signed a treaty of friendship with Niklot, the prince of the Abodrites. Now he tried to find a way through his commitment to the crusade and his obligations to Niklot. In the end he could not avoid the war. Niklot struck first and destroyed some settlements of Westphalian and Dutch settler in Holstein. It seems that Niklot himself had held back, but the Christian Holstens and Stormarn peasants were taking the opportunity to get rid of the new arrivals.

When the crusade finally sets off, they split into two groups. One, led by Konrad von Meissen and Albrecht the Bear headed for Pomerania. They besieged Dobbin with not much vigour and then headed for Stettin. However, bishop Adalbert of Pomerania, one of the missionaries who had come there with Otto von Bamberg convinced the crusaders to abandon the siege so as not to jeopardise the hard work of the saintly bishop. So the they lifted the siege and went back home. In total this part of the crusade had lasted just a few weeks.

The other contingent led by Henry the Lion went down to besiege Dobin, a castle Niklot had built as a stronghold for his people. Then something very, very unusual happened. According to Helmond of Bosau the vassals of Henry the Lion went to their duke and said: “Isn’t this our own land that we are burning down and our own peoples who we are fighting? Why are we acting as if we were our own enemies, destroying our own incomes?” And that was it. This is one of the vanishing few instances in history where rational economic thought beat religious fanatism. I have been wrecking my brain for another case where an army sent out to fight for whatever ideology is held back by the simple realisation that their quest creates more harm than good.

So, the Saxons signed an agreement with Niklot. Niklot found some volunteers who were willing to endure some water being spilled over their head and some prayers mumbled and hey presto, the crusaders declared victory and went home.

From that point onwards, the process of colonisation goes into overdrive. It is not just the Saxon magnates who give lands to immigrants from the west, Slavic princes as well as the dukes of Poland understand the huge benefits these energetic and skilled peoples can bring to their lands. At risk of receiving another 1-star review bemoaning me referencing modern politics, here is just another example for the fact that immigration is one of the most efficient engines of economic growth.

Again, let’s talk about the scale of the move. Historians estimate the total number of migrants moving east between 1106 and 1250 at around 200,000. That is followed by a second wave of a further 200,000 who go further afield, from as far south as Transylvania to Lithuania in the North.

This feels like a small number compared to the roughly 5m Germans who emigrated to the US between 1820 and 1900, but those made up less than 10% of the total German population. The medieval migration east is estimated to have involved about 7% of the empire’s population north of the Alps. This makes it one of the greatest migrations in Europe between the Dark Ages and the 19th century.

I am so sorry. This episode has gone on for quite some time now and I will now not get to the re-founding of Luebeck and Hamburg. So we will do this next week, which isn’t so bad because it gives us a chance to talk about King Waldemar of Denmark and his best mate Absalom inadvertently giving Luebeck its first break as well as the origins of the duchy of Mecklenburg.

I hope you find this interesting and are going to join us again. If you have comments on these episodes, for instance want me to go faster or slower, leave a comment on my website or in the Q&A option on Spotify.

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