Episode 95 – Callous Kings and Murderous MArgraves

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I promised you a History of the Germans but I am afraid there is no such thing. All I can give you is the histories of the German people. The last 94 episodes you have heard one of the histories of the Germans, the one about the mighty emperors and their political, military and spiritual struggle with the papacy. It is a great story, and it was fun to tell it.

But today we kick off another of the histories, the history of the North of Germany, the part that looked east, rather than south. It is a story of a frontier culture where an estimated 7% of the population of the western part of the empire pack up their belongings and move east, sometimes under the cover of expansionary princes or knightly orders, sometimes invited by local potentates looking to grow their economies. It is a story about the creation and expansion of trade networks, the foundation of cities, some that will remain modest in size, others that turn into important European capitals. It is the story of a periphery that will in time become the centre.

And because it is an almost independent history, we start at the beginning, in the year 772, the year when Charlemagne takes his troops into Saxony hell bent on turning these pagan tribesmen into good Christians and subjects of his emerging empire. If things work out as I hope, we should end this episode with the life of Hermann Billung and Margrave Gero, the first of a wave of chancers and warlords that seek their fortune in the east.


Hello and Welcome to t the new Season of the History of the Germans: Colonists, Knights and Cogs, the North in the Middle Ages.

I have to start with an admission. I promised you a History of the Germans but I am afraid there is no such thing. All I can give you is the histories of the German people. The last 94 episodes you have heard one of the histories of the Germans, the one about the mighty emperors and their political, military and spiritual struggle with the papacy. It is a great story, and it was fun to tell it.

But today we kick off another of the histories, the history of the North of Germany, the part that looked east, rather than south. It is a story of a frontier culture where an estimated 7% of the population of the western part of the empire pack up their belongings and move east, sometimes under the cover of expansionary princes or knightly orders, sometimes invited by local potentates looking to grow their economies. It is a story about the creation and expansion of trade networks, the foundation of cities, some that will remain modest in size, others that turn into important European capitals. It is the story of a periphery that will in time become the centre.

And because it is an almost independent history, we start at the beginning, in the year 772, the year when Charlemagne takes his troops into Saxony hell bent on turning these pagan tribesmen into good Christians and subjects of his emerging empire. If things work out as I hope, we should end this episode with the life of Hermann Billung and Margrave Gero, the first of a wave of chancers and warlords that seek their fortune in the east.

And to all of you who may be new to the History of the Germans Podcast, do not panic. You do not have to catch up on all the previous episodes; you can just start right here, and the narrative should make sense in itself – at least I hope it will. However, some say that the previous three seasons weren’t completely shoddy and may be worth listening to.

OK, we are almost through the preliminaries. One last thing before we start. 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 Jakob W., Douglas H. and Stanley U who have already signed up.

So let’s finally get going with Episode 95 – Callous Kings and Murderous Margraves

The story begins with the Saxons and when you talk about Saxons, there is no one more Saxon than the chronicler Widukind of Corvey who lived in the 10th century. He explains where the Saxons came from (quote):

 “There is a great deal of disagreement about this matter. Some think the Saxons had their origins amongst the Danes and Northmen. Others believe, as I heard someone saying when I was a youth, the Saxons descended from the Greeks. They say the Saxons were the survivors of the Macedonian army that followed Alexander the Great and was dispersed all over following his premature death. There is no doubt this is an old and noble people. This is proven by the fact that they are mentioned in a speech by Agrippa to the Jews in Josephus and are commented on by the poet Lucan.” (unquote)

Well, it is either that or they were a Germanic tribe that lived more or less peacefully in the lands between Rhine and Elbe rivers and the North Sea and the Harz Mountains, a territory that comprises today’s states of Lower Saxony, Nordrhein Westphalia east of the Rhine, parts of Hesse and Thuringia.  

Widukind is making the Saxons out to be very bloodthirsty. Their name – he claims – derives from their word for knife, Sahs, because they had killed such a multitude with these knives. In reality they seem to have been a little bit sluggish. When all their neighbours went out to rampage around the ancient Roman empire in the fifth century, the Saxons stayed home, apart from a small contingent that sailed off to a foggy island in the North sea. No idea what they hoped to find there.

The Saxons are another example that proves that the Germans of today cannot be the descendants of those ferocious warriors that burned Rome and destroyed western civilisation. It is simple. The raiding and pillaging kind had all left Germany for the West and the South and stayed there. So they are the ancestors of fashionable Milanese and food-obsessed Catalans, not of the sausage-eating Berliners.

As a consequence of their remote and peaceful lives, by the year 772 these Saxons still lived very much like the Germanic tribes of the time of Tacitus. There were no cities and even the villages were very spread out. The Saxons had no king or duke. They would only gather around a leader in war. That leader was chosen by the free men of the tribe or, if you follow Widukind, by lot. Once the war was over, the leader stepped down and returned to till his fields.

There was an aristocracy amongst them whose votes counted more than the average free man. And there were slaves, often prisoners of war – so no egalitarian paradise at all. The Saxons were pagans who believed in a derivative of the Nordic polytheistic religion headed up by Wotan or for the friends of Marvel, Odin and his son Thor, Hella, Loki and the like. They also worshipped natural features, like trees, springs and the like.

In the fifth and sixth century the neighbours of the Saxons lived in quite a similar fashion, but by the 8th century that had changed. Christianity had expanded from the territory that had previously been part of the Roman empire into the East. St. Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk had shaped the organisation of the Latin church in the Merovingian empire that by then included not just France but also Bavaria, Swabia and Franconia. Boniface founded bishoprics and monasteries across the German lands so that at least nominally all of the Saxon neighbours to the West and South had become Christians.

As the Carolingian empire expanded conflict with the Saxons became inevitable. After some failed attempts by his grandfather and father, it fell to Charlemagne to subdue and integrate them into his Christian realm. So, the mighty king if the Franks crossed the Rhine on some trumped up pretext in 772 and within just 12 months the Saxon war leaders capitulated. That was quick and painless, or at least it seemed to be.

For Charlemagne this campaign in Saxony was not only about acquiring new territory and defeating an unruly neighbour. He saw his role as a champion of Christendom who had a mission to convert the pagans. That meant his occupation was accompanied by a campaign of conversion. This he kicked off by destroying pagan temples and other places of worship. He felled the sacred Irminsul, a wooden pillar or tree that the Saxons believe held up the sky and was one of their most important religious sites.

Somehow this systematic destruction of symbols of pagan religion and the forced baptisms failed to endear the locals to their new Frankish overlords. Therefore the next logical step was to bring on more destruction of symbols of pagan religion and more enforced baptism and when that did not work, yes, you guessed it, more wonton destruction of symbols of pagan religion and more baptism at the point of a spear.

Though their leaders had caved and converted, the population rose up against this treatment. Every time Charlemagne’s troops had to leave to fight another of his incessant wars, the Saxons took up arms. These uprisings were led by one of the few Saxon nobles who had not bend the knee. His name was Widukind, literally the “child of the forest”. He had refused to give homage to Charlemagne after the campaign of 772 and organised resistance from across the border in Denmark. In the ensuing decade Widukind led almost annual rebellions against the Franks that always ended as soon as Charlemagne showed up with his army. Only once, in 782 did he win a pitched battle. However, this battle was far from decisive, and Charlemagne retaliated by holding what was later known as the Blood Court of Verden where he allegedly had 4,500 Saxon rebels executed.

And again, the stubborn Saxons still did not understand that their new god was omnibenevolent. What followed was another 2 years of now continuous warfare that only ended when Charlemagne managed to capture Widukind in 785. Widukind agreed to get baptised in exchange for his life and disappeared into a monastery. In the subsequent 20 years there were further Saxon uprisings until by 804 all Saxon tribes had been defeated and baptised.

To properly embed Christianity, an ecclesiastical infrastructure was created. New bishoprics in Paderborn, Bremen, Verden, Muenster, Osnabrück, Hildesheim and Halberstadt were founded. The great abbey of Corvey was established in 815 and in 831-3 Hamburg was made an archbishopric with responsibility for Northern Saxony as well as all for Scandinavia and all the Slavic lands on the Baltic Sea. Small cities began to emerge around these new ecclesiastical centres.

The second plank to the integration scheme was to co-opt the Saxon aristocratic elite into the Carolingian social and political system, i.e., they were made counts with responsibility for newly created districts.

Three families that rose to the role of count during this time played important roles going forward.

The Immedinger were the most august of Saxon houses because they could trace their lineage back to the converted rebel Widukind who seemed to have have parleyed his capitulation into major territorial gains. They were based mainly in Westphalia with possessions stretching east towards Salzgitter and Brunswick.

The other great family were the Billungs whose centre was in the North-East around what is now Luneburg.

And finally there is one family that will outshine the other two. The Liudolfingers, so called after their earliest known ancestors, count Liudolf. They had established their headquarters in the Harz Mountains. Through intelligent marriage politics and general competence, Liudolf and his descendants gradually rose to a dominant role across Saxony. By 900 their main possessions expanded beyond the Harz mountains and stretched down towards the border to the pagan lands at Quedlinburg and Merseburg.

Whilst the noble houses of Saxony rose in power and wealth, the Carolingian empire declined and fragmented. Thanks to the tradition of dividing the lands of a ruling monarch amongst his sons upon his death, in 848 the great empire had split into three subkingdoms, West Francia, Lothringia and East Francia. And even the kings of these new entities saw their power slip away into the hands of the local aristocrats.

The declining central authority left chaos behind. Internally the different aristocratic clans got caught up in brutal and never-ending feuds. Meanwhile foes are gathering on the borders. There are the Vikings who raid the coastline from Hamburg to Brittany and up the river Rhine. Then we have the Magyars who have settled in the Hungarian plain and raid into Bavaria and Italy. For the Saxons the biggest challenge were what they called the Wends. These are Slavic peoples who have moved into the territories to the east of the Elbe during the 6th and 7th century. They were part of a much larger Slavic migration into eastern Europe that created Slavic areas of settlement in Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, across the Balkans and most significantly in the Kiewan Rus.

Where the Slavs originally came from is still subject to archaeological research. They first appear in Byzantine sources in the mid 6th century as they attack Roman cities in Macedonia and Thrace. In Western sources their first mention in in the chronic of Fredegar from 660 who talks about the Winedi, the blond ones, who were attacking Merovingian strongholds in Thuringia. They then disappear from the chronicles for another 200 years before reappearing amongst other things as a threat to the Saxon border in the late 9th century.

These internal and external pressures force the local aristocracies into a new coordination mechanism, the duchies. These appear in the 10th century as a mid-layer between the ineffectual kings and the warring local clans. Their job is quite similar to that of a king, provide peace and justice internally and defend the borders.

In Saxony it is the family of the Liudolfingers that rises to the occasion. Otto the Venerable (c. 830 to 912) is often counted as the first duke of the Saxons. He rose into the leadership role after his older brother Brun had died in a battle against Danish Vikings. His family was well connected not only in Saxony but also into the imperial court of Arnulf of Kärnten which may be a reason for their ascendancy.

Saxony and its ducal house were catapulted from a relative backwater into the centre of European politics when the Liudolfingers rose first to King of East Francia under Henry the Fowler and then to the imperial title under Otto the Great. Their story and deeds we have already covered in the episodes 1 to 8 of the podcast, so I will not go through all of this again, only the bits that matter to our narrative.

The period of Ottonian rule from 919 to 1025 is the golden age of medieval Saxony. The emperors, in particular Henry I and Otto I spend most of their time in the duchy, create new cities and dioceses, build up military capabilities and first secure and then redraw the borders.

Henry I “the Fowler” is the first and my favourite Ottonian ruler. He stabilises the collapsing kingdom of East Francia through an astute combination of military and diplomatic efforts. His focus then shifted to protecting the kingdom against foreign raiders. He promulgated a set of new laws commonly known as the Burgenordnung, that professionalised the Carolingian military.

The concept was to build motte and bailey castles along the borders and garrison them with trained soldiers. These are castles meant to protect the local population in times of war, not to suppress them. The rule was that one in every 9 peasants was to constantly train in war and live in the castle whilst being supported by the other 8. And 1/3rd of every harvest was to be stored inside the castle so that when the raiders burn down the fields there would be enough seed for the next harvest.

Moreover, these castles were turned into major economic centres so as to ensure their maintenance and upkeep in peacetime. Markets and courts are to be held at the castles. Assemblies of the local nobility of feast days are also to be held at the castle, which would usually entail the construction of a church. Settlements would then grow up around the church and the castle.

The other innovation was to massively expand armoured cavalry. These are the forerunners of the knights of chivalric tales. Like Knights they needed to live a life of constant training and regular application of their skills, which meant they needed funding. For that they are granted land or other sources of income like markets or tolls initially only for life. This would later convert into the system of fiefs where the vassal offers military service in exchange for the use of certain assets. Before it had become such a contentious term, I would have called this system feudalism. And if you promise not to tell anyone, I will continue to do so.

Whether it was feudalism or not, what did happen during the reign of Henry the Fowler was a material upgrade in the military capabilities of the kingdom of East Francia.  Defensive structures appeared that could be and had been defended successfully and the new cavalry becomes an effective tool against in particular the Magyars who had been practically invincible until then.

Henry the Fowler gets to see some of the fruits of his labours when he begins an aggressive strategy against the Wends in 928. He first defeats the Slavic tribe of the Hevellers in 928. He occupies their castle in Brandenburg after a long winter siege and forces them to pay tribute. The same happens to the Daleminzians, a group that lived around where we now find Leipzig and Dresden. As he is already on a roll he moves on to Prague where he forces the ruler of the Bohemians, the man we know as Good King Wenceslaus into submission. In 929 he has forced most of the Slavic tribes living between Elbe and Oder to pay tribute.

Seemingly that tribute was so harsh that one tribe, the Redarii immediately rebelled. They mustered a large army and attacked a Saxon castle at Walsleben which they took over. Henry charges one of his vassals to sort out the Redarii. This is the first battle where the new armoured cavalry gets to be crucial. The Slavic army consists mainly of infantry fighting in a close formation. The Saxons tried several times to break this formation but failed. Only once they send the cavalry to attack the flank of the Redarii does the enemy break and flee.

These wars are fought with the utmost brutality. Since the Slavs were pagans, the Saxons had no qualms killing them and taking away their women and children as slaves. Equally the Slavs took no prisoners on the few occasions they got the upper hand. No wonder the warriors on both sides were frightened. Widukind mentions that some of the soldiers had been riven with fear before the battle and he even calls them cowards. Though he reserves the worst bit of cowardice to the Slavic defenders of Walsleben who surrendered and asked for their lives. That they were granted, but their wives and children were taken away as slaves.

Now that his army had passed the tests, he confronted the Hungarians and defeated them in 933 at the battle of Riade, stalling Hungarian expansion for a time. He finally led an army against the Danes in 935 securing the northern border as well.

The crowning glory of these defensive wars against foreign invaders fell to Henry’s son, Otto I usually called the Great. Otto I defeated the Hungarians in the battle on the Lechfeld in 955. As a consequence of this battle the Hungarians ceased to attack their neighbours and 45 years later converted to Christianity under their great king Stephen I, also known as Saint Stephen of Hungary.

Again Otto I’s deeds are many and a fantastic tale. But what interest us here are his activities in Saxony, specifically how he organised the border with the Slavic tribes and his efforts to build out the ecclesiastic infrastructure.

Let’s start with the border management. Otto I ascended the throne in 936, and one of his first acts was to appoint military commanders along the frontier. The northern sections along the Elbe River from Hamburg to Dannenberg was granted to Hermann Billung, whilst the whole of the border south of there was granted to a man we only know as Margrave Gero, no surname.

Hermann Billung came from the Billung family who held a big chunk of North-Eastern Saxony, based in Luneburg. As such the Billungs were optimally placed to defend the eastern border with the Slavs as well as the northern border with the Danes.

Widukind describes Hermann Billung as a noble, diligent and quite prudent man. And on his first outing he proves to be an able commander who led from the front and inflicted a grave defeat on the enemies. But Hermann Billung had a major problem, which was that he was the younger of two brothers. His older brother, Wichmann was also a powerful and brave man, generous, skilled in war and, as Widukind said, possessed of such learning that he was said by his people to have superhuman knowledge. This choice of Hermann over his equally competent but more senior brother leads to all sorts of rumblings in Saxony, which became worse when Hermann scored his first set of successes. The rivalry with Wichmann and later on, Wichmann’s son, also called Wichmann preoccupied Hermann Billung. As the two sides of the family grew to hate each other more and more, the Wichmanns would at times go across the border and fight with the Slavs against Hermann’s forces. As a consequence Hermann Billung could not establish as tight a level of control over the Slavic tribes in his border zone, namely the Abodrites and Redarii. They did pay tribute alright but would occasionally rise up and had to be forced back into submission on regular intervals. As we will find, this relatively loose control will result in different developments here compered to further south.

Despite his relatively moderate level of success, Otto I rated Hermann Billung highly and would make him his proxy during periods he was absent from Saxony. Widukind often calls Hermann Billung dux, or duke, though most scholars agree that he wasn’t duke in the way the dukes of Bavaria, Swabia and Franconia were dukes. Only under Otto II will the Billungs rise to become actual dukes of Saxony.

Hermann Billung’s counterpart was Margrave Gero, a man from a much more modest background than Hermann Billung. His father seems to have been the leader of Henry the Fowler’s household cavalry and his brother was employed on special missions by Otto I suggesting they were closely linked to the royal court.

Gero was again a perfect warrior in Widukind’s telling. He was “skilled in war and offered good council in peacetime. He was quite eloquent and learned. He preferred to demonstrate his prudence through deeds rather than through words. [And] he showed great energy in gaining wealth and generosity in giving it away.”  

Gero was made a margrave. In the Carolingian realm a Markgraf or in English a margrave was a count who administrated a county on the border. Such a county was called a Mark or march in English. Being a margrave instead of a mere count had a number of advantages. A margrave had military command over the forces at the border. Moreover, he could dispose over the resources the march at will, instead of having to send them on to the king. Most importantly he would report directly to the king or emperor instead of a duke. So Gero for example never reported to Hermann Billung.

But despite all his skills, his appointment too had been controversial. He was given Merseburg as his headquarters. Merseburg had come into the Ottonian family through Henry the Fowler’s first wife. That marriage was later annulled and Henry the Fowler’s son from this marriage, Thankmar had expected to at least get Merseburg, his mother’s inheritance. When Otto passed it to Gero, Thankmar lost it completely kicking off a series of civil wars that were Otto I’s preoccupation during the first decades of his reign. Again, listen to the episodes 2 to 6, it is a riveting tale.

Despite the fact that his boss was constantly fighting brothers and sons for the throne, Gero managed to push the boundaries of the kingdom east. His methods were far from subtle. At one point he invited 30 Slavic leaders to a lavish feast, only to have them all murdered at the end of it, Red Wedding style. On another occasion Gero and Otto had defeated an army of Obodrites and had beheaded their king. The next morning (quote) the head of the minor king was placed in a field. Around it, seven hundred prisoners were beheaded. The eyes of his advisor were torn out, as was his tongue. He was then left helpless in the midst of the corpses” (end quote).

We have no records from Slavic hands that could tell us what they felt about these constant incursions. So we have to rely on Widukind who describes the Slavic attitude as follows:

“They were a tough people and able to endure hardships. Accustomed to the poor way of life, the Slavs desire those things that seem a burden to us. There was a truly long struggle between the two sides, with one fighting for glory and a great and broad empire, and the other fighting for liberty or against the worst kind of slavery.” (end quote).

Just a quick word on the slave trade of the time. The trade in slaves was an enormously profitable business in the 9th and 10th century. Many were employed on the large aristocratic estates across Europe. The most valuable of those were castrated young men who served in the harems of Spain, North Africa and the Levant, as well as at the court of Constantinople. The surgeons skilled in the most valuable root and stem castration were based in Verdun and Leon. As the church banned the enslaving of Christians, the main source of slaves were either Viking and Russian merchants who sold East Slavic peoples to Arab and Jewish traders who took them via the Baltic and Denmark down to Verdun and Leon. The other were the raids of Hermann Billung and Gero, who became incredibly rich in the process.

Gero operated as Margrave for 28 years, a period during which he managed to not only regularly defeat the Slavic groups but also to establish permanent forward bases. In particular in Lusatia, the Lausitz in German, whose inhabitants he had (quote) compelled to accept the heaviest burden of servitude. His latter years were overshadowed by a falling out with Otto I who believed him to have tacitly supported one of the rebellions. He also lost both his sons leaving him without an heir. In his grief he took himself off on pilgrimage to Rome and upon his return founded the abbey of Gernrode. The abbey church where he is also buried is one of the few remaining and a very impressive examples of early Ottonian architecture.

Gero made his widowed daughter-in-law the abbess of Gernrode which must have come as a great relief to Otto I. Because the territory that Gero had conquered was truly vast, equivalent to the modern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Sachsen Anhalt or roughly 2/3 of what would later become the GDR. That is almost the size of one of the stem duchies of the time. Not just that but also the fact that Gero had conquered it almost singlehandedly would have given any of his descendants a hard to deny claim to succession to the whole of it.

But luckily for Otto, Gero did not have any surviving children and so the enormous march of Gero was divided into five separate units.

The Northern March, which is roughly equivalent to modern day Brandenburg went to a Count Dietrich of Haldensleben, who may have been a son of the rebellious Wichman. He will appear again in one of the next episodes, and let’s say, not in a most flattering light.

Then south of the rather large Northern March follows the Mark Lausitz or March of Lusatia which is roughly equivalent to the lower Lusatia region along the Saale River around Cottbus, southern Brandenburg and northern Saxony. This land was given to a certain Hodo who did a reasonable job but wasn’t of any further significance.

South of there were three marches, Merseburg, Zeitz and Meissen. The former two, Zietz and Merseburg were relatively quickly subsumed into the margraviate of Meissen. Now this, the margraviate of Meissen is going to be important. It is roughly equivalent to the modern state of Saxony. The first two margraves are not particularly relevant, Thietmar and Rikdag, but the third, Eckard I will feature quite a bit in the next few episodes.  

So, bottom line is that by around 982 we have four territories east of the Elbe River, the March of the Billungs, which is equivalent to Mecklenburg Vorpommern, The Northern March, roughly Brandenburg, the march of Lusatia which is southern Brandenburg and Northern Saxony and the March of Meissen, roughly Saxony.

All these lands are predominantly inhabited by Slavs, some have taken baptism, presumably to escape slavery and the snip, but many have not. In the March of the Billungs control is pretty loose, but in the other three we find fortifications garrisoned by Saxon soldiers who keep a beady eye on the locals.

Military fortresses and slaving raids are one thing, but after all Otto the Great is not just here for a quick buck and some land. He is the emperor, the shield of Christendom and his job is to bring the word of the lord to the pagans.

And that meant creating a bunch of bishoprics. The first set were established in the Northern March, specifically in Brandenburg and in Havelberg in 948. The next big move traces back to 955 when Otto achieves his greatest triumph at the battle on the Lechfeld. On the eve of the battle he is supposed to have sworn the following oath (quote) “if on that day , through the intercession of such a great advocate [Saint Lawrence in this case], Christ would deign to grant him victory and life, he would establish a bishopric in the city of Merseburg in honour of the victor over the fire and turn his newly built palace there into a church” (end quote).

Now that is quoted from the chronicler Thietmar of Merseburg who, well, was bishop of Merseburg. Which makes him a touch biased. What is more likely is that Otto had decided on a much larger scheme to build a new ecclesiastical infrastructure in the East and North. What he wanted was a new archbishopric with responsibility for the whole of the East.

Just in case you are about to dose off on the grounds that you think these ecclesiastical matters are overly specialists, trust me that would be a mistake. They matter a lot. The church and the way it is organised matters a lot because secular state infrastructure of any kind simply did not exist. There is no police station, no local court let alone social services on the ground. AThe only kind of administration (in inverted commas) that reached down into every town and larger village was the church. We are in the period before the investiture controversy so we are at a point where the kings and emperors had a huge influence in the appointment of bishops and archbishops. Otto the Great and his successors used the church as their feet on the ground. That meant ensuring effective church administration was a crucial part of early medieval statecraft. It also meant that if the king establishes a new bishopric in land so far untouched by Christianity his control over these territories deepens.

And there are some serious long-term effects. We are in a period where the political map is still in flux. The emergence of France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Czechia are by no means a given. If things had gone differently in the 200 year window between 850 and 1050 Europe may have had a very different shape.

The reorganisation of the episcopal responsibilities in 968 has to be seen in this context. Before the creation of the archbishopric of Magdeburg the archbishop of Mainz had nominal responsibility for all the lands to the east, theoretically all the way to the Ural mountains. But Mainz was a long way from the Elbe River, and, more importantly Mainz was already a dominant player in the imperial church, responsible for managing the election and the royal coronation. Letting Mainz have responsibility for the newly acquired territories east of the Elbe would have made it even more powerful.

Hence Otto wanted an archbishop closer to the frontier for both practical and political reasons. It took him 13 years of hard horse trading first with the archbishop of Mainz and then with his colleague in Halberstadt, but in the end he was granted the right to erect a new archbishopric in Magdeburg and three smaller bishoprics in Merseburg, Meissen and Zeitz. In the grand plan Magdeburg would be responsible for missionary activity into Poland and beyond. Meanwhile the already existing Archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen was again confirmed in its responsibility for the whole of Scandinavia. The recently created three bishoprics in Denmark, Schleswig, Ripe and Aarhus were put under his control as was the bishopric of Oldenburg in the March of the Billungs.

Hence when Otto the great died in 973, his northern possessions look well ordered. The old duchy of Saxony is stable under the leadership of his old friend Hermann Billung and his descendants. The borderlands to the east are run by competent margraves, none of which is too powerful to challenge either king or duke. And the infrastructure is in place to spread Christianity and imperial power further east.

But as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The very first cracks had already appeared. The Saxon nobles began to take against their duke and emperor spending most of his time in Italy. And there are the neighbours to consider, the Bohemians the Poles and the Danes. And because these will play a major role going forward, we will take a more detailed look at who they are and where they come from. I hope you will come along for this story next week.

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  1. What happened to the survivors of Doggerland, when it was flooded after the last Ice Age. Did only the toughest and most aggressive make it and moved South via Denmark?

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