Episode 96 – Meet the Neighbours

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This week we are still getting our bearings. Last week we saw the emergence of the Stem duchy of Saxony and the Eastern marches. This week we take a look at the bigger neighbours, the Bohemians, the Poles and the Danes. It is right around this time, the middle of the 10th century that these political entities form. As always none of this happens smoothly, so expect all sorts of battles and betrayals, including a legion of thieves…


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 96 – Meet the Neighbours

This week we are still getting our bearings. Last week we saw the emergence of the Stem duchy of Saxony and the Eastern marches. This week we take a look at the bigger neighbours, the Bohemians, the Poles and the Danes. It is right around this time, the middle of the 10th century that these political entities form. As always none of this happens smoothly, so expect all sorts of battles and betrayals, including a legion of thieves…

But before we start just a reminder. 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 Harm W., Markus N. and Brian L. who have already signed up.

Last week we explored the destiny of the Saxons since Charlemagne first invaded in 772. We ended with the death of Otto I in 973 when the duchy seemed well set up. The original territory between the Rhine and the Elbe River was now well settled. Cities had emerged around the seats of bishops or the castles of important noblemen. A new military system had been established that relied heavily on armoured men on horseback who were bound to their leader by an oath of fealty.

Beyond the Elbe River two men, Hermann Billung and Margrave Gero had conquered the land of the Slavic tribes all the way to the Oder and Neisse Rivers. These territories, roughly the current Laender of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Sachsen Anhalt and Sachsen, had been divided into ultimately four marcher counties each headed by their own margrave. The population of these lands was predominantly Slavic peoples many of whom had at least nominally embraced Christianity.

Otto had also founded a number of new bishoprics in Brandenburg, Havelberg, Merseburg, Zeitz and Meissen and the archbishopric of Magdeburg in charge of the latter three. The purpose of these bishoprics was to embed Christianity in the local population and strengthen imperial control over these territories. At the same time they sent out missionaries to convert pagans further east as part of the great imperial mission to spread the gospel around the world.

The duke of Saxony at the time of Otto’s death was still the emperor. But due to his regular absences Otto had put his old comrade Hermann Billung in charge of the duchy as his proxy. And that is where the first cracks appear in this otherwise neat story.

Medieval rule was an intensely personal thing. A vassal swears fealty to another man, not to an institution. That is why upon the ascension to the throne all vassals have to renew their oaths. That is actually a Freudian slip here when I say renew the oath. Because this wasn’t a renewal. It was a new oath, as Otto von Northeim will say a 100 years later, an oath that was freely made.

Personal rule means the ruler has to be present. How else can you live this relationship. Moreover, the oath of fealty went two ways. Not only does the vassal promise to serve the liege lord in war, the liege lord is also obliged to protect the vassal, give access to justice and listen to the vassal’s council. When Otto I disappears to Italy for his coronation as emperor in 962 it will be almost 10 years before he returns. In all that time his Saxon vassals had to make do with his stand-in, Hermann Billung. This vague situation did become untenable. At some point in the 970s Hermann Billung transitioned from acting on Otto’s behalf to pretending to be the real duke.

In 972 Hermann called an assembly in Magdeburg. With burning tapers and all the bells ringing , he was received by the archbishop and led by his hand to the church. He even took the emperor’s place at dinner and slept in the emperor’s bed in his palace. This was a clear act of defiance against imperial prestige. The Saxon nobles who seemingly went along with it sent a clear message to Otto the Great, if he continues to stay away from the duchy, they will follow another leader who is present and prepared to fulfil his obligations. Basically the Saxons were in rebellion.

This issue was resolved quite quickly by Hermann Billung dying soon afterwards and Otto I making his way up north poste haste. But this is not the last time the Saxons will declare their displeasure with absent or overbearing leaders.

Before we get into that thorny issue, we should probably first take a look at the state of play beyond the forward frontiers of the Kingdom of East Francia.

There are three maybe four polities that will play a major role in our story going forward, going from North to south, these are Denmark, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary.

I will not go into detail about Hungary here. If you want to know more, I give a rundown of Hungarian history up to and beyond the battle on the Lechfeld in episode 6. For today’s purposes it is enough to know that the Hungarians or Magyars as they call themselves are not Slavs but steppe nomads probably originally from Siberia. Their language is related to Finnish and Estonian. They appear in western records for the first time in 895 when they are moving into the Carpathian basin. Form there they raid deep into Germany, Italy and even as far as Burgundy. Otto I defeated them on the Lechfeld and had their three leaders executed. In the subsequent upheaval a grandson of Arpad, the original leader of the Magyars consolidates power with the help of Otto I and his brother, the duke of Bavaria. Missionaries are admitted and two generations later their king Waik is baptised and takes the name of Stephen, becoming Saint Stephen in the process. His relatives, in the loosest sense of the word will rule Hungary until 1301.

Going north from Hungary, the next important power is Bohemia. As you probably know Bohemia is roughly equivalent to modern day Czech Republic. It consists of two parts, The Northern part is Bohemia itself and its southern part is known as Moravia.

Moravia is the first to make a splash on the European stage. In 805 Charlemagne had defeated the Avars, another nomadic peoples originating from Mongolia who had formed an empire ranging from the Elbe river down through Czech republic, Hungary into the Balkans. Into the power vacuum that had been created by their demise stepped the Moravians, a Slavic peoples. They created another empire that lasted around 100 years from 820 to 906. This, the Great Moravian empire reached its peak under Ratislav (846-870) and Svatopluk (870-894) when their power stretched from Southern Poland to Western Hungary. The World Heritage Convention describes Great Moravia as follows: At the height of its development it was already a consolidated protofeudal state with its own ruling dynasty, a complex of castles, an independently organized Church and a developed economy. The Great Moravian Empire was an important state entity of the Christianization period in Central Europe, with cultural ties to the Byzantian Empire; moreover, its culture laid the foundations of Slavonic literature and material heritage of the West-Slavonic peoples.”

So a lot more sophisticated than say the Saxons were before Charlemagne had arrived. The Moravians were formally vassals of the Carolingian empire. And we find that on several occasions their rulers swore fealty to the emperor, though they probably crossed their fingers behind their backs when making their oaths. Their foreign policy was a constant attempt to wiggle out from under the Carolingian kibosh.

For a long time the Carolingian empire and later the kingdom of East Francia were strong enough to force the Moravians to admit Bavarian missionaries to enter their lands and convert the locals. But as the Carolingians weakened, the Moravians found room to manoeuvre. Prince Ratislav expelled the Bavarian missionaries and asked the pope to send him fresh, basically non-German ones. But the pope refused as he did not want to cross the Franks. So the Moravians turned to the emperor in faraway Constantinople asking him to send missionaries. That he did. Two brothers arrived in Moravia in 863, Konstantine and Method. They not only had profound theological learning but also experience as diplomats and, most importantly, spoke a Slavic language. Being aware that mumbling strange phrases in Latin wasn’t going to ease conversion, the two brothers translated the most significant parts of the bible and the church fathers into the Slavic language they had picked up back home in Thessaloniki. This language that would later be known as Church Slavonic is still used in orthodox rites across eastern Europe. To write it down, the brothers invented a Slavic script called Glagolica that remained in use until the Kyrillic alphabet replaced it in the 10th or 11th century. Moreover the brothers convinced the pope to allow this Slavic language to be used in the church liturgy alongside Hebrew, Greek and Latin. A huge achievement if you take into account that it took the reformation before western Europeans could finally hear the bible in a language most of them understood.

Shortly after this great diplomatic success Konstantine died in Rome. He was buried in one of my all-time favourite Roman churches, the Basilica de San Clemente. His original resting place is a rather unassuming corner of the underground church that is covered in dedications from all Slavic nations as well as others. Constantine is better known as St Cyrill and together the two brothers are known as the apostles to the Slavs.

Grab von Hl. Kyrill, Basilica San Clemente

The other feat that made Sts. Cyrill and Method famous was the recovery of the relics of San Clemente. Clemente had somehow irritated the emperor Trajan and was martyred by been thrown overboard in the Black Sea with an anchor attached to his feet. That happened around the year 100 AD. Miraculously his body including anchor was preserved for 700 years on a beach in Crimea where Cyrill found him. He then brough San Clemente, seemingly minus his anchor, to Rome where the aforementioned basilica was dedicated to be his final resting place. Despite his rather unpleasant maritime experience San Clemente is the patron saint of seafarers, so honouring him here may come in handy when I am in the Middle of the Atlantic.  

Enough of this diversion. But St. Cyrill and St. Method weren’t a diversion. They matter because though they are from Constantinople and were linked to what would later be the Greek orthodox tradition, they did submit themselves and the Moravian church to the pope.

Being subject to the pope was however not enough for the East Francians. They wanted the Moravian church to report to the bishop of Regensburg, the closest diocese. So the Carolingians encouraged Svatopluk, the nephew of Ratislav to rebel, a rebellion that was successful. Once Svatopluk was firmly installed he handed St. Method over to the Bavarian church who imprisoned him in a monastery. That now irritated the pope who forced the Bavarians to release St. Method, whilst Svatopluk – again -wiggled out of the stranglehold of the divided East Francian kingdom. In defiance the pope made St. Method an archbishop.

But by 890 this period of Moravian Slavic church comes to an end. Method had died in 885 and the pope had replaced him not with one of his pupils but with a Swabian who became bishop of Nitra. This guy, called Wiching banned the use of the Slavic language in Moravian church services and expelled Method’s pupils. About 10 years later the Moravian empire disappeared in a fireball of civil war and Hungarian attacks.


Even before Great Moravia had fallen, the local warlords on the periphery of the realm began fighting it out. Ok, serious warning. Now comes the part I have been dreading. Pronunciation of Slavic names. I think I am ok with French and Italian and obviously with German and English. I might do Dutch and Danish though that is already tricky. But Czech, Polish and Russian is not my forte, let alone Hungarian and Estonian. So my profound apologies for what will come next.

Alright, Bohemian warlords. There were many, but one starts to stand out, a man called Bořivoj. He is the first of the House of Premyslid who will rule Bohemia until 1306. His base is in central Bohemia a very fertile place at the intersection of multiple long distance trade routes. He plays a smart policy of playing the Moravian prince, the king of East Francia and his neighbours out against each other. One advantage he took early on was to convert to Christianity, which made him the go-to guy for the major powers in the region. In exchange he allowed all three kinds of missionaries to enter his territory, the pupils of Cyrill and Method, the Bavarians and Frankish missionaries.

His sons – and forgive me if I do not even attempt to pronounce them – expanded further from his father’s position and founded the city of Prague in a near perfect position on a rock dominating the Moldau/Vitava River.

In the next generation, we are now in the year 921, we have again two brothers sharing the rule. By now the Premislids have wiped out the last of the competing warlords and gained control of most of Bohemia. These brothers are known to us as Wenceslaus and Boleslaus. Wenceslaus was the elder and as such more senior. The old game of playing back and forth with the king of East Francia, Bavaria and Moravia had come to an end. Moravia had gone and was replaced by the Hungarians. And the Kingdom of East Francia had reconsolidated under King Henry the Fowler. In particular Bavaria had come back into the fold, leaving only a choice between the Franks or the Hungarians. Equally the religious issue could no longer be kept in limbo. It was Latin or orthodox, or even pagan.

Wenceslaus tilted towards Henry the Fowler and the Latin rite, mainly because Henry had sent his brand-new armoured knights up to Prague. Their pointy spears cleared up any theological doubt he might have had and young Wenceslaus became a devout catholic, expelled the pupils of Cyrill and Method and pushed conversion amongst the pagans with the same arguments that convinced him.

This did not go down well with the general population and in 935 Wenceslaus younger brother Boleslaus decided that political direction had to change, which meant changing the government and that meant changing the vital status of his brother from living to dead.

That was maybe callous but it was good timing, because the feared king Henry the Fowler died the following year. As his son Otto ascended to the throne, he made a half-hearted attempt to bring Boleslaus to heel. He sent the famous legion of thieves from Merseburg into Bohemia. This was a division of the army made up entirely of convicts who were given the choice between losing their heads or other extremities right now or in the service of the empire. These guys were a long way from the well trained and disciplined cavalry of Henry the Fowler. They achieved an initial success in a skirmish with Boleslaus troops, but then their discipline crumbled and the Bohemians retaliated, resulting in the loss of limb that had always been inevitable.

Otto I did not have much bandwidth to go after these Bohemian semi pagans because he was caught up in near constant civil wars. It took him until 950 before he could make another attempt at bringing Boleslaus to heel. This time he came with all the might his father had created and he had built upon. Boleslaus took one look at the army that had assembled before his castle and like his brother, his religious scruples disappeared into thin air. Boleslaus accepted vassal status in the East Francian kingdom, and he would come to Otto’s aid in the battle on the Lechfeld in 955.

How exactly this vassal status was structured has been subject to near endless debate between German and Czech historians. On the one hand the Bohemian dukes and later kings could be called to provide military assistance and were involved in the election of the emperor. On the other hand, the Kings and emperors rarely travelled to Prague, and if they did it was usually to resolve one of the incessant civil wars. Justice, taxation, building of castles and cities were the sole responsibility of the Bohemian ruler. What they had to accept was that the bishop of Prague became a direct report to the archbishop of Mainz, at least for now.

Spiritually Boleslaus did a full 180 degree turn. He embraced Latin Christianity and sponsored the cult of his murdered brother, who we now know as Good King Wenceslaus. It is all a bit rich given it was Boleslaus himself who cause the martyrdom of the holy king of Bohemia.

But Bohemia flourished under Boleslaus. Its location made it the main entrepot in the trade between east and west, which at the time meant the trade in slaves. This was a material source of income, but apparently not enough to satisfy the local aristocrats. Hence, he augmented their income through regular raids into Silesia and Northern Moravia.

This economic model did come to an end under Boleslaus son, duke Boleslaus II, mainly because his neighbours, the Poles, the Kievan Rus and the Hungarians had also consolidated into entities at least equal in military might to his raiding parties.

One of those, and the most important for us right now was Poland. Poland developed quite a bit later than Bohemia. There are few, if any contemporary written sources about what went on in Poland before Widukind put pen to parchment in 970. Archaeologists have found traces of smaller fortifications that date back to the 8th and 9th century. These were systematically destroyed when new, much larger structures were erected sometime between 920 and 950. In particular Gniesno and Poznan became centres of power. From there the early Polish rulers expanded their territory in all directions. Their zone of influence ranged from the mouth of the Vistula River to the modern day Polish/Ukrainian border. The first Polish ruler we hear about is Mieszko who had pushed his borders westwards to the lower Oder River where he hit upon out old friend Margrave Gero in around 960.

Gniesno in the 10th century

After this brief encounter Miezco seems to have concluded that this was not an opponent he wanted to challenge at this point. He concluded a treaty of friendship with Otto the Great. He also married Dobrawa a daughter of duke Boleslaus I of Bohemia. According to Thietmar it was Dobrawa who converted Miesco to Christianity, though it is more likely that he saw this a politically opportune move.

The arrangement with Otto meant that Miesco did not have to fear an expansion of the Saxons beyond the Oder River. And both the Saxons and the Poles had a common set of enemies, the Slavic people living in the marches who were constantly refusing to pay tribute and raiding into either Poland or Saxony. Or that may just have been the pretext to justify the Saxon and Polish slaving raids. These Slavic pagan people are now encircled by Christian powers, the Saxons to their West, the Poles to their East and the Bohemians in the South. In the North was the Baltic Sea and beyond that, the Danes.

Early Danish history is the history of the Vikings and if you want to know more about it, there are three options. You can watch the TV series Vikings, which I enjoyed massively and can only recommend. The only problem with it is that not all, but most of it is based on notoriously unreliable sagas. Or you could dive deep into modern academic research on the Vikings, which given the aforementioned unreliability of the sources tends to be a touch on the dry side. The third option is to listen to the Scandinavian History Podcast by Mikael Shainkman who strikes a great balance between the believed and the believable.

As far as relations between the Danes and the East Francian go, the first more intense encounter was in the 830s. It starts with a man called Ansgar, saint Ansgar to you and me. He was a Frankish nobleman from near Amiens who joined the Benedictine Monastery in Corbie as a child. Corbie was not only a famed school and scriptorium, it was also closely associated with the Carolingian family. Hence the monks were roped into missionary work in the recently acquired land of the Saxons. Monks from Corbie founded the abbey of New Corbie or as it is now called, Corvey, home to our favourite chronicler, Widukind of Corvey. Hence Ansgar was sent out to Saxony in 822 to spread the gospel. Being an enterprising soul, he extended his activities beyond the borders of the conquered territory and began preaching on the Jutland peninsula. He had some initial success and converted one of the minor Danish rulers but that king lost power shortly afterwards and Ansgar returned. In 829 he led a missionary effort into Sweden where he was a able to establish more lasting roots.

As a reward for his effort, Ansgar was elevated to the newly created archbishopric of Hamburg, which incorporated the already established bishopric of Bremen. As archbishop he was given the task to convert all of Scandinavia and was given the right to create new bishoprics in the heathen lands. All this sounds exceedingly grand, but at this time, this was the outer frontier of the empire. The chronicler Adam of Bremen notes that the only stone church in the archdiocese was in Bremen, whilst all others were built from wood.

In around 839/840 something on that missionary effort did go wrong. We hear that the Danes come to Hamburg and burned down the whole new city, its wooden churches and its newly established library. St. Ansgar manages to escape with his life and the precious relics he had brought up only a few years earlier. At the same time Friesland, i.e., modern day Holland came under Danish control.

From their bases in the Rhine delta, they raided along the Rhine, attacking Cologne, Xanten, Mainz and ultimately Aachen, the capital of Charlemagne. The danes had an easy run, mainly because the empire was riven by conflict between the three sons of Louis the Pious. These raids came to an end when the inheritance issue was resolved in the fateful treaty of Verdun that split the empire into three parts, West Francia, Lotharingia and East Francia. This more stable situation helped Ansgar to resume his missionary activity in Denmark and Sweden. Another Danish King, Horik the elder allowed Ansgar to set up a missionary bishoprics in Schleswig. But his successor shifted gear and threw the missionaries out again. This pattern repeated several times over the ensuing decades.

Over time Christianity did however penetrate deeper into Scandinavia. This had only partially to do with the work of the missionaries. Political and economic factors played a more important role. Getting baptised was a way to become the legitimate ruler of lands in continental Europe. The most famous case is that of Rollo, a Viking leader who was given Normandy or parts of Normandy in exchange for baptism and an oath of fealty. Rollo’s descendant William the Conqueror would later become famous for something I quite cannot recall at the moment. Rollo’s case was not unusual. These kinds of deals took place across England, France and Holland. The other component was trade. Though we know the Vikings as brutal raiders, that is only partially correct. They were also traders. And to gain access to markets it had become increasingly necessary to be Christian. And finally the Vikings had taken Christian slaves who were still performing their religious rites. So when Ansgar and his missionaries arrived, they often found there were already existing Christian communities.

Given the rather material considerations that drove this conversion, religious conviction appeared to have been only skin-deep. As late as the 13th century we find indications of the worship of the old gods even in a commercial and cultural centre like Bergen in Norway.

Despite this encroaching Christianity, the Danes maintained their Viking lifestyle. Mostly their efforts were directed at England, Ireland and Northern France. In 878 the Vikings experienced a serious setback when king Alfred of Wessex beat the great heathen army at the battle of Edington. As a consequence a part of these forces decided to seek new targets on the continent. That is why in 881-884 we hear of multiple raids down the Rhine River as far as Trier, taking away everything that wasn’t nailed down. There are also indications of Viking settlements on the lower Rhine, though they no longer exist today.

As for Denmark itself, it seems that before the 940s there was no central authority. We hear of various kings in Jutland, Seeland and Skaene who seem to have been as busy fighting each other as they were raiding overseas.

Where things become little more settled and reliable is when we get to the first real king of Denmark, Gorm the Old who is believed to have reigned from 936 to 958. Gorm may have set out as one of several regional kings in Denmark but managed over time to expand his territory. His son, Harald Bluetooth (958-986) is understood to have completed the conquest of all of Denmark.

What may have driven the need for consolidation of power in Denmark was the military recovery in their neighbours to the south, the kingdom of East Francia. One of the last wars Henry the Fowler fought was against the Danes in 935. There was more fighting along the southern border and in 942 Hermann Billung was captured by the Danes. However he reappeared in Saxony shortly after which suggests either a ransom payment or a successful campaign by Otto the Great.

At some point in the 960s Harald Bluetooth converts to Christianity. How this came about exactly is unclear. Here is Widukind von Corvey’s version:

(quote) “In times past the Danes were Christians, but nevertheless continued to worship idols in their traditional manner. There was a dispute before the king during a feast regarding the worshipping of their gods. The Danes affirmed that Christ was a God. But they claimed there were other, greater gods, who manifested themselves to people through even more powerful signs and prodigies. Against this a certain cleric called Poppo [..] proclaimed that there is only one true God, the father, the son and the Holy spirit. The images, he proclaimed were of demons, not of gods. King Harold who is said was quick to listen but slow to speak, asked if Poppo wished to demonstrate his faith through his own person. Poppo responded without hesitation that he wished to do so. The king ordered that the priest be placed under guard until the next day. When morning came the king ordered that a very heavy piece of iron be heated in the fire. He then ordered the cleric to carry this glowing iron for his catholic faith. The Confessor of Christ seized the iron without  any fear at all, and carried it as far as the king had ordered. The priest then showed everyone his unharmed hand and gave proof to everyone there of his catholic faith. As a result the King became a Christian and decreed that God alone was to be worshipped.” (end quote)

There is an alternative version in Adam von Bremen who wrote 100 years later according to which Harald Bluetooth had suffered a terrible defeat from the hands of Otto the Great and was made to convert and become a vassal of the empire.

What supports the latter story is that Harald Bluetooth had spent vast amounts of money and effort in reenforcing the Danevirk, the line of defences that stretches across the Jutland peninsula. This Danevirk had been and will remain the main Danish defence against incursions from the south until Prussian troops will overrun it in one of Europe’s most pointless wars in 1864.

When Otto I died in 973 Harald attacked Saxony believing the kingdom to be descending into civil war. That however backfired badly. Though Otto II was – to say it politely – not the most successful of emperors, he got this one right. Harald was defeated at the Danevirk and sued for peace. All of what is today Schleswig-Holstein was added to the empire – but we will see how long this will last.

This is it. Now you should have the lay of the land. There is the Stem duchy of Saxony, integral part of the empire and home of its rulers. There are the marches that stretch out eastwards from the Elbe River inhabited by a number of different mainly pagan Slavic peoples. Some, like the March of Meissen and the march of Lusatia are filled with Saxon castles and their garrisons. Others, like the march of the Billungs is barely penetrated by military forces, its rulers pay tribute and that is it.

Beyond those, bordering the march of Meissen in the south is the duchy of Bohemia. Christian for a long time already and its ruler a reliable ally of the empire.

In the east the just recently created duchy of Poland. Its ruler, Miesco I had just accepted baptism and become a vassal of emperor Otto the Great.

And in the north is Denmark. Its ruler, Harald Bluetooth had just tried to throw off the yoke of imperial vassalage but was brought back in the fold by the new emperor Otto II.

For these Slavic peoples living between Elbe and Oder River the writing seems to be on the wall. Surrounded on all side by Christian powers much superior to their own strength the options seem to be surrender or be traded south as a slaves. Hatred is simmering and they are waiting, hoping and praying for a weaking of the empire to regain their freedom. We will see next week how that comes about….I hope you will join us again.

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