Colonists, Knights and Cogs (772-1410)

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The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.


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 previous 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 season in 1410 having covered the creation of two most important principalities, Saxony and Brandenburg (aka Prussia), the development of the Teutonic knights and the Hanse.

Key Events

Colonists (772-1250)

When Henry the Fowler ascends to the throne in 919 he does so as duke of Saxony. The stem duchy of Saxony is this enormous territory that stretches from the eastern shores of the Rhine all the way to the Elbe and later to the Oder River.

Under the Ottonians (919-1025) Saxony is the centre of imperial power. But when the Salians take over, the imperial focus shifts south. Saxony becomes a hotbed of rebellion until the House of Welf sets up its own king-like rule over the Stem duchy. Imperial power recedes well into the background and the North sets out on its own path.


The beginnings of the Stem duchy of Saxony are drenched in blood as Charlemagne forces the local pagans to convert. 150 years later the Saxons do the same to their neighbours to the east, the Wends .


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…


The Wends, the pagan Slavic peoples living east of the Elbe who found themselves ever more squeezed by their now Christian neighbours wake up one morning to find their oppressors fatally weakened. Events 2000 km south of Brandenburg create the once in a century opportunity to throw off the yoke of the Saxons.


A rift that is opening up between the Saxons and the Empire. For 80 years Saxony had been the centre of imperial power and the Ottonians had been supportive of the Saxon nobles’ policy vis-à-vis the Wends and Poland. All that Is about to change.


At the next imperial succession the Saxons are again standing on the side lines. On paper the new guy, Konrad II was a man after their own heart, fearsome warrior untroubled by bookish learning, but he was also a sponsor of the church. His son, Henry III was even more so, and there are many reasons why the Saxon magnates did not like the ecclesiastical princes. And it is not just about them greedily gobbling up lands and privileges, but they are also hitting them where it hurts most – the economy, stupid…


The conflict between Saxons and the empire hits the hot stage.


This is the story of two men who could not be more different. On one side is Gottschalk, leader of the pagan Abodrites, who first comes to prominence as a brutal raider killing Saxons all across Holstein in revenge for his father’s killing. The other is Adalbert, son of a count, brother of the count palatinate of Saxony, friend and confidant of Henry III, a man who refused the offer of becoming pope for his ambition to convert all of Scandinavia and the Baltic. These two men formed an alliance against the Saxon magnates in general and the Billungs, dukes of Saxony in particular.


The Investment Controversy came about through a confluence of three major strains, the rise in piety in the wake of improving economic conditions, the establishment of the papacy as a power separate and superior to temporal rulers and thirdly, the opposition of the German magnates against centralising tendency of the emperors, led by the Saxons. And it is the latter part this episode focuses on.


Lothar of Supplinburg, a hitherto minor count from Westphalia is raised to ducal authority in 1106. Before he took the reins of the duchy, Saxony had turned into a free for all. Whenever a rich count or margrave fell victim to the various dangers a civil war generated, his cousins and peers would race to first seize his wife or daughter and then use their claim to grasp as much of his property as possible. A process not much more dignified than the opening of the doors on a Black Friday pre-pandemic.



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.



This week we will look at one of the great mysteries of German medieval history, how Lübeck could become the second largest City in the Holy Roman empire within just 100 years from its foundation.



The mark of Brandenburg was the result of the ambitions and ruthlessness of one man, Albrecht the Bear.

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