History of Germany - H. E. Marshall


With the baptism of Wittekind the resistance of the Saxons was at an end for a time. For seven years the land had rest, and, in seeming at least, the Saxons yielded to the rule of Charlemagne. Saxon soldiers even served in the Frankish army, but it was easy to see that it was but a grudging service. They had no love for their leader, no desire to see him win. The old longing for freedom still slept in their hearts, the old hatred against their conqueror was still alive, though hidden. So, in secret, they plotted with every tribe unfriendly to Charlemagne, and at last, when he was fighting another foe, the Saxons once more broke out into wild rebellion. They refused to fight longer in the Frankish army. If fight they must, they resolved to fight for their own freedom. Once more they threw down the crosses, burned the churches, and slew the priests. Once more they turned to their old heathen ways, and wiped out the disgrace of baptism with the blood of their enemies.

So again, and yet again, Charlemagne marched against them. Again, and yet again, he cowed them, and wrung promises of obedience from them. These promises the Saxons gave because they needs must, or perish; but as soon as the conqueror was at a safe distance they broke their promises, and once more returned to heathendom and freedom.

But with iron determination Charlemagne returned to his task. He swept the country with fire and sword. He destroyed towns and villages, farms and fortresses, everything that would burn was set aflame, what would not burn was smashed to atoms and trodden under foot. Men, women, and children were slain or led into captivity. He settled these captives on Frankish lands, far from their own homes, and gave their old lands and possessions to Frankish soldiers and others whom he wished to reward.

Thus, at length, the unhappy country was subdued, but it was left desolate. So many of the people were slain that it was said the very colour of the earth was changed, and the brown fields were dyed red with the blood of its sons. So many had been carried away into captivity that whole tracts of country which had once been smiling corn-fields were now nothing but howling wildernesses, empty of inhabitants, given over to the wolf and the wild boar. Charlemagne, however, returned in triumph to his palace at Aachen. For he had sworn to convert the heathen or sweep them from the face of the earth, and he had kept his word. "He had done a work," says an old writer, "that even the Romans had failed to do. He had by a reasonable terror bent the savage and iron will of both Franks and barbarians." But when we remember all the blood which had been shed, all the thousands of women and children who had been driven forth homeless, fatherless wanderers, all the thousands more who had been led into bitter exile, we wonder if the terror of Charlemagne's name had indeed been "reasonable."

But before the Saxons were thus finally subdued, Charlemagne had reached his highest fame, he had become the first of the German Cęsars. Through all his wars Charlemagne had been friends with the Pope. He had sided with him against all his enemies, and looked upon him as God's representative on earth. "God," it was said, "had given two swords with which to rule the world, the one to the Pope, the other to the Emperor."

The great Roman Empire, you remember, had been split in two, so there had been one Emperor of the West, another of the East. But since the Goths had invaded Rome, since a German soldier had deposed the last weak Roman Emperor, there had been no Emperor of the West. But now together the Pope and Charlemagne agreed that the time to crown a new Emperor had come.

So Charlemagne once more journeyed to Rome. Here, on Christmas Day 800, all the people were gathered to hear Mass in the great Cathedral of St. Peter. It was a splendid scene. A thousand lights glowed in soft radiance upon gold and purple, upon gleaming gems and silken robes, upon glittering steel armour and waving many-coloured plumes. The deep notes of the organ rang through the lofty dome, and a thousand voices rose in songs of Christmas joy.

Mass was over. The Pope still stood by the altar; Charlemagne knelt on the steps in prayer. Then, suddenly, as Charlemagne was about to rise from his knees, the Pope took from the altar a splendid crown. He raised it high in his hands, then, stooping, he placed it upon the head of the kneeling King. "To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving Emperor of the Romans, life and victory," he cried.

There was a moment of deep silence, then the gathered people took up the cry, and three times the mighty dome resounded with the words. Once more the solemn sound of chanting voices rose, and the Pope prostrated himself before the new Emperor.

Thus, after more than three hundred years had passed, during which there had been no Emperor of the West, a new Emperor was crowned. He was still called Emperor of the Romans, and his Empire was called the Holy Roman Empire. But although it was to be called Roman for many centuries to come, this was in reality the first foundation of the German Empire. The new Empire depended on the Germans as much as the old Empire had depended upon the Romans.

Charlemagne's Empire was very vast. It stretched from the Baltic to the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, from the North Sea and the Atlantic to the borders of what is now Russia. From his father he had received only a small part, the rest he had won by his sword.

But Charlemagne was not merely a soldier and conqueror, he was a ruler and law-giver also. He made laws for his whole kingdom, taking an interest in everything, however small. But one man, of course, could not rule so great a kingdom alone, so to all parts of his Empire he sent officers who were called Missi Dominici or King's Messengers. These men were travelling envoys; they visited the different parts of the country, doing the King's justice. They listened to complaints, punished the evil-doers, protected the poor and feeble, and brought back to their Emperor an account of all that they had done.

This account they gave to the Emperor at his Parliament, which he held twice every year. In May he held a great Parliament, in autumn a small one, and because the chief meeting was held in May these meetings came to be called the Maifeld or Mayfield.

Charlemagne also took a great interest in learning. He founded schools throughout his kingdom, and caused not only the children of the rich but also the children of the poor to be taught. He gathered round him many of the learned men of the day, chief among them the Englishman Alcuin. He himself set the example of learning, and tried hard to learn to write. But although he mastered both Greek and Latin, he was never able to write well.

Charlemagne and the learned men at certain times used to meet together to talk. At those times he did not wish that they should speak to him as to a great and mighty ruler, but as to an equal. So he took the name of David. The learned men called themselves Homer, or Pindar, and such like, and the Court ladies also took other names. They used to write poetry or make up puzzles, and when they met together they would read them and talk about them, and criticise each other's work.

Charlemagne loved the German language, and he did what he could to make people use it in writing. For although people in those days spoke German, Latin was still the language of the learned. Everything which was written, either poetry or history, was written in Latin. Now Charles tried to induce people to write in German, and before he died he began to make a German grammar. He changed the names of the months, too, from Latin into German. January, for instance, was called Wintermanoth or Winter month; April, Ostermanoth or Easter month; December was Heilagmanoth or Holy month. But these never really came into use, and the Germans to-day still use Latin names for their months just as we do.

In speaking of German we must remember, however, that in those days there was as yet no German language as we know it to-day. But just as out of Charlemagne's great Empire there grew the Germany of to-day and the France of to-day, so there grew out of it the German language and the French language of to-day. In those days there were neither Germans nor Frenchmen, but only Romanised Franks and not Romanised Franks. The language which Charles the Great spoke and loved was the language of the not Romanised Franks, and that grew into German. But to a great number of his subjects Charlemagne's speech was like a foreign tongue. They spoke only Romanised Frankish, which, as time passed, became French.

Charlemagne ruled as Emperor for fourteen years. Then at the age of seventy-one he died. He had been ill for some days and felt he must die. Then at dawn one February morning, in 814, he felt the end had come. Gathering his last strength he feebly moved his hand to and fro signing himself with the sign of the Cross. Then folding his hands he murmured, "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit," and lay still.

The next day, with much pomp, he was buried in the great church at Aachen, which he himself had founded. He was not laid to rest as men usually are, whether kings or beggars. He did not lie taking his last sleep, but was placed in the vault sitting in a golden chair of state, with his royal robes around him, and a crown upon his head.