The River Bode near Quedlinburg. © Stephanie Makowitschka /XR-Gallery

Merovingian and Carolingian Quedlinburg

Quedlinburg is mentioned for the first time in 923, when Henry I confirms a donation to the Bishop of Würzburg. However, the story reaches back into the Early Middle Ages.

“ Then the Lord King Charles… proceeded to the river Oker. There all the Saxon Austreleudi under Hassio came before him, gave as many hostages as he desired, and swore oaths of fealty to the lord King Charles” 1
(Royal Frankish Annals, 775)

The story of the Saxon Wars covers more than 33 years and tells of endless incursions and expeditions into Saxony from 772 to 804. The first expedition in 772 was undertaken by Charlemagne to revenge the sacking and burning of a church at Deventer in the northeast of present-day Netherlands. This campaign led to Paderborn and the destruction of the heathen Irminsul, probably a grove of sacred trees. The Saxons, however, did not accept the defeat but rose on numerous occasions against the Carolingian invaders.

The story about Hassio took place on the second incursion into Saxony in 775, when Charlemagne went further west across the Weser, Leine and Oker, where he met up with Hassio (Hassi/Hessi). This Hassio came from a villa called “Meresleba”, now a deserted village called Marsleben a few km from Villa Quittilberga, now Quedlinburg. At a later point, we meet Hassi again, when he donated his land in Mersleben and  Froese – localities close to Quedlinburg – together with eighty slaves and their offspring to the Abbey of Fulda, which he re-entered c. 800. Hassio died in 804. He is also known as the father to Gisela, who founded a convent at nearby Wendhusen in 825. Later in the 10th century, Queen Matilda sought to lay her hands on this land to bolster her new foundation at Quedlinburg.

In another charter noted in the copybooks from the Abbey of Fulda, Bennit and Billung are mentioned in a Carolingian diploma from 811 as sons of Amalung. Both were donors of land at Villa Orda, c. 2 km down the river Bode from Quedlinburg. Another document from 811 mentions Amalung. According to this, he had been driven out of his homeland, when he swore fidelity to Charlemagne. It is believed Villa Orda was the ancestral home of these people; and perhaps even the home of the later ducal lineage, the Billungs.

Reconstruction of Marsleben. Source: Dießenbacher Informationsmedien
Reconstruction of Marsleben. Source: Dießenbacher Informationsmedien

Merovingian and Carolingian Quedlinburg

Archaeology has demonstrated that the story of these localities reaches back before Charlemagne when the river valley from the 3rd century and onwards was dotted with several villages.

All in all, early sources mention numerous settlements up and down the river Bode, which even today offers a lush and attractive stretch of farmland. Apart from the later Quedlinburg, Marsleben, and Gross- and Klein-Orden, we also hear about Wendhusen, Weddersleben, Ditfurt (with a ford), and Ballersleben. Several of these have been archaeologically dated between the 6th and the 15th centuries, when they were finally deserted. Of particular interest are the excavations of the burial grounds in some of these localities.

In this connection, Marsleben is not particularly interesting. A singular burial of a horse from the 7th to the 9th century was found near the settlement can be paired with a burial ground further north with later graves as well as a late Merovingian grave with a sword, and an earlier inhumation grave. In the latter was found a fragment of a stone with a cross, which may be compared to the corresponding gravestones from the Merovingian Rhineland. These graves were found near the later church of Marsleben, which was located to the north of the village. We may conclude that at some point in the 7the century at least some people in Marsleben had been properly Christianised. (A gravestone is a better indicator than a piece of jewellery). Perhaps Hassio (Hassi/Hessi) was already a Christian when he met up with Charlemagne at the river in 775?

As opposed to this, excavations at the village of Gross-Orden, have provided a more substantial view of the complex situation after c. 600. Here, the remains of an early medieval burial ground next to the later church have been uncovered. The church was erected in the southwest corner of the village. Exactly when the first church was built is not known, but archaeologists found graves dating from the 8th and 9th centuries, as well as a tomb from the beginning of 7th century. The woman in this grave (discovered in 1878) had been laid to rest with a spectacular fibula made of gilded bronze. It features numerous inlaid stones, including – at the centre of a cross – an antique carnelian featuring a satyr. Fascinating are also the “Merovingian Bees” created in filigree work, indicating the wearer’s clear cultural affinity to the Frankish elite wielding power south and west of the Harz in Thuringia.

From a somewhat later date, the village also found room for a burial ground further east of the church. Here, the burials have been dated to the 9th and 10th centuries and may have superseded the earlier graves near the church.

Bockshornschanze near Quedlinburg. Source: wikipedia
Bockshornschanze near Quedlinburg. Source: wikipedia

However, to the southwest of Gross-Orden, the “Bockhornschanze”, a Stone Age mound, offered a third possibility for a local burial. Excavations during WW2 uncovered numerous graves at the foot of the tumulus. At least in some of these graves Christians were buried, as documented by a small cross brooch found in the grave of a child. Of particular interest, though, were the 25 graves discovered in the mound itself. Some of these were dated to the 5th, 6th, and 7th century, while others can be dated to the Carolingian age. Together, all these graves witness to a remarkable continuity reaching into the 9th century.

One particular early grave was of special note. The burial had taken place in a chamber with an unusual depth of three metres. It held a woman who had been robbed of her grave-goods after her death. Among the remaining gifts, though, were the skull of a bull, and the skeleton of large two dogs, the bones of a pike, and a female goshawk. Further, the grave contained ceramic vessels and a Frankish glass beaker from the 5th to 6th century. A few metres north of her, two horses and two dogs had been interred.

To conclude: from the 5th and 6th centuries, some remarkable burials belonging to the upper class have been found. Accompanied by Frankish imported goods like glass and valuable Frankish dress accessories, these graves indicate at some level a closeness between the elites in the wider Frankish Empire,

Probably these contacts were furthered by the Merovingian conquest and later Carolingian rule in Thuringia to the Southwest. Protected by the mountain range of the Harz, Quedlinburg may have seemed out of reach until the end of the 9th century. Nevertheless, some contacts were obviously established together with what appears to have been a very early Christian mission.

To understand this fluidity, however, it pays off to closely compare the different burial sites in the area.

At first, people at Gross-Orden chose to bury their dead next to or inside an “ancestral” mound from the Stone Age. This practice seems to have started with the burial of the elite woman with her Frankish beaker, her dogs, horses, and not least her goshawk around c. 450 – 550. Somewhat later – perhaps no more than 50 to 100 years – a competing burial ground was set up at the other end of the village. Here, also, an elite woman seemed to be one of the first to find her last resting place. This time, though, the woman was wrapped in what might have been sumptuous clothes held together with an outstanding Merovingian and Christian brooch. At the same time, another Christian will have been buried at Marsleben, witness the fragment of a gravestone.

Later, the two foci for burials at Gross-Orden continued to attract “descendants” or “adherents”. This practice continued to the beginning of the 10th century when the landscape was reorganised to orbit around the new Christian foundation, Quedlinburg. At this point, the ancestral burial ground at the Bockshornschanze was finally given up.

It appears these two burial grounds echo the stipulation by Charlemagne from 785 in the “Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae”, that Christian Saxons should be buried in church cemeteries and not in pagan mounds. 2 It is, however, likely that the prohibition stipulated by Charlemagne was not so much directed against the “pagan” connotations invoked by the mounds, but rather the ancestral continuity embedded in the practice of interment near the ancestors at memorial monuments visible from a great distance.

Finally, in a broader context, the mound at Bockhornschanze is of particular note. Bockhornschanze is located near the former Villa Ordo, which Bennit and Billung donated to Fulda c. 800 – 810. Billung is generally believed to have been the ancestor of the noble lineage of Saxon dukes, the Billungs, which came to play a significant political role in the 10th century. Henry the 1st, buried in the crypt at Quedlinburg, was through his mother a descendant of the Billungs. Were the descendants of the early Billungs buried near their foremother in the rich grave at Bockhornschanze? Or on the ridge to the west of the church of Gross-Orden and close to another potential foremother, the woman with the precious Merovingian fibula? And what of the competing lineage of the Liudolfings, who rose to royal and later imperial status? And which members were responsible for the construction of Quedlinburg as a magnificent royal centre.

We shall never know whose ancestors were buried near the church or in the tumulus. However, the complex burial customs and the choices made by the different inhabitants in the locality indicate that various social and cultural groups operated inside a poly-cultural context right up until the 10th century.

Fibula and Goshawk from Gross-Orden. Source: Städtische Museen der Welterbestadt Quedlinburg
Fibula and Goshawk from Gross-Orden. Source: Städtische Museen der Welterbestadt Quedlinburg

NOTES:

  1. Royal Frankish Annals, 775. From Carolingian Chronicles. Translated by Berhard Walter Scholz with Barbra Rogers. University Of Michigan Press 1972. p. 51.
  2. § 22. From: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Capit. 1 (1883) S. 68–70. MGH Fontes iuris 4 (1918) S. 37–44. Latin: Iubemus ut corpora christianorum Saxanorum ad cimiteria ecclesiae deferantur et non ad tumulus paganorum.
  3. From: Traditiones et antiquitates Fuldenses, by Ernst Friedrich Johann Dronke. C. Müllersche Buchandlung 1844, pp. 96 and 98.

SOURCES:

Ein frühmittelalterlicher Bildstein aus der Wüstung Marsleben bei Quedlinburg.
By Babette Ludowici
In: Germania: Anzeiger der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, (2003), Vol. 81, No. 2, 2003, pp. 567-574

Quedlinburg vor den Ottonen: Versuch einer frühen Topographie der Macht
By Babette Ludowici
In: Frühmittellerliche Studien (2015) Vol 49, No 1.

Quedlinburg before the Ottonian Kings. Approaches towards an early topography of Power. 
By Babette Ludowici
In: Small things, wide horizons. Studies in honour of Birgitta Hårdh. Ed. by Lars Larsson, Fredrik Ekengren, • Bertil Helgesson, and Bengt G. Söderberg
Oxford (2015)

FEATURED PHOTO:

River Bode near Quedlinburg © Stephanie Makowitschka/ XR-Gallery