Saxons: A Comparison

by Uwe Muller

Since we had some debates on early germanic people, and since an overview on the Saxons has just been published (Reallexikon germanischer Altertumskunde, Stichworte: Sax, Sachsen, Sachsenkriege), I thought, it might be helpfull to compare the Saxons.

They are supposed to have been noted first by Ptolemaeus (2nd c. CE) as living on the right side of the river Elbe, but that is heavily disputed. Next are Julian (mid 4th c. CE) and Eutrop (end of 4th.c Ce) both referring to military action on the Channel coast at the end of the 3rd c. CE.

The name was first used for the region (like Germani, Sclavia, Italia, ...) and later for peoples living there. At times it included not only the usual Westfalen, Ostfalen and Engern, but also Frisians, Anglo-Saxons and others.

The name is supposed to have been derived from the short sword called sax (see below). Once they had invited the Thuringians for peace talks, and had murdered them with knives concealed beneath their cloaks. (At the time saxons wore a weapons belt on top of their clothes and a personal belt with the knive, firelight, comb and tweezers etc. below. So removing the sword belt would not have had them unarmed).

The sax itself, a large one-sided knife or short sword, is known since the iron age, examples from the Hjortspring find go back into the 4th c BCE. But there are two different types of saxes, the younger form deriving from late antik knives and roman weapons technics.

This second type first appears in merovingian (frankish) graves from the mid 5th c. CE, had reached northern Germany by the mid 6th c and England by the end of the 7th c. In the middle of the 8th c. the Sax replaced the two sided sword in northern Germany (among the grave goods at least), while it disappears in the frankish heartlands. After about 800 (end of the saxon wars) the sax disappears in northern Germany and is only found in Britain and Scandinavia.

So the sax is in a way an ethnic weapon, even though it's form was transmitted by the Franks. It displaced the frankish two sided sword when the wars between the two peoples reached a climax, to disappear when the Franks won the war.

Since around O CE a homogenous style of ceramics is noted on both sides of the lower Elbe river, during the 3rd c. there is a movement to the west. There the people seem to have settled peacefully up to the 5th c. when a relocation to the south (today's Westfalen and Muensterland) and north (Britain) is noted.

Most graveyards and settlements in the Elbe-Weser-Ems region were abandoned or at least dramatically reduced in size, this is commonly associated with a movement of most of the people.

A common style of dress, with a typical style of fibula and a typical way to wear them, is noted since the 4th c., much later than with the ceramics and only in the Elbe-Weser-Ems region. The weapons, see above, only show a saxon style in the mid 8th.c.

Today's Saxony got the name much later, when it was inherited by a duke of Saxony, who moved his residence into the newly accquired country, because it was much richer, and gave it his name.

I hope to have given you some food for thought on matters of continuity, ethnic origins and cultural change.

Uwe Muller
15 Aug, 2004

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