Book 2, Chapter 1, 449 AD to 597 AD – The Saxons – Continued
Sidonius, the eloquent bishop of Clermont, has described in animated language the terrors of the provincials and the ravages of the barbarians. He says, “We have not a more cruel and more dangerous enemy than the Saxons. They overcome all who have the courage to oppose them. They surprise all who are so imprudent as not to be prepared for their attack. When they pursue they infallibly overtake, when they are pursued, their escape is certain. They despise danger they are inured to shipwreck, they are eager to purchase booty with the peril of their lives. Tempests, which to others are so dreadful, to them are subjects of joy. The storm is their protection when they are pressed by the enemy and a cover for their operations when they meditate an attack. Before they quit their own shores, they devote to the altars of their gods the tenth part of the principal captives and when they are on the point of returning, the lots are cast with an affectation of equity, and the impious vow is fulfilled.”
From other accounts of contemporary writers, it is possible to furnish additional particulars of the disposition, habits, and arms of these fierce tribes and such particulars are the more interesting because of the permanent settlements which the Saxons made in Britain, and because of the influence which they had upon it to eventual history. The character of the ancient Saxons displayed the qualities of fearless, active, and successful pirates. It is not merely the Spanish churchman Orosius, who speaks of them as dreadful for their courage and agility, but the emperor Julian, who had lived among barbarians, and who had fought with some Saxon tribes, denotes them as distinguished amongst their neighbours for vehemence and valour.
Zosimus, their contemporary, expresses the general feeling of his age, when he ranks them as superior to others in energy, strength, and warlike fortitude. It was consistency in such men to be inattentive to danger. They launched their predatory vessels, and suffered the wind to blow them to any foreign coast, indifferent whether the result was a depredation unresisted, or the deathful conflict. Such was their cupidity, or their hardihood, that they often preferred embarking in the tempest which might shipwreck them, because at such a season their victims would be more unguarded.
Their warfare did not originate from the more generous, or the more pardonable of man’s evil passions. It was the offspring of the basest. Their swords were not unsheathed by ambition or resentment. The love of plunder, of danger and of cruelty was their favourite habit, and hence they attacked, indifferently every coast which they could reach. Inland provinces were not protected from their invasion. From ignorance, necessity, or policy, they traversed the mean in boats framed of osiers, and covered with skins sewed together and such was their skill or their prodigality of life, that in these they sported in the tempests of the German ocean.
As their naval expeditions, though often wildly daring, were much governed by the policy of surprise, so their land incursions were sometimes conducted with all the craft of robbers. “Dispersed into many bodies,” says Zosimus, of some of their confederates, “they plundered by night, and when day appeared, they concealed themselves in the woods, feasting on the booty they had gained.” They are however, seldom mentioned by the historians of the fourth and fifth centuries without some epithets which .express a superiority over other men in their achievements or their courage, During three centuries of intercourse or of conflict with the Romans, they had learned to imitate the Roman arms, and in battle each Saxon warrior had his dagger, his spear, his sword, and a ponderous battle axe, while for defence his left arm bore a target. For the axe was sometimes substituted a massive club, strengthened with iron, possibly this was the Scandinavian type of Thor’s mighty hammer, and this, wielded by strong arms, must have committed direful execution in the fight. Their warships were long, strong, and lofty, capable of transporting a considerable number of men, with provisions and stores.
Chapter 1, The Saxons
Contemporaneous Accounts of Them
Chapter 1, The Saxon Kingdoms
Chapter 1, Introduction of Christianity
Categories: Book 2