The Evil that Men Do: Rhetoric and Reality in Ninth-Century Atrocity Reports

Trying to prove that an atrocity took place in the modern world can be challenging, particularly if the perpetrators deny that it happened, and can command resources and sympathy from their home constituencies. Prosecutors draw upon photographs, videos, surviving eyewitnesses and whatever paper trail they can unearth in order to show that the events took place, and to identify those who carried it out and whose orders they were following. As the alarming rates of Holocaust-denial show, even crimes with overwhelming evidence behind them can become controversial, particularly as the chain of human memory grows frailer with the passing of years.

This obviously gets even harder when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, as was made clear to me when I began getting interested in a series of events known as the Wilhelminer War or Feud. To make a long story short, in 871 two counts on the Bavarian frontier named William and Engelschalk were killed while fighting the Moravians. After their death, Louis the German (r.840-876) gave their titles to Aribo. In 882, the sons of William and Engelschalk (generally referred to as the Wilhelminer) raised an army and attacked Aribo, claiming their fathers’ offices. Aribo fled across the border to the Prince of the Moravians, Svatopluk I (r.870-894), with whom he had a good relationship. Svatopluk sought to restore Aribo, and his retribution was merciless according to the Bavarian Continuator of the Annals of Fulda (more on which below). The Moravian army invaded Bavaria and:

on the north side of the Danube they captured Werinhar, the middle of the three sons of Engelschalk, and Count Wezzilo who was their relative, and cut off their right hands, their tongues, and – horrible to relate – their genitals, so that not a trace of them could be seen. Some of their men returned without either their right or their left hand. (Translation by Timothy Reuter).

This extremely grisly incident is the subject of this post.

One place to begin is by defining what happened here. Whether the Continuator considered this an atrocity might be open to dispute. The only people they accuse of perpetrating a crime are the Wilhelminer, for attacking Aribo. On the other hand, they clearly found it distressing and difficult to talk about, as well as unusual and worthy of comment. Later they describe Svatopluk as cruel for his treatment of the Bavarians. This seems to get at the core of our idea of an atrocity, which is that it is an act of extreme cruelty perpetrated in a manner that is shocking.

When I first encountered the horrible fate of these Wilhelminer and their men, I saw no particular reason to be sceptical about it, and put it down in my mental list of nasty things that happened in the ninth century. Since that initial moment I have had my belief in this incident challenged by reviewers, who argue that this may be an unreliable account. Settling scores against anonymous academics is rarely useful for the people involved nor edifying for anyone who has to witness it, but I found the set of questions this raised in my mind interesting to think about, as I tried to work out how one could go about proving that this incident actually took place.

 A big part of the problem in this case are the sources, or rather, source singular. The Annals of Fulda are the main narrative account for the East Frankish kingdom. From 882 there are two variants. The relevant one for our purposes is known as the Bavarian Continuation, which proceeds down to 902. As the name suggests, this text was written by someone in Bavaria and generally interested in Bavarian affairs. Within it, the Wilhelminer Feud stands as a set-piece. Although material is normally arranged year-by-year, in this case the Continuator includes most of the narrative within the entry for 884, going back to 882 to begin the story. This entry is our only source for the mass mutilation or for the conflict as a whole.

Plausible arguments can be made for and against their reliability. I am inclined to the pro-side. The Continuator was based close to events, and seems to be writing in 884, without knowledge of how the crisis would end. They name specific people who were afflicted, which seems like a big step to take if they were being misleading. Spreading untrue stories that members of powerful aristocratic families based in the local area had had their genitals removed strikes me as a bold move for a writer. On the other hand, a critic could very reasonably point to the Continuator’s dislike of both the Moravians and the Wilhelminer, and credibly argue that the unusually rhetorically styled nature of the passage is a clue that the whole incident has been fabricated or exaggerated in order to position Svatopluk as an animalistic barbarian, and the Wilhelminer as wrongdoers who received their just deserts.

This sort of debate is relatively widespread in early medieval scholarship. The classic centre for it is in viking studies, where the perennial argument about how seriously to take descriptions of atrocities carried out by Scandinavian raiders and preserved in monastic chronicles and saint’s lives continues to lead to fights (although for what it’s worth, the debate seems to be swinging towards believing the sources, at least in outline). As with the Wilhelminer Feud, our sources are difficult and hard to corroborate.

I suspect that at the core of this argument is an unconscious disagreement about the probability of atrocities taking place. If you’re inclined to the view that such events are uncommon and that reports of them are often invented for the purpose of propaganda, your response to a solitary account in a medieval annal is going to be sceptical. This is neither an inherently stupid or morally wicked approach to the world.* It is, however, one I struggle with. My own position is that while humans are on balance social animals who tend to cooperate and bond with each other, acts of spectacular violence should not be seen as unusual.

I also wonder if this problem gets exacerbated by specialising in subjects from the distant past. Try as we might, awful events in the medieval period don’t hit most of us with the same emotional force as those from more recent centuries. This is mostly a good thing for the practice of history, as it makes it easier to study the medieval past with an element of detachment. But this tendency to read all texts as rhetorical constructions can mean we miss what the writer is actually trying to tell us as we probe and pull the material apart, looking for flaws and hidden agendas.

This is why I began this post by reference to the present. We can all fill in our own horror stories from the last hundred years, gifted to us by regimes such as the Khmer Rouge or ISIS, epitomised by place names that have become synonymous with evil, such as Auschwitz or Srebrenica. The point here is that any sentence that begins ‘But humans would never really be so cruel as to…’ is almost certainly wrong and dangerously so. Of course, just because awful things have happened in living memory doesn’t mean that Svatopluk really mutilated the captured Wilhelminer on the banks of the Danube in 882. But it should suggest that it’s a possibility that is worth thinking about.

Other written sources point to the possibility of mass killings in the early medieval world. Charlemagne’s massacre of 4,500 captured Saxons at Verden a century before the Wilhelmer feud has become notorious enough to inspire heavy metal tracks. The Byzantine emperor Basil II (r.976-1025) is reported to have had 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners blinded in 1014 before sending them home. Closer to home, when Svatopluk betrayed Rastislav (r.846-870), his uncle and predecessor as Prince, by handing him over to the Franks in 870, Louis the German had the unfortunate Moravian blinded.

Archaeology offers more tangible evidence and recent decades have seen the unearthing of a number of mass graves in England which suggest mass executions. In 2008, the bodies of 37 male individuals, probably of Scandinavian origin, were found during excavations at St John’s College, Oxford. The individuals had been stabbed with bladed weapons and placed in a ditch. Archaeologists working on the bodies suggested that they were vikings who were captured and executed in the tenth century. Another mass grave was found at Ridgeway Hill in Weymouth the following year, which included the remains of 54 men, including 51 decapitated skulls. The isotopic analyses of teeth of the victims suggest a Scandinavian origin. The most plausible reading is that these were defeated vikings, executed by their captors. Again, this doesn’t prove that Svatopluk castrated anyone in 882. It doesn’t offer much in the way of evidence of mutilation. But at the very least it offers a sanity check for the idea that massacres never happened, particularly of enemies captured in warfare by a party that had reason to consider themselves aggrieved.

The Middle Ages could be extremely violent, but it was violence that took place within a particular social and cultural context that made it meaningful. One of the reasons I find the Continuator’s account convincing is that I think it makes a great deal of sense from Svatopluk’s point of view. The public maiming of Wilhelminer and their supporters served to indicate Svatopluk’s power and sent a very strong message about the consequences of attacking anyone under his protection. Castration was not a common punishment in the Frankish world, and it served to mark the Moravian Prince as an outsider, but it had an awful logic given the circumstances. The Wilhelminer had attacked Aribo because they believed he was in possession of a title that belonged to them through paternal descent. The removal of the genitalia of Wernher and Wezzilo undermined their masculinity but Svatopluk was also striking right at the heart of their claim to power by attacking their procreative ability. He may also have been attempting to end the feud definitively and keep it from stretching to another generation.

The Continuator’s presentation of the Wilhelminer as criminals is also interesting. I wonder if the mutilation was intended by Svatopluk to be read as a punishment for breaking the peace. We don’t know that much for sure about Moravian law in the period, but the oldest surviving Slavic legal code, the Zakon Sudnyj Ljudem (Court Law for the People), has been associated with ninth-century Moravia (with due caution, as the earliest manuscript is from thirteenth-century Novgorod). The code orders amputation as a punishment for a wide range of crimes. Although nothing that happened to the Wilhelminer exactly matches anything in the Court Law, this implies that Svatopluk probably came from a legal culture that accepted amputation as a way of dealing with criminals. Mutilation was also employed in the Carolingian world to punish, as the blinding of Rastislav discussed above indicates.

I haven’t definitely proved in this post that the mass mutilation described that the Continuator took place. Barring a really lucky new manuscript find or an archaeological site on the north side of the Danube which happens to be datable with astonishing precision, that isn’t going to happen. I’ve tried to suggest a couple of reasons why Svatopluk might have been inclined to carry out such a thing, including the specific context of the incident and a possible legal background. But what I’ve also tried to gesture to is that the idea that deliberately targeted acts of mass violence are not implausible events in human history, but are things that still happen today. This isn’t to say that we should believe all medieval accounts of bad things happening, some of them may well be invented or heavily distorted. Rather, it’s to say that scepticism needs to be tempered with an awareness that sometimes people genuinely do really nasty things to each other and that any understanding of the Middle Ages needs to be able to include that in its reckoning of the period.

* It is one I suspect is fostered by an academic lifestyle. Contrary to some stereotypes, my lived experience of scholars is that they tend to be kind, thoughtful and relatively conflict-averse people. While I am very glad this is the case, it may not always be the best headspace for understanding ninth-century warfare.

4 thoughts on “The Evil that Men Do: Rhetoric and Reality in Ninth-Century Atrocity Reports

  1. Couldn’t agree more with this – both with your arguments for this particular atrocity report not being confected, and the more general sentiment behind it.

    I’ve encountered that kind of scepticism about early medieval atrocities before in all sorts of different contexts – from sixth century Merovingian politics to the feudal revolution of the year 1000 debate. The arguments in those cases are just the same as with the debate about the Vikings – talk of biased clerical chroniclers trying to demonstrate their moral superiority by making lay society look brutal and chaotic and whingeing monks trying to demonise their rivals. In the past, I’ve bought into that kind of thinking. But now, along similar lines to you, I’d argue that each source needs to be taken on its own merits not categorically treated with scepticism because of its provenance. Obviously, some medieval atrocity reports do indeed describe the downright implausible (i.e. the chronicles of the First Crusade which claimed that blood flowed through the streets of Jerusalem up to the horses’ bridles) and many of them do employ Biblical and Classical Roman allusions. But in the case of the particular example you examined, of course, none of these apply, and so I like you don’t see any reason to be instinctively sceptical of it.

    And I definitely would agree with you that the “people wouldn’t do horrible things like this” kind of argument doesn’t work. I can empathise with why a lot of medievalists might be inclined towards that kind of thinking – we’re constantly bombarded with the idea that our period was uniquely violent and barbaric (“I’m gonna get medieval on your ass”, “the latest atrocities in the war in Ukraine are medieval”, you know the picture), and that medieval people were, quite simply, less nice, forgiving and civil than we are. But the flipside of rejecting the teleological narrative of the “civilising process” and arguing that we’re not necessarily getting nicer and more enlightened over time, is accepting that just as us moderns are capable of committing acts of horrific cruelty and mass-killing, so were our medieval forebears. I thus believe we can reject the popular notion of medieval exceptionalism in terms of violence, barbarism and cruelty, whilst at the same time coming terms with the fact that a lot of really quite nasty violence did occur in our period, as in any period of human history.

    Liked by 2 people

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