This is part two of my search for ancestors in Pre-Germany Prussia. If you read part one, you will know that my search led me to the city of Trier where one family line resided before making the trip to America in 1845. You can read that story here:
Because this has turned into another very lengthy and involved journey, I have once again broke it into sections with subheadings for your ease and convenience. Should you be pressed for time and not have a few hours to devote to this book, you can scroll down through the centered headings for the topics that most interest you!
Pfeiffer Family history and connection to Saxony Anhalt
Saxony Anhalt history and the appearance of Roland throughout that area
History and Legends of Roland
Roland in Saxony Anhalt area
History of Saxony Anhalt in relation to Old Saxony
Charlamagne and the Saxon Wars
I mentioned in the previous discussion that we would have to visit another area of the country to find the other half of the story of my roots in Germany. This is the story of that other half and their roots in Saxony Anhalt, Germany. First, I will give what we know of the family and their migration from Germany to St. Louis Missouri and eventually St. Mathias township, Minnesota. In the second half of this article, we will look at the history of Saxony Anhalt and the mystery of legendary Roland’s connection to the area.
Pfeiffer Family history and connection to Saxony Anhalt
On September 11, 1868, Catherine Mayer Mueller gave birth to daughter Susanna Mueller in Owatonna, Minnesota. She was the oldest daughter of Catherine and John Henry. On November 19, 1891 she married Wilhelm Frederick Pfeiffer in St. Mathias township.
When I started the search, I knew only slightly more about the Pfeiffer family than I did about the Mayers! My luck with the Pfeiffer side came in that they were a much smaller family and seemed to keep a closer connection to each other at least in the beginning. Sadly as time went on, their ties to the past faded and disappeared too. This could be due to the fact they were a small family and didn’t have as many relatives to pass the heritage on to. It could also be due to some serious family problems that came along later and in some ways split the family apart. Those problems are not really a part of this discussion so I will save them for some other time. For this discussion, I will do as I did with the Mayer family and just share their basic history while trying to trace them back to their homeland in Germany.
Wilhelm Frederick Pfeiffer was one of three children born to Ernst and Henrietta (Borchert) Pfeiffer. When I first started my research on the family, I found the same general birth place of Prussia listed. Luckily for me, I also had a few documents and hand written accounts that would help me once I finally managed to get some of them translated! Because this was a small family, there weren’t quite so many relatives to pass things down to and after many years of distance between families, we have come together and shared what little we have. So, before anything else, I just want to say Thank you to all of the Pfeiffer relatives who have worked so hard to piece together our history!
After the translations of documents and some further searching, I have a somewhat better picture of the Pfeiffer family and where they came from.
Ernst Pfeiffer was born in March of 1831, most likely in or near Calbe, Saxony Anhalt Germany. His wife Henrietta was born in 1830, probably in that same area. They were married in 1862 in the area of Baden. As far was we know, they had three children: Wilhelm, Anna and Harry. We know much about Wilhelm or William as he later went by, and Anna but we know next to nothing about brother Harry. Harry is our missing link right now and I would love to find him! But, for now Let us look at what we do know about the others and their immigration from that place called Saxony Anhalt.
The Pfeiffer family made their move much later than the Mayers who left during the revolts of the 1840s. We will look at their possible reasons a bit later when we look closer at that area of Saxony Anhalt. Ernst, Henrietta and two of the children left Germany in October of 1881 on a ship named Ohio, bound for Baltimore with a plan to go on to St. Louis Missouri.
We are extremely fortunate to have a copy of a letter that Ernst wrote to his sister about the trip! It is one of the documents that we had for years but had to have translated for us as it was originally in German. It is only a portion of the letter and leaves us with the question of what happened to the rest of it. It also leaves the thought of it being written to his sister… Who was his sister, was she also in America, and how did his family once again have possession of it? Was it a letter he wrote but never got a chance to finish or send?
Saying Goodbye and wishing Bon Voyage, for the 23rd at 6 am we went to the railroad station. At 7:30 our train left for Bremerhafen. On our arrival, everything was overcrowded because everyone wanted to be first. Not even the police was able to help the ones that were trying to board. first came the passengers already booked, then the relatives and friends of the departing passengers.
Leaving Bremerhafen was exciting and also frightening hours started. Dear sister, there we saw the mighty ships lined up next to each other, also our ship, the Ohio, the one that we started our horrible voyage across the ocean, nobody had expected. A large gangway was attatched to the ship. You should have seen the excitement going on, when we had to pass through the police line. The crying of the relatives who had accompanied the departing passenters up to that point was heartbreaking. Dear sister, it was not quite as hard on us, since we already done our crying saying good byes earlier.
But seeing the rough water and the turbulence in the sky, I got a scary feeling that tried to tell me, a horrible journey lay ahead. But kept my cool, not frighten my wife, yet it proofed to be right. Getting aboard our sleeping area were assigned to us. Each family got their own. Since our friend Mueller traveled with us, he was able to stay with us dear sister. We were stacked up like sardines 2 feet wide by 3 feet high and 6 feet long one place right next to each other.
At 2 o clock our ship left the harbor going into the river Weser. We kept moving till dark. Arriving at the dangerous point where the river Weser flows into the North Sea, we dropped anchor. We were all ordered to the upper deck. The captain knew that the sea sickness was going to start now.I remained always on the upper deck and watched the ship bounce around. My wife and Anna stayed with me and I held on to them. You should have seen how everybody started throwing up! My wife, Anna, and everyone else on board got sea sick. Myself, Wilhelm and our travel companion, Mueller were not affected, because we had brought a bottle along and just kept drinking. If someone had known, or the ship would have turned back, they gladly would have said goodbye to their money, but it was too late. Travelling through the North Sea, the suffering began dear sister. You would not believe when I say waves as high as houses. Our ship had a 700 hp engine.
All the time we had to hold on in order not to get thrown over board.Dear sister you have probably seen pictures of a ship bouncing from side to side. We were thrown up as high as 40 or 50 feet. By storm and rain we continued our journey until December 5th. The following day we will never forget in all our lives. Despite the rain, the next morning all sails swere set and our joy was great because we were on the move again. But, during the day the winds changed and the sails had to be taken down. It got pitch dark, and the officer on the Captain’s announced a dangerous storm and ordered everyone below deck. All of the Mothers and Anna went below but the two of us could not make it since we were standing too far from the entrance leading down. Dear sister, suddenly the water was above my head, and I lost my breath. Being so close to death, I wished I was with my wife and children to die at their side but could not get there. With two other guys we had to hold on for a long time before we were able to see our ship again, because it had gone down. finely the storm seized and our ship was brough up. We were still hanging on but did not know our whereabouts.
Then the ship’s carpenter came up on deck to lock everything up. He found us and took us below, we were totally exhausted. There the “Oh Heavens” the screaming of the women and the water had reached the room where we were staying.
This is all that we have of the letter so we do not know what happened later, or who the letter was written to or sent to originally?
We do have records of the family’s voyage from Bremerhaven to Baltimore on the ship, SS OHIO. Ernst, Henrietta, Wilhelm and Anna Pfeiffer show up in the ships arrival documents. Ernst lists on that record the city of St. Louis in the portion asking for country claiming allegiance. If you look at that category closely, you will see that many people listed what seemed to be their destination cities there so there was probably some language confusion for them as to what that category was referring to. We do know that the family traveled directly from Baltimore to St. Louis Missouri so St. Louis was their planned destination from the beginning of the trip.
You can find much more information about the ship, SS Ohio here:
All of our family stories and photos state that Ernst and Henrietta had three children; Wilhelm, Harry and Anna. We have so far found no documentation or records for Harry though. He did not travel with them so perhaps he was already in St. Louis and they were going to join him there. We also need to consider the idea that Harry may have been his nickname and this is why we have not been able to find him yet. Poor Harry is a missing link in this family history even though they seem to have been close to him and visited him over the years. He is shown in family photos that label him as brother Harry. The following photo is one that lists the siblings on the back of it.
We do have one other mystery photo in our collection that could possibly be a clue to brother Harry or his family. This photo is one from our box of treasures that we have never have been able to accurately identify. The year was 1911 and obviously, the family was visiting Spokane Washington at the time. The interesting connection to Spokane is that a later point, Anna Pfeiffer’s son Claude would relocate to Spokane so possibly there was some family connection there. That is all still an ongoing part of the search for this family.
Our current discussion is about their past regarding Germany so I am just going to leave this mystery where it is for now… If anyone reading this thinks this family looks or sounds at all familiar, by all means please let me know! Now, back to our topic of the family’s links to Germany!
We have some family biographies that gives us rather vague clues to their life in Prussia. Thanks to an excellent program from during the depression era many families gave histories to biographers who would visit homes and record those stories as part of a WPA sponsored project.
The WPA was The Works Progress Administration (renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration; WPA) was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects,including the construction of public buildings and roads. In a much smaller but more famous project, the Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.
At its peak in 1938, it provided paid jobs for three million unemployed men and women, as well as youth in a separate division, the National Youth Administration. Headed by Harry Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided almost eight million jobs. Full employment, which was reached in 1942 and emerged as a long-term national goal around 1944, was not the WPA’s goal. It tried to provide one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment. Robert D. Leighninger asserts that “The stated goal of public building programs was to end the depression or, at least, alleviate its worst effects. Millions of people needed subsistence incomes. Work relief was preferred over public assistance (the dole) because it maintained self-respect, reinforced the work ethic, and kept skills sharp.
The WPA was a national program that operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided 10–30% of the costs. Usually the local sponsor provided land and often trucks and supplies, with the WPA responsible for wages (and for the salaries of supervisors, who were not on relief). WPA sometimes took over state and local relief programs that had originated in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) or Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) programs.
The family histories were part of the Federal Writer’s project directed by Henry Alsberg and employed 6,686 writers at its peak in 1936. By January 1939, more than 275 major books and booklets had been published by the FWP. Most famously, the FWP created the American Guide Series, which produced thorough guidebooks for every state that include descriptions of towns, waterways, historic sites, oral histories, photographs, and artwork. An association or group that put up the cost of publication sponsored each book, the cost was anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. In almost all cases, the book sales were able to reimburse their sponsors. Additionally, another important part of this project was to record oral histories to create archives such as the Slave Narratives and collections of folklore. These writers also participated in research and editorial services to other government agencies.
These histories are an invaluable source of information for anyone researching their family history as they often give a first or second hand account of your family’s rich history. Many people have no idea that these accounts are even available. If you go to almost any historical society, they will be able to help you locate these lost stories within their archives. When I began my search, I had no clue that such stories existed and remained stored away within the dusty files of the historical societies. If you know where your family was living during those depression year, I would highly suggest you visit one of the nearby historical societies and do a search of your family names there! You may be happily surprised at the stories your relatives told to those traveling biographers! Consider this information as my Family History tip. One additional note on these stories- you will probably not see them widely available on genealogy sites any time soon as they are not records which would be at all easy to transfer to digital format. These are handwritten/typed transcriptions of sometimes lengthy stories generally contained in individual files for each person of family interviewed.
I was fortunate in that many of my relatives were happy to share their stories. Anna Pfeiffer Shannon and Susanna Pfeiffer Driver both shared stories of the Pfeiffer family in Germany along with their own stories. One word of warning in regards to these transcribed stories- they often contain misspellings of names or locations because just as with census records, the interviewer just wrote what they thought they heard. An example of this is the fact that Anna Pfeiffer stated in her story that they came from “Table” Prussia. I can not tell you how long I searched for the village of Table in vain, only to realize much later that the village was Calbe!
Besides the handwritten letter from Ernst Pfeiffer written in German, we had one other very important document that held the key to the family’s origins. We had an official certificate for Wilhelm Pfeiffer but it was also all in German so of course we had no idea what it was for many years. A few years ago, we were able to have it translated and discovered that it was a certificate of vaccination which included Wilhelm’s place of birth!
This document was translated to the following information: vaccination certificate for Wilhelm Pfeifer, born in Calbe, district Magdeburg June 30, 1863, son of Ernst Pfeifer, “Ziegler” (“Ziegelmeister”) in Calbe. My search for Calbe in the Magdeburg district has led to Saxony Anhalt province and it’s history. Much as in the case of my Meyer ancestors, I can currently find out little about the specific family history but I can provide a history of the area the family lived in!
Saxony Anhalt history and the appearance of Roland throughout that area
I decided to find out more about this village of Calbe and the Magdeburg district in hopes that it might at least give me a better picture of the place Ernst Pfeiffer and his family came from and perhaps some general idea why they too may have chose to immigrate at the time they did. As with the Meyer family, I do not know a great deal about their family or financial circumstances during that time. Ernst was a bricklayer or tiler according to his occupation status. His daughter in law, Susanna mentioned that in Germany he had worked on fruit farms. Daughter Anna mentioned that she and her family had been or were German Lutherans. That is about all we know of the family life in Prussia or Germany.
As I said, I began my search in the village of Calbe and quickly found a fascinating history of the area that includes the legendary Roland! My initial search for Calbe Germany immediately rewarded me with the interesting and rather odd mention that one of their village’s historical monuments is a statue of Roland. Calbe is a town in the district of Salzlandkreis, in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.
It is situated on the Saale River, approx. 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) north of Bernburg, and 25 kilometers (16 mi) southeast of Magdeburg. It is known as Calbe an der Saale, to distinguish it from the smaller town of Kalbe on the Milde in the same state. Pop. (1905) 12,281. It is a railway junction, and among its industries are wool-weaving and the manufacture of cloth, paper, stoves, sugar and bricks. Cucumbers and onions are cultivated, and soft coal is mined in the neighborhood.
The town has a statue of Roland outside its city hall. Roland is a symbol who represents many small and medium sized towns in Saxony-Anhalt, symbolising free trade and prosperity. The town also has a very old church, and a tower known as the “Hexenturm” (“Witchtower”), in which the townspeople imprisoned accused witches and tortured them in the Middle Ages.
This very brief description of the village and it’s history caused me to be even more curious about this area. First of all of course, it is in the province of Saxony Anhalt… and I am always interested in knowing more about the history of anyplace related to the history of Saxony. Second, naturally I was sucked in by this area’s connection and loyalty to that legend of Roland. The Witch Tower held no added curiosity for me- they are in any number of medieval villages throughout Europe! My most nagging question was, “What is Roland doing in these villages, when and why did he show up there as such a revered and important symbol for them?” For that, I needed to do more research on the entire area and on the legend of Roland to see where the connection might come in.
History and Legends of Roland
For the many fans and followers of Michael Hirst’s Vikings Saga as well as anyone interested in medieval history or history of Charlamagne, the character of Roland is somewhat familiar. In the Vikings Saga, we have a rather mysterious Roland as a Frankish soldier of high standing- Count Odo’s first in command. As yet, we know very little about him other than that he maintains an important status within the court and household of Charles. He is a well trusted member of their regime and that is about all I can tell you so far. His character is played by Huw Parmenter and he will be returning in season 4 so hopefully his story and history will be better explained. At this point is mere speculation on what route Hirst has taken with this character- whether he has created him based on some type of historical reference or symbolism, or whether he just liked the name and this is a totally fictional creation. Many who are familiar with the legends of Roland and his connections to Charlamagne and the Frankish Empire are of the thought that this character would be some symbolic representation or nod to the more famous Roland. To the best of my knowledge, Hirst has not commented on this character interpretation yet. The introduction of his character with his high standing in the Frankish court leads me to personally think, or at least hope- that there is some odd connection. Hirst has made so many references to Charlamagne and his dynasty that it seems reasonable to me that he would include some reference to Roland. He has already played so much with timelines that it is not unreasonable or implausible that he would consider bringing Roland into the picture even though his original history involved that timeline of Charlamagne. One might compare it to King Ecbert, who’s true history also falls into the timeline of Charlamagne. If Hirst easily maneuvered Egbert up the timeline, why would he have any reservations about doing the same for Roland. What ever the case, we now have a rather mysterious and illusive Roland as second in command of the Frankish army and most of us want to know more about him, and or his possible real history.
In history, Roland was ) was a Frankish military leader under Charlemagne who became one of the principal figures in the literary cycle known as the Matter of France. The historical Roland was military governor of the Breton March, responsible for defending Francia‘s frontier against the Bretons. His only historical attestation is in Einhard‘s Vita Karoli Magni, which notes he was part of the Frankish rearguard killed by rebellious Basques in Iberia at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.
The only historical mention of the actual Roland is in the Vita Karoli Magni by Charlemagne‘s courtier and biographer Einhard. Einhard refers to him as Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus (“Roland, prefect of the borders of Brittany”), indicating he presided over the Breton March, Francia‘s border territory against the Bretons. The passage, which appears in Chapter 9, mentions that Hroudlandus (a Latinization of the Frankish Hruodland) was among those killed in the battle:
While he was vigorously pursuing the Saxon war, almost without a break, and after he had placed garrisons at selected points along the border, [Charles] marched into Spain [in 778] with as large a force as he could mount. His army passed through the Pyrenees and [Charles] received the surrender of all the towns and fortified places he encountered. He was returning [to Francia] with his army safe and intact, but high in the Pyrenees on that return trip he briefly experienced the Basques. That place is so thoroughly covered with thick forest that it is the perfect spot for an ambush. [Charles’s] army was forced by the narrow terrain to proceed in a long line and [it was at that spot], high on the mountain, that the Basques set their ambush. […] The Basques had the advantage in this skirmish because of the lightness of their weapons and the nature of the terrain, whereas the Franks were disadvantaged by the heaviness of their arms and the unevenness of the land. Eggihard, the overseer of the king’s table, Anselm, the count of the palace, and Roland, the lord of the Breton March, along with many others died in that skirmish. But this deed could not be avenged at that time, because the enemy had so dispersed after the attack that there was no indication as to where they could be found.
Roland was evidently the first official appointed to direct Frankish policy in Breton affairs, as local Franks under the Merovingian dynasty had not previously pursued any specific relationship with the Bretons. Their frontier castle districts such as Vitré, Ille-et-Vilaine, south of Mont Saint-Michel, are now divided between Normandy and Brittany. The distinctive culture of this region preserves the present-day Gallo language and legends of local heroes such as Roland. Roland’s successor in Brittania Nova was Guy of Nantes, who like Roland, was unable to exert Frankish expansion over Brittany and merely sustained a Breton presence in the Carolingian Empire.
If you look at Roland in this very limited extent of his actual historical contributions to Charlamagne and the Frankish Empire, it’s rather difficult to explain or reason how he came to be such a legendary figure of such acclaim. He would be so romanticized and revered that tales of his supposed feats would be told and sung about in the eventually conquered land of Saxony and even in Norse legends. Put in terms of actual historical accounts, Roland was not necessarily all that important- he was most likely one of many Frankish military leader involved in the various battles and conquests of Charlamagne’s empire. He was a part of the wars against Saxony but died before victory over Saxony was ever achieved so he really had no significant contribution in that area. As far as his role in controlling the Bretons, he was not successful there either. And, quite obviously, his march into Spain against the Basques ended badly as well. One would have to reasonably question how this soldier went from such seemingly mediocracy to the level of praised and esteemed Folk hero? The answer to that could be blamed on one very creative Poet/Story teller in the 11th century!
The Song of Roland is an epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux in 778, during the reign of Charlemagne. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature and exists in various manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The date of composition is put in the period between 1040 and 1115: an early version beginning around 1040 with additions and alterations made up until about 1115. The final text has about 4,000 lines of poetry. The epic poem is the first and with The Poem of the Cid one of the most outstanding examples of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries and celebrated legendary deeds.
The earliest known source for Roland’s rise to fame and glory are attributed to a poet named Turold, between approximately 1040 and 1115, and most of the alterations were performed by about 1098. Some favor an earlier dating, because it allows one to say that the poem was inspired by the Castilian campaigns of the 1030s, and that the poem went on to be a major influence in the First Crusade. Those who prefer a later dating do so on grounds of what they interpret as brief references made in the poem to events of the First Crusade. One of the main reasons for the poem’s initial popularity was most probably it’s references to Charlamagne fighting off the Muslims in Spain. Possibly Turold’s intention or premise for telling the story was based on that from the beginning. His work would have been looked on by those who paid him as an excellent motivator in the upcoming Crusades that began around the same time. What better story to encourage people to join in the march of Christians to defeat the Infidels and Heathens of the most holy of lands. They had already for the most part done away with the Heathen influence in Europe. And, by this time even the Heathens of the Northern areas- those Saxons, Danes and Norse had all been converted so the next step was to conquer those Eastern lands. While the laypeople saw it as their sworn duty and purpose to defend Christianity and spread God’s word to the world, in reality the Church saw it as good business that brought more wealth, power and control to the Church leaders. In a sense, war and crusades were good business for the church and they made the most of the opportunities such events presented. So, Turold was most likely well rewarded for his story of Charlamagne and Roland fighting to bring Christianity to those infidel Muslims in Spain.
The tale of Roland’s death is retold in the eleventh-century poem The Song of Roland, where he is equipped with the olifant (a signalling horn) and an unbreakable sword, enchanted by various Christian relics, named Durendal. The Song contains a highly romanticized and embellished account of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and Roland’s death, setting the tone for later fantastical depiction of Charlemagne’s court.
The plot of this earliest known tale of Roland and his epic march into Spain is as follows:
Charlemagne‘s army is fighting the Muslims in Spain. They have been there for seven years, and the last city standing is Saragossa, held by the Muslim king Marsilla. Threatened by the might of Charlemagne’s army of Franks, Marsilla seeks advice and his wise man, Blancandrin, councils him to conciliate the Emperor, offering to surrender and giving hostages. Accordingly, Marsilla sends out messengers to Charlemagne, promising treasure and Marsilla’s conversion to Christianity if the Franks will go back to France.
Charlemagne and his men, tired of fighting, accept his peace offer and select a messenger to Marsilla’s court. Protagonist Roland nominates his stepfather Ganelon as messenger. Ganelon, who fears to be murdered by the enemy and accuses Roland of intending this, takes revenge by informing the Saracens of a way to ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, led by Roland, as the Franks re-enter Spain through the mountain passes.
As Ganelon predicted, Roland leads the rear guard, with the wise and moderate Oliver and the fierce Archbishop Turpin. The Muslims ambush them at Roncesvalles, and the Christians are overwhelmed. Oliver asks Roland to blow his olifant to call for help from the Frankish army; but Roland proudly refuses to do so.
The Franks fight well, but are outnumbered, until almost all Roland’s men are dead and he knows that Charlemagne’s army can no longer save them. Despite this, he blows his olifant to summon revenge, until his temples burst and he dies a martyr’s death. Angels take his soul to Paradise.
When Charlemagne and his men reach the battlefield, they find the dead bodies of Roland’s men, who have been utterly annihilated, and pursue the Muslims into the river Ebro, where they drown. Meanwhile, Baligant, the powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived in Spain to help Marsilla, and his army encounters that of Charlemagne at Roncesvalles, where the Christians are burying and mourning their dead. Both sides fight valiantly – when Charlemagne kills Baligant, the Muslim army scatters and flees, and the Franks conquer Saragossa. With Marsilla’s wife Bramimonde, Charlemagne and his men ride back to Aix, their capital in France.
The Franks discover Ganelon’s betrayal and keep him in chains until his trial, where Ganelon argues that his action was legitimate revenge, not treason. While the council of barons assembled to decide the traitor’s fate is initially swayed by this claim, one man, Thierry, argues that, because Roland was serving Charlemagne when Ganelon delivered his revenge on him, Ganelon’s action constitutes a betrayal. Ganelon’s friend Pinabel challenges Thierry to trial by combat, in which, by divine intervention, Thierry kills Pinabel. The Franks are convinced by this of Ganelon’s villainy; thus, he is torn apart by having four galloping horses tied one to each limb, and thirty of his relatives are hanged.
As a result of Turold’s highly imaginative telling of Charlamagne’s battles in Spain, Roland became a grand hero of epic and monumental proportions. The story was so well liked that it was constantly repeated and added to over the centuries. By the 14th century Roland had battled a Saracen giant named Ferracutus who is only vulnerable at his navel (the story was later adapted in the anonymous Franco-Venetian epic L’Entrée d’Espagne (c.1320) and in the 14th-century Italian epic La Spagna (attributed to the Florentine Sostegno di Zanobi and likely composed between 1350–1360). Other accounts expanded on Roland’s life- His friendship with Olivier and his engagement with Olivier’s sister Aude are told in Girart de Vienne by Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube. Roland’s youth and the acquisition of his horse Veillantif and sword are described in Aspremont. Roland also appears in Quatre Fils Aymon where he is contrasted with Renaud de Montauban against whom he occasionally fights.
In various legends of Roland, he takes on a persona similar to Arthur and his knights of the roundtable. In Roland’s version, the Knights are rather represented by or referred to as his Paladins. All Carolingian paladin stories feature paladins named Roland and Oliver; other recurring characters are Archbishop Turpin, Ogier the Dane, Huon of Bordeaux, Fierabras, Renaud de Montauban and Ganelon. Tales of the paladins once rivaled the stories of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table in popularity.
Roland and his Paladins appear in the The Karlamagnús saga (“saga of Charlemagne“), a late 13th century Norse prose compilation and adaptation, made for Haakon V of Norway, of the Old French chansons de geste of the Matter of France dealing with Charlemagne and his paladins. In some cases, the Karlamagnús saga remains the only source for otherwise-lost Old French epic.
The following is a beautiful rendition of the Norwegian ballad of Roland with lyrics included.
So, now we know that Roland achieved his epic fame and glory not because of any actual accomplished feats in his lifetime, but more because a gifted story teller turned him into that legendary hero a few centuries later. During the years in which he lived and those even some years after his death, Roland was just another Frankish soldier involved in wars against the Saxons and any number of other groups or territories that Charlamagne felt were in need of Christianizing and conquering, probably including such Heathens as the Vikings!
As the various lands were conquered over the next centuries, the legends of Roland also made their way into those places and took on slightly different meanings and symbolisms for the people of each area. An example would be how he came to be viewed in areas of Catalonia. In Catalonia Roland (or Rotllà, as it is rendered in Catalan) became a legendary giant. Numerous places in Catalonia (both North and South) have a name related to Rotllà. In step with the trace left by the character in the whole Pyrenean area, Basque Errolan turns up in numerous legends and place-names associated with a mighty giant, usually a heathen, capable of launching huge stones. The Basque word erraldoi (giant) stems from Errol(d)an, as pointed by the linguist Koldo Mitxelena.
Roland in Saxony Anhalt area
These differences in the legend may play a part in how he came to be represented and symbolized in the Saxony Anhalt area of what is now Germany. The history of his monuments in the area refer to him being a representation and symbol of independence. In Germany, Roland gradually became a symbol of the independence of the growing cities from the local nobility. In the late Middle Ages many cities featured defiant statues of Roland in their marketplaces. The Roland in Wedel was erected in 1450 as symbol of market justice, and the Roland statue in front of Bremen City Hall (1404) has been listed together with the city hall itself on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 2004.
Normally one would question why this legendary crusader and soldier of Charlamagne would be any way connected with a fight against Nobility. If you look at the legend in the context of it being a basis and a variant of Arthur and his noble knights fighting for justice and honor for all though, it makes much more sense why the medieval residents of this area might have taken him on as their own personal defender of their cause. By the time his legends made their appearance in their area, the people had long previously been already conquered by Charlamagne and the Frankish Empire and well Christianized, as was Charlamagne’s ulterior intent. During those medieval years when the legends of Roland showed up, they were mired deep within the feudal systems and overlords controlling them. These people would have had no clue that Roland had originally been one of the “bad guy” conquering armies of their people. No, these people were looking for a Knight in Shining Armor, like Arthur of legend, to believe in. They found that supposed Knight or Paladin in Roland!
Statues of Roland can be found throughout northern and eastern Germany, where they are often placed on the market square or in front of the city hall. Examples are also known from Central Europe, Croatia and Latvia, and there are copies in Brazil and the United States. Statues of the mythological Roland, who enjoyed the status as a popular hero, were erected in cities during the Middle Ages as an emblem of the freedom and city rights of a town. In Germany, such a town is sometimes known as a Roland town (German: Rolandstadt). Roland statues are known mainly from cities that used Saxon Law which is interesting considering the fact that we’ve already established the fact that historically he was involved in the conquering of Saxons and old Saxony. And, in order to better reinforce the idea of Charlamagne and his conquerors being the heroes, a later Holy Roman Emperor would go even further in encouraging the legend of Roland. The first Roland statues began to appear in the 12th century, placed outside churches. During the 14th and 15th centuries, Roland statues became more common. Especially during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, such statues became more common, a fact that may be explained by the emperor’s ambition to portray himself as the heir to Charlemagne‘s reign. The earliest Roland statues were made of wood, while later examples are more often made of stone.
The statues and the symbolism are also connected to medieval feudal laws that at times seem to contradict each other and become quite complex in explanations as well as understanding. I will attempt some additional clarification but please don’t be too concerned or worried if you end up even more confused by all of it… at least then I will not feel like I am the only one who doesn’t quite understand all of it!
The statues of Roland were generally designed to show Roland as protector of the city his legendary sword (known in chivalric legend as Durendal) is unsheathed, and his shield is emblazoned with the two-headed Imperial eagle. It was usually placed as to confront the main church as a representation of city rights opposed to the territorial claims of the prince-archbishop. The earliest known statue was the one in Bremen and was built as a symbol of civil liberty and freedom. According to legend, Bremen will remain free and independent for as long as Roland stands watch over the city. For this reason, it is alleged that a second Roland statue is kept hidden in the town hall’s underground vaults, which can be quickly installed as a substitute, should the original fall.
The principle of civil liberty and freedom are based on the German phrase of Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag (“city air makes you free after a year and a day”). It describes a principle of law in the Middle Ages. The period of a year and a day was a conventional period widely employed in Europe to represent a significant amount of time. From the 11th century onwards, liberated serfs and other members of the Third Estate founded settlements alongside the old Roman or Germanic. It was customary law that a city resident was free after one year and one day. After this he could no longer be reclaimed by his employer and thus became bound to the city. Serfs could flee the feudal lands and gain freedom in this way, making cities a territory outside the feudal system to a certain extent. This created the conditions for the revolts such as the Münster Rebellion. With the Statutum in favorem principum (“Statute in Favor of the Princes”), this regulation of customary law was officially abolished for the Holy Roman Empire in 1231/32. According to the statute, cities under royal jurisdiction were forbidden to protect serfs originally owned by the regional princes or their vassals. The statute is an example of power devolving from Imperial authority to that of territorial magnates during the drawn-out contest between the Hohenstaufen emperors and the Papacy.
Adding to the confusion over Roland’s symbolism and representation are the conflicting ideals or beliefs in regards to Charlamagne and the church as opposed to the ideal of Roland representing the civil rights.
History of Saxony Anhalt in relation to Old Saxony
Now we know the history and legend of Roland along with some reasons he may have become such a symbol for certain areas of medieval Germany that include Saxony Anhalt and the village of Calbe. What we need to do next is look briefly at the history of Calbe, Magdeburg, and Saxony Anhalt in relation to what was once called Old Saxony. My reason for doing this is to better understand the histories of these areas and how they connect to the original land of Saxony. There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the numerous variations of “Saxony” Over the centuries until rather recently, there have been areas, territories and Duches with labels of Upper Saxony, Lower Saxony, Saxony Anhalt, Saxony, and Old Saxony. This proves a bit of a nightmare in terms of knowing where a town or village is as compared to where it might have been at some other earlier point in Germany’s, Prussia’s or Saxony’s long history! With the appearance of Roland in some areas, I was interested in seeing the medieval or even earlier histories of Calbe and it’s surrounding cities.
Calbe’s history dates back to at least the 10th century when the original Church of St. Stephani was built there. Their former Monastery Gottesgnaden dates back to the 11th century and their representation as Free City protection by Roland originated in the 1380s. This early appearance of Roland would signify that their monument to him is for earlier reason and meaning based on the Free city ideal rather than a later public relations model by Charles.
Calbe is located near Magdeburg. If we look at Magdeburg’s history we get a much better picture of the area and it’s connection to Charlamagne and the Saxon Wars. The city of Magdeburg or Magadoburg was founded by Charlamagne in the year 805. The meaning of the name was from Old High German magado for big, mighty and burga for fortress. If you look at early maps, you will see that Magdeburg was shown as being a part of “Old Saxony”. This is crucial in determining just what part of those many areas labeled Saxony the city was in as far as placing it within the realm of original Saxon held lands. It is also important when trying to figure out Charlamagne’s conquests of the Saxons!
Old Saxony is the original homeland of the Saxons in the northwest corner of modern Germany and roughly corresponds today to the modern German state of Lower Saxony, the eastern half of North Rhine-Westphalia and western Saxony-Anhalt. It included the entire territory between the lower Elbe and Saale rivers almost to the Rhine. Between the mouths of the Elbe and the Weser it bordered the North Sea. The only parts of the territory which lay across the Elbe were the counties of Holstein and Ditmarsch. The tribal lands were roughly divided into four kindred groups: the Angrians, along the right bank of the Weser; the Westphalians, along the Ems and the Lippe; the Eastphalians, on the left bank of the Weser; and the Nordalbingians, in modern Holstein. But not even with these four tribal groups was the term of tribal division reached. For the Saxon “nation” was really a loose collection of clans of kindred stock. For example, the Nordalbingians alone were divided into lesser groups: Holsteiners, Sturmarii, Bardi, and the men of Ditmarsch.
Old Saxony is the place from which most of the raids and later colonisations of Britain were mounted. The region was called “Old Saxony” by the later descendants of Anglo-Saxon migrants to Britain, their new colonies in Wessex and elsewhere were the “New Saxony” or Seaxna. In Germany the Saxon lands were known simply as “Saxony” (Modern German:Sachsen) and only later came to be called Lower Saxony, to differentiate those original Saxon tribal territories from what became the Kingdom of Saxony or Upper Saxony in territories far to the south-east of the original Saxon homeland. The Anglo-Saxon writer Bede claimed in his work Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731) that Old Saxony was the area between the Elbe, the Weser and the Eider in the north and north west of modern Germany and was a territory beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.
Magdeburg is located on the Elbe River so the area would have been part of Bede referred to as Old Saxony. Ptolemy‘s Geographia, written in the 2nd century, is sometimes considered to contain the first mentioning of the Saxons. Some copies of this text mention a tribe called Saxones in the area to the north of the lower River Elbe, thought to derive from the word Sax or stone knife. However, other copies call the same tribe Axones, and it is considered likely that it is a misspelling of the tribe that Tacitus in his Germania called Aviones. These earliest known tribal Saxons inhabited “Northern Albingia“, a region bordering the northern bank of the mouth of River Elbe in what is now Western Holstein. As land became scarce, the Saxon population began to expand southward where it absorbed indigenous populations such as Cherusci, Chamavi and Chatti, also remaining portions of Langobardi (Lombards) and Suebi. This broader domain is called “Old Saxony”. The Chauci, according to Tacitus, also lived in the general area later known as Old Saxony and were highly respected among Germanic tribes. He describes them as peaceful, calm, and levelheaded. At some point they may have merged with, or were perhaps synonymous to, the Saxons.
For the most part, the Saxon lands were a broad plain, save on the south, where it rose into hills and the low mountainous country of the Harz and Hesse. This low divide was all that separated the country of the Saxons from their ancient enemies and ultimate conquerors, the Franks. The lack of clear physical definition along this border, from time immemorial, had been the cause of incessant tribal conflict between them. Saxons as inhabitants of present-day Northern Germany are mentioned in 555, when Theudebald, the Frankish king, died and the Saxons used this opportunity for war. The Saxons were defeated by Chlothar I, Theudebald’s successor. Some of their Frankish successors fought against the Saxons, others were allied with them; Chlothar II won a decisive victory against the Saxons.
In 690, two priests called Ewald the Black and Ewald the Fair set out from Northumbria to convert the Old Saxons to Christianity. It is recorded that at this time Old Saxony was divided into the ancient dioceses of Münster, Osnabrück, and Paderborn. However, by 695 the pagan Saxons had become extremely hostile to the Christian priests and missionaries in their midst and began to realize that their aim was to convert their over-lord and destroy their temples and religion. Ewald the Fair was quickly murdered, but Ewald the Black they subjected to torture, and he was torn limb from limb. Afterwards the two bodies were cast into the Rhine. This is understood to have happened on 3 October 695 at a place called Aplerbeck, near Dortmund, where a chapel still stands. The two Ewalds are now celebrated in Westphalia as saints. Their reluctance to accept the new Christian religion and propensity to mount destructive raids on their neighbours would eventually bring them into direct conflict with Charlemagne, the powerful king of the Franks and later emperor. After a bloody and highly attritious thirty-year campaign between 772–804 the Old Saxons led by Widukind were eventually subdued by Charlemagne and ultimately forced to convert to Christianity.
The primitive bonds of kindred and clan were particularly strong among the Saxons, and in spite of many divisions the Saxons were an unusually homogeneous nation living as late as the 8th century as the early Germans described by Tacitus in Germania had lived. The long warfare with the Franks largely reduced but did not wholly obliterate their distinct cultural identity.
Charlamagne and the Saxon Wars
By the time Charlamagne decided to put an end to Saxon paganism and raiding of Frankish territories, the Saxon lands consisted of 4 regions, Nearest to Austrasia was Westphalia and furthest away was Eastphalia. In between these two kingdoms was that of Engria and north of these three, at the base of the Jutland peninsula, was Nordalbingia. The Magdeburg area was in the Eastphalia region.
It took him almost 30 years but Charlamagne did succeed at conquering the Saxons completely. He began his campaigns in 772 and it was not until 804 that the last rebellious tribesmen were finally crushed. In all, eighteen battles were fought in what is now northwestern Germany. They resulted in the incorporation of Saxony into the Frankish realm and their conversion from Germanic paganism to Germanic Christianity.
Despite repeated setbacks, the Saxons resisted steadfastly, returning to raid Charlemagne’s domains as soon as he turned his attention elsewhere. Their main leader, Widukind, was a resilient and resourceful opponent and accepted a peace offering from Charlemagne in a perilous situation, not losing his face and preventing Charlemagne from continuing a bothersome war. This agreement saved the Saxons’ leaders’ exceptional rights in their homeland. Widukind (ahd Waldkind, “Child of forest”) was baptized in 785 and buried in the only German church without a spire.
It was a long bloody and drawn out war that Charlamagne might have won sooner had he not left so often to take care of other battles. After his initial attack in 772-74, he negotiated with some of the Saxon Nobles, took hostages and left to attend to to his war against the Lombards in northern Italy; but Saxon free peasants, led by Widukind, continued to resist and raided Frankish lands in the Rhine region. Armed confrontations continued unabated for years.
In 775 Charlamagne returned to march successfully through Westphalia and Eastphalia. By the end of this campaign he assumed that all of Saxony except for the North was in his control and left again for Italy. In 776, the Saxons were already rebelling and destroying his fortresses. He returned in time to put down the rebellion but Saxon Leader Widukind conveniently escaped to Denmark. In 777, Charlamagne convened a meeting at Paderborn supposedly to integrate Saxony fully into the Frankish kingdom. Many Saxons were baptized. The main purpose was more to force the Saxons into Christianity. Charlemagne issued a number of decrees designed to break Saxon resistance and to inflict capital punishment on anyone observing heathen practices or disrespecting the king’s peace. His severe and uncompromising position, which earned him the title “butcher of Saxons”, caused his close adviser Alcuin of York, later abbot of Saint Martin’s Abbey at Tours, to urge leniency, as God‘s word should be spread not by the sword but by persuasion; but the wars continued.
By 778 he left once again, this time to take care of those matters in Spain with the assistance of Roland….we all know how that campaign turned out! He probably should have just remained in Saxony and focused on defeating them once and for all. Instead, he let the war drag on for years before he achieved success beginning in 785 when Widukind finally admitted defeat, offered to have himself baptized and swore fealty to Charlamagne.
The city of Magdaburg that Charlamagne founded was part of the Eastphalia region and was built in 805 after one of the few later attempts at rebellion by the Saxons. As it was built on the River Elbe, it was most probably designed to put off any future strikes the Saxons might attempt using that waterway that went all the way up to then North Sea. Magdaburg became an important city during the next centuries. In 929 the city would be given to Alfred the Great’s grand daughter, Edith upon her marriage to Otto I Holy Roman Emperor. The city was her Morgengabe or Dower gift. Edith loved the town and often lived there; at her death she was buried in the crypt of the Benedictine abbey of Saint Maurice, later rebuilt as the cathedral. In 937, Magdeburg was the seat of a royal assembly. Otto I repeatedly visited Magdeburg and was also buried in the cathedral. He granted the abbey the right to income from various tithes and to corvée labour from the surrounding countryside.
In 1035 Magdeburg received a patent giving the city the right to hold trade exhibitions and conventions, which form the basis of the later family of city laws known as the Magdeburg rights. These laws were adopted and modified throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Visitors from many countries began to trade with Magdeburg.
In the 13th century, Magdeburg became a member of the Hanseatic League. With more than 20,000 inhabitants Magdeburg was one of the largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire. The town had an active maritime commerce on the west (towards Flanders), with the countries of the North Sea, and maintained traffic and communication with the interior (for example Brunswick). The citizens constantly struggled against the archbishop, becoming nearly independent from him by the end of the 15th century.
In about Easter 1497, the then twelve-year-old Martin Luther attended school in Magdeburg, where he was exposed to the teachings of the Brethren of the Common Life. In 1524, he was called to Magdeburg, where he preached and caused the city’s defection from Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation had quickly found adherents in the city, where Luther had been a schoolboy. Emperor Charles V repeatedly outlawed the unruly town, which had joined the Alliance of Torgau and the Schmalkaldic League. Because it had not accepted the Augsburg Interim (1548), the city, by the emperor’s commands, was besieged (1550–1551) by Maurice, Elector of Saxony, but it retained its independence. The rule of the archbishop was replaced by that of various administrators belonging to Protestant dynasties. In the following years Magdeburg gained a reputation as a stronghold of Protestantism and became the first major city to publish the writings of Luther. In Magdeburg, Matthias Flacius and his companions wrote their anti-Catholic pamphlets and the Magdeburg Centuries, in which they argued that the Roman Catholic Church had become the kingdom of the Antichrist.
In 1631, during the Thirty Years’ War, imperial troops under Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, stormed the city and committed a massacre, killing about 20,000 inhabitants and burning the town in the sack of Magdeburg. The city had withstood a first siege in 1629 by Albrecht von Wallenstein. After the war, a population of only 4000 remained. According to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), Magdeburg was assigned to Brandenburg-Prussia after the death of the current administrator, August of Saxe-Weissenfels, as the semi-autonomous Duchy of Magdeburg; this occurred in 1680.
So, after this extremely long involved look at my ancestors, their homeland of Calbe Saxony Anhalt Germany, the history of Roland, Charlamagne and the Saxon Wars; what have I learned other than that I’m still somewhat confused and exhausted by all of it? Well, I have learned a great deal more about my roots in Calbe and it turns out that yes, I probably do have truly Saxon roots! We’ve discovered that those legends about Roland were just that… in reality he was not all that famous or even such a great hero but merely a rather unlucky soldier who some later story teller turned into a hero for the cause of a different war. I am kind of disappointed on that one, I was really hoping that something in his life other than just his untimely death would have warranted the legends… But, perhaps once again, some story teller as in Michael Hirst will add to his fanciful and completely fabricated accomplishments! We also now know more than we probably wanted to know about Charlamagne and his Saxon Wars. Never the less, I hope you managed to stay with the journey and enjoyed it!