Raising an army in Post-Roman Europe – The 7th century Germany & Scandinavia

From the early seventh century the sources available to us are more numerous and more evenly distributed across the west. By this period, the ‘ethnic’ armies descended from the late Roman field armies had evolved into armies raised from classes of landowners. This evolution continued through the seventh century.


Archaeological evidence in Germany east of the Rhine suggests the emergence, as in contemporary northern Gaul and Anglo-Saxon England, of more powerful local aristocracies. During the century several areas loosened the links which bound them into Merovingian Frankish domination. We are ill-informed as to how the military forces of the Alamans, Bavarians, Frisians and Saxons were raised. In Alamannia and Bavaria we have law-codes to help us. Both law codes repeat the usual post-Roman attempts to limit the deployment of armed force to the dukes or their representatives, and both heavily penalise those who commit acts of violence or theft within the army. Bavarian Law also refers to minor populi in the army, once again presenting us with the difficulty of knowing whether this implies a broad-based military obligation or armies raised through lords and their clients and dependants. The phrasing of the law implies the latter. Bavarian Law mentions slaves in the context of the army, as perpetrators of theft, but this probably simply refers to slaves following their masters to fetch and carry.

The Saxons remain distinctive for not having an overall ruler, at least by the eighth century; it is possible, though perhaps unlikely, that they were ruled by a duke earlier in the seventh century but if so this situation had changed by the time that written discussions of Saxon society begin to emerge. If we can project the eighth-century evidence backwards, then the Saxons met at regular assemblies, to which most freemen were invited. There were three principal leaders and an overall war-leader could be elected in times of crisis. Checks and balances existed which served to prevent the emergence of a single ruler. Nevertheless, even a Saxon leader acting on his own could raise sufficient troops to exterminate a village which had defied him. Such forces were raised through fairly loose ties of dependence; Saxon freemen served their noble leaders, but expected rewards.

Scandinavian military service can only be guessed at through the medium of archaeological evidence. The period sees significant changes but the extent to which these affected the ability to raise armies, or the organisation of military service, is unclear. In Norway there are some changes in burial custom which are rather similar to those taking place in the Merovingian world and its neighbours at the same time.

In Denmark, it has been observed that weaponry begins to take on a more distinctively Scandinavian appearance, breaking away in style from the pan-European fashions common in the sixth century. At the same time swords begin to show rings fashioned into their hilts, a practice usually believed to symbolize a client relationship. It is tempting to argue that, as elsewhere, the aristocratic retinue was becoming the key component of military organisation. However, it should be pointed out that such ‘ring-swords’ are common in the sixth century in the Merovingian world when, royal service was the main organising principle of military organisation, but die out by the seventh when aristocratic retinues became more significant. It has been argued that this period saw a steady rise in the power of the Danish rulers.

In Sweden, the late sixth century saw the earliest of the great mound burials at Vendel and Valsgärde, which contain boats and lavish military equipment, again of distinctively Scandinavian style. These sites remained in use through the Viking period, and seem to denote the acquisition and maintenance of local power by particular aristocratic dynasties, on the fringes of the main settlement areas of the Mälar valley. They appear at about the same time as the abandonment of forts in the region. The construction and symbolism of these burials reveal significant control of manpower and also demonstrate very clearly that power had a clear violent and military component. One imagines that these families could raise significant followings of armed men. The control of surplus by local élites is confirmed by the growth of trading stations in this period, as at Helgö in the Mälar valley. A plausible discussion of the equipment of the Vendel chieftains suggests an increase in specialist military abilities after c.600.

(Source: “Warfare and society in the barbarian West, 450–900”, by Guy Halsall)

Valsgärde helmet from Vendel Age (pre - Viking) burial site. 7th century AD, Sweden.jpg

Valsgärde helmet from Vendel Age (pre – Viking) burial site. 7th century AD, Sweden

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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