All the Wends of Saxo Grammaticus – Book XV

I’ve already included some passages from the Gesta Danorum related to Slavic religion here (these come from Book XIV) but Saxo’s work contains many other passages related to Slavs/Wends.  Here are these passages from the XVI books of the Gesta Danorum in no particular order.  We begin with Book XV. These are from the recent Jensen/Fisher translation.

Book XV

Chapter 1

2. Valdemar, meeting his troops on Falster, called an assembly of the leaders and told them that it was not his plan to challenge the enemy’s large forces with such a paltry band, seeing that on a military venture a king must inevitably win either maximum renown or maximum disgrace. For this reason he preferred to entrust supreme command of the expedition to Absalon and his own son, Cnut, who would return with a modicum of praise if they handled the affair successfully, but with only a small share of blame if things went badly. These two were prompt to obey his instructions and, aided also by as large a flotilla from Rugen as could be mustered at short notice, they sailed without interruption to Ostrusna, intent on attacking the foe with speed as much as with boldness. The invasion was such a well-concealed surprise that the majority of Wends were overwhelmed while still at home and unprepared; the Danes would have laid waste this region, which was entirely off-guard, had not a fire started by some of the more inept soldiers eventually betrayed their presence. There, as luck would have it, two Wends were making their escape in a boat when one of them was brought down by a spear thrown by Jarimar; the other yearned to avenge him, but as soon as he identified the Rugian chief as the object of his assault, he cast aside his weapon with misgiving and slipped away. So deep is the respect pai( amongst these people to men of exalted rank.

3. Meanwhile our vessels glided along the River Peene, where the sailors seized the horses they found pasturing before they moved on to Wolgast. Here, since the bridge had been smashed to pieces and the passage cleared of obstacles, the ships dropped anchor alongside the walls, while the townsfolk set hands to the ballistas, which were not yet prepared. The navy, preferring to take up time sailing rather than endure the tediousness of a siege, were so rambling and dispersed in their action that the enemy were left baffled and bewildered, not knowing for certain whereabouts they needed most protection. The Danish crews, avoiding those points at which foes confronted them, sought places free of resistance, and when the Wends made for those very places, would deliberately vacate them and transfer their soldiery to the areas that lacked defence. To ensure that there was no break in their activities it was decided that the infantry should spend their nights at the oars, their days sleeping, while the cavalry should balance their nightly rest with military exertions during daylight.

4. Believing they could not counter this type of onset with armed warfare, and perceiving that their country’s devastation, which had been started through our soldiers’ mobility no less than their strength, could not be averted under their leadership, Bugislav and Kazimar adopted a scheme to buy peace, and would trade for friendship with people whose offensive they could not withstand. They approached the Danes and, confessing that they were unable to cope with their might, pretended they did not consider the loss of their present territories much of a hardship, for they meant to arrange new settlements amid the spacious wilds of Pomerania. At this Niels of Falster collapsed into laughter, stating that this showed poor concern for their homeland, inasmuch as they were being compelled to yield their coastal regions to the Danes and the hinterland to the Poles, buffeted this way and that by the armed bands of their neighbours. His words warned them to look to the safety of their country and so, after promising 100 pounds in coin to Absalon, since he held authority over the expeditionary force, and the same amount to Cnut, they guaranteed the release of the envoys they had captured, together with a sum of 2,000 marks, to compensate for the pillage inflicted on our king.

5. Absalon did not venture a reply straight away, but first drew aside the leaders and told them that the enemy were offering terms which, if accepted, would be welcomed by the Danes, yet detrimental to them; should they reject them, however, it would be a more appropriate, though not as popular a move; for if their king gained money, their countrymen peace, and the prisoners their freedom by such a pact, it would win them what was more like a favour than an advantage; on the other hand, it would be highly beneficial to treat these conditions as worthless and not back out of war. As it was, the Wends’ strength had been reduced to such slender proportions that if there were no truce, they would be compelled to sue for surrender. Nevertheless, Absalon said he left it to his followers to choose whether to settle for fighting or peace, since he had no wish for it to seem as if he had presumptuously followed his own schemes and disregarded the advice of others. The answer came that they were particularly inclined towards the option which could earn pubIic acclaim.

Chapter 5

5. When he had begun to besiege the town of Lubeck, because he regarded the forces of the brothers, Bugislav and Kazimar, with some mistrust Frederick secretly sent envoys to them with the promise that he would increase the power and prestige of both, since they would be given the dukedoms of the provinces which hitherto they had controlled as under lings without any distinguished title. This guarantee of Frederick’s came as a joy to a pair who had so often been injured by Henry, nor did they perceive that, under the pretext of granting fiefdoms, the emperor was in effect holding out the demeaning yoke of servitude.

10. At this point, after receiving emissaries from the Wends, who would not risk sailing to meet the emperor for fear of Valdemar’s fleet, Frederick was rowed at daybreak in a longboat of the king’s to the latter’s vessel accompanied by a small number of soldiers and climbed aboard, to everyone’s surprise. Valdemar therefore brought together his army captains to take part in a conference, but Frederick made an exception of Jarimar, chief of the Rugians, and would not allow him to be summoned, though the previous day he had shown him a great many respectful attentions and even addressed him flatteringly as ‘king’, because he was aware that this man was extremely loyal to the Danes. Frederick then stated that there was something he was anxious to tell Valdemar in secret; on account of the reciprocal contract which was to take place between their families, he regarded the king not merely as a friend, but a like-minded partner. Frederick informed him that he had drawn the Wends with promises so that they might disable Henry, but once the latter had been subdued he had no inclination to carry out his guarantees, since he was conscious of having at one time given Valdemar an undertaking that the Wendish territories would be subjugated. He went on to beg the king to let him treat these lands as a fiefdom for the moment, to be granted to the two brothers as twin lords, although this would be more for show than permanent. Immediately Henry had been destroyed, he would ensure that the region passed into Valdemar’s hands.

11. The king agreed and sought a meeting on the following day, there Frederick ceremonially handed over banners and named Bugislav and Kazimar dukes of the Wendish lands, thereby causing them to trade the ancient, hereditary freedom of their homeland for official titles that were colourful but meaningless. If only they had realized what a heavy burden they were taking on their backs by accepting these insignificant scraps of cloth, they would have chosen death before such a gift and opted to live the whole of the rest of their lives as private citizens. So, beneath the semblance of preferment they went off having involved themselves in the most disagreeable and shameful humiliation, taking back with them to their country a thraldom gilded over with the spurious trappings of distinction.

Chapter 6

1. Meanwhile, as the fortress which they had toiled to build by Swinemunde had been inundated by winter floods from the sea, the Wends gathered materials during the rest of the season and at the beginning of spring constructed two others in the same area; they believed that, if the River Peene were blocked by the town of Wolgast, and Swina by garrisons on the coast, they themselves would be invincible. Apprised of this rather late in the day, Valdemar mustered his troops in order to obstruct their operations and put in at Grensund, but not before he learnt from the Rugians that the strongholds had been completed and filled with guards. In particular, when he considered carefully the shortage of harbours, he was forced to abandon the idea of capturing the forts.

12. As Absalon was on the point of offering prayers for the welfare of Valdemar’s soul, unable to control his grief while he was uttering the solemn words, he could not restrain himself from sprinkling the altar with his tears, so that he scarcely had power enough to steady his voice and hands to complete the divine office. On top of that he was occupied with such great sorrow of mind and suddenly became afflicted with such a severe and dangerous infirmity, that the end of the mass almost coincided with that of his life. It might have seemed unbelievable that a personage as great as he could have been incapacitated by misery so intense and painful, had his affection for Valdemar not been so well known. But Fate, after one light of his country had been quenched, would not let the other perish; Wendish territory could not be brought beneath the heel of the Danes if they lacked a leader, and a nation which under such eminent generals had risen to a position of surpassing glory would have remained bereft of a defender. The altars, bedewed with the tears he shed instead of prayers, gave no slight evidence of his spontaneous warm-heartedness towards the king. And I could imagine that the incense, made wet by his weeping, emitted a fragrance that was gratifying to the Lord.

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February 6, 2018

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