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Imagined Geographies and the Ottonian Swamp

Chris Halsted | University of Virginia
Issue 01 - September 2020
Image by Dominik Kempf


   ccording to Widukind of Corvey, a tenth-century German chronicler, the Hungarians — then relatively recent arrivals on the European scene — had been born from the Maeotian swamp, what we know today as the sea of Azov between Russia and Ukraine. There, Gothic women exiled for the use of poison (probably connected to witchcraft) bore a “race who lived in the manner of ferocious beasts, wild and unrestrained.” Shown a way out of the swamp by a doe chased on a hunt, the Hungarians broke forth and attacked the unsuspecting cities of Europe.


      The story is not Widukind’s original, but adapted from the sixth-century author Jordanes, whose Getica had attempted to justify the Ostrogothic presence in Italy — in this case by contrasting them to the wild and swamp-born Huns. Widukind not only copies but adapts the story, altering the Latin and changing elements to make it his own. By means of a brief genealogical passage — he comments that the Hungarians are actually Avars, who are really Huns — Widukind brings the Maeotian geography of Jordanes into the tenth century, making the swamp again the progenitor of a people seen as fearsome and warlike. 

      Neither the Hungarians nor the Huns, of course, were born of exiled witches in a swamp. Both Widukind and Jordanes trafficked in an imagined geography, connecting a sense of wilderness to a people they perceived as “Other.” The creation of such wildernesses was an antique strategy used to define and justify one’s own civility — one could only be a center of “culture” by defining somewhere else as “nature.” This trope repeats in ethnographies across the millennia, ranging from the barbaric peoples presented in Herodotus all the way to the founders of anthropology in the twentieth century, who performed their scientific literacy by categorizing and describing “less civilized” peoples. In Widukind’s hands, it found new utility in the volatile world of the tenth century, when the Saxons, the heirs of Charlemagne’s empire under the new Ottonian dynasty, sought to convince themselves of their centrality and superiority. This was especially true with regard to the militarily powerful Hungarians, who were thought to pose an existential threat to Christendom. 

      The imagined geography of the Ottonian swamp, however, found its most consistent expression not in the Hungarians, but in the peoples who bordered the Saxons immediately to the east — the Polabian Slavs, with whom the Ottonians battled consistently throughout their century-odd rule. Ottonian authors consistently depicted the land to the east as a barbaric wilderness. Widukind, who we have already encountered, provides the best examples; to him a swamp always seems to be occluding the path of Ottonian armies. Early in his second book, which begins the narrative of Otto the Great (r. 936-73), Widukind describes a campaign “to restrain the ferocity of the barbarians”; it ends before a Slavic fortress as a Saxon named Ekkehard leads an attack through a swamp and “surrounded by the enemy, perished with all his men.” In his third book the same thing happens again, this time to the men following a Saxon named Thiadric, set upon by Slavs as they crossed a swamp adjacent to another Slavic stronghold. When Widukind comes to the famous battle against the Slavs at the Raxa river in 955, one of the climaxes of his work, the scene is one of dense wilderness, with the swamp (Latin palus) invoked no less than five times to describe the geography. The Raxa is described as “difficult to cross because of the swamps,” and the army is trapped by felled trees, forcing the Saxons to encamp on one side of the swamp and shout over it to address the Slavs. In their final battle plan, the Saxons make a feint as if to attack over the swamp before crossing the river somewhere else — avoiding the issue of the marshy terrain entirely. 

An artistic impression of the site at Lieps as it may have appeared in the tenth century

An artistic impression of the site at Lieps as it may have appeared in the tenth century

      At a similar scene which Widukind places at Birten in Lotharingia, the army is instead blocked by a fishpond (piscina), a much more pastoral body of water. Indeed, battle scenes in non-Slavic settings are entirely swampless; the word only appears in reference to the Slavs (and the Hungarian origin story) in the entirety of Widukind’s work. The people who live in this Slavic swamp are consistently described as barbarians. Their leaders are “barbarian kinglets” and their territories “the lands of the barbarians.” Shortly after the campaign to “restrain the ferocity of the barbarians,” Widukind describes how “the barbarians were nowhere unoccupied by arson, slaughter, and depopulation.” To Widukind, the wilderness of the east was accordingly inhabited by wild people, and these people had to be tamed by Saxon arms. 

      In describing the land, at least, Widukind was not entirely incorrect — northeastern Germany was, and remains, a generally wetland environment. The study of animal bones reveals that the Slavs of Polabia kept pigs and goats rather than cattle, limiting the need for pastureland. The wetland landscape was also actively used by the Slavs for fortification and defense. Strongholds were constructed on islands with bridges connecting them to the mainland, and even those not built on islands were surrounded by ditches which the wet environment turned into natural moats. Despite possessing elements of accuracy, however, Widukind’s swampy depiction was an incomplete picture of Polabian society. The tenth century was a time of increasing economic vitality along the Baltic rim. New “urban” centers such as Wolin, Starigard-Oldenburg, Szczecin, Mecklenburg, and the combined settlements at Lieps and Kastorf-Mölln connected the Slavic world to networks of trade spanning from the Baltic and North Seas all the way to Central Asia. Archaeologists have discovered production facilities for the processing of antler, bone, horn, and amber as well as the smithing of silver, bronze, lead, and iron; finer products included gaming sets, combs, and elaborate knife-sheaths depicting humans and animals. The vitality of long-distance exchange is attested by the many hoards of Arabic silver coins, as well as weights and scales indicating participation in a standardized, Baltic-wide system of weights and measures.

A map of Polabia (modern north east Germany) and known tenth-century Slavic settlements

A map of modern north east Germany and sites mentioned in the text.

      By transforming this thriving world into an out-of-the-way swamp, Widukind simultaneously centered the fledgling Saxon empire and justified their violence against the Slavs. Just a century and a half before, the Saxons had similarly been the barbarian swamp-dwellers against which another expansionist empire, the Carolingians, opposed themselves. An account of Charlemagne’s Saxon wars, dated 797, describes a Frankish campaign into Saxony “passing beyond swamps and pathless places as far as the ocean.” This language tapped into an active eighth-century discourse of alterity: the rather eccentric Cosmography of Aethicus Ister, probably also written in the eighth-century Frankish empire, describes the steppe north of the Caucasus mountains as “uncultivated, without roads, and boggy”; the people who lived there were apparently cannibals. By bringing these far-away wildernesses close to home, the account of the Saxon campaigns created an implicit hierarchy between Carolingian center and Saxon periphery. 

      Now in Widukind’s time, the Saxons sought to depict themselves as the civilized empire, facing down another swampy and pathless barbarian frontier. As has become increasingly clear with regard to the Roman empire or early medieval England, such a focus on the periphery was an instrument of centering the polity itself; only by comparison to those barbaric people “over there” could the society at the “center” convince itself of its identity as a locus of civilization. In areas which were previously liminal to the settled Mediterranean world, such as Saxony or England, this need was all the greater; one could read Widukind’s insistence on the wild alterity of the Slavs as an anxiety over the fact that not long before, in the grand scheme of things, the Saxons had been “barbarians” themselves. Indeed, Widukind perhaps protests too much when he spends much of his first book connecting the Saxons to Mediterranean antiquity through the claim that they, like the Romans, were descended from exiled Trojans.  

      But Widukind’s claims served a dual purpose: recorded in his own work, as well as many others, are the Saxon military incursions into Polabia during this period. A grant of incomes to the monastery of St. Maurice at Magdeburg dated 965 reveals that Otto the Great had extorted tribute in silver from five named Slavic groups within the Baltic watershed; another such document also includes renders of honey, furs, slaves, pork, and wheat. Widukind’s swampy east served not only to center Ottonian civilization but to justify the violent extraction of Slavic wealth. Otto was presented not as a tyrant unjustly taxing neighboring peoples, but as the protector of Christianity against the barbarians — a division explicitly enumerated in several tenth-century texts. 

      That the image of the eastern swamp was not merely confined to the pens of writers like Widukind, but an idea current at the Ottonian court itself is indicated by the report of the Hispano-Arabic traveler Ibrahim ibn Yā‘qūb, who visited Central Europe around 965. Ibn Yā‘qūb describes four “kings of the Slavs:” an unnamed Bulgarian ruler, Mieszko I of Poland, Boleslav I of Bohemia, and the Polabian ruler Nakon, who also appears in Widukind as a “barbarian kinglet.” Aside from giving a detailed and rather accurate description of the construction of wetland fortresses, Ibn Yā‘qūb also notes that “troops can hardly move in Nakon’s country, for it abounds in marshes, woods, and mud.” While Ibn Yā‘qūb did most likely visit Nakon’s fortress in person, this can hardly have been his own personal observation, since he was not traveling with an army. Rather, this description may have derived from his host and informant Otto the Great, who is explicitly cited elsewhere in Ibn Yā‘qūb’s text when he assures the author of the existence of the fabled City of Women, off somewhere to the north. 

Four women approach the Emperor Otto III, representing different provinces of his empire (note ‘SCLAUINIA’ or Sclavinia on the left, representing Otto’s Slavic lands). Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm. 4453

Four women approach the Emperor Otto III, representing different provinces of his empire (note ‘SCLAUINIA’ or Sclavinia on the left, representing Otto’s Slavic lands). Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm. 4453

      This thread of Ottonian ethnographic thought continued into the eleventh century. Thietmar of Merseburg, a chronicler writing during the reign of the final Saxon emperor Henry II (r. 1002-1024), opened his eight-book Chronicon with a description of the sacred Slavic spring Glomuzi, which according to him gave its name to the entire region. He thus connected the non-Christian religion of the Slavs to their aquatic landscape. When the Saxon rebels Wichmann and Ekbert fled into Slavic lands, in a passage largely adapted from Widukind, Thietmar added a description of these lands as “the northern regions which, as scripture says, most often send forth evil.”  Later, when Thietmar records the translation of the relics of Pope Benedict V (d. 965) from Hamburg, he recounts a prophecy from the mouth of the dead pope that “this entire region will be left to the heathen for desolation by the sword and to wild beasts for inhabiting” until his body reached Rome. 

      Unlike Widukind, however, Thietmar also bends his quill to the description of Baltic urban centers. He is the first author who describes the city of Rethra (which he calls Riedegast), the center of the pagan Liutizi confederacy which arose in the late-tenth century. Of this center, commonly identified with the archaeological site at Lieps, Thietmar says “a great and venerable forest surrounds it on all sides, untouched by inhabitants.”  According to Thietmar, the only building in the entire city is the temple at which the Liutizi worship, constructed on a foundation of animal horns and with reliefs of their gods carved into the walls. Again, Thietmar is building this account out of real elements — Lieps really is surrounded by forest even today, and both animal sacrifices and anthropomorphic wall-carvings have been found at Polabian archaeological sites. However, by weaving a description of an isolated and desolate temple, Thietmar misses the vitality and interconnectedness of the settlements at Lieps. Archaeological investigations led by Volker Schmidt have revealed multiple marketplaces, production sites, and manorial houses, all connected to one another via a system of bridges crossing the lake. But to Thietmar, the lake itself is a site of horror — it is accessible by a door on the eastern side of the temple, he writes, and “excessively dreadful to see.” According to Thietmar, the lake is also the focus of a singular religious belief of the Slavs, who believe that “if at any time the savage harshness of a long rebellion is near at hand, a great boar might rise from the aforementioned lake, teeth white and glistening from foam.”  Thietmar depicts the boar as a kind of omen, which will “show itself to many, delighting in the muck with a terrible shaking.” This is the only attestation of such a belief, and it may be taken as a literary creation on the part of Thietmar. Here he turns the swamp into the birthplace of the Liutizi, seen through the metaphor of the boar, always a vicious and uncontrollable creature — indeed, the name “Liutizi” probably derived from Slavic *ljutъ, “wild” or “fierce.” The conquest of the boar, demonstrated through the ritual of the hunt, was the firmest possible demonstration of elite masculinity, and indeed the necessity of a campaign to hunt the Liutizi boar may be the intended implication of the passage. The rebellion to which Thietmar refers is that which birthed the Liutizi in 983, described in his third book.

A map of the lake at Lieps, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the archaeological remains of the Liutizi settlement

A map of the lake at Lieps, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the archaeological remains of the Liutizi settlement

      The Ottonian dynasty died with Henry II in 1024, but the Ottonian swamp lived on. The account of Adam of Bremen, who wrote in the 1070s during the dawn of the Investiture Controversy, also includes a description of Rethra, here calling their god Redigast: 

Among them the center and most powerful of all are the Redarii, the fortress of which, the most well-known Rethra, is a seat of idolatry. A great temple was constructed there to the demons, the leader of whom is Redigast. His image is of gold, his bed is furnished with purple. This fortress has nine doors, and is enclosed on all sides by a deep lake. A wooden bridge, over which passage is granted only for those sacrificing or those seeking an oracular response, provides a crossing. I believe there is a meaningful explanation for this: that suitably “the Styx with its ninefold winding encloses” the lost souls of those who serve idols. 


Adam echoes much of Thietmar’s description, including the manmade deities. Though he preserves the sense of wilderness, however, Adam’s actual description is quite different: where Thietmar describes Rethra surrounded by forest and with an adjoining lake, Adam depicts it as an island surrounded by water accessible by a bridge. This becomes the ninefold Styx of Vergil’s Aeneid, depicting the Liutizi capital as the underworld itself. 

      In an interesting coincidence, however, both of these descriptions might be seen to match the archaeological investigations at Lieps. Thietmar’s description of the forest and lake strongly resembles the site at Usadel on the eastern shore of the lake. Here, investigators discovered a large graveyard, alongside which was a structure which Schmidt identified as a nine-by-twenty meter temple building. The site is even today surrounded by forest, matching Thietmar’s description, and though the lake lies to the west rather than the east it is quite possible that Thietmar’s depiction of the “door to the east” was merely meant to mirror the religiosity of proper Christians — for whom the east, toward Jerusalem, was the direction of prayer. Adam’s description, meanwhile, more closely resembles the site on Hanfwerder isle, a densely-populated elite settlement and marketplace. A small building on Hanfwerder, which was accessible to the mainland via a bridge, was also identified as a temple based on the discovery of animal bones in its foundation. In other words, these two authors writing sixty years apart both seem to have described a portion of the same site, though not its whole. It is possible that each author had an incomplete report, or indeed that the location of the main shrine had moved from the mainland to the island over the intervening years. It should also be kept in mind, however, that this could all just be coincidence, and that both authors may have described an entirely fictitious geography which happens to accord vaguely with the settlement investigated by Volker Schmidt. 

      Whatever the source of Thietmar and Adam’s accounts, they both lie within a pattern of imagined geography regarding Polabia. The elements of materially-confirmed evidence in the accounts indicate that our German authors were not ignorant of events across their eastern border, but rather were relatively well-informed. Accurate depiction of Slavic territories, however, was not their goal. Rather, theirs was a project of construction, creating the idea of a civilized, imperial Saxony staring down a barbaric mire. It is only through the material evidence that we can put the lie to the barbarism of the Ottonian swamp.


Further Reading: 

  • Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trans. by Francis Tschan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). 

  • Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, trans. by David Warner (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001). 

  • Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons, trans. by Bernard and David Bachrach (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014). 

  • Discuenza, Nicole Guenther, Inhabited Spaces: Anglo-Saxon Constructions of Place (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017). 

  • Halsted, Chris, “Imperial Narratives, Complex Geographies: The Saxon Marches between Textuality and Materiality, 929-983”, Viator 49.3 (2018) 1-21. 

  • Harrison, Robert Pogue, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992). 

  • Reuter, Timothy, Germany in the Early Middle Ages 800-1056 (London: Routledge, 1991). 

  • Reuter, Timothy, “Plunder and Tribute in the Carolingian Empire”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 35 (1985), 75-94. 

  • Pleszczyński, Andrzej, The Birth of a Stereotype: Polish Rulers and their Country in German Writings c. 1000 AD (Leiden: Brill, 2011). 

  • White, Hayden, “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, edited by Hayden White (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) 150-182.


Chris Halsted is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia.  His dissertation investigates the sociopolitical history of the Polabian Slavs from the perspective of their long-distance trade and communications with Central Asia in the ninth and tenth centuries.  His other research interests include the intersections of witchcraft, gender, and ethnography in the early middle ages. 


Twitter: @HalstedMedieval 

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