Late Iron Age Manor-Controlled Landing places

5 August, 2013

The Reading Rest is collapsing under the weight of books, articles and manuscripts that must be read, but not written about. Owing to lack of time references will for a while be hinted only and subjects changed a bit – LIA. in Scandinavian being a focus.

Production sites are emblematic of the PCIA and most often they reveal very few links to the upper classes. Sometimes they are socially stratified villages such as Bejsebakken, but only seldom do aristocracy and lordship tie-in with production. In even fewer cases are halls or manors located at a landing site in a context involving production.


From the point of view of production and trade these sites resemble towns or market places, but as communities they are production manors dominated by an owner, whose presence is marked by a hall. This hall-and-landing-place structure goes back into the PCIA and continues into the MA e.g. at Borgund near Ålesund in Norway where the production is based on cod fishing in the spring. Here the hall is a small building probably representing the Godøya-based owner of the site. Sites developed in the CIA and Gokstad in Vestfold may have had a strong emphasis on a manor-and-market structure. It is, nevertheless, characteristic of these sites that they are not autonomous urban communities.

Since the original relation between a manor and a landing or trading place is a certain geographical distance, emblematically expressed by the relation Gudme–Lundeborg, we may expect that manorial presence at a landing site belongs to an advanced part of the PCIA and to the best of our knowledge they do. Non-manorial production sites on the other hand are epcia inventions. In part the aristocratic presence patronizes the site for economic reasons, but aristocracy is also prone to bring with it a political dimension. We sense that in Aggersborg where the manor is leveled to the ground to give room for the CIA ring fort, but at Füsing we are coming much closer to this dimension because excavations and discussions by the archaeologist Andres Dobat have made it most likely that Füsing is indeed Sliesthorp.

Sliesthorp is related to King Gudfred, who is mentioned in the Royal Frankish Annals and in the Life of Charlemagne. These two sources, the factual annals and the opinionated narrative about Charles’ life, cross reference each other. In terms of methodology, the latter is the outcome of the former and a typical way of writing history: having created a source material, a series of facts governed by the pace of time, consequences in the form of a Life may be drawn – biography being a prime form of history. Because in reality there is no clear line to be drawn between facts and interpretation, the lines none the less established become blurred and disappearing with deconstruction.

The story about Gudfred, who is introduced 804 and active 808-810 ce when he dies, is a case in point. In Einhard’s Vita Karoli Magni, Gudfred’s performance on the historical stage is summarized, but instead of ending with a negative judgement of his character, now that he is dead, it ends with a piece of precise but significant information – ‘since he was murdered by his own bodygard’ (nam a proprio satellite). In the Royal Frankish Annals he is murdered by ‘someone in his surrounding’ (a quodam suo satellite), which is correct but less significant. In the Annals, Gudfred is aggressive and in the Vita his is the end of a boastful king, who might just have put his inflated plans into action. In the Life, therefore, the significant fact rings a bell inasmuch as it is a perfect illustration of Proverbs 16:18: ‘arrogance precedes destruction and the spirit is exalted before fall’.

In the annals, before we are given the details of 808, we are told that the king is ‘insane’ or ‘mad’ – versanus – as if the annalist would like in advance to make sure that we understand the facts presented to us. As if we were reading the patient’s case book we may go back to the short notice from 804 where an undecided King Gudfred, having been advised by his people, will not keep his promise to meet with the Emperor. This is nothing very important, on the contrary it’s a small matter and the Emperor just sends a delegation to Sliesthorp where Gudfred sits with his fleet and army. The outcome is not mentioned. In 804 this is just a fact, but in 808 when Gudfred’s irrationality becomes apparent, 804 is an early, perhaps paranoid, sign of weakness. In 808 when he attacks the Obodrites commencing a series of irrational and stupid actions. In 809, on the pretext of hearsay he demands diplomatic negotiations with the Emperor. He agrees, but while much is discussed and nothing accomplished in extensive and fruitless talks, the Obodrites beat Gudfred’s allies, and his antagonist Drasco, defeated in 808, is raised to power again. In 810 the Emperor is informed that the Danes are attacking Friesland with 200 ships and considerable success, but also that Gudfred takes no part in this. And to the astonishment of the annalist this turns out to be true. Gudfred is sits at home – … vero Godofridum domi esse. Et revera ita erat. The Emperor, who sees this situation as threatening takes his elephant, crosses the Rhine by means of his fleet, awaits more troops and makes his camp where the Aller falls into the Weser, i.e. a little south southeast of Bremen and c. 60 km south of Hamburg. He awaits what will come of the threats expressed by the boasting Gudfred, who – taking out his victory in advance – wants to meet the Emperor on the battlefield. The Emperor waits, and then among a series of different intelligence he is told – almost by the way – that Gudfred has been killed.

From indecision in 804 to irrationalities in 808 and 809 to full-blown insanity and death in 810, so runs the entries in Mad King Gudfred’s case book. Gudfred, being at the receiving end of almost 40 years of Carolingian aggression trying to defend a border zone rather that attacking the Carolingians, probably saw things differently.

Be this as it may, annals are not fabricated and facts are facts. How then can we explain this particular 808 Gudfredian antic and paragon of irrationality:

‘Indeed, Gudfred, before he returned [from the Obodrites] destroyed a trading place – in the Danish tongue called Reric, which – set at the coast of the [Baltic] sea  – gives his kingdom great benefits from payment of taxes. Transferring all the merchants from that place, he came, with the whole army on board his fleet, to the port called Sliesthorp’—Godofridus vero priusquam reverteretur, distructo emporio, quad in oceani litore constitutum lingua Danorum Reric decebatur et magnam regno illius commoditatem vectigalium persolutione praestabat, translatisque inde negotiatoribus, soluta classe ad portum, qui Sliesthorp dicitur, cum universo exercitu venit.

Reric – today a landing place and ancient monument at Gross Strömkendorf  near Wismar – was an independent emporium on Obodrite territory. The place was favoured by the Carolingians when they wanted to trade with Scandinavian and Baltic countries bypassing Hedeby. A victim, we gather, of his troubled mind, Gudfred destroys the place. The itrrationality of this fact has been too much for many archaeologists and Medieval historians, who have suggested that Sliesthorp was indeed Hedeby. However, there is little reason to suggest that Hedeby should have changed its name in the 9th century and less reason to believe that an annalist, to whom Reric is a trading place (emporium), should believe that Hedeby was a harbour and a place (belonging to a king)  – portus and locus – rather than emporium, given that  it was already a well-established trading place. Moreover, it is odd to believe that Hedeby is in Denmark bordering the Saxons, rather than vice versa.

In addition, one must recognize that in the 8th c. the difference between old settlements called by and young ones called thorp was probably obvious and that the settlement next to present-day Füsing, in Denmark bordering on the Saxons, seems a reasonable thorp with a landing place. Likewise in Sliesthorp in Denmark bordering the Saxons there was a thorp-settlement and a harbour named after the settlement. The odd thing from the annalist’s point of view is the fact that Gudfred moves merchants from an urban trading place to a manor albeit with a harbour. Most archaeologists tend to share his opinion, but refuse to believe him and thus they come up with the equation Sliesthorp = Hedeby. This rational idea is wishful thinking given that the annalist knows that Gudfred is insane.

Instead we should look at Gudfred as a king rooted in the pcia. He doesn’t like independent towns, but he likes trade and doesn’t mind organizing it from his manors or any semi-rural site controlled by him. Taxation the Carolingian way is not his cup of tea – as it were he is busy defending his nation against it. He is nor raiding the Friesians either. In short he is old-fashioned and a relict. Trying to defend his country he uses his manor at Sliesthorp more or less the Charlemagne would use a one of his palaces as a strategic foothold in his mostly maritime warfare. He expects the merchants to thrive in Sliesthorp, probably he is mistaken and similar to the pcia lord at Aggersborg and his manor he and Sliesthorp will be wiped out. Be this as it may, strategic footholds seem to be the reason behind manor-controlled lia landing sites.


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