In this post, I wanted to focus on one of the more obscure West Slavic tribes – the Wagri or Wagrians – who lived in the far western region of Wendland (aka Vendland) in what is now Holstein.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, the West Slavs emerged from obscurity in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, when the Huns (and later Avars and Bulgars) moved into their lands. The Slavs moved westward into the land between the Oder and the Elbe-Saale line; southward into Bohemia, Moravia, much of present-day Austria, the Pannonian Plain and the Balkans; and northward along the upper Dnieper river.
Those “Western Slavs” who settled in what is approximately eastern Germany were Polabian Slavs (also known as Elbe Slavs or Wends). For the purposes of this article, I will call them Wends because that is how they were referred to in the sagas.
The Obrodite Confederacy
The Wends soon divided into a variety of smaller tribes, though they shared a common language (the now extinct Polabian Slavic language), as well as similar religious practices and political structures. One large grouping of Wends living in the northwest Slavic regions was known as the Obrodite confederacy.
As with other Polabian Slavs, their leader was a prince, who ruled over a group of governors, each responsible for keeping order and levying taxes in their respective areas.
The majority of Polabian Slavs were peasants in small villages who engaged in agriculture (primarily grains and flax) and animal husbandry (e.g. poultry and cattle). Some villagers were fishermen, beekeepers, or trappers. Farmland was divided into a unit called a kuritz, for which peasants paid grain taxes to the governors.
Wagria and the Wagrians
One of the tribes of the Obrodite confederacy was the Wagri, or Wagrians. Like other West Slavs, most of the Wagri lived in or near towns, which were centered on small earthworks arranged in circles or ovals. Their main town was called Starigard, which eventually became Oldenburg in Holstein. The Wagrian name for the town means “old settlement” in Slavic. The Vikings called it Brandehuse, or “the burned houses,” which gives you an idea of how often it was attacked.
The Wagri occupied what is today eastern Holstein in northern Germany and inhabited that area between the 9th to 12th centuries. It was a precarious area. To the north were the Danes. To the west lived the Germans (i.e. Saxons). To east was the sea, and to the south of Wagria were the lands of the Travnjane, another sub-tribe of the Obrodite confederacy. It was, in essence, hemmed in on two sides by enemies, and offered little room for expansion.
Were the Wagrians in the Sagas?
After leaving Kievan Rus’, the sagas tell us that Olaf Tryggvason raided Burgundaholm (present-day Bormholm) first and that, after the attack, he ran into a storm. After the storm, Olaf moors his ship on the shore of “Vendland.” Olaf is brought to the court of a king named “Boreslaw” (Burislaf), and there he meets Burislaf’s three daughters, including his eldest daughter Geira. Some have thought this Burislaf to be the son of the Polish king, Meiszko I, but for a number of timing reasons, that might not have been the case. In his article “On the Chronology of Olaf Tryggvason and Volodimer the Great: The Saga’s Relative Chronology as a Historical Source,” Omeljan Pritsak suggests that the Burislaf in question may have been a Slavic king ruling the realm of Wagria.
In May, AD 973, Otto I died. After this death, the Danes led by Harald Bluetooth invaded northern Germany. The Wagrians would have been in the path of Harald Bluetooth’s army when it invaded. The sagas state that Burislaf joined Otto II in his bid to retake the lands lost to the Danes and that Olaf (now Burislaf’s son-in-law after marrying Geira) accompanied him. It would have been far more plausible that this Burislaf was Wagrian and not Polish, as the Poles owed no such allegiance to Otto II, nor would they have cared much about Bluetooth’s attack.
The Wagrians and Germans
The Obrodite confederacy was primarily allied with the Germans against the Danes, who wished to rule the Baltic region. However, if the Wagrians / Obrodites supported the Germans against the Danes, it is clear their relationship with their neighbors was tenuous at best. This tension seemed to be centered around two things: religion and land.
After defeating the Danes, the Germans pressed to convert their Slavic neighbors to Christianity. The Slavs, who had resisted German religious and political incursions for decades, fought back. In the “Slavic revolt of 983,” the West Slavic tribes attacked Germany and overthrew Ottonian rule, rejecting the attempts at Christianization, which had begun under Emperor Otto I or earlier.
While relations remained strained between Germany and Wagria, the final subjugation of Wagria did not happen until the mid-12th century. In AD 1140 to 1143, Holsatian nobles advanced into Wagria to permanently settle in the lands of the pagan Wagri. Four years later, in AD 1147, the Wendish Crusade forced baptisms upon the people, and finally secured Saxon control of Wagria.
It is a sad ending to a people who had struggled to exist for centuries.
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