The twelfth century Latin text Gesta Danorum is a history of the Danes written by the Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus, who was a Christian. Saxo writes of Sclauorum (‘Slavs’), and throughout the text it is clear the he does not hold the Slavs in high regard. The Gesta was essentially ordered by the Archbishop of Lund, Absalon, and as such was written with a religious audience in mind – at least to some extent – as the purpose of the work appears to be to record, validate and praise the history of the Danes.
Writing about the death, in 1182, of the Christian King Valdemar I of Denmark – who had ostensibly liberated Denmark ‘from the dread of pirates, and who made coastal and inland dwelling places alike safe from invasion by brigands’ – Saxo is quick to offer assurances that fate itself would not allow the kingdom of Denmark to fail – especially not against Sclavia (the Slavs). In Book 15 of the Gesta, Saxo makes it clear that the Danes consider the Slavs to be somewhat ignorant, easily outwitted, and lacking in the courage which Danes possess naturally. Decisions undertaken by them are portrayed as manipulative rather than practical, and an example of this is in Chapter 1.4, when Bugislav, a Wendish prince, sues for peace when faced with attacking Danes; this choice is presented as both scheming and foolish, although no reasons are given as to why such assumptions are made – none, that is, apart from his Slavic identity. The Slavs are then compelled to cede their lands to Danes and Polanis (‘Poles’), highlighting Danish power and authority, but also showcasing that Saxo is aware of different identities, noting that Poles are separate and distinct from other sclavi, perhaps because the Poles had largely accepted Christianity by this time.
Knýtlinga saga is a thirteenth century Icelandic text detailing the history of the kings of Denmark, with a significant amount of space dedicated to the discussion of Danish interactions with Vinðr (‘Wends’). The author makes some efforts with regards to geography – both Danish and foreign, however it is often somewhat vague, with broad descriptors such as Þat er austarliga (‘that is easterly’). Throughout Knýtlinga saga the Wends are portrayed as a generalised mass. They are the antagonists to the Christian Danish protagonists, and while the battles and skirmishes between the two groups are many, the precise locations do not seem particularly relevant to the writer’s recounting of events. Perhaps this is due to the fact that much of the reasoning behind Danish attacks is the conversion of the Wends from paganism to Christianity – as such, the lands are of less consequence than the transmutations of a group from enemies to allies, and from faithless to faithful. Aside from which, many of the goods the Danes obtain from their offensives appear to be either people or material wealth such as gold or silver, rather than produce from the land which might have interested a writer (and Danes) in charting the areas more thoroughly for knowledge of which regions provided the best supplies of which resources.
One instance of Danish – Wendish interaction showcases the complexity of the relationship between the two groups. The Scandinavians travel to Wendland on a spring expedition, where Archbishop Absalon is approached by the local leader of the Wends, Domabur, who suggests the Danes abandon their plans for raiding and warring with them, and leave without taking gísla (‘hostages’). This giving/taking of hostages seems particularly important in this chapter; although hostages are mentioned elsewhere within the saga, this Chapter is the only time where the community from which the hostages would be taken refuse outright to provide them and engage in face-to-face negotiation on the subject. The ensuing battle culminates with a Danish victory, and the defeated Wends ultimately provide four hostages- a show of humility to the victors.
The Scandinavians return in winter of the same year and land við blótlund einn, er heitir Bǫku (‘at a sacred grove called Boku’), where they devastate the area, and take the people and cattle. This plundering is not written of in the same way as hostage-taking, and there is no mutual agreement. Here there is no mention of the word gísla, instead the inhabitants who are seized (tóku) are simply referred to as fólk. While hostage-taking is portrayed as normal and even practical, the continued problems with Wends throughout the saga does suggest that the taking of hostages was not always a particular deterrent to continued strife between the two peoples. The capture of people is different, however, and is more akin to plundering with the purposes of slavery than any kind of military/political understanding. There is no further mention of these people in the saga, and thus no further explanation as to what happened to them. At the time the saga was written perhaps it was an occurrence that needed no explanation, but this lack of information means it is unclear whether these people were ransomed, sold into slavery, or taken as slaves back to Denmark. Archbishop Absalon is not mentioned as taking part in this particular endeavour however slave-raiding and trading was still in practice, and permitted by the Church if the enslaved people were pagan.
The saga mentions connections – friendly or otherwise – with various peoples and regions, including the English and Rome. Of the peoples mentioned, Wends occupy a large space within the text, notably with regards to Danish attacks on Wendish territories (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, from Wendish attacks on/aggression towards Danes). On the basis of Knýtlinga saga alone, one could argue that the subjugation and conversion of Wendish people and lands became a fixation for the Danes.
It may be tempting to consider Scandinavian activity as somehow dominant to Slavic activity – they appear to have networked and engaged with European elites faster than their Slavic neighbours, partly due to their adoption of Christianity, and their participation in creating written culture is not only a powerful act for creating a legacy, it provided them with a prestige. The lack of written sources from Slavs of the time is a marked absence. Whether there was literature created by Slavs which has been lost to time, or whether it simply did not exist debatable, but the silence of their voices leaves a gap in knowledge, as well as a divide between them and their contemporaries.
What seems evident is that both Slavs and Scandinavians engaged with one another in similar manners – sea-faring, trading, piracy – for some time, but the dynamics between the groups shifted significantly once Christianity had been adopted in Scandinavia.