Conflict management in cultural and territorial border areas of the Slavic world in the Middle Ages

Jens Schneeweiss
Fig. 1: Work areas for the case studies of both parts of the research project (graphic: J. Schneeweiß). (Find Figure 2-7 further below)

The overarching research question focuses on the identification of conflict potentials in territorial and cultural border areas of the Slavic world and the main strategies that have been developed to address them. Two different foci are pursued. On the one hand, two case studies examine fortified landscapes along river courses that served as long-distance trade routes (Volkhov and Daugava, Fig. 1). The focus here is on conflict resolution strategies in the cultural border area. Conflict potentials arose from the clash of different languages, cultural conditioning, subsistence strategies, economic interests. Based on the premise that conflicts did not escalate as long as all parties involved in trade were satisfied, the question is explored to what extent a functioning fortification system was necessary and useful for the maintenance of trade.
On the other hand, the investigations focus on a settlement landscape in the Wendland on the western periphery of the Slavic settlement area, which is characterised by a special village form, the so-called Rundlinge (Fig. 1). Their emergence in the period of medieval land development is closely related to expansionist interests on the German side. Using the example of the Rundling village, the hypothesis is explored as to whether Henry the Lion's settlement policy towards the Slavs was more successful than his military campaigns because it relied on de-escalation instead of confrontation.

Project description

"Die Grenze ist der privilegierte Ort für eine raum-zeitlich fundierte Geschichtsschreibung. [Sie] bietet einen Erkenntnispunkt besonderer Qualität. An der Peripherie sieht man anders und anderes als im Zentrum" [1]
The studies pursue as an overarching question the identification of conflict potentials in territorial and cultural border areas of the Slavic world and the most important strategies for dealing with them. They concentrate on two spatially and temporally separated main topics: a) the cultural border between the Eastern Slavs and the Scandinavians in the Viking Age and b) the territorial border between the Western Slavs and the Germans in the High Middle Ages. The exploration of conflict potentials and solution strategies within the framework of these case studies enables far-reaching conclusions to be drawn about the borders of the Slavic world in the early and high Middle Ages, which can be tested for their generalisation potential when abstracted later.

a) Protohistoric Fortification Landscapes in the Eastern Baltic Sea Region (focus on the Viking Age) or Varangians and Slavs in "Scandoslavia" - masters of conflict resolution?
Rivers play a major role in the study of the past. Above all, they can be understood as communication arteries, especially in Eastern Europe, where they are the main gateways for trade flows between Scandinavia and southern and southeastern continental Europe. Two of the most important arteries in the eastern Baltic Sea region are the rivers Daugava (Düna) and Volkhov (Fig. 1). In the context of research on conflict resolution strategies in the past, especially in the Viking Age, the fortification systems along these two rivers are studied as case studies. The ambivalence of Vikings and Slavs, who appeared as merchants and warriors, peasants, pirates and diplomats in the early and high Middle Ages, makes them particularly interesting for conflict research.
In the Viking Age (8th-11th centuries), Northmen from Scandinavia (Varangians) developed the extensive river systems of Eastern Europe as trade routes [2-5]. They ran through the Slavic world and connected the Baltic Sea area with the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Arab silver is seen as a driving force behind this development, [6] slaves probably also played a crucial role. A Viking Age elite of merchant warriors as a special part of the society was characterised by extremely high mobility. An essential key to the success of the Northmen were highly efficient global networks for the distribution of traded goods. [7] The Slavs were closely interwoven with the Vikings and spread across half of Europe at this time. This period saw intense socio-cultural development, which ultimately led to the emergence of statehood. This development is reflected in thick cultural layers with a large number of finds in central sites. The exact genesis of these often conspicuously dark cultural layers is a separate research question. However, most of these sites were abandoned at the end of the Viking Age. As a rule, they were fortified in the course of their existence, especially in the 9th/10th century, when also in the West Slavic area numerous fortifications were erected. [8,9] The concrete reasons and circumstances for this process have not yet been conclusively clarified, nor has the relationship between Vikings and Slavs, which is controversially discussed in the literature. [10] The myth of the Slavs as peaceful poor peasants in contrast to the violent Viking warriors persists despite evidence to the contrary (Fig. 2).
The investigations in this project focus on fortifications. It is assumed that they contain the highest density of archaeological information for a variety of reasons and that they are therefore most suitable for the topic. The two case studies along the Volkhov (Russia) and Daugava (Latvia) rivers examine the development of specific fortification landscapes in order to distinguish phases of increased conflict from phases of greater stability. The Volkhov connects the Baltic Sea (via Lake Ladoga and the Neva) with the Novgorod region in the basin of Lake Ilmen as the geopolitical core region of northern Russia. Previous research focused mainly on the central sites at the northern and southern ends of the Volkhov: Staraya Ladoga (Fig. 3) and Ryurikovo Gorodishche near Novgorod. [11,12] Against the background of Slavic and Scandinavian settlement, a communication system had most likely developed on the banks of the river, [13] which was geared towards the maintenance and protection of the trade waterway and has hardly been studied to the present day. The Daugava (Düna) north of the Neman (Memel) and west of the Volkhov plays a prominent role in connecting the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea via the Dnieper. Some 30 fortifications along the Latvian section of the river bear witness to the use and control of this important waterway in the early Middle Ages and the Viking Age, while the roots of this communication network along the trade route seem to go back far into prehistory. Some of these castle complexes have been extensively excavated, but about half remain unexplored. [14-16] Above all, the connections between fortifications and the sites associated with them are almost completely unknown. An interdisciplinary research approach of archaeology, geoarchaeology and linguistics will help to open these up as well as to uncover special functions of individual places within a defence system.
The comparative study of two different areas, both having great significance in the Viking Age, allows for a generalisation of the findings on a theoretical-methodological level.

b) The Rundlings in the Hanover Wendland in the Context of the High Medieval Landesausbau (border zone between Slavs - Germans) or The "Rundlings" - Expression of De-escalation between Slavs and Germans?
The High Medieval Ostsiedlung or Landesausbau fundamentally changed the relationship between Slavs and Germans. Not later than after the Crusade against the Slavs in 1147 began a development in which Christianity and the German juridical system were extended to the Slavic territories east of the Elbe and Trave rivers. [17] Particularly decisive was a clever settlement policy including specific attraction of German, Dutch and other colonists. This led to long-term success whereas a predominantly confrontational course had previously failed many times. A visible expression of the land development was a transformed settlement landscape with permanent villages, cemeteries, crop fields and mills. New villages were planned and systematically established by locators. A number of different “plan forms” were used for this purpose. One special plan form is the circular village (Rundlingsdorf). This are small settlements consisting of only a few, roughly pie-shaped farmsteads arranged in a circle around a free village square (Fig. 4). The central square is also the end of a cul-de-sac, as there is only one entrance to the village. Such "Rundlinge" were particularly common in the Slavic-German border region and are generally associated with Slavs, although numerous details of their genesis and function remain unclear. [18] Hypotheses range from the enforced settling of Slavic captives of war by the German landlords to the voluntary gathering of the initial inhabitants who had to leave their individual settlements in the lowlands due to rising water levels.
In the Hanover Wendland (Lower Saxony), such circular villages have survived in large numbers and still characterise the settlement pattern there today. Their origins date back to the early days of the Landesausbau (Fig. 5-7). This is underlined by their location in the border zone between Slavs and Germans. [19] Thanks to this, we have the opportunity to examine the phenomenon of the Rundlings also from the perspective of conflict research, from which they can be read as an expression of a new policy of expansion directed towards de-escalation. The greatest potential for conflict resulted from Christianisation, as it demanded fundamental changes in all areas of life. [20] The hypothesis is pursued as to whether Henry the Lion's settlement policy towards the Slavs was more successful than his military campaigns because it focused on de-escalation instead of confrontation. From this perspective, the Rundlinge have never been studied before.
The exploration of conflict potential and solution strategies within the framework of the described focal points and case studies enables far-reaching statements to be made about the boundaries of the Slavic world in the early and high Middle Ages, which, when further abstracted at a later stage, can be considered for their generalisation potential.


[1] K. Schlögel, Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit. Über Zivilisationsgeschichte und Geopolitik (Frankfurt/Main 32009).
[2] P. Bauduin, Histoire des Vikings. Des invasions à la diaspora (Paris 2019).
[3] Л. С. Клейн, Спор о Варягах (Санкт-Петербург 2009).
[4] P. Bauduin/A. Musin (eds.), Vers l’Orient et vers l’Occident. Regards croisés sur les dynamiques et les transferts culturels des Vikings à la Rous ancienne (Caen 2014).
[5] S. Brink/N. Price, The Viking World (London, New York 2008).
[6] T. Noonan, Why the Vikings came first to Russia. Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas NF 34 (3), 1986, 321–348.
[7] S. Sindbæk, Networks and Nodal Points. The Emergence of towns in early Viking Scandinavia. Antiquity 81, 2007, 119-132.
[8] J. Henning, A.T. Ruttkay (eds.), Frühmittelalterlicher Burgenbau in Mittel- und Osteuropa (Bonn 1998).
[9] J. Henning (ed.), Europa im 10. Jahrhundert. Archäologie einer Aufbruchszeit (Mainz 2002).
[10] W. Rohrer, Wikinger oder Slawen? Die ethnische Interpretation frühpiastischer Bestattungen mit Waffenbeigabe in der deutschen und polnischen Archäologie. Studien zur Ostmitteleuropaforschung 26 (Marburg 2012).
[11] E. Nosov, Das Novgoroder Land: Das nördliche Ilmenseegebiet und das Volchov-Gebiet. In: N. Makarov (ed.), Die Rus' im 9.-10. Jahrhundert. Ein archäologisches Panorama (Hamburg Neumünster 2017) 101–129.
 [12] M. Müller-Wille u. a. (eds.), Novgorod. Das mittelalterliche Zentrum und sein Umland im Norden Rußlands (Neumünster 2001).
[13] Е. Н. Носов, Волховский водный путь и поселения конца I тысячелетия н. э., КСИА 164, 1981.
[14] V. Ģinters, Daugmales pilskalna 1936. Gada izrakumi. Senatne un Māksla 4, 1936, 87–195.
[15] J. Graudonis, Nocietinātās apmetnes Daugavas lejtecē (Rīga 1989).
[16] C. von Carnap-Bornheim u. a. (eds.), Lettlands viele Völker. Archäologie der Eisenzeit von Christi Geburt bis zum Jahr 1200 (Zossen 2008).
[17] F. Biermann/G. Mangelsdorf (eds.), Die bäuerliche Ostsiedlung des Mittelalters in Nordostdeutschland. Untersuchungen zum Landesausbau des 12. bis 14. Jahrhunderts im ländlichen Raum. Greifswalder Mitteilungen. Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte und Mittelalterarchäologie 7 (Frankfurt/Main 2005).
[18] W. Jürries (ed.), Rundlinge und Slawen. Beiträge zur Rundlingsforschung. Schriftenreihe des Heimatkundlichen Arbeitskreises Lüchow-Dannenberg 16 (Lüchow 2004).
[19] M. Hardt/H. K. Schulze, Altmark und Wendland als deutsch-slawische Kontaktzone. In: R. Schmidt (ed.), Wendland und Altmark in historischer und sprachwissenschaftlicher Sicht (Lüneburg 1992) 1–44.
[20] C. Ehlers, Die Integration Sachsens in das fränkische Reich (751–1024). Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte 231 (Göttingen 2007).


Project by Jens Schneeweiß

Jens Schneeweiss
Fig. 2: “The call of the Varangians” (1909) (Wikipedia Commons). The arrival of the legendary Rurik and his brothers Sineus and Truvor in Ladoga, as described in the Russian Primary Chronicle, seen by the Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) in the early 20th century.

Jens Schneeweiss
Fig. 3: The reconstructed early modern fortress of Staraya Ladoga at the mouth of the Ladozhka into the Volkhov river (photo: J. Schneeweiß).

Jens Schneeweiss
Fig. 4: The circular village („Rundling“) Mammoißel in the Hanover Wendland (Lower Saxony) in an aerial photograph from 1997 (Wendland-Archiv, ID: 40744).

Jens Schneeweiss
Fig. 5: Interpreted magnetogramme of the deserted village site of Schwendel near Clenze (graphic: A. Bartrow).

Jens Schneeweiss
Fig. 6: Test excavations in the partially deserted Rundling-village of Granstedt near Lüchow (photo: J. Schneeweiß).

Jens Schneeweiss
Fig. 7: Remains of constructions on a deserted farmstead in the Rundling-village of Granstedt near Lüchow (photo: J. Schneeweiß).


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