The Strongest Polabian Country – Polabian Chronicles
-Place of the Obodrites in the World-
The earliest of the big countries of Polabia that appear in written sources are the Serbian Federation, the assumed Great Kingdom of Veleti, and the Kingdom of the Obodrites. The last one survived the longest and it is the one we have the most data about. Sadly, most of the time we read about the Obodrites in the context of combat and wars. Sources are so battle-oriented that we have very little data on their structure, politics, society, economic relations, etc.
The Obodrites created their state in the westernmost part of Slavia. It was like an island in a sea of enemies: they were neighboring the Saxons, the Danes, and the Veleti, who were not at all friendly. The Obodrites had only one friendly nation around, the Pomeranians, but they were separated from them by other Slavic tribes. One of the sources of the close relations between the Obodrites and Pomeranians may be their ethnogenesis. Archaeology and toponyms suggest that the tribal consciousness of the Obodrites was born on the western Pomeranian territories, over the river Odra; which may be the source of their name, ob Odr-, which means “next to/over the Odra”.
The Obodrites was a term used for a group of four tribes: the first group is called the Actual Obodrites, also known as Reregi (probably from the name of the Rerie/Reric trading emporium), but this name was probably used by the Danes only. Some of their strongholds were Mechlin (later Mecklemburg), Swarzyn (later Schwerin), Dubin (later Dobin), Wyszomierz (later Wismar) or Iłów (later Illow).
Another Obodritic tribe were the Varni, who lived over the Warnawa river. Their main stronghold was probably Radomin, known also as Gross Raden (which is a reconstruction of their stronghold and is now a tourist attraction). On the continental part of the stronghold, inside the defense lines, there was a big sanctuary, built probably already after the Polabian Uprising of 983.
Third of the group were Polabians, with the main stronghold of Racibórz (later Ratzenburg). The fourth and last of the Obodrites were the Vagri – the second strongest tribe after the “Reregi”. They were controlling a famous pirate lair – the island of Wębrza (also Wembrza, Imbra, later Fehmarn). Their capital city was Stargard (later Altinburg, Oldenburg) known also as Vagrian Stargard. Another big stronghold was Płonia (later Plön), and a future capital city of all the Obodrites – Lubeka (later Alt Lübeck). They also had their trading emporium called Stegnica (later Steckintz).
What is interesting, some other tribes were temporarily part of the Obodrites, mostly the ones now considered part of the Veleti, who were hostile towards the former.
The scope of Obodritic rule changed over time, and in all directions; reaching, for example, up to the Saxon Nordalbinga. An interesting case is the Drevani tribe, which was part of the same linguistic group as the Obodrites, but which remained independent for a very long time. They kept their own culture and traditions, and spoke their own language, called by the Germans Dravänopolabisch, as late as the 18th century.
As we said before, sources are very poor on the fields other than military, so it’s hard to say anything certain about politics or social structure of the Obodritic tribes. Many times the sources mention a few leaders who supposedly ruled together without splitting their power and influence. If we have to guess based on what we have in the sources, it appears that all these tribes were living in a kind of a federation, and there was probably someone like a “Great Prince” ruling over them. This highest function was probably carried out by the leader of the strongest tribe at the time. So as we learned before, the Great Princes were coming mostly from the Reregi, but could sometimes also be from the Vagri tribe. Naturally, changes on the top were not much peaceful, and the Franks used internal fights for power to put the Obodrites under occasional dependence.
Another interesting fact is that, aside from the rule of princes, there was also the important institution of a tribal gathering, which (like in the Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth later) could force its will upon the leader and choose a new one. Dynastic rule appeared among the Obodrites relatively late: in the 10th century; much later than among, for example, Bohemians, Moravians or Poles. In the 12th century, there was a big and surprisingly peaceful switch of the dynasties. Power was taken over by the Niklotowic dynasty from Reregi tribe, which ruled there for the next thousand years.
It is a little known fact that the Obodrites (and Pomeranians) had colonies. Of course, we don’t speak about craftsmen and traders who were living in Scandinavia in big numbers, sometimes even creating their own cities. They were getting assimilated fast and all that is left of them now are rich graves and local names of villages. Proper colonies were made on the Baltic Sea islands, especially Falster, Lölland and Møn. There are a lot of local names related to Slavs and some islanders are known by names such as Polabian Dobic or Pomeranian Gniewomir and Drebor. These islands were under complete control of Slavs, even though the local Danish people could obviously live there as equals.
From Danish chronicles we know that those islands would help their Slavic continental relatives in times of war, that they participated in piracy and refused to help the Danish army when asked. Those colonies were, with time, probably gaining more and more independence. It seems that they lasted as long as the half of the 12th century. Actually, Danish king Valdemar I recruited his Slavic warriors from those islands. On the other hand, the islanders could not oppose Danish kings without support from the continent. As a matter of fact, the time when the Danes started getting some successes in their struggles against Polabians and Pomeranians, was also the time when we stop hearing about anti-Danish stances of the islanders.
The Obodrites and Pomeranians left their archaeological prints in Norway, Jutland, Gotland, Skania, middle Sweden, and there is archaeological evidence to show that they were the first settlers on Iceland (the excavations conducted under the lead of prof. Urbanczyk). The Obodrites remained rodnovers(slavic pagans) for their whole existence, despite the fact they were “Christianized” for a few hundred years. They knew full well that Christianisation had nothing to do with religion and all to do with Germanic expansion. Becoming Christian meant being eradicated. The last prince of the free Obodrites, Przybyslaw, in order to gain power much closer to a “western,” absolute monarchy, destroyed all the tribal institutions and forced Christianity on his people. That is how Mecklenburg was born.
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