European Middle Ages
The Germans

   The first great wave of European migration were the unexplained migrations of the Celts in the sixth and fifth centuries BC; the next great wave, of far greater importance, was the equally mysterious migration of Germanic tribes beginning in the second century AD. Even more mysterious, but most crucially, the migrations of Germanic tribes eventually resulted in the conquest of the western Empire. This is an odd chapter in history, for the population of Italy was exponentially larger than the population of migrating Germans. The Visigoths, one of the largest of the German tribes, probably did not number more than 100,000 people and could field probably no more than 25,000 soldiers at any one time. This is in comparison to the 60 to 70 million people living in the Empire and a standing army that outnumbered the entire population of Visigoths. Still, the Visigoths managed to enter Rome and assert administrative control over much of the western Empire.

   Whatever the mysterious causes of the Germanic migrations and for whatever reason, these migrations are more responsible than any other factor in the creation of Europe. After the conquest of Rome and a feeble attempt by the some Germanic tribes to continue Roman culture and institutions, the face of Europe was gradually transformed by a remarkable diversity of Germanic tribes. From these people would arise most of the major cultural and political groups of the later Middle Ages: the English, the French, the Scandinavians, Icelanders, and, of course, the Germans themselves. From their diverse cultures and their polar responses to classical culture would arise the singular idea of "Europe" and European culture.


Origins   The migrations of the early centuries AD, of course, involved four major peoples: the Alans, the Huns, the Germans, and, in the final stage, Slavic peoples. These were all distinct migrations but were intimately tied with one another. The Hunnish invasions, for instance, in part impelled the Alanic and Germanic expansions; the Germanic expansions in their turn displaced some of the Slavs who migrated into Europe. By far the most important peoples in these migrations were the Germanic tribes.

   The origins of these tribes are shrouded in mystery. They were most likely a people derived from the Celts, but they have much in common with other European cultures, such as the Illyrians and the Veneti. For the most part, the term "Germanic" is almost entirely a linguistic rather than a cultural term—it refers mainly to the tribal groups in Europe that spoke similar languages, Germanic, that had been derived from Celtic sources. Germanic languages probably came into existence around the second century BC—that is, they became distinct from Celtic languages. In both Celtic and Germanic, the word, "German," means something like "the fierce men" or, contrarily, "the friendly men." Who knows?

   Archaeologists put the geographical origin of the Germanic peoples in southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. There, they developed a warrior culture that was essentially democratic in character. As they migrated south and east, this democratic warrior society developed into a kingship and, as they came in contact with the Romans and Romanized Celts, they developed further aristocratic classes among the warriors and nobility.

   The most significant aspect of the Germanic social structure was the comitatus, a term invented by the Roman historian Tacitus. The comitatus was a retinue of warriors that attached itself to a lord or king voluntarily. Through oaths of loyalty, the comitatus protected militarily the lord or king who, in his turn, granted individuals the protection of the comitatus and rewarded them with wealth. The Germanic tribal economy was more or less identical to most tribal economies—it was primarily based on reciprocity rather than trade. In a reciprocal economy, goods and services are distributed as gifts in an expression of the social relationship and mutual obligations inhering between members of the group. The comitatus was a sophisticated military organization built entirely on the economic logic of reciprocity.

   As the tribes came into increasing contact with Rome and Romanized Celts, they began to adopt much of the material technology and culture of Rome, substantially increasing their efficiency as agricultural producers. In addition, they developed their own system of writing, runic writing, sometime around the third century AD. Even with this writing, the Germanic tribes remained largely oral cultures.

   Individual tribes and families reckoned origins back to sacred animals, a common practice among the European peoples. Eventually, individual tribes would adopt unique pantheons of gods—as in the clan-groups in ancient Japan among the Yayoi, Germanic religion originally consisted of a diverse set of gods specific to each tribe. As in ancient Japan, these diverse gods would eventually be distilled to a single, common pantheon of gods in a hierarchy of priority. The highest of these was a sky and storm god, Wodan, who seemed to serve many functions. He was the principle representative of the forces of nature, but he was also the god that led souls to the afterlife and was the source of all magic and special knowledge. German religious practice was largely shamanistic as it was among the Celts; as with the Celts, religious ceremonies took place in groves and sometimes by bodies of water—this indicates that there was a strong sense of nature in Germanic religion.


The Goths   The Germanic tribes would have been just a footnote in history had it not been for the Gothic tribes, for these tribes overran the western Empire of Rome and permanently set Europe on a new cultural trajectory.

   The Goths originally migrated from Scandinavia and from there migrated south into Europe and east into southern Russia (some of their descendants still live in the Crimean area). The reason for this migration are unclear, but the standard, default interpretation is that they were pressured by overpopulation. They may also have been flooded out—in the centuries before the Gothic migrations, the Baltic Sea, where the Goths originated, was not a sea at all, but a lake. Geological events and erosions eventually joined the Baltic with the North Sea—the coastal areas of the Baltic subsequently suffered devestating floods as the geological process slowly took place.

   The meaning of the word, Goth, is obscure. The word is a Latin word. The Goths called themselves the Gut-thiuda , or "Gut" people. What "Gut" means is mysterious; it seems to be related to the Gothic word for "pour," possibly a reference to the flooding that may have inspired their migratory wandrings.

   The Goths in southern Russia came into contact with Turkish and Persian civilization and they adopted some of the agricultural, domestic, and military technology of these civilizations. There, the Goths developed one of the most effective cavalries in the world at the time—by those who came against it, the Gothic cavalry was considered unbeatable.

   The southern Russian Goths began a series of migrations again in the third centuries. The reasons for this are completely mysterious. The most famous of these migrations occurred under the Gothic king, Ostrogotha, who would give his name to his people, the Ostrogoths. During the third century, the Goths sent numerous raiding parties into the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Greece and harried the Empire's military.

   By the time the Goths were making inroads into the empire, the tribe had divided into two very distinct groups, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths. Through migrations and raids, these two groups controlled a vast amount of territory by the year 300, including much of the area north of the Danube River and the Balkans.

   Christianity was first introduced among the southern Russian Goths around 325; it was, however, the mission of one Wulfila among the Balkan Goths that most fully integrated Christianity into Gothic culture. Wulfila's translation of the Bible into Gothic, of which only fragments remain, stands as the first, complete text in a Germanic language.

   This translation is immensely important for assembling the world view of the early Goths. Houses, material implements, and burials tell us very, very little about how the world was experience by the early Goths. The writings of classical writers, such as the historian Tacitus, are marred by the manifest partisanship and xenophobia of the authors. Wulfila's translation, however, is a window into the the Gothic mind. For Wulfila has to do more than just translate the Bible into the language, he has to translate it into the concepts of the Gothic people. Throughout the translation, Wulfila employs the language of kinship relationships and the relationships between king and people. For instance, in Matthew 6.24, where the Greek text reads, "No man may serve two masters," Wulfila's translation reads, "No man may have obligations to two lords" ("Ni manna mag twáim fráujam skalkinon"). The language of servitude and slavery has been translated into the tribal logic of mutual obligations and reciprocity as well as the voluntary service of a warrior to a lord.

   The Hunnish invasions in 375 effectively destroyed the Gothic empire and inspired another round of Gothic migrations. The Goths migrated into Roman territory in eastern Bulgaria and soon rebelled against Roman authority. The wars against Rome were not really about territorial expansion but mainly reactive. The easily defeated the Roman army in Bulgaria in 378 and within a few decades, the Visigoths began to migrate into Italy itself. There, under the king, Alaric, they captured Rome itself for a few days in the year 410. The real cause of their invasion was to force the Emperor to grant them better lands—althought the occupation of Rome was considered the "sack of Roman" by Latin contemporaries, in reality, the Visigoths did very little damage to Roman life and property. In 418, the emperor Theodosius granted the Visigothic request and allowed them to settle southern Gaul (southern France).

   This did not end their migration or territorial expansion—the Visigoths soon migrated over the Pyrenees into Spain and established a Visigothic kingdom there. In southern Gaul, they established an independent kingdom, Toulouse. They were prevented from conquering the rest of Gaul by the invasions of the Franks, a different Germanic tribe, in northern Gaul.

   The Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse was swallowed up by the Frankish invasions of Clovis; these invasions would create a new empire in Europe, the Merovingian empire and the Gaulish Visigoths (and the Burgundian German kingdom to the north) would lose its ethnic character as it was absorbed into a larger political and ethnic identity as Franks.

   The Visigoths in Spain, however, dominated that area until 711, the year that Muslim invaders conquered most of Spain. For the most part, however, Visigothic culture was gradually absorbed into late Roman culture. The Visigoths had adopted a heretical form of Christianity, Arianism, but the Spanish Visigoths soon dropped it for Roman Christianity.

   The Ostrogoths, on the other hand, had been subjugated under the Huns during the brief Hunnish empire. When the great Hunnish conqueror, Attila, was defeated in 451, the Ostrogoths began their own series of migrations and conquests. Under the king, Theoderic, they began a war of conquest against Italy, which they ruled until they were conquered by the eastern emperor, Justinian, in 554.


The Vandals   Another crucial Germanic tribe,or, better yet, set of tribes, that changed the face of Europe during the migratory period were the Vandals, who originated from much the same area as the Goths. Because of either overpopulation, pressures from migrating groups, or the same general flooding of the coast of the Baltic Sea, the Vandals crossed over from Sweden around 100 BC. They began to expand across the face of Europe at the end of the second century AD. Some tribes went east into Slovakia and Hungary, but in the fifth century the Silingi Vandals joined with other Germanic tribes as well as Alanic tribes and invaded Gaul and then Spain.   The Vandals were pushed out of both places by the Franks and the Goths, but here is where Vandal history gets interesting. Pressured by invasions of the Franks and Goths, the Vandals and their ragtag group of alliances crossed over to North Africa from Spain and began a war of conquest under their king, Geiseric—eventually this war of conquest culminated in the conquest of Carthage in 439.

   It was in North Africa that Vandal civilization temporarily took root. They established a despotic government centered on a king and an exclusive court of nobility. Romans and the average Vandal had no voice in political affairs.

   Even though the Vandals controlled the entire government, there was little cultural change in North Africa. Since the days of the Roman Republic, North Africa was largely dominated by Roman institutions and culture since it was, after all, one large province of Rome. While Roman administrators suddenly disappeared from the picture with the monarchy of Geiseric, Roman learning, art, and architecture continued uninterrupted and, surprisingly, uninfluenced by Vandal culture—the only exception to this were the weapons and some adornments which were designed along Vandal models.

   It was in Christianity that North African culture changed. The Vandals had converted to Christianity in Spain at the opening of the fifth century. However, they were converted to Arian Christianity which was marked by a belief that God the Father and God the Son were distinct entities rather than a unity. This had been declared a heresy, but the Vandals had originally been converted by Arians (Wulfila was semi-Arian; by 410, the Goths were officially Arian in their beliefs). The Arian Christianity put the Vandal rulers of North Africa in conflict with their Roman church neighbors. Since Roman Christianity was the universal form of Christianity in the Vandal territories, the Vandals had to suppress it. The surprising thing about Vandal Arianism was how ineffective it was at exterminating the North African Roman church. This is due to a couple reasons. The first was that the North African Roman church had powerful and determined leaders, such as Fulgentius who had become the ecclesiastical leader of North Africa after the death of Augustine. The second was the general lack of well-educated theologians among the Vandal Arians. In disputes over religion, the Vandal Arians were hopelessly outmatched by the Roman Christians who had spent a lifetime in studying rhetoric, argument, and theology.

   Just how much Vandal Christianity changed the culture of North Africa is hard to say. The Vandals were defeated by the Byzantine general, Belisarius, in 534 and the Arian church was effectively destroyed. So were all the writings of the Arian Christians—the writings of the Roman Christians, however, were preserved. So we don't have any examples of the Vandal intellectual culture for it was centered entirely on arguing the Arian viewpoint.


The Franks   In the history of Europe, the most important migratory tribe or set of tribes were the Franks. From the Frankish kingdoms in Gaul and then Germany would arise the political and social institutions of the Middle Ages.

   The Franks were originally a set of distinct, small tribal groups that at some point joined in a conferderacy and came to regard themselves as having the same ethnic identity. Unlike the Goths and even the Vandals, the Franks had no success against Rome. The Romans solved the problem of the Franks by settling them in various areas and ceding some territory to them. Around the end of the fourth century, the Franks changed from a military democracy to a set of communities with minor kings. During this entire time, the Franks were mainly allies with Rome, bravely defending Roman territory first against the Huns and then against the Visigoths.

   This all changed in 486 when the Frankish king, Clovis, defeated the last western Roman ruler, Syagrius, at Soissons. The defeat of the Romans and, subsequent to that, military victories of other Germanic tribes such as the Visigoths, the Alemans, and the Burgundians, Clovis established a Frankish empire. In this large and ethnically empire, the normal ethnic divisions between German tribes began to dissolve into a larger ethnic identity of the Franks. If you want a beginning to the Middle Ages, this is probably it.


The Merovingians   In the year 500, there were two major empires in Europe. The Ostrogoths controlled much of Italy and areas to the east; Gaul and the western portions of Germany were under the control of the great Frankish king, Clovis I. If you had been around in 500 and had to lay bets on either of these great empires, you would not have hesitated to have backed the Ostrogoths. They occupied the traditional territories of the western Roman empire, they were educated and ministered by incredibly well-educated Roman aristocrats. They had the money, the brains, and the land. And they had the church, which was centered in Rome. Clovis and the Franks, on the other hand, occupied what had always been traditionally regarded as hinterlands. They did not have the benefit of Roman schools, aristocracy, and bureaucrats. To the late classical mind, Clovis was little better than a barbarian.

   Sound like a reasonable bet? It did to the church. It turned out, however, that the Ostrogothic kingdom soon fell to the Byzantines and Italy, the traditional seat of Roman culture and power, was devestated in the wars that led to this defeat. While the area was once again under the control of the emperor, a crushing economic depression depopulated all the formerly great cities.

   The future lay instead with the Franks and the Gaulish empire, the kingdom of the Merovingians. One of the most significant moves for the history of Europe was Clovis's conversion to Roman Christianity. The Ostrogoths were Arian Christians—dismal heretics in the eyes of both the Roman and the Byzantine churches—as were all other Germanic peoples with the exception of the Spanish Visigoths. Clovis saw that he could gain the help of Byzantines, Romans, and the Gauls by converting to Roman Christianity. If this had not occurred, European history would have gone down a fundamentally different course.

   Clovis established his capital at the Gaulish fort of Paris, named after the Celtic tribe that built the fort, the Parisi. For all practical purposes, this city would become a third center of Christianity, after Rome and Constantinople, and much of Christian culture would be preserved during these early centuries by the churchmen that the Merovingians brought to their capital.

   The Merovingians didn't even try to continue Roman institutions as the Ostrogoths had done in Italy. For the most part, the Merovingian king was the "owner" of the empire. The purpose of government was largely fighting and conquest, so there was almost no governmental administration and very little reading and writing done, even at the highest levels of government. The Merovingians did try to preserve the Roman taxation system, but that soon collapsed as tax collectors rarely survived for very long.

   This loose centralized government could not hold on for long, so the Merovingian kings adopted new strategies of government The most important was the granting of land to nobility that were loyal to the king. These land grants eventually came to be regarded by their grantees as possessions—they regarded themselves as more or less independent rulers. They took on themselves the Latin word for "ruler" (dux) and so the institution of the duke and the area of the duke's power, the duchy, were born. By the seventh century, these dukes had become the real power in Frankish territory; the monarch was largely an afterthought.

   The Merovingians represent the last hurrah of Rome. During Merovingian rule, people still identified themselves ethnically as Franks, Gauls, or Romans. Many of the churchmen and government officials were drawn from Roman nobility and felt themselves to be distinct from the Merovingian rulers and their Frankish neighbors. Whatever the faults of the Merovingians, by the end of the Merovingian period in the eighth century, "Roman" and "Gaulish" ceased to serve as ethnic markers. Europe had truly entered a period when a non-Roman ethnic identity would dominate the landscape.

Richard Hooker

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 5-7-98