Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Early Germanic Society - Social Groups

The largest portion of the population of a Germanic "community" was comprised of the free men. The number of cattle or swine they held determined their status in the community and they exhibited their freedom by joining in warfare. Generally, it was a patriarchal society and households combined into a larger group, or clan. The unifying factors of the clan were twofold, internal and external. Internally, the clan provided a basic form of law that kept the peace among its members. Externally, the members united into greater groups, the largest called tribes, to participate in feuds with other groups.

Families composed villages, led by a group of free men led by a headman, or chief, who may have been determined based on a variety of attributes, including, but not limited to, wealth, ancestry, family connections or influence in the larger group of kindred, “the people” or gentes, of which his village was a part. As explained by Patrick Geary, the villages that made up these gentes “were bound together by a combination of religious, legal, and political traditions that imparted a strong, if unstable, sense of unity.” Ancestry myths were based on the lives and exploits of heroes, who were seen as divine founders of a gentes. The tales of revenge, war, blood feud and kinship helped groups of Germans to unite because of a sense of shared ancestry to a specific individual.

According to Geary (The Myth of Nations), some historians believe that the royal families were those primarily associated with the particular myths of a group. It is also possible that different families had other traditions and stories and attempted to impose these as preeminent over those of other families. Such stories and traditions were also probably more dispersed throughout a society than being seen as the sole property of one family. If this is so, then Geary asserted that, during the fourth and fifth centuries, when certain individuals emerged as tribal leaders, they and their families became associated, or they claimed for themselves, the traditional myths and stories of the tribe. Later, we will see how this may be the case with how the Burgundians came to associated themselves with the Gibichungs (or Niebelungs).

The Germanic tribes were led by two sorts of kings, one religious and the other military. These men ruled the tribe by a complicated mixture of single or joint rule, dependent upon the particular situation in which the tribe found itself. The first type of chief, identified as being more religious in nature, was the thiudans. He belonged to a traditional royal family that was associated with the mythic, historical and cultural origins of the tribe and was a symbol of tribal stability. In time of war, military authority was given to the martial, usually non-royal leader, called a dux (or general) by Tacitus. These leaders presided over the Germanic council of free warriors, called a Thing. The organization of a Thing varied, but in general, it gathered to judge its members, discuss war, and to formulate tribal policy. The Thing was the core of the fundamental idea of kindred, or gentes, which was the basis of Germanic society. Yet, tribes were constantly in flux as every disruption of internal or external peace could result in a splintered clan and new clans reformed along different lines. This natural state of tribal ebb and flow was exacerbated by contact with the Roman Empire, which intensified both kinds of disruption.

UP NEXT: Characteristics of Early Germanic Migrations


Patrick Geary, Before France and Germany.
Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Early Germanic Society - Women and Marriage

Women were considered valuable contributors to Germanic society. According to Suzanne Fonay Wemple they “provided a network of kinship ties” and “gave inspirational support and were nurturers and providers.” They were responsible for housework and at least some helped to plow fields. According to Tacitus, the wives of the barbarians went to battle with their husbands to tend wood, bring food and offer general encouragement. The historian Ammianus claimed that some of these wives also fought. Tacitus also said that the Germans “conceive that in woman is a certain uncanny and prophetic sense: and so they neither scorn to consult them nor slight their answers” and that they revered many women ancestors.

Wemple also explains that German marriage was not a “legal relationship” but “an arrangement, accepted as social fact, whereby a man cohabitated with a woman for the purposes of copulation, procreation, and the division of labor.” Gender was the main determinant of labor: men were warriors while women raised the children, worked the fields and took care of the home. In Germanic society, it was considered a mother’s duty to provide the primary example and instruction in religious and moral matters. As a result, it was the Germanic women, be they mothers, grandmothers, or aunts, who played a key role in the upbringing of Germanic males when they were most impressionable.

UP NEXT: Early Germanic Society - Social Groups

Suzanne Fonay Wemple, Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500 to 900, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981).
Tacitus, Germania.
Ammianus Marcellinus, The Surviving Books of the History, trans. John C. Rolfe, Ammianus Marcellinus, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1939).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Early Germanic Society - Sacrifice

Human and animal sacrifice was practiced, with mostly domesticated livestock serving as the ritualistic object, though dogs and wild animals also were used. The animals were eaten in sacrificial meals, with the remains often deposited in bogs. As Malcolm Todd wrote in his Northern Barbarians:

The prominence of the horse in the animal sacrifices deserves special notice. Commonly only the skull, tail and feet are represented….This rite of burying the skull and extremities of the skeleton links the Germanic world with the Baltic regions and the Steppes.

The dog appears to have been the most sacrificed animal in many regions, though there is no evidence that any portion of the dog was eaten in a ritualistic meal. Their sacrifice was probably linked to a fertility cult, although it could also have served as a substitute for a man as skeletons of both often occur in the same archeological digs.

Evidence of human sacrifice exists, mostly among prisoners that were sacrificed to war gods, though there were other rituals that seemed to require human sacrifice to different gods. According to Todd, the corpses found in the bogs of northern Europe have provided much evidence in this area. (Todd also hypothesizes that, much like the ancient Egyptians who buried their cats with them, perhaps the Germans buried their dogs for companionship in the afterlife.)

A.D. 1-100
Found near Osterby, Germany in 1948
Only his decapitated head was found, wrapped in a deerskin cape. He was likely killed by a blow to his left temple before he was decapitated. His hair, reddened by chemicals in the peat, is tied in an elaborate hairstyle called a Swabian knot. The Roman historian Tacitus, who lived in Osterby Man's era, describes the hairstyle as typical of the Suebi tribe of Germany.

Windeby Girl
A.D. 1-200
Found near Windeby, Germany in 1952
It's unclear exactly how she died, but given that she was merely 13 to 14 years old and that she was buried in a bog with a woolen band covering her eyes, it was likely from unnatural causes. Only five yards from her body the corpse of a man lay buried, and some experts suggest that the two were punished for an adulterous affair.... Windeby Girl had part of her hair cut off at the time of her death.

100 B.C.-A.D. 100
Found near Kiel, Germany in 1871

UP NEXT: Early Germanic Society - Women and Marriage


Malcolm Todd, Northern Barbarians
NOVA, "The Perfect Corpse"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Early Germanic Society - What did they make?

Rings and brooches with gold filigree provide evidence of Germans working in gold dating from the mid-first century B.C. to the beginning of the first century A.D. The Germans actually preferred Roman silver to gold and evidence of them working in silver dates to roughly the same period.

While working in these precious metals was important to the Germans, and was perhaps more importantly of interest to the Romans, the Germans viewed iron-working as the most important craft of all. Evidence has been found of large iron manufacturing centers, but most iron was produced in smaller quantities by local smiths.

Thus, Tacitus’ assertion that “iron is not plentiful among them” seems to have been derived from ignorance rather than fact. Salt was also an important commodity and was often the object of tribal conflict. Pottery, wood-working, textiles and leather were also important industries. In all of these areas, Germanic technology progressed in fits and starts, often stagnating in isolated spots or progressing rapidly in others.

UP NEXT: Early Germanic Society - Sacrifice


Tacitus, Germania
Malcolm Todd,
The Northern Barbarians

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Early Germanic Society - How'd They Live?

In general, archeological findings have indicated that the Germanic people living east of the Rhine were primarily pastoral, though not nomadic, like the people of the Eurasian steppes, because the climate of Germany did not necessitate such movement. They did not spend all of their time tending herds as they also hunted and farmed to supplement their diet of meat, milk, and cheese.

The settlements which existed in Germania during this time ranged from the small, single farm to a group of farms situated in what would best be described as a village. Archeologists and historians have determined that the early Germans tended to stay within a certain territory for long periods of time. However, they would occasionally move their homes to a new site.

They were not entirely dependent, or socially defined by, their possession of animals, though it was their primary means of subsistence and source of prestige, dignity and wealth. Cattle were the most important livestock, but geography and environment determined whether sheep or pigs were the second most important. They were also farmers, and barley, oats and rye were the most common grains, while vegetables and herbs were also cultivated.

Additionally, fruits, such as apples, berries and grapes were gathered, though not cultivated. Thus, with the ability to raise, grow, or gather a wide array of food, and the ability to barter for that which they could not produce on their own, the Germanic economy was able to support fairly large communities, much like the neighboring western Roman provinces.

UP NEXT: Early Germanic Society - What did they do?


E.A. Thompson, “The Germans in the Time of Caesar,” in The Barbarian Invasions: Catalyst of a New Order, ed. Katherine Fischer Drew, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970).
Patrick Geary,
Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Walter Goffart,
Barbarians and Romans.
Malcolm Todd,
The Northern Barbarians.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Interpretations of Burgundian Origins or Who Are These Guys?

So where did the Burgundians come from? For that matter, where did other Germanic tribes originate? Entire forests have been pulped so that historians could attempt to answer those questions. Understandably, it's easier to supply a general answer regarding the origins of those whom we call the Germanic people. But devils are in details, especially when trying to parse out the origins of one particular group. Yet, historians continue to try!

Pliny the Elder mentioned the Burgodiones in his Natural History (c. A.D. 79). He believed that these Burgodiones were members of the “Vandal race” of Germans and placed them near the Oder and Vistula rivers. Later, Ptolemy, in his Geography (c. A.D. 150), wrote of the Burguntae, who lived between the Suevus and the Vistula rivers. Additionally, Jordanes, in his Origins and Deeds of the Goths, mentioned the Burgundians, claiming that Fastida, King of the Gepidae, had nearly destroyed them near the Vistula. These early writers attempted to classify Germans by using either a geographical system, as did Pliny and Ptolemy, or a combination of this with a mythical or genealogical system, as did Tacitus in his Germania.

Historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries utilized linguistic evidence to determine that the name of a Swedish island, Bornholm, located in the Baltic Sea east of Denmark, south of Sweden, and north of Poland, was a shortened form of Burgundarholm. This, they concluded, was the ancestral holm of the Burgundians. [For examples of early efforts at philological investigation, see George Hempl, “The Linguistic and Ethnografic Status of the Burgundians,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 39 (1908) and Kemp Malone, “Ptolemy’s Skandia,” The American Journal of Philology 45, no.4 (1924)].

In addition to this linguistic evidence, historians interpreted written sources and oral tradition such that they placed the Burgundians among those East German tribes that migrated from Scandinavia toward the Vistula during the first century. This confirmed the location of the Burgundians as portrayed in the writings of Pliny, Tacitus, Ptolemy, and Jordanes. However, more recent scholarship has called these attempts at linguistic forensics into question. For example, Walter Goffart (Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation) argues that Scandinavian toponyms, like Borgundarholm, could be derived from a number of other sources and thus mean something other than a place where a people called the Burgundians once lived.

The use of archeology to supplement the writing of history came to the fore in the 1880s, led by German historians. The centerpiece of their theory was an idea of ethnic homogeneity that allowed them to link specific archeological finds with particular people mentioned in the classic works of Pliny, Tacitus, and others, as well as the work of the contemporary philologists. As such, their interpretation of archeological evidence confirmed or only slightly modified these beliefs.

As Malcolm Todd (The Northern Barbarians: 100 B.C.-A.D. 300) explained, these historians were led by Gustav Kossinna, whose theories were considered the standard treatment of the subject until World War II. Kossinna’s method convinced himself and others that the Germans had been an ethnically homogenous people from the Bronze Age through the Roman Iron Age. This was a product of the nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century and used nefariously by the Third Reich during the Second World War. In the years immediately following World War II, an understandable reaction occurred against this nationalistic, ethnically homogeneous interpretation.

Unfortunately, during this initial backlash, some critics went too far in not recognizing any sort of Germanic culture prior to 100 B.C. It has since been determined that a definite, Germanic material culture can be traced to the northern Iron Age of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Yet, the idea of an ethnically and culturally united Germanic people is no longer supported, though the various “Germanic people” did share some common traits.

NEXT: Early Germanic Society - How'd They Live?

Pliny, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942).
Ptolemy, Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, trans. and ed. Edward Luther Stevenson (New York: New York Public Library, 1932; reprint, New York: Dover Books, 1991).
Jordanes, The Origins and Deeds of the Goths. trans. Charles C. Mierow [book on-line] (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1915).
Tacitus, Germania, in Tacitus, trans. Maurice Hutton and rev. E.H.Warmington, vol. 1, Agricola, Germania, Dialogus, Loeb Classical Series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914. Reprint 1970).
Lucien Musset, The Germanic Invasions: The Making of Europe AD 400-600, trans. Edward and Columba James (University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975).
Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation,(Princeton University Press, 1987).
J.B. Bury, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1967; reprint, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).
Robert Latouche, Caesar to Charlemagne: The Beginnings of France, trans. Jennifer Nicholson (London: Phoenix House, 1968).
Malcolm Todd, The Northern Barbarians: 100 B.C.-A.D. 300. (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1975).


The Burgundian Kingdom of the sixth century occupied dangerous territory. Caught between powerful neighbors, it was doomed to attack, and the Burgundians vanished into the mists of time, consigned to the annals as just another victim of history. Thus forgotten, Burgundian society of the fifth and sixth century has often been overlooked. While it had many traditional Germanic characteristics, it also successfully integrated both Roman culture and societal institutions. The result was an amalgamated Romano-Burgundian kingdom that had laws for all and tolerated two forms of Christianity. In this, the Burgundians, particularly the kingdom of Gundobad, provided a brief foreshadowing of the culture that would eventually emerge from the intermixing of Gallo-Romans, Christians and Germans.

The story of the Burgundians has usually been interspersed throughout more generalized accounts of the Germanic migrations or the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Most often, the Burgundians of the fifth and sixth centuries have been portrayed as bit players in the history of the Merovingian Franks, particularly by Merovingian partisans such as Gregory of Tours.

This blog will focus on the history of the Burgundians from the time a people identified by that name emerged from Scandinavia until they were permanently rendered subjects of the Merovingian Franks in the early sixth century. It will discuss the historical interpretations of the origins of the Burgundians as well as attempt to fit the "Burgundian story" into advances made in more recent scholarship regarding interpretations of Germanic society, the Fall of Rome and other contentious subjects.

Off we go.....