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