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).