We have to break away from the stereotypes of ‘tribal’ history and mass movements of tribal migration, which, when we can trace them archaeologically…seem to be slow movements of infiltration by small groups of warriors.Originally, historians believed that the Burgundians were among what came to be classified as the East Germans. These tribes left their lands beyond the Elbe River in the third and fourth centuries in search of new lands on a journey that took them towards the Black Sea and the Danube. Historians hypothesized that growing population and a related need for better food resources, as well as migratory pressure from other tribes, were probably the motivating factors in East German migration. Two good examples of this traditional theory are in Bury's Invasion of Europe Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Both Gibbon and Bury thought the wars fought by Marcus Aurelius during the end of the second century provided evidence for the movement of the East Germans because, they concluded, the barbarians Aurelius fought had been displaced by migrating East Germans.
These theories are still generally sound, though the attempt to specify migratory paths has been criticized by historians such as Walter Goffart (Barbarians and Romans. Additionally, Herwig Wolfram (Germanic Peoples) discounted the role of hunger or desire for goods as motivation for the migrations. Instead, he attributed pressure from constant warfare within barbarian society. According to Wolfram, this constant warfare was a direct result of “the driving force of tribal life [which] was the pathos of heroism. Barbarian traditions are the tales of the ‘deeds of brave men’—only the warrior matters; tribe and army are one.”
More recent scholarship has relied primarily on archeological evidence and has re-classified the Burgundians as Elbe Germans (Geary in Before France and Germany). Wolfram (Germanic Peoples) noted that linguists used to consider the Burgundians as East Germans, but are no longer so sure. The Burgundians were traditionally classified as a Gothic people, but this may have been because they were Arian Christians. Sidonius himself considered them to be Germanic, not Goths, a classification that a contemporary ethnographer would not confuse, according to Wolfram.
Their appearance in written sources clearly indicates that a Germanic tribe known as Burgundians existed, though their specific migration route remains unknown. As Malcolm Todd (Everyday Life of The Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals) argues, it is impossible to link a tribe mentioned by Tacitus and others of that era with so-called “archeological cultures” and most modern archeologists “prefer to leave on one side questions concerning the ethnic significance of archeological mater.” For his part, Todd placed the Burgundians among an eastern group of Germans, living between the Oder and Vistula, with the Goths, Vandals and Rugii.
An analysis of the few Burgundian remains, primarily skulls, indicated characteristics similar to those of people of Asiatic origin. Additionally, some historians have detected Asiatic themes and styles in the artwork of various Germanic tribes, including the Burgundians, during the migration period. Lucien Musset(Germanic Invasions), in particular, mentioned that analysis of Burgundian skulls indicated Asian characteristics and he also pointed out that it had been conjectured that the second part of the name of a later king, Gundiocus (Gundioc), showed Hunnic influence (based on Herbert Kuhn's “Asiatic Influences on the Art of the Migrations,” Parnassus 9).
Other archeological evidence taken from the area around the lower Vistula, traditionally believed to be a home to the Burgundians, indicated that the region experienced a population loss some time toward the end of the third century. Some historians took this as evidence of a western migration of the Burgundians at this time. However, this by itself is not enough to determine the specific migratory movements of the Burgundians.
Todd (The Northern Barbarians) and Patrick Geary (The Myth of Nations) each offer a substantive recounting of the problems associated with relying on nineteenth century interpretations of the history of the Germanic tribes from the time of Caesar to the migration period. Geary detailed how the compilation of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH) lay at the root of many of these problems as its composition relied heavily on the science of philology which resulted in classifying people according to a language family, from which tribal nationalities were then developed.
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Herwig Wolfram, The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 1997).
C.R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: A Social and Economic Study (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
Bury, Invasion of Europe.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Great Books of the Western World, vol.40-41 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).
Goffart, Barbarians and Romans.
Patrick Geary, Before France and Germany.
Malcolm Todd, Everyday Life of The Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals. (New York: Dorset Press, 1972).
Musset, Germanic Invasions.
Herbert Kuhn, “Asiatic Influences on the Art of the Migrations,” Parnassus 9, no.1 (1937).
Todd, The Northern Barbarians.
Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations.