Blogging the Age of Faith

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Germanic Roots of Early Medieval Culture

The second most important of the factors which combined to produce the civilization of early medieval Europe was the influence of the Germanic barbarians. They were not the only northern peoples who helped to mold the pattern of early medieval society; the contributions of the Celts in Brittany and Ireland and of the Slavs in central and eastern Europe were by no means insignificant. Nevertheless, the Germanic influence appears to have been the most extensive. The ancient Germans were a long-headed people of predominantly Nordic stock and of Indo-European tongue. Where they came from originally is a problem upon which scholars disagree, but they seem to have migrated into northern Europe from western Asia. By the beginning of the Christian era they had come to be divided into several nations: Scandinavians, Vandals, Goths, Franks, Alemanni, Burgundians, Frisians, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and so on. Both in language and in race they originally bore some affinity to the Greeks and the Romans.

For centuries different nations of Germanic barbarians had been making incursions into Roman territory. At times they came as invading armies, but generally they filtered in slowly, bringing their families and belongings with them and occupying depopulated or abandoned areas. Many were brought in by Roman commanders and rulers. Julius Caesar was impressed by their value as warriors and enrolled thousands of them in his armies. They were to be found in the bodyguard of nearly every Princeps and emperor. Finally, by the time of Constantine, they formed the bulk of the soldiers in the entire Roman army. Many were also drawn into the civil service and thousands were settled by the government as coloni or serfs on the great estates. In view of these conditions it is not very surprising that Rome should eventually have been conquered by the Germans. They were a virile and energetic race, constantly increasing in numbers; and as more and more of them gained a foothold in Italy, others were bound to be tempted by the opportunities for plunder. Also, the Romans frequently exploited those who were already in the Empire and thereby provided their kinsmen with an excuse for making an attack. Although armed invasions of Italy began as early as the second century B.C., and were repeated several times thereafter, there were no really disastrous incursions until the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. In 378 the Visigoths, angered by the oppression of imperial governors, raised the standard for revolt. They overwhelmed a Roman army at Adrianople and then marched westward into Italy. In 410 under Alaric they captured and plundered Rome, later moving on into southern Gaul. In 455 Rome was sacked by the Vandals, who had migrated from their original home between the Oder and Vistula rivers and established a kingdom in the province of Carthage. Other Germanic nations also made their way into Italy, and before the end of the fifth century the Roman Empire in the West had passed completely under the domination of the barbarians.

For our knowledge of ancient of Germanic society we are dependent primarily upon the Germania of Tacitus, written in 98 A.D. The literature and the laws of the Germans themselves also contain much information, but these were not put into written form until after Roman and Christian influences had begun to exert their effect. When Tacitus wrote, the Germanic barbarians had attained a cultural level about equal to that of the Homeric Greeks. They were illiterate and ignorant of any knowledge of the arts. Their houses were built of rough timber plastered over with mud. While they had achieved some development of agriculture, they preferred the risks of plundering expeditions to the prosaic labor of tilling the soil. Nearly all of the work was done by the women and old men and other dependents. When not fighting or hunting, the warriors spent most of their time sleeping and carousing. Gambling and drunkenness were glaring vices, but, if we can believe the testimony of Tacitus, sex morality was singularly pure. Monogamous marriage prevailed, except in those cases where a chief might be permitted to take more than one wife for political reasons. Adultery was rare and severely punished, while divorce was almost unknown. In some tribes even widows were forbidden to remarry.

The economic and political institutions of the Germans were such as befitted a people who ere just emerging into a settled existence. The tiny proportion of trade carried on rested solely upon a basis of barter, while cattle were still the main article of wealth. Whether the agricultural land was individually or collectively owned is still a debated question, but there seems little doubt that the forests and pastures were held and used in common. Possibly the community controlled the distribution of new lands as they were acquired, allotting the arable portions as individual farms. There is evidence that a class of wealthy proprietors had grown up as an aristocracy in certain of the tribes. Although Tacitus states that the Germans had slaves, it seems probable that most of their dependents were serfs, since they had houses of their own and paid their masters only a portion of what they produced. Their servitude was a result not only of capture in was but also of indebtedness and especially reckless gambling, in which men staked their own liberty when everything else had been lost. The state scarcely existed at all. Law was a product of custom, and the administration of justice remained very largely in private hands. While the Germans had their tribal courts, the function of these bodies was chiefly to mediate between plaintiff and defendant. It was left to the former to bring the accused to trial and to carry out the penalty prescribed by the customary law. The court merely decided what proofs should be required of each litigant to determine the validity of his plea. Usually these consisted of oaths and ordeals, both of which were considered as appeals to the judgment of the gods. The most important of the remaining political institutions was the primary assembly of the warriors. But this body had no lawmaking powers beyond those involved in the interpretation of custom. Its main function was to decide questions of war and peace and whether the tribe should migrate to some new locality. Originally the German tribes had no kings. They had chiefs elected by the freemen, but these were little more than ceremonial officials. In time of war a military leader was elected and endowed with considerable power, but as soon as the campaign was over his authority lapsed. Nevertheless, as wars increased in frequency and duration, some of the military leaders actually became kings. The formality of election, however, was generally retained.

The influence of the Germans upon medieval history, while not so important as is sometimes imagined, was extensive enough to deserve careful consideration. To begin with, they were largely responsible for several of the elements of feudalism: (1) the conception of law as an outgrowth of custom and not as the expression of the will of a sovereign; (2) the idea of law as a personal possession of the individual which he could take with him wherever he went, in contrast to the Roman conception of law as limited to a definite territory; (3) the notion of a contractual relationship between rulers and subjects, involving reciprocal obligations of protection and obedience; (4) the theory of an honorable relationship between lord and vassal, growing out of the Germanic institution of the comitatus or military band, in which the warriors were bound by pledges of honor and loyalty to fight for and serve their leader; and (5) trial by ordeal as a prevailing mode of procedure in the feudal courts. As for other influences, it may be argued that the Germanic idealization of female virtue and emphasis upon marital fidelity had something to do with the glorification of marriage as a sacrament by the later medieval church. For it must be remembered that many of the early theologians held women in how esteem and regarded marriage as a mere compromise with the lusts of the flesh. For example, there is the famous aphorism of St. Paul that "It is better to marry than to burn." In at least one other instance the strength of the Germanic influence was sufficient to counteract the force of early Christianity, and that was in the matter of the importance of oaths. If there was any teaching of Jesus more explicit than his condemnation of oaths, it would certainly be hard to discover. Yet the value attached by the Germans to swearing in court was so high that the practice became an integral part of procedure in the medieval courts and thence has come down to modern times.


  • At 9:37 AM, Blogger The Filthy Titan said…

    So that's where the oath custom came from. The oath condemnation is completely correct; I always thought it kind of ironic that we swear on a Bible today. (Am wondering what would happen if someone were to open it and read the passage where Jesus condemns oaths in the middle of court. Interesting thought fodder there.) I always did wonder where that custom came from.

    Marital purity is an interesting thought, and I also have an idea as to why oatsh were so important to the Germanic peoples. The "oaths", I think, were an outgrowth of clan and tribe involvement- considering that the Germans came in trickling little streams and, as a group, occupied areas, I suspect that they kept clan/tribe/family ties a long time after they moved in (think our modern Chinatowns- places where one ethnic minority gathers up).

    I believe that the oaths could have been an outgrowth of "clan belief", of belief in the clan (and the ancestors, which amounts to about one and the same). By believing that these "oaths" were from the ancestors and from the clans, it was a way of reaffirming the affinity with family and clan, and in a strange land with a strange people, this probably became very important. Later, when they became much more mainstream, this train of thought probably carried over into medeival Europe.

    Interesting thoughts, here.


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