Untangling the Germanic Migrations
Paul V. Hartman
Europe's Travail, 300 - 700 AD
Beginning before the start of the 4th Century, and gathering momentum as the Romans withdrew the edges of their empire (starting with Britain in 409), and lasting for several centuries, were mass migrations of Germanic peoples into the lower reaches of Europe, and beyond. We know them as the Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Lombards.
It was not just an eagerness to explore and conquer new lands. They were being driven from comfortable locations, for the most part, by a mixed ethnic group we have labeled "The Huns" from the Steppe region of Asia. The Huns were only the latest permutation of a warrior group made highly effective by the use of mounted archers, using composite bows. (We have covered the Scythians, the Parthians, and the Mongols, who found success in the same manner.) In addition to the Huns, population pressures and climate change (which could influence food production) might have provided additional incentives to migration.
We should state at this point that all of the groups to be named here were derived from tribes labeled "Celtic", which had distributed themselves in a passive manner all over Europe. The subsequent Germanic migrations is a complex business with an immense history, easy to confuse the new student to History. Here then is a brief overview of the Germanic migrations by people group.
The JUTES were a northern Germanic people from the Jutland Peninsula who sailed across the North Sea in the late 300s to raid Britain and eventually, after displacing, absorbing, or killing the native Celtic tribes, settling in the area now called Kent. Although not geographically distant from the Angles, they appear to have had more cultural ties with the more distant Franks. A convenient map will show this and other migrations during the period of interest.
Click on map to enlarge
The ANGLES were a collection of north German tribes centered on the Angeln region on or near the Jutland Peninsula. In steady migrations to Britain beginning in the early 4th Century, they formed the kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. They would find common destiny with the Saxons who followed, and the two groups, plus the smaller population of Jutes, would give a new name to the country - "Angle-Land" - or as we know it, England.
The SAXONS were a separate mix of north German tribes from the region of Saxony who selected Britain as the Romans withdrew from it. They would form four kingdoms, with the names Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, and Wessex. Together with the Angles, they would eventually force all original Britons (a Celtic people) into Wales or Cornwall, whereas other Britons left their homeland to form Brittany in northern France. The Saxons would continue on into France.
The FRANKS (Latin: gens Francorum) were west Germanic, identified by Romans with that name in the 3rd Century, living above the Lower Rhine in Francia. (A long-standing, colorful, myth, gave their origin as descendents of the Trojans.) Their target was Gaul, the Roman name for France. Beginning in the early 400s, they would push the Romans out of the country, the Romans making the diplomatic choice to acknowledge the Franks as their "choice" to govern the land. The Franks would unite under Clovis, first king of the Merovingian Dynasty, and would conquer nearly all of France in the 6th Century. The country would get its new name from these people. Interestingly enough, the Franks who stayed behind would become the core of what we now call Germany.
The greatest of the Franks would be Charlemagne, and his story is hard to encapsulate but we have made the effort Here .
The VISIGOTHS were west Germanic tribes which became visible when they invaded the Balkans, under Alaric, in 350 AD. At the invitation of the Romans, they later migrated to Southern Gaul in order to displace the Vandals, which the Romans regarded as troublesome. They did so, and established their new kingdom in Toulouse. They then crossed the Pyrenees, driving the Vandals (and Alans) out of Iberia (Spain and Portugal.) They had a long stay, adopted Roman cultural manners, contributed little of their Gothic character to Spain, and would be eliminated by the Arab and Berber invasions in 711.
The OSTROGOTHS were east Germanic tribes, who, fleeing the Huns, began to migrate to the Balkans in the 370s. Their story revolves around Theodoric (eventually, "The Great") who was held for years in Constantinople as a diplomatic hostage - given free movement, education, etc., and who fully adopted Roman culture. In 488 he was sent by Byzantine Emperor Zeno to rid Italy of Odocer ("ode-a-car"), which he eventually did in taking Ravenna in 493. Another emperor, Julian, decided it was now time to retake the Western Empire, and did so in 540. The Ostrogoths moved north to settle in modern Austria.
The VANDALS were east Germanic tribes who migrated West in 406, encountered the Franks (won some battles) and pushed on into Iberia (Spain & Portugal) by 409. Having the best of Germanic shoe leather, they kept walking, taking North Africa (Algeria and Tunisia) in 429 and Carthage ten years later. Then they turned north, taking Sicily, and followed that with their famous sack of Rome in 455. When their successful king Geiseric died in 477, they went into decline, and would lose the Italian and African lands to resurgent Romans.
The LOMBARDS were a Germanic people living in the valley of the Danube. In 568 they invaded northern Italy, defeated an Ostrogothic remnant in an area today called Lombardy, setting up a "Kingdom of Italy". They lasted until 774 when they were conquered by Charlemagne.
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To the Roman world, they were all "barbarians", (Bar-Bar-eons, not Bar-bear-eons) evidently because of the frequent appearance of the word fragment "bar" in much of their speech, so that when they talked, Romans heard it as "bar-eh-bar-ta-bar-cat-da-bar" and so on.
When the Germanic tribes had had their run of it, it was now the turn of the Scandinavians, who would wear the common name "Vikings".
# The Vikings were also known collectively as "Northmen" or "Norsemen". But you know what? Scandinavians were simply earlier northern migrations of Germanic people, and the Viking raids would merely reshuffle the deck. To the claim that all Europe was German if you just follow the genealogy back far enough, a Bavarian house painter in the first third of the 20th Century thought he ought to take it all back. He would be defeated by re-distributed Germans (who didn't think of themselves that way) living on a new continent.
The VANDALS would re-emerge in America, in the 1960s, occupying and burning college campuses. They even looked the same as their forebears: long, scraggly, dirty hair and beards, crude, filthy, and torn clothing, and speaking a language with unrecognizable words.
Oh, there I go again...
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