During the first centuries of the first millenium AD, smaller barbarian tribes formed into larger, distinct groups and posed a potential threat to Rome and her provinces. In the fourth century, the westward advance of the Huns pushed other tribes toward the borders of the empire, which, unable to withstand the pressure, eventually fell. The tribes below were these principal barbarian peoples involved in the upheavals during this period.

Ostrogoths and Visigoths: originally from eastern Germany, they finally founded kingdoms in Italy and southern France and Spain.

Vandals: originated from eastern Europe, but ended up settling in Spain and North Africa.

Jutes, Angles, and Saxons: from the Jutland peninsula and north Holland, they invaded south and east Britain, where they settled in the fifth century.

Burgundians: migrated into the Rhine-Main area in about AD 400 and later established a kingdom; they subsequently settled on the Saone and the Rhone.

Alemanni: the second largest Germanic group, they established themselves on the Rhine.

Franks: by the fifth century they had moved from east of the Rhine to Gaul, where the Merovingian kingdom was formed.

"We are all barbarians in someone else's view. In the 4th c. BC, Demosthenes sneered at Philip of Macedonia, who was unable to pronounce his own name in a pure Attican accent. At the same period, Socrates, his opponent in Athens, stigmatized as a barbarian anyone and everyone who was unfamiliar with the languages, customs and institutions of Greece."
~ Jean Decarreaux, Monks and Civilization (London: G. Allen, 1967), p. 19.
Barbarian Studies (or historical nomadology, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari might put it) is an under-appreciated sub-discipline, a mix of Medieval Studies and proto-European archaeology. As the titles below testify, however, the demand for further study is serious, with major works being developed still. The entire field (bubbling away as it was in the endnotes of historians for centuries) was inaugurated in the early 1920s.

Reams of new archaeological and documentary evidence (which had been gathered throughout the late 19th - early 20th c. around Europe, Central Asia and the Mediterranean) shone extensive new light on the period between 300 - 1000 AD. The received wisdom of the West, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, about the 'Dark Ages' had to be completely rethought. Essentially, the simplistic notions of imperial decadence and barbaric hoards were found wanting as valid historical explanations for Europe's development - so scholars began to take a closer look at the cultural sub-groups which made up the previously undifferentiated masses which seized control of most of Europe.

One of the first English texts to tackle this new approach was Wallace- Hadrill's The Barbarian West : The Early Middle Ages, 400 - 1000 AD (London, Harper, 1957). The title itself hints at the author's thesis, and indeed to the subtext of the entire field of study. Barbarian, after all, is a Greek word; something borrowed by the Latin peoples to explain the rest of the world outside their borders. It was the equivalent of 'damn foreigners' for the elite peoples of Antiquity, and not surprisingly the phrase faded from popular use in Europe until well after the Renaissance. After all, the vast majority of Europeans were the barbarians' direct descendants.

Hadrill spends little time (about 12 p.) lingering over the reasons behind the disintegration of the Latin world; you can tell that's not really what interests him (who can blame him; it's been done to death). Instead (where European history has traditionally left a big, black gaping hole) he goes straight into the dark forests of Eastern Europe and the Slavic regions, asking, for example:
  • Given the Slavic/Germanic tribes of Northern Europe had been completely content outside the Empire until the Huns began to encroach on their lands, and given these were the tribes which would free Europe from Mediterranean dominance, what force initially pushed the Huns into migration, after centuries of habitation on the Asian plains? It is a question which still goes unanswered today.1
  • On Aug 9th, 378 AD : refugees of the Goths, Vandals, Franks and Saxons - thousands of displaced families reached the borders of Romania at Adrianople, fleeing the Hun advance. The Romans knew they had not the food to feed so many; yet all the tribal leaders wanted was passage. What happened for violence to erupt, so that what was actually a forced migration was later characterized as hostile invasion? (p. 21)
  • The Visigoths, for example, had been Christianized as early as 340 by Ulfilas the Greek (an Arian); so their outlook was not pagan, merely desperate due to starvation and exile. Why has history always characterized the Medieval German tribes, then, as un-Christian?
  • By 410, Alaric the Goth leads his people in Rome, in search of food, not plunder. St. Jerome writes in his chronicles of the time that Alaric has come to the wrong place, for Italy herself is starved, barren and penniless. Alaric and his people move on to Southern Gaul and Northern Spain - people, in search of food move quickly. Yet history marks Alaric's arrival as the Sack of Rome. Why? (p. 24)
What the book seems to firmly establish is that Roman historians, for obvious reasons, being elite, highly educated, urban, effete rationalists were prejudiced against the newcomers, and wrote about their lifestyle and customs frequently without ever having even observed them - Vandals, Visigoths, Franks, Ostrogoths, Saxons, Burgundians, Suevi, Huns, Berbers - it was all the same thing to a Roman city-dweller. Fear was the underlying theme - an edict in Rome ca. 419 punishes with death anyone who instructs a Vandal in the art of boat-building.2 The problem is the ancient histories (Herodotus, Pliny, Livy, Dion Cassius, Plutarch, etc.) were taken quite at face value up until modern historical scholarship began the critical comparison of primary source material with other culture's writings.

Once the various tribes settled down however, things immediately grew tense, largely because there was a shortage of labour and administrative skills (a situation which characterized all of Europe almost up to the 1100s) - and as a result (the Franks in particular) suffered economic recession, dwindling trade and depopulation. Monasteries were islands of relative improvement, and so attracted droves of family settlers where ever they were established, and by the 8th century these communities had begun to push back the 'primordial' forest. (p. 81-87) In fact, Wallace-Hardrill concludes these little colonies were the inspiration behind the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th c.; insofar as Charlemagne, a former 'barbarian' himself was now leading an 'empire' of other rustics, and knew it was vital to encourage these little communities and therfore assure the effectiveness of the monastic centers in leading village development.3

1. Mirv adds that one theory holds that Chinese efforts --unification under Qin Shihuangdi, the campaigns of Han Wu Di, and the subsequent fortification of China's borders with the steppe-- forced the Xiongnu (later to become the Huns) to the west after it became more trouble than it was worth to mess with the Chinese. See Robert Silverberg's Great Wall of China (1965), p. 98 and Ray Huang's China: A Macro History (1997), p. 58. Interesting also that Ammianus Marcellinus mentions (Rerum Gestarum, ch. 23) the "circling and continous barrier" ('agger', Lat.) encircling Seres, land of the silk-makers, a fairly obvious reference to the Great Wall of China.

2. The Vandals were trying desperately to reach Africa, which was at that time 'the granary of the Mediterranean', because a) they were starving, and b) they'd reached the West last, and most of the other rich-soil regions had been snapped up by the other migrating tribes (the Lombard people had settled in north Italy, the Franks in Gaul, the Goths in Spain, etc). The Vandals got their revenge of course, by figuring out ship-building on their own, crossing to Africa, and immediately beginning an embargo against the Romans who'd refused to help, which is why history gives them such a bad name. (p. 38)

3. "The Carolingians, and particularly Charlemagne, were concerned to provide a trained clergy to convert and live among the Frisans, Saxons, Slavs and Avars, as well as to control the more settles areas of the Frankish world. The monastic and cathedral schools were an instrument of this policy. Clerical instruction urgently needed standardization; other wise it would fail outside of Francia. Scholars were needed, capable of overhauling the very texts on which missionary enterprise depended. (p. 101)

Further Reading:

Lancaster, H. Barbarian boy : the story of a young slave in ancient Rome. (London : Fortune, 1999)
McCullough, D. W. Chronicles of the barbarians : firsthand accounts of pillage and conquest from the ancient world to the fall of Constantinople (NY : History Book Club, 1998).
Petrén, B. et al. Why are you calling me a barbarian? (Los Angeles : Getty Museum, 1999)
Ausenda, G. After empire : towards an ethnology of Europe's barbarians (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1995)
Barnwell, P. S. Kings, courtiers & imperium : the barbarian West, 565-725 (London : Duckworth, 1997)
Borst, A. Medieval worlds : barbarians, heretics, and artists in the Middle Ages (Chicago : University Press, 1996)
Burns, T. S. Barbarians within the gates of Rome : a study of Roman military policy and the barbarians, ca. 375-425 A.D. (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1994)
Ferris, I. M. Enemies of Rome : barbarians through Roman eyes (Stroud : Sutton, 2000)
Goffart, W. A. The narrators of barbarian history (A.D. 550-800) : Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton: University Press, 1988
Harrison, T. Greeks and barbarians (Edinburgh : University Press, 2001)
Richter, M. The formation of the medieval West : studies in the oral culture of the barbarians ( NY : St. Martin's, 1994)
Strategies of distinction : the construction of ethnic communities, 300-800, ed. W. Pohl (Boston : Brill, 1998.)
The role of migration in the history of the Eurasian steppe : sedentary civilization vs. "barbarian" and nomad (NY : St. Martin's, 2000.)
Williams, D. Romans and Barbarians : four views from the empire's edge, 1st century A.D. (NY : St. Martin's, 1999)

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