Medieval Castles > Europe in the Middle Ages > Kingdoms of the Barbarians

Kingdoms of the Barbarians

The barbarian states which arose on the ruins of the Western Empire were founded, under widely different circumstances of time and place, by tribes and federations of tribes drawn from every part of Germany. We expect to find, and we do find, infinite varieties of detail in their laws, their social distinctions, their methods of government. But from a broader point of view they may be grouped in two classes, not according to affinities of race, but according to their relations with the social order which they had invaded.

Kingdom of the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Burgundians
One group of kingdoms was founded under cover of a legal fiction; the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Burgundians claimed to be the allies of the Empire.

At one time or another they obtained the recognition of Constantinople for their settlements. Their kings accepted or usurped the titles of imperial administrators, stamped their coins with the effigies of the reigning Emperor, dated their proclamations by the names of the consuls for the year, and in many other ways flaunted their nominal subjection as the legal basis of their actual sovereignty. This fiction did not prevent them from governing their new dominions in true Teutonic fashion, through royal bailiffs, who administered the state demesnes, and military officers (dukes, counts, etc.) who ruled with autocratic sway over administrative districts. Nor did the most lenient of them hesitate to provide for their armies by wholesale confiscations; the ordinary rule was to take from the great proprietor one-third or two-thirds of his estate for the benefit of the Teutonic immigrant.

Further, we have ample evidence that the provincials found existence considerably more precarious under the new order. The rich were exposed to the malice of the false informer and the venal judge; the cultivators of the soil were often oppressed and often reduced from partial freedom to absolute slavery. Yet in some respects the invaders of this type were tolerant and adaptable. They left to the provincials the civil law of Rome, and even codified it to guard against unauthorised innovations; the 'Lex Romana Burgundionum' and the Visigothic 'Breviarium Alarici' are still extant as memorials of this policy.

They realised the necessity of compelling barbarians and provincials alike to respect the elementary rights of person and property; Theodoric the Ostrogoth and Gundobad the Burgundian were the authors of new criminal codes, in the one case mainly, in the other partially, derived from Roman jurisprudence. Such rulers were not content with professing an impartial regard for both classes of their subjects; they frequently raised the better-class provincials to posts of responsibility and confidence. By a singular fatality the chief races of this group had embraced the Arian heresy, which was repudiated and detested by their subjects.

Yet their great statesmen uniformly extended toleration to the rival creed, and even patronised the orthodox bishops, by whom they were secretly regarded as worse than the lowest of the heathen. This generosity was little more than common prudence. Numerically the conquerors were much inferior to the provincials; economically they had everything to lose by needless ill-treatment of those whom they exploited.

But the best of them had studied the organisation of the Empire at close quarters, sometimes as captains in the imperial service, sometimes as neighbours of flourishing provinces in the years preceding the grand catastrophe; and knowledge rarely failed to produce in them some respect or even enthusiasm for the 'Respublica Romana'. "When I was young," said King Athaulf the Visigoth, "I desired to obliterate the Roman name and to bring under the sway of the Goths all that once belonged to the Romans. But I learned better by experience. The Goths were licentious barbarians who would obey no laws; and to deprive the commonwealth of laws would have been a crime. So for my part I chose the glory of restoring the Roman name to its old estate." To such men the ideal of the future was a federation of states owing a nominal allegiance to the official head of the Empire, but cherishing an effective loyalty to all that was best in Roman law and culture.

Kingdoms founded in outlying provinces or comparatively late in time
The invaders of England, the Franks in Northern Gaul, the Alemanni and the Bavarians on the Upper Rhine and the Danube, the Lombards in Italy, the Vandals in Africa, never came completely under the spell of the past. The Vandals might have done so, but for their fanatical devotion to Arianism; for the province of Africa, in which they settled, was one of those which Roman statesmanship had most completely civilised. The Franks might have imitated the Visigoths and the Burgundians, if fortune had laid the cradle of their power in the valley of the Loire or the Rhone instead of the forests and marshes of the Netherlands.

The Lombards and the Saxons showed no innate aversion to the ways and works of Rome; but they entered upon provinces which had already been impoverished and depopulated by the scourge of war. Such races proceeded rapidly with the construction of a new social and political order, because the past was a sealed book to them. Roman law vanished from England so completely as to leave it doubtful whether the Saxons ever came to terms with the provincials; it was tolerated but not encouraged by the Franks; it was in great measure set aside by the Lombards; it seems to have been unknown to the Alemanni and Bavarians. We shall see in the sequel the importance of these facts.

The future of Europe lay not with the Goths or with the Burgundians, but with more ignorant or less impressionable races who, rather by good fortune than by choice, escaped the vices in missing the lessons of Roman civilisation. The Franks and the Saxons, as we find them described by Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede, were far from resembling the noble savage imagined by Tacitus and other idealists. But they were trained for future empire in the hard school of a northern climate.

All that concerns us in the history of these kingdoms can be briefly stated.

Teutonic England
Teutonic England hardly enters into European history before the year 800. In the fifth and sixth centuries a multitude of small colonies had been founded on the soil of Roman Britain by the three tribes of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who migrated thither from Jutland and Schleswig-Holstein. A few considerable kingdoms had emerged from this chaos by the time when the English received from Rome their first Christian teacher, St. Augustine: Kent, Sussex, and Wessex in the south; Mercia and East Anglia in the Midlands; Northumbria between the Humber and the Forth. The efforts of every ruler were devoted to the establishment of his personal ascendancy over the whole group. Such a supremacy was obtained by AEthelbert of Kent, the first royal convert to Christianity; by Edwin of Northumbria and his two immediate successors in the seventh century; by Offa of Mercia (757-796); and by Egbert of Wessex (802-839), whose power foreshad owed the later triumphs of the house of Alfred.

Southern Gaul
Southern Gaul was divided in the fifth century between the Visigoths and the Burgundians. The former of these peoples entered the imperial service in 410, after the death of Alaric I, who had led them into Italy. His successors, Athaulf and Wallia, undertook to pacify Gaul and to recover Spain for the rulers of Ravenna; the second of these sovereigns was rewarded with a settlement, for himself and his followers, between the Loire and the Garonne (419). In the terrible battle of Troyes, against Attila the Hun (451), they did good service to the Roman cause; but both before and after that event they were chiefly occupied in extending their boundaries by force or fraud. At the close of the fifth century their power in Gaul extended from the Loire to the Pyrenees, from the Atlantic to the Rhone valley, and along the Mediterranean seaboard farther east to the Alps. In Spain--which had been, since 409, the prey of the Vandals, Alans and Suevi--they found a more legitimate field for their ambitions. Between 466 and 484 they annexed every part of the peninsula except the north-west corner, which remained the last stronghold of their defeated competitors. The Burgundians, from less auspicious beginnings, had built up a smaller but yet a powerful kingdom. Transplanted by a victorious Roman general to Savoy (443) from the lands between the Necker and the Main, they had descended into the Rhone basin at the invitation of the provincials, to protect that fertile land alike against Teutonic marauders and Roman tax-collectors. By the year 500 they ruled from the Durance in the south to the headwaters of the Doubs and the Saone in the north, from the Alps and the Jura to the sources of the Loire.

Italy was less fortunate than Gaul; in the fifth century she was ravaged more persistently, since Rome and Ravenna were the most tempting prizes that the West could offer to conquerors seeking a settlement or to mere marauders; and for yet another two centuries her soil was in dispute between the Eastern Empire and the Teutons. The strategic importance of the peninsula, the magic of the name of Rome, the more recent tradition that Ravenna was the natural headquarters of imperial bureaucracy in the West, were three cogent reasons why the statesmen of Constantinople should insist that Italy must be recovered whatever outlying provinces of the West were abandoned. For sixty years after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus (476) Italy was entirely ruled by barbarians; then for more than two hundred years there was an Imperial Italy or a Papal Italy continually at feud with an Ostrogothic or a Lombard Italy. It would have been better for the Italians if either the Ostrogoths or the Lombards had triumphed decisively and at an early date.