Barbarian Europe

by Karol Modzelewski (Author) Elena Rozbicka (Revision)
©2015 Monographs 414 Pages
Open Access


European culture has been greatly influenced by the Christian Church and Greek and Roman culture. However, the peoples of Europe’s remote past, whom the Greeks, Romans, and their medieval heirs called the «barbarians», also left their mark. Closely examining ancient and medieval narratives and the codifications of laws, this thoughtfully conducted comparative study sheds light on the illiterate societies of the early Germanic and Slavic peoples. The picture that emerges is one of communities built on kinship, neighborly, and tribal relations, where decision making, judgement, and punishment were carried out collectively, and the distinction between the sacred and profane was unknown.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I. From Written Evidence to Illiterate Communities: Narratives on the Barbarians
  • 1. Literary Topoi and Reality
  • 2. Cross-Cultural Communication as a Source Studies Problem. In Praise of Barbarian Hospitality and Decorum
  • Chapter II. The Laws of the Barbarians
  • 1. From Recited to Written Law
  • 2. The Law and the Song
  • 3. Barbarians and Romans amidst the Ruins of the Empire: The Principle of the Ethnic Separation of Laws
  • 4. Between Tribal Tradition and the Pressure of Civilization
  • 5. Foreign Script, Native Speech
  • Chapter III. An Individual in the Realm of a Kinship Community
  • 1. Revenge and Wergild
  • 2. Parties to Feud and to Reconciliation
  • 3. Collective Guilt, Collective Honor, and Collective Oath
  • 4. Women under Men’s Authority
  • Chapter IV. Some above Others: Social Differences in the Tribal System
  • 1. Outside the Community of Law: Slaves
  • 2. The Laeti
  • 3. Social Diversification among Free Tribespeople
  • Chapter V. The Community of Neighbors and its Territory
  • 1. The Neighborly Community of the Commons
  • 2. The Territorial Scope of the Community
  • Chapter VI. The Political Dimensions of Neighborhood
  • 1. Centena, Pagus and Go
  • 2. Kopa and Opole
  • Chapter VII. The Institutions of the Tribal Community
  • 1. Segmentary Structures
  • 2. The Assembly and Cult
  • 3. The King
  • Epilogue: The End of the World of the Barbarians
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Primary Sources and their Abbreviations
  • Secondary Sources
  • Author’s Note Regarding the Translations of the Primary Sources
  • Index of Names

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Between 1994 and 2002 I held a series of monographic lectures titled Barbarian Europe – From Tribes to States and Nations at the Institute of History at Warsaw University. This book is not a transcript of those lectures. I never wrote down what I would talk about to my students, relying instead, on the spontaneity of our face-to-face interactions. I encouraged the students to interrupt me with any questions they had without waiting for the end of the lecture. Those questions, numerous and often startling, became for me a source of intellectual satisfaction and inspiration; the students helped me discern problems which had escaped detection in the academic routine. This provided a considerable stimulus for me. Without the questions my students posed, this book would not have been written. My thanks go, above all, to my students from whom I have learnt so much.

I belong to that generation of historians for whom professional contact and the exchange of ideas with scholars from abroad were often hindered. For political reasons to which I myself contributed, these obstacles accumulated. As long as I did research on Poland under the Piast dynasty, I could deceive myself that the Iron Curtain would not interfere with my work. Yet now that I have attempted to transcend the barriers that had for generations separated research on the early history of the Germanic and Slavic barbarians, the long-standing dearth of foreign contacts and texts have placed a heavy burden on my work. I cannot catch up on everything, but I would not have caught up on anything had it not been for the helpfulness of my Western colleagues. I am most grateful for the friendship of the unfailing Fiorella Simoni from the Sapienza University of Rome. Jacques Le Goff, Jean-Claude Schmitt, Girolamo Arnaldi, Giorgio Cracco, Otto Gerhard Oexle, and Peter Kriedte, all outstanding medieval studies scholars, and my colleagues and friends from France, Italy, and Germany, have generously shared their ideas, offered hospitality, and made libraries available to me. I owe them my profound gratitude.

I also thank my wife – who knows best for what.

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The political rhetoric in Poland revolves around Europe. It is difficult to find anyone in Poland who has not heard the slogans announcing our return to Europe. At the same time, and almost in the same breath, people say that we have always belonged to Europe and that we therefore, do not have to return because we are there. Despite the apparent discrepancy, these slogans are not contradictory. Having been repeatedly chanted, they become like clichés and are no longer reflected upon. It is a shame. Political slogans, like advertising spots, are worth dwelling on, not only because of what they deliberately propagate, but also because of what they unwittingly reveal.

In such slogans, Europe is obviously not a geographical concept. We are not simply talking about the European Union, either. We join the European Union, but we had never been there, so we cannot really be “returning” to it. The context in which this return is pronounced suggests that Europe signifies a certain cultural canon. Not all countries in Europe, or social movements, or intellectual trends, or political systems of a European provenance are easily accommodated in this canon. When we speak of “our return to Europe,” we tacitly assume that Poland was severed from the European legacy by Soviet domination and communism. After the fall of communism, we are resuming our rightful place in the Western world. We are thus returning to our European roots, from which communism tried unsuccessfully to tear us away. Such is the sense of these slogans: on one hand, they proclaim Poland’s return to Europe; on the other, they assert that Poland is and has always been in Europe. This rhetoric rests on an implicit assumption that communism was essentially alien to European culture. The same assumption has no doubt been made about National Socialism and fascism as well.

And yet, there is no doubt that communism, Nazism, and fascism are products of European history. By treating such ideologies as external phenomena foreign to the European canon, we are in a sense performing exorcisms, expelling, as it were, the Evil Other from within ourselves. As a result, the notion of European culture is not so much a descriptive category, helping to convey the complexity of a historical reality, as it is a norm, an ideal according to which we judge and select our traditions. From the selection of traditions – understood as those elements of the past we deem noble, precious, or instructive and thus worthy of inclusion into our collective self-portrait – we move imperceptibly to the other bank of the Rubicon, to ideas of the “real” genealogy of European civilization. According to ← 9 | 10 → these ideas, our civilization was shaped by the legacy of the classical Greek and Roman cultures, Christianity, and the universalist organization of the Church. It was precisely Christianization which incorporated the Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, and Finno-Ugric peoples into the realm of the classical Mediterranean culture that the Church had both inherited and propagated.

This view has reigned supreme within popular historiography, yet it is stricken with partiality. What make it objectionable are not the particular claims it upholds but the particular facts it leaves out. Reducing the roots of Europe to the Mediterranean heritage and Christianity, we grossly simplify European genealogy and create the impression of homogeneity. This is a dangerous illusion, especially at a time when economic globalization goes hand in hand with an intellectual standardization that has a tendency to ignore the cultural complexity of the world and to vulgarly treat world history in a standard way.

It might, therefore, be worthwhile to recall that classical culture, understood as the beginning of the genealogical tree of Europe, was not homogeneous. Apart from its Greek and Roman ingredients, it also incorporated the Hellenic civilization which disseminated despotic elements of the ancient Eastern traditions within the late Roman Empire, especially in Byzantium and the Byzantine Church. The conviction that these traditions do not fit the European canon gave rise to ideas limiting the genealogy of European culture to the realm of Latin Christianity. Were these ideas true, though, one would have to relinquish all reference to the legacy of classical culture, because this legacy can more easily be found within the Hellenic civilization of Byzantium than within the empires of Charles the Great or Otto I. For this reason I support the view held by Jacques Le Goff who sees the most profound and long-lasting division of Europe in the two trends of the classical tradition (Latin and Hellenic) and in the corresponding schism of the Church.1 Yet what has also greatly influenced the face and cultural complexity of Europe was the legacy of the peoples from outside the Mediterranean realm who inhabited the territories beyond the limes of the Roman Empire, that is, east of the Rhine, north of the Alps and beyond the Danube. The Romans had one collective name for all these regions – barbaricum.

The barbarian peoples had come under the influence of Mediterranean civilization already in late antiquity. There is no doubt, either, that Christianization, usually concurrent with a transformation of the political system, played a crucial role in the imposition on or adoption by these peoples of the models of classical culture. This does not mean, however, that the holy water of baptism washed ← 10 | 11 → away the original sin or the legacy of the traditional cultures of the Germans, Slavs, or Balts. Such an understanding of a new beginning whereby traditional tribal societies dispose of the cultural baggage of their past and are transformed into civilized heirs of Rome should not be advanced by any historian.2

The Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Finno-Ugric, and Baltic peoples entered the realm of Mediterranean civilization at different historical moments and under highly varied circumstances. For this reason, the results of the interaction between the traditional tribal cultures and the classical culture were also diverse. In this respect, even the Romano-Barbarian monarchies which the Visigoths, Franks, and Lombards established on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire differed significantly amongst themselves. Even more profound differences separated the entire territory that Walter Schlesinger calls Roman Germania from the tribes conquered, Christianized, and subjugated into statehood by the barbarian heirs to the Roman Empire – the Carolingian and Ottonian dynasties.3 And finally, the creation of states and the processes of Christianization taking place outside the Carolingian dynasty – in Scandinavia, Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, Rus’, and the southern Slavic states – were carried out on the initiative of local rulers. The scope of the Romanization or Hellenization of barbarian cultures was most limited in these cases, and the structures of the new systems differed significantly from the Western and Byzantine models.4

All these differences and the complex processes of interaction and cultural interchange disappear from our field of vision if we reduce the genealogy of European culture to its Mediterranean legacy. Europe also has vastly expansive barbarian roots. Failure to acknowledge these roots makes it impossible to understand both the complex history and the present-day cultural diversity of Europe.

The Greek word bárbaros derives from the imitation of inarticulate gibberish – bar-bar-bar. This is how the ancient Greeks used to mimic those whose speech they were unable to understand, and is how they called all foreign-language speaking peoples. The Romans borrowed the term from the Greeks and used it in its secondary meaning woven around the opposition between barbarity and civilization. The memory of the primary meaning of the word “barbarian” had been preserved, however, at least by the educated elites. It is this memory that Ovid evokes, when in exile in Tomis and alone among the Thracian Getae, he writes: Barbarus hic ego sum, qui non intellegor ulli / et rident stolidi verba latina Getae ← 11 | 12 → (“Here it is I that am a barbarian, understood by nobody; the Getae laugh stupidly at Latin words”).5

Does this paradoxical reversal of positions indicate that the experience of exile allowed Ovid to understand the relativity of the notions of civilization and barbarity? This is what Allan A. Lund thinks.6 What is no doubt unquestionable is that Ovid – treated by the Getae in the same way the Greeks treated all those who spoke a foreign language, and simultaneously conscious of the origin of the word “barbarian” – calls ridiculing other peoples’ speech a stupidity.

The attitude towards foreign-speaking peoples which Ovid discredits had not been unusual in archaic Europe. A similar form of the word “niemcy” appears in all Slavonic languages. It derives from the word meaning “mute” (niemy) and it initially referred to people whose language was as incomprehensible to the Slavs as the inarticulate gibberish of a mute person. This is why the Tale of Bygone Years from the beginning of the 12th century thus described the Finno-Ugric tribes inhabiting the north-eastern borderlands of Rus’: “Jugra że ljud’e jest’ jazyk něm” (“The Ugric people are but a mute people”).7 The Slavonic concept of “mute peoples” corresponded precisely to the primary meaning of the Greek word bárbaroi.

These were, undoubtedly, value-laden categories, at least to the extent that in traditional societies the division into “us” and “them” was laden with particular values. Language communities (such as the Hellenic, Germanic or Slavonic ones) indeed transcended the political ramifications of the tribes and had no organizational structure. But the sense of affinity stemming from ease of communication, the cult of the same gods, and a similarity of customs made them the widest groups of identification.8 The bond with one’s native group came to be expressed in one’s opposition to all aliens. This opposition did not have to be hostile, yet it was always emotionally branded.

Yet, in the case of Greeks, and even more so in the case of the Romans, the sense of a fundamental difference from peoples speaking incomprehensible languages was soon supplemented by an unshakeable conviction about their own cultural superiority. The Romans never considered the Greeks to be barbarians. Instead, they thought of themselves and the Greeks as antithetical to the barbarians. What linked both peoples, according to the Romans, was obviously not language but culture. The word “barbarian” thus acquired a new conceptual meaning. It no ← 12 | 13 → longer denoted people speaking a foreign language, but those living beyond the realm of civilization and therefore savage.

What changed as well was the sharpness of the divisions. The ethno-linguistic criterion excluded all aliens once and for all. The cultural criterion, on the other hand, allowed for the possibility of proximity and even inclusion by acculturation. In the eyes of the Roman writers, the distance that divided particular tribes from civilization, which they referred to as humanitas or cultus, could be various. The Ubii were, according to Julius Caesar, slightly more civilized (paulo humaniores) than other Germanic tribes, because they dwelt on the right bank of the Rhine and maintained contact with Roman merchants and the nearby Gauls whom they, in a sense, came to resemble.9 It appears, then, that the Gauls were less barbarian than the Germanic tribes. However, even the Gauls were not perceived as a homogenized group. It was the Belgae whom Caesar considered most belligerent because they lived at the furthest remove from the Roman province (horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae, propterea quod a cultu atque humanitate provinciae longissimae absunt).10

That “province” from which the Belgae were so distant also belonged to Gaul, yet a Gaul that was already tamed and “dressed in a toga” (Gallia togata). From Caesar to Cassiodorus, the word togatio was used to describe the passage of the conquered peoples from barbarity to civilization. The Early Roman Empire clad other countries in the toga: Gaul, Spain, and Britain. The free inhabitants of a province would become Roman citizens and undergo Romanization. The elites of the Empire saw this expansion as a civilizing mission,11 while barbarity became a name for the world outside, not yet included into the realm of the Empire and thus deprived of culture and public order.

The church of the Late Roman Empire adopted this attitude and gave it a new dimension. The civilizing mission was transformed into a Christianizing mission and became a duty of the Christian clergy and Christian rulers. The church writers of the European Middle Ages saw the pagan peoples as barbarian, at times ethnically similar or kindred to them, though not yet baptized.12 In the eyes of the historiographer, the Venerable Bede, the continental Saxons (antiqui Saxones) were also barbarians since they were pagans who killed the representatives of the civilized world, that is, the Anglo-Saxon missionaries Ewald the Fair and Ewald the Black. And of course, the Venerable Bede did not fail to note that the ← 13 | 14 → continental Saxons did not have a king or the statehood immanent to civilized peoples. Adam of Bremen likewise called the pagan Swedes barbarian, whereas he considered Sweyn II Estridsson, king of Denmark, a civilized and enlightened man, “qui omnes barbarorum gestas res in memoria tenuit.”13

The connotations of the term barbari, despite the religious undertones it acquired in the Middle Ages, remained essentially unchanged, retaining the meanings shaped in the Roman Empire. Hence, the church writers were heirs to classical culture in their stereotypes as well. Irrespective of the influence these stereotypes exerted on the ways barbarian peoples were perceived, the pagan Europe of the Middle Ages, similarly to the European barbaricum at the time of the late Empire, was indeed a domain of traditional, usually illiterate, communities organized politically into tribes and federations of tribes, and not into states.

The concept of the barbarians was based, however, on a negative criterion: it meant uncivilized peoples, that is, peoples remaining outside the realm of classical culture and its legacy. But didn’t this negative stereotype conceal diversity? Historians have long puzzled over the question. Under the influence of the nationalist ideas of the 19th century, scholars relinquished treating the barbaricum in its entirety and concentrated their efforts on identifying ethnically and linguistically distinct communities. Following the linguists who would reconstruct a Proto-Slavic language, the Pan-Slavic historians endeavored to reconstruct a Proto-Slavic system of social institutions and legal norms. The system was meant to be a political reflection of the spiritual values supposedly common to all Slavic lands. In a similar vein, scholars assumed that a uniform political system based on cultural foundations once common to all Germanic peoples existed in the remote past. These ideas have been quite deservedly discarded,14 but research on the social history of the Germanic and Slavic barbarians, as well as that of the Celts and the Balts, is still carried out along separate tracks. The power of inertia has kept us in a rut created by the work of generations of historians and has made it difficult to surmount the ethnic segregation of the research territory.

As far back as 1974, Reinhard Wenskus, a distinguished scholar of barbarian peoples, raised an objection against this segregation. In his seminal essay on the inspirations anthropology could offer medievalists, he argued that territories with similar socio-political structures did not necessarily correspond with the territories of linguistic communities. Wenskus did not consider European barbaricum ← 14 | 15 → a uniform entity. He drew our attention to the cultural distinctiveness of the nomadic peoples of the steppe regions and of the tribes inhabiting the forest territories in the north-east of the subcontinent. Yet he treated the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and Baltic tribes as one cultural sphere in which the traditional communities were organized according to similar principles.15 A call for a radical widening of the research horizons was an upshot of his views. Wenskus suggested much more than a new typology; he formulated a new research program.

This book heeds Reinhard Wenskus’s call. I do not attempt, however, to completely follow his proposition. I lack appropriate competence to deal with the historical anthropology of the Baltic peoples, or the insular Celts, or even the Slavic culture of the Balkans. I have only attempted a combined approach to the socio-political issues of the Germanic and West Slavic tribes, at times drawing on East Slavic sources. This is no modest design. I expect harsh criticisms. I myself have not refrained from criticism of some of my precursors. I am aware of the risks involved, but I have decided to undertake this endeavor believing firmly that the necessity to surmount the ethnic segregation characterizing research on the Germanic and Slavic tribes of barbarian Europe has at last come to maturity. This entails a readiness to put sources that are remote from each other both in time and place on a common comparative agenda. Eleven centuries separate Tacitus’s Germania from Helmold’s Chronica Slavorum. Six centuries passed between the times when the Salic law and Russkaya Pravda were written. Are we allowed to read these relics comparatively?

I do not intend to discuss this issue at the beginning but throughout the course of this work. A verdict on the usefulness of sources cannot precede a thorough analysis of their contents. Unlike astronomical time, historical time does not pass identically for all communities and cultures.

The chronological distances between historical sources do not exempt the scholar from thinking about the similarities of information they contain. In this respect, a historian can learn something from an anthropologist.

Indeed, the issues discussed in this book have much in common with ethnology. Tacitus’s Germania, which I have just mentioned, is after all, an ethnographic work. From the perspectives of ancient and medieval civilization, the barbarian tribes were seen to a certain extent as the so-called “exotic peoples” studied by ethnologists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The barbarians’ political-territorial organizations, known in scholarly research as tribes, did not have any instruments of administrative coercion, and their social integration was based ← 15 | 16 → on the profound strength of tradition and the pressure the group exerted on its individual members. These were communities that functioned without any written language and within which not only mythology, but also collective historical memory and legal norms were passed orally from generation to generation. This latter characteristic poses particular methodological difficulties for the historian, and so we shall have to start with a discussion of these difficulties.

1 Le Goff, La vieille Europe, passim.

2 Yet, it is advanced by some. See, for example, van Engen, The Christian Middle Ages; for critical views, see J. C. Schmitt, Religione, folklore, pp. 6–17.

3 Schlesinger, “West und Ost.”

4 Sücs, Les trios Europes; Modzelewski, “Europa romana.”

5 Ovidius, Tristia, 5. 10, p. 37f.

6 Lund, “Zum Germanenbild,” p. 15.

7 PVL, vol. I, p. 167.

8 Gieysztor, “Więź narodowa,” p. 15f.; Lund, “Zum Germanenbild,” p. 4f.

9 Caesar, BG, 4. 4. 3.

10 Caesar, BG, 1, 1. 2.

11 See, Dauge, Le barbare.

12 Jones, “The Image of the Barbarian.”

13 The Venerable Bede, HEGA, V, 10; Adam of Bremen, II, 43 and 62.

14 Bardach, “Historia praw”; see also Pohl, Die Germanen, p. 65f. and especially Graus, “Verfassungsgeschichte,” p. 572 and note 146.

15 Wenskus, “Probleme,” p. 19f.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2015 (May)
Barbarian collectivism Barbarian society mundium laeti slaves
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 414 pp.

Biographical notes

Karol Modzelewski (Author) Elena Rozbicka (Revision)

Karol Modzelewski is a medieval historian and member of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Italian L’Accademia dei Lincei. Now retired, he was a professor at the University of Warsaw. One of Poland’s most prominent dissidents of the communist era, he is credited with giving the trade union «Solidarity» its name. He served in the Senate after Poland’s first free elections in 1989 before returning to academia.


Title: Barbarian Europe