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Barbarian Europe

Karol Modzelewski

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.
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Chapter I. From Written Evidence to Illiterate Communities: Narratives on the Barbarians


To a certain extent, every historian resembles an ethnographer. A barrier of cultural difference separates the researcher from the object of the research. This is the greatest challenge and simultaneously the greatest charm of our profession; we have to move beyond that barrier and come to understand a culture that differs from ours. But, in research on the communities of barbarian Europe we encounter an additional difficulty. Besides the cultural distance between us and the tribal communities of the Germanic and Slavic peoples, there is also a cultural difference between those barbarian tribes and the authors of ancient times and the Middle Ages from whose writing we derive information on the barbarians themselves. What we are thus dealing with is a double barrier.

The traditional cultures of barbaricum relied on oral transmission and usually functioned without written language. Rune stones are an exception which does not challenge the rule. The inscriptions engraved on these stones served magico-cult functions, and they were not a means of communicating knowledge about legal norms or political institutions.16 The barbarian world offered no written evidence of its own existence until it was transformed by Christian states and the Church. Written evidence about this illiterate world can be roughly divided into two categories. The first comes from eye-witnesses or second-hand accounts of those who had encountered the barbarians in ancient times or in the Middle Ages. The other includes written records of the legal traditions of particular barbarian peoples and, occasionally, of...

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