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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 IV. Some above Others: Social Differences in the Tribal System

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1. Outside the Community of Law: Slaves

Tacitus makes two references about how the Germanic peoples treated their slaves that bear the hallmarks of praise for the simplicity of Barbarian customs. In chapter 20 of Germania, he writes that children are raised in harsh conditions due to which they “grow up […] into those long limbs and large bodies that amaze us so. […] No little luxuries in upbringing help to distinguish master and slave: they pass their time among their herds and on the same soil, until age marks off the free-born, and virtue claims them as their own.” In chapter 25, Tacitus claims that the Germans settled their slaves on the land, and they were made to render various services, while household duties were performed by the master’s wife and children. Flogging and other cruelties towards the slaves were rare, though it is true that it might happen that the masters “kill him: not through harsh discipline, but in a fit of rage, as they would a foe, except that the deed is unpunished” (occidere solent, non disciplina et severitate, sed impetus et ira, ut inimicum, nisi quod impune est).

Despite appearances, it is not possible to use these references to support the view that the Germanic and Slavic peoples were supposedly unfamiliar with the Roman notion of a slave understood as a thing, a “speaking tool,” an object of someone else’s ownership rights and deprived of legal subjectivity. There is only one piece...

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