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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 VII. The Institutions of the Tribal Community


1. Segmentary Structures

For reasons that are more than obvious, at the twilight of antiquity the Roman authors were primarily interested in those of the barbarian peoples who threatened the integrity of the Empire. The majority of the source information about the Germanic peoples from that period concerns those tribes, or more precisely, groups of warriors, who together with their families, their own military organization, and the baggage of their own traditions entered the territory of the Empire, either as foederati or as conquerors. Modern historiography remains largely under the influence of that point of view. According to the textbooks, the “migration of peoples” became the name of the period. Reinhard Wenskus, Herwig Wolfram, and Walter Pohl have indeed discredited the stereotype of the massive migration of entire ethnic communities of homogeneous constitution,445 but the debate about the political system of the tribes continues to cling to the perspective of the late ancient sources and the paradigm of an armed people on the march. As a result, for historians the tribe appears first and foremost as an association of warriors rather than as a political and territorial structure.

And yet the Celts, the Germanic peoples, and the Slavs whom the Empire encountered were not steppe nomads. They were more or less sedentary agricultural peoples. Procopius of Caesarea did, indeed, note that the Sclaveni and the Antes lived in miserable huts and often moved, but this observation does not suggest a nomadic lifestyle, but...

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