Waiting for the Barbarians

On the divide between history and historical linguistics concerning the Migration Age with the Scandinavian origin of the Goths as case study.

Sometimes neighbouring academic disciplines do not speak in the same idiom. Nowhere is this more clear than in the controversial subject of the “transformation of the Roman world”, a line of inquiry into the dynamics of the transition periode between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages favoured by leading historians such as Walter Goffart, Ian Wood and Peter Heather. It’s argument is summarized by Robert Anderson, director of the British Museum:

The period of transition between the world of late antiquity and the Middle Ages has […] traditonally been seen as one of chaos and obscurity, the “Dark Ages”. Yet modern scholarship is increasingly revealing how profoundly dynamic and influential were the cultural and intellectual shifts which mark the period. Far from initiating an age of barbarism, the successor states saw themselves as part of a Roman continuum, and readily exploited the institutions and intellectual traditions of late antiquity, adapting and reinventing them to suit their own changing circumstances and cultural traditions. (Anderson 1997; 8 )

Revisionism of this pivotal periode in Western History was not new. Since the end of the second world war scholars became mighty uncomfortable discussing the period in terms of “Germanic expansion”, the nazi discourse of “Germanic fraternity” freshly in mind. The “transformation of the Roman world” movement could be seen as an exponent of this postwar “uncomfort” and has become increasingly influential in “correcting” popular views of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. A challenge to modern revisionism came from Bryan Ward-Perkins in 2005. Whereas the revisionists may sometimes suggest an easy and peaceful integration of Germanic peoples into a continuing and evolving Roman world, Ward-Perkins takes fault with this line of interpretation and says he is “conviced that the coming of the Germanic peoples was very unpleasant for the Roman population, and that the long-term effects of the dissolution of the empire were dramatic” (Ward-Perkins 2005: 10). His book “The fall of the Roman empire and the end of civilization” is an impressive polemic for rehabilitation of those late antique sources that speak of catastrophe, massive invasion and crumbling city walls. This is in sharp contrast to historians who dispute that potent barbarians groups marched into the Roman empire (e.g. Noble 2006; xvi) and those that argue hardly any migrations at all had taken place (Bowersock 2000:187-97).

                How does this relate to scholars working in the field of Germanic studies, who used to draw information from a wide interdisciplinary spectrum of philology, historical linguistics and folklore? For one, the divide between the disciplines has widened. Han Nijdam (2001) characterizes the revisionism of historians and folklorists after the second world war in the following way:

“suddenly there were no relics of Germanic customs or ideas anymore, neither in the Middle Ages nor in the Early Modern Period, but everything was Christian from the moment missionaries build churches and monasteries. Literary sources were often written by them and for every costum or idea a fitting bible passage could be found.” (Nijdam 2001; 60)

This assertion holds even more true for the revisionism by contemporary scholars. Whereas scholars in Germanic studies assume that along with the survival of the Old Germanic languages also other cultural products survived that could be named Germanic, scholars who work in the “transformation of the Roman world” paradigm reject such an assertion[1]. For them Germanic identity arose anew in the margins of the limes (i.e. the Roman border) and was barely inherited from prehistoric times. For them Germanic identity arose from the cultural dialectic between Roman rural society and small groups of barbarian immigrants.

For every comparative Indo-European linguist the inadequacies of such a paradigm are evident. The parallels in literary motives, metre and even specific formulas between Celtic, Greek, Vedic, Slavic and Germanic cosmogenic writings are astonishing. They are hardly explicable by any other means than assuming heritage from a common prehistoric literary reservoir, a reservoir justly called Indo-European (e.g. see Puhvel Comparative Mythology 1989). The comparative linguist may draw the same conclusions for the non-christian / non-Roman parallels in Old Germanic literary monuments e.g. the vestiges of a Common-Germanic pantheon (such as in the case of the worship of Wodan and Thunar). Common heritage from a cultural tradition which, in analogy to our linguistic terminology, may be called Proto- or Common-Germanic, seems likely. Rejections of such a theoretical construct by Noble and Goffart (2006: 12) are unjustified for they ignore empirical data mined from the field of comparative mythology and comparative law arguing in favour of it.

But to indicate the divide between historians and comparative linguists in the area of migration history I’d like to discuss the case of the Gothic migration, which is basically the case of the Scandinavian origin myth. This myth is to be found in Jordanes[2]Getica, an abridgment of an earlier work, historia gothorum, by the Gothic historian Cassiodorus recounting the history of the Goths. Jordanes wrote it at the Byzantine court when the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy had fallen under renewed Byzantine attempts of reconquest. According to this myth, Scandinavia was the womb of peoples from which the Goths set out in three ships. From the Baltic they made their way to the Black Sea when they arrive in the scope of Roman historians. The veracity of this myth stands at the center of the problem.

The main historical polemic on this topic is between Herwig Wolfram and Walter Goffart. Herwig Wolfram is a student of Reinhard Wenskus on whose work on ethnogenesis he largely draws. Wolfram formulated a thesis later known as the Wenskus-Wolfram thesis that focusses on the leading role in ethnogenesis for so called “nuclei of tradtion” (Traditionskerne). These are ancient families whose connections to the past gave a common focus for the myriad ethnic groups within a multi-ethnic confederation. The multiethnic groups would associate and identify themselves with these ancient families and accept their tribal name (Wolfram 2006: 52-54). His argument is that although Gothic identity has been reinterpreted and adapted multiple times throughout Gothic history, Jordanes is basically right in recounting the Scandinavian origin myth. This is how the tribal name of the 2nd century Gutones in Tacitus’ Germania survived in the late antique Γότθοι of Procopius. Goffart rejects Wolfram’s arguments as reading truth in mere fiction and argues for a strict 6th century Byzantine creation ex nihilo. That this cannot be true is argued by Svennung (1967: 235) who deemed the ethnonyms cited by Jordanes to be authentic correspondances to Scandinavian tribal names.

In the field of comparative Indo-European linguistics a Scandinavian origin for the late antique Goths is widely accepted. Augustin Speyer (2007) states:

“[Das Ostgermanische ist] Ursprünglich im südlichen und südöstlichen Skandinavien beheimatet; die Inselnamen Gotland and Bornholm (< Borgundarholmr) weisen auf Bezeihung dieser Plätze zu ostgermanischen Stämmen hin.”

Jasanoff (2008) is more carefull in placing the original home of the Goths in Scandinavia, but the connection the Baltic Gutones is not in doubt. He states this view as follows:

“Like other East Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Burgundians, Gepids and Heruls, the Goths originally lived in the area of present-day Poland and eastern Germany; their own traditions place their earliest homes in southern Sweden.”

An interesting but very late source contiguous to this Scandinavian origin myth is known to most Old Germanicists but remains undiscussed by most historians (Wenskus on the other hand treats it in some detail). This is the Gutasaga, composed around 1220 but preserved in a fourteenth century manuscript, which recounts that a third of the people left Gotland in ships and traveled to the Baltic coasts, from whence they traveled through Eastern Europe to arive in the land of the Greeks.

Sīþan af þissum þrim aucaþis fulc ī Gutlandi sō mikit um langam tīma, at land elpfti þaim ai alla fyþa. Þā lutaþu þair bort af landi huert þriþia þiauþ, sō alt sculdu þair aiga oc miþ sīr bort hafa, sum þair ufan iorþar āttu.

From these three the people on Gotland multiplied throughout such a long time that the land could not feed them all. Then they drew lots so that a third of the people left the land, so that they would have and take with them everything which they possessed above the earth.

The Gutnish myth runs parallel to Jordanes account in some respects and deviates from it in others. Historical scepticism towards a continuity of an oral traditional preserving the migration of the Goths from Gotland is however justified.  From a linguistic perspective there is also some evidence to substantiate Jordanes’ claim of a Scandinavian origin. The following parallels between North-Germanic and Gothic have led some scholars to argue for Gotonordic prestage (Eckhardt Meinecke 1953: 83-84).

  1. PGmc. –i̯̯i̯-> Goth –ddj- and PGmc. –i̯̯i̯-> OIce. -ggj-

PGmc. –ṷṷ– > Goth –ggw– and PGmc. –ṷṷ– > OIc. -ggv-

  1. retainment of PGmc. *-z# as Gothic -s# and OIc. -r#
  2. retainment of the fourth inchoative class of weak verbs in PGmc. *-nanã
  3. lexical parallels
  4. Loss of the verbs preserved in WGmc. dōn, gān and stān.
  5. retainment of 2.sg.pret. ending of the strong verbs in *-t, e.g. Goth and OIce. gaft against OHG gabi


However striking the parallels, they could also be explained in terms of retaining archaic features than in terms of common innovation. West-Germanic and North-Germanic share more features than an alleged Gothonordic. The inconclusiveness of the linguistic evidence does not give us an argument in favour of the Scandinavian origin myth of Jordanes. Nonetheless,  a linguistic continuity from the 2nd century tribal name Gutones to the fourth and fifth century Gothi and Γότθοι seems probable. Also to be mentioned is the archaism of the Gothic language itself. As a Germanic language attested in fourth century writings it predates the literary monuments of most other Old Germanic languages in atleast three and a half hundred years, so some archaism is to be expected. Most “transformation of the Roman world” historians on the other hand would have the fourth century Goths live in a highly Romanized ethnically diverse cultural realm and considering this historical background the lack of cultural loans from Latin and Greek is perplexing (not counting eclessiatical terminology). This might point to a strong Germanic core to Gothic identity (contra Goffart), an assumption strengthened by the fact that Gothic supplied the neigbouring Alans with quite some lexical material which eventually made it’s way into modern Ossetic, while the other way around the loans seem to be quite limited. Abaev (Moscow 1958) mentions, amongst others, these words:

CGmc. Ossetic Meaning
*aggwus (Goth.) > wyngæg narrow, oppressed, surpressed
*qairnus (Goth.) > koyroj mill
*lǣswaka > læsk pasturage against payment
*nakwina > lægoyn[3] hairless, bald, naked
*gahwi > qæw village, settlement
*rapaina > rævæjnæ long, thick hemp-rope
*wīsa > wis patch with mowed grass
*strab- > sævn width of clothes
*spīra- > fsīr ear of corn
*kurdra- > k’ord group, much, bundle[4]
*spelda- > syvældæg layer

The same assertion holds true for language contact with Slavic. While quite some Germanic words have entered Slavic through (presumably) the Gothic language, the other way around no such borrowing has been active. Consider for example these loans:

OCS PSL Gothic
duma *daumā < dōms
gotoviti *gataṷītēi < gatauiþs < gataujan
kupiti *kaupītēi < *kaupiþs < *kaupjan <  kaupōn
kusiti *kausītēi < kausjan
lěkъ *lēkъ < *lēka < lēkeis
lixva *leixva < leihwa < *leiχa-

An interesting article by Kortlandt (2001)  titled “The origin of the Goths” argues for a Central European urheimat for the ancestors of the Gothic speaking people. He convincingly argues that the Proto-Goths must have been situated more to the west than has often been assumed. The borrowing of the –āreis suffix from Latin –ārius pleads for this, along with the fact that Gothic borrowed the  Latin form of most Greek ecclesiastical terminology. Supposed loans from Celtic also point to a more western origin. Kortlandt does however hold open the assumption that the Gothic identity came from the Baltic Gutones via one of Wolfram’s Traditionskerne. Unfortunately, Kortlandt does not treat the aforementioned loans from Gothic into Alanic and Slavic, but they are easily explained from late fourth century contact when the Goths reached the mouth of the Danube. Especially the Alans remained bound to the Goths for most of the following century, fighting along them at Hadrianople (478), Rome (409) and at the epic battle at Châlons (451) where the romans and their Alanic-Gothic allies went into battle with the Huns of Attila.

This case shows how important an interdisciplary approach is to tackling migration history. One could ask therefore why historians do not make use of linguistic arguments. One reason is probably to be found in the technical nature of the linguistic discipline. Another concerns the scepticism of historians who work in a hermeneutic science in the positivistic approach of the comparative method of linguistics. As historical linguists we should help span the divide between old Germanic philology and medieval studies by making our arguments more accesible to the interested historian; Kortlandt’s article is a good example of this, focussing on cultural loans instead of purely linguistic argumentation.

A thing we could blame the historians for is ignoring the linguistic diversity of late antique and early medieval Europe, restricting themselves to Latinate sources. One need but to remember that Latin was not the only written language in the early medieval west. From the period of 400 – 900 AD we find literary monuments written in Celtic, Germanic and Slavic vernaculars. Considering only a small percentage of the population that lived outside the Romance speaking territory knew Latin, we have to assume that the generational transfer of culture in the Early Middle Ages was mainly done in the vernacular. When one considers the fact that early medieval vernacular sources often deviated immensely from the genres of rigid and devote Latinity, the comparative Indo-Europeanist could only sigh and shake one’s head at how many. Historians should better heed the word of Jordanes himself to “follow the writings of their ancestors and cull from their broad meadows a few flowers to weave a chaplet for those who care to know these things”.


Jay, H. Jasanoff, “Gothic”, in: the ancient languages of Europe, Roger D. Woodward ed. (Cambridge 2008) 189-214.

Augustin Speyer, Germanische Sprachen; ein vergleichender Überblick (Göttingen 2007).

Eckhard Meineke et Judith Schwerdt, Einführung in das Althochdeutsche (Paderborn 2000)

Thomas F.X. Noble, “Introduction; Romans, barbarians and the transformation of the Roman empire”, in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 1-28.

Herwig Wolfram, “Gothic history as historical ethnography” in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 43-69.

Walter Goffart, “Doest the distant past impinge on the invasion age Germans” in: From Roman provinces to medieval kingdoms, Thomas F.X. Noble ed., (New York 2006) 1-28.

Bryan Ward-Perkins, The fall of Rome and the end of civilization (Oxford 2005).

J. Svennung, Jordanes und Scandia; kritisch-exegetische studien (Uppsala 1967).

“Gutasaga”, in: Altschwedisches Lesebuch, Adolf Noreen ed., (Upsala 1892-94) 37-39.

F. H.H. Kortlandt, “The origin of the Goths”, in: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 55 (Amsterdam 2001) pp. 21-25.

Robert Anderson, “Foreword”, in: The transformation of the Roman World, Leslie Webster et Michelle Brown eds., (London 1997).

Han Nijdam, “Twee aardewerken schaaltjes. Collectief geheugen, (dis)continuïteit in de Friese cultuur, met het fenomeen ‘magie’ als case study”, in: Speculum Frisicum; stúdzjes oanbean oan Philippus H. Breuker, Rolf H. Bremmer Jr. e.a. eds., (Leeuwarden 2001) 59-78.

Vasily Abaev, Istoriko-jatymologičeskij osetinskogo jazyka (Moscow 1968).

[1] My former professor in Utrecht, Mayke de Jong, confessed that she’d rather speak of “Sub-Roman” traditions than of “Germanic” traditions.

[2] [2] Jordanes names is interpretated as *Iƀurnanþs by Grimm who draws for this interpretation on the spelling <iornandes> in some existing manuscripts. He argues that sixteenth century editions always read <iornandes> and may reflect additional old manuscripts that are lost. It is interesting to note that his father is called Alanoviamuth, in which the first element undoubtedly refers to the ethnonym Alani. Maybe the name should be read as *Alano-Weihamōþs “der Kampfmutige der Alanen”. Alanic descent for Jordanes is also suggested by the name of his grandfather, who was named kandag, which could go back to Old-Ossetic *kæn-dag “he who wears sack-cloth”.

[3] Regular dissimmilation of *n…n > l…n as seen in lamaz “Islamic prayer” (< Pers. namāz)

[4] Glossed by Abaev as “группа, множество, стая” in Russian

One response to “Waiting for the Barbarians

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for writing this interesting post! I have several comments and corrections.

    You say “For them Germanic identity arose anew in the margins of the limes (i.e. the Roman border) and was barely inherited from prehistoric times. For them Germanic identity arose from the cultural dialectic between Roman rural society and small groups of barbarian immigrants.” Not quite true. This is not about the Germanic identity, but about any identity and it is a mainstream theory in anthropology today – the identities are created and transformed continuously. It is not related to a specific cultural dialect of the Roman border, it happens everywhere. Furthermore I don’t see what are the inadequacies, since this is not about linguistic or cultural heritage (myths or whatever), but about group identities. For example, some legends about Alexander the Great were quite common in medieval and early modern Eastern Europe, but Bulgarians, Serbians, Romanians, etc. were not (Ancient) Greeks.

    Jordanes’ Getica is not an abridgment of Cassiodorus’ early work, but composed of pieces copied or adapted from various Greek and Roman authors. Mommsen called the introduction an “impudent act of plagiarism” from a preface of Rufinus. There are also passages from Livy, Mela, Ptolemy, Tacitus, Priscus, Orosius, Marcelinus Comes and many others. Some material may come from Cassiodorus, but since his work is lost it’s impossible to tell for sure. The Gothic past in Getica is fiction: the Goths on their way from Baltic to Black Sea fought the Egyptians and the Amazons! Moreover Jordanes believes (like any Roman) that Scandza is an island. I don’t see how one can find “authentic correspondences”, since for most of the “Scythian past” of the Goths, no other evidence exists. See also A. S. Christensen, Cassiodorus, Jordanes, and the History of the Goths: Studies in a Migration Myth (Copenhagen 2002) showing that the distant past in Getica is fiction, not history (and also arguing against Svennung).

    I don’t think that “most ‘transformation of the Roman world’ historians on the other hand would have the fourth century Goths live in a highly Romanized ethnically diverse cultural realm”, but they’d rather have the 6th century Goths. The 4th century Goths lived mostly north of Danube in territories in which there were no Romans (perhaps there were few left in the old province of Dacia). The 6th century Goths lived in Western Mediterranean and even if some of them spoke other languages, many of them also spoke and wrote Latin. And we know the end of this story: no Gothic dialect survived in Western Mediterranean centuries later, but the Romance dialects. You then say “the lack of cultural loans from Latin and Greek is perplexing” but there are such cultural loans! (Kortlandt 2001) On the other hand, Gothic survived in Crimea until modern times – this means plenty of time for linguistic contact between Gothic and Oseetic. There’s no reason to assume those borrowings listed by Abaev (if true) came from 4th century Gothic to Alanic.

    I disagree with “we could blame the historians for ignoring the linguistic diversity of late antique”. The revisionists say the people we know as Goths were not just a group of Gothic speaking people, but were more linguistically diverse, speaking other Germanic dialects, but also non-Germanic languages such as Alanic or Hunnic or others we don’t even imagine. When Priscus of Panium went to Attila’s camp, he heard Hunnic, Gothic, Latin and even Greek!
    We also expect many other languages to exist. There are thousands of languages worldwide attested only in the past few centuries. We can’t just apply the Graeco-Roman ethnographic labels (Ethiopians, Indians, Scythians, Hyperboreans, Celts, Germans etc.) to divide the ancient world in a small number of linguistically homogenous populations. In the 1st millenium BC, in the Mediterranean basin (where writing was widespread) there are some two dozen languages attested, belonging to several distinct language families (Tartessian, Etruscan, Punic, Latin, Greek, etc.) I can’t believe that most of the Europe north of Pyrenees and Alps was speaking at the same time either a Celtic or Germanic language.


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