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  • Final Report Summary - MIGRATIO GENTIUM (The “Germanic Völkerwanderung“ in Early Modern Thought. Origins and Developments of a Historiographical Master Narrative, 1500-1830)

Final Report Summary - MIGRATIO GENTIUM (The “Germanic Völkerwanderung“ in Early Modern Thought. Origins and Developments of a Historiographical Master Narrative, 1500-1830)

The “Germanic Völkerwanderung“ in Early Modern Thought
Origins and Developments of a Historiographical Master Narrative, 1500–1830

In the patriotic German historiography of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the motif of the “Germanic Völkerwanderung“ has played an eminent role. According to this influential historical narrative, allegedly Germanic tribes like the Goths, the Vandals, the Langobards and numerous others had roamed Europe in a series of far-reaching campaigns of conquest and colonization between the late fourth and the mid-sixth century AD that brought the Roman Empire to its knees. Their bravery and martial prowess were interpreted as manifestations of primordial, unchanging Germanic virtues which modern Germans shared with their barbarian ancestors.

During the last decades, historical research on the transformation processes of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages has thoroughly refuted the historicity of such images of a Germanic past. However, the topos of the “Völkerwanderung” still persists in popular historiography and public debates, and it did indeed acquire a new prominence during the last months: The traditional reading – “our” Germanic forefathers conquered Rome – endures in non-scholarly journals and online publications, but its influence is fading. During the European refugee crisis of 2015, rightist political commentators have appropriated the “Völkerwanderung” motif and employed it as a warning example: The Roman Empire was allegedly destroyed by waves of migrants with a penchant for violence and an unwillingness to integrate into the host culture – and the European Union is supposedly going to share the same fate. In an ironical twist, the very same Germanic tribes that had once been idealized and glorified by German nationalists have now come to embody the distorted image of the destructive migrant, as envisioned by anti-refugee activists.

Both the traditional positive and the recent negative depictions of the “Völkerwanderung” and its migrating barbarians are completely incompatible with the historical reality of the fourth to sixth century AD. But such ideological appropriations of a Germanic past prove that this time-honed motif still appeals strongly to the historical imagination of the general public, and that its versatility allows it to be adapted to support a variety of political agenda. The undisputed relevance of the “Völkerwanderung” topos – both in the history of German historiography and in contemporary political debates – prompted an inquiry into its origins and conceptual developments.

In the course of the project, I examined the history of the “Völkerwanderung” motif from its earliest conceptualization in sixteenth-century humanism to its full and firm establishment in German national romanticism in the first half of the nineteenth century. By tracing the emergence of its preeminent master narrative, I hope and believe to have contributed to a deeper understanding of the intellectual roots of German nationalism.

Broadly speaking, the conceptual history of the “Völkerwanderung” as a historiographical motif can be divided into three periods:

1) The Introduction of “migratio gentium” (ca. 1557–1610)
The term “migratio gentium”, the Latin equivalent of “Völkerwanderung”, was coined by the Viennese humanist and Habsburg court historiographer Wolfgang Lazius in his 1557 treatise “De gentium aliquot migrationibus” (“On the Migrations of Certain Tribes”). Lazius has often been credited as the “inventor” of the “Völkerwanderung”, although such a appraisal might be actually misleading. He never understood “migratio gentium” as the designation of a particular historical period or as a chain of events, as the later term “Völkerwanderung” implied. However, Lazius did manage to introduce the notion of barbarian mobility into the humanist discourse which had, under the impression of Tacitus' “Germania”, previously emphasized the autochtony and the static territoriality of the ancient Germanic tribes. Several smaller tracts on Germanic migrations published in the latter parts of the sixteenth century indicate that Lazius' efforts did indeed cause a paradigm shift among the scholarly community.

2) A Reversal to Static Territoriality (17th century)
In the seventeenth century, Philipp Clüver's “Germania antiqua” (1616) set the standards for scholarly inquiries into Germanic antiquity and quickly became the main authoritative textbook on the subject. Clüver did neither doubt nor dismiss the mobility of ancient barbarians that Lazius had stressed. But as a pioneer of historical cartography, Clüver relied strongly on historical maps to disseminate his findings – and these maps did assign a specific area to each Germanic gens. Involuntarily, Clüver's usage of static maps fostered a return to a more sedentary, territorial image of Germanic antiquity.

3) Periodisation and Problematisation (18th century)
The Era of Enlightenment refreshed the interest in barbarian migrations among the scholarly Republic of Letters. As Christian periodisations of universal history (such as the model of the Four Monarchies) faded in importance, scholars tried to establish secular alternatives. During the eighteenth century, the “Völkerwanderung” was gradually developed into the defining watershed event that separated Greco-Roman antiquity from the Middle Ages. By the 1790s, as apparent from the writings of Herder and Schiller, the term had gained general acceptance as a period designation – yet the conceptual developments during the preceding decades were, at closer scrutiny, extraordinarily complex and anything but linear.

During these years, eighteenth-scholars developed the concept of “migrationes gentium” beyond a purely descriptive approach. Earlier tracts had recounted historical migrations and traced the wanderings of particular tribes, but they had rarely provided any theoretical and abstract reflections on the characteristics and the nature of barbarian migrations. This changed during the enlightenment, as scholars sought to establish typologies of migration and to integrate the phenomenon of barbarian mobility into analytical models of societal development. This resulted in nuanced and subtle interpretations of late antique and early medieval migration processes – such as the erudite critique of “migratio gentium” formulated by Johann Ehrenfried Zschackwitz, an undeservedly forgotten German jurist and historiographer.

Thus, the project's results support the initial hypothesis of a gradual shift from a descriptive, event-centred narrative historiography to an increasingly theoretical, model-oriented understanding of barbarian migration between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century. The rise of modern nationalism in the nineteenth century, however, caused these analytical achievements to lapse into obscurity. Both the academic and especially the popular historiography of the nineteenth century required a rather straightforward patriotic narrative of the “Völkerwanderung”, as a contribution to the construction and confirmation of German national identity. The enthusiasm for migrating and conquering Germanic ancestors can, in this sense, be seen as a counter-reaction to the scepticism of the enlightenment.

Dr Stefan Donecker
Austrian Academy of Sciences
Institute for Medieval Research
Hollandstraße 11-13
1020 Wien

Project Website: [under construction] [preliminary]

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Walter Pohl, (Director of the Institute for Medieval Research)
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