Many scholars describe five centuries after the Western Roman Empire invasion as the “Dark Age”, whose cultural achievements were not as impressive as those of Ancient Greece and Rome. The present understanding suggests the different point of view: The early middle ages were one of the most creative and developed periods in history of the Western world. Therefore, this paper seeks to prove that indeed the period of early medieval is one of the most significant in history, and that Germanic tribes, despite their nomadic way of life, have immensely contributed to the European culture. One will analyze historical facts, art, and literary works of early medieval period, and estimate their contribution to the medieval culture. During this time, three distinct traditions, such as Germanic, Classical, and Christian came together to produce the new perception of culture.
Despite the fact that Germanic tribes contributed to the decentralization of Roman Empire, Germanic practices mixed with Christian and Antique traditions.
The Germanic tribes were the Indo-Europeans who at the time of Roman Empire inhabited the territory from the Scandinavian Peninsula along to the Black Sea. Almost all facts known about Germanic tribes come from historical work of Julius Caesar in “Commentaries” (51 BC) and Cornelius Tacitus in his “Germania” (98 AD). At the beginning of the 1st century, the works of Tacitus and Caesar indicate that there was a division of Germanic tribes into several groups located in: the lower Rhine River (Istvaeones), the Oder River and Vistula (East Germanic tribes), the river Elbe (Irminones), the Danish and Jutland Islands (Ingvaeones) (Green, 1998).
The Irminones, Istvaeones, and Ingvaeones are collectively named as the West Germanic tribes. Moreover, the Germanic tribes, which remained in Scandinavia, are also referred to as the North Germanic tribes. However, the division of tribes into East, West, and North Germanic is more a linguistic classification than a historical one. Many Greek scientists identified only Scythians and Celts in the Northeast and Northwest of the Mediterranean Sea, and this classification remained in Greek literature until the end of the 5th century AD.
The main Germanic tribes which invaded Europe at the time of Roman Empire were the Alans, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Saxons, the Suebians, the Jutes, the Angles, etc. Although, all of people from Germanic tribes were considered barbarians by the Europeans as these people could not speak Latin (Green, 1998).
The Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, also known as the Goths, lived on the Baltic Sea coast, which today is the territory of Poland and northern Germany. In the 3rd century, they migrated down to a region near the Black Sea coast, and separated into two groups divided by the Dniester River; the Ostrogoths (East Goths) and the Visigoths (West Goths). Consequently, the Goths accepted Roman’s way of life, adopted Christianity, and many of them were recruited to the Roman army and they managed to build a powerful kingdom (Wolfram, 1997).
In 410, Visigoths’ King Alaric invaded Rome. After that, his people left Italy and moved to southern Gaul, France. Some years later, when they tried to conquer the Western Roman Empire, King Theodoric and Romans made an alliance in order to struggle against Attila in the battle of Chalons in 451. Even though Visigoth’s King was killed in the battle, they defeated the Hunnic hordes, and this proves the power of their Kingdom.
In the 5th century, when the Romans lost control over the empire, the Visigoths established a powerful kingdom on the territory of Spain and southern Gaul. In 507 AD, the Franks defeated the Visigoths, and the center of their rule firstly shifted to Barcelona, and then to Toledo, Spain. They were dominant in this region until the Moorish invasion in 711.
The Franks lived between the upper Rhine and the North Sea coast. They split into two main groups, the Ripuarians and Salians. By the end of the 5th century, most territory of Frankish Kingdom was under the Burgundians’ and the Visigoths’ rule. Under the rule of King Clovis I (reigned 481-511), they established control over most of modern France and united the Frankish tribes under one ruler (Wolfram, 1997).
A significant event occurred under King Clovis I during one of his numerous battles. Influenced by his Catholic wife, Clovis I promised to become Christian if they gained victory in the battle. The Franks were victorious in the battle, and the King kept his promise. Moreover, he took three thousand of his warriors to be baptized with him in the shrine. After he was converted to Catholicism, he accepted the Gaul’s ecclesiastical structure which was based on the original administration of Rome. Moreover, he involved his army in crusader against non-Catholic tribes and won the alliance of the Catholic clergy. Frankish territory gradually started to embrace the territory of modern France and Belgium, on the one hand, and central Germany, on the other hand.
The most famous Frankish king was Charles Martel who ruled the Frankish Kingdom in 719-741. He is known to have defeated Varus at Kalkriese, which prevented the further Roman expansion. The victory of Martel at Poitiers stopped the Islamic expansion into Europe. Chareles Martel also immensely promoted culture development in the Frankish Kingdom (Wolfram, 1997).
The Saxons, Angles, and Jutes
The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes originally inhabited the territory of Denmark and northern Germany. At the end of the 5th century, these tribes invaded Britannia. Consequently, most of the original Celtic tribes had to move to Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland, as their lands were conquered. The Angles and Saxes did not like the land, as they more preferred the land near river valleys. They denied the Roman law and introduced their own Germanic system of government. However, they were converted to Christianity in the 6th century by St. Augustine’s mission. The era of Anglo-Saxons lasted between the 550 and 1066 AD, when William the Conqueror invaded Britain. This date is marked in history as the beginning of the Norman Conquest of Britannia.
Despite the nomadic way of life of “barbarians”, the early medieval period is characterized by the boost of art and architecture. The art of Germanic tribes is represented by the Migration Period art (300-900 AD). This direction in art comprises of the Migration art of continental Germanic tribes and the Anglo-Saxon and Hiberno-Saxon art, and Celtic art influence on the British Isles, which is often called the insular art. Fiero (2010) mentions that the artistic production of Germanic people mostly consisted of easily transported objects, such as jewelry, carpets, and weapons. In 1939, one of the archeologists at Sutton Hoo found an Anglo-Saxon grave that contained utensils, coins, weapons, and jewelry. The high quality of the so called “barbarian” art demonstrates that artistic originality and technical sophistication were by no means the monopoly of the Germanic societies.
Migration Period art includes the animal style and polychrome style. After the Christianization of Germanic Kingdoms, Migration Period art develops into different schools of medieval art. Further, the medieval art is differentiated by region, namely, the Carolingian art, Anglo-Saxon art, Romanesque art, and Gothic art.
Polychrome style is the practice of decorating various architectural elements, sculptures, and other objects in different colors. In the 2nd century, the Goths started making gold figurines and decorating them with different precious stones. As a matter of fact, this style was borrowed form Sarmatians and Scythians and was influenced by Greco-Roman art. One of the most famous examples of such art, which goes back to the 4th century, is the Piertoasele treasure. It was found in Romania and included the gold eagle brooch. The motif of eagle comes from East Asia. This proves the immense integration of several different cultures into one during the following period.
This style was later brought to Italy, Spain, and Southern France. One of the most well-known examples of the following art is the Ostrogothic eagle fibula, which nowadays belongs to the museum of Nuremberg. Another example is the Visigothic votive crown of Recceswinth, the King of Toledo, which dates back to 670 AD. One can also prove the popularity of the polychrome style by the discovery of a polychrome sword of Childeric I, the Frankish king.
The main characteristic of the animal style art is its emphasis on bird and animal motifs and their decorations. Bernhard Salin, who was a pioneer in Germanic zoomorphic decoration, classified animal art of the period into the following phases: Style I, Style II, and Style III. The origin of the following styles is still debatable.
Style I firstly appeared in northwestern part of Europe. It introduced the chip carving technique which was applied to silver and bronze in the 5th century. This style is characterized by different animals and the parts of their bodies, where the abstract patterns are emphasized.
Style II replaced the Style I, after the first one was in decline. Animals in the Style II are whole, but their bodies are elongated and often are without legs. Rarely any naturalism can be found in this style. Animals are often described as serpents with different heads. These animals were often included into ornaments with interlace. The examples of the following style can be seen on the gold purse lid and they are immensely rare.
Style III is found mainly in the Scandinavian Peninsula, and is often called the Viking art. Interlace in this style becomes more complex and less regular. The fragmented body parts fill every space and create an intense picture.
Animal style significantly influenced Celtic art, the formation of Anglo-Saxon art on the British Isles, and left an immense legacy in medieval art (Fiero, 2010). These kinds of zoomorphic motifs also show the evidence of contact between the Germanic tribes and nomadic Asian population.
Insular art, also called as Hiberno-Saxon art, was confined to the British Isles and was influenced by Germanic and Celtic traditions. It has firstly been seen at the end of the 7th century, and it has remained in Britain for more 150 years until the Viking invasion. It significantly influenced the Anglo-Saxon art and the Romanesque art. The insular art is represented by illuminated manuscripts, metalworking, and stone sculpture.
Moreover, Irish missionaries embellished the texts of the books with artwork drawings. The scrolls and spirals in the opening letters were found in manuscripts of the 7th century. Therefore, the Cathach of St. Columba manuscript borrows its style from Celtic enamels and motifs. Later, the entire pages of ornamentation were introduced and used in books. Such pages were called “carpet pages” and were included mostly at the beginning of the Gospel. The interlaced patterns and geometric motifs were influenced by the Byzantine Middle East and Coptic Egypt cultures.
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