Barbarians I

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the July 1983, A.S. XVIII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Originally a barbarian was merely a foreigner, someone who was not a Greek, and later not a Roman. As the citizens of the Greco-Roman world considered their civilization superior to all others, the word acquired the negative connotations which it carries today. The Medieval world was influenced by four different groups of barbarians: the Celts, Germans, Scandinavians, and the Magyars. This essay will explore these primitive civilizations.

The first to appear on the stage of history were the Celts. The Celts started in the area now known as Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and Barvaria around 600 B.C. From there they spread east and west, covering Germany, France, and the British Isles. They could be found as far west as Portugal; and as far east as Galatia, Turkey; and as far south as northern Italy. The Celtic culture was at its height in 250 B.C., and began its collapse shortly afterwards, receiving its death blow at the hands of Julius Caesar, surviving only in the remote corners of Europe, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland.

The Celtic world was united by a common culture, but except in its final struggles with Julius Caesar, it had no sense of political unity. Broken into hundreds of tribes of various size and influence, they were as much at war among themselves as they were with their neighbors.

War was the Celtic main preoccupation. The Celtic warrior fought with a ferocity and boldness that struck terror in his opponents. One group of fighters, the spearmen or gaesatae, would fight naked, exempt for a neck torse, for ritual reasons now unknown. One for one, the Celt had only one equal as a fighter, the German. But the Celt had little conception of tactics, nor any sense of strategy, which doomed him in his conflicts with the Greeks and Romans.

It was the Celts, as seen through the eyes of the Classical writers, who were the original model of the stereotypical barbarian. To the Romans, the Celts had no taste in food or drink, and were prodigious consumers of both. They lacked manners and morals, the women flamboyant and licentious.

Part of this distortion comes from the natural bias of a writer towards his opponent. But in addition, the Roman and Celtic cultures were markedly different, giving rise to much social misunderstanding. Feasts were merely expanded hunter’s meals, supplemented with dairy products. In addition to the local brews of beer and mead, imported wine was also consumed large quantities. The Greeks founded the city of Massalia, now Marseilles, especially for the wine trade with the Celts. The Celts were a lively informal people, fond of gaudy clothes and intricate jewelry, much of which they made themselves. What went for licentious, was a controlled form of polygamy, with occasional polyandry.

The most enigmatic part of the Celts is the role of the Druids. The Druids along with the filid and bards, were the intellectual elite of the Celtic world. They functioned as priests and lawgivers. It was they, in their itinerant wonderings that glued together the Celtic world. While having some amount of literacy, the bulk of the Druidic lore was kept in oral form, and shrouded in secrecy. Thus it was lost, and the Druidic rituals will forever remain a mystery. On one point, archeological evidence is clear; while human sacrifice was not unknown, it was reserved for times of severe crisis. For routine ceremonies, animal sacrifices were the norm.

In a sense, it is ironic that the major contribution to Western civilization by the Celts came after they had been defeated and pushed to the outer fringes of Europe. After the fall of Rome, while the rest of Europe was marking time, the Celtic Church was in full glory and in an intellectual furor. As the rest of Europe moved out the doldrums of the Dark Ages, it was the Irish monks who sparked the Carolingian Renaissance.

Close cousins to the Celts were the Germans. On the surface, the two groups appear to be similar as both shared a semi-nomadic existence in the vast forest that was Northern Europe. But they were culturally distinct, having separate languages and social customs. Unlike the Celts, the Germans’ impart was direct and immediate.

It was the Germanic migration into the Roman Empire that historians refer to when they speak of the barbarian invasions at the end of the Roman Empire. This migration was the result of several forces. First, the allure of the wealth of a decadent civilization no longer able or willing to defend itself. Secondly, the policy of Rome to use various German tribes to fend off other tribes. By the fourth century, the Roman army, including its officers, was almost exclusively German. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the push of the Huns as they swept in from the east.

The Germans originated along the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, and the peninsula of Denmark. Initially they moved south, displacing the Celts, until they met the Romans moving north. As the Roman Empire began to disintegrate, the various German tribes moved in. The Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes took Britain, while the Franks took Gaul, the old Celtic heartland. The Goths split in two, the Visagoths going west, the Ostrogoths going east. The Visagoths, after bouncing off of Constantinople, held Italy for awhile before settling in Spain. The Ostrogoths were pushed back west by the Huns, and took Italy, and were destroyed there by Justinian. The region was later inhabited by another German tribe, the Lombards. A tribe known as the Vandalm wound up in North Africa. In the end, however, only the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons prospered.

Besides language, social customs marked the Germans from the Celts. The Germans appear to have had no separate priest class. Justice was handed out by an assembly of men, basing their decisions on the outcome ordeals, quite different from the Celtic panel of Druidic judges. Enforcement, however was similar, as both relied on the extended family to see the judgment carried out, which was usually in the form of a fine.

In the beginning each group had similar forms of government. Each tribe would elect a chieftain, whose primary purpose was to act as war leader, though the German chieftain had the additional duties as chief judge. The candidates for chieftain were restricted to those from a “royal” family. As the Germans came in contact with the Romans, they began to emulate them, adapting the titles and forms of Roman government. The most successful tribe to do so was the Ostrogoths before they were battered by the Huns. The fall of Rome was not sudden, as each of the invading tribes attempted to carry on the Roman institutions.

The effect of the Germans was profound. While their initial impact was for the most part negative, when the wreckage was cleared, they brought new vitality, and new ideas, to a civilization that was stagnating. The Medieval world was the result of the fusion of the Roman and German cultures.

Next month, the Scandinavians and the Magyars.



Chadwick, Nora. The Celts. 1st ed. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1970.

Norton-Taylor, Duncan. The Celts. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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