This is the last of a set of essays tracing peoples with the author’s specific paleo-European kinship, from their origins in Africa ~70ka to their destination in England in the current era. This chapter explores the Anglo-Saxon Federation and its colonization of England. [FYI: This is my most popular page, accessed 8,600 times by 2017.]
For motivation, technical background, and links to all chapters, refer to the Preface.
In a prior chapter of this ur-European saga, attempts are made to establish this hypothesis: a largely homogeneous genetic population was in continuous (albeit not exclusive) occupation of north Germany, Denmark, and southern Sweden since the Mesolithic. These are the areas shown by current population genetic studies to be the center of coalescence of the I2-M223 Y-DNA clade that is dated to the original expansion of peoples from LGM southern refugia. Non-exclusivity in this area began gradually in the fourth millenium BCE, and the new cultural/ethnic components are not yet well-identified.
Looking at current genetic population densities of the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts, the Germanics would likely have been significantly Y-DNA haplogroup I2; paleogenomics confirm this. The western Scandinavians were likely a majority I1 population in the mesolithic. The likely mesolithic M223 genetic marker distribution is probed by the following ‘heat map’ of M223 density in current populations.
Note the unexpected eastern M223 hot spots, along the Black Sea between the Bug and Dniester rivers, and then further east between the Don and the Volga. One might think these could be early Mesolithic expansions of M223 peoples that would need to be explained. But these are more likely explained by the Black Sea Germans and the Volga Germans, 18th and 19th Century German migrations by invitation of Catherine the Great. These Germans were Mennonites and other immigrants seeking new farming opportunities. Other faint population sites in southern France and Italy likely result from the late antiquity migrations of German tribes (e.g. Langobardi) into the heart of Roman territory.
Since the bearers of the Neolithic package did not reach this northern area, non-exclusivity began with the Y-DNA Haplogroup R1a-M458 around the Baltic, arriving with the Corded Ware culture. The significant incursion of R1b-L48 peoples, a more recent bronze age overlay, completed the diversifying process.
In addition to the genetics map above, we also have archaeology to help us fill in the blanks of the long pre-history of the area. Various northern European cultural horizons from the last millennium BCE have been documented, summarized in the following map based on archaeological artifacts. Here, we are probably writing a postlude to the Jastorf and Harpstedt cultures shown on the map.
- dark green: Nordic group
- dark red: late phase Jastorf culture
- buff: Harpstedt-Nienburg group
- green: House Urns culture
- dark brown: Oksywie culture
- red: Gubin group of Jastorf
- olive: Przeworsk culture
- lilac: West-Baltic cairns culture
- reddish: East-Baltic culture
- turquoise: Zarubincy culture
- orange: Celtic
The rivers on the map are, from left: Rhine, Weser, Elbe, Oder, Vistula. The Ems, not shown, flows midway between the Rhine and the Weser. It flows into the North Sea near the German city of Emden. Through DNA evidence (M223, Z166), Emden seems likely to mark the center of my mesolithic ancestral tribe’s homeland (for related detail, see my genetic heritage).
Historical Basis of the North Sea Germanic Federation
Written history only begins in this area in the first century BCE. Tacitus, in his minor work Germania from the first century CE, is the most significant source of our information regarding the Germanic peoples as they may have been encountered during the first century BCE. His work Germania does not appear to derive from first-hand knowledge. We don’t know his sources, so the credibility is open to question.
Some information may come from Pliny the Elder, who preceded him and did have first-hand knowledge, serving in both Germania Superior and Inferior. Also the Greek Pytheas traveled the North Sea and Baltic on an exploration ~325BCE; his record, lost to us, was possibly known to Tacitus.
Tacitus has been valued by historians and writers as an accurate and insightful source of Roman history (e.g. Montaigne, Gibbons). Relevant excerpts from Tacitus’ Germania and Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis appear at the end of this article; these convey a detailed sense of the Germanic tribes of prehistory, the forebears of our Anglo-Saxon heritage.
Here we study this population in the historical period from 100BCE-600CE, roughly the North Germanic Iron Age. By population is meant a federation of tribes sharing a homogeneous culture, language, and ancestry. Tacitus describes a macro West German Federation, comprised of the three closely related federations associated with the three sons of mythical Mannus:
- Ingvaeones (Pliny Ingaevones)
- North Sea German Federation – low German; Anglo-Saxons; people of the Yngvi (Pliny)
- tribes of the middle and upper Elbe – high German; Suebi between the Elbe and the Oder
- Istvaeones (Pliny Istaevones)
- tribes of the middle and upper Rhine – Franks, Allemagne
A generation earlier, Pliny the Elder tells of five Germanic federations; to the three above he adds:
- East Germanic Federation
- Goths, Vandals; probably a mix of Y-DNA haplogroup I1 and R1a
- An unknown federation
- possibly in the southern Ukraine adjacent to the Dacians
The distance of Scandinavia from any Roman boundary, and its apparent separation from continental Europe, may explain why neither Tacitus nor Pliny identify a distinct North Germanic Federation. Further, the Ingvaeones tribes apparently extended to southern Sweden in pre-Roman times, so there may have been no discernible distinction between the peoples.
The following map is an approximation of Germanic cultural geography of 100BCE (Ingvaeones=Red, Istvaeones=Tan, Irminones=yellow, East Federation=Green, North Federation=blue).
While maps give an impression of stasis, populations were likely dynamic. Here we describe the times of the historic Völkerwanderung, a fluid period where coalitions of Germanic tribes began to migrate far and wide, challenging the Roman Empire at every opportunity and further integrating into what was to become the modern European population, blends of Celts, Germanics, Slavs and several others. It is typically considered to span Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages.
To a significant extent, these migrations asserted or re-asserted Germanic populations in those areas where Celtic-speaking tribes had flourished. The major migrations of this period, shown on the following map, include the Anglo-Saxon-Frisian invasions of Britannia.
It appears the Völkerwanderung begins in our study period because it was only late in our story when such migrations challenged the Roman Empire and thus became recorded. Yet such population migrations are likely an historic extension of continuous resettlement motion over prehistory.
We cannot know the degree of Germanic migrations over the prior millennium. There is evidence that local movement within the cultural area was occurring for some time (tethered mobility in response to continual population and/or environmental/climate forces (e.g. Frisii), but migration out of this cultural area is not attested prior to the second century BCE.
At the start of the recorded Germanic history, there seem to have been intact distributions of the tribes of the North Sea Germanic Federation, as yet unaffected by the Völkerwanderung. Perhaps increasing population density caused frictions between tribes that caused migrations. With low density and stable climate and resources, stasis may have been the rule.
Residing far to the north of the continent, they avoided the bulk of the Neolithic incursions from central Asia and the Middle East, and apparently mostly fended off incursion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (Y-DNA R1a) from the east. However, the invaders culture, language, and mythology were mostly adopted due to millennia of cultural osmosis. Later, Celtic populations (Y-DNA R1b) from the south and west intermingled, but their language and myths would not stick.
Our Ingvaeones were spread along the German Bight, the North Sea coastal belt of Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. By the Early Middle Ages, the North Sea was called Mare Frisicum by the Romans, after the Frisii, the western-most tribe of this population, centered between the Rhine and the Ems. The Frisii were significant to the Romans at the start of our period because of the power of their alliance, and because they were the Germanic tribe closest to the Roman border; their territory spanned the mouth of the Rhine, accessible by sea or river.
At the start of our period, the various Ingvaeones tribes were (from SW to NE): Frisii from the Rhine to the Ems; Chauci from Ems across the Weser to the Elbe; Saxones from the Elbe to the Baltic across northern Germany, Anglii extending north from Saxon territory to southern Denmark; Teutones, Juti, and Cimbri in the area of current Denmark; Suiones in southern Sweden. The Frisii are thought to have moved into their western range from the northeast around 500BCE, perhaps as a result of climate change.
The Teutones and Cimbri are thought to have migrated in significant numbers southeast to the Danube during the second century BCE. While evidence is not offered, usually the motivation will be found in overpopulation of limited territory, climate adversity, and pressure from stronger neighbors.
Taking advantage of the void, the Juti and Anglii were then able to infill and absorb the remaining Cimbri and Teutones populations. Later the Norse Danes would resettle some of the northern territory vacated by the Cimbri; nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps it was this sort of pressure from the north that caused the Cimbri to vacate. The following map illustrates suggested tribal locations within the Ingvaeones territory around 100BCE.
The Ingvaeones tribal distinctions were fluid. Historians called them by different names. They coalesced and migrated. Tacitus mentions other nearby tribes that may have been part of the Ingvaeones on the eastern Baltic side of their range, the Reudingi and the Varini (Pliny places them with the Seuvi). These were not much attested after Tacitus and may have been absorbed by the Saxons, as were the Chauci in the west by 200CE. Thus, for most of the period under exploration, to the outside world the Ingvaeones were comprised of the Frisii, Saxones, Anglii, and Juti, aka the Anglo-Saxon Federation.
The Ingvaeones were seafaring, traders with friends, raiders of others. They used oared wooden boats of lapstrake (clinker) construction, shown below. Those in the lowest areas built 15m high mounds (terpen, villages in Old Frisian) on which to live, to protect themselves from the diurnal North Sea tidal incursions and seasonal Rhine flooding into their low-lying regions. Below find Pliny the Elder’s first-hand description of these peoples who inhabit Lands Without Trees.
Tacitus invites us to believe the tribes of Germania were, by appearance, language, and custom, largely examples of a single ethnicity. That is unlikely in the southern areas toward the Danube. But it seems reasonable to infer that the farther one goes north of the standard trans-European migration routes (orange-shaded area on the cultural horizons map above), the less Celtic, Balkan, Mediterranean, and Asia Minor influence one is likely to encounter at the start of recorded history.
Others have made a distinction between nomadic and established Germanic tribes, ascribing some outside admixture in the roving tribes of the interior south and east. For example, the Bastarnae and Peucini, perhaps the fifth Germanic Federation in Pliny’s account, have been described both as Celtic and Germanic.
Queries regarding Celtic versus Germanic origin of individual tribes are unresolvable for the most part, although diffusion/infusion between neighboring groups undoubtedly occurs very gradually. By Celtic, we mean members of a Celtic culture who speak a Celtic language. Because of their mobility through time, it is doubtful they were as homogeneous an ethnicity as were the continental Germanic tribes, although they are usually associated with the R1b Y-DNA genetic marker.
The question further arises regarding a Celtic influence in the Jutland Peninsula, perhaps based on ambiguous artifacts or presumed Celtic roots of some Cimbri tribal leaders’ names of questionable etymology. The tribes there appear to have been Germanic by language and custom, but the Cimbri seem to be the most nomadic of the Ingvaeones. With no Celtic language influence in any known Jutland area tribe, it seems doubtful there was any established Celtic substrate there. Trading/raiding may have brought some Celtic contact and artifacts to the tribes there.
On the other hand, the R1b-U106 haplotype shows a strong presence in current Frisia and in England. It is likely that these tribes began encroaching on the northern ur-Germanic territory beginning around 2000 BCE. Also, we expect R1a and I1 subclades were well represented from even before this time. This makes us wonder at Tacitus’ report that these peoples apparently represented a single ethnicity.
One explanation might be that two millennia of generations may have done a good job of blending the different root I and R phenotypes, even though they had not shared a common ancestor for ~45ky. From Tacitus’ description of spiritual, warfare, and social customs of the Iron Age Germanics, such blending extended to culture and mythologies as well.
The Rhine was the Roman-designated boundary between their tribute territories of largely Celtic tribes west of Rhine, and the independent Germanic tribes to the east of the Rhine. According to Roman historians, it was the power of the Frisii/Chauci that made the Romans conclude a pact and draw their boundary at the Rhine. The Frisii were reported to be in two parts: the lesser tribe was west, closer to Roman territory, while the greater Frisii were beyond Roman territory to the east of the Rhine adjacent to their allies, the Chauci.
The Frisii were little noted by the Romans after the first century CE. They were taxed by the Romans, and they provided volunteer Roman auxiliary legions. After some insurrection, the Romans prevailed and treated the Frisii harshly, confiscating their cattle herds, taking their lands and some of their women. The Romans and climate degradation together coerced most remaining Frisii to relocate. Archaeologists have found period artifacts of these old Frisii in Flanders and Kent.
From 250CE to 400CE, the North Sea made a significant intrusion on their lands. For this period, the land was basically uninhabitable. Afterwards, Saxons moved in and were called Frisii again, but they were likely not the original Frisii.
It seems logical that Saxons, possibly the Chauci, expanded across Frisia then, as a stepping stone for raiding parties, followed by their migrations to southern Britannia. Early historians described the 5th century continental migration to England as Frisian, while later historians chronicled it as Anglo-Saxon. The names seemed interchangeable, since the peoples were so similar and they emanated from the same coastal region.
The Romans ruled over Britannia for almost four hundred years. Germanic mercenary auxiliaries (laeti), provided by Germanic populations, settled within Roman territory, helping the Roman legions police/defend Britain, part of a long tradition of migration from the continent. Hostile raiding expeditions from the Continent also occurred. The Romans had to build forts along the coast to defend against the Germanic raiders.
The largely Celtic indigenous peoples of Britannia under Roman rule (Britons, Welsh) were pacified/protected. When the Romans left, the pacified Britons were unprepared to resist the warrior bands raiding from the north. The Picts/Scots (Celtic Britons/Irish not under Roman rule) began raiding over Hadrian’s now undefended wall into England.
We know about these times from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our most comprehensive record of the Anglo-Saxon reign in Britannia, just as Tacitus’ Germania is the most comprehensive description of Germania and its peoples we can know. Without these two priceless written records, we would know little of the millennium here being explored. Both documents undoubtedly rely on other encyclopedic works of the ancient time that have not survived. Also, later works embellished on these early historical/cultural tracts, and hence largely owe their existence to these early records.
The following excerpts from the Chronicle, its Annals for the first thirty years of Anglo-Saxon presence, tell us what can be known about the beginning of the migration/invasion. One should approach it as providing a general flavor of what may have happened. It is the oldest comprehensive record of what transpired, and also seems the least embellished record, so it becomes our de facto history. It was published after a couple of centuries had passed, so it is likely more legend than true history, but perhaps there was known to the authors some written record of early events. Archaeological evidence and other historical documents need to be cross-referenced if a more precise history is the goal.
A.D. 418. This year the Romans collected all the hoards of gold that were in Britain; and some they hid in the earth, so that no man afterwards might find them, and some they carried away with them into Gaul.
A.D. 435. This year the Goths sacked the city of Rome; and never since have the Romans reigned in Britain. This was about eleven hundred and ten winters after it was built. They reigned altogether in Britain four hundred and seventy winters since Gaius Julius first sought that land.
A.D. 443. This year sent the Britons over sea to Rome, and begged assistance against the Picts; but they had none, for the Romans were at war with Attila, king of the Huns. Then sent they to the Angles, and requested the same from the nobles of that nation.
A.D. 449. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts, and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. From the Jutes are descended the men of Kent, the Wightwarians (that is, the tribe that now dwelleth in the Isle of Wight), and that kindred in Wessex that men yet call the kindred of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the people of Essex and Sussex and Wessex. From Anglia, which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and the Saxons, came the East Angles, the Middle Angles, the Mercians, and all of those north of the Humber. Their leaders were two brothers, Hengest and Horsa; who were the sons of Wihtgils; Wihtgils was the son of Witta, Witta of Wecta, Wecta of Woden. From this Woden arose all our royal kindred, and that of the Southumbrians also.
A.D. 455. This year Hengest and Horsa fought with Wurtgern the king on the spot that is called Aylesford. His brother Horsa being there slain, Hengest afterwards took to the kingdom with his son Esc.
A.D. 457. This year Hengest and Esc fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Crayford, and there slew four thousand men. The Britons then forsook the land of Kent, and in great consternation fled to London.
A.D. 465. This year Hengest and Esc fought with the Welsh, nigh Wippedfleet; and there slew twelve leaders, all Welsh. On their side a thane was there slain, whose name was Wipped.
A.D. 473. This year Hengest and Esc fought with the Welsh, and took immense Booty. And the Welsh fled from the English like fire.
Tacitus tells us that the Ingvaeones women accompanied warriors in some strength on their battle campaigns, so it seems plausible that entire families were in the boats. The Chronicle describes the initial contact between Britons and Anglo-Saxons as having been by invitation, but later historical works say that the three initial ships were a group of people exiled from their overpopulated land (perhaps islands), having lost at the customary drawing of lots to determine who of the next generation must go away from their homeland. The outcasts happened to come upon the Britons in Kent, south of the Thames, just east of London in the vicinity of Canterbury. The brothers who lead the expedition are perhaps another version of legendary Germanic twins associated with horses, likely symbolic.
The Chronicle identifies these initial newcomers as Angles. But it later says Jutes established the kingdom of Kent. Perhaps there was some confusion since Angles and Jutes come from the same vicinity. But the landing spot may not have been random; recall the Frisian laeti of two centuries prior, established in Kent under Roman rule. So perhaps these initial newcomers were Frisians seeking to hook up with long-separated cousins. It seems the Chronicle cannot help us determine what tribes these initial invaders represented.
Since this was the height of the Völkerwanderung, where migrations were not usually by invitation, the uninvited guest explanation seems the most plausible, a continuation of similar migrations over the prior centuries. Following prior Roman laeti practice, land in Kent by the sea (the island of Thanet) was apparently offered by the Britons for settlement by the newcomers, in return for their pledge of friendship and defense from common enemies. For a few years, the mutual agreement paid off for all. But while such a strategy worked if the host were powerful, it was pure folly for a weak host to allow a powerful presence into its homeland. (Some think this can have fatal consequences even for a powerful host, as they see it contributing to the fall of Rome.)
The newcomers kept sending for more of their people to come to England. And within a generation they did come, not only to Kent, but Angles to the northeast coast, Saxons/Frisians the southeast coast, Jutes to Kent and the south coast. Word had crossed the sea about a good thing for the taking in Britannia. In the end, the Anglo-Saxon Federation took all of England, and may have enslaved the native Britons.
For some 200 years the Anglo-Saxon Federation members battled and defeated the Britons/Welsh to establish most of England under their rule. While it seems largely a one-sided contest, it may not have been entirely smooth sailing for the invaders. The Chronicle doesn’t mention it, but the tenth century Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) refers to an early setback in the Saxon campaign (battle of a Badon Hill ~517CE), followed by a generation of peace. This is a much later invention, perhaps associated with Arthurian folklore. But other geographic speculation suggests that the West Saxon advance to the west was stopped at the Hampshire-Wiltshire border at this time, and the border remained there for some years.
Wales and Cornwall were the far west sanctuaries that remained for the Celtic Welsh and Britons after 700CE. Who were these indigenous peoples? One can speculate they were initially Germanic from the mesolithic, then absorbed an influx of Anatolic immigrants bringing the neolithic package to Britain, then subsequently invaded a second time by the Celtic R1b peoples. This mimics the northern continental population sequence, except that population seems not to have experienced the advance of Neolithic peoples, since it was a heavily forested land not a land conducive to growing the Neolihic crops.
A 2018 paper, Population Replacement in Early Neolithic Britain, provides a genetic analysis (mtDNA) of over 60 individual remains from the Mesolithic and Neolithic. The great majority of the Mesolithic examples were haplogroup U5b, the standard continental Germanic marker (also the genotype of Cheddar man). Younger remains were largely genotyped to type K, a middle Eastern marker. Later still, type H and V were encountered.
The Germanic invaders’ settlement regions ~600CE are illustrated on the following map. The major components for the so-called Heptarchy of the 8th century are already visible; the most powerful were the Angle kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, and the Saxon Wessex.
England was partly Christianized by the mid-fourth century, so the clash between the Briton and Anglo-Saxon leaders was not just one of culture and aspiration. It also had an aura of a religious war until the sixth century when the pagan invaders also fell under the spell of Christian evangelists. This conversion was facilitated when Anglo-Saxon leaders took Christian brides.
The invaders may have pushed some of the indigenous population of England to the far west of the island and subjugated the remainder, as is attested by the DNA of the current English population, by the absence of Brythonic language and placenames in England of later times, by thousands of period burials in the continental urn style, and by the Chronicle’s telling us that the continental home of the Angles was largely emptied by the migration.
An early genetic survey of England revealed a substrate that matches current Frisia better than any other Continental population group. It also revealed a genetic discontinuity with Wales at Offa’s Dyke that persists to current times. A current paper reports NRY haplogroup percentages reflective of the pre-1900 population of England. Across southern and central England, roughly two in three are NRY R1b, one in six are NRY I, and one in eight are likely NRY G.
One can hypothesize there was more Germanic population in pre-CE eastern England than expected, due to autochthonous Germanic populations, such as the I2-M284 population, sister population to the Frisian ancestors. This subclade apparently originated in England, since it does not appear on the Continent. It is also quite old, genetically dated to ~7,000BCE. Possibly it was stranded in the British Isles when the Isles became separated from the Continent by rising sea levels ~6,000BCE. Further, there were smaller Continental migrations attested in Roman times as previously mentioned. There were likely several more Roman deals with Germanic peoples over the prior four centuries.
We do not yet know how many of current R1b people were indigenous Britons, how many accompanied the invaders, and how many were present on subsequent migrations from remaining homelands of the Welsh and Britons. Regardless, these data suggest the Anglo-Saxon elite were a minority who managed to establish themselves as the ruling class over a much larger population comprised of the R1b and G peoples. Some researchers held that it was a peaceful migration on the whole. But it has always been hard to reconcile such a thesis with the noted observations and the Chronicle’s account.
We sense now from the DNA and the Chronicle accounts that the later appearance of new Germanic opportunists in England was not a peaceful incursion. Once a critical mass of invaders was reached, the lid blew off. Attested periods of extreme violence seem characteristic of a conquest aimed at total subjugation.
And it may not have been only the Britons/Welsh that suffered under this onslaught. For kingdom-building by the invaders led them into conflict with themselves. Subjugation may also have befallen the Jutes who came early to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The Chronicle notes that the West Saxons overran the Isle of Wight in 530CE and many were killed there. Perhaps the Jutes were already there in 530, since no trace of Jutes is found, except in the eastern Kent area.
An archaeologist at the University of Reading estimates that upwards of 200,000 invaders came across in clan boats laden with family and possessions. This is high compared to other estimates, but is only an average influx of ~80 newcomers a month for two centuries, perhaps two boats a month average. Another way it was perhaps estimated is by a simple calculation from tooth enamel studies of period cemeteries, which show 20% of those buried originated on the continent. It is estimated that Britain contained over a million people prior to the invasion, perhaps suggesting to the author that 200,000 were foreign-born. The 20% seems compatible with the current 17% NRY I distribution discussed above.
Some graves have weapons, while most do not. It is probable that most of those conquered were not killed outright. A new Anglo-Saxon elite may have maintained the indigenous males in subjugated fashion, enforcing marriage laws that made their having offspring difficult. As usual, all plausible explanations likely factor into the result. Social structure of the time was likely in accordance with the laws of King Ine of Wessex (around 695CE). They specify six social levels, five of which refer to slaves.
Period grave goods from Kent show two cultures present, one Frisian in nature, one richer and evidencing Frankish contacts. The former could be descendants of the initial Frisian laeti from the third century CE. The latter may be the newly arrived invaders who had been raiding the coast of Gaul.
Anglo-Saxon reign over England lasted over 600 years, until the 1066 conquest of England by William the Conqueror of Normandy. For the last 160 years of this period, the Anglo-Saxon leaders waged continuous defensive battles against North Germanic (Norse) marauders from Norway and Denmark. It was these battles that weakened their powers sufficiently to enable the final Norman conquest that ended Anglo-Saxon rule in England.
We do not know how the population changed under early Norman rule, but it is clear that all the royalty changed and that the Saxons were subjugated. The new royalty likely surrounded themselves with retainers from across the Channel. What part of these troops were Celtic Gauls or Danes from Normandy is unknown, but a renewed male influx into England likely resulted. Since their Continental DNA mix (NRY haplogroups R1b, I, and G) was very similar to the English population mix of a millennia ago, current population DNA studies are not likely to be enlightening about their numbers.
Some of the information here is reported by a recent Spiegel Online article “Britain is More Germanic Than It Thinks” by Matthias Schulz. The following pictures are also courtesy of that article.
Following are additional images of Anglo-Saxon personal artifacts, from the Staffordshire Hoard of 7th Century Kingdom of Mercia and from the Sutton Hoo Hoard of the 7th Century Kingdom of East Anglia.
At the top of the image mosaic is a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon mead hall, displaying shields with typical designs. The newish-looking helmet is a modern reconstruction of a helmet of type shown above. The odd-shaped, hinged object is thought to be the lid of a coin purse.
Many of the pieces, especially the remarkable sea horse figure, show finely detailed filigree (thin twisted wire soldered in designs to a flat surface of similar metal). The metal is often a mixture of gold and silver and other metals, where heat is used to remove non-gold from the surface, leaving a gold-burnished appearance.
The ancient craft of cloisonné is also evident in several pieces (see sword pommel caps). Cloisonné begins with a filigree pattern to which are added, to the interstices, gems or other colored materials (in modern times, porcelain).
All the trinkets are likely male and warrior related. The dark ages may have been truly dark from the perspective of lack of social status and learning for the masses, and from the warlike society at the top levels. Yet the metal working crafts seem to have added a bright accent to this age.
(The photos are mostly from Wikipedia and museum sites, with no available attribution except as noted.)
Language Connections to the Continent
The Ingvaeonic North Sea Germanic dialects, Old Saxon and Old Frisian, together with Scots, are the closest languages to Old English; it appears likely Old Frisian is ur-Old English. It was a fully inflected language with grammar similar to Latin and other Indo-European languages, but limited to two verb tenses rather than six.
Modern English descends from Early Modern English, a blend of Middle English and Norman Old French. Middle English descends from a mixture of Old English and Old Norse, during which case endings were gradually dropped. Old English appears to come from Old Frisian with some Latin influence. The early transition from the runic to Latin alphabet brought many changes in pronunciation (including silent letters) that began a divergence between Old Frisian and Old English. Perhaps surprisingly, there is little evidence of Celtic language intrusions into this language evolution. The Germanic influence on the language transformation was total.
The Saxons contributed many English place names. The name England may derive from Angles which itself may derive from Ing, as in Ingvaeones and Beowulf’s Hrothgar, Lord of the Ingwine. It is not now possible to sort out the fine details of the migrations, but those who have judged the Germanic impact on post-Roman England as merely societal facelift seem to have misread history. The Anglo-Saxon migrations produced a profound transformation.
Speculative Musings On Norse Mythology
When inquiring about prehistory, in absence of evidence, one is left with only myth/legend as a source of clues. Our thought experiment below is undertaken in the hope that it will shake loose a few clues from the thicket of German/Norse mythology, understood here as the embodiment of long lost human memory.
The resulting integrated Norse mythology represents the clash and subsequent reconciliation of the constituent pantheons of mixing cultures. To make sense of such a complex mythology, one needs to resolve it into its three original components.
- the Vanir
- characterized by mother earth, fertility, wisdom, nature as symbolism, magic/shapeshifting, augury
- the Jötnar
- characterized by cosmic wisdom involving cyclic regeneration through ice and fire, spirits invoking chaotic nature and devilish deceit
- the Aesir
- characterized by bravery, honor, individualism; by inspiration, conscious intention, sacred veneration.
We look for clues to suggest identities of these populations, based on a naive, intuitive interpretation of Norse myth, as regards societal origins and their subsequent existential struggles with the vagaries of external conflict and catastrophe.
It becomes clear that the first two pantheons are rooted deep in time, addressing primordial concepts, while the Aesir possess a more modern mythology, addressing cultural norms necessary for stability. The former are likely pre-Indo-European, speaking a language no longer known to us; the latter are likely proto-Indo-European (PIE) in origin, bringing proto-German to the Vanir and Jötnar.
Let’s hypothesize that the Vanir were the Ingvaeones of the North Sea German Federation, or perhaps more broadly, the entire West German Federation and their pantheon of Njörðr and Nerthus (sea and earth, brother and sister?), and their children, Yngvi-Freyr and Freyja. Let’s hypothesize this population was largely Y-DNA I2 across the North German plain, the Jutland Peninsula, and southern Sweden. The earliest royal line in Sweden are called the Ynglings; Yngvi and Yngling are cognates of Ingvaeones. We hypothesize the Ingvaeones were autochthonous in their areas through the mesolithic down to historical time.
The Aesir are a more masculine-directed culture celebrating the warrior gods Odin and Thor, and using chariots as symbols. Gimbutas hypothesizes that the Aesir were a late overlay over the Vanir and Jötnar, likely the R1a peoples from the Baltic regions (her Kurgan hypothesis of Indo-European origins). Tacitus mentions that the Germanic Federations worshipped Mercury, the Roman equivalent of Odin, perhaps indicative of a cultural influence by the Aesir over all Germanic territory in the 1st century BCE. This does not point to a specific place of origin.
Looking at population genetic ‘heat maps’ of Y-DNA clade densities, one may posit two incursions into Ingvaoenes lands, an earlier R1a clade L664, perhaps associated with the TRB culture, and a later M458 incursion, likely associated with the Corded Ware culture. The latter and presumed PIE peoples migrated west to about the Oder in force, but then quickly diminished in population influence going further west into Ingvaeones territory.
Another R1a subclade, Z284, contemporaneous with M458, seems to have made an overlay on the autochthonous I1 populations in coastal Norway. These were likely a boat peoples who plied the Baltic Sea and then the North Sea, perhaps originating on the upper Vistula.
Norse mythology has the Vanir battling the invaders to a standstill. The negotiated peace lead to intermingling of their cultures, so that Odin’s kin were integrated into the Vanir Pantheon and vice versa. This is mythologized by intermarriage and taking of hostages among the gods.
These events likely relate to a 4th millennium BCE migration. Yet Tacitus still mentions all the Germanic tribes celebrating Nerthus and the concept of a sacred wood, so the Aesir pantheon was possibly a weak overlay in the heart of Vanir territory.
The mythical Jötnar (singular Jotun) are born of a frost giant, Mimir, who perished at the hands of Odin when they came in contact. In death, his blood (water) caused a great flood killing all his kind save two, from whom commenced a regeneration. From interpretations of their name and myths, one may infer the Jötnar were ancient sea peoples, some of whom were very tall. They lived in a cold place that rose steeply from the sea.
Their mythical origin was in a land of adjacent hot and cold, causing great fogs to rise. Iceland, ~1400km distant, is the usual candidate put forward. The Svalbard Archipelago and its volcanic hot springs, ~900km off the north coast of Norway at the north edge of the Barents Sea, is the closest candidate with volcanic activity and hot springs next to glaciers. One of these springs on Svalbard is coincidentally named Jotun. Bear Island, a source of seafood and fresh water, appears conveniently at the midpoint between the north coast of Norway and the volcanic Svalbard.
Vulcanism is likely the model for the prophesied end of the current pantheon by fire and the following cosmic regeneration. Perhaps Iceland or Svalbard is the inspiration for both the Jötnar ice origin and Norse fire regeneration myths.
There is no evidence of human knowledge of Svalbard prior to 1100CE; there is a 12th century Norse reference to an unidentified place Svalbarð, literally cold shores, that may refer to Svalbard. Even earlier, Viking explorers had discovered Iceland by ~900CE, suggesting a long term ability of the Norse to explore by sea. The sea was an integral part of the Jötnar life style over its prehistory.
It is well possible that Svalbard was known to the Jötnar much earlier. What appear to be early prototypes of ocean-going longships are known from Bronze Age petroglyphs in Norway. Much earlier petroglyphs of four boats are securely dated to ~9000BCE on an island off northern Norway. Further back in time, the Barents Ice Sheet, formed during the last LGM, likely persisted until 11.5BCE, and might have allowed foot travel from Norway to Svalbard for intrepid post-LGM adventurers.
The Jötnar were likely the autochthonous inhabitants of coastal Norway and perhaps adjacent NE Doggerland, since the glaciation retreated. Their pantheon consisted of mystical, primordial beings, so ancient that Odin is shown as deriving from them.
The fact that Odin then kills Mimir seems to imply that the overlay culture completely subsumed the Jötnar culture within its own, relegating the former Jötnar deities to the status of trolls, elves, and other nature sprites. From the R1a distribution map, one sees that the I1 peoples became a mixed population along the coast of Norway, with main concentration inland.
Regarding the expressed water catastrophe memory, Doggerland disappeared under the North Sea by 6000 BCE, likely ending many tribes and DNA subclades that called it home. A further catastrophe occurred during a North Sea tsunami, caused by the great undersea Storegga landslide off the coast of Norway ~6200BCE. The great waves would have ravaged coastlines and any remaining North Sea islands, extinguishing any peoples living on lowlands.
Some have assumed, for want of evidence to the contrary, that the I1 and I2 peoples traveled through time together as a mixed population since the LGM. But our hypothesis, that each expressed a unique mythology and settled a different part of northern Europe, suggests that they were always largely separate, and may even have weathered the LGM in separate refugia.
These associations, of mythical peoples with real populations, real places, real events, and DNA markers, are all unsupported hypotheses, offered solely for pondering and amusement. Positive correlation between myth and specific history will always elude us. And it stretches comprehension that mythologized human memories could be retained through oral tradition over a span of millennia.
Yet the Old Norse are known for spending their long winters singing rimur, sagas based in their myths. And this would not be the only instance in anthropology where well documented events millennia ago appear to survive in oral traditions.
Pliny writes in Historia Naturalis, Book IV, Chapter 28:
Excerpts from Tacitus’ Germania follow. He begins with general characteristics of a people in the large area bounded by the North Sea and the Danube, and by the Rhine and the Vistula. Hence this discussion necessarily generalizes across several cultural and ethnic populations. After these cumulative characteristics, variations in conditions among specific tribes are discussed. These excerpts are lightly edited to restrict focus to the Ingvaeones and related tribes, and to remove unrelated musings on Roman Gods and the like.
I concur in opinion with such as suppose the people of Germany never to have mingled by inter-marriages with other nations, but to have remained a people pure, and independent, and resembling none but themselves. Hence amongst such a mighty multitude of men, the same make and form is found in all, eyes stern and blue, reddish-yellow hair [rutilae comae], huge bodies, but vigorous only in the first onset. Of pains and labour they are not equally patient, nor can they at all endure thrift and heat. To bear hunger and cold they are hardened by their climate and soil.
Their lands, however somewhat different in aspect, yet taken all together consist of gloomy forests or nasty marshes; very apt to bear grain, but altogether unkindly to fruit trees; abounding in flocks and herds, but generally small of growth. Nor even in their oxen is found the usual stateliness, no more than the natural ornaments and grandeur of head. In the number of their herds they rejoice; and these are their only, these their most desirable riches. Silver and gold the Gods have denied them, whether in mercy or in wrath, I am unable to determine.
Neither in truth do they abound in iron, as from the fashion of their weapons may be gathered. Swords they rarely use, or the larger spear. They carry javelins or, in their own language, framms, pointed with a piece of iron short and narrow, but so sharp and manageable, that with the same weapon they can fight at a distance or hand to hand, just as need requires. Nay, the horsemen also are content with a shield and a javelin. The foot throw likewise weapons missive, each particular is armed with many, and hurls them a mighty space, all naked or only wearing a light cassock. In their equipment they show no ostentation; only that their shields are diversified and adorned with curious colours. With coats of mail very few are furnished, and hardly upon any is seen a headpiece or helmet. Their horses are nowise signal either in fashion or in fleetness; nor taught to wheel and bound, according to the practice of the Romans: they only move them forward in a line, or turn them right about, with such compactness and equality that no one is ever behind the rest. To one who considers the whole it is manifest, that in their foot their principal strength lies, and therefore they fight intermixed with the motions and engagements of the cavalry. So that the infantry are elected from amongst the most robust of their youth, and placed in front of the army. The number to be sent is also ascertained, out of every village an hundred, and by this very name they continue to be called at home, those of the hundred band: thus what was at first no more than a number, becomes thenceforth a title and distinction of honour. In arraying their army, they divide the whole into distinct battalions formed sharp in front. To recoil in battle, provided you return again to the attack, passes with them rather for policy than fear. Even when the combat is no more than doubtful, they bear away the bodies of their slain. The most glaring disgrace that can befall them, is to have quitted their shield; nor to one branded with such ignominy is it lawful to join in their sacrifices, or to enter into their assemblies; and many who had escaped in the day of battle, have hanged themselves to put an end to this their infamy.
In the choice of kings they are determined by the splendour of their race, in that of generals by their bravery. Neither is the power of their kings unbounded or arbitrary: and their generals procure obedience not so much by the force of their authority as by that of their example, when they appear enterprising and brave, when they signalise themselves by courage and prowess; and if they surpass all in admiration and pre-eminence, if they surpass all at the head of an army. But to none else but the Priests is it allowed to exercise correction, or to inflict bonds or stripes. Nor when the Priests do this, is the same considered as a punishment, or arising from the orders of the general, but from the immediate command of the Deity, Him whom they believe to accompany them in war. They therefore carry with them when going to fight, certain images and figures taken out of their holy groves. What proves the principal incentive to their valour is, that it is not at random nor by the fortuitous conflux of men that their troops and pointed battalions are formed, but by the conjunction of whole families, and tribes of relations. Moreover, close to the field of battle are lodged all the nearest and most interesting pledges of nature. Hence they hear the doleful howlings of their wives, hence the cries of their tender infants. These are to each particular the witnesses whom he most reverences and dreads; these yield him the praise which affect him most. Their wounds and maims they carry to their mothers, or to their wives, neither are their mothers or wives shocked in telling, or in sucking their bleeding sores. Nay, to their husbands and sons whilst engaged in battle, they administer meat and encouragement.
In history we find, that some armies already yielding and ready to fly, have been by women restored, through their inflexible importunity and entreaties, presenting their breasts, and showing their impending captivity; an evil to the Germans then by far most dreadful when it befalls their women. They even believe them endowed with something celestial and the spirit of prophecy. Neither do they disdain to consult them, nor neglect the responses which they return.
Of all the Gods, Mercury is he whom they worship most. To him on certain stated days it is lawful to offer even human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with beasts usually allowed for sacrifice. Some of the Suevians make likewise immolations to Isis. Concerning the cause and original of this foreign sacrifice I have found small light; unless the figure of her image formed like a galley, show that such devotion arrived from abroad. For the rest, from the grandeur and majesty of beings celestial, they judge it altogether unsuitable to hold the Gods enclosed within walls, or to represent them under any human likeness. They consecrate whole woods and groves, and by the names of the Gods they call these recesses; divinities these, which only in contemplation and mental reverence they behold.
To the use of lots and auguries, they are addicted beyond all other nations. Their method of divining by lots is exceeding simple. From a tree which bears fruit they cut a twig, and divide it into two small pieces. These they distinguish by so many several marks, and throw them at random and without order upon a white garment. Then the Priest of the community, if for the public the lots are consulted, or the father of a family if about a private concern, after he has solemnly invoked the Gods, with eyes lifted up to heaven, takes up every piece thrice, and having done thus forms a judgment according to the marks before made. If the chances have proved forbidding, they are no more consulted upon the same affair during the same day; even when they are inviting, yet, for confirmation, the faith of auguries too is tried. Yea, here also is the known practice of divining events from the voices and flight of birds. But to this nation it is peculiar, to learn presages and admonitions divine from horses also. These are nourished by the State in the same sacred woods and grooves, all milk-white and employed in no earthly labour. These yoked in the holy chariot, are accompanied by the Priest and the King, or the Chief of the community, who both carefully observed his actions and neighing. Nor in any sort of augury is more faith and assurance reposed, not by the populace only, but even by the nobles, even by the Priests. These account themselves the ministers of the Gods, and the horses privy to his will. They have likewise another method of divination, whence to learn the issue of great and mighty wars. From the nation with whom they are at war they contrive, it avails not how, to gain a captive: him they engage in combat with one selected from amongst themselves, each armed after the manner of his country, and according as the victory falls to this or to the other, gather a presage of the whole.
Affairs of smaller moment the chiefs determine: about matters of higher consequence the whole nation deliberates; yet in such sort, that whatever depends upon the pleasure and decision of the people, is examined and discussed by the chiefs. Where no accident or emergency intervenes, they assemble upon stated days, either, when the moon changes, or is full: since they believe such seasons to be the most fortunate for beginning all transactions. Neither in reckoning of time do they count, like us, the number of days but that of nights. In this style their ordinances are framed, in this style their diets appointed; and with them the night seems to lead and govern the day. From their extensive liberty this evil and default flows, that they meet not at once, nor as men commanded and afraid to disobey; so that often the second day, nay often the third, is consumed through the slowness of the members in assembling. They sit down as they list, promiscuously, like a crowd, and all armed. It is by the Priests that silence is enjoined, and with the power of correction the Priests are then invested. Then the King or Chief is heard, as are others, each according to his precedence in age, or in nobility, or in warlike renown, or in eloquence; and the influence of every speaker proceeds rather from his ability to persuade than from any authority to command. If the proposition displease, they reject it by an inarticulate murmur: if it be pleasing, they brandish their javelins. The most honourable manner of signifying their assent, is to express their applause by the sound of their arms.
In the assembly it is allowed to present accusations, and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. Traitors and deserters they hang upon trees. Cowards, and sluggards, and unnatural prostitutes they smother in mud and bogs under an heap of hurdles. Such diversity in their executions has this view, that in punishing of glaring iniquities, it behooves likewise to display them to sight; but effeminacy and pollution must be buried and concealed. In lighter transgressions too the penalty is measured by the fault, and the delinquents upon conviction are condemned to pay a certain number of horses or cattle. Part of this mulct accrues to the King or to the community, part to him whose wrongs are vindicated, or to his next kindred. In the same assemblies are also chosen their chiefs or rulers, such as administer justice in their villages and boroughs. To each of these are assigned an hundred persons chosen from amongst the populace, to accompany and assist him, men who help him at once with their authority and their counsel.
Without being armed they transact nothing, whether of public or private concernment. But it is repugnant to their custom for any man to use arms, before the community has attested his capacity to wield them. Upon such testimonial, either one of the rulers, or his father, or some kinsman dignify the young man in the midst of the assembly, with a shield and javelin. This amongst them is the manly robe, this first degree of honour conferred upon their youth. Before this they seem no more than part of a private family, but thenceforward part of the Commonweal. The princely dignity they confer even upon striplings, whose race is eminently noble, or whose fathers have done great and signal services to the State. For about the rest, who are more vigorous and long since tried, they crowd to attend; nor is it any shame to be seen amongst the followers of these. Nay, there are likewise degrees of followers, higher or lower, just as he whom they follow judges fit. Mighty too is the emulation amongst these followers, of each to be first in favour with his Prince; mighty also the emulation of the Princes, to excel in the number and valour of followers. This is their principal state, this their chief force, to be at all times surrounded with a huge band of chosen young men, for ornament and glory in peace, for security and defence in war. Nor is it amongst his own people only, but even from the neighbouring communities, that any of their Princes reaps so much renown and a name so great, when he surpasses in the number and magnanimity of his followers. For such are courted by Embassies, and distinguished with presents, and by the terror of their fame alone often dissipate wars.
In the day of battle, it is scandalous to the Prince to be surpassed in feats of bravery, scandalous to his followers to fail in matching the bravery of the Prince. But it is infamy during life, and indelible reproach, to return alive from a battle where their Prince was slain. To preserve their Prince, to defend him, and to ascribe to his glory all their own valorous deeds, is the sum and most sacred part of their oath. The Princes fight for victory; for the Prince his followers fight. Many of the young nobility, when their own community comes to languish in its vigour by long peace and inactivity, betake themselves through impatience in other States which then prove to be in war. For, besides that this people cannot brook repose, besides that by perilous adventures they more quickly blazon their fame, they cannot otherwise than by violence and war support their huge train of retainers. For from the liberality of their Prince, they demand and enjoy that war-horse of theirs, with that victorious javelin dyed in the blood of their enemies. In the place of pay, they are supplied with a daily table and repasts; though grossly prepared, yet very profuse. For maintaining such liberality and munificence, a fund is furnished by continual wars and plunder. Nor could you so easily persuade them to cultivate the ground, or to await the return of the seasons and produce of the year, as to provoke the foe and to risk wounds and death: since stupid and spiritless they account it, to acquire by their sweat what they can gain by their blood.
Upon any recess from war, they do not much attend the chase. Much more of their time they pass in indolence, resigned to sleep and repasts. All the most brave, all the most warlike, apply to nothing at all; but to their wives, to the ancient men, and to even the most impotent domestic, trust all the care of their house, and of their lands and possessions. They themselves loiter. Such is the amazing diversity of their nature, that in the same men is found so much delight in sloth, with so much enmity to tranquility and repose. The communities are wont, of their own accord and man by man, to bestow upon their Princes a certain number of beasts, or a certain portion of grain; a contribution which passes indeed for a mark of reverence and honour, but serves also to supply their necessities. They chiefly rejoice in the gifts which come from the bordering countries, such as are sent not only by particulars but in the name of the State; curious horses, splendid armour, rich harness, with collars of silver and gold. Now too they have learnt, what we have taught them, to receive money.
That none of the several people in Germany live together in cities, is abundantly known; nay, that amongst them none of their dwellings are suffered to be contiguous. They inhabit apart and distinct, just as a fountain, or a field, or a wood happened to invite them to settle. They raise their villages in opposite rows, but not in our manner with the houses joined one to another. Every man has a vacant space quite round his own, whether for security against accidents from fire, or that they want the art of building. With them in truth, is unknown even the use of mortar and of tiles. In all their structures they employ materials quite gross and unhewn, void of fashion and comeliness. Some parts they besmear with an earth so pure and resplendent, that it resembles painting and colours. They are likewise wont to scoop caves deep in the ground, and over them to lay great heaps of dung. Thither they retire for shelter in the winter, and thither convey their grain: for by such close places they mollify the rigorous and excessive cold. Besides when at any time their enemy invades them, he can only ravage the open country, but either knows not such recesses as are invisible and subterraneous; or must suffer them to escape him, on this very account that he is uncertain where to find them.
For their covering a mantle is what they all wear, fastened with a clasp or, for want of it, with a thorn. As far as this reaches not they are naked, and lie whole days before the fire. The most wealthy are distinguished with a vest, not one large and flowing like those of Sarmatians and Parthians, but girt close about them and expressing the proportion of every limb. They likewise wear the skins of savage beasts, a dress which those bordering upon the Rhine use without any fondness or delicacy, but about which such who live further in the country are more curious, as void of all apparel introduced by commerce. They choose certain wild beasts, and, having flayed them, diversify their hides with many spots, as also with the skins of monsters from the deep, such as are engendered in the distant ocean and in seas unknown. Neither does the dress of the women differ from that of the men, save that the women are orderly attired in linen embroidered with purple, and use no sleeves, so that all their arms are bare. The upper part of their breast is withal exposed.
Yet the laws of matrimony are severely observed there; for in the whole of their manners is aught more praiseworthy than this: for they are almost the only Barbarians contented with one wife, excepting a very few amongst them; men of dignity who marry divers wives, from no wantonness or lubricity, but courted for the lustre of their family into many alliances.
To the husband, the wife tenders no dowry; but the husband, to the wife. The parents and relations attend and declare their approbation of the presents, not presents adapted to feminine pomp and delicacy, nor such as serve to deck the new married woman; but oxen and horse accoutred, and a shield, with a javelin and sword. By virtue of these gifts, she is espoused. She too on her part brings her husband some arms. This they esteem the highest tie, these the holy mysteries, and matrimonial Gods. That the woman may not suppose herself free from the considerations of fortitude and fighting, or exempt from the casualties of war, the very first solemnities of her wedding serve to warn her, that she comes to her husband as a partner in his hazards and fatigues, that she is to suffer alike with him, to adventure alike, during peace or during war. This the oxen joined in the same yoke plainly indicate, this the horse ready equipped, this the present of arms. ‘Tis thus she must be content to live, thus to resign life. The arms which she then receives she must preserve inviolate, and to her sons restore the same, as presents worthy of them, such as their wives may again receive, and still resign to her grandchildren.
They therefore live in a state of chastity well secured; corrupted by no seducing shows and public diversions, by no irritations from banqueting. Of learning and of any secret intercourse by letters, they are all equally ignorant, men and women. Amongst a people so numerous, adultery is exceeding rare; a crime instantly punished, and the punishment left to be inflicted by the husband. He, having cut off her hair, expells her from his house naked, in presence of her kindred, and pursues her with stripes throughout the village. For, to a woman who has prostituted her person, no pardon is ever granted. However beautiful she may be, however young, however abounding in wealth, a husband she can never find. In truth, nobody turns vices into mirth there, nor is the practice of corrupting and of yielding to corruption, called the custom of the Age. Better still do those communities, in which none but virgins marry, and where to a single marriage all their views and inclinations are at once confined. Thus, as they have but one body and one life, they take but one husband, that beyond him they may have no thought, no further wishes, nor love him only as their husband but as their marriage. To restrain generation and the increase of children, is esteemed an abominable sin, as also to kill infants newly born. And more powerful with them are good manners, than with other people are good laws.
In all their houses the children are reared naked and nasty; and thus grow into those limbs, into that bulk, which with marvel we behold. They are all nourished with the milk of their own mothers, and never surrendered to handmaids and nurses. The lord you cannot discern from the slave, by any superior delicacy in rearing. Amongst the same cattle they promiscuously live, upon the same ground they without distinction lie, till at a proper age the free-born are parted from the rest, and their bravery recommend them to notice. Slow and late do the young men come to the use of women, and thus very long preserve the vigour of youth. Neither are the virgins hastened to wed. They must both have the same sprightly youth, the like stature, and marry when equal and able-bodied. Thus the robustness of the parents is inherited by the children. Children are holden in the same estimation with their mother’s brother, as with their father. Some hold this tie of blood to be most inviolable and binding, and in receiving of hostages, such pledges are most considered and claimed, as they who at once possess affections the most unalienable, and the most diffuse interest in their family. To every man, however, his own children are heirs and successors: wills they make none: for want of children his next akin inherits; his own brothers, those of his father, or those of his mother. To ancient men, the more they abound in descendants, in relations and affinities, so much the more favour and reverence accrues. From being childless, no advantage nor estimation is derived.
All the enmities of your house, whether of your father or of your kindred, you must necessarily adopt; as well as all their friendships. Neither are such enmities unappeasable and permanent: since even for so great a crime as homicide, compensation is made by a fixed number of sheep and cattle, and by it the whole family is pacified to content. A temper this, wholesome to the State; because to a free nation, animosities and faction are always more menacing and perilous. In social feasts, and deeds of hospitality, no nation upon earth was ever more liberal and abounding. To refuse admitting under your roof any man whatsoever, is held wicked and inhuman. Every man receives every comer, and treats him with repasts as large as his ability can possibly furnish. When the whole stock is consumed, he who has treated so hospitably guides and accompanies his guest to the next house, though neither of them invited. Nor avails it, that they were not; they are there received, with the same frankness and humanity. Between a stranger and an acquaintance, in dispensing the rules and benefits of hospitality, no difference is made. Upon your departure, if you ask anything, it is the custom to grant it; and with the same facility, they ask of you. In gifts they delight, but neither claim merit from what they give, nor own any obligation for what they receive. Their manner of entertaining their guests is familiar and kind.
The moment they rise from sleep, which they generally prolong till late in the day, they bathe, most frequently in warm water; as in a country where the winter is very long and severe. From bathing, they sit down to meat; every man apart, upon a particular seat, and at a separate table. They then proceed to their affairs, all in arms; as in arms, they no less frequently go to banquet. To continue drinking night and day without intermission, is a reproach to no man. Frequent then are their broils, as usual amongst men intoxicated with liquor; and such broils rarely terminate in angry words, but for the most part in maimings and slaughter. Moreover in these their feasts, they generally deliberate about reconciling parties at enmity, about forming affinities, choosing of Princes, and finally about peace and war. For they judge, that at no season is the soul more open to thoughts that are artless and upright, or more fired with such as are great and bold. This people, of themselves nowise subtile or politic, from the freedom of the place and occasion acquire still more frankness to disclose the most secret motions and purposes of their hearts. When therefore the minds of all have been once laid open and declared, on the day following the several sentiments are revised and canvassed; and to both conjectures of time, due regard is had. They consult, when they know not how to dissemble; they determine, when they cannot mistake.
For their drink, they draw a liquor from barley or other grain; and ferment the same so as to make it resemble wine. Nay, they who dwell upon the bank of the Rhine deal in wine. Their food is very simple; wild fruit, fresh venison, or coagulated milk. They banish hunger without formality, without curious dressing and curious fare. In extinguishing thirst, they use not equal temperance. If you will but humour their excess in drinking, and supply them with as much as they covet, it will be no less easy to vanquish them by vices than by arms.
Of public diversions they have but one sort, and in all their meetings the same is still exhibited. Young men, such as make it their pastime, fling themselves naked and dance amongst sharp swords and the deadly points of javelins. From habit they acquire their skill, and from their skill a graceful manner; yet from hence draw no gain or hire: though this adventurous gaiety has its reward, namely, that of pleasing the spectators. What is marvellous, playing at dice is one of their most serious employments; and even sober, they are gamesters: nay, so desperately do they venture upon the chance of winning or losing, that when their whole substance is played away, they stake their liberty and their persons upon one and the last throw. The loser goes calmly into voluntary bondage. However younger he be, however stronger, he tamely suffers himself to be bound and sold by the winner. Such is their perseverance in an evil course: they themselves call it honour.
Slaves of this class, they exchange in commerce, to free themselves too from the shame of such a victory. Of their other slaves they make not such use as we do of ours, by distributing amongst them the several offices and employments of the family. Each of them has a dwelling of his own, each a household to govern. His lord uses him like a tenant, and obliges him to pay a quantity of grain, or of cattle, or of cloth. Thus far only the subserviency of the slave extends. All the other duties in a family, not the slaves, but the wives and children discharge. To inflict stripes upon a slave, or to put him in chains, or to doom him to severe labour, are things rarely seen. To kill them they sometimes are wont, not through correction or government, but in heat and rage, as they would an enemy, save that no vengeance or penalty follows. The freedmen very little surpass the slaves, rarely are of moment in the house; in the community never, excepting only such nations where arbitrary dominion prevails. For there they bear higher sway than the free-born, nay, higher than the nobles. In other countries the inferior condition of freedmen is a proof of public liberty.
To the practice of usury and of increasing money by interest, they are strangers; and hence is found a better guard against it, than if it were forbidden. They shift from land to land; and, still appropriating a portion suitable to the number of hands for manuring, anon parcel out the whole amongst particulars according to the condition and quality of each. As the plains are very spacious, the allotments are easily assigned. Every year they change, and cultivate a fresh soil; yet still there is ground to spare. For they strive not to bestow labour proportionable to the fertility and compass of their lands, by planting orchards, by enclosing meadows, by watering gardens. From the earth, corn only is extracted. Hence they quarter not the year into so many seasons. Winter, Spring, and Summer, they understand; and for each have proper appellations. Of the name and blessings of Autumn, they are equally ignorant.
In performing their funerals, they show no state or vainglory. This only is carefully observed, that with the corpses of their signal men certain woods be burned. Upon the funeral pile they accumulate neither apparel nor perfumes. Into the fire, are always thrown the arms of the dead, and sometimes his horse. With sods of earth only the sepulchre is raised. The pomp of tedious and elaborate monuments they contemn, as things grievous to the deceased. Tears and wailings they soon dismiss: their affliction and woe they long retain. In women, it is reckoned becoming to bewail their loss; in men, to remember it. This is what in general we have learned, in the original and customs of the whole people of Germany. I shall now deduce the institutions and usages of the several people, as far as they vary one from another; as also an account of what nations from thence removed, to settle themselves in Gaul.
Tacitus, on the Frisii
Tacitus, on the Chauci
Compare to Pliny’s description of the Chauci (from his Natural History chapter on Lands Without Trees):
In the East many nations that dwell on the shores of the ocean are placed in this necessitous state; and I myself have personally witnessed the condition of the Chauci, both the Greater and the Lesser, situate in the regions of the far North. In those climates a vast tract of land, invaded twice each day and night by the overflowing waves of the ocean, opens a question that is eternally proposed to us by Nature, whether these regions are to be looked upon as belonging to the land, or whether as forming a portion of the sea?
Here a wretched race is found, inhabiting either the more elevated spots of land, or else eminences artificially constructed, and of a height to which they know by experience that the highest tides will never reach. Here they pitch their cabins; and when the waves cover the surrounding country far and wide, like so many mariners on board ship are they: when, again, the tide recedes, their condition is that of so many shipwrecked men, and around their cottages they pursue the fishes as they make their escape with the receding tide. It is not their lot, like the adjoining nations, to keep any flocks for sustenance by their milk, nor even to maintain a warfare with wild beasts, every shrub, even, being banished afar. With the sedge and the rushes of the marsh they make cords, and with these they weave the nets employed in the capture of the fish; they fashion the mud, too, with their hands, and drying it by the help of the winds more than of the sun, cook their food by its aid, and so warm their entrails, frozen as they are by the northern blasts; their only drink, too, is rainwater, which they collect in holes dug at the entrance of their abodes.
Tacitus, on the Cimbri
Tacitus, on The Other Tribes of the Ingvaeones