February 04, 2009

Where did the Goths come from?

The Barbarians to the north and east of the Roman Empire have always attracted the attention of historians: where did they come from, how long had they sat on the borders of Rome, were they sedentary or moving constantly through Europe? In one case, that of the Goths, there has been a long long story that they came from Scandinavia. The story begins in the history of the Goths written by Jordanes in the 6th Century AD, and his history relies upon a slightly older text written by Cassiodorus in the early 6th Century.

There are plenty of reasons for scepticism. We must understand Jordanes's history in context- he wrote it in the sixth century when Byzantium was on the offensive against the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy- a kingdom that had claimed a continuity with the Western Empire. Placing the Gothic origins in Scandinavia was a way of emphasizing their foreign status, their untrustworthy position as unworthy heirs of the Roman lands and Italian province. It justified the Byzantine invasion of Italy. Cassiodorus- Goffart argues- may never have mentioned these origins- the origins are Jordanes's and there are no reasons to suggest that he knew anything much about Scandinavia or about the Goths: he confesses himself that his texts were classical and that he had no access to anything from the Gothic side more than 'old songs' and as he does not name them (unlike the classical sources which he does name) we do not know that he actually did have them beside him. Rather Jordanes may well have picked up a story and emphasized it.

More interestingly though is what this tells us about myths of origin and reasons we should be sceptical of such myths when we consider the stories of the people of the plains. The problem with these myths is that they served political purposes often- like the story of the Trojan origins of Britain or the Scandinavian origins of the Goths they were tales which legitimised a particular contemporary political claim. But there is something else- for this is part of a wider understanding whose roots are often unchallenged. We often imagine that the roots of something or someone or some nation explain that thing, person or nation: they do not. Even had the Goths originated from Scandinavia and as Professor Goffart points out the evidence is slight, it would not have meant anything to Goths in the 5th century- no more than in a more literate culture the fact that many Irish Americans originated from Ulster meant that Irish Americans are automatic Unionists.

It is more important to work out where people imagine themselves to have come from, than to work out where they have come from if you want to understand those people: and their imagined pasts (and the pasts others imagine for them) may not be the best guides to their actual pasts.


Crushed said...

The southern portion of Sweden is called Gothland.

I'll admit, it's possibly false linking. It's difficult to know if Jordanes knew much of the geography of the North- I find his history interesting, but my favorite bit is the bit that the Huns were fathered by demons on Gothic women.

I think the Geats got confused with th Goths somewhat later. The pseudo history of Johannes Magnus incorpraotes much of Jordanes into it, having the early Gothic Kings descend brom Berico, who was apparently King of the Swedes and Goths about a thousand years before Christ and whom also was the gradfather of Dan, the eponymous King of Denmark in Saxo Grammaticus.

One must remember these pseudo-histories built on eachother.

Again, the Poles decided that the Vandals were Poles at some point.

Georg said...

Hallo Gracchy,

I think it is worthwhile to know where people originally came from.

Nowadays, it seems all Europeans came somewhere from Central Asia but is that true?

But you are right by saying it is important to know where people think they are coming from. Even if it is fantastically wrong.


mehmet said...

European historians and researchers must admit that Goths,ostrogoths,visigoths,alan,alemans,franks are all central asian turks.These are the groups who shaped and founded todays europe in 3rd century AD.
But european culture cover truth and distords the way it suit them.
To prove it there is many examples in europe today.