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History of the Middle Ages

Schmidt Number: S-0920

On-line since: 31st May, 2018

Lecture II


25 October, 1904

The picture of Central Europe has altered fundamentally between, say, the year 1 and the 6th century A.D. This change involves a complete replacement of the peoples who lived on the Weichsel, the Oder and the Elbe, by others; hence it is very difficult for us to picture those races, to learn anything about their customs and way of living. We must find a way of our own to form such a picture. Tacitus, in his Germania, gives descriptions of the country at that time. No other records have been preserved to us of those days, and we must enlist the help of the North Germanic legends to complete the account. What Tacitus says about these races is very significant, in contrast to the Roman conception of the conditions of those days. In the opinion of Tacitus, these peoples were the original inhabitants of that land, for he cannot imagine that any other races would be able to get on in that inhospitable regiion. He mentions the tribes which dwell on the Rhine, the Lippe, the Weser, the Danube and in Brandenburg; these alone are known to him. He tells of characteristic features in them, and on account of their similarity groups them together under the name Germani. They, however, felt themselves to be different tribes, and the struggles with the Romans, they were called may different names, of which only a few, such as the Suevi, Longobards, Frisians, etc. have been preserved to later days

They were descended originally from one, Tuisco, to whom they pay divine homage, expressing it in songs of battle. Tuisco's son was Mannus, after whose three sons they named their chief tribes: the Ingavones, Istavones and Herminones If we compare this information of Tacitus' with the myths of another Aryan race, we find in Sanscrit, the sacred language of the Hindus, the same disignation Manu, for their supreme leader. This indicates a tribal relationship. Indeed, we can follow like deities in all the Indo-Germanic tribes. Thus Tacitus relates that the hero of Greek legend, Hercules, was also honoured by the Germani, bearing among them the name of Irmin. We know that there existed among the southern Indo-Germanic tribes a legend which found artistic elaboration in Greece: The story of Odysseus. Tacitus found, in the neighbourhood of the Rhine, a place of worship dedicated to Odysseus and his farther Laertes. So we see that the culture of the Germani at this epoch was akin to the culture we meet with in Greece in the 8th and 9th centuries B.C. Thus in Greece we see later the development of a culture which in Germany has remained stationary at a lower level.

All this points to an original relationship between these races. The peoples who lived, later in Germany, Greece and Russia, probably had their earlier homeland north of the Black Sea. From there one tribe wandered to Greece, another to Rome, and a third towards the west; the original culture of all these peoples was maintained in this form by the Germani, and further developed by the Celts. Tacitus tells us nothing of the manners and customs of that remarkable race. By the songs and sagas collected later in Iceland, in the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, we must conclude that what that race produced, persisted there. Tacitus tells us further of the customs of the Germans in their tribal assemblies, which, however, we must picture as deliberations of very small communities. To these assemblies came all the warriors of that province; the consultations were carried on to the accompaniment of beer and mead, and we are told that the old Germans made their resolutions when drunk in the evening, but revised them next morning when they were sober, and not until then were the decisions valid. As we learn from the Iliad, the same custom existed among the Persians. So we must conclude that there was an original Aryan stem, and hence a relationship between all these races.

Among the Germanic races in the north, a great similarity is specially evident in the characteristic forms of their religion, which do, indeed, fundamentally resemble those of the south, and yet show a much greater conformity with those of the Persians. According to the northern Germani, there were originally two kingdoms, separated from each other by an abyss: a kingdom of fire, Muspelheim, and a kingdom of ice, Niflheim. The sparks which flew over from Muspelheim, gave rise, in the abyss, to the first race of giants, of whom Ymir was the most outstanding. Then arose the Cow, Audhumbe, which was overlaid by the ice, and brought forth a mighty human form. From this human form sprang the Gods: Woten, Wile and We, whose names mean Reason, Will and Kindness. This second race of Gods was called Asen. Its descent was traced to the first race of giants.

Here too there occurs an important connection between the languages, for Asuras, the name of the Persian gods, suggests the sound Asen, again indicating a relationship connecting all these races. We find another important indication in an ancient Persian formula or poem of exorcism, which has come down to us. It points to changes in the mind of the race, to ancient Gods, deposed and supplanted by others. The service of the Devas was forsworn, the service of the Asuras confirmed. Here appears similarity to the giants, who were overcome by the Asen.

Moreover, the North Germanic legend tells how the three Gods found an ash and an alder on the seashore, and from them created the human race. The Persian myth, too, makes the human race come forth from a tree. We find echoes of these myths among the Jews, in the story of the Tree of Life in Paradise. Thus we see, from Persia to Scandinavia, by way of Palestine, traces of similar mythical ideas.

So we have proved a common fundamental character among certain races. At the same time there are again differences between a southern and a northern branch of the common main stock. To the southern branch belong the Greeks, Latins, and Hindus; to the northern, the Persian and Germaninc tribes. Let us see then what sort of races we have to do with in Germany now. As they confront us, we are bound to believe that they have traits of character which the Greeks and Italians have long cast off, and indeed, the Greeks after, the Romans during the conquest of their empire; whereas these northern peoples developed their essential characteristics and qualities before that conquest. They were the original, unpolished qualities, which these races had preserved. They had not experienced that transition-stage, through which, in the meanwhile, the southern races had passed. Hence we have to do here with the clash of a race which has remained conservative, against one which, although related to it, has attained a greater height of culture.

At the time of the rise of Christianity, which was to acquire so great a significance for them, described by the Greeks in the works of Homer. They had not cooperated in the advance of culture and civilisation which lay between. In the first centuries A.D., Tacitus describes the Germani of the borderlands of the Danube, the Rhine and the Lippe. These races were characterised by the roving instinct, love of liberty, and delight in hunting and war. Domestic matters lay in the hands of women. Here we meet with a civilisation and a form of society which had long disappeared from among the Greeks, and could only be preserved where the several members of a tribe were still bound to one another by blood relationships. Hence teh many tribes. In those who were conscious of their derivation from the same family — for they were regularised families, not hordes — tribal kinship was evolved from the separate families. Thus the wars which they waged were almost always against foreign blood.

Towards the end of the 4th, and during the 5th century, we see all these races compelled to change their places of abode, and to seek new ones.

The epoch of the folk migrations had begun. The Huns broke in and therewith knowledge faded from among the peoples living in the east — the Gepids, etc., and above all, the Goths. This race, divided into the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, had already accepted Christianity. It is a race of special importance for us, just because of the way it apprehended Christianity. Whereas the Franks, who later spread Christianity from west to east, thrust it upon other races with force, the Goths were full of tolerance. The high level of culture which they had already attained is vouched for by the circumstances that we owe to a Gothic bishop, Ulfias or Wulfila, the first translation of the Bible, the so-called Silver Codex, which is preserved in Upsula.

These Goths, whose civilisation came from the east, held a different form of Christianity from those whose conversion issued later from the west. They were not like the Franks who, in the days of Charlemagne, thrust Christianity upon the Saxons by force of arms. (All these eastern Germanic tribes professed the Arian belief, a point of view which, at the Council of Nicea, was declared heretical and persecuted by the supporters of Athanasius).

The Arian Christians maintained that God dwells in the bosom of every man. Hence the Goths believed in the deification of man, as Christ, Who had gone before, showed to men. This viewpoint was allied with a deep cultivation of feeling. The Goths had the greatest possible tolerance for every other form of religion. No compromise was possible between two Christian creeds which were so different from each other. As absolute tolerance was a characteristic of these Goths; it never occurred to them to force a belief on anyone else; thus we are at once confronted with the difference in the way Charlemagne and Clovis, supporters of the Athanasian profession of faith, exploited Christianity for political purposes.

The Arians saw in Christ a man highly developed above all other men, but a man among men. Their Christ belonged to humanity and dwelt in the human breast. The Christ of the Athanasian Christians is God Himself, throned high above men.

Athanasiaus won the victory, and the evolution of culture was essentially influenced by it.

The Germani were hemmed in on all sides by foreign races; in the south and west by the Romans and Gauls (Celto-Germanic tribes); while from the east new encroachments of peoples continually took place. The first Christian Germanic tribes had neer known anything but absolute tolerance; the Christian Franks brought in a compulsory Christianity. This led to a change of temperament. On the evolution of this section of the Germani depended essentially the further evolution of culture. A radical change of legal conditions had gradually come about.

To a certain extent calm and fixity set in with the end of the fifth century. Through continual reinforcements from the east, larger tribal communities had been formed from the above mentioned tribes, who were for ever attacking one another, and of whom even the names (Chatten, Frisians, etc.) have only in a few cases been preserved. Through the loosening of the old blood bonds, another motive for clinging together was created. In place of the blood bond, appeared the bond which allied a man with the ground and soil that he tilled.

The connection together of tribes became equivalent to their connection with places. The village community arose. It was no longer the consciousness of blood relationship, but the connection with the soil that bound several members together. This led to a metamorphosis of the conditions of property.

Originally all property was held in common and private property acquired prominence. Still, everything which could be common property (forest, pasturage, water, etc.) remained so, for the time being. Then an intermediate stage grew up between common and private property, the so-called “hide” of land. The use of this half-private, half-common property served as a basis to determine the so-called free inhabitants of the hide, the community; and in those early days, almost all the dwellers within these bounds were free.

This stands in stark contrast to actual private property: weapons, household utensils, garments, gardens, cattle, etc., everything which the individual has personally acquired. This limitation is expressed in the fact that private property is closely bound up with the personality of the possessor That is why a dead man had his weapons, horses, dogs, etc. buried with him in his grave. It is an echo of this ancient custom when, even today, at the funeral of a prince, his orders, crown, etc. are carried after him, and his horse is led behind.

With the Chinese, too, a race which in many ways shows similarity with the ancient Germani, a dead man has the objects which belonged to him personally, buried with him, a condition carried out today, at any rate with paper models.

Thus we see the transition from the tribal, to the village community, which has developed from certain relationships, from this we understand further metamorphoses. We understand why Tacitus does not speak of the Asen, but of Tuisco and his son Mannus. He speaks of races which have not yet reached to a higher level of culture. Other races came from the north, and brought with them ideas which they developed there. These fitted in to the higher stages of culture which had meantime been reached. How far does a man get with the ideas that confront us in Tuisco or Mannus? He remains with the human being, does not go beyond himself. It would have been useless to introduce the service of Wotan to these tribes. The service of Wotan goes out into the universal; man seeks his origin in the bosom of Nature. It was only in the later stage of civilisation that man could rise to this religious level. When he has settled down, he understands his connection with Nature. Thus we have seen how the primitive culture of the southern Germani was influenced from the north, and how, in the meantime, high civilisations had developed among related races in the south.

We shall see further on, under what conditions the southern culture was spread among the Germani. An interesting survey is presented to us there; the deep-seated kinship of different races. We see the external influences which alter the character. Cause and effect become clear to us.

And so we learn to understand the present from the past. Eternal variability governs not only Nature, but History. How could we face the future with confident courage, if we did not know that the present also changes, that we can shape it to our liking, that here too the poet's words hold good?


The old gives way, Time alters all;
And new life blossoms from the ruins.




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