aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

The Northern bug

As you probably know (if you read this blog at all), I am in love with Old English and Northern literature generally. I caught the OE bug at about age 14. The vector of infection was J.R.R. Tolkien, but also an English History book of my mother’s which showed a map of the Heptarchy (maps have always captivated my imagination). More generally, as a scholar of English I am fascinated by its linguistic history; as a writer in English I delight in the language’s possibilities. But I am also interested in culture and values. I feel a sense of “going home” when I roam among the Angles and Heathobards. I tell people (mostly jokingly) that I am just a 10th-Century Anglo-Saxon priest born slightly out of his due time. Still, I labor occasionally to try to explain to people who haven’t caught the Northern bug what the attraction is.

It has occasionally been noted that Western Civilization has three great capitals: Athens; Rome; Jerusalem. Athens and Rome are, of course, the root of what we call classical culture. Science, philosophy, forms of government, artistic canons are what we have inherited from them. But at a definite point in time, the Greco-Roman cultural fusion collided with Christianity, and therefore with the culture of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Eventually, Romanness and Christianness not only kept company but were often seen as the same thing. And some would tell you that this triple fusion is the source of our history and literature and worldview.


The nations and languages and literatures and the wars and explorations and discoveries that came out of Europe as we have known it is not merely the natural outgrowth of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem. For at another point, perhaps not so definite in time but certainly decisive in result, another fusion was accomplished with another culture. It lacks a single city to symbolize it, but it is what made Europe, and therefore, us. That other culture was Germanic.

Tolkien pointed out in his classic essay on Beowulf that the fusion of the Germanic hero and the Christian saint made the medieval knight; indeed, what we call “medieval” was a fusion of Germanic and classical cultures. We make a great mistake when we skip over what people with only a classical education (or the remnants thereof) sneeringly call “the Dark Ages.”

In this view, Rome was doing just fine until an unruly bunch of Germans came crashing into the Empire for no good reason and destroyed it; after that, nothing of value happened until we suddenly see monasteries like Cluny and the three-field manorial system of agriculture. And what happened to the Germanic invaders? Who knows and who cares.

In fact, the Romans and the Germans had been interacting with each other for a very long time. The Romans under Gaius Marius barely pushed them back in the 1st Century BC. Julius Caesar began his conquest of Gaul partly in order to keep the Germans like those under Ariovistus from becoming troublesome neighbors to Rome. By the time of the Emperor Claudius, the Praetorian Guard (the personal bodyguard of the emperor) contained a good many Germans. The disaster of the Teutoburgerwald in AD 9, in which the German Arminius (Latin for “Hermann”) destroyed three legions under Varus, was made largely possible by Arminius’s experiences soldering with the legions. He knew how they fought, so he knew how to beat them.

As the Germanic peoples began spreading out in all directions from their homes around the northern seas, they kept bumping up against the Romans. In the 2nd Century, Marcus Aurelius spent his entire reign fighting them to a standstill. In the 3rd Century, the empire almost disintegrated under German pressure. In the 4th Century, Constantine and Julian both spent time strengthening border forts and pushing back against Franks and whatnot. In the 5th Century, the Goths and others began flooding into the empire and were finally accepted as federates (client kingdoms). The Roman General Aetius beat Attila the Hun (barely) in 451, but he furnished only half the troops; without his Visigothic allies, he couldn’t have offered battle. Finally, the Eastern Emperor found it easier to recognize a Romanized German, Odoacer (Latin for Odovacar, or something like it) as King of Italy than to suffer another puppet emperor to be enthroned in the West.

And just as the Romans (both Latin- and Greek-speaking) had had a lot of experience with Goths, Franks, Burgundians, Vandals, and so on, the Germanic peoples – even those who had not had much direct contact with the empire – were highly aware of what was going on in the Roman world. The first Gothic converts to Christianity (of an Arian variety) were made before the first Council of Constantinople. And all the Germanic peoples shared a word (in various forms) for the Romans and Romanized people they encountered.

In Great Britain today, there is a nation called Wales in English (the Welsh call themselves the Cymry). Wales comes from wealas, Old English for “the foreigners.” In the Mercian and Northumbrian dialects, that would have been walas. Actually, though, wala didn’t just mean “foreigner”; it meant “Celt/Romanized person/citizen of the empire.” And so you have related words like “walnut,” meaning “Celtic/Roman nut.” And you see on maps of Romania a region called Wallachia. Wallachia was inhabited by Vlachs (= wealas). The point is, the Germanic idea of Romanness and the Roman idea of Germanness were in orbit around each other even in the period before the fall of Rome and the beginning of modern Europe.

Of course, one can study Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem – how they saw themselves and each other – quite easily, without reference to anything Germanic. Unfortunately, it is difficult to study ancient Germanic history, literature, and culture on its own terms. Almost everything we know about the ancient Germanic peoples comes either from the Romans (Tacitus, e.g.) or from native scholars after the conversion. It was mostly churchmen who preserved what was saved from the time of oral transmission. Copies of texts are mostly late, and all are viewed through the lens of Christian literary culture. This sense of a story which is tantalizingly incomplete is part of the romance of Germanic studies.

But if you have a real interest in why things are the way they are, in how they got that way, then the route to understanding leads not only to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, but also the forests and coasts and rivers of the North – to Mirkwood and Heorot.

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.