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Germanic kingship is a thesis regarding the role of kings among the pre-Christianized Germanic tribes of the Migration period (c. 300–700 AD) and Early Middle Ages (c. 700–1000 AD). The thesis holds that the institution of feudal monarchy developed, through contact with the Roman Empire and the Christian Church, from an earlier custom of sacral and military kingship based on both birth status and consent from subjects.

The term barbarian kingdom is used in the context of those Germanic rulers who after 476 AD and during the 6th century ruled territories formerly part of the Western Roman Empire, especially the Barbarian kings of Italy. In the same context, Germanic law is also derisively termed leges barbarorum "barbarian law" etc.[1]

The thesis of Germanic kingship appeared in the nineteenth century and was influential in the historiography of early medieval society, but has since come under criticism for drawing generalizations from limited evidence.[2]

Alleged characteristics

The Germanic king originally had three main functions:

The office was received hereditarily, but a new king required the consent of the people before assuming the throne. All sons of the king had the right to claim the throne, which often led to co-rulership (diarchy) where two brothers were elected kings at the same time. This evolved into the territories being considered the hereditary property of the kings, patrimonies, a system which fueled feudal wars, because the kings could claim ownership of lands beyond their de facto rule.

As a sort of pre-Christianization high priest, the king often claimed descent from some deity. In the Scandinavian nations, he administered pagan sacrifices (blóts) at important cult sites, such as the Temple at Uppsala. Refusal to administer the blóts could lead to the king losing power (see Haakon the Good and Anund Gårdske).

According to the testimony of Tacitus (Germania), some early Germanic peoples had an elective monarchy already in the 1st century.

They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority.[3]

Germanic pre-Christianization society had three levels, the king, the nobility and the free men. Their respective political influence was negotiated at the thing. According to the testimony of Tacitus,

About minor matters the chiefs deliberate, about the more important the whole tribe. Yet even when the final decision rests with the people, the affair is always thoroughly discussed by the chiefs. [...] At the assembly, when the multitude think proper, they sit down armed. Silence is proclaimed by the priests, who have on these occasions the right of keeping order. Then the king or the chief, according to age, birth, distinction in war, or eloquence, is heard, more because he has influence to persuade than because he has power to command. If his sentiments displease them, they reject them with murmurs; if they are satisfied, they brandish their spears.[4]

Tacitus notes that as each tribe had its own customary law, the political power of the king could vary between nations. Thus, he states that the Gothones were ruled by kings "a little more strictly than the other German tribes, but not as yet inconsistently with freedom" while beyond the Gothones, the Rugii and Lemovii (tribes placed at the far end of Magna Germania, near the Baltic Sea) lived in "servile submission to their kings".[5]

Later development

Main article: Barbarian kingdoms

Europe at the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476

With the decline of the Roman Empire, many of its provinces came under the rule of Germanic kings: Hispania to the Visigoths, Italia to the Ostrogoths, Gallia to the Franks, Britannia to the Anglo-Saxons, and Africa to the Vandals. These nations had by then been in contact with Rome for a century or more and had adopted many Roman customs. They were also undergoing Christianisation and pre-Christianization practice was slowly being replaced.

The Frankish state under the Merovingian dynasty had many of the characteristics of Germanic monarchy under heavy influence from secular and ecclesiastic Rome. Its kings, through their division of the territory, treated it not as a state independent of themselves, but as their patrimony, land won by conquest (theirs and their forefathers'). The king was primarily a war leader and a judge. There are many theories to explain the collapse of Merovingian power, most of which blame the inability of later Merovingians in war as an important factor. The commonly cited occasion of Sigebert III sobbing in his saddle after a defeat (the king was then only ten years old) highlights the importance of victory in battle for a king who is chiefly a warrior.

The principle of election, which determined Germanic succession, was abandoned in those states under the heaviest influence from the papacy, such as Merovingian Gaul, where hereditary succession and the divine right of the reigning dynasty was recognised. In Anglo-Saxon Britain, the principle survived until the Norman Conquest removed it. Anglo-Saxon kings were elected by the witena gemót. Finally, the principle survived in some form or other for centuries after the demise of the last Germanic monarchies. The civil wars of medieval Scandinavia and the electorate of the Holy Roman Empire are part of its legacy.

See also


  1. ^ also used by early 20th century Russian medievalists who saw similarities between the Germanic tribal monarchies and those of the nomadic peoples of the Steppe. Painter, A History of the Middle Ages 284−1500.
  2. ^ Canning, Joseph (1996). A History of Medieval Political Thought: 300–1450. Routledge. pp. 16ff. Canning writes: "...there is a growing opinion in recent scholarship that this whole great intellectual structure of Germanic kingship is a myth. There is very little evidence indeed for the nature of Germanic kingship before entry into the Roman empire. Such evidence as there is derives from non-Germanic sources, notably Caesar, Tacitus' Germania and Ammianus Marcellinus. Enormous and misplaced scholarly industry has been devoted to trying to elucidate the meaning of the few relevant phrases in these works. Thus for instance we cannot be sure of what Tacitus meant in his famous statement that the Germans 'choose kings for their nobility, and war-commanders for their valor'. Furthermore, it is methodologically unsound to generalise about supposedly common 'Germanic' features in the rulership of tribes diverse in kind, space and time."
  3. ^ Reges ex nobilitate, duces ex virtute sumunt. Nec regibus infinita aut libera potestas: et duces exemplo potius, quam imperio, si prompti, si conspicui, si ante aciem agant, admiratione praesunt.
  4. ^ De minoribus rebus principes consultant; de majoribus omnes: ita tamen, ut ea quoque, quorum penes plebem arbitrium est, apud principes pertractentur. [...] Ut turbae placuit, considunt armati. Silentium per sacerdotes, quibus tum et coercendi jus est, imperatur. Mox rex vel princeps, prout aetas cuique, prout nobilitas, prout decus bellorum, prout facundia est, audiuntur, auctoritate suadendi magis, quam jubendi potestate. Si displicuit sententia, fremitu aspernantur; sin placuit, frameas concutiunt.
  5. ^ Trans Lygios Gothones regnantur, paulo jam adductius, quam ceterae Germanorum gentes, nondum tamen supra libertatem. Protinus deinde ab Oceano Rugii et Lemovii omniumque harum gentium insigne, rotunda scuta, breves gladii, et erga reges obsequium.