Walter Goffart
Walter Andre Goffart

(1934-02-22) February 22, 1934 (age 90)
(m. 1977)
Academic background
Academic advisorsCharles Holt Taylor
Academic work
DisciplineMedieval studies
School or traditionToronto School of History
InstitutionsUniversity of Toronto
Yale University
Notable students

Walter Andre Goffart (born February 22, 1934)[1] is a German-born American historian who specializes in Late Antiquity and the European Middle Ages. He taught for many years in the history department and Centre for Medieval Studies of the University of Toronto (1960–1999), and is currently a senior research scholar at Yale University. He is the author of monographs on a ninth-century forgery (Le Mans Forgeries), late Roman taxation (Caput and Colonate), four "barbarian" historians, and historical atlases.

Two controversial themes in his research concern the Roman policies used when settling barbarian soldiers in the West Roman Empire (Barbarians and Romans and the sixth chapter of Barbarian Tides), and his criticism of the old idea that there was a single Germanic people opposed to the empire in late antiquity, which he believes still influences academics studying the period.

Early life and education

Walter Goffart was born in Berlin on February 22, 1934, the son of Francis-Leo Goffart and Andree Steinberg. His father was a Belgian diplomat, while his mother, born in Cairo, had French and Romanian-Jewish parents.[2][3][4]

Goffart and his family were in Belgrade, where his father was stationed, in 1941. Just before the German invasion of Yugoslavia, they fled on the Orient Express, passing through Istanbul, Beirut, Jerusalem, and Cairo. After 68 days at sea, they eventually reached New York City. Goffart became an American citizen in 1959.[4][5]

Goffart received his A.B. (1955), A.M. (1956), and PhD (1961) from Harvard University. From 1957 to 1958, he attended the École normale supérieure in Paris.[2]


Goffart became a lecturer at the University of Toronto in 1960. He was made an assistant professor in 1963. In 1965–1966 he was a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He was appointed an associate professor at the University of Toronto in 1966, and a full professor in 1971. In 1967–1968 he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1971–1972 he was the acting director of the Centre for Medieval Studies, Toronto. In 1973–1974 Goffart was a visiting fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies. He retired from the University of Toronto as a professor emeritus in 1999. Since 2000, he has been a senior research scholar in history at Yale University. In 2001 he had a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation study center in Bellagio and in 2015 at the Bogliasco Foundation, Genoa.

In 1982, Goffart became a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America; he was a councilor there in 1977–78. In 1996 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was made a Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, London. Goffart was a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1973–74, and a Guggenheim fellow in 1979–80. He has been a member of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, the American Historical Association, and the Haskins Society.[2]

In 1991 he received the Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America, for his book, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550–800). Alexander C. Murray edited a Festschrift for Goffart called After Rome's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History (1999).

Theories on Barbarians and the Fall of Rome

Main article: Toronto School of History

Goffart is known as a strong critic of several traditional assumptions which are still common in history writing about the late Roman empire and the early middle ages. He objects to terminology such as "Migration age", and "Germanic peoples", arguing that both these concepts presuppose old assumptions about a single systematic movement against the Romans.

The peoples living to the north of these borders [Roman frontiers from about 370 A.D.] were not newcomers. Some had been settled there for as many as four centuries, others for less but all for long enough to consider themselves well rooted. They were long past the point of having "come" from somewhere and were definitely not "going" anywhere.[6]

Goffart also argues that the use of terms like "German" and "Germanic" to refer to all northern European barbarians in late antiquity has had serious implications for the understanding of events, implying that there was a one-to-one confrontation of Germanic barbarians against Roman civilization. However, even if the barbarians spoke languages in the same family there is no evidence of them being united in any non-linguistic way. Instead, the barbarians "existed in small fragmented groups and had no mechanism for united action".[7]

Among his more detailed theories is the idea that the Western Roman Empire did not collapse as such, but settled "barbarians" using older Roman systems for accommodating military units. To the extent that they were greedy and oppressive, Goffart argued that it was "in the finest tradition of the law-abiding Roman countryside [...] it created rural tyrants".[8]

Goffart has stressed Roman continuity after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, arguing that the "Germans" are first found in the Carolingian age, when a tradition of having a separate king for Frankish-ruled territories east of the Rhine started.[9][10]

More recently, the concept of a "Germanic" proto-Europe spread from Germanic studies to early medieval European studies, and was "recast in terms borrowed from constructionist anthropological approaches to ethnicity" into a "vision of an early Europe that was culturally and politically committed to ethnic politics", and Goffart criticized this trend in Barbarian Tides (2006), a work which was "more explicitly concerned than the earlier books with the historiographic framework that has shaped modern interpretations of the period".[11]

Personal life

Goffart has two children from his first marriage. He has been married to Roberta Frank, a medievalist, since 1977.[2]

Selected bibliography

See also


  1. ^ Murray 1998, Introduction: Walter Andre Goffart.
  2. ^ a b c d Contemporary Authors.
  3. ^ Dictionary.
  4. ^ a b Murray 1998, pp. 3–4.
  5. ^ Wood 2013, p. 314.
  6. ^ Goffart 2006, p. 21.
  7. ^ Goffart 2006, pp. x, 4, 20, 25, 55, 221
  8. ^ Goffart 2006, p. 185.
  9. ^ Goffart 2006, p. 42.
  10. ^ Pohl 2014, p. 569
  11. ^ Gillett 2008, pp. 990–91.