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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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History of the Middle Ages
GA 51

III. The Impact of the Huns on the Germans

1 November 1904, Berlin

It is only necessary to mention one of all the facts which speak to the same purpose, in order to see what far-reaching changes preceded the fifth century. At the end of the fourth century we find the Visigoths east of the Danube; a century later the map shows them in Spain. And just as this race travelled from one end of Europe to the other, so did many more. They penetrated into countries where they met with different civilisations, and adopted other customs. To understand the revolution which a hundred years produced in Central Europe, we must cast a glance back to the previous historical epochs. If we follow the records of the Romans, we find warlike tribes along the Rhine, whose main occupation, apart from fighting, was the chase. Farther east we find agriculture and cattle raising among the Germani; and farther still the Romans speak of the tribes in the northeast as of something nebulous and obscure.

We are told that this race, which dwelt by the sea, worshipped the Sun, believing that it saw the Sun goddess rising from the ocean. Of the Semnones, who lived in the Electorate of Bradenburg, it is told that their divine service was characterised by blood sacrifices. True, with them it was not, as a rule, human beings, but animals, that were offered up to the Gods. Nevertheless their sacrificial services bore a reputation for cruelty, which distinguished them from other tribes. And there would be much besides to relate concerning this epoch.

Then followed a comparatively quiet time.

Gradually the frontiers of the Roman Empire were crossed by various tribes. To begin with, in the third century the Burgundians advanced against the Roman Empire in the southwest, and farther north the Franks, who invaded Gaul. Farther east, too, on the Danube, other tribes moved against the Roman Empire. Thus the Romans, with their highly developed culture, had to defend themselves againse those peoples. We find here a great difference in levels of culture. Among the Germani everywhere, a system of barter still prevailed, among the Romans money transactions had been developed. Trade among the Germani was a matter of exchange; trading with money was still unknown to them. We see the clash of highly developed culture with barbaric tribes.

Then the Huns broke in. In the year 375 occurred the first clash with the Herulern and the Ostrogoths, whose dwelling place was on the Black Sea. They were forced westwards, and consequently the Visigoths were also obliged to break up their settlements. Where were they to go but into the Roman Empire, which they inundated as far as the Danube. Already the Roman Empire was split into an East and West Empire, the former with Byzantium, the latter with Rome, as its capital. The East Roman ruler assigned dwelling places to the Visigoths; but they nevertheless first had to fight for them at the battle of Adrianople. There, in that neighbourhood, Ulfils wrote his translation of the Bible. Soon, however, the Visigoths were obliged to resume their wanderings. Slavonic tribes followed in their footsteps, pressing them farther westward. Under their king Alarich, they conquered Rome, and, in the fifth century, founded the Visigothic Empire in Spain.

The Ostrogoths followed them, and likewise sought to establish a dwelling place in the domain of the Roman Empire. The Germanic tribe of Vandals conquered Spain, then sailed over to Africa, and, in the region where Carthage once stood, founded a Vandal Empire, and thence harassed Rome with incursions. Thus the whole character of these races is such, that into every part of the new configuration of Christian Rome, the Germanic races pressed. From this type of conquest new configurations of quite a special character arose.

In the domain of the former Gauls, rose a mighty empire—the empire of the Franks—which, for a whole century, imprinted its stamp on Central Europe. Within it, above all grew up what is commonly called Roman Christianity. Those other races—Goths, Vandals—who, in rapid triumphal marches, had subdued for themselves parts of the Roman Empire, soon disappeared again, completely, out of History. With the Franks we see a mighty empire extending over Europe. What is the reason for this?

To find that out, we must cast a glance at the way in which these tribes extended their empire. It was done in this way: a third, or two-thirds, of the region which they had invaded, was divided among the conquerors. Thus the leaders received great tracts of land, which they cultivated for themselves. For this work the conquered inhabitants were employed; a part of the population became slaves, or unfree. This was the policy of the Visigoths in Spain, the Ostrogoths in Italy. You may suppose that, under the existing circumstances where the population lived at a high level of culture, this mode of procedure caused great hardship and could not be permanently maintained.

It was different in Gaul.

There, there were great forests and uninhabited tracts of land. There, too, the conquered regions were divided, and large portions fell to the leaders, so that the leaders became great landowners, and rulers over the vanquished tribes. Here, however, they were not trammelled by already existing circumstances; there was room for expansion. And, although the leaders became rulers, circumstances made it possible for this to happen without great oppression. In the days before folk migrations, members of one tribe had, in essentials, resembled one another. Freedom was a common Germanic possession; in a certain sense, every man was his own master, responsible to no one, on his own land and soil. The independence and power of the leaders increased, because so many had become dependent on them.

Hence, they were in a position to protect themselves better; and small proprietors placed themselves under the protection of greater. Thus arose a protective relationship of the powerful towards the less powerful. Many small feuds were carried on by many small landowners who could not adequately protect themselves, in dependence upon more powerful protectors. Some swore fealty in case of war; others relinquished parts of their property, or paid tribute to their protectors. Such dependents were called vassals. Others held land under feudal tenure from the big proprietors, as payment for their service in case of war; this was the fief. The powerful warriors were feudal lords, the others were vassals. Thus, in the most natural way in the world, proprietary relationships grew up.

The invasions of the Goths had no lasting effect. Those peoples who had forced their way into civilised lands, came to nothing; their power was soon broken.

It was different in Gaul. Here, where extensive tracts had still to be cleared, the immigration of new tribal masses could only be welcomed, in the interest of culture. The great men in the Empire of the Franks were unimpeded in the cultivation of their racial character.

The Goths and Vandals were wiped out, they and all the Germanic tribes who came into the regions where industry was already developed. We see the Franks as independent of an industrial foundation; and the Franks gave their impress to the character of the ensuing age, especially because they provided a base upon which evolving Christianity was able to expand. Although the Visigoths were originally Aryan Christians, other ideas were engrafted into their belief; among the industrial assumptions which were foreign to their nature, that was developed which may be regarded as the stamp of materialistic conditions. It was not so among the Frankish tribes, where the Church was the great landowner. Undaunted by material considerations, these abbots, bishops, priests and theologians devoted themselves to the service of religion. Unalloyed, as it emanated from the nature of these men, the characteristic culture of this form of Christianity was developed. The spiritual strivings of the free ranks were encouraged by the influx of the Celtic element. The Celts, whose fiery blood again manifested itself, became the teachers and leaders of the spiritually less active Franks. From Scotland and Ireland came Celtic monks and priests in great numbers, to spread their faith among the Franks.

All this made it possible for Christianity to be, at that time, not a mirror of external conditions, but to develop freely, unconstrained by material considerations. The conditions of Central Europe were determined by Christianity. All the knowledge of antiquity was thus preserved by Christianity for the Germanic tribes. Aristotle gave the spiritual kernel, which Christianity sought to grasp. At that time there was no dependence on Rome. The Christian life could develop freely in the Empire of the Franks. Plato's world of ideas found entrance too into this spiritual life. This was brought about especially through the influence of Scottish monks, above all through Scotus Erigene in his work De Divisioni Naturae, a work which is well-known as indicating a high level of spiritual life. Thus we see how spiritual life was being formed, unhindered by external conditions. Spiritual currents received their characteristic independently of industrial conditions. Later when the material pressure increased they accepted, retrospectively, the character of these conditions; then, however, when they themselves joined them, they exercised influence on them in their turn.

Several small kingdoms formed what we know as the Merovingian Empire, which later came under the power of one ruler.

From the foregoing description you will see that southern Christianity was bound to be different from that with which it was later amalgamated. The Christianity of the Franks was comparatively independent, and could make use of political relationships, to its own advantage. The farther the Roman rule was pressed back, the more clerics came from among the Franks. Their education lagged far behind that of the other clergy; the learned priests and monks were all Celts.

In these centuries, therefore, the most divine tribes were gradually shaken up together; the invasion of the Huns gave rise to these changes While that which has been described was taking shape within the actual currents of civilisation, great struggles had been going on outside. But what we call the evolution of civilisation was not essentially affected by these external struggles.

The Huns had penetrated far to the west; if we are not blind to what the old legends relate, we know that they pushed as far as the south of France.

In the old heroic poem of Walther on der Vogelweide, handed down to us in a Latin translation, we are told how the princes of the Germanic tribes, the Burgundians and Franks, had to scourge the Huns, among them that Walther, son of the prince of a Germanic tribe, who ruled in Aquitania. This heroic song narrates the feats of Walther, Hagen and Gunther. In continuous succession followed incursions of the Huns, harassing the Germanic races far into the west, until eventually the Franks, the Goths and what was left of the Roman race, formed the force which opposed the Huns in battle on the Catalaunian Plain in the year 451. This is the first defeat that the Huns suffered. Their rule, however, which had weighed heavily upon the peoples, left no lasting impression.

In manners and customs the Huns were so alien to the people of Europe, that their whole type and form is described as something quite peculiar. An important point was that this race formed a compact unity; a submissiveness, amounting to idolatry, under their king, Attila, made them an irresistible terror to other races. After their defeat on the Catalaunian Plain, this army received its last decisive defeat through Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome, who withstood Attila, and induced him to retreat. Leo knew the power which Attila exercised over his people. But with all his power Attila did not know what was opposing him, namely, Christianity; therefore he bowed before it.

The rule of the Huns remained merely an episode; what came from the west made a much more lasting influence. After Attila's death in 453, his army soon collapsed. Neither was the rule of the Goths, Gepidae, or Vandals, of lasting duration; they found themselves hemmed in by conditions already settled, and were not able to maintain their own character. Things happened differently in France: the culture there proved faithful to the character of the Frankish tribe, and it may be seen how powerfully this race evolved. Later, however, we see too how this tribe forced other to accept Christianity. We see further that there existed nothing better calculated to develop material culture than Christianity; all sorts of culture forms received their stamp from external Christianity. And because they were able to maintain their free character, they provided a framework for mobile forms in which spiritual life could develop, and in this way the spiritual, industrial communities—monasteries, etc.—grew up. In process of time, however, spiritual and industrial culture were separated. Although the empire of Charlemagne considered itself a Christian empire, in spreading Christianity by force, it set itself in opposition to the spirit of Christianity. Hence Christianity was soon no longer suited to industrial life. The conditions of industrial life were felt to be oppressive—and thus the “free cities” originated.

This, in outline, is the evolution of spiritual and material evolution. You see that it was only when the spiritual currents no longer coincided with the material conditions, that this disparity found expression in a purely material culture, the city-culture. From these industrial formations grew out of material interests. The population which could not be supported on the land, pressed into the towns to find protection and security. Thus we see empires rising and falling, and new creations taking the place of old. We can, however, only understand their organisation, if we realise how the first model realm, the empire of the Franks, was formed. Not having pressed into already existing conditions, but going where space was offered for free expansion, this tribe had evolved its character and was able to develop its rule.

The tribes driven from their homes during the great folk migrations, were not only thoroughly mingled together, they were also newly constructed. Some had disappeared from History altogether, others had taken their place. This great metamorphosis was accomplished, not merely from outside, but still more in the deepest depth of their character. At the beginning of the epoch of the folk migrations, we see the various Germanic tribes asking a question of destiny. For the Goths, who had chosen for themselves a tolerant Christianity, this question signified extermination. For the Franks, confrontation with it under other freer, more favourable circumstances, it meant increase of power throughout the centuries. Whether or not for the good of all, we shall see in what follows.