Reviewed by Christopher LeCluyse (Westminster College [Salt Lake City])
Published on H-German (November, 2005)
Tracing a Germanic Knotwork
In this edition of The Early Germans, Malcolm Todd revises and expands his original 1992 publication. As the author explains, advances in the study of ancient Germanic peoples and increased access to archaeological finds in the former Eastern Bloc warrant the relatively quick turnaround between the two editions. Todd first offers a comprehensive overview of ancient Germanic social organization, artifacts, burial practices, trade, and religion. The second part of the book then treats the various Germanic subgroups in greater detail. Combining documentary and archaeological findings, Todd compares evidence on (or rather, in) the ground with accounts derived mainly from Roman sources. Throughout this informative work he cautions against making hasty or overly broad generalizations regarding the early Germans and models a careful balance of history and archaeology.
Early in the book Todd cautions against ascribing some kind of overarching ethnic identity to the people we now group together as Germanic. As he explains, the Germanic peoples "had no collective consciousness of themselves as a separate people, nation, or group of tribes" and would more likely identify themselves as coming from a particular subgroup, "'Langobard', 'Vandal', 'Frisian' or 'Goth', not 'Germanus'" (pp. 8, 9). In Todd's presentation, even these subgroups do not represent hard and fast ethnic or tribal affiliations. Choosing his labels carefully, Todd calls the Franks a "confederacy" of different peoples, the Saxons a "grouping," and the Goths "a very heterogeneous gathering" (pp. 56, 139). By making these prudent distinctions, Todd treats ethnicity and culture functionally and opposes the tendency of German nationalists to credit these early peoples with a prescient and inclusive sense of common identity.
As an archaeologist, Todd is similarly cautious about too closely associating cultures manifest in the archaeological record with particular ethnic groups. Particularly when discussing possible Germanic settlement in what is now eastern Europe, he foregrounds the hybrid nature of groups such as the Bastarnae and the Zarubintsy culture, which he argues represent polyethnic complexes that included Slavs, Sarmatians, and other peoples (pp. 23-24).
Even for groups with a more certain Germanic make-up, Todd fully presents the extent of Celtic and Roman cultural influence. The author demonstrates the extensive distribution of Roman trade goods to the farthest reaches of northern and eastern Europe and the significant adoption of Roman political, military, and social practices, especially among Germanic peoples living in and near the Roman frontier. As Todd explains, the advance of Rome presented a significant challenge to the Germanic tribal system and provided new means of social advancement for Germanic leaders. From the late third century, Germanic warriors helped Rome realize its imperial ambitions by joining its increasingly barbarian army, and Rome helped such men realize their Personal ambitions by promoting them to the highest levels of leadership. By focusing on Roman influences, Todd makes the best use of the historical record, which is after all written largely from a Roman perspective.
In keeping with his principled assertion that the archaeological record does not speak for itself, Todd usually starts each discussion of a particular aspect of Germanic culture or of a particular Germanic group with a review of the historical record. He then surveys archaeological evidence to demonstrate to what extent it corroborates documentary evidence. Problems arise only when this pattern is reversed. For example, Todd begins his fourth chapter, "The Living and the Dead," with a description of Terpen, burial mounds found in Friesland and northern Germany. Because he does not identify what ethnic group these mounds represent, it is not clear that the mounds were built by Germanic people until three pages into the chapter. This disorienting move does a disservice to the novices most likely to benefit from the book. The reader unfamiliar with Germanic archaeology, instructed by Todd's cautious example to equate a particular find with a specific ethnic group only in the presence of compelling evidence, is likely to feel a bit burned as a result.
The book's illustrations are by and large appropriate and effective. Most useful are illustrations of artifacts and schematics of particular finds; further illustrations of this nature--such as of the anthropomorphic figures found at Braak, Possendorf, and Oberdorla--would help present Germanic culture in more concrete terms. What illustrations there are could also be presented more with the reader in mind, both through the use of cross-references and the consistent inclusion of map keys (absent from figure 5).
The only other drawback to this otherwise excellent book results perhaps from what Todd calls the "mongrel text" of his manuscript for the expanded edition. In several places it is clear that new material has been added without consulting the existing text. In some chapters the same information is repeated twice with the same degree of detail, as if the first mention had not occurred. Such is the case with the introduction of Tacitus's Germania and Pliny the Elder's now lost German Wars (pp. 4-6), Ulfila's Gothic translation of the Bible (pp. 11 and 13), and the human remains found at Tollund and Dätgen (pp. 110-113). More careful editing would have eliminated these distracting double-takes.
As a whole, however, The Early Germans sheds light on the origins both of better-known Germanic peoples such as the Franks and Saxons and more obscure groups like the Gepids. Placed in the cultural, historical, and archaeological context established in the first half of the book, Todd's profiles of particular Germanic peoples present an introduction to "Germanic Europe" that is as detailed as it is comprehensive.
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Christopher LeCluyse. Review of Todd, Malcolm, The Early Germans.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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