The Arab Spring movements, and the recent unrest in Syria in particular, have called attention to the ongoing processes of history–the emergence of nations, the decline of regimes, and the importance of narrative in creating a common sense of identity. In keeping with these themes, I thought I would share an early mediaeval example of ethnogenesis, or the creation of a new people.
The people in question were the Langobards, or Lombards, the second group of ‘barbarian peoples’ to settle in Italy. Originally settled in a region known as Pannonia, (modern-day Hungary and Austria), the Lombards operated as clients of the Eastern Roman Empire. Fighting other ‘barbarian’ groups on behalf of Emperor Justinian, they became more and more closely integrated into late Roman society. Thus when the Avars (another tribal grouping) became to powerful in Pannonia, the Lombards were prepared to conquer Italy and to make the region their own, a process that went on from the 560s until the late 8th century.
This story, however, failed to satisfy either their own grand ambitions or the notions of the educated ‘Roman’ writers. Drawing upon a long ethnographic tradition, authors began to create an ancient history of the Lombards, which placed their origins in Scandinavia (the cradle of nations) and which traced a long, heroic period of migration through Europe. Scholars fiercely debate the historical accuracy of such stories, but they do provide a glimpse into the world of imagination, oral storytelling, and political propaganda of the times.
Paul the Deacon, who wrote an extensive history of the Lombards after the latter had converted to Christianity, related one such episode which details how the Lombards got their names:
“At this point, the men of old tell a silly story that the Wandals coming to Godan (Wotan) besought him for victory over the Winnili and that he answered that he would give the victory to those whom he saw first at sunrise; that then Gambara went to Frea (Freja) wife of Godan and asked for victory for the Winnili, and that Frea gave her counsel that the women of the Winnili should take down their hair and arrange it upon the face like a beard, and that in the early morning they should be present with their husbands and in like manner station themselves to be seen by Godan from the quarter in which he had been wont to look through his window toward the east. And so it was done. And when Godan saw them at sunrise he said: “Who are these long-beards?” And then Frea induced him to give the victory to those to whom he had given the name. And thus Godan gave the victory to the Winnili. These things are worthy of laughter and are to be held of no account. For victory is due, not to the power of men, but it is rather furnished from heaven.”
This story, which Paul clearly disdained, is both an entertaining example of the types of stories used in the creation of mediaeval nations, and a reminder that history is not merely about the facts of the past, but also about how it is manipulated and invoked–even when it involves fake beards and a band of cross-dressers.
Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum, trans. William Dudley Foulke, (1907), is available copyright-free online.
Like barbarians? Then check out my post on Reccesuinth and the Visigoths in Spain!