Part 1: Origins
A lot has changed in the fifteen centuries since the Arthurian Age. Britain and Europe are much different places, with different people, cultures and languages. This is the second in a series of articles about the people and cultures described in my books.
Historically and in The Retreat to Avalon, the Britons generally referred to all Germanic invaders as Saxons. The name seems to have come from the seax, a notorious single-edged knife or short sword often carried by the warriors of the Saxon tribes.
But not all of the Germans who came to Britain were invaders. Some were invited, some were simple settlers. Many were not even Saxons, but other tribes, such as the Jutes, Frisians, Franks, Batavi and, of course, the Angles, whose name would eventually be given to the country, England.
Where did they come from? Linguists studying ancient languages can trace the movements of cultures by the development of their languages. (Note: cultures and languages may have little or nothing to do with ethnicity.)
Germanic languages came from a much earlier Proto-Indo-European (PIE) culture. Imagine, more than 6,000 years ago during the late Stone Age, when agriculture has led to the beginning of civilization in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and other places. In a large steppe region of south-eastern Europe centred roughly near the present city of Volgograd, tribes speaking closely related languages are growing in strength and influence. They farmed grains, used carts with solid wheels, and may have begun working with primitive metals, but cattle and sheep were their main focus. They may have been the first to domesticate the horse, and this might be why their language and culture spread so swiftly across Europe, much of the Middle East and India.
Over the next five millennia, these tribes expanded and moved. Their success, perhaps amplified by a military culture, influenced unrelated tribes to adopt their languages. As they dispersed over greater distances and time, PIE languages and cultures began to diverge, producing “daughter languages” that we can only guess at. Like Celtic, the Germanic languages developed out of one of these “daughter languages”, perhaps influenced by a lost non-PIE language from northern Europe.
By about 500 BC, the midst of the Early Iron Age, Proto-Germanic is being spoken in the regions of Denmark, northern Germany, southern Norway and southern Sweden. At about this time in the rest of the world, Democracy is established in Athens and the Greeks are fighting the Persians, the Roman Republic is founded and the Buddha taught.
Over the next few centuries, these Germanic tribes expanded and migrated, moving south and east. Their languages would begin to diverge, eventually developing into the Norse languages (which are thought to be closest to ancient Proto-Germanic), the West Germanic languages, which include English, Dutch, German, Yiddish and other dialects, and the extinct East Germanic languages of the Burgundians, Goths and Vandals.
In the second century BC, the Germans and the Romans would begin a long, bitter conflict that would eventually see Germanic tribes sack Rome numerous times, eventually destroying the Western Roman Empire. In the 5th and 6th centuries AD, the time of the Arthurian Age, most of Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are controlled by East Germanic tribes: the Burgundians, Visigoths (West Goths) and Vandals. The Eastern Roman Empire is dealing with the problem of the Ostrogoths (East Goths), while Britain and northern Gaul are struggling with the Western Germanic tribes.
This gives an overview of the origins of the Germanic people. Next time I’ll talk about what we know of their cultures. Thanks, I hope you enjoyed this. Please feel free to comment to discuss!