I assume I am not the only one who is completely baffled by the chaotic mess of invasions leading into the Dark Ages. I believe that some of the confusion lies in the fact that Germanic tribes, and other early groups, tend to be mentioned as loose collectives in regards to the Fall of Rome or the rise of the Middle Ages. My goal has been to take a look at these different groups individually in order to better understand their role in the development of Medieval Europe, specifically, England and France.
These “Barbarian” tribes moved to and from countries that no longer exist, switched alliances several times and often split, going in different directions. The list I have compiled is by know means comprehensive. There were many other groups that played their part in the downfall of Rome, many of them eventually merged with the more dominant groups, others were completely destroyed.
This map is a decent example of the migrations during this time period. However, like my own research, it is not comprehensive, though it does give us a good general idea of how the Germanic and Scandinavian tribes moved into France (Gaul) and England (Britannia).
Britannia was a fairly new acquisition for Rome and its hold there had always been a little looser than in other regions. For this reason I have included some of the pre-Roman people of Britannia in my list.
Celts: These people- or rather, groups of people- originally migrated to the British Isles from across the English Channel during the Iron age. The Celts in Britain were fierce warrior tribes, with similar language, culture and religion, but they were not a cohesive society. Because of this lack of unity, Rome was easily able to invade and control them. However, while under Roman rule they seemed to keep their Celtic identity while also becoming Romanized. When Rome fell they reverted back to paganism and fighting with each other. In the Fifth century they were taken over by the Scandinavian Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who almost completely wiped them out. The remnants of the Celts were driven into Wales and Cornwall.
Picts: Fierce warriors, from the region that would someday be Scotland. They successfully defended most of their lands against Rome and Anglo-Saxon invasions. When Rome pulled out of Britain, the Picts took advantage of the lack of defense along the borders, raiding into the northern territories of Britannia. It has been suggested that the Celtic people of Britain recruited help from the Angles and the Saxon’s to repel them. Overtime the Pict culture merged with that of the Gaelic Scots who had moved into the southwest are of Scotland.
Scots/Scoti: Gaelic people originating from Ireland, who migrated into southern Scotland around 400 AD. Their population was much smaller than their Pict neighbors but they managed to hold their own. The Scots and Picts alternated between fighting each other and allying themselves against common enemies. Eventually the two cultures merged into the medieval Scottish culture we are more familiar with.
Saxons: They came from the northern coast of Germany and the Netherlands, raiding the coastlines of Britannia and Gaul. When Rome abandoned Britannia, they moved right in, settling in what are now the counties of Wessex, Sussex and Essex, in southern Britain. Some groups of Saxons also made migrations into Gaul where they eventually were absorbed by the Franks
Angles: Originating from the southern Denmark/ northern Germany, these tribes crossed the English Channel during the 5th century. They made their homes in the Northern Britain, creating the regions of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. When these kingdoms were conquered by new waves of Danish vikings in the 9th century, the Saxons came to their aid. The two societies eventually merged into one Anglo-Saxon culture that became dominant until the conquest of Normandy.
Jutes: From the northern coasts of Denmark the Jutes migrated into the southern part of Britain during the 5th century. They settled in Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. There counties were eventually absorbed by the larger, more powerful, Anglo Saxon countries.
Many of the Germanic tribes that “invaded” Gaul began as federati of Rome, refugees that were granted their own land in return for alliances and military assistance. Many of the leaders of the Franks, Burundians, Visigoths, Vandals, etc., held high positions in the Roman army.
Visigoths: The Visigoths were farmers, peacefully settled in the Romanian region until they were attacked by the Huns and forced southward into Gaul. As refugees they were granted federati status until they revolted due to poor treatment by the Romans. They were granted federati status a second time under a new Emperor and were given the area that what would someday be Aquitaine. Once they were firmly settled they declared themselves an independent kingdom.
Burgundians: Originating from Poland these people were also forced into Roman Gaul as refugees trying to escape the path of the mighty Huns. They allied themselves with Rome against the Franks for as long as they could hold out, but were eventually defeated and became part of the Frankish empire in the early 6th century.
Franks: Several different tribes that migrated into northern Gaul and created separate kingdoms. They allied with Rome against the Huns and other enemies. When Rome began to crumble they united into one kingdom under Clovis I, defeated the last Roman army left in Gaul and proceeded to conquer the remaining barbarian tribes becoming the dominant people of Gaul by the mid-6th century.
Ostrogoths: From north of the Baltic Sea the Ostrogoths were driven into the Roman Empire after invasions by the Huns. They began as Federates to Rome but, as the Empire began to falter, the Ostrogoths moved into Italy and established their own independent Kingdom. After a long and devastating war with the Byzantine Empire, the Ostrogoths lost Italy and were driven into extinction.
Vandals: The Vandals fleeing westward from the Huns , rampaged through Gaul, settled in Spain for a short time then moved into North Africa were they continued to ravage the Mediterranean Coast. In 535ish they were completely destroyed by the Byzantine’s.
Lombards: This group of Germanic people migrated into Italy after the devastating War between the Byzantines and the Ostrogoths.
In the end, when the dust settled and the victors emerged, Gaul had become united under the Frankish Merovingian kings and Britain had broken into a group of independent countries ruled by Anglo-Saxon Kings. A sense of national identity began to replace tribal affiliation , the economy starts to get back on its feet and Christianity has spread across western Europe.
The journey through the middle ages will not be an easy one, but the people who live through it are tough, determined and intelligent. They will leave a lasting legacy of innovation, technology and learning, that though often overlooked by future eras, will leave a foundations for future generations to build upon.