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1The historians and archaeologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who studied the migrations of the ancient world often described these events in ways oddly reminiscent of the great trans-oceanic migrations of their own day. They took into consideration only certain aspects of the migrations they were witnessing, however, which allowed them to reconstruct a functional past.

2As is often noted, historians are strongly influenced by the academic discourses and cultural paradigms of the period in which they live. [1] Moreover, because history represents a model for the present, it is constantly being shaped in such a way as to legitimize contemporary claims. [2] This is undoubtedly true in the case of scholars dealing with the Early Middle Ages, a complex and much-debated historical period, marked by the end of the Roman world and the foundation of the Romano-barbarian kingdoms. According to traditional interpretations, the latter were founded by different tribes of barbarians invading and settling within the Roman Empire. Thus the Anglo-Saxons founded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Franks the Frankish kingdom, and so on, and these kingdoms gave rise to modern nations. From this perspective, early medieval tribes were perceived as the ancestors of modern European nations. [3]

3The name given to these migratory movements in different languages, Völkerwanderung, the Great Migrations, Grandes invasions, Migrazione dei popoli, are expressive of the ideological meanings with which they were imbued. In fact, in interpreting the forms and dynamics of early medieval migrations, scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century selected only some aspects of the migratory experience they were researching: on the one hand they projected into the past contemporary migratory experiences: the size of the populations moving, the vast distances covered, and the speed of travel. On the other, they completely ignored the dynamics of such movements. They failed to take into consideration the migration theories developed and discussed by Ernst Georg Ravenstein in the late nineteenth century. [4] Ravenstein stressed the predominant role played by local migrations which, for economic reasons, formed the basis of longer-distance mobility. He pointed to evidence that migration routes were not linear and that each current of migration produced a compensating counter-current; he showed also that women were more mobile than men:


Woman is a greater migrant than man. This may surprise those who associate women with domestic life, but the figures of the census clearly prove it. [5]

5Ignoring this data, researchers of the time perceived early medieval migrations as mass movements of coherent ethnic groups, led by male heroes. Each migrating tribe was characterized by its own language and culture, which moved and spread within Europe. The settlement of migrants and contact with native populations was presented, mirroring the colonial experience, in terms of acculturation. [6] Nevertheless, around 1900, opinions differed among scholars from different countries as to who acculturated whom. For German historians for instance, barbarian tribes were the progressive ones acculturating the “soft” Romans; for Italians on the other hand, the barbarians were the backward ones, whose invasions spelled the end of the great Roman Empire. [7]

6Whether taking positive or negative attitudes, historians agreed that the early medieval migrations were on a large scale: huge groups of people moved within Europe, bringing about major changes. These changes were detected mainly through funerary remains, which preserved the traces of ancient corpses accompanied by lavish grave goods. Scholarship combined the study of material remains with written sources in order to trace the course of the barbarian migrations. [8] It was however the combination of these different sources with the pervading influence of the racial and nationalistic discourses of the late nineteenth century that led to the formulation of some extremely singular interpretative models of mass migrations across Europe, in which the agency of men and women resulted in very contradictory effects.

7In this article, I propose to investigate in detail how scholars tried to reconcile their particular emphasis on the migratory movements of soldiers, based on written sources and the observation of skeletal remains, with post-Roman archaeological data which reveals the particular importance of female burials. I will also seek to analyse the way this evidence was then framed into a male-centric nationalistic discourse, which reached its apogee during the Second World War.

The hero’s blood: males on the move

8Different written sources of the early medieval period present the migratory movements of barbarian groups in different ways and leave open the question of how we should understand the terms used by early medieval authors to designate different tribes. Who were the Lombards, the Franks, the Alemanni etc.? Ancient sources, contemporary with the events, present the barbarian peoples as bands of soldiers of mixed origin, with whom the Empire had to cope, sometimes fighting against them, at other times establishing alliances with them in exchange for land, on which barbarian groups settled and which in some cases they could control and rule, giving rise to barbarian kingdoms. [9] There is however another group of literary sources, to which the name of Origines gentium has been given: mythical sagas, written several centuries later, after these barbarian kingdoms were established. These texts aimed to legitimize the newly founded kingdoms, describing barbarian groups as ancient peoples who had left a land of common origin and marched through Europe, performing many heroic deeds along the way, to the promised land, where they would then found the new kingdoms. [10] These texts, drawing on different tropes from ancient sources, such as the biblical model of the Exodus, presented the complex chequerboard of displacements, wars and alliances between barbarians and the Empire as if they were linear mass migrations of coherent ethnic groups moving in unison. As Magali Coumert has shown, these foundation myths were invented, reinvented and modified according to changing political contexts: each faction aiming at a power position could depict its own past by contrasting it with the past of its rivals. [11]

9One example which may serve to illustrate this is that of the Lombards, who migrated to Italy in 568 CE after having settled in Pannonia (today Hungary) for about 40 years. According to Procopius of Caesarea, in his work The Gothic War, written around the middle of the sixth century, the Lombards were soldiers, allies of the Empire, to whom the Emperor Justinian had granted territory in Pannonia, which they controlled in exchange for providing military support. And indeed, they did fight in Italy alongside the imperial army, against the Goths. [12] During this campaign, the Byzantine commander, Narses:


[…] was eager to be rid of the outrageous behaviour of the Lombards under his command, for in addition to the general lawlessness of their conduct, they kept setting fire to whatever buildings they chanced upon and violating by force the women who had taken refuge in the sanctuaries. He accordingly propitiated them by a large gift of money and so released them to go to their homes. [13]

11Procopius’s work ended before the Lombards moved into Italy, so we do not know his opinion on how and why they migrated to the peninsula. However, it is clear from his testimony that the Lombards, while settled in Pannonia, were employed as soldiers by the Emperor, and that before migrating to Italy they spent some time fighting there.

12A later source, Paul the Deacon in his Historia Langobardorum (History of the Lombards), written two hundred years after the Lombards settled in Italy, presents their settlement in Pannonia and subsequent migration to Italy in a very different way from Procopius. Paul described the Lombard migration as the mass migration of a whole group, moving under the leadership of different kings. They started from a fertile Scandinavia and crossed northern continental lands (today northern Germany) where they confronted and bravely defeated all of the inhabitants of these provinces, finally arriving in Pannonia, which they ruled for about forty years before moving on to Italy. About their move to Italy, Paul writes:


Then the Lombards, having left Pannonia, hastened to take possession of Italy with their wives and children and all their goods. They dwelt in Pannonia for forty-two years. They came out of it in the month of April in the first indication on the day after holy Easter […] Therefore, when Alboin with his whole army and a multitude of people of all kinds had come to the limits of Italy, he ascended a mountain which stands forth in those places, and from there as far as he could see, he gazed upon a portion of Italy. [14]

14King Alboin, before entering the peninsula, like Moses guiding the ancient Hebrews, contemplates the new promised lands he is going to rule from the top of a mountain which, according to Paul the Deacon, was henceforth called the Mountain of the King. The influence of the Bible on Paul is evident. His Historia aimed to legitimize the power of the Lombards after they had long been settled in Italy. A list of questions arises. Was the Lombard migration really like this? How large was the group that moved to Italy with King Alboin? Did this group include all the Lombards who migrated to Italy? It has been claimed that about 100,000 to 150,000 Lombards migrated to Italy. Should we really imagine that King Alboin led such a horde of men, women and children, marching to Italy across the mountains?

15Historians, anthropologists and archaeologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries accepted Paul the Deacon’s assertion that the Lombards were a coherent population who entered the Italian peninsula all at once. This fact was said to be visible in the archaeological record, which shows clear signs of drastic change after the year 569 CE. Archaeologically, this would have been seen mainly in cemeteries, both through ancient bodily remains and grave goods: taller individuals appeared from this time on, accompanied by new funerary rituals, along with different modes of costume. Immigration of new groups was also visible in the remains of settlements: new ways of making pots and building houses were introduced. This narrative was applied not only to the study of the Lombard migration to Italy, but also to interpret the migratory dynamics of other early medieval tribes mentioned by written sources, for which literary sources akin to the Historia Langobardorum are available. These ideas, arising from concepts of nationalism, implied that the barbarian tribes were coherent biologically and ethnically, and that they shared a common material culture, which remained unchanged along their migration routes.

16In the context of physical anthropology, different human groups were identified by the different shapes and measurements of their surviving bones. The discipline applied to these questions, anthropometry, was developed during the nineteenth century. In particular, Paul Pierre Broca developed a new measurement, the cephalic index, that is the ratio of breadth to length of the traverse of the longitudinal diameters of the skull. Expressed as a percentage, the index is high in broad, short heads (brachylocephaly) and low in narrow, long ones (dolichocephaly). [15] The cephalic index was used to identify different races; in particular, William Ripley identified at the end of the nineteenth century three major groups in Europe: Teutonic, Dinaric and Mediterranean. [16] The studies carried on a decade later by Franz Boas on the skulls of immigrants in the United States, showing that second-generation migrants’ skulls differed greatly in shape from those of their parents as a result of environmental adaptation, did not succeed in discrediting racial dogmas on the process of transmission of somatic features in historical periods. [17] Consequently, the eugenicist Hans Günther, in his 1924 volume, Rassenkunde Europas [The Racial Elements of European History] summarized and expanded Ripley’s work, classifying five major races in Europe: Nordic, Alpine, Dinaric, Balkanic and Mediterranean, each identified by “bodily and mental characteristics”, to use his definitions. The Nordic and the Mediterranean races were at the two extremes, both physically and mentally, and were evaluated through male behaviour. Nordic males, he asserted, are tall and handsome: “long-headed, narrow-faced, narrow nose with high bridge; soft, smooth or wavy light (golden-fair) hair; deep-sunk light (blue or grey) eyes”, [18] while Mediterraneans are: “short, long-headed, narrow-faced, narrow nose with high bridge; soft, smooth or curly brown or black hair; deep-sunk brown eyes”. [19] Since posture was also symptomatic of behaviour, Nordic man


[…] is distinguished by a highly developed sense of reality, which, in combination with an energy that may rise to boldness, urges him on to far-reaching undertakings. […] His inclinations are always towards prudence, reserve, steadfastness, calm judgment […] Nordic man has always been, and always will be, led by his lust for competition, for culture, for leadership, and for distinction […] The Nordic race seems to show special aptitude in the domain of military science owing to its warlike spirit. [20]

18The Mediterranean race by contrast is: “[p]assionate and excitable […]. Mediterranean man is very strongly swayed by the sexual life, at least he is not so continent as the Nordic”. [21] Another important characteristic attributed by Günther to the Mediterranean race was that it had lived under mother-right institutions, that is kinship and inheritance was determined not through the father, but through the mother; while by contrast, among the peoples of Nordic origin, father-right predominated.

19In different historical periods, according to Günther, flows of Nordic blood moved from the North to the South of Europe and the Mediterranean, thanks to migration. The progress of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations was due to the transmission of Nordic traits and character:


Under the late Roman emperors, who were often of Germanic blood, there was such a stream of Germanic mercenaries into the Roman army, finally settled within the Italian border, that with these times a fresh flow of Nordic blood into the Roman Empire began. [22]



[…] Nordic blood slowly runs dry […]. The decaying Roman Empire was now mainly peopled by a mixture of the pre-Roman Mediterranean race with much “Semitic” blood. […] It was the end of everything […] the true Roman-Nordic creative powers were exhausted; the Empire went the way of its fall, and was finally brought to an end by the last Nordic wave, the invading Germans […] This last wave of Nordic blood is known under the name of the “Wandering of the Peoples” […] it laid the foundations for the European state-system of today. [23]

23So, according to Hans Günther, throughout the course of history, fresh blood always came from the North, it was brought by Nordic man, and was transmitted from father to son by the Nordic father-right rule of transmission. The early medieval waves of migration were the last movements of such Nordic blood which elevated the destiny of Europe, thanks to the agency of males.

24The biologically defined völkisch state was to be ruled by laws of male supremacy. [24] Females, as inferior beings, stayed in the background and were the silent mothers and passive bearers of valorous males and future warriors; even their role in procreation was belittled, blood being transmitted from male to male.


The coming racial state must be masculine – or it will not be at all! Only men are in a position to overcome the state of female powerlessness which led us on towards the criminal act of revolution. Only a battle-hardened [and] ideologically armed people will conquer freedom for itself, will be able to assert itself as a nation. [25]

26These ideas were shared by scholars from different countries. For example, in his book, Se vi son donne di genio, published in 1893, Giuseppe Sergi wrote:


Morphologically and functionally, woman does not achieve normal male development, but on average, lags behind, as if there was a general stagnation of development. Thus, infantile forms and infantility, as a state of functions, are the common manifestations of the female sex, reminiscent of man who has not attained adult status. [26]

28And also:


The great eucalyptus trees of Australia [when transplanted to] Italy do not attain the impressive development of their country of origin; such are masculine characteristics when they pass into the female sex. [27]

30It should be noted that one of Sergi’s students at the time was Maria Montessori, who paradoxically was to become much more famous than Sergi himself.

31Otto Weininger in his Geschlecht und Charakter [Sex and Character], published in 1903, went even further:


The female, moreover, is completely occupied and content with sexual matters, whilst men are interested in much else, in war and sport, in social affairs and feasting, in philosophy and science, in business and politics, in religion and art. She takes no real interest in things themselves. The female principle is, then, nothing more than sexuality; the male principle is sexual and something more. [28]

33Accordingly, females, presented as sexually incontinent, were considered inferior beings, like the Mediterranean race.

34While other writers of the time might agree about gender and female roles, the superiority of Nordic warriors and the role attributed to the Völkerwanderung in shaping modern Europe, notions promoted by German writers, were not accepted in Italy and France. In France, the undeniable presence of barbarians was nonetheless placed in perspective. Fustel de Coulanges, for instance, minimized the consequences of the invasions, calling them “large-scale movements of population, from which nothing of a lasting nature survived. Much sound and fury, signifying little”. [29]


If [the Germanic invasion] modified the constitution of Gaulish society, it was not through the German bloodline, because the Germans were not numerous. [30] The Germans did not reduce the population of Gaul to servitude. Towards it, they were neither conquerors or masters. [31]

36In Italy, the fascists took a different line: they glossed over the Germanic peoples and promoted the Roman period as the glorious phase of European history: Roman soldiers rather than German warriors became the model for Italian masculinity. Mussolini himself was described as the “reincarnation of a Roman legionary”, [32] since he possessed a “broad Roman breast and the concise lucidity of the Latin mind”, and thus represented all the power of the maschia romanità (manly Romanitas). [33]

37Nonetheless, whether the barbarian invasions were seen in a positive or negative light, warriors in general were at this time seen as the model of masculinity. The glorification of war and the celebration of warriors became particularly significant to justify human sacrifices during the Second World War. Masculinity became a political instrument, and warrior virility the symbol of the nation: male citizens sacrificed themselves for their nation. [34]

Metal objects and women’s travels

38In this context, archaeology played a special role in describing the traces of ancient heroes. Archaeological research became particularly important during the nineteenth century as a tool with which to forge national consciousness, since it deals with material culture, something that represents a tangible memory of the past and can therefore be understood by a wide range of people. Moreover, archaeology, as a non-written source, is wide open to different interpretations: as a result, nationalism influenced the kind of questions archaeologists were willing to ask and the type of data they collected. [35]

39From this perspective, archaeological remains were seen as the expression of coherent cultural milieus, which could be associated with different ethnic groups living in the past. Different sets of material culture distributed in different regions were seen as an expression of a shared tradition and culture. [36] Gustaf Kossinna, one of the exponents of this method, wrote in 1911: “in all historical periods, distinct material cultures, in different areas correspond to different tribes”. [37] When groups migrated, their core culture moved with them. From this point of view, all innovations and changes were interpreted as the result of immigration by new groups. The material culture of barbarian groups was thus read according to this paradigm: barbarians were characterized by their own material culture, one that was established and conservative, and was essentially preserved throughout the long trajectory of their migrations, persisting after they had settled within the Empire. Moreover, their culture stood in sharp contrast to the Romans.

40Scholars assumed that traditional costume and the type of clothing found in graves remained unchanged; its display in graves was understood as a strategy of distinction from autochthonous populations. In short, the costume that individuals were wearing for burial was interpreted as a kind of passport, a sign marking each individual’s origin. [38] As Hubert Fehr has shown, [39] it was particularly the Nazis who promoted archaeological research into early medieval cemeteries. Within the Ostforschung project, Hans Zeiss and Franz Petri conducted archaeological excavations respectively in Spain and Gaul, and identified the Reihengrebär (graves ranked in rows in those areas) as the burial places of Visigoths and Franks. They sought to use grave goods, chiefly including elements of dress, to identify the traditional costume of German groups as distinct from the Romans. They supported the idea that graves containing iron or metal items were to be attributed to barbarians, while those buried without any metal objects must be Roman. Hence, metal artefacts and fittings were used to reconstruct the traditional costume (Tracht) of ancient German tribes. [40]

41However, archaeology had a surprise in store: by an irony of fate, the most striking metal objects, particularly in Spain, were brooches and other types of feminine jewellery. In cemeteries of the earliest medieval period, women were more visible than men. [41] Thus the traditional costume of barbarian groups was reconstructed largely on the basis of the female Tracht.

42Consequently, some form of discourse concerning the female sex became unavoidable. Yet women still remained, in this discourse, passive pawns moved around the chequerboard by males: they followed the routes of the great migrations, carrying the cultural traits of their people. Because women were supposedly the bearers of tradition, their traditional way of dressing remained unchanged throughout the routes of migration. [42] These ideas so penetrated archaeological discourse that they were still being discussed after the Second World War, and were further developed. For instance: “In the whole of the continental Germanic world, a Gothic woman could be easily recognized by her clothing, which was different from that of other German ancestries”. [43] This was said to show a “remarkable conservatism”, as women dressed conservatively and passively followed their husbands, who were busy conquering the Roman World. Accordingly, the stages of early medieval migratory movements could be followed through the brooches deposited in women’s graves.

43Quite frequently a great variety of objects of different shapes and styles might be discovered in the same grave. They were not however interpreted as the result of trade or exchange, but rather as the consequence of complex migratory routes. Thus the lady of Fincarolo, excavated in northern Italy, who was buried with typical Gepid, Alemannic, and Gothic grave goods, was defined as a woman having suffered a turbulent fate: born in the Carpathian basin where the Gepids were settled, she must have married and moved to Alemannia, then, when the Alemanni were defeated by the Franks, she escaped as a refugee to Italy where she died and was buried. [44]

44Female trajectories were complex and incoherent: on one hand, traces of their traditional costume were being used to legitimize the path of male migrations along the routes described by written sources such as the Origines Gentium, while on the other, the hypothesized traditional costumes did not conform to the idea of coherent models perpetuated though space and time. Grave goods were rather the result of complex and multi-layered processes, connected to the production, circulation and exchange of artefacts, to individual mobility and social position, kinship patterns, personal choices and desires. Because of these issues, certain scholars have more recently questioned the possibility of using archaeological remains to trace migration in the past. [45]

New light on male and female migration

45Historians in more recent times have largely revised the concepts of ethnicity as applied to the Early Middle Ages. According to such new interpretations, the different barbarian groups mentioned by ancient sources were bands of warriors with whom the Empire had to strike deals, making them its allies and trying to control their settlement. The belief in a common past was a way of creating a shared identity and a sense of belonging within different barbarian groups, which would otherwise have been made up of individuals of different origin. [46] In this perspective, the dynamics of migration in this period were more complex than the linear mass migration of entire peoples, as indicated by sources like the Origines Gentium. [47]

46Moreover, once gender studies had been developed within the fields of migration studies, medieval history and archaeology during the 1990s, it became clear that the migration routes of women did not necessarily follow the same patterns as those of men. In fact, recent research on the Early Middle Ages has shown that in this period, which was characterized by great political instability, women from powerful families could play important roles in legitimizing the ancestry and power of their kinfolk. [48] The marriage of daughters was a strategy for establishing alliances between elite kinship groups. This meant that women left their place of origin, moving to the homes of their husbands, and thus migrated independently of their male family members. [49] In the case of ruling families, brides could move long distances, bringing with them servants and goods from their homelands. However, the written sources clearly demonstrate that in the context of these matrimonial strategies, they were far from passive pawns being moved by men over the chequerboard of diplomacy. They could play active roles in mediating between their husbands and their kinsfolk, representing their families’ interests within their new entourage. They also had a special role as cultural vectors, bringing traditions and cultural innovations from their lands of origin.

47The matrimonial strategies adopted by Theoderic, king of the Gothic kingdom, are a case in point. As Cristina La Rocca has shown, starting from 493, Theoderic developed a network of connections with other barbarian kings through the marriages of the women of his Amal dynasty. Subsequently, Thuringians, Burgundians, Visigoths and Franks all became connected through kinship ties. [50] As Cassiodorus put it, Theoderic’s niece Amalaberga, who married the Thuringian king Ermanafrido, not only enhanced the nobility of the Amal ancestry, but also took with her new rules of behaviour, transmitting civilization along with her wisdom. Similarly, Theoderic’s sister, Amalafrida, who married the king of the Vandals, was a close counsellor of Theoderic on diplomacy with the Vandal kingdom. [51]

48Women’s mobility thus takes the form of individual moves over long or short distances. And if the chief reason why females left their homes in the Early Middle Ages was indeed to contract marriage, nevertheless in these transfers they could play active roles in mediating between kinship groups or even kingdoms.

49Gender studies have also contributed to revolutionizing the way archaeological remains are interpreted. Several studies have shown that in certain contexts, precious objects such as jewellery were clearly deposited in graves to symbolize femininity; this jewellery was offered to women who died while still of an age to bear children, and held therefore an important role as brides, wives and/or mothers. [52] Conversely, in the same burial grounds, young girls and older women received simpler artefacts that were gender-neutral. It can therefore be concluded that investment in women’s tombs may have compensated for a lost opportunity to establish new links with other kinship groups, and so to produce heirs. [53] In the same line of thinking, several studies have shown that weapons were not deposited in tombs in order to symbolize ethnic identity, but rather to construct a warrior-like masculinity for the men buried there. [54] In certain areas and periods, this custom was, as in the case of the women, connected to the life-cycle, but with a different logic. In fact, only mature and elderly males were buried with collections of sumptuous weapons, in order to symbolize their attainment of powerful roles within the kinship group. However, it is much more rare to find weapons within tombs than collections of precious jewels, possibly because, as Heinrich Härke has shown, weapons had an important symbolic role in establishing connections between aristocrats and their followers. [55] Consequently, they had greater value if they were circulated among the living rather than buried in tombs. Taking this perspective, the hypothesis that grave goods symbolized traditional costume and ethnic belonging needs to be revised.

50Another important issue raised by burial practices is where the women were, and who was commemorating them. Were they buried with their family of origin and commemorated by its members, or did their remains stay within the entourage of their husband’s kinfolk? Due to the lack of funerary inscriptions for the Early Middle Ages, this question is difficult to answer. Some information is nevertheless available. For instance, relating to the ten Lombard queens whose place of burial is recorded, it appears that they were buried separately from their family of origin and from that of their husbands: instead they were interred in the areas where they were born, thus returning for burial to their place of origin. [56] Similarly, genetic research into two burial grounds dating from the Lombard period, excavated in Hungary and Italy, has made possible the reconstruction of the ancestry of the individuals buried there, showing that while relatives were buried near each other, mothers were missing from the burial grounds, evidently being buried somewhere else. [57] This data suggests, in line with the evidence concerning matrimonial strategies promoted by Theoderic, that women did not break the link with their family of origin after marriage, and thus that return migration (even after death) was also an important aspect of mobility during the Early Middle Ages.

51Therefore, in contrast to the Origines gentium, which describes early medieval migrations as mass movements of whole peoples, the archaeological data and evidence from contemporary witnesses to the events, such as Cassiodorus and Procopius, suggest that the dynamics of migration at the time can be better explained by modern theories of migration. These approaches have underlined the importance of local migration as the basis of longer-distance movements; [58] they have shown that large-scale migrations more often take the form of chain migrations, where smaller groups move in different waves, following the early migrant pioneers; [59] that migrations are not unidirectional, since people move back and forth according to economic activity and family obligations or specific strategies; and that in these processes, return migrations are also an important aspect of the dynamics of mobility. [60] Finally, recent research has also shown that male and female migration can have different purposes and follow different routes. [61]

52I have tried to show here that interpretation of the historical episode of the Great Invasions became the mirror of contemporary societies as a whole, and took on a particular significance in legitimizing the foundation of nation-states and conflicts driven by territorial claims. It was no accident that Hitler, after reading archaeological reports written by Franz Petri in the 1930s, declared, “these are ancient German lands, which were stolen from us, and which we can rightfully demand to be given back to us”. [62] Thus written and material sources were made to fit into preconceived ideas of migration and family and gender models, in which women were passive followers of men and mere vessels for their heirs – wombs carrying future male heroes – even if a closer look at the available evidence testifies to a completely different story.


  • [1]
    Chapman 1997.
  • [2]
    Hobsbawm 1972.
  • [3]
    Gasparri 1997; Pohl 2000; Geary 2002.
  • [4]
    Ravenstein 1885.
  • [5]
    Ibid.: 196.
  • [6]
    Jones 1997.
  • [7]
    Barbiera 2011.
  • [8]
    Barbiera 2012.
  • [9]
    Pohl 2000.
  • [10]
    Gasparri 1997.
  • [11]
    Coumert 2007.
  • [12]
    Pohl 2000.
  • [13]
    Procopius, De Bello Gothico, VIII. 33. (Book 8, Ch. 23: Narses sends the Lombards home). Author’s translation.
  • [14]
    Paulus Diaconus, Historia Langobardorum, translated by William Dudley Foulke, 1907: (Book ii), 60-64.
  • [15]
    Schiller 1992.
  • [16]
    Jackson & Weidman 2006.
  • [17]
    Boas 1911; Little & Sussman 2010.
  • [18]
    Günther (English translation) 1927: 6.
  • [19]
    Ibid.: 35-36.
  • [20]
    Ibid.: 35.
  • [21]
    Ibid.: 35-36.
  • [22]
    Ibid.: 143.
  • [23]
  • [24]
    Arnold 2006.
  • [25]
    Andreas Witte in Die Deutsche Zeitung (1924), allusion to the events of 1918-1919, quoted in Arnold 2006.
  • [26]
    Sergi 1893: 167.
  • [27]
    Ibid.: 180.
  • [28]
    Weininger 1903: 27, author’s translation.
  • [29]
    Coulanges (de) 1875, Part I, Book iii (L’invasion Germanique), p. 333, cited in Effros 2009.
  • [30]
    Ibid.: 414-415.
  • [31]
    Ibid.: 398.
  • [32]
    Sarfatti 1926: 10.
  • [33]
    Spackman 1996.
  • [34]
    Resic 2006; Ryall 2007.
  • [35]
    Grave-Brown, Jones, & Gamble 1996; Díaz-Andreu & Champion 2006.
  • [36]
    Arnold 1990; Brather 2008.
  • [37]
    Kossinna 1911: 3.
  • [38]
    Barbiera 2009.
  • [39]
    Fehr 2002.
  • [40]
    Fehr 2010.
  • [41]
    Barbiera 2005.
  • [42]
    Effros 2004; Arnold 2006.
  • [43]
    Bierbrauer 1994: 172.
  • [44]
    Bierbrauer 1994.
  • [45]
    Anthony 1990; Anthony 1997.
  • [46]
    Gasparri 1997; Pohl 2000.
  • [47]
    Barbiera 2005.
  • [48]
    Wood 2004; Le Jan 2001.
  • [49]
    La Rocca 2013.
  • [50]
  • [51]
  • [52]
    Halsall 1996; Halsall 2010; Barbiera 2005.
  • [53]
    Barbiera 2019.
  • [54]
    Härke 1990; Barbiera 2020.
  • [55]
    Härke 2000.
  • [56]
    Barbiera 2012.
  • [57]
    Amorim et al. 2018.
  • [58]
    Pooley &Turnbull 2000.
  • [59]
    Anthony 1997.
  • [60]
    Harzig, Hoerder & Gabaccia 2009.
  • [61]
    Gabaccia & Iacovetta 2002; Green 2013.
  • [62]
    Fehr 2002.

This article explores the ways in which the great migrations of the Early Middle Ages were represented and perceived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They were habitually interpreted as movements of coherent ethnic groups, led by male heroes. This model took its inspiration from a specific type of early medieval mythical saga, the Originesgentium which drew on different topoi from ancient sources to present the complex chessboard of displacements, wars and alliances between barbarians and the Empire as linear exoduses of coherent tribes towards a promised land. Archaeologists and osteologists applied this model literally: in their view, grave goods and types of skeleton made it possible to identify the members of different tribes and to follow their migration routes. They paid special attention to tombs containing weapons and to male skeletons, thus emphasizing male agency. However, closer scrutiny of the archaeological findings tells a completely different story: in fact, in cemeteries of the early medieval period, women are more present and visible than men.

  • migrations
  • gender studies
  • masculinity
  • ethnicity
  • nationalism
  • Early Middle Ages
  • archaeology

Le fer et le sang. Le genre des Grandes invasions, iv-vie siècle

L’article analyse la représentation et la perception des Grandes invasions à la fin du xixe siècle et au début du xxe siècle : des mouvements de groupes ethniques cohérents, conduits par des héros masculins. Ce modèle a été suggéré à partir d’un type spécifique de sagas mythiques du haut Moyen Âge, les Origines gentium qui, s’appuyant sur différentes sources anciennes, présentaient l’échiquier complexe des déplacements, des guerres et des alliances entre les barbares et l’Empire comme des exodes linéaires de tribus cohérentes vers une terre promise. Les archéologues et les ostéologues ont appliqué littéralement ce modèle : les biens funéraires et les types de squelettes permettaient à leurs yeux d’identifier les membres des différentes tribus et de suivre leurs routes migratoires. Ils ont privilégié les tombes avec des armes et les squelettes masculins et souligné ainsi l’agentivité des hommes. Cependant, les découvertes archéologiques examinées de plus près nous racontent une histoire complètement différente : dans les cimetières du haut Moyen Âge, les femmes avaient une plus grande visibilité que les hommes.

  • migrations
  • études de genre
  • masculinité
  • ethnicité
  • nationalisme
  • haut Moyen Âge
  • archéologie
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Irene Barbiera
Irene Barbiera holds a doctorate in Medieval Studies from the Central European University of Budapest (2004), and is currently a research fellow in demography at the University of Padua. Since 2007, she has taught courses on gender history, the history of migrations and historical demography. Her research focuses on paleo-demography, bio-archaeology and gender history, with special interests in medieval demography (mortality, standard of living, migration, family history).
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