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This volume derives from a 2017 conference with the aim of developing, as James Harland and Matthias Friedrich’s introduction states, an ‘interdisciplinary channel of communication’ (p. 5) for determining why the term ‘Germanic’ can be used neutrally in some disciplines but not others. Discussion of ‘Germanic’ has in the past been fraught with vitriol and the stains of nationalism, and popular misuse of the ideas behind it (at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, for example) makes it all the more imperative that if scholars use the term they should get it right. Friedrich and Harland’s volume re-examines the question of whether and how to use the term in light of new interpretative methods and recognition of all fields’ shared goal of advancing scholarship in a critical and socially responsible way.

The first three chapters provide a history of the term’s development. In what was originally a plenary lecture, Michael Kulikowski traces the equation of Germani with Deutsch and the narrative of Germanic migration from the early modern period through to the twentieth century. He calls on scholars to test their convictions and act with ‘disciplinary humility and interdisciplinary respect’ (p. 26) by acknowledging varied terminology across specialisms and seeking to understand before judging. Roland Steinacher addresses the origin of the term in classical ethnography as a way for Romans to impose order on the barbarian world, not a meaningful name for a coherent cultural group. Stefan Donecker highlights how the meaning of ‘Germanic’ evolved from a flexible umbrella term c.1500 to a nationalist keyword by 1900.

The next two chapters delve deeper into ways of understanding meaning. Cătălin Țăranu uses Michel Foucault’s concept of genealogy to explain why ‘Germanic’ can mean so many things: it is a ‘floating signifier’ that acquires whatever connotations its users need. He concludes that all one can do to contest these meanings is to define rigorously one’s own usage and add new nuances to the whole. Otávio Luiz Vieira Pinto seeks to define better what ethnicity is through a neo-marxist ethnography focusing on the power imbalances by which it is created. He argues that scholars need to understand how Romans categorised the ancient Germani, and thus turned them into actors, before we try to unveil their past.

Michael J. Kelly’s chapter returns to the early modern world to learn how law written in the Visigothic kingdom came to be classified as ‘Germanic’ rather than Iberian. The turning point seems to have been a 1613 edition sponsored by the Holy Roman Emperor as a demonstration of the glory of ‘Germans’ which removed the legal text from wider historical discourses. Veronika Egetenmeyr then explores how the fifth-century Gallic author Sidonius Apollinaris used the term ‘barbarian’ to distinguish himself from those not like him. Though a different term from ‘Germanic’, it was used in similar ways. Egetenmeyr argues that we can better understand Roman perceptions of themselves and these Others by attending to specific ways in which such terms were used.

The following chapters, by James M. Harland and Steve Walker, examine what material culture can tell us about the migration of ‘Germanic’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ peoples into Britain in the fifth century. Harland reframes the question with differential ontology. He concludes that we need not assume that a recognisable ‘Germanic’ ideology existed in order to learn about the period from archaeology. In fact, when freed from that framework, we can see multiple expressions of identity better interpreted in the context of increased late and post-Roman militarisation. Likewise, Walker argues that if we ignore written evidence and the assumptions it leads us to, we see a new hybrid identity developing in south and east Britain in the fifth century, rather than a violent ‘Germanic’ cultural takeover. Both chapters are model exercises in seeing what is there unfettered by old assumptions, and finding something more complex, fascinating and informative in the process. Sebastian Brather follows with a similar assessment of East Central European archaeology. He finds the terms ‘Germanic’ and ‘Slavic’ create an unhelpful either/or dichotomy that predisposes us to see a Slavic migration displacing ‘Germans’ when the reality was undoubtedly more complex.

The final three chapters discuss linguistics and literary motifs. Ludwig Rübekeil uses three examples of ‘Germanic’ words in Latin texts to illustrate how one can discern which features Roman authors thought of as ‘Germanic’ in order to better interpret the testimony of their writings. Nelson Goering explains how the metre used in ‘Germanic’ alliterative verse depends on linguistic features absent from other language families. Thus it makes sense that certain stories and themes were shared more easily by speakers of ‘Germanic’ languages than with others. There is nothing essentially ‘Germanic’ about the stories themselves, nor are they evidence of a ‘Germanic’ ethnic consciousness; they were simply more easily transmitted in these languages. Erin Sebo concludes the volume by showing how Tacitus’ view of a ‘Germanic’ heroic ideal leads readers of Beowulf astray. Beowulf actually demonstrates a more complex understanding of heroism, not a monolithic or static one.

Overall this volume is an admirable example of a collection that is ‘good to think with’ (p. 15). Most chapters are well-pitched for an interdisciplinary conversation, and they provide diverse opinions on the usefulness of ‘Germanic’ that varies by discipline. Rather than attempting to create a one-size-fits-all rule going forward, the collective contributions acknowledge the problem’s complexity and provide the reader with a variety of tools to find their own way through a thorny, and ever-relevant, question. This will be a useful volume for both specialists and those outside the field, and for those wanting a better understanding of interdisciplinary approaches.


Original published version available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/ceac220

Publication Title

The English Historical Review



Available for download on Friday, November 22, 2024

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