Who were the Early Medieval Bavarians?

My reading for the last year has been all over the place as I try to catch up on the world of the Plague of Justinian. A sample of my reading for the last few months is here. Believe it or not, they all relate in some what to what was going on during the ‘dark ages’.

The only place that plague has been completely confirmed by ancient DNA is a small settlement in Bavaria called Aschheim. This is great in some ways. We have a full genome sequence and its a place where plague wasn’t recorded before. In fact the downside is that practically nothing is recorded there in the sixth or seventh centuries. While I’m sure that plague will be unambiguously identified elsewhere eventually, Bavaria is what we now to have to work with, and besides it is as important to understand there as much as anywhere else.

Who the Bavarians are, where they came from and what cohesion they had as a people is unknown. They are only mentioned by outsiders. No one claimed to be king of Bavaria. There are no royal genealogies or origin stories of any group of the population, probably because there was no king who needed such fictions to support them. Although the region of Bavaria is an iconic and integral component of Germany today, they were not considered necessarily Germanic then.

Bavaria is primarily composed of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum. (modified public domain image)

Bavaria is primarily composed of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum. (modified public domain image)

The area we now know as Bavaria was not a backwater in the Roman or early medieval world. It formed the Roman provinces of Raetia II (eastern half of Raetia) and Noricum. The original province of Raetia was organized by Rome in the first century and held tightly for strategic reasons.  The Bavarian alps were a major defensive feature for northern Italy and conversely its passes were weak points to be guarded. The province of Noricum was rich in mining resources: salt, gold and iron. Otherwise, the province of Raetia and Noricum were used primarily for grazing on the poor highland soils.

Both provinces originally belonged to Celtic peoples and so by the fall of the western empire they had long been a Romano-Celtic population (not unlike Britain). Archaeologically Germanic people can be seen infiltrating the region, but it is far from a wave or population displacement. Obviously, the German language eventually becomes dominant but how long it took for that to take hold is unclear. The few texts from the region are in Latin. The name ‘bavarians’ also has an unclear origin, but the best current guess suggests bohemian.

The region of interest for my purposes can be triangulated between three former Roman settlements: Regensburg (Castra Regina) , Augsberg (Augusta Vindelicum), and Saltzberg (Iuvavum). Red lines on the map are Roman roads including over the Alps to the Adriatic at the bottom.

Late Antique Bavaria

The core of Bavaria with modern names next to Roman names. The black star marks the site of Aschheim. Map from the Pelagios project.

The core region of Bavaria is bounded by the River Danube in the north and the Alps in the south. The river Lech forms the western boundary and the River Inn is roughly the eastern boundary though this side fluctuated more over time. Sometimes Saltzburg was in Bavaria and other times it was not. The same is really true for Augsburg on the River Lech as well. Today Aschheim is above the River Isar on the outskirts of Munich, the capital of Bavaria since Munich’s foundation in the mid-twelfth century. So Aschheim remains in the core of Bavaria, no matter how its boundary changes. The rivers Lech, Isar, and Inn all arise in the Alps and run into the Danube. They were used to transport goods down from the Alps and even Italy beyond to the Danube.

Politically the region is transferred from the Romans to Theodoric the Great, becoming part of his Gothic empire. It remained with the Goths until Byzantium broke them. At some point in the Gothic war, the Franks gained hegemony over the region and in about 550 the Franks appointed or gave the duchy to Garibald I. The dukes who claimed descent from Garibald I solidified their position by intermarriage with both the Merovingians and Lombards, making them intolerable to the Carolingians. My concern however is limited to the sixth century when plague can be placed there. So zeroing in on the late Gothic war and the Merovingians are in order.

This post is a general introduction to the Bavarians. I plan on coming back with posts on more detailed aspects of sixth to seventh century Bavaria. Although my primary interest is the landscape of disease, there are some interesting parallels with changes going on in Britain as well.

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