The Men of Early Medieval Bavaria

Bavarian warrior
This guy was not common. (Gutsmiedl-Schumann, 2010)

by Michelle Ziegler

When cemeteries are excavated, there is always some bling somewhere, or at least the rusty remains of a weapon to draw all of the attention. Reconstructions of the people from the cemetery are usually a composite figure like the guy to the left, usually armed to the teeth with a full complement of saex, spatha (sword), shield and spear. Although an ax and arrows are commonly found in graves, they are often left off the prototypical Germanic male recreation because they are not considered unambiguously weapons. There seems to be some biases in this picture. A farmer turned warrior might be a lot more effective fighting with an ax than a sword. Regardless, extremely few if any of the male graves have all of these weapons, so the guy pictured would have been quite uncommon.

Bavaria has been a particularly interesting area for the post-Roman / late Antique period. Nestled up against the Alps, this region had long been a strategic  Roman frontier province called Raetia. In addition to its natural resources, Bavaria / Raetia included some of the vital passes through the Alps such as the Reschen Pass via the Via Augusta Claudia (connecting Verona to Augsberg) that led to the Po Valley in Italy. The route over Brenner Pass came later in the Roman period and was used by the Almanni to invade Italy in 268 AD suggesting that it was not as well defended. Bavaria’s northern border is marked by the upper reaches of the River Danube which marked the Roman frontier  all the way to the Black Sea, and its valley was also a corridor for the movement of peoples from the east and Asia. The Romans held this area until c. 476 when they pulled back south of the Alps. The area is nominally under Merovingian rule but there is little evidence of direct Merovingian involvement in Bavaria for at least the first century.

Bavaria
Cemeteries on the Munich gravel plain. (Gutsmiedl-Schumann, 2010)

The four cemeteries in the Munich gravel plain at Aschheim, Altenerding, Aubing, and Pliening all span from the mid-fifth century to the early eighth century. Munich would not be founded until the twelfth century at the crossing of the River Isar. So these cemeteries, all completely excavated, provide a good sample of the entire population in early medieval Bavaria. All together these four cemeteries have about 3000 graves.

The ‘typical Merovingian man’ above may be a typical recreation but was not typical of the graves in the cemeteries. Of 590 graves that can be identified as men and boys, only 6 had all four of the weapons shown above. In fact only 64 had two or more weapons. To some extent this reflects the ages of the men and boys with adult males and old men having the most weapons. The most common weapon saex followed by arrows, although neither are necessarily weapons. The saex is basically a multi-purpose butcher knife.  These were followed by the spatha (sword).  The next most common grave artifact were a variety of tools, some in tool bags. A variety of types of knives and flint stones were the most common type of tools. There were also a few personal hygiene tools like combs or tweezers. Doris Gutsmeidl-Schumann divided the men into two basic groups — craftsmen and warriors.

Social status could be further implied by ‘magnificent belts’, the most common type of adornment. These belts could also indicate the status of the family given that even a few infants had these decorative belts. Notably all of the men with four or more weapons were adorned with a magnificent belt. Overall, 64% of the graves with two or more weapons also had magnificent belts and are therefore considered warriors. Only 27% of the men with two or more tools were adorned with the belts, suggesting perhaps that only high level craftsmen were honored with such a belt. Very few graves had both tools and weapons.  Overall, Gutsmeidl-Schumann considered that only 7.3% of the total male graves were warriors and about 21% were craftsmen.

What comes out of the total analysis is that there was a select group, perhaps families, of warriors with the highest status. There was a significant middle group of craftsmen, a few of whom were rewarded for their skill with belts. Most of the men though fell into neither group,  presumably doing mostly doing mixed agricultural work. This looks like a fairly stratified society with only a small percentage being trained warriors — so the typical Bavarian man was unlikely to have been a part-time soldier ready to pick up their weapons on short notice and deploy for battle. These results run counter to the standard historical claim that the first Germanic peoples who moved into former Roman territory were all warriors.


Reference:

Gutsmiedl-Schumann, D. (2010). Merovingian men – fulltime warriors?
Weapon graves of the continental Merovingian Period of the Munich Gravel Plain and the social and age structure of the contemporary society – a case study. In R. Berge, M. E. Jasinski, & K. Sognnes (Eds.), N-Tag Ten: Proceedings of the 10th Nordic TAG Conference at Stiklestad, Norway 2009 (pp. 251–261). University of Huston.

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3 thoughts on “The Men of Early Medieval Bavaria

  1. Excellent article. Life did happen outside of the British isles. Makes the world much larger to explore

  2. Perhaps part of the difficulty comes with the definition of “warrior”. Could there not be a scenario in which there was a small elite who were primarily warriors, rarely or never engaging in lower-status work like agricultural work, but where all/most men were expected to be able to fight? You give the statistics on those with 2 or more weapons, but what of those with 1 weapon? Isn’t it telling that even those who lack the full trappings of multiple weapons, let alone a magnificent belt, are still often buried with some sort of weapon, even if just a saex or some arrows? It might even indicate that the family was too poor to afford to bury him with all his weapons, rather than passing most of them on to other family members, and only choosing one token weapon to bury with the dead.

    1. I doubt men with 2 or fewer weapons went on offensive campaigns. Everyone might be needed for defense including the old and even women at times. I don’t know that we should consider a saex a weapon. It’s more like an all purpose Bowie knife.

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