The Bavarians from the Ground Up


Archaeological sites in Bavaria.  Cross marks Aschheim where plague DNA was isolated. (Hakenbeck et al, 2010)

Since written history doesn’t spread very much light on the people who lived in sixth century Bavaria, let’s literally look to the ground and examine what their cemeteries tell us about them.  Aschheim is the only place where plague aDNA has been found, but as far as I know, it is the only Late Antique place that has been investigated for plague.

Aschheim and nearby Altenerding represent two different styles of cemetery covering nearly the same fifth to sixth century time period. Aschheim is a row cemetery with no apparently clustering, while Altenerding has several founder graves with stylistically distinct related graves surrounding each. Both collect graves from nearby rural small settlements and both are located near (but not on) a Roman road.

One of the distinctive features in these cemeteries are a number of ‘hunnic’ modified skulls. This modification is not a marker of the Huns, who were a multiethnic federation anyway. It was common around the Black Sea and Carpathian basin in Romania and Hungary where it was praticed equally among men and women and found in all ages. The oldest are assoicated with the Sarmatians predating the Huns by a couple centuries. Even where it is common, it found in a minority of graves suggesting that it was reserved for a specific, presumably elite group. They are also common around foritifications in the Roman province of Pannonia. In these eastern areas, the modifications are found among a riot of mixed styles in grave goods and in local style graves. Harkenbeck (2009) suggests that the eastern modifications represent a frontier hybrid culture that was encouraged to develope a local identity.

2009 Hakenbeck

Modified skull in Late Antique Europe. Red circle encloses the Bavarian cases. (Modified from Hakenbeck 2009)

Modified skulls found west of the Alps paint a very different picture. They are thinly spread over a vast area including Bavaria, Bohemia, the Rhine valley, and into southern France. The big difference is that 71% are female and their dates are restricted to the mid-fifth to mid-sixth centuries (Hakenbeck 2009). There are no modified skulls in children suggesting that the modification method was not actively practiced in these communities at all. According to Hakenbeck, 98% of those found in Bavaria and central Germany are mature adults or elderly. She notes that they are primarily found along the Rhine and Danuabe rivers that were highways as much as frontier borders. Indeed, their frontier status was only contemporary with the Roman empire. These rivers were not frontiers before or after the Roman empire.  In Bavaria, they cluster around the Danuabe and down along the River Isar including at Alternerding and Straubing. Hakenbeck suggests that these indicate the increased female migration at marriage that genetics suggests usually happens in a more archaeologically invisible way. She notes that the five women with modified skulls at Alternerding were dressed and buried in an unremarkable local pattern with very typical grave goods of mixed styles.


‘Hunnic’ modified skulls from Alternerding with accompanying grave goods. Hakenbeck et al, 2010

The grave goods are mostly these brooches or clothing clasps. Hakenbeck notes Frankish/Almannic, Ostrogothic, Thuringian and even rarely Anglo-Saxon styles. Even when a brooch represented one foreign style, it was still worn in a local pattern reflecting being worn on clothing of a local sytle. The mixture of styles (often within the same piece) tells me that they were more fashion than markers of ethnicity. These must represent artisans who felt free to experiment with different styles and still sell their wares. None of these sites are really high status enough to represent royal or elite interests.

Inidcators of female migration go beyond the cranial modification. Skeletal measurements of males and females in Bavaria (at Altenerding and Neuburg near Straubing) suggest that the genders have different source populations. Hakenbeck (2009) notes that in the past jewelry was used to trace migrations but this is directly contradicted by biological analysis in Germanic areas where skull modification and isotopes often contradict the origins of material goods. The migration of women occurred at all social levels and was not associated with folk movements, tribal migrations or military expansions. Bavarian isotopic data is not very clear but the outliers do support some of the women having a significantly different diet for part of their lives.

One interesting grave discussed by Hakenbeck (2009, 2010) was of a high status elderly woman whose burial and grave goods connect her with Scandinavia or the Baltic.  Her isotopic data support her being a migrant. Along with some Anglo-Saxon influence in some of the jewelry, she is a reminder that communication and/or migration occurred with people to the north as well.

Hakenbeck (2011) proposes that Alternerding was is the result of two to three large extended kindreds with their associated staff.   The first generation had more distinctive styles that eventually became a more common, mixed style goods. Each family seems to have had its own section of the cemetery surrounding a founder grave.  The men in these areas had more similar accoutraments most likely related to current military affiliations. Weapons in the graves along with some high status brooches suggest that these were freemen. Interestingly, she noted that in the seventh century Byzantine and perhaps Lombard fashions began increasing in the Bavaria. Once the Byzantines were satisfied with the Franks holding a northern border including Bavaria, the Franks (and their territories) were allowed to prosper from close ties with the Byzantines and the Lombards. Symbols of Christianity do not appear in Bavaria until the seventh century along with the Byzantine influence. The appearance of the first Bavarian dukes in the mid-sixth century also stimulated the begennings of the development a Bavarian style.

The mechanism behind this fifth to sixth century migration is not well understood. Do these marriages reflect trade links? Alternatively, did men of all social levels seek wives from distant communities? Were these marriages made during military service far from home? Could some of them have been slaves taken as wives?  Afterall, two Merovingian kings married slaves who became, as far as we can tell, full status queens.  Obviously, long distance marriage does not necessarliy mean continuing long distance connections. It is notable though that the presence of these modified skulls end about 550 CE. Those of us interested in the plague have to realize that the Gothic War was probably a bigger factor in altering migration in the Danube valley than the plague. The Goths provide an environment where connections to the Black Sea area would have been possible. The impact of the Gothic war on migration, military movements, trade and communication has to be a major factor in looking at the plague in this region.



Hakenbeck, S. (2009). “Hunnic”modified skulls: physical appearance, identity and the transformative nature of migrations. In Mortuary Practices and Social Identities in the Middle Ages. University of Exeter Press.

Hakenbeck, S. (2011). Roman or Barbarian? Shifting identites in early medieval cemeteries in Bavaria. Post-Classical Archaeologies, (1), 37–66.

Hakenbeck, S., McManus, E., Geisler, H., Grupe, G., & O’Connell, T. (2010). Diet and mobility in Early Medieval Bavaria: a study of carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 143(2), 235–249.

Wagner, D. M., Klunk, J., Harbeck, M., Devault, A., Waglechner, N., Sahl, J. W., et al. (2014). Yersinia pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541–543 AD: a genomic analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 14(4), 1–8.

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.

Holmes on Animals in Saxon & Scandinavian England

Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. Sidestone Press, 2014.

I didn’t plan on writing another book review this soon but I do have to share the news on this book – my find of the month. I discovered that this valuable book is available from the publisher in PDF form for only  € 4.50 ! Its also available in print for about $40 and somewhere in between for e-books from other vendors. The PDF works just fine on e-readers.

On to the review: This is the publication of Matilda Holmes PhD thesis on archaeozoology of early medieval England. Holmes cataloged and analyzed 315 archaeological reports or collections from 241 sites. Results are segregated into Early Saxon (450-650 AD), Middle Saxon (650-850 AD), Late Saxon (850-1066 AD), and Saxo-Norman. Not only does she catalog the regular domestic animals (cows, pigs, sheep/goats) but also horses, dogs, chickens and geese. It doesn’t stop there! She also does a variety of deer, hares, 38 species of wild birds, 27 taxa of freshwater and migratory fish, and 37 marine taxa of fish. The main domestic species- cattle, pigs, and sheep – have additional data on age and distribution of butchered parts. All of this data is listed by site and period. She then analyzes it for type of site to look at the economy and evolution of sites like wics and ecclesiastical sites. So if you want to know exactly what was found at Ælfric’s abbey at Eynsham it is here for domestics, game, fish and fowel. Same for site of Hartlepool for the entire period, and multiple collections for sites like York or Wroxter. Unfortunately the ongoing excavations from Lyminge are not included, and neither are the excavations from Bamburgh. I suppose these haven’t been published yet.

I haven’t had time to completely explore all the data tables. A few things jumped out though. Remember that story in Bede’s History that Bishop Wilfrid taught the people of Sussex to fish for something other than eels? Well, guess what, the only fish remains found at Bishopstone in Sussex in the Early Saxon period are eels (freshwater) and whiting (marine). Not an abundance of fish species. This of course doesn’t really say anything about the Wilfrid story other than that they really did fish for eels.  Overall, eels are very abundant at sites all over England. So were pigs in towns, as well as in rural areas. Its not surprising that there were significant differences between rural areas and wics or burghs, but former Roman towns also had distinctive profiles including the early period of Wroxter. There is so much data here it will take a while to digest.

This is an interesting book for practically any topic involving animals in early England. The data presented there is likely to be the foundation for many studies to come and the PDF is at a price that can’t be beat. I couldn’t help but think of the novelists who read here and how useful this would be for them. I hope you all check it out.

Aberth’s An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: Crucible of Nature

John Aberth. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature. Routledge, 2013. 326 pages.


Although the title of John Aberth’s book An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature is almost identical to Richard Hoffman’s book recently reviewed here, they couldn’t be more different. Aberth’s book is a cultural history of human thought and use of the environment, an entirely emic perspective. The focus is on humans, not the environment itself. 

He divides the material into three sections: air, water and earth; forest; and beasts. While this may make some sense for descriptive organizational purposes, it is really antithetical to an environmental history. An environment is the inseparable combination of the three. It reads like a series of anecdotes on topics that are of interest to Aberth, with some nod toward being wide-ranging. It is restricted almost exclusively to Europe and then primarily to the later Middle Ages. The main problem is that there are no research questions posed or arguments made. I come away from the book without a clear sense of something new that I can apply elsewhere. 

This is not to say that a cultural history of human interaction and thought on nature isn’t important. In Gregg Mitman’s 2005 paper on the history of environmental thinking in America,  he shows how these concepts have shaped how we think about human health, our place in nature, and the health of nature itself (and therefore our ability to exploit it for economic gain). These same concepts were present in the Middle Ages and could have been analyzed in a way that contributed to ongoing research topics especially in the 13th and 14th centuries. 

If you are looking for a survey of thought and use of nature without a particular research topic, you may enjoy this book. I prefer at least some data and scientific or medical information in environmental histories. 



Mitman, G. (2005). In search of health: Landscape and disease in American environmental history. Environmental History, 184–210.

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014

Sept. 7, 2014

CFP: Medieval Landscapes of Disease

Call for Papers
Medieval Landscapes of Disease
50th International Congress of Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, MI   — May 14-17, 2015
 In recognition that diseases are manifestations of their environment, this session seeks papers that place medieval diseases within their environmental context. Just as a seed must be placed in good soil to grow, infectious disease requires a permissive environment to develop into an epidemic (or epizootic) and an ideal environment to bloom into a pandemic or panzootic.  I am open to all manner of studies and disciplines that address these issues.
Examples of acceptable topics:
  • Historic impacts of  epidemics and/or epizootics
  • Endemic disease in medieval environments
  • Environmental causes of disease such as malnutrition or industrial pollution related disease
  • Health effects of human-animal interactions
  • Archaeological assessments of human health and disease
  • Landscape alterations intended to improve human or animal health
  • Ecology of the built environment

Abstracts of no more than 300 words and the Participant Information Form should be sent to Michelle Ziegler at by September 15. Pre-submission queries are welcome.

The Participant Information Form and additional information be found at

Hoffmann’s An Environmental History of Medieval Europe

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014. $25 paperback, $12.50 e-book.

History roots in time and place — establishing situations, telling stories, comparing stories, linking stories. Environmental history brings the natural world into the story as an agent and object of history. This is medieval history as if nature mattered. (p. 3)

As a biologist, it is almost unimaginable to me for the natural world not to be a factor in history – not in a deterministic way – but as an integral component. This is a reminder to me, and now to you, that I read medieval history through a different lens. This book is very consciously a textbook  intended for historians and history students. As the very first  medieval environmental history textbook, Hoffmann is very carefully laying the theoretical foundation for a new sub-discipline. For non-historians, it provides insight into historians methods, concerns, and in some cases anxieties.

To study history as if nature mattered requires coming to an understanding of how culture and nature interact and the types of evidence available. In the introduction Hoffmann discusses a hybrid model of culture and nature that provides a more complete understanding of the medieval world. An important point here is that unintentional and unconscious human activities have real impacts on the environment, other species, and eventually feeding back on human culture in sometimes unexpected ways. This is especially true of anthropogenic remodeling of the landscape that affects species contemporaries were either completely unconscious of or at least are absent from medieval documents. Hoffmann gives the introduction of malaria to the Rhine delta  by Roman soldiers as an example (p. 9).  He also discusses the human mediated introduction of invasive species, the common carp and rabbit, that altered the biodiversity of Europe. Thus making humans both indirectly and directly responsible for local extinctions of native European fauna. As a biologist, the hybrid culture-nature model feels very instinctive and reminds me of Edmund Russell’s evolutionary history work.

Shifting through the evidence for environmental history is the tricky part. Hoffmann establishes the distinction between emic and etic evidence but doesn’t dwell on the terms. Yet, his framework is basically a division of emic (‘cultural’) and etic (‘culturally neutral’) types of evidence, where culture is largely traditional historical emic evidence and nature is primarily (but not exclusively) etic. Hoffmann wrestles with how to justify and integrate these two types of evidence throughout the book. At times it felt to me like he was being too apologetic for the scientific evidence, but this may reflect my own comfort zone. There are two chapters on cultural topics – attitudes toward God’s creation and on ownership of land, which are out of my comfort zone so I will leave those to others. The remainder are a mixture of etic and emic types of evidence.

Hoffmann opens the historical discussion with a valuable chapter demolishing all ideas of an European wilderness at the dawn of the medieval period.  Europe had been inhabited and sculpted by humans over thousands of years before 500 AD. For example, the great Beech forests of Europe only took hold because of human induced livestock and agricultural practices during the Iron Age.  Literary references to wilderness are at best secondary growth (and therefore anthropomorphic regrowth), and often pure rhetoric.

From here he moves into my period of greatest  interest, the early medieval or late antique period. All across Europe this was a period of unrelated political and ecological instability. Hoffmann rightly warns us against ecological determinism. Rome imploded for its own political reasons; ecological instability was a complication for the recovery. Moreover, Hoffman notes that the three ecological zones of Europe — the Atlantic or maritime zone, the continental zone and the Mediterranean – did not experience the same ecological change during the Roman period or the early medieval period that followed. Overall, it became much more difficult to sustain the Roman favored Mediterranean “agroecosystem” north of the Alps. The climate of the Roman Optimum not only allowed grapes to be grown in Britain, but more importantly allowed extensive expansion of wheat growing areas northward. As the climate cooled cereal production fell to be replaced by a mixed agriculture system that looked much more like pre-Roman northern Europe. All across Europe Roman settlements and building styles were abandoned as people spread out over the land. For the first time nucleated villages with new field systems developed replacing the Roman estate system. Case studies of Frisia and the founding community of Venice serve as examples of cultures that flourished in the cooler, wetter climate. Under the Carolingians, an amalgamation of Roman and barbarian agricultural systems emerges as the bipartite manor system with the family farm as the base unit that will last through the rest of the medieval period. The long 8th century (roughly 680s to 830s) is a turning point in the maturation of new medieval agricultural systems not only within Carolingian lands, but also in frontier areas like Ireland and Scandinavia.

The core of the book are the three chapters on medieval land use and management of living and non-living ecosystems. Although all of these chapters are rooted in the early medieval period, they really focus on 900-1500. I will not try to summarize the material in these intricate chapters. I particularly liked the material on land use, and milling technology. Focus is clearly on ‘agroecosystems’ and on rural life. The urban environment is restricted to a short section of the non-living ecosystem management chapter. Its placement in this chapter strikes me as odd.  As he just explained in the previous chapters on land use and agriculture, these are all man made environments.  I would have liked to see an entire chapter on urban environments, and some discussion of the built environment and its ecosystem.

I am thrilled that Hoffmann included chapters on infectious disease and natural disasters. The infectious disease chapter begins with a basic introduction to infectious disease in pre-industrial Europe and then examines ‘five’ diseases in particular – malaria, leprosy, Justinian plague, the Black Death and English sweating sickness. There are some substantial problems with the plague case studies. First, he leaves the etiology still open when there is now scientific consensus that the Yersinia pestis aDNA from both the plague of Justinian and the Black Death are both ancient, accurate, and the cause of death of these individuals. He uses a plague wave map which is no longer considered representative of the spread of disease (see Mengal 2011). It is also well known now that the black rat is only one of many hosts of the plague and that historical accounts can no longer rise or fall based on rat demographics. Yersinia pestis has not attenuated for any host: rodent, flea or mammalian host; it doesn’t need to. The old paradigm that successful infectious agents eventually attenuate to their hosts quietly fell some time ago. Human ectoparasites including the human flea and (experimentally) human louse can transmit Y. pestis to humans.  The genetics is muddled – for example, Y. pestis doesn’t have mitochondrial DNA!  Like many histories of the plague there are some significant misunderstandings of how immunity works and how long it lasts in a population. Acquired immunity (gained by surviving an infection) is not hereditary. Therefore there is no reason to believe that communities would have immunity stretching between the first and second plague pandemic.  Much of the modern thinking on the Black Death will be summarized and further developed in the upcoming inaugural issue of the Medieval Globe, edited by Monica Green and entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death due to be released in November 2014. Past plague discoveries have been discussed on my other blog Contagions. I also suggest Barrett and Armelagos’ The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections (2013) for a general discussion of infectious disease in anthropomorphic environments.

Moving on to the ‘inconstant planet’, I really enjoyed this chapter. Earthquakes, floods, climate change, and volcanoes all impacted medieval Europe. A little more on flooding and river systems would have been appreciated. Despite not having an active volcano, analysis of ice cores indicates that some of Europe’s most significant climate crises were fallout from volcanic activity outside of Europe. These volcanic induced climate crises highlight how difficult it is to use climate data for historical purposes. Extreme weather had a sharper impact on historical accounts than slow climate change trends. I won’t say that one was more important than the other because it depends on the question being asked. Hoffmann offers some important perspectives on wrestling with climate and extreme weather events, that do increase during times of climate change (warming and cooling).

Hoffmann has crafted a fine text to lay the foundation for the hopefully growing sub-discipline of environmental history in the Middle Ages. With the exception of the plague material, he has done a remarkable job covering such a vast amount of material. With books of this type, there can always be more material to wish for and other options for organizing the material. This does not distract from the value of this book. I expect that this book will be reprinted and perhaps updated for many years to come. I would be remiss if I did not point out to the publisher, that this book really needs a new index before it is reprinted. Why they chose to index only one specific organism (the beaver?!) is beyond me. This book is rightly full of material on all types of livestock, wildlife, plants and even microbes, but this index is of little help to find them! The trend toward e-books with search features does not replace the need for a good index.

It really is critical to understand the medieval environment to provide context to modern environmental history, as well as medieval history in general.  I look forward to more historians becoming involved in interdisciplinary work with archaeologist, climatologists, and others working with past environments.

See also:

Edmund Russell. Evolutionary History: Uniting history and biology to understand life on Earth. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Mengel, D C. “A Plague on Bohemia? Mapping the Black Death.” Past & Present 211, no. 1 (May 27, 2011): 3–34. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq069.

Ron Barrett and George Armelagos, The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death , edited by Monica Green, due to be released in November 2014