Summarized Essential Characteristics of the Germanic Tribes


They had begun to give up a nomadic life and to settle in small village communities separated from each other by the forest. Their political institutions were primitive but important for the future. Law was administered through a tribal court, in which all the warriors of the community judged complaints brought by one member of the tribe against another. The court usually settled the matter either by allowing the defendant to take an oath of innocence provided he was supported by friends who swore to his reliability, or by putting the defendant to ordeal. In this case, he might be made to walk through fire. If he were innocent, his wounds would begin to heal in a few days. The chief was chosen by the warriors for his fitness to lead them in war. The warriors in turn swore personal allegiance to the chief, and became members of his group of warrior companions. Elective monarchy was thus accompanied by the principle of personal loyalty to one's lord, which became one of the primary social bonds in medieval European society. Beyond these facts, little is known about the German tribes before they began to press against the weakening Roman Empire in the late fourth century.


E – Not agricultural people; spend much of their life on horseback; generally take the goods they want/need from others at they conquer
S – Animal herders; expert horsemen, outstanding warriors; clothes are made from linen or animal skins; no respect for any religion
P – nomads; conquered neighboring tribes to start empire; continued to travel westward trying to obtain more land; attacked Goths and Roman Empire; monarchial form of government (first ruled by chieftains, later centralized under a king); generally fight from horseback; often considered to be homeless and lawless

The Goths (Visigoths and Ostrogoth)

E – Gained wealth from tolls paid by bordering areas of Roman Empire; were pushed by invading Huns, which in turn led to invading of others;
S – Enjoyed Roman ways of life adopted many of them; were Christian (Arian, not Roman Catholic)
– Ruled by a monarchial government; interacted frequently with Romans, formed treaties (agreements) outlining what they considered fair treatment – led to conflict when terms weren’t met

The Vandals

E – Took goods and riches from areas they invaded
S – Arian Christians; spent a great deal of time persecuting Roman Catholics
– Rough tribal government; ruled by monarch

The Vikings

E – spent much time raiding along coastal regions and rivers to take goods and riches; faming, fishing and trading were main activities; was an agricultural society, but as growing season was so short more goods were needed (through trade and/or raiding)
S – early on were polytheistic but later converted to Christianity; women had much more freedom and responsibility than others as the men were away for such long periods; were extremely skilled seamen; boats were superior to others of the time;
P – Government was monarchial in form, generally had chieftains or lords who oversaw the raiding gangs; loyalty was given to this chief, but each raiding group might not share loyalties

The Franks

E – Were able to meet needs of citizens within territories controlled; continued to expand empire to gain more land and wealth
S – converted to Christianity (close ties between church and monarchy); considered to be best example of combining the Roman and Germanic characteristics
P – Monarchy; tribes were loyal to leadership; leaders provided for and protected people within rule; often split ruling up (loyalty went to immediate superior, not one overlord/king)

The Anglo-Saxons

E – As moved south did not find acceptable farmland; took many goods/riches as invaded areas
S – Ignored most of Roman achievements as conquered; remained pagan (polytheistic) for most of era, were eventually converted to Christianity (Roman Catholic)
P – tribal system of government; ignored all Roman law 

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