Barbarians, Historians, and the Construction of National Identities


This article looks at the changing discourse in the historiography of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, and the way in which that discourse is influenced by and influences attitudes toward the nation. Although the arrival of Germanic peoples had been an issue before the early eighteenth century, in the last century of the Ancien Regime the history of the Franks suddenly became a matter of major debate because it was seen as being relevant to the position of the aristocracy. This essentially class model then was applied to a reading of early Lombard history, where it had particular resonance because of the presence in Italy of outside powers, the removal of which was central to the Risorgimento. In the course of the nineteenth century, discussion of the barbarians took on a new phase, not least because it became involved in the definition of Germany, and, most importantly the frontiers of the new German state. Although methodologies changed, not least because of the development of archaeology, this was to provide a dominant focus for the study of the barbarians down to 1945. Although there has been significant academic debate since the Second World War, the most high-profile discussion of the Germanic peoples now takes place in exhibitions, where a central issue is the question of the definition of Europe and the EU.