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Ethnic Identity

Ethnic Identity

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Published by momosampler

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Published by: momosampler on May 06, 2010
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04/11/2013

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Ethnic identity among the barbarians of thelate imperial and post-Roman period
 
Eric Limbach11/03
 
 2
The problem of barbarian identity in the post-Imperial period has, over the past fewdecades, become one of the major areas of research and debate among scholars of late antiquityand the early Middle Ages. In order to provide an overview of recent work in this field, severalpoints need to be addressed. The first is the importance of national histories in Europe over thepast few centuries, an emphasis that was maintained from the Renaissance through much of thetwentieth century. However, events of the twentieth century discredited much of this earlierwork, as nationalistic movements (especially in Germany) based many of their claims of superiority on ethnic histories. The expansion of historical methodologies over the last hundredyears has also influenced the study of ethnic identity, as archaeologists, anthropologists andsociologists have begun to make their own major contributions, leading to questions about earlierassumptions and conclusions. Much of the current debate stems from the theoretical nature of these disciplines. The issue of early medieval identity is also tied up with other discussionsregarding the nature of late imperial Roman society, as well as the evolution of political authorityover the course of the first millennium. Political and social historians are therefore forced toaddress the various points of the identity debate even as they present their own research on post-imperial society or the growth of barbarian kingdoms in Western Europe.It is important to come to terms with the uses of identity and ethnicity throughout the pastfew centuries. The historiography of barbarian identity dates back to the rediscovery of Tacitus’s
Germania
in the fifteenth century and its use, along with the
Getica
and
 Historia Langobardorum
of Jordanes and Paul the Deacon, respectively, by sixteenth century scholars to
 
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create a Germanic past in opposition to the Roman culture upheld by the Renaissance. Theauthors of the earliest histories of ethnicity intended to not only create the idea of an unbrokenline of ethnic identification extending back through history, but to provide justification for eachparticular group wishing to subscribe to a certain identity.
1
This led to a conception of ethnicitythat was objectively biological and, in many cases, territorial. Such assumptions were central tothe field of ethnicity research for centuries, and when combined with the past-oriented Romanticmovement of the nineteenth century, they contributed to numerous ethnically based nationalidentities across Europe. While these ideal identities were intended to foster national unity andpride across the boundaries of class, wealth and political views, extreme versions produced aparticularly violent and superior version of nationalism most associated by Hitler and the NaziParty in mid-twentieth century Germany.
2
 However, one cannot use past abuses of history to discredit the entire identity debate.Few scholars, if any, would today make the same arguments as have been written in pastcenturies regarding the superiority (and victory) of Germanic culture over that of the Romans.However, this does not mean that the field of ethnic identity research is lacking in controversy;several different theories of ethnicity have gained wide support over the course of the past half-century. Many scholars have debated the traditional thesis, dating back to the Renaissance, that
1
Andrew Gillett, “Introduction: Ethnicity, History and Methodology” in On BarbarianIdentity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Andrew Gillett(Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2002), 5.
2
For an excellent overview of the uses and misuses of ethnic identity, see theintroduction and first chapter of Patrick Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). Note especially the change from theeighteenth century, when ethnic identity was used to uphold class privilege. Geary points outthat for centuries, the French aristocracy had considered themselves as descended from theFranks, while the commoners were the Romano-Gallic natives their “ancestors” had subjugatedduring the fifth and sixth centuries. This played into the revolutionary rhetoric of Abbé Sieyès,who considered the commoners the “true French people” as opposed to the Germanic invaderswho had repressed them for centuries.

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