"Gothic" architecture has nothing to do with the Goths. The Florentine Renaissance man Giorgio Vasari coined the term to express his disapproval of the typically (but not exclusively) northern European form of architecture that had flourished during the High Middle Ages. During the Renaissance many Italians and others looked with disgust on the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and their own time. It was what Petrarch called the Dark Ages— an epoch dominated by barbaric peoples (like the Goths) with ugly names who wrote uglier Latin.
Reims Cathedral. The Goths did not build this.
One of the Many Terrible Theories to Come Out of the 19th and 20th Centuries
While the Renaissance scholars were mostly using the term “Goth” as a conveniently derogatory appellation for the medieval civilization they despised, scholars in Germany, England, the U.S., and elsewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries began to develop (with sinister consequences) racial theories of history that (contra Petrarch, Vasari et al.) praised the Germanic barbarians (e.g. the Goths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Norse, etc.) as a noble “Teutonic" race that purified the decadent and venal culture of the Mediterranean world. The more Teutonic a race was, the more superior it was. Based on these this theory, the Prussians could assert their racial superiority over the Slavic Poles and the English could justify their rule over the Celtic Irish. Some of these historians and pseudo-historians went to absurd lengths to defend their nonsensical theory in the face of historical reality. For example, they attempted to explain the cultural achievements of Italians from Virgil to DaVinci by inventing the idea that the ancient Romans were actually racially "Nordic" (modern Italians being the descendants of Roman slaves) and the Renaissance only flourished in places where the barbaric Germans had settled in large numbers.
This above map is (dangerous) nonsense. (From Madison Grant’s infamous Passing of the Great Race (1916)
Of course these racial theories were less a reflection of actual history than they were of 19th and 20th century ideologies: nationalism, imperialism, Darwinism, eugenics, etc. In his insightful little book A Short History of England (which is really a commentary on early 20th century England rather than a scholarly history), G.K. Chesterton points out the absurdity of these racial theories of history:
I know of no way in which fair-haired people can be prevented from falling in love with dark-haired people; and I do not believe that whether a man was long-headed or round-headed ever made much difference to any one who felt inclined to break his head. To all mortal appearance, in all mortal records and experience, people seem to have killed or spared, married or refrained from marriage, made kings or made slaves, with reference to almost any other consideration except this one. There was the love of a valley or a village, a site or a family; there were enthusiasms for a prince and his hereditary office; there were passions rooted in locality, special emotions about sea-folk or mountain-folk; there were historic memories of a cause or an alliance; there was, more than all, the tremendous test of religion. But of a cause like that of the Celts or Teutons, covering half the earth, there was little or nothing. Race was not only never at any given moment a motive, but it was never even an excuse. The Teutons never had a creed; they never had a cause; and it was only a few years ago that they began even to have a cant.
Was Early Medieval Civilization a “Germanic” Civilization?
But even if we reject these racial histories, as we should, we are nonetheless confronted with the question of how much credit (or blame) to attribute to the Germanic barbarians for the new civilization that was born in the ruins of the Western Roman Empire. What were the effects of the barbarian settlement and migration— or peuplement (to use a fancier French word) of Western Europe?
On the one hand, the histories of the fifth and sixth century do indeed describe a clear rupture with the Roman past and the emergence of a much poorer, more violent world with rude and strange customs. Even during the High Middle Ages (more than half a millennium after the barbarian invasions) Byzantine and Arab observers describe the “Franks” as barbarians. On the other hand, we can still trace the endurance of Romance languages and the Catholic religion. And its obvious to everyone that the people of Italy, Spain, and much of France, generally don’t look like Germans.
In his chapter “Barbarian Invasions” in the New Cambridge Medieval History (2008), University of York professor Guy Halsall describes two conflicting historiographies of the barbarian invasions. There is the “Germanist” or “catastrophe” view “which, put bluntly, holds that everything new and different about the fifth, sixth, seventh and later centuries must be attributed to ‘Germanic’ influence.” In contrast, there is the “Romanist” or “continuity” view which holds that the Germanic barbarians created little that was new. In this picture, the migrations are the movements of small warrior elites (and some extreme versions come close to denying that anyone moved at all), and so are unlikely to have been able to bring about such sweeping changes. The administration of the former provinces was essentially that of the Roman Empire, run by Roman provincials for their new barbarian masters; barbarian kingship was largely modelled on imperial Christian Roman ideas; there was continuity of settlement patterns, even if the forms changed; the towns were simply continuing in a process of change which began as early as the third century; and so on.”
The Germanic invasions certainly changed many aspects of Western European culture. For example, a glance at chronicles from the early Middle Ages reveals that Greco-Latin names have been replaced by Germanic names. Instead of names like Antonius, Gaius, and Flavius we begin to encounter Hildebrand, Landulf, and Theodoric. Even more familiar sounding names like William, Robert, Albert, and Louis are Germanic in origin. But this does not prove that the people of Western Europe had become Germanic any more than the proliferation of Brians and Seans and Danielles and Michelles proves that the Americans with those names are ethnically Irish or French.
The Germanic barbarians also seemed to have a small impact on languages like French, Spanish and Italian (which at the time were dialects of vulgar Latin). For example, the Germans probably introduced the consonants “h” and “w” into French (w would later be rendered as “gu”). Another example of Germanic linguistic influence can be seen in the word for “war” in French (guerre), Spanish and Italian (guerra). These words are Germanic in origin and are unrelated to the Latin word “bellum." (It is not surprising that military words would be based on the language of the military elite (the German barbarians). An analogous situation can be seen in the few Arabic-derived words in Spanish like alcazar (citadel or palace))
But these Germanic linguistic influences are the exception that proves the rule. Despite the barbarian invasions, Romance languages continued to dominate Italy, Gaul, and Spain. In religion too the populations of Italy and Spain remained overwhelmingly Catholic even though the Ostrogothic and Visigothic rulers following the Arian heresy (the Frankish king Clovis adopted Catholicism early on). Thus, two of the most important characteristics of late Roman civilization—Latin language and Catholic religion—endured despite the Germanic invasions. (Although the other pillar of Roman society—Roman law—was lost for a few centuries.)
The biggest exception was Britain. There, both the Latin language and the Christian religion completely disappeared following the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the difference between Britain and continental Europe is that the barbarians settled in greater numbers in Britain than they did elsewhere. Although it is impossible to know for sure, the consensus among historians seems to be that the ethnically barbarian population was no higher than 25% of the total population in northern Gaul and probably less (perhaps much less) than 10% in southern Gaul, Spain, and Italy. That would explain why these territories returned they Roman culture—at least in terms of religion and language.
Yet this is not the only possible explanation. As Halsall points out: “in southern Gaul and sixth-century Italy and Spain, Roman identity, especially amongst the aristocracy, was important, a source of pride which could be deployed against the parvenus, the barbarians and their hangers on” in contrast. In Britain, however, “Roman identity counted for much less” thus the population may have been more willing to adopt the ways of the Anglo-Saxons or revert back to Celtic customs.
Present-day Language map of Europe
Roman Empire in the 4th century
But if the people of Gaul, Spain, and Italy remained mostly Roman, why did they call themselves, Franks, Goths, and Lombards?
Perhaps the most significant obstacle to understanding the cultural continuity among the vast majority of the populations in Western Europe (outside of Britain and parts of northeast Gaul) is the fact that people began to adopt Germanic names and embrace the demonyms of their barbaric conquerors. The seventh-century bishop of Toledo, Sisebert, may not have known a word of Gothic and may have been descended from an old Roman family, but as long as he has the name Sisebert it’s hard (for me at least) not to picture him as a seven-foot-tall blond with trousers. As Halsall point out:
By 700, to all intents and purposes, everyone north of the Loire was a Frank, everyone in the south-east was a Burgundian, everyone in Spain was a Goth; everyone in lowland Britain was some sort of Anglo-Saxon; you had to go to Italy to find Romans. Where had the Romans gone? …[T]he categories of Roman and barbarian were fluid. In the post-Roman centuries this could be graphically illustrated. In Ostrogothic Italy, the Gothic rulers were almost never referred to as barbarians; barbarians were other foreigners, even other Goths! On the other hand, in the Burgundian kingdom, the label barbarian could be actively appropriated by the Burgundians to describe themselves. In Gaul, the Roman/barbarian dichotomy was turned to describe Catholic Christian as opposed to heretics or pagans. By the eighth century a bored Bavarian scribe could even turn the old attitudes on their head and write (in Latin!) ‘Romans are stupid; Bavarians are wise.’55
The new political identities of the Goths, Franks, Burgundians, Angles or Saxons could hence be adopted without much disgrace. This was particularly so in that it was the military elites of these people, the armed warriors, who called themselves Goths, Saxons or whatever, in the new kingdoms, and who held the military and political power… . [T]here was frequently a bipartite division of labour: barbarians fought; Romans paid taxes, so becoming a barbarian could bring with it tax exemption. In the post-Roman legal codes the ‘barbarian’ element of the population was often given legal privilege, another reason to adopt a barbarian ethnic identity. Even Gregory of Tours, a senatorial south Gallic aristocrat, had a maternal great uncle called Gundulf, a barbarian name perhaps associated with the fact that Gundulf had taken service in the Austrasian Frankish court. Returning to local communities, we can see that the adoption of a new ethnic identity could be important in striving for authority and power against rivals, especially in situations where people were looking for new sources of authority
How did one become a barbarian? Names were one way, as the example of Gundulf shows.We occasionally get references to individuals with two names, one Roman and one barbarian, revealing this process in action.
Thus, the adoption of Germanic names and identify was what the great French historian Marc Bloch described (in another context) as a form of assimilation to “a victorious caste” and a “pretension to social distinction.”
So, does it really matter that Italy, Spain, and Gaul remained largely Latin or Roman despite the Germanic barbarian invasions? Not really—and certainly not as much as many historians in the 19th and early 20th centuries would have claimed. But it is nonetheless important to dispel the myth that the culture of the Middle Ages was a Germanic phenomenon. The populations retained the most important aspects of their Roman culture-their language and their religion. Although, ethnicity and culture was certainly malleable, many of the characteristics of early medieval civilization that are sometimes described as “Germanic” could just as easily be attributed to the disappearance of material wealth and the simplification, and de-urbanization of society.
Ultimately, the civilization of the Early Middle Ages in Western Europe was neither Roman nor Germanic but a fusion of Latin, Greek, barbarian, and even Arabic elements that bloomed into something truly new.