This week we take a look at barbarians, or more specifically what words we have used for them. A barbarian is, of course, an uncivilized person, or perhaps more accurately someone from a civilization or culture other than our own. In English usage, the words barbarian and barbarous date to the 16th century. The obsolete barbar was in use earlier, dating to the 14th century. The English word is borrowed from the French and ultimately comes from Latin and Greek. The origin in Greek is probably echoic, the bar-bar as mimicry of what a foreign and unintelligible language sounded like. In ancient Greece, the word was used to refer to anyone from a non-Hellenic culture. In Roman usage, the word was used to mean someone who was neither Roman nor Greek, and in later usage to anyone from outside the empire.
Rome was, as we leaned in History class, subjected to several waves of barbarian invasions and Rome itself was sacked several times. This imagery has given rise to the phrase barbarians at the gates. I can only date this phrase to 1922. (If you know of earlier uses, please post them to the site’s discussion forum.)
So who were these barbarians who played such an important role in the fall of Rome?
Most of these were German tribes. The word German comes to us from Latin, where it was used to refer to any of a number of Teutonic peoples. It is not, however, from a known Teutonic root. The Teutonic tribes did not use this word for themselves. Instead, it is widely thought to be of Celtic origin, originally used by a Celtic people in northeastern Gaul (modern France) who were conquered by a Teutonic tribe and the name transferred to the conquerors. It is suggested that the Celtic root is gair, meaning neighbor, or gairm, battle-cry.
One of these Germanic invaders of Rome was the Vandals. They were a tribe that invaded Western Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries, eventually migrating to North Africa. Along the way, they sacked Rome in 455. The name Vandal is from the Latin name for the tribe. The word has been used since the 17th century to describe anyone who willfully destroys or defaces property.
Another tribe was the Goths. They invaded Western Europe in the 3rd through 5th centuries. English use of the tribal name dates to ca. 900. In 17th century, the meaning expanded to include anyone who behaves like a barbarian. Also in that century the adjective Gothic, previously restricted to denote things related to the barbarian tribe, expanded in meaning to include anything medieval, especially architecture. In the 19th century there was a revival of this architectural style and because of this, the term Gothic came to also be applied to certain genres of 19th century literature. More recently, starting in 1986, the term Goth has been used to describe a style of rock music and its fans, characterized by depressing lyrics, black clothing, and heavy eye makeup.
The Vikings were another group of Germanic invaders. Although they did not sack Rome, the Vikings were Scandinavian marauders of the 8th to 11th centuries who ravaged all the countries of Northern Europe, traveling as far as Moscow in the East and North America in the West. The word Viking is traditionally thought to be from the Old Norse vik, meaning creek, inlet, or bay, a reference to them coming from the sea. But the word is actually first found in Anglo-Frisian and is more likely from the Old English wic, meaning encampment or town. Like the Germans, outsiders applied the name to them. Viking was not common use in English in the centuries after the Viking invasions, undergoing a revival in English in the 19th century.
The Vikings are also called Norsemen. The adjective Norse is from a common Germanic root meaning north. The immediate source of the English word is either Dutch or Norwegian and dates to the 16th century. The term, however, did not originally refer to the Vikings, rather being used to refer to modern Norwegians. In the 19th century, the word began to be applied to the Vikings. Norse and Norsemen is also the root of the word Norman. The Normans being descended from Viking invaders of that region of France.
So if they weren’t called Vikings or Norsemen until the 19th century, what were they called? They were called Danes, a name that dates to 901. The Danes invaded and conquered much of northern and western England. It was only in more recent use when the term Dane became restricted to what is now known as Denmark. The area of England under Danish control was known as the Dane-law, a term in use since ca. 1050. And Danegeld, was an annual tax imposed to pay for protection against the Danes and sometimes to pay tribute to them to keep them from invading. Danegeld is not actually found until Norman times though, first appearing in the Domesday Book.
The Germans were not the only invaders of Western Europe as Rome faded. Various Asian peoples also made their way west to take their share of the spoils.
The Huns were an Asian nomadic people who invaded Europe in ca.375 and, under Atilla, ravaged Europe in the 5th century. The name has been in English use since sometime before 900. Since 1900, a Hun has been any person of brutal or violent character. The word is also associated with modern Germans, even though the Huns were not a Germanic people. This use comes from a quote made by Kaiser William II in 1900 during the siege of the Western legations in Beijing during the Boxer rebellion, "No quarter will be given, no prisoners will be taken. Let all who fall into your hands be at your mercy. Just as the Huns a thousand years ago, under the leadership of Attila gained a reputation in virtue of which they still live in historical tradition, so may the name of Germany become known in such a manner in China that no Chinaman will ever again even dare to look askance at a German." Once World War I started, Allied propagandists made the most of this quotation and the Germans became known as the Hun.
Less well known than the Huns, probably because they didn’t come as far west, were the Bulgars. They were a Central Asian tribe that invaded eastern Europe in the 2nd century, eventually settling in what is now Bulgaria in the 7th century.
A later Asian invader were the Mongols. The English word is taken from the French and ultimately comes from the Mongol name for themselves. The Mongol Empire, 1206-1368, established by Genghis Khan, stretched from Korea to Hungary.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton