Gateway to the Classics: The Middle Ages by Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp
The Middle Ages by  Ellwood Wadsworth Kemp

The Teutonic Children of the Woods, and How They Lived

Do you recall how we said Greece consisted of a peninsula which had extending out from it many smaller peninsulas, something like the palm of one's hand with the stubby fingers extending from it? If we look at the map of Europe, we see that in this respect Europe is a large pattern of Greece, for it is in fact only a large peninsula of Asia and, in turn, has many smaller peninsulas extending from it. Looking at the map of Europe as a whole, you see on the south, projecting into the calm, sunny Mediterranean Sea, Greece, Italy and Spain, of which we have already learned so much; extending out into the more stormy seas of the North are the Scandinavian peninsula and the peninsula of Denmark.

Europe is not large when compared with Asia and Africa, but it almost equals either one of them in the amount of seacoast it has. This is because there are so many arms of the sea extending far into the land and so many peninsulas running out into the sea. These help to break up the land into many divisions, and you have already seen, in earlier volumes of this series, how one people lived in Greece, another in Italy, and still another in Spain, each of these very unlike the others until they learned to know their neighbor states.

Not far from the center of Europe are the Alps, the highest of all the European mountains. From these central highlands many smaller ranges run out in every direction, making a slope to every side. You have already seen how the Apennines, extending down through Italy, form the backbone of that country. The Pyrenees extend to the west and cut off the peninsula of Spain from the rest of Europe. Mountains also extend northward, dividing Germany into many parts. Others extend to the east, run down into Greece and break up that country into many separate little states. In fact, in thus being greatly cut up by mountains, Europe is much like Greece, just as she is in way of peninsulas.

Rising in the great mountain center of Europe are many rivers. The three most important ones are the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone, all of which begin at no great distance from one another, but each flows in a different direction. The Danube, which is the largest, flows southeast and empties its waters into the Black Sea; the Rhine flows to the northwest, between cliffs, through mountain valleys, out over the plain, and reaches the North Sea; the Rhone flows southwest and, cutting the Pyrenees from the Alps, at last reaches the western Mediterranean. Many smaller rivers tumble down from the slopes into these larger streams, so that Europe is abundantly supplied with water for pasture and boats.

Thus you see, no doubt, that Europe, cut up by its mountains, with its many river valleys, is quite different, for example, from Egypt with its single river and its one fruitful plain. In Egypt all the people, since they lived in the same valley and used the same river for passing from one place to another and lived on the same kind of soil, acted and thought in very much the same way, thus making one united country which could easily be ruled by a single king.

Over in Greece, where the country was cut up into many valleys, shut off from one another by the mountains, we saw earlier how hard it was for the people to act and think and work together, even when there was great danger, as in the time when Darius and Xerxes were driven back from Marathon and Salamis. The mountains, too, made it easy for the people of one valley to defend themselves against those of another; so each little tribe became quite independent, and whenever it could take advantage of its neighbors, it would rarely fail to do so.

Now Europe, with its center occupied by so many great mountains and divided by many rivers, afforded just such a chance to the people scattered over it. We have already seen how hard it was for Hannibal to cross the Pyrenees, and to take his elephants over the Rhone, and at last, to climb the Alps to get into Italy. In the same way it was just as hard for the Romans to get out of Italy into France, or into any of the states north of the Alps,—yes, even harder, for the Roman side of the Alps was steeper than the other. Now all of these things helped to make Europe develop into many states and governments instead of just one, as we, for example, in the United States have.

When Cæsar crossed the Alps and conquered the Gauls in France, he found in many places large fields of grain planted and carefully tended by the people who lived there. The country was quite level and open, so Cæsar and his Roman legions with little trouble succeeded in conquering the Gauls and in making them a part of the great nation of Rome.

Sometime later Drusus, another Roman, crossed the Rhine, aiming to conquer the people there as Cæsar had conquered the Gauls. He did not succeed so well, for he found a cold country hard to winter in and a people quite different from those which Cæsar found in Gaul.

North of the Alps are many smaller mountains. Near the North and the Baltic seas lies a large low plain. Between the mountains and the low plain are many hills. This whole country of mountains, hills, rivers and plain long ago was covered by vast forests filled with great marshes and only here and there an open meadow. Here, as already said, about two thousand years ago, came Drusus to conquer our ancestors, the Germans, or Teutons, as they are often called.

He found the Germans to be a large, fierce, powerful, white-skinned, blue-eyed, yellow-haired race living in this bleak, cold forest. They had no cities and few farms but spent their time in hunting the wild boar, elk, bear, wolf and buffalo for their food. In their struggles with these wild animals and in fighting among themselves for the possession of this hunting ground, they became brave and fierce.

There were then no roads through the forests, no bridges over the streams, and for many months each year the rivers were frozen so deeply that whole armies could cross them on the ice. The winters were keen and long; swamps and forest made the climate far more severe than it is in that country now; there was then more ice and snow, more fog and rain.

As a country is, so to a large degree are its people. The bitter cold made the Germans hardy, fierce and brave. It made them restless, savage, passionate and daring. They loved the freedom of a life in the woods and by overcoming its difficulties learned to rely upon themselves.

This cold and wet climate of the forest home kept the Germans back at first. It kept them from making fine statues, from erecting beautiful buildings like the Parthenon, from writing beautiful poetry like the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," from being philosophers like Socrates and Plato, or great statesmen like Pericles and Cæsar; but by overcoming its hardships they gained a manly independence which their neighbors in the sunny southland never possessed, and finally became one of the finest, bravest peoples in the world.

Over their huge bodies, even in this cold country, they wore only a sort of short cloak made from the skin of some animal or from the wool plucked out of the sheep's back, for they had, in the early days when they wandered through the woods, not yet learned to shear the sheep. They plaited it also into a kind of cloth, for they as yet knew nothing of weaving. On their heads they wore a cap of fur decorated with boars' tusks or horns of cattle. They too had also a kind of rude shoe made of skins. The women dressed much like the men, while the children often, in spite of the cold, wore very scant clothing.

The dwelling house—if there was one—was a rude hut made of logs, filled in with sticks and mud, and covered with a roof of straw, or maybe reeds from the neighboring marsh. In the roof a hole was left through which the smoke could escape.

In winter, to keep out the cold weather, they often lived in houses hollowed out of the ground. These were usually not very clean, so for the sake of health the people grew to be fond of baths. A hot bath especially delighted them, and in summer time they used the streams freely. A Roman historian tells an interesting story of a tribe who, as they were pursuing an enemy, accidentally came to a place where there were many hot springs. These so much delighted them that they stopped several days to bathe to their hearts' content.

In summer time their rude wagons were fitted into a kind of house, for to these they could easily hitch their oxen and move from place to place when pasture land, hunting and fishing gave out. They had not yet learned to use stone and mortar for building houses or for tiles for the roofs. But we need not wonder at this when we remember how restless they were, and how little they cared for settled homes.

The German men had quite a different feeling toward their families from any people we have thus far studied. Nowhere among Greeks or Romans do we find so much respect shown for women as here. Each man had but one wife, and he remained faithful to her as she to him. She supplied his wants and often when he went to battle would go with him. If he was killed she sometimes took his place in the fight, and usually chose to die rather than return without him. The Romans were astonished at the pure family life they found among the Germans, and no people we have studied thus far have done so much to beautify and ennoble the home as they.

The house had very little furniture. The German hunter slept stretched on a bench, or on a bed made of bearskin thrown on the floor in a corner, and it was often late on the following day when he arose, and, after taking his bath, if it was possible, went off to attend to the duties of the morning. Maybe it was some feast or hunt that claimed his attention; maybe some public assembly of the freemen of the tribe to which he belonged; but it was almost never manual labor, or care for farm or cattle.

Among some of the German tribes there were villages, but even then the houses were rude affairs and stood far apart, and the people had no land which they could call their own. All the land about the village belonged to the tribe and was called its mark. This was divided into three parts. First, there was a space where the houses were built. Next, there was a part where the ground was cleared and might be cultivated. Each year, if any farming was to be done, the village chief gave to every free man a small piece of ground where he might raise what he wished for food. But these fierce Teutonic ancestors of ours loved mostly to hunt and to fight, and not to farm. They left that to the men too old to fight, to the women, the children and the slaves. These would raise the barley and wheat out of which the bread and beer were made. The slaves were prisoners taken in war and had iron collars tightly fitted round their necks, and as a sign that they had lost their freedom their hair was cut short. They were well treated and were never very numerous among the early Germans, for there was little work to be done.

Every village had also a third tract of land, which furnished pasture for the horses, cattle and hogs. Often this was woodland, where the hogs could live on the acorns and nuts. The German loved his forest life too well to care for land. Sometimes he owned large herds of cattle and droves of hogs, but these could easily be driven from place to place as his fancy suited.

With such an idea of life one can easily see that the Germans would not feel the need of belonging to a great state ruled by some strong power that could protect their property and their lives. Indeed, in the dense forest and mountainous region it would have been very difficult to make a large strong state, and especially so since every German felt that he himself was able to protect his own life and scanty possessions.

A number of families living near one another and using the same hunting ground, made up a tribe and for their chief they chose their best hunter or their bravest warrior, just as when you play a game you select as leader the one who best understands it. After having made the choice, they placed him on a shield and raised him up over their heads. From that time on they followed him in war and on the hunt. Every warrior tried to win by loyalty and bravery the greatest love and respect of the chief; and every chief tried by his bravery to win the greatest number of followers. In the hour of danger it was shameful for the men to allow the chief to be braver than they, or for the chief not to equal the men in bravery. When plunder was captured, each soldier received as much as the chief himself,—all were regarded as equal.

The chief himself could not decide matters for the tribe. Every freeman had a right to help. Out in the forest, under a tree, or on top of a neighboring hill, all the freemen assembled bearing their arms. Sitting on the ground or on the logs and stumps, as the great ox-horn cups of liquor were passed from hand to hand, they discussed measures of grave importance and adopted them by a ringing clash of weapons, or rejected them with cries and groans until the very forest rang.

Here they decided questions of peace and war and righted wrongs. Here fathers brought their sons when they became of the proper age, and after giving them a spear and shield they too became members of the assembly, or moot, as they called it, and from that time on they were freemen. If in some future battle the spear and shield should be lost, the right to be a freeman, too, was lost, and this was the most disgraceful thing that could happen to any one.

You would no doubt like to know how the Germans fought in battle, since they were able to defeat Drusus and the Roman legions. Now, I suspect the dense forests and great swamps hindered the legions who did not know the country well and greatly helped the Germans win. Yet the Germans were brave as well as fierce, for by and by we shall hear how they no longer merely drove the Romans back when they came to conquer their country, but how they themselves crossed the Alps and met the Romans in Italy, and at last actually did what Hannibal so long wished to do, captured Rome itself. But that was many years later than when we first meet them, and they had by that time learned from the Romans quite a good deal more of war than they knew in very early time.

How strange their way of fighting must have seemed to the well-drilled Romans! Impatient of delay and armed only with a long spear tipped with a sharp, narrow iron point and a shield held in front made of plaited willows or tough skin, and singing a war song which told of the bravery of their fathers, they rushed into the battle. They had had no drill and training such as made the Roman legions powerful, but entered the contest so thoroughly in earnest that they won by their very bravery rather than by skill. To be a coward was to them the greatest possible disgrace, but a brave man was the greatest favorite of the gods. A life spent in fighting, a glorious death on the battlefield, was to them the way to honor and to heaven.

Woden, or Odin, as he was often called, was their god of battle and victory. It was he who protected them if they were brave. They thought that he was a tall, vigorous man, clad in a suit of gray with a blue hood, and that over his strong body he wore a wide blue mantle spotted with gray,—the colors of the clouds and sky,—for Odin, too, was the god of the sky. Often when the battle waged hottest, Odin, as they believed, fought in their midst with his spear and shield, which never failed to conquer. After the battle was over, Odin sent his maidens to choose from the battlefield the bravest of the dead warriors whom they bore on swift horses over the rainbow bridge into the great hall Valhalla, Odin's heaven-home. Odin met the bravest at the door to bid them welcome. The hope of receiving this welcome and the promise of dwelling in Odin's beloved presence from day to day and of sharing with him the pleasure of the great feast which he had prepared for them, gave the warriors the greatest courage and made them long to die on the battlefield. They especially set apart one day of the week as sacred to him and called it Woden's day; and we have changed it but slightly for we still call it Wednesday.

But Odin was not the only god they had. There were many others. One important one was his son Thor. He was the god of thunder and lightning and always carried with him a huge hammer. As he drove his chariot drawn by goats through the skies the rumbling of the wheels caused the thunder, and the hurling of his huge hammer at his enemies, the lightning. He it was who kept the storm in check and drove back the fog and mist and cold weather (for these were his enemies), and thus protected the herds of cattle and droves of hogs. For this the people liked to worship him as well as Odin, and so they named one day Thor's day, and that is how we come to have Thursday.

Besides these there was Frey (Fri), who gave them peace and prosperity, who brought them joy and sunshine. His sister Freya (Fria) was the goddess of love and beauty, and it is in her remembrance that we have Friday.

Tyr, or Tui, as some called him, another son of Odin, helped his father, so he, too, was god of war and victory. Here is a little story which shows how brave they thought him to be, and you can see from it that the Germans believed that to be godlike meant to be brave.

"The great Fenris wolf was daily growing larger, stronger and fiercer, so the gods in fear assembled to plan how they might dispose of him. They all agreed it would be wrong to kill him, so they decided to get a strong chain and bind him to a great rock. But the wolf suspected that all was not right, so he refused to let them put the chain on his neck. At last, however, he agreed they might do so if first one of them would consent to put his hand in the wolf's mouth as a pledge of good faith on their part. None of the gods except Tyr would agree to this, for they well knew that when once the wolf found out he was tied he would close his mouth and bite off the hand. In this way Tyr lost his hand." And the people gave the name of Tui's day to another day of the week in honor of this brave god. Thus you see the German gods were brave like those of Greece and Rome. In Greece especially the people made statues of them. Do you not remember the golden-ivory ones of Zeus and Athena which Phidias made? The Greeks also, you remember, built beautiful temples like the Parthenon for their gods. The Germans did not yet know how to carve statues or how to build beautiful buildings. They were content to think of their gods as helping them fight in battle and to worship them under the spreading branches of some forest tree. Thus, "the groves were God's first temples" for our early Teutonic ancestors.

The time of which we are talking is more than four centuries after Pericles and the "Golden Age" of Athens. Athens was no farther distant from the Germans than Boston is from Indianapolis, and Rome was nearer to them than one day's ride on a railroad train now. Does it not seem strange, then, to think that the Germans had no books, and had not yet learned to read and write? They had only a very rude form of letters, called runes. These they drew on bark and we should have thought they looked more like pictures than letters. Only the priests could read them, and they were thought to be magical things. None of the common people could either read or write.

But you will not think it strange after all I have told you, that they had many songs of brave deeds of the heroes and gods. These the bards sang much as Homer had sung to the old Greeks before they had learned to read and write, more than a thousand years before this time. One of these was the song of the Niebelungen, and another tells the story of Beowulf. Some day you will read these, for when the Germans learned to write, they wrote them down and sung them as the Greeks wrote down and sung the songs of Homer.

Many of the words we use are the same as those which the Germans used so long ago. This is especially true of those which tell of home, father, mother and the family life. But it is not strange that we have held on to these words, for as I have already told you, these brave Teutonic warriors were our ancestors and in keeping the words they used we have kept the remembrance of the purity of their home.

Later we shall see the Teutonic warriors and hunters who at present seem to care for nothing but hunting and warring, become just as anxious for books and pictures, fine houses and land, as their neighbors, the Greeks and Romans, had been. In the meantime we shall see them gradually losing their fierce, warlike habits, their love for drinking and gambling, at the same time keeping their manly independence and pure family life. In order to understand how this came about, you must see how these Germans went south through the passes of the Alps, finally overcame Rome, and gradually took up the life, language and literature of the Romans.

At one time the brave Roman armies conquered all others sent against them. But in later years Rome changed greatly. As the Romans grew luxurious the people no longer cared to leave their homes and plows to fight for their country as Cincinnatus had done. In their conquests they had carried to their city the immense wealth of foreign nations and hundreds of thousands of slaves. With this wealth and these slaves they had built splendid mansions, in which the nights were given to feasting and revelry, the days to sleep and idle sports. In the loveliest gardens in the world, revels took place which would have put a savage to shame. In splendid banquet halls, feasting went to lengths that would have put one more in mind of a beast than of men. Slaves thronged every palace and farm in large numbers. Four hundred often served in one household. Four thousand belonged to the average estate of the nobles. A Roman man of wealth depended on his slaves for everything; they must wash him, dress him, wait upon him, read to him, sing to him, bear him through the streets and supply his every want. The Romans grew to be unfit for any task which required a strong, robust manhood. They enjoyed so much their life in the theaters, the circuses, the baths, the beautiful villas in the country and at the seashore that they no longer cared for or were fit to go to the army. Instead, they preferred to hire soldiers to do their fighting.

Now, the best soldiers in the world at this time, from 200 to 500 B.C., were the brave Teutons, who, as we have already seen, had kept the legions from conquering the forests beyond the Alps and Rhine. These children of the woods were free to do as they pleased, so it often happened that they hired out in large numbers to fight for Roman pay. It did not matter much to them, even if they were asked to fight their brother tribes. They earned their pay, saw the world, enjoyed fighting, and then often returned to fill the ears of their kinsmen with the wonderful story of the glories south of the Alps, and especially of those in Rome.

As the Teutons became acquainted with the Romans they began to carry on trade with them, and soon they came to want many things which the Romans had. These traders, besides bringing their packs, brought the story of the riches of Rome,—the story of fertile lands, of boundless wealth and of men who lived in luxurious cities and cared more for their own enjoyment than for their country's welfare.

Sometimes prisoners captured by the Romans escaped and returned to their German kinsmen, and they too brought the same story of Roman riches. Thus, little by little, the German warriors began to long to possess the wealth, the homes and the comforts which they saw in the sunny lands of the South.

The Teutons were rapidly increasing in number in their dense forests. As long as they hunted for a living, they needed a large country with a sparse population. When the number increased they found it impossible to gain a living in this way; so they must either learn to clear the forests or else find new hunting grounds. The larger and stronger tribes, in order to enlarge their hunting grounds, forced others to move away, and soon some of these were crowded over the Roman frontier down into Italy. Once there, they saw how easy it was to seize the wealth of the luxurious Roman people and with the plunder live in ease and plenty.

Several tribes that had once lived on the shores of the Baltic Sea had slowly followed the river valleys southward in search of new lands. They did not go rapidly. Perhaps they moved fifty or a hundred miles in the lifetime of a man; but in this way they at length came to the frontier and settled on the Danube River and near the Black Sea. These were the Goths, and those that settled for a time on the Danube were now called the West Goths, those farther to the east, the East Goths.

These people did not come as an army but came in whole tribes—men, women and children. They loaded their scanty possessions in their wagon-houses and drove their cattle, sheep and hogs before them, searching for new pastures and richer hunting grounds. This movement to the south was somewhat like that of the early settlers, who came from the eastern states out to Indiana and Ohio, for example, with their goods and families in wagons, and brought their cattle and hogs to begin life in the new West.

When the German people started southward, they consisted of many separate, independent tribes, each ruled by its own chief; but as time went by and they had common interests and dangers, they more and more united into large bodies, and soon several small tribes would unite under one leader and call him king.

On the frontier they had no peace. Other tribes pressed from behind, and in front the Romans lost no opportunity to drive them back. At first Rome was able to do this, for there were many German soldiers in her army. But at last there arose among the West Goths a great leader named Alaric. He did not feel satisfied with the conditions of life on the Danube, so his tribe decided to move on into Italy. On they went again, much as before, taking with them all they had. What a sight it must have been to see these rude, half-civilized people dressed in skins, moving in their rude ox-carts! There were as many men, women and children as would make a large city,—perhaps from one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand.

At first they were driven back by the Romans; but trying again, they reached the city of Rome, and after a siege they succeeded in capturing it. Then began the plundering, which lasted a whole week. They carried away many rich treasures but did not destroy the city. This was four hundred and ten years after the birth of Christ.

The fact that they did not destroy the city shows that the Teutons had somewhat changed. They were no longer quite so rude as we saw them up in the German forests. In their long march and many dealings with the Romans they had become half Roman themselves. Alaric was no longer a leader of a wild race eager only for war, but he was king of a great tribe and conqueror of Rome looking for a settled home for his people.

But they had not yet learned to live in cities, so it is not strange they did not care to live in the captured city. It is quite hard to say what they intended to do next, for soon Alaric died. We must remember him not so much for having captured Rome, as for having pointed out the way southward into Italy, which so many others of his race were to follow. His people did not remain in Italy long, but wandered on until they crossed the Pyrenees into Spain, and there their travels at last came to an end. Here they built homes, and set up a large West Gothic state, which lasted for three hundred years, till it was overthrown by the Arab Moors in 711 A.D.

When the Goths began to enter Italy, all the legions of Rome along the frontier were called together to drive them back. Other German tribes were not slow in finding out that the Goths were moving southward, and they too began to seek for new lands. The Vandals crossed the Rhine on the ice and passing southward reached Spain before the Goths did. By the coming of the Goths, they were pushed over into Africa, where they rebuilt Carthage and made it a flourishing city. The Burgundians, following them, moved down into the rich Rhone valley where they set up a government which lasted a hundred years. Another large tribe, called the Franks, spread out over the country about the mouth of the Rhine, and over through the forests almost to the Pyrenees. By and by we shall hear more of the Franks.

It was at this time also that the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes and other Teutonic tribes crossed the English Channel and began to conquer the Britons in England, and to plant German or Teutonic ideas in that country. Many others of the German tribes left their native homes in the North, and wandered southward and westward over Europe. After a while the East Goths left their new homes on the Black Sea, and following the path of Alaric, the West Goth, spread another great layer of Teutonic life over Italy, and finally in 476 A.D. took the tottering throne away from the last emperor who ruled at Rome.

This moving about of the tribes caused most of them to give up their little local governments and moot courts, and soon each of them was ruled by a king. Sometimes the king gave some part of the governing over to his friends, and in return they promised to fight for him when called upon. This is the beginning of Feudalism, which we shall soon study more about.

As the Germans spread out over all of western Europe they brought with them many good things which the conquered people readily took up, and in turn the Germans were greatly changed by the ideas of the Roman people whom they had conquered. They gave new life and energy not only to Italy but to the whole of Europe. In return they received many ideas from Old Rome; they learned after a while to like the books written by the Greeks and Romans; they learned likewise the Roman laws and customs, and above all they became Christians.

Many self-sacrificing men went out through the forests among them to spread the gospel, and monasteries sprang up throughout the country, in which self-sacrificing missionaries lived and worked. These missionaries not only carried the Bible to the barbarians but also Latin books and the Latin language; of their work also we shall soon learn much more.

In all this study about the early German, or Teuton, we have, as I have already told you, been studying our immediate ancestors. We have studied no other people in which each man loved to rule, think and act for himself so much as was the case with every free man among our Teutonic forefathers. Many of the seeds of liberty which were planted and developed by these children in the German woods have grown and ripened till we in America are enjoying the fruit. How this fruit of liberty was ripened and finally carried to America we shall see as we follow the stream on as it widens in our later study.

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