Gothic Confusion

Dear Reader Derek asks,

Perhaps you can help me out here. For years I’ve been confused as to whether “Goths”, “Geats”, and “Jutes” are the same people with different spellings, related people with different spellings, or different people with coincidentally-similar names. Also, where “derek” (or “dietrich”, or “teodric”) comes from. Is it goth, or hun, or something else?

It’s really easy to get confused here, because we’re dealing both with historical reality and with historical fiction written a long time ago.

  • Goths: a Germanic-speaking ethnic group that took a major part in Migration Period politics in southern Europe. Their migrations can be traced back to a starting point in northern Poland in the 1st century. According to legends written down in the 6th century, the Goths believed that they had come from Scandinavia prior to that. But so did almost every other roving tribe at the time. Safest bet: the Goths came from Poland. (But in Scandinavia there were groups with similar names — in the 6th century.)

    “Goths” and “Gothic” have since acquired a number of secondary meanings, originally because historians of art chose to call the architectural style of the High Middle Ages with pointy arches “Gothic”. Then anything having to do with old romantic ruins came to be called Gothic, then anything horrific, then anything having to do with an 80s musical subculture. First and Last and Always is actually a pretty good album.

  • Geats: these are a semi-fictional group of the past spoken about by a few Anglo-Saxon writers in the later 1st Millennium, notably the Beowulf poet. What we’re dealing with is most likely the Anglo-Saxons’ poorly conceived idea of the Götar in current Sweden. The Beowulf poet clearly knew nothing whatsoever about Sweden.
  • Jutes: inhabitants of Jutland in Denmark. Anglo-Saxon writers in the later 1st Millennium believed that Jutes were among the Germanic-speakers who took power in the Isles after the Roman withdrawal in AD 409/410. Linguistic and X-chromosomal evidence suggests rather that the new lords came from Frisia.
  • Derek = Dietrich = Theodoric: a Gothic name meaning “people-king”, most famously worn by an Ostrogothic King, Theodoric the Great (454-526), who ruled Italy from his capital at Ravenna. In High Medieval historical fiction, he is dimly remembered as Dietrich von Bern.

Collecting links for all these things in Wikipedia, I find that much of what the encyclopedia says is woefully outdated, being based on old scholarship with poor standards of source-criticism, where old historical fiction tended to be used as sources of historical facts.


22 thoughts on “Gothic Confusion

  1. European history up to the Renaissance is one big convoluted mess to me. Just trying to understand my own country’s (the Netherlands) early history gives me a headache with all the Frisians, Batavians, Cananefates, Saxons, etc. E.g. the Cananefates seem to have disappeared from face of the Earth suddenly. At least they do so in high school history books.
    Adding all the counts, dukes and queens makes it even worse.


  2. Yeah, history is a mess. But that’s because the data’s so detailed. If you continue on back into Prehistory, you’ll find it much easier to keep tabs on what’s going on in your area. Instead of hundreds of individuals and tens of political factions, you get two or three archaeological cultures and a few tens of types of artefact and site. (-;


  3. Your take on Goths, Geats and Jutes sounds pretty dead-on. Theodoric seems like it was actually a fairly common Gothic name – Aside from Theodoric the Great, there was Theodoric the Visigoth who fought alongside the Romans against Attila and his Huns at Catalaunum, and probably a thousand more Theodorics (some famous and some not so much.) It is a pretty cool name, I think.


  4. Correct. The words Goths and Götar are probably linguistic cognates, though, sharing the meaning of “emitters of fluid”, that is, “men”. Cf. modern English, “great big gouts of blood”.

    I haven’t been able to find the etymology of Jutes, but it appears top have nothing to do with the way that Jutland juts into the North Sea.


  5. According to the term Jute comes from the old norse word Iotar, but I don’t have a dictionary handy at the moment. Anyone?

    Etymonline also seems to be a bit outdated in its definition of the Jutes:
    “O.E. Eotas, one of the ancient Gmc. inhabitants of Jutland in Denmark, during the 5c. invasion of England they settled in Kent and Hampshire. Related to O.N. Iotar.”


  6. In High Medieval historical fiction, he is dimly remembered as Dietrich von Bern.

    You know, I’ve always wondered about that. I’ve supposed. perhaps wrongly that Bern in this case refers to Verona, but was he particularly associated with Verona?


  7. Oddly enough I never even met a goth until the nineties despite mingling with the other musical subcultures in the eighties. The long version of Temple of Love is still the pinnacle for the Sisters of Mercy in my eyes.


  8. According to Wikipedia, Theodoric had a residence at Verona, though he wasn’t particularly associated with that spot.

    I once met a member of a very select (two-member) subculture: manic depressive skateboard Goths.


  9. >> In High Medieval historical fiction, he is dimly
    >> remembered as Dietrich von Bern.

    > You know, I’ve always wondered about that. I’ve supposed.
    > perhaps wrongly that Bern in this case refers to Verona,
    > but was he particularly associated with Verona?

    It has been suggested, by Rolf Badenhausen, that the Verona is actually Varne, south of Aachen, and Dietrich von Bern actually is Theoderic, the frankish king of Austrasia, rather than Theoderic Amal, the Goth. I don’t know about the scientific merit of Badenhausen’s hypothesis, but I think the Frank, who, according to most contemporary sources, like Gregory of Tours, was a great warrior, would make a more convincing hero, at least by early medieval standards. Theoderic Amal was a competent and successful ruler, but he was essentially a byzantine courtier, not a soldier, and reached most of his goals by negotiation, marriage alliances, and the occassional act of treason. Perfectly sensible, but nothing that would excite or impress an audience of dark age warlords and their retinues…

    BTW it was Teoderic the Frank, or rather his son Theudebert, who defeated and killed Chlochilaicus, the historic figure behind Hygelac, king of the Geats, from the Beowulf poem.


  10. Interesting information, Johannes! Though let me add that the Franks recorded Chlochilaicus as being a Dane. The Beowulf poet wrote centuries later and may perhaps be excused for getting stuff mixed up.


  11. The names Goths and Götar are basically the same (Torsten Andersson has written about this). It was probably the Wielbark (a place ) culture in Poland that became the Goths. This culture was most likely made up from local polish tribes and Scandinavian immigrants (Anders Kaliff writes about this in Gothic Connections). Its not more (or less complicated) than the mixed culture between Slavic people an Scandinavians that were called Rus in Russia. Or the mixed group of French and Scandinavians that were called Normans. Its just that the Goths story is older and therefore harder to describe.


  12. As far as I know, nobody would have suggested that the Wielbark culture had any appreciable Scandy component if it weren’t for the written sources of the 6th century documenting what the Goths believed at the time.


  13. This is wrong. The evidence is rather piling up. If you want to see a typical rich womans grave of Wilebark tradition and composition, there are several in Västergötland f. ek Varnhem Överbo, around 200AD.

    Main articles: Wielbark Culture and Chernyakhov Culture

    In today’s Poland, the earliest material culture identified with the Goths is the Wielbark Culture,[24] which replaced the local Oksywie culture in the 1st century. This replacement happened when a Scandinavian settlement was established in a buffer zone between the Oksywie culture and the probably Vandal Przeworsk culture.[25]

    However, as early as the late Nordic Bronze Age and early Pre-Roman Iron Age (ca 1300 BC–ca 300 BC), this area had influences from southern Scandinavia.[26] In fact, the Scandinavian influence on Pomerania and today’s northern Poland from ca 1300 BC (period III) and onwards was so considerable that this region is sometimes included in the Nordic Bronze Age culture

    read also..


  14. The fact that individual women traveled from Poland to Sweden to get married doesn’t mean that there was large-scale migration in either direction. Also, those graves are too late to have any bearing on the Wielbark culture’s affinities. And the Bronze Age situation is irrelevant.

    Everybody agrees that there was contact across the Baltic. But the idea that the Wielbark culture was in any way “Scandinavian” as opposed to just Germanic in general is a minority position among scholars in the field.


  15. Its not a general minority position..

    Kaliff´s conclusion is basically the same as modern Scandy and Polish archeologists up to date in this matter..

    In modern research, the theory of a massive migration has generally been abandoned. The Wielbark culture is generally believed to have developed from earlier cultures in the same area. Research of recent years have more often focused on questions regarding a Gothic identification with a Nordic origin, as possibly invented during the 4th century or as a genuine tradition in the form of a myth. However, this does not explain archaeological evidence for contacts during earlier periods. A reasonable explanation for similarities in the material cultures can be that they are products of long-term contacts, perhaps originating in connections between the Lusatian culture and other urnfield groups on the continent and eastern Scandinavia already during the Late Bronze Age – Early Iron Age. Regular contacts between high ranking groups in different geographic areas could eventually have developed into a close relationship between certain groups of the Wielbark culture and groups of people in Scandinavia, visible in similarities in material culture, language and burial customs. The archaeological record could indicate that Jordanes´ history concerning the origin of the Goths was based on an oral tradition with some sort of real background.


  16. Tadeusz Makiewicz writes..

    Recent archaeological research and lengthy debate on this subject have, however, established that the Wielbark Culture did not simply come into being as a result of the arrival of tribes of Scandinavian Goths in Pomerania. Instead, it evolved from the development of the local Oksywie Culture, possibly having been subject to outside influences from Scvandinavia. This is evidenced primarily by the fact that in its initial phase, the Wielbark Culture had exactly the same territorial extent as the Oksywie Culture, many cemeteries having been kept in continued use by these two societies. Wielbark communities comprised mostly members of tribes already settled in this area with the addition of Scandinavian migrants, who maybe arrived here in small groups. At present, it is thought that those areas which were inhabited directly by Gothic peoples are characterised by the presence of extensive barrow cemeteries of the Odry-Węsiory-Grzybnica type, at which stone circles consisting of large boulders were raised. These were sites of a ritual character where tribal meetings (known as things) took place. Sites of this type are found in the Kashubian and Krajeński Lakelands, extending to the Koszalin region in the Central Lakelands, hence, to the west of the Vistula. These burial grounds began to appear across this area during the latter part of the first century ad, at the same time that the Kowalewko cemetery was founded


  17. Thank you, I’ve just been searching for info about this topic for ages and yours is the best I’ve discovered till now. But, what about the bottom line? Are you sure about the source?


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