10 Forgotten Peoples of the Early Middle Ages

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The further back we look through history, the more diverse the people are. This isn’t surprising, given the fact that many nations today are basically tribes that found their way to today’s world. And each of these “tribes” is as diverse as the places they hailed from. Europe is no different.

During the Early Middle Ages (5th to 10th century AD), Europe was in a period of transition. The Roman Empire had recently fallen, and barbaric tribes were on the move, pushed forward by the invading Huns. The Arabic Moors were settling in the Iberian Peninsula, the Viking Age was just beginning, and the Byzantine Empire was carrying on Rome’s legacy in the east.

Well, here are some peoples who were also calling parts of Europe their home during those times. Most people today have all but forgotten about them, but their legacy still remains here and there.

10. The Hutsuls – Ukraine

hutsuls

The Hutsuls are a group of Ukrainian pastoral highlanders inhabiting the Carpathian Mountains in present day West Ukraine. Their origins are shrouded in mystery. Scholars today can’t even agree on where their name comes from. Some say that the name was originally kochul (nomad), which became kotsul, and then hotsul. This referred to the Kievan Rus, who fled for the mountains during the Mongol Invasion of the 13th century. Others believe that the name derives from a sub-tribe of Cumans or Pechenegs, the Uzians, or from a tribe allied with the Ostrogoths – the Hutsians. More recent theories say that the name Hutsul comes from the Romanian word for brigand.

Whatever the case, these people have been living in the region for a long time, at least from the 9th century AD, and are still there today. They have a long lasting tradition in forestry, logging, and sheep herding. They’ve even been credited for having created the breed of horse known as the Hucul pony. Farming in this region was virtually nonexistent during those times, with the main focus being on animal husbandry. Today, roughly 25,000 Hutsuls live in the region. Most are in Ukraine, while the other 4,000 live in present day Romania.

9. The Principality of Hum – Bosnia and Herzegovina

HUM

Hum, more commonly known to the locals as Zachlumia or Zahumlje, was a Principality during the Early Middle Ages of what are now Bosnia and Herzegovina, and parts of Croatia. Zachlumia is a derivative of Hum, from Vlach (Vulgar Latin) culme, meaning “hill.” Zahumlje is named after the mountain of Hum. The name Herzegovina comes from the term Hum.

The inhabitants of the region were Slavic migrants who colonized the area during the 6th century. They mixed with the Romanized people already living there. The House of Viševi, which is Hum’s hereditary dynasty, probably descended from the Slavic Litziki tribe populating the upper streams of the Vistula River.

During the second half of the 7th century, the Avars occupied the whole region of Dalmatia and sacked the towns, enslaving and displacing the local population. The principality of Hum was among these places. Some of these Avars might have permanently settled the area. Nevertheless, they attacked Constantinople in 626, but were defeated by the Byzantines and stopped being an influential force in the region. Shortly after, in 630, the Serbs settled Hum under the protection of the Byzantine Emperor.

8. The Vascones – Spain

vascones

Located in the Northern part of the Iberian Peninsula, the Vascones were an Indo-European tribe. They’re considered by many to be one of the oldest on the continent. Not very much is known about them before Roman colonization, but what is known is that they are the ancestors of present-day Basques, who live there today. Their languages seem to have similarities, but to date the Vascone language hasn’t been successfully translated.

Before and during Roman rule, the territories of what is now Basque country were shared by the Vascones with three other smaller tribes: the Varduli, Caristii and Autrigones. What happened to them is a matter of debate, but they were more than likely assimilated by the Vascones during the following period. Later, they extended their reach northwards, across the Pyrenees into French Aquitaine. This region became to be known as Gascony, which derives its name from the Vascones.

In the 5th century AD, the Vascones began to see a period of constant strife with the advancing Vandals, Alans, and Suevi tribes, as well as the Visigoths, who were given the province of Aquitaine by the Romans. Later, further conflicts erupted between the Vascones and the Franks, as well as the Goths and Visigoths.

With the Arab Invasion in 711 and the rise of the Carolingian dynasty, the Vascones/Basques were under new threats. After Charlemagne’s death, his son Louis the Pious provoked a new rebellion in the region, led by Gartzia Semeno. A relative of his, Enecco Arista, took power in Pamplona around 824. This is when the Kingdom of Pamplona was born, later known as the Kingdom of Navarre.

7. The Kvens – Upper Scandinavian Peninsula

kvens

Contrary to popular belief, the Vikings never did control the whole of the Scandinavian Peninsula. The lands predominantly belonged to the Kvens and Sami of Kvenland since Neolithic times. Their numbers were bolstered by the coming Finno-Ugric peoples from the east, somewhere around the third millennium BC. Kvenland encompassed most of modern day Finland, part of northwestern Russia, and two thirds of Sweden and Norway. Up until the Medieval Period only the southern most parts of the peninsula in Norway, Sweden, and Finland were under control of the Norse.

The Kvens, together with the Sami, formed the ancestral basis for modern day Finland. To the Swedes, Kvenland was known as Österland, or the ‘eastern land’. Their organization was mostly tribal based, with a possibility of local kingships here and there. When talked about in Norse materials or sagas, these kingships were inflated to a national level.

It is believed that the Yngling royal family, the oldest Scandinavian dynasty, hailed from Kvenland. This is not entirely proven. What is for sure, however, is the Norse religion and folklore, which come from the Kvens. Something absolutely characteristic to shamanism from the Ural and Eurasian regions (from where the Kvens originated) is the cosmogony in the higher/middle/lower worlds division, evident in the nine worlds from Norse myth.

6. The Frisians – The Netherlands and Germany

frisians

Originating from a larger family of peoples, the Frisians are closely related to the Jutes, Warns, Angles, and Saxons, and spoke a language similar to English. Their forefathers settled the coastal, clay-districts of present-day Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen as early as 700 BC. Much like today, the region encountered periodical flooding, with sea levels rising every few centuries. That’s why the inhabitants mostly lived on man-made mounds, called terps.

Later, they fell under the protectorate of the Roman Empire, having to pay regular taxes in the form of cowhides. With the fall of the Romans, Germanic tribes swept over Western Europe. For the first time, they formed organized states. Groups of Frisians, together with the Chaukians, went on to create a new tribal alliance that became the Franks. Other Frisians, together with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, crossed the North Sea and formed present-day England.

They also created their own Frisian Empire, which peaked in the 7th century. Its lands were mostly on the coast, from north Belgium to southern Denmark. The North Sea was even called “Mare Frisicum” during this period. The Frisians controlled trade routes from Friesland to England, France, Scandinavia, and northwest Russia.

Even today, the Frisian language is recognized as official in the Netherlands and taught in schools throughout the province of Friesland. The small village of Hindeloopen, with a population of around 870 people, has its own Frisian dialect. It’s the smallest community in the world to publish its own dictionary.

5. The Picts – Scotland

picts

Known as “Picti” (the painted ones) by the Romans, these people can trace their lineage back to the Celts in terms of language and culture. They inhabited the eastern and northern parts of present day Scotland. Because of the Picts, the Romans were unable to successfully conquer the whole of Britain. They were the main reason for Hadrian’s Wall (Picts’ Wall) being built.

Even though they lived on the outermost fringes of the continent, the Picts were skilled artists and traders. They created some of the most beautifully carved stones and jewelry north of Rome itself. They were even making use of “the Golden Ratio” in their designs. That’s something found only in nature, or a handful of other man-made structures like the Notre Dame Cathedral or the Egyptian Pyramids. Another interesting fact about these people is that they were among the last on the continent to practice a matrilineal succession, meaning that they were tracing their descent through a female, rather than male line.

Since they had no written language of their own, most of what we know about the Picts comes from outside sources. We unfortunately don’t know what they called themselves, or what religion or traditions they were practicing. However, the Picts played an active role in British history throughout the Early Middle Ages. They defeated the Anglo-Saxons on several occasions, creating a clear north-south divide on the island. The Picts played an integral role in the early formation of Scotland.

4. The Krivichi – Belarus

krivichi

The Krivichi, or Krivichians, were a tribal confederation of different ethnic groups of Slavs who occupied regions of Belarus and western Russia. They’re mentioned in the Kievan Rus’ chronicles, though how they came to the region is still up for debate. Whatever the case, they played an intricate role in developing the area in terms of trade. They connected the towns of Novgorod with the town of Pskov, which gave them easy access to the Baltic Sea. They acted as middle men between the Vikings to the north and the Byzantine Empire to the south.

By the end of the first millennium, the Krivichi had built many agricultural settlements with traces of ironworks, jewelry making, and several other crafts. Archeological digs have uncovered many long burial mounds where the druzhinniki (members of princely retinue, or bodyguards) were interred in a sumptuous manner, alongside their weapons and other riches.

By the middle of the 9th century, the Krivichi went under the suzerainty of the Kievan Rus. They took part in Prince Oleh’s and Prince Ihor’s campaigns against Constantinople in 907 and 941, respectively. Both attacks failed to take the city, but sparked a period of good trade relations between the Vikings and the Byzantines. During this period, however, the Krivichians were broken up into three principalities under the rule of the Vikings. Together with the Drehovichians, they made up the ancestral basis for both the modern Russian and Belorussian people. The modern word Krievs means “Russian” in Latvian.

3. The Pannonian Avars – Hungary

avars

The Avars were a nomadic horse-warrior people, whose origins are not entirely known. They are believed to have come from present day Mongolia. Their departure towards the west was most likely sparked by losing power in the region to the Gokturks.

Once on the European continent, they made contact with Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantines. He hired them to protect the Empire’s borders to the north. After Justinian’s death in 565 AD, the new Emperor, Justin II, canceled their agreement and the Avars started looking for a permanent home. Together with the Lombards, they defeated and removed the Gepids from Pannonia (present-day Hungary).

Now, established on the Pannonian plains, the Avars built their headquarters near Attila’s old capital and fortified it. This place became known as The Ring. From here they began several campaigns of expansion in all directions, enlarging their kingdom. They fought and defeated the Franks in 570, following with a campaign against the Byzantines. After ravaging Moesia, they were finally defeated near Adrianople in 587.

With the death of their ruler, Khan Bayan, around 602 AD, the Avar Khanate went into a slow decline. Just like the Huns, the Avars lacked any real central government capable of managing large numbers of sedentary people. They began to fight among themselves. Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks took advantage by attacking them in 795 AD. One year later, the Avars were ruled by the Franks. Their legacy, besides the iron stirrup (which they introduced in Europe), was the major shift in demographics wherever they raided or settled. The Avars are responsible for uprooting and displacing large numbers of people, who then had to establish their cultures elsewhere.

2. The Sorbs – Germany

sorbs

During the second half of the 5th century, many Germanic tribes living in areas of present-day East Germany moved toward the Mediterranean. The vacuum left behind was filled by Slavic peoples collectively known as Wends. They assimilated the remaining “Germans,” and by the 7th century most of the region was Slavic speaking. Among these Wends were also the Sorbs, whose territories reached as far North as Berlin.

Their earliest surviving mention was in 631 AD, in Fredegar’s Chronicle, where they were described as Surbi and under the rule of Dervan. Initially subordinates to the Franks, the Sorbs declared their independence after the Frankish defeat of 632, in the face of Samo’s Empire (a political union of Slavic tribes). Over the coming centuries, the Sorbs fought several battles with the Franks and upcoming Germans. In 939, Gero II held a feast where he murdered 30 Sorbian princes, resulting in many Sorbian revolts against German rule.

From this period onward, the region became more and more Germanized. It now forms an integral part of modern day Germany. Around the Bautzen and Cottbus in Lusatia, some Slavic speakers survived and identify themselves as Sorbs even to this day. Their numbers, however, are dwindling. There are only around 60,000 living in the region since the fall of the Soviet bloc. Even if many don’t know how to speak the Sorb language, some still practice the old traditions like the lapanje kokota (rooster plucking), a summer harvesting ritual.

1. The Alans – Pretty Much All Over the Place

alans

The Alans were an Iranian steppe people who, from the 4th century BC, settled the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, north of the Caucasus Mountains. They played an important role in shaping Medieval Europe. They were the only non-Germanic people to build important settlements in Western Europe, and dominated the late Roman Empire’s foreign affairs.

With the arrival of the Huns, the Alans broke into two parts. Some remained behind in Alania, while others pushed forward. Among the latter, some settled within the Byzantine Empire, though most went into Western Europe. Together with the Visigoths and Vandals, the Alans passed into Gaul and Spain, reaching as far as North Africa.

The Alans and Romans were able to defeat Attila the Hun in 451 AD, sparing much of Western Europe from the Hunnic onslaught. After Attila’s death, the Alans settled in large numbers along the middle course of the Loire in Gaul under King Sangiban, as well as on the lower Danube with King Candac. In 461 and 464 they also made incursions into Italy. By the 5th century AD, the Alans became fully Christianized and gradually lost their Iranian language.

The Alans are credited for their introduction of mounted warfare tactics into Western Europe, as well as armoring themselves and their horses. The Spanish province of Catalonia is just a slight deformation of Goth-Alania. The name Alan, in all its variations and languages, comes from the tribe. They also left an imprint in Celtic poetry, e.g., the cycle of legends concerning King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. They introduced a now-extinct dog breed, the Alaunt. It was used in the still-popular sport of hunting on horseback with hunting dogs. This practice was introduced into Europe by…you guessed it: the Alans.


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