The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Lecture 6. Art of the Period of Migrations


Bede, The Venerable, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford, 1994

Farr, C., The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience, Toronto, 1997

Geary P., Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World, Oxford, 1998 Chp. 3 Romans and Franks, pg. 77-116

Migration Art, AD 300-800, NY 1995, skim.

"Wilhelm Worringer," Dictionary of Art Vol. 33, pg. 383-385.

The History of the Franks

Bede's Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow

History of the Goths


How do we make sense out of objects separated from their original context with few written sources to act as a guide? Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples moved from Northern Europe (what is now Scandinavia, Northern Islands of Britain and Ireland) across the steppes of Central Asia in the fourth to eighth centuries. They interacted with the inhabitants of the Roman Empire and reacted to the rising power of the Byzantine Empire, at times amicably -- trading and interrelationships in frontier towns was common. But often these interactions were violent and predatory, raids were a common occurrence on the edges of the Roman world. For example, in the early fifth century, bands of marauding Germanic tribes -- Vandals, Suevi, Alani, and Burgundians- crossed the Danube in the boundaries of the Roman Empire. In 410, Alaric and his troops of Visigoths sacked Rome itself.

These peoples had no monumental art to speak of, but had highly formalized traditions of portable art, perhaps their primary source of wealth. Many of their artifacts were often found either in treasure hordes, in which owners concealed them, hoping to save goods from capture and hoping also that they would be back to retrieve them. According to Frankish custom, a man was entitled to be buried with his material goods, and those burials have been a source for these kinds of objects over the past centuries. We will explore the ways that historians have attempted to make sense of the material culture of these peoples, distinguishing them from the people of the Mediterranean world, and organizing people into ethnic groups based solely on their material production. We shall look in particular at the Franks, a ‘barbarian’ group that had strong links to the Roman world, and explore the question of Frankish origins of Europe. Then we will look at a burial found in England, at Sutton Hoo, a rich source of ‘barbarian’ production, of tremendous quality and value.