View Full Version : The Nature of Germanic Kingship

Monday, January 9th, 2006, 09:24 PM
The socio-politico-religious synergy within Germanic societies at the time of their encounter with Christianity is epitomized by the king's role in pre-Christian Germanic society. Emphasizing this unity, William A. Chaney introduces a survey of Germanic kingship by stating that "the most fundamental concept in Germanic kingship is the indissolubility of its religious and political functions." [The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England]

An appreciation of the nature and development of the institution of Germanic kingship is critical for an understanding of the reciprocal processes of Germanization and Christianization which occurred between 376 and 754. Prior to the Volkerwanderungszeit [Migration Age] (375-568), it appears that the Germanic peoples had two sorts of kings, one essentially religious, the other military. Writing in A.D.

98, Tacitus wrote in chapter 7 of his Germania: "They choose their kings [reges] for their noble birth, their commanders [duces] for their valor." This distinction, reminiscent of the bipolar tension attributed by Dumezil to the religious and political elements of the first function of Indo-European sovereignty, has contributed to the hypothesis advanced by Jan de Vries and generally accepted by others that the sacral qualities of the reges- or in Gothic, the thiudans-were assimilated by the duces- or in Celto-Germanic, the reiks-because of the need for highly organized war confederations during the Volkerwanderungszeit.

This social development was accompanied by a religious one. The thiudans, who was apparently chosen from a royal family, that is a family with which the ethnic, historical, and cultural traditions of the tribe were mast closely identified, . . . was closely associated to the Germanic (in fact, Indo-European) god Tiwaz, who was the protector of a stable social order and guarantor of laws, fertility, and peace.

"However close to historical reality this ingenious hypothesis may be, it must lie indeed in the realm of prehistorical conjecture; nonetheless, when the light of history and tradition falls on Germanic kingship of the age of migrations, the king is leader of the war-hosts but also the charismatic mediator with the divine, the sacral holder of the tribal 'luck' "- Chaney

"The early Germanic thiudans personified the tribe in a very real way. His tribe saw in him the best man to please the gods of war and nature because of his Heil, that certain something about him the ancient deities liked. His tribe entrusted him with their very identity: the divine liking for him meant a greater probability of victory or survival in the face of calamity than tribesmen could hope for on their merits. . . . The immersion of tribal identity in such a man resulted in assurance that these virtues permeated the total tribal personality. In his possession of Heil, the thiudans swayed fate on the tribe's behalf, and as the living embodiment of the tribe in a single royal personage, he gave his people an enduring unity which was, of course, transmitted by blood through a royal house or dynasty. The royal role of personifier did not disappear when tribes became Christian, much larger, or both." –Myers and Wolfram: Medieval Kingship

During the Volkerwanderungszeit, as the reiks type of kingship eclipsed the thiudans type, the former apparently incorporated the hereditary and charismatic qualities of the latter.

Also contributing to the religious prestige of the Germanic king may have been the apparent absence of an organized priesthood. A confluence of ascribed sacral attributes and achieved military attributes occurred not only within the Arian Germanic kingdoms, but also with the pagan Frankish kings. The religiopolitical complementarity within Germanic societies, as expressed in the kingship function, endured throughout the Middle Ages. It may be considered the most significant long-term factor in the Germanization of early medieval Christianity.

from: Germanization and Christianization: 376-678 The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation by James C. Russell, 1994, ISBN 0195104668

Suggested additional reading:

The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England- William A Chaney ISBN 0719003725

Germanic Kingship Structure- Alexander C. Murray; ISBN 0888440650 Early Germanic Kingship in England and On the Continent- J.M. Wallace-Hadrill ISBN 0198710119