Migrating Ancestors

Throughout the early modern period, the term migratio and its vernacular equivalents were used primarily to describe the collective movements of entire tribes and similar large ethnic groups, usually in a historical context. This usage is still reflected in the German encyclopaedias of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century: Adelung's Wörterbuch notes that “Wanderung” respectively migratio is a word most commonly applied to the movement of barbarian nations. Similarly, Zedler's Universal-Lexicon speaks of transmigrationes gentium, “Wanderungen der Völker”, and identifies them as one of the most common topoi of historiography.

This focus on the collective aspect of migration seems far detached from contemporary usages of the term, but it serves as an indicator for the conceptual priorities in pre-nineteenth-century scholarship. Medieval and early modern historiography was dominated by a genealogical paradigm that sought to comprehend the present through an examination of lineage and descent. This approach led to extensive efforts to determine and to narrate the origins of dynasties, the founders of cities, or the ancestors of ethnic groups. Collective migrations were a key motif in these tales of descent, evidenced, for example, by the pan-European claims to Trojan ancestry asserted by numerous royal dynasties throughout the Middle Ages – or by distinctive local developments such as the allegedly Egyptian descent of the Scots. While the latter narrative was inspired by biblical Exodus, the ubiquitous Trojan genealogies prove the enormous importance of Virgil’s Aeneid as the model for tales of descent.

In the early modern period, the enthusiasm for prestigious migrating ancestors continued to flourish. Spanish and Swedish historiographers competed for a Gothic ancestry, while their German colleagues developed the motif of the by the Völkerwanderung into a master narrative of German patriotism. Theoretical reflections on the nature and causes of migration were comparatively rare, but such treatises often included an – explicit or implicit – moral evaluation of the migration and its participants.

Selected Literature

Arno Borst: Der Turmbau zu Babel. Geschichte der Meinungen über Ursprung und Vielfalt der Sprachen und Völker (Stuttgart 1957-63).

Stefan Donecker: The Vagina nationum in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Envisioning the North as a Repository of Migrating Barbarians. In: Visions of North in Premodern Europe, ed. by Dolly Jørgensen and Virginia Langum (Turnhout 2018), pp. 307–28.

Jörn Garber: Trojaner – Römer – Franken – Deutsche. „Nationale“ Abstammungsmythen im Vorfeld der Nationalstaatsbildung. In: Nation und Literatur im Europa der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. byKlaus Garber (Tübingen 1989), pp. 108–63.

Johannes Helmrath: Die Umprägung von Geschichtsbildern in der Historiographie des europäischen Humanismus. In: Von Fakten und Fiktionen. Mittelalterliche Geschichtsdarstellungen und ihre Aufarbeitung. Europäische Geschichtsdarstellungen 1, ed. by Johannes Laudage (Cologne 2003), pp. 323–52.

Herfried Münkler, Hans Grünberger and Kathrin Mayer: Nationenbildung. Die Nationalisierung Europas im Diskurs humanistischer Intellektueller. Italien und Deutschland. Politische Ideen 8 (Berlin 1998).