The Germanic peoples are a historical group of Indo-European-speaking peoples, originating in Northern Europe and identified by their use of the Germanic languages which diversified out of Common Germanic in the course of the Pre-Roman Iron Age. The ancestors of these peoples became the eponymous ethnic groups of North Western Europe, such as the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, Dutch, English and Frisians.
Migrating Germanic peoples spread throughout Europe in Late Antiquity (AD 300-600) and the Early Middle Ages. Germanic languages became dominant along the Roman borders (Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and England), but in the rest of the (western) Roman provinces, the Germanic immigrants adopted Latin (Romance) dialects. Furthermore, all Germanic peoples were eventually Christianized to varying extents. The Germanic people played a large role in transforming the Roman empire into Medieval Europe, and they contributed in developing a common identity, history, and culture which transcended linguistic borders.
Various etymologies for Latin Germani are possible. As an adjective, germani is simply the plural of the adjective germanus (from germen, "seed" or "offshoot"), which has the sense of "related" or "kindred or "authentic". According to Strabo, the Romans introduced the name Germani, because the Germanic tribes were the authentic Celts (γνησίους Γαλάτας; gnisíous Galátas). Alternatively, it may refer from this use based on Roman experience of the Germanic tribes as allies of the Celts.
The ethnonym seems to be attested in the Fasti Capitolini inscription for the year 222, DE GALLEIS INSVBRIBVS ET GERM(aneis), where it may simply refer to "related" peoples, namely related to the Gauls. Furthermore, since the inscriptions were erected only in 17 to 18 BCE, the word may be a later addition to the text. Another early mentioning of the name, this time by Poseidonios (writing around 80 BCE), is also dubious, as it only survives in a quotation by Athenaios (writing around 190 CE); the mention of Germani in this context was more likely inserted by Athenaios rather than by Poseidonios himself. The writer who apparently introduced the name "Germani" into the corpus of classical literature is Julius Caesar. He uses Germani in two slightly differing ways: one to describe any non-gaulic peoples of Germania, and one to denote the Germani Cisrhenani, a somewhat diffuse group of peoples in north-eastern Gaul, who cannot clearly be identified as either Celtic or Germanic.
In this sense, Germani may be a loan from a Celtic exonym applied to the Germanic tribes, based on a word for "neighbour". A third suggestion derives it directly from the name of the Hermunduri. Tacitus suggests that it might be from a tribe which changed its name after the Romans adapted it, but there is no evidence for this.
The suggestion deriving the name from Gaulish term for "neighbour" invokes Old Irish gair, Welsh ger, "near", Irish gearr, "cut, short" (a short distance), from a Proto-Celtic root *gerso-s, further related to ancient Greek chereion, "inferior" and English gash. The Proto-Indo-European root could be of the form *khar-, *kher-, *ghar-, *gher-, "cut", from which also Hittite kar-, "cut", whence also Greek character.
Apparently, the Germanic tribes did not have a self-designation ("endonym") that included all Germanic-speaking people but excluded all non-Germanic people. Non-Germanic peoples (primarily Celtic, Roman, Greek, the citizens of the Roman Empire), on the other hand, were called *walha- (this word lives forth in names such as Wales, Welsh, Cornwall, Walloons, Vlachs etc.). Yet, the name of the Suebi — which designated a larger group of tribes and was used almost indiscriminately with Germani in Caesar — was possibly a Germanic equivalent of the Latin name (*swē-ba- "authentic").
The generic *þiuda- "people" occurs in many personal names such as Thiud-reks and also in the ethnonym of the Swedes from a cognate of Old English Sweo-ðēod and Old Norse: Sui-þióð (see e.g. Sö Fv1948;289). Additionally, þiuda- appears in Angel-ðēod ("Anglo-Saxon people") and Gut-þiuda ("Gothic people"). The adjective derived from this noun, *þiudiskaz, "popular", was later used with reference to the language of the people in contrast to the Latin language (earliest recorded example 786 CE). The word is continued in German Deutsch (meaning German), English "Dutch", Dutch Duits and Diets (the latter referring to Dutch, the former meaning German). Danish tysk (meaning German). Trying to identify a contemporary vernacular term and the associated nation with a classical name, Latin writers from the 10th century onwards used the learnèd adjective teutonicus (originally derived from the Teutones) to refer to East Francia ("Regnum Teutonicum") and its inhabitants. This usage is still partly present in modern English; hence the English use of "Teutons" in reference to the Germanic peoples in general besides the specific tribe of the Teutons defeated at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BCE.
The Sons of Mannus, Istvaeones, Irminones, and Ingvaeones are collectively called West Germanic tribes. In addition, those Germanic people who remained in Scandinavia are referred to as North Germanic. These groups all developed separate dialects, the basis for the differences among Germanic languages down to the present day.
The division of peoples into West Germanic, East Germanic, and North Germanic is a modern linguistic classification. Many Greek scholars only classified Celts and Scythians in the Northwest and Northeast of the Mediterranean and this classification was widely maintained in Greek literature until Late Antiquity. Latin-Greek ethnographers (Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, and Strabo) mentioned in the first two centuries CE the names of peoples they classified as Germanic along the Elbe, the Rhine, and the Danube, the Vistula and on the Baltic Sea. Tacitus mentioned 40, Ptolemy 69 peoples. Classical ethnography applied the name Suebi to many tribes in the first century. It appeared that this native name had all but replaced the foreign name Germanic. After the Marcomannic wars the Gothic name steadily gained importance. Some of the ethnic names mentioned by the ethnographers of the first two centuries CE on the shores of the Oder and the Vistula (Gutones, Vandali) reappear from the 3rd century on in the area of the lower Danube and north of the Carpathian Mountains. For the end of the 5th century the Gothic name can be used - according to the historical sources - for such different peoples like the Goths in Gaul, Iberia and Italy, the Vandals in Africa, the Gepids along the Tisza and the Danube, the Rugians, Sciri and Burgundians, even the Iranian Alans. These peoples were classified as Scyths and often deducted from the ancient Getae (most important: Cassiodor/Jordanes, Getica around 550 CE).
The most prevalent Y-chromosome haplogroups in Germanic populations are I1, R1a and R1b, accounting for a frequency of roughly a third each in the population of southern Norway, southwestern Sweden, and Denmark.
I1 itself occurs at its greatest frequency in Scandinavia. It displays a very clear frequency gradient, with a peak frequency of approximately 35% among the populations of southern Scandinavia, and rapidly decreasing frequencies toward the edges of the historically Germanic peoples.
Frequency of the R1b haplogroup is significant of Western Europe (particularly the Atlantic Fringe), while R1a frequency peaks in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Northern India (highest frequencies in Russians, Uzbeks, Indo-Aryans, Altaians). It is the combination of roughly equal frequency of I1, R1a and R1b that is characteristic of North Germanic populations, with a gradient of increasing frequency of R1b towards Germanic speaking populations of the British Isles and the European continent. Sami populations have a frequency of I1 comparable to south Scandinavian values, but a lower incidence of haplogroup R in favour of haplogroup N.
Regarding the question of ethnic origins, evidence developed by archaeologists and linguists suggests that a people or group of peoples sharing a common material culture dwelt in a region defined by the Northern Bronze Age culture between 1700 BCE and 600 BCE. The Germanic tribes then inhabited southern Scandinavia, Denmark and Schleswig, but subsequent Iron Age cultures of the same region, like Wessenstedt (800 to 600 BCE) and Jastorf, are also in consideration. The change of Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic has been defined by the first sound shift (or Grimm's law) and must have occurred when mutually intelligible dialects or languages in a Sprachbund were still able to convey such a change to the whole region. So far it has been impossible to date this event conclusively.
The precise interaction between these peoples is not known, however, they are tied together and influenced by regional features and migration patterns linked to prehistoric cultures like Hügelgräber, Urnfield, and La Tene. A deteriorating climate in Scandinavia around 850 BCE to 760 BCE and a later and more rapid one around 650 BCE might have triggered migrations to the coast of Eastern Germany and further towards the Vistula. A contemporary northern expansion of Hallstatt drew part of this peoples into the Celtic hemisphere, including nordwestblock areas and the region of Elp culture (1800 BCE to 800 BCE).
Archeological evidence suggests a relatively uniform Germanic people were located at about 750 BCE from the Netherlands to the Vistula and in Southern Scandinavia. In the west the coastal floodplains were populated for the first time, since in adjacent higher grounds the population had increased and the soil became exhausted. At about 250 BCE some expansion to the south had occurred and five general groups can be distinguished: North Germanic in southern Scandinavia, excluding Jutland; North Sea Germanic, along the North Sea and in Jutland; Rhine-Weser Germanic, along the middle Rhine and Weser; Elbe Germanic, along the middle Elbe; and East Germanic, between the middle Oder and the Vistula. This concurs with linguistic evidence pointing at the development of five linguistic groups, mutually linked into sets of two to four groups that shared linguistic innovations.
This period witnessed the advent of Celtic culture of Hallstatt and La Tene signature in previous Northern Bronze Age territory, especially to the western extends. However, some proposals suggest this Celtic superstrate was weak, while the general view in the Netherlands holds that this Celtic influence did not involve intrusions at all and assume fashion and a local development from Bronze Age culture. It is generally accepted such a Celtic superstratum was virtually absent to the East, featuring the Germanic Wessenstedt and Jastorf cultures. The Celtic influence and contacts between Gaulish and early Germanic culture along the Rhine is assumed as the source of a number of Celtic loanwords in Proto-Germanic.
Frankenstein and Rowlands (1978), and Wells (1980) have suggested late Hallstatt trade contact to be a direct catalyst for the development of an elite class that came into existence around northeastern France, the Middle Rhine region, and adjacent Alpine regions (Collis 1984:41), culminating to new cultural developments and the advent of the classical Gaulish La Tene Culture The development of La Tene culture extended to the north around 200 to 150 BCE, including the North German Plain, Denmark and Southern Scandinavia:
In certain cremation graves, situated at some distance from other graves, Celtic metalwork appears: brooches and swords, together with wagons, Roman cauldrons and drinking vessels. The area of these rich graves is the same as the places where later (the first century CE) princely graves are found. A ruling class seems to have emerged, distinguished by the possession of large farms and rich gravegifts such as weapons for the men and silver objects for the women, imported earthenware and Celtic items.
The first Germani in Roman ethnography cannot be clearly identified as either Germanic or Celtic in the modern ethno-linguistic sense, and it has been generally held the traditional clear cut division along the Rhine between both ethnic groups was primarily motivated by Roman politics. Caesar described the Eburones as a Germanic tribe on the Gallic side of the Rhine, and held other tribes in the neighbourhood as merely calling themselves of Germanic stock. Even though names like Eburones and Ambiorix were Celtic and, archeologically, this area shows strong Celtic influences, the problem is difficult. Some 20th century writers consider the possibility of a separate "Nordwestblock" identity of the tribes settled along the Rhine at the time, assuming the arrival of a Germanic superstrate from the 1st century BCE and a subsequent "Germanization" or language replacement through the "elite-dominance" model. However, immigration of Germanic Batavians from Hessen in the northern extend of this same tribal region is, archeologically speaking, hardly noticeable and certainly did not populate an exterminated country, very unlike Tacitus suggested. Here, probably due to the local indigenous pastoral way of life, the acceptance of Roman culture turned out to be particularly slow and, contrary to expected, the indigenous culture of the previous Eburones rather seems to have absorbed the intruding (Batavian) element, thus making it very hard to define the real extends of the pre-Roman Germanic indigenous territories.
The early Germanic tribes are assumed to have spoken mutually intelligible dialects, in the sense that Germanic languages derive from a single earlier parent language. No written records of such a parent language exists. From what we know of scanty early written material, by the fifth century CE the Germanic languages were already "sufficiently different to render communication between the various peoples impossible". Some evidence point to a common pantheon made up of several different chronological layers. However, as for mythology only the Scandinavian one (see Germanic mythology) is sufficiently known. Some traces of common traditions between various tribes are indicated by Beowulf and the Volsunga saga. One indication of their shared identity is their common Germanic name for non-Germanic peoples, *walhaz (plural of *walhoz), from which the local names Welsh, Wallis, Walloon and others were derived. An indication of an ethnic unity is the fact that the Romans knew them as one and gave them a common name, Germani (this is the source of our German and Germanic, see Etymology above), although it was well known for the Romans to give geographical rather than cultural names to peoples. The very extensive practice of cremation deprives us of anthropological comparative material for the earliest periods to support claims of a longstanding ethnic isolation of a common (Nordic) strain.
In the absence of large-scale political unification, such as that imposed forcibly by the Romans upon the peoples of Italy, the various tribes remained free, led by their own hereditary or chosen leaders.
By the late 2nd century BCE, Roman authors recount, Gaul, Italy and Hispania were invaded by migrating Germanic tribes, culminating in military conflict with the armies of the Roman Empire. Six decades later, Julius Caesar invoked the threat of such attacks as one justification for his annexation of Gaul to Rome.
As Rome expanded to the Rhine and Danube rivers, it incorporated many Celtic societies into the Empire. The tribal homelands to the north and east emerged collectively in the records as Germania. The peoples of this area were sometimes at war with Rome, but also engaged in complex and long-term trade relations, military alliances, and cultural exchanges with Rome as well.
The Cimbri and Teutoni incursions into Roman Italy were thrust back in 101 BCE. These invasions were written up by Caesar and others as presaging of a Northern danger for the Empire, a danger that should be controlled. In the Augustean period there was — as a result of Roman activity as far as the Elbe River — a first definition of the "Germania magna": from Rhine and Danube in the West and South to the Vistula and the Baltic Sea in the East and North.
Caesar's wars helped establish the term Germania. The initial purpose of the Roman campaigns was to protect Transalpine Gaul by controlling the area between the Rhine and the Elbe. In 9 CE a revolt of their Germanic subjects headed by the supposed Roman ally, Arminius, (along with his decisive defeat of Publius Quinctilius Varus in the surprise attack on unprepared Romans at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest) ended in the withdrawal of the Roman frontier to the Rhine. At the end of the 1st century two provinces west of the Rhine called Germania inferior and Germania superior were established. Important medieval cities like Aachen, Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Worms and Speyer were part of these Roman provinces.
The Germania by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, an ethnographic work on the diverse group of Germanic tribes outside of the Roman Empire, is our most important source on the Germanic peoples of the 1st century.
During the 5th century, as the Western Roman Empire lost military strength and political cohesion, numerous Germanic peoples, under pressure from population growth and invading Asian groups, began migrating en masse in far and diverse directions, taking them to England and as far south through present day Continental Europe to the Mediterranean and northern Africa. Over time, this wandering meant intrusions into other tribal territories, and the ensuing wars for land escalated with the dwindling amount of unoccupied territory. Wandering tribes then began staking out permanent homes as a means of protection. Much of this resulted in fixed settlements from which many, under a powerful leader, expanded outwards. A defeat meant either scattering or merging with the dominant tribe, and this continual process of assimilation was how nations were formed. In Denmark the Jutes merged with the Danes, in Sweden the Geats merged with the Swedes. In England, the Angles merged with the Saxons and other groups as well as a large number of natives to form the Anglo-Saxons.
A direct result of the Roman retreat was the disappearance of imported products like ceramics and coins, and a return to virtually unchanged local Iron Age production methods. According to recent views this has caused confusion for decades, and theories assuming the total abandonment of the coastal regions to account for an archaeological time gap that never existed have been renounced. Instead, it has been confirmed that the Frisian graves has been used without interruption between the 4th and 9th century and that inhabited areas show continuity with the Roman period in revealing coins, jewellery and ceramics of the 5th century. Also, people continued to live in the same three-aisled farmhouse, while to the east completely new types of buildings arose. More to the south, in Belgium, archeological results of this period point to immigration from the north.
The presence of successor states controlled by a nobility from one of the Germanic tribes is evident in the 6th century - even in Italy, the former heart of the Empire, where Odoacer was followed by Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, who was regarded by Roman citizens and Gothic settlers alike as legitimate successor to the rule of Rome and Italy.
The Franks were converted directly from paganism to Catholicism without an intervening time as Arians. Several centuries later, Anglo-Saxon and Frankish missionaries and warriors undertook the conversion of their Saxon neighbours. A key event was the felling of Thor's Oak near Fritzlar by Boniface, apostle of the Germans, in 723 CE.
Eventually, the conversion was forced by armed force, successfully completed by Charlemagne, in a series of campaigns (the Saxon Wars), that also brought Saxon lands into the Frankish empire. Massacres, such as the Bloody Verdict of Verden, were a direct result of this policy.
More broadly, early Medieval Germanic peoples were often assimilated into the walha substrate cultures of their subject populations. Thus, the Burgundians of Burgundy, the Vandals of Andalusia and the Visigoths of western France and eastern Iberia all lost their Germanic identity and became part of Latin Europe. Likewise, the Franks of Western Francia form part of the ancestry of the French people. Examples of assimilation during the Viking Age include the Norsemen in Normandy, and the societal elite in medieval Russia among whom many were the descendants of Slavified Norsemen (a theory, however, contested by some Slavic scholars in the former Soviet Union, who name it the Normanist theory).
Conversely, the Germanic settlement of England resulted in Anglo-Saxon displacement of and/or cultural assimilation of the indigenous culture, the Brythonic speaking British culture. As in England, indigenous Brythonic Celtic culture in some of the south-eastern parts of what became Scotland (approximately the Lothian and Borders region) succumbed to Germanic influence c.600—800, due to the extension of overlordship and settlement from the English areas to the south. Between c. 1150 and c. 1400 most of the Scottish Lowlands became English speaking through immigration from England, France and Flanders and from the resulting assimilation of native Gaelic-speaking Scots. The Scots language is the resulting Germanic language still spoken in parts of Scotland. Between the 15th and 17th centuries Scots spread into Galloway,Carrick and parts of the Scottish Highlands, as well as into the Northern Isles. The latter, Orkney and Shetland, though now part of Scotland, were nominally part of the Kingdom of Norway until the 15th century. A version of the Norse language was spoken there from the Viking invasions until replaced by Scots.
Portugal and Spain also had some measure of Germanic settlement, due to the Visigoths, the Suebi (Quadi and Marcomanni) and the Buri, who settled permanently. The Vandals (Silingi and Hasdingi) were also present, before moving on to North Africa. Many words of Germanic origin entered into the Spanish and Portuguese languages at this time and many more entered through other avenues (often French) in the ensuing centuries (see: List of Spanish words of Germanic origin and List of Portuguese words of Germanic origin).
Italy has also had a history of heavy Germanic settlement. Germanic tribes such as the Visigoths, Vandals, and Ostrogoths had successfully invaded and sparsely settled Italy in the 5th century CE. Most notably, in the 6th century CE, the Germanic tribe known as the Lombards entered and settled primarily in the area known today as Lombardy. The Normans also conquered and ruled Sicily and parts of southern Italy for a time. Crimean Gothic communities appear to have survived intact until the late 1700’s, when many were deported by Catherine the Great. Their language vanished by the 1800’s.
The territory of modern Germany was divided between Germanic and Celtic speaking groups in the last centuries BCE. The parts south of the Germanic Limes came under limited Latin influence in the early centuries CE, but were swiftly conquered by Germanic groups such as the Alemanni after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
In Scandinavia there is a long history of assimilation of and by the Sami people and Finnic peoples, namely Finns and Karelians. In today's usage the term 'Nordic peoples' refers to the ethnic groups in all of the Nordic countries.
The Viking Age Norsemen split into an Old East Norse and an Old West Norse group, which further separated into Icelanders and Norwegians on one hand, and Swedes and Danes on the other. Politically, the union between Norway and Sweden was dissolved as late as 1905, and the Republic of Iceland was established in 1944. In Great Britain, Germanic people coalesced into the Anglo-Saxon or English people between the 8th and 10th centuries..
On the European continent, the Holy Roman Empire included all remaining Germanic speaking groups from the 10th century. In the Late Medieval to Early Modern period, some groups split off the Empire before a "German" ethnicity had formed, consisting of Low Franconian (Dutch, Flemish) and Alemannic (Swiss) populations. In the 19th century, the Austrian Empire became an entity separate from the German Empire (Austrians), leaving the rump Kingdom of Germany to form the German ethnicity by the 20th century, including sub-ethnicities such as the Franconians, Swabians, Bavarians or Saxons. The territory settled by Frisians remains divided between the Netherlands and Germany. The Alemannic-speaking Alsace was disputed between Germany and France from the 17th to the 20th centuries, finally passing to France in 1945, and largely romanized since then.
Daughter-groups of Germanic ethnicities that emerged during the age of colonialism include Anglo-America, Australians and New Zealanders (British Empire, speaking varieties of English), the Afrikaaners (Dutch Empire, speaking Afrikaans) and a scattered distribution of overseas Ethnic Germans, most notably in Namibia (the former German colony of South West Africa) and Argentina.