Quid Tacitus . . . ? The Germania and the Study of Anglo-Saxon England


Wien-_Parlament-TacitusQuid Tacitus . . . ? The Germania and the Study of Anglo-Saxon England

M.J. Toswell

Florilegium: Volume 27 (2010)


This paper considers the vexed historiography of Tacitus’s Germania and its reception history, first among German and other European historians and then among Anglo-Saxonists. It starts with the putative ninth-century Fulda (or Herzfeld) manuscript and the single Renaissance copy which gives rise to a rich vein of German and English nationalism. References to the Germania as a trustworthy source largely end with the Second World War in texts by classicists and historians, but continue to the present day amongst Old English literary specialists. The paper puckishly suggests that perhaps the Agricola might offer more interesting comparisons to Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry.

The construction of the Germanic comitatus by Cornelius Tacitus in one of his early works, the Germania, offers scholars of Anglo-Saxon England an easy shorthand way to discuss the heroic code as it appears in an assortment of late Old English texts, notably including Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon. This convenient shorthand has been much used, beginning in the nineteenth century with such scholars of history as John Richard Green and John Mitchell Kemble, and largely continuing in a straight line — although with some changes in emphasis and occasional concerns about relevance — to the present day. This dependence, or at the very least this call to a Roman history to provide a sense of longitude and certainty to the construction of Anglo- Saxon heroic behaviour, offers scholars a kind of chronological certainty in their consideration of the Germanic tribes and their behaviours when they first migrated to England. Tacitus could demonstrate the fixed and longstanding construction of hero- ism and of the cultural mores of Germanic society.

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