A historical overview by Ian Wilson (Rated G)
When you say “Gothic” nowadays, most people tend to think of a style of literature, or music, or aesthetic, or more rarely, architecture. These things, however, have little to do with the historical Goths.
Historians often separate Goths in two subgroups: Visigoths (western Goths) and Ostrogoths (Eastern Goths) but this is only for convenience’s sake. The Goths themselves recognized no such distinction, nor did the Romans at the time.
According to their own records, the Goths migrated down into Central Europe from Scandinavia. Their language bears many similarities to modern Scandinavian languages, but some historians doubt this claim. I, however, have no reason to doubt what the Goths said about themselves.
What we know about their language comes from the scant copies of the Holy Scriptures translated into Gothic by the Arian missionary, Wulfila. I would say that it was a rather beautiful tongue and it’s quite a shame that it is extinct. It did, however, give many loanwords to modern languages, such as French, Spanish and German.
Roman historians and ethnographers describe the Goths as being very tall, heavily muscled, with fair skin and light or red hair. Some historians describe them as very handsome. The Goths valued prowess in combat above most other skills in their men. They did not tolerate heat or thirst very well, but endured hunger and cold with little complaint. The spear was their preferred weapon, but they also fought with the sword and battle ax.
The Goths, like other Germanic people, worshiped a pantheon of gods including Wotan (Odin), Donner (Thor), Freya and many others. We don’t know much about their beliefs prior to Christianity, unfortunately, only that they were pagans. It probably included animal or, rarely, human sacrifice, singing, and various feasts. Likely they believed in various natures spirits, such as trolls, who must be appeased in order to avoid misfortune. This might have involved various charms or libations.
Despite what the name might suggest, the Goths left behind little architecture, and certainly none of it was what we might call Gothic. The vaulted ceilings, pointed archways, flying buttresses and stained glass windows were all built long after the Goths had vanished as a distinct culture. The Gothic title was applied to those structures by Renaissance architects as a derogatory term. Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers thought these structures to be “barbaric” and blamed the Goths, even though the Goths had nothing to do with them. In the time of their construction, they were known as opus Francigenum or “French work”, which is a much more accurate description.
So where are the Goths now?
As discussed in my previous article, the invading Huns pressed many of the Goths into Roman territory, where the Romans put them in the legion and gave them the responsibility to protect their borderlands. After years of mismanagement and being nearly starved to death, the Western Goths rebelled, eventually sacking Rome itself. However, they were eventually able to put aside their differences to face the Hunnish threat once Attila began his Western campaign. In one terrific battle, the Goths and Romans pushed Attila out of France. The Huns advanced no further after that.
After many epic conflicts with the Romans and other Germanic tribes, the Goths were pushed to the outer edges of the fractured empire. The Western Goths ended up in Andalusia Spain, while the Eastern Goths were forced into Crimea.
The Western Goths were eventually defeated by the invading Muslims and their language and culture were essentially obliterated. The Crimean Goths continued on, however, until about the 15th or 16th century when the last Gothic speakers died and they ceased to exist as a distinct culture.