Defeat the Danes, 877, part of the Norse migrations. By Colin Unwin Gil © Parliamentary Art Collection

Migrations and State Formation in the Early Middle Ages

Did migrations in the Early Middle Ages always lead to the formation of states? No, claims Heinrich Härke. Much depends of the level of administrative organisation already present at the new area of settlement.

Migrations and State Formation in the Early Middle Ages: A View from the West.
By Heinrich Härke
In: Ancient Rus and Medieval Europe: the emergence of states. Ed by Tatiana Jackson. Dmitry Pozharsky University Publishing House 2016, pp. 116 – 130


It is generally conceived wisdom that the Roman Empire disintegrated to a series of smaller competing states. Whether we should characterises them as semi-Roman or Barbarian is still a question on which the jury is out. However, what caused this state-formation in the Early Middle Ages? Was it migration? And why was a ‘new’ state not always the result?

Heinrich Härke has juggled these questions for a very long time. Further, he has generally taken a broader perspective than most of his colleagues; hence, any new publication is always worth a read. Recently he published an overview of his more recent thoughts in a book on ‘Old Rus’ and Medieval Europe: The Origin of States.

In it he writes how migrations of “tribes”, and mobility of elites, figure in many narratives of state formation and nation-building. However, the manifest extent of the influence these migrations had on the early state-formations have for along time been unfashionable in Western European Archaeology. This has led to a lack of interest in the question itself: what lay behind the state-formations? And what – if any – role did migratory movements play?

In the article Heinrich Härke initially makes precision of the terms used: migration is used when a group of people moves from a distinct area to another, expansion is used to designate a situation where the area of origin is not abandoned, colonization when people move into previously unoccupied areas or regions, while a state is defined as a polity with a non-tribal organisation fitted with some sort of central authority and financed through some form of taxation.

The outcomes of migrations in this period varied considerably. The case studies discussed in this paper include the Anglo-Saxon immigration into England and other migrations of the fifth — seventh centuries AD in Western Europe, and the Viking immigration into the British Isles as well as other Scandinavian cases of the ninth — eleventh centuries AD in the west.

Taken together, these cases demonstrate that migration does not necessarily lead to state formation. For instance, the formation of the Anglo-Saxon states did not begin until the beginning of the 7th centuries indicated by royal dynasties, written laws, taxation, and long-distance trade under royal control. This took place around 200 years after the initial migratory movement began (Heinrich Härke estimates it to have consisted of app. 100-200.000 people initiating a gradual process of immigration and settlement.

“This delayed state formation in England is in marked contrast to the pattern observed in the cases of the Goths, Vandals, Lombards and Franks”, writes Heintrich Härke (p. 120). The difference is that these migratory bands entered regions basically already working as “on-going administrative units”. The difference between the Anglo-Saxon case and the continental examples were not so much the size of the migrations (in both cases estimated to be around 10%), but the size and character of already existing administrative apparatus in the former Roman provinces in the continent. In Britain, the Romans had left generations before the migrations of Angles and Saxons speeded up. “State formation appears to have been a likely consequence only where immigrants encountered native populations of a certain level of social complexity”, writes Heinrich Härke.

The reason might lie in the nature of segmentary (tribal) organisation: it presupposes social links and shared ancestry among the lineages of the tribe. This imposes size limitations, but more importantly restrictions in terms of identity. After conquest by an immigrant population or elite, one possible solution is that the native population is reduced to the status of slaves who are attached to the households of lineage members. The alternative would be the creation of joint states based on a common ideology (such as afforded by Christianity in Early Medieval Western Europe)


Ancient Rus and Medieval Europe- the emergence of states -coverAncient Rus and Medieval Europe: the emergence of states
Ed by Tatiana Jackson
Series: The most ancient states of Eastern Europe 2014
Dmitry Pozharsky University Publishing House 2016
ISBN 978-5-91244-147-9

The Yearbook: The most ancient states of Eastern Europe 2014. is  dedicated to the problem of the origin and formation of the medieval states. It includes presentations given at the International Conference “Ancient Rus and Medieval Europe: the emergence of states” (IVI RAN, 2012). The main objectives of the volume – to present general theoretical state of current research of early states and highlight the history of specific public entities in Europe, including ancient Rus.



King Alfred’s Longships Defeat the Danes, 877. By Colin Unwin Gil © Parliamentary Art Collection


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