Marx Engels on Art and Literature

Germanic Culture


From: Engels, A Contribution to Early German History;
Source: Marx Engels On Literature and Art, Moscow 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

During the early sixties of this century, finds of outstanding importance were made in two Schleswig peat bogs; these were carefully studied by Engelhardt in Copenhagen and, after various wanderings, deposited in the Kiel Museum. They are distinguished from similar discoveries by the presence of coins, making it possible to determine their age with considerable certainty. Thirty-seven coins, from Nero to Septimius Severus, were found in Taschberg peat bog (Thorsbjerg in Danish) near Suderbrarup, and in Nydam bog, a sea inlet covered with silt and transformed into a peat bog, thirty-four coins from the reign of Tiberius to that of Macrinus (218) were unearthed. The finds undoubtedly therefore belong to the period between 220 and 250 A.D. The objects are not exclusively of Roman origin; many were made by the Germans in the area. Due to the almost total preservation of these finds in the iron-rich water of the bog, they reveal, in surprising ways, the state of the North-German metal, weaving, and shipbuilding industries, and, through the runic signs, the state of written culture in the first half of the third century.

We are even more astounded by the state of industry itself. The fine woven fabrics, delicate sandals, and well crafted saddler’s goods indicate a far higher level of culture than that of the “Tacitean” Germans. Particularly amazing are the indigenous articles of metal.

Comparative philology proves that the Germans brought the knowledge of metals with them from their Asian homeland. Perhaps they also knew how to extract and work metal, but it is hardly likely that they still had this knowledge at the time when they clashed with the Romans. At least there is no indication in the writings of the first century that between the Rhine and the Elbe iron or bronze were being produced and worked; rather there is evidence to the contrary. Tacitus, it is true, mentions that the Goths (in Upper Silesia?) mined iron, and Ptolemy ascribes ironworks to the neighbouring Quades; in both cases, the knowledge of smelting could have been re-acquired from the shores of the Danube. Finds attested through coins as belonging to the first century include no indigenous metal products, only Roman. Why should all these Roman metal articles have been brought to Germany if there had been indigenous metalworking? One does find old casting moulds, unfinished castings, and scraps of bronze in Germany, but these are never accompanied by coins which could indicate their age; in all probability they are from pre-Germanic times, left by nomadic Etruscan bronze founders. Besides it is pointless to ask whether the immigrating Germans had entirely lost the art of metal-working; all facts, indicate that in the first century metal-working was practically non-existent among them.

But here the Taschberg bog finds again reveal an unexpectedly high level of the indigenous metal industry. Here are buckles, decorative metal plates engraved with heads of men and animals, a silver helmet covering the whole face, except for eyes, nose and mouth, chain mail of woven wire, demanding an extraordinary amount of labour, for the wire had to be hammered out first (wire-drawing was invented only in 1306), h gold head band, not to mention other artifacts which might not be of local origin. These objects are similar to others found in the Nydam bog, in a bog on Funen, and lastly to a find made in Bohemia (Horovice), also in the early sixties: magnificent bronze disks with human heads, buckles, clasps, etc., all similar to those found at Taschberg, and accordingly all from the same period.

From the third century on, the metal industry, steadily improving, must have spread over the whole territory of Germany; by the time of the migration of peoples, say towards the end of the fifth century, it had reached a comparatively advanced stage. Not only iron and bronze, but gold and silver were regularly worked. Gold bracteates, modelled on Roman coins, were minted, and base metals gilded; one also comes across inlaid work, enamels, and filigree. An awkward form is often decorated with highly tasteful and artistic designs, only partially based on Roman work. This is mainly true of buckles, clasps and brooches which have certain characteristic forms in common. In the British Museum, clasps from Kerch, on the Sea of Azov, are exhibited together With similar clasps found in England, which could have come from the same metal-works. The style of such work, despite the often substantial local peculiarities, is essentially uniform from Sweden to the lower Danube, and from the Black Sea to France and England. This first period of German metal industry on the continent ceases with the cessation of the migration of peoples and with the general acceptance of Christianity. In England and Scandinavia, it continues for somewhat longer.

The wide extension of this industry among the Germans in the sixth and seventh centuries and its distinction as a special branch of industry is attested in various codes of law. There are numerous references to blacksmiths, sword makers and gold- and silver-smiths even in the Alamannian statutes and even to publicly attested ones (publice probati). Bavarian law punishes theft from a church, ducal palace, smithy, or mill more severely, “for these four buildings are public and remain open at all times.” According to Frisian law, recompense for the murder of a goldsmith was 25 per cent higher than for others of the same social standing. Salic law values an ordinary serf at 12 solidi, but a blacksmith-serf (faber) at 35 solidi.