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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 13th—14th century in the Gothic style;
the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



The Germanic Empires



The decline of the Roman Empire meant that the Germanic tribes were able to advance into its former territory. Although German peoples had been migrating through Europe since the second century, the large-scale westward advance of the Huns now put pressure on the Germanic tribes inhabiting Eastern Europe. They too moved further west, into Western and Southern Europe, where they founded generallv shortlived kingdoms, such as the Ostrogoth empire of 1 Theodoric the Great.

Tomb of Theodoric the Great in Ravenna,
built ca. 520

Vandals, Burgundians, and Anglo-Saxons

In the fifth century, the Vandals, Burgundians, and Anglo-Saxons founded numerous states on the territory of the Western Roman Empire.

Moving from Eastern Europe through Spain, the Vandals arrived in North Africa in 429, and under their king 2 Gaiseric, founded a kingdom with its capital at Carthage.

They conquered the islands of the Western Mediterranean and in 455 3 plundered Rome in further campaigns.

Later, the state was weakened by struggles over succession in the royal family and religious conflicts, particularly the persecution of Catholics by the Arian Vandals. By 535 the Byzantine general Belisarius had reconquered the Vandal kingdom for the emperor.
The Burgundians left Eastern Europe with the Vandals, but they only traveled as far as the Rhine-Main area, where they possibly made Worms their capital.

In 437, this first Burgundian kingdom was destroyed by 4 Hun mercenaries under the Roman general Flavius Aetius—an event described in the German epic story the "Nibelungenlied."

In the following years, Aetius settled the rest of the tribe on Lake Geneva, where the Burgundians built up a second kingdom. In 534, they were defeated by the Merovingians and absorbed into the Frankish empire.


2 Gaiseric, king of the Vandals,
wood engraving, 1869

3 The Vandals loot Rome,
wood engraving, 19th ñ

4 The Burgundians defend themselves against the Huns


Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov


According to legend, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—under their leaders, the brothers 5 Hengist and Horsa—had originally been called by the Britons themselves to help in internal disputes. The Germans settled permanently, however, and pushed the Celtic Britons into Wales and Cornwall. The Germans, who gradually merged to become the Anglo-Saxon people, founded numerous kingdoms, which were only gradually Christianized. One of these was the kingdom of Wessex, which initiated the unification of England in the ninth century.

5 A king of the Celtic Britons greets Hengist and Horsa

see also text

"The Nibelungenlied"


Nibelungenlied, Manuscript, 1480-90


The medieval Nibelungenlied preserves the memory of the Great Migration of Peoples. In the second part, it describes the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom by the legendary king of the Huns, Etzel (Attila). The great heroic epic by an unknown author consists of 39 "adventures" and is based on various legendary cycles. It was not until the 18th century that the Nibelungenlied was rediscovered and elevated to the status îf à German national epic.


Etzel or Atilla, king of the Huns




German epic poem
(German: “Song of the Nibelungs”) Main
Middle High German epic poem written about 1200 by an unknown Austrian from the Danube region. It is preserved in three main 13th-century manuscripts, A (now in Munich), B (St. Gall), and C (Donaueschingen); modern scholarship regards B as the most trustworthy. An early Middle High German title of the work is Der Nibelunge Not (“The Nibelung Distress”), from the last line of the poem. The superscription on one of the manuscripts from the early 14th century is “The Book of Kriemhild.”

The story has a long history and, as a result, contains a number of disparate elements. For example, the word Nibelung itself presents difficulties. In the first part of the poem, it appears as the name of Siegfried’s lands and peoples and his treasure, but, throughout the second, it is an alternate name for the Burgundians.

The poem’s content falls into two parts. It begins with two cantos (aventiuren) that introduce, respectively, Kriemhild, a Burgundian princess of Worms, and Siegfried, a prince from the lower Rhine. Siegfried is determined to woo Kriemhild despite his parents’ warning. When he arrives in Worms, he is identified by Hagen, a henchman of Kriemhild’s brother King Gunther. Hagen then recounts Siegfried’s former heroic deeds, including the acquisition of a treasure. When war is declared by the Danes and Saxons, Siegfried offers to lead the Burgundians and distinguishes himself in battle. Upon his return, he meets Kriemhild for the first time, and their affections develop during his residence at court.

At this point a new element is introduced. News reaches the court that a queen of outstanding strength and beauty may be won only by a man capable of matching her athletic prowess. Gunther decides to woo Brunhild with the aid of Siegfried, to whom he promises the hand of Kriemhild if successful. Siegfried leads the expedition to Brunhild’s abode, where he presents himself as Gunther’s vassal. In the ensuing contests, Gunther goes through the motions of deeds actually performed by Siegfried in a cloak of invisibility. When Brunhild is defeated, she accepts Gunther as her husband. Siegfried and Kriemhild are then married as promised, but Brunhild remains suspicious and dissatisfied. Soon the two queens quarrel; Brunhild ridicules Kriemhild for marrying a vassal, and Kriemhild reveals Siegfried’s and Gunther’s deception.

Now Hagen becomes a prominent figure as he sides with Brunhild and takes the initiative in plotting vengeance. He wins Kriemhild’s confidence and learns Siegfried’s one vulnerable spot and then strikes the fatal blow.

During these events, Brunhild drops almost unnoticed out of the story, and the death of Siegfried does not appear to be so much vengeance on her part as an execution by Hagen, who is suspicious of Siegfried’s growing power. Siegfried’s funeral is conducted with great ceremony, and the grief-stricken Kriemhild remains at Worms, though for a long time estranged from Gunther and Hagen. Later they are reconciled in order to make use of Siegfried’s treasure, which is brought to Worms. Kriemhild begins to distribute it, but Hagen, fearing that her influence will grow, sinks the treasure in the Rhine.

The second part of the poem is much simpler in structure and deals basically with the conflict between Hagen and Kriemhild and her vengeance against the Burgundians. Etzel (Attila), king of the Huns, asks the hand of Kriemhild, who accepts, seeing the possibilities of vengeance in such a union. After many years, she persuades Etzel to invite her brothers and Hagen to his court. Though Hagen is wary, they all go to Etzel’s court, where general combat and complete carnage ensues. Kriemhild has Gunther killed and then, with Siegfried’s sword, she slays the bound and defenseless Hagen, who to the last has refused to reveal where Siegfried’s treasure is hidden. Kriemhild in turn is slain by a knight named Hildebrand, who is outraged at the atrocities that she has just committed.

In the Nibelungenlied some elements of great antiquity are discernible. The story of Brunhild appears in Old Norse literature. The brief references to the heroic deeds of Siegfried allude to several ancient stories, many of which are preserved in the Scandinavian Poetic Edda (see Edda), Vǫlsunga saga, and Thidriks saga, in which Siegfried is called Sigurd. The entire second part of the story, the fall of the Burgundians, appears in an older Eddaic poem, Atlakvida (“Lay of Atli”; see Atli, Lay of). Yet the Nibelungenlied does not appear to be a mere joining of individual stories but, rather, an integration of component elements into a meaningful whole.

It is the second part of the poem that suggests the title “The Book of Kriemhild.” The destruction of the Burgundians (Nibelungen) is her deliberate purpose. The climax of the first part, the death of her husband, Siegfried, prepares the ground for the story of her vengeance. Furthermore, Kriemhild is the first person introduced in the story, which ends with her death; and all through the story predominating attention is paid to Hagen. This concentration on Kriemhild and on the enmity between her and Hagen would seem to suggest that it was the poet’s intention to stress the theme of Kriemhild’s vengeance.

The Nibelungenlied was written at a time in medieval German literature when the current emphasis was on the “courtly” virtues of moderation and refinement of taste and behaviour. The Nibelungenlied, with its displays of violent emotion and its uncompromising emphasis on vengeance and honour, by contrast looks back to an earlier period and bears the mark of a different origin—the heroic literature of the Teutonic peoples at the time of their great migrations. The poem’s basic subject matter also goes back to that period, for it is probable that the story of the destruction of the Burgundians was originally inspired by the overthrow of the Burgundian kingdom at Worms by the Huns in ad 437, and the story of Brunhild and Siegfried may have been inspired by events in the history of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks in about ad 600. Much of the heroic quality of the original stories has remained in the poem, particularly in the author’s conception of Hagen as the relentless protector of King Gunther’s honour.

Probably no literary work has given more to Germanic arts than the Nibelungenlied. Many variations and adaptations appeared in later centuries. The most significant modern adaptation is Richard Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74).

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Johann Heinrich Fussli
Gunther's wedding night

Johann Heinrich Fussli
Kriemhild showing Gunther's head to Hagen



Siegfried and Brunhilde


Peter von Cornelius
Gunther orders Hagen to drop the hoard into the Rhine


The Kingdoms of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Lombards

The Visigoths created a kingdom in southern France in the fifth century, but were eventually driven into Spain by the Franks a century later. The kingdom of the Ostrogoths in Italy succumbed to the campaigns of the Byzantines. Eventually it was replaced by the kingdom of the Lombards.

After the 11 Visigoths under Alaric had plundered Rome in 410, they eventually settled in south western France.

Officially still under the sovereignty of the Roman emperor, they founded their own kingdom with Toulouse as its capital. In the second half of the fifth century, King Euric extended Visigoth rule all the way to Spain.

His son 7 Alaric II, however, fell in battle against the Franks in 507 when these breached the treaty made between the two empires a generation earlier.

11 Visigoth kings, book illustration

7 Alarich II is defeated by Clovis I,
lithograph, 19th century

The Visigoths were then forced to withdraw to the Iberian Peninsula, where 12 Toledo became their new capital.

12 The Old Town of Toledo with the cathedral on the
left and the castle on the right

There the Visigoths, who had previously practiced the Arian religion, converted to Catholicism in 568. This made assimilation into the local population possible. At the same time, the influence of the Church, which had allied itself with the higher ranks of the nobility, weakened the central authority within the kingdom. This facilitated rapid Arab subjugation of the Visigoths by 714-719; Christian rule continued only in the north of the Peninsula.

The Ostrogoth king, 9 Theodoric the Great, was raised as a hostage at the imperial court of Constantinople; his presence guaranteed Ostrogoth compliance with a treaty made between his father and the Bvzantine Empire.

As an ally of Eastern Rome, he marched to Italy and defeated Odoacer, the local ruler, and built up his own kingdom with 8 Ravenna as capital.

Theodoric unsuccessfully attempted to bind the German states together through dynastic marriages and so create a counterweight to the Eastern Roman Empire; he himself married the sister of the Frankish ruler Clovis I. After his death in 526 the Ostrogoth kingdom was weakened by the strict separation he had established between Arian Goths and Catholic Romans, as well as the resulting conflicts and unclear succession.

9 Theodoric the Great welcomes delegates of
Germanic tribes, wood engraving, 19th century

8 Theodoric's palace in Ravenna,
mosaic, ca. 500


In 552, the Byzantine general Narses defeated the Ostrogoth king Totila, who had sought to restore the Gothic kingdom in Italy.

For a short period Narses controlled Italy. However, the Byzantines were soon driven out by the 6, 10 Lombards under King Alboin.

The Lombards settled in northern Italy in 568, in the area that came to be known as Lombardy, and later also in southern Italy. Only Ravenna, Rome, the southern tip of Italy, and Sicily remained Byzantine. These territories too were later partially conquered by the Lombards, while in central Italy the papacy gradually developed its own area of control that later became the Papal States. The Lombard kings in fact ruled only northwestern Italy from their capital Pavia, and several ruling dynasties reigned in rapid succession; there were other duchies only nominally subject to the king. Once the Franks under Charlemagne conquered northern Italy in 774 (p. 164), only the Lombard princes in the south remained independent.

6 Decorative cover of
a Langobard bible, ca. 800

10 A Lombard, lithograph, 19th ñ



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