Southern Germany

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Modern southern Germany includes the states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and the southern part of the state of Hessen. In the south it is bounded by the Alps, Lake Constance, and the east-west section of the upper Rhine River that extends to Basel. In the east it is bounded by the Fichtelgebirge, the Bavarian Forest, and the forest of the Upper Palatinate. The northern margin is formed by the low mountain ranges of the Taunus, the Vogelsberg, the Rhön, and the Franconian Forest. The upper Rhine Plain east of the Vosges Mountains marks the border to the west.

The more important low mountain ranges are the Odenwald, the Spessart, the Steigerwald, the Black Forest, the Swabian Jura, and the Franconian Jura. Fertile agricultural regions are the Wetterau, the Main Valley, the upper Rhine Plain, the central Neckar region, the Nördlinger Ries, and the eastern Danube Valley, called the Gäuboden. Southern Germany shares two of central Europe's largest rivers. The upper course of the Rhine and the western shore of Lake Constance form a vital transport axis in the west. The Danube, the most important natural east-west connection in central Europe, arises in southern Germany. Other significant rivers that also form transport axes are the Main and the Neckar.

historical development

In late antiquity, the region was clearly divided into two parts. The late Roman Danube-Iller-Rhine limes (frontier borderlands) stretched through the provinces of Germania I, Maxima Sequanorum, and Raetia I and II west of the Rhine, south of Lake Constance, and a line extending from Bregenz–Kempten east of the Iller, then along the Iller south of the Danube, and east of the mouth of the Iller. The Germanic tribes of the Alemanni, the Burgundians, and the Juthungi settled to the east and north of this region until the western Roman Empire fell in a.d. 476. From the middle of the fifth century the territory of the Alemanni expanded into the former Roman territory on the left bank of the Rhine and in the south of the Danube. The Lech then formed the boundary of the new tribe of the Baiuvarii, which was under the sovereignty of the Ostrogoths from a.d. 493 to 536 and thereafter was affiliated loosely with the Merovingian kingdom.

As early as a.d. 500, Alemannic sovereignty ceased with the establishment of the Frankish Duchy of Swabia. Toward the end of the sixth century, Frankish expansion also encompassed southern Hessen and northern Bavaria to the Main. Descendants of the Juthungi as well as parts of the Thuringian population then were incorporated into the empire of the Franks or the Frankish duchy. As Frankish colonization continued, Slavic tribes in the eastern part of northern Bavaria also fell under the rule of the Franks by the eighth century. The largely independent Stem Duchy of the Agilolfings in Bavaria was occupied by Charlemagne in a.d. 788 and converted into a duchy dominated by the Franks. What is now southern Germany was occupied at that time by the duchies of Franconia, Swabia, and Bavaria. After the Treaty of Verdun in a.d. 843, southern Germany belonged to the kingdom of East Francia under the Carolingian king Louis the German. During the tenth century, under Henry I, the Saxon king of the German empire, southern Germany suffered heavily during the plundering raids of the Magyars. These invasions ended in a.d. 955 with the Battle of Lechfeld at Augsburg, under Otto the Great.


The tribe of the Alemanni formed in the third century a.d. as a union of several Germanic groups from the Elbe region. After a.d. 233 this new tribe participated decisively in the plundering raids into the limes region, the provinces beyond, and Italy. After the fall of the limes in a.d. 259–260, the archaeological evidence reveals a lack of continuity of a provincial Roman population. Roman encampments and settlements, including the villae rusticae (farms), were abandoned and destroyed. The limes region was not resettled until the fourth century, when the Alemanni conquered and occupied it.

Several centers of early Alemannic colonization are ascertainable. These centers include the upper and central Neckar region, the region of Heilbronn, the area around the mouth of the Neckar, the Brenz Valley and the Ostalb, the Breisgau, and the Tauber Valley, which lies outside the former limes region. Especially striking in the Alemannic region are many fortified hilltop settlements. Based on early-twenty-first-century knowledge, the building of the hilltop settlements in the Germanic-Alemannic region of southern Germany on the far side of the late Roman Danube-Iller-Rhine limes cannot be linked to older local Germanic traditions. Yet models certainly do exist in the military and civilian hilltop sites that were founded by the late third century in the region of the late Roman Danube-Iller-Rhine limes.

The evidence indicates that Alemannic hilltop settlements were not founded until the fourth century and stopped being occupied by the end of the fifth century. Most of these sites were abandoned around a.d. 500, which can be explained by the defeat of the Alemanni by the Franks. There is no evidence of continuity between the Alemannic hilltop settlements and the late Merovingian-Carolingian castles that occasionally followed. The Runder Berg near Urach is the best researched of these sites.

In the former limes region, Roman villas continued to be occupied. This practice and the use of land cleared by the Romans indicate that there must have been only a short period of time between abandonment and reuse. In southwestern Germany, too, most evidence of Alemannic settlement can be drawn from the form of graves and single, random, or accidental finds. Some larger settlements have been excavated methodically as well. In the settlement of Sontheim, which dates to the first half of the fourth century, excavators identified relatively large post dwellings; smaller economic buildings of post construction, including a round storage building with 7 post holes; and a rectangular area with internal construction (the largest measuring 70 meters) separated from the rest of the settlement by a massive palisade. This is believed to have been the fortified residence of a group having a higher social status. Great quantities of iron slag suggest that ironworking was one of the economic bases for Sontheim.

In the Breisgau, too, large excavations indicate increasing early Alemannic settlement by the fourth century. After the middle of the fifth century, the Alemannic settlement region expanded rapidly. By then it included the Alsace, northern Switzerland, the Swiss Midland, Upper Swabia, the region of Bavarian Swabia up to the Lech, and the Algäu. The Alemanni who carried out this colonization until the seventh century had long been under Frankish rule.

The Alemanni did not enjoy political independence for long. The end of the fifth century was characterized by conflict and defeat of the Alemanni in battle against the Franks. After the defeat of a.d. 496–497 and the suppression of their uprising in a.d. 506, the Alemanni lost their kingdom and their independence. Alemannia became the Duchy of Swabia, a region at times more or less loosely connected to the Frankish empire. Archaeologically this fundamental change is evident in the disappearance of the hilltop settlements of the Alemannic nobility and the end of its cemeteries. At the same time, strategically situated settlements of Frankish warriors and their entourage emerged in the sixth and seventh centuries. Many of their cemeteries are well known. These Frankish officials in Alemannia also included warrior groups of Thuringian origin that became Frankish subjects after the defeat of Thuringia by the Franks in a.d. 531.


The Juthungi generally are believed to have been the eastern subtribe of the Alemanni. Archaeological evidence indicates that they settled in northern Bavaria in the fourth and fifth centuries. This Germanic tribe from the Elbe region is cited for the first and, as far as is known, the last time in the victory monument of Augsburg of a.d. 260, which at the same time reports that the group also was called the Semnones. No written sources on the fate of this tribe exist. The last remaining members of the Juthungi presumably were integrated into the Frankish population in the course of the Frankish development of northern Bavaria in the sixth century.


Starting in the sixth century, colonists from the Frankish heartland along the Rhine settled in northern Bavaria, that is, the Main region around Würzburg and eastward, the Rednitz–Regnitz basin, and the northern foothills of the Franconian Jura in the area of the upper Altmühl. This region was incorporated into the East Frankish kingdom. The same fate befell the present-day Hessen region of southern Germany. These events are not confirmed so much by written sources as by cemetery finds with very distinct Rhenish-Frankish elements.

The Thuringian and Juthungian parts of the population that had previously lived in northern Bavaria apparently were incorporated into Frankish territory without major difficulties. The only evidence of this process is in the archaeological record, primarily in the form of cemeteries and grave goods. These archaeological sources disappeared toward the end of the seventh century as the use of grave goods began to wane. Only in the upper Main area, where the Franks began to colonize the region occupied by Slavic peoples, did the custom of placing burial offerings continue in the Carolingian-Ottonian period. The name "Francia" for this region north and south of the Main—bounded by the Saxons in the north, the Alemanni in the southwest, the Bavarians in the south (the left bank of the Middle Rhine), and the Slavs in the east—does not appear until the eighth or ninth century. It has survived in the names of the Bavarian government districts of Upper, Middle, and Lower Franconia.


The Baiuvarii represent the most recent Germanic tribe of the Migration period that was of importance in the development of present-day Germany. The name is preserved in the "Free State of Bavaria." The first historical record dates back to the early sixth century a.d. (alluded to by the historian Jordanes in a.d. 551 or perhaps as early as a.d. 520 by the Roman statesman Cassiodorus and, later, by the Latin poet Venantius Fortunatus in a.d. 565). Their settlement area included parts of the old Roman provinces of Raetia and Noricum. The name Baiuvarii means "men from the land of Baia," or Bohemia—the old Boiohaemum of the ancient geographers.

If one attempts to draw interim conclusions from the meager historical sources and the insights offered by archaeological research, the following model emerges for the Bavarian tribal genesis. When Roman rule came to an end on the Danube around the middle of the fifth century, a polyethnic tribe made up of Romanic and immigrant Germanic groups (including Alemanni, Ostrogoths, Langobards, and Thuringians) formed at the turn of the sixth century a.d. around Germanic allies that had migrated into the area from Bohemia (the "Baiuvarii"). Particularly important is the fact that the massive and therefore practically indestructible fortress of Regensburg remained in the possession of the allies of Bohemian origin. Based on written records starting in the Early Middle Ages this was the royal capital of the early medieval Stem Duchy of the Agilolfings.

Baiuvarian ethnogenesis goes back to the intervention of the Ostrogoths. Under their king Theoderic, the Ostrogoths had conquered Italy from the eastern Roman Empire in a.d. 493. This region included Raetia up to the Danube, which formed part of the diocese of Italy. Ostrogoth rule over the region between the Alps and the Danube ended only in a.d. 536. In that year the Ostrogothic king Witigis, who was forced to defend Italy against the troops of the east Roman emperor Justinian, ceded the region north of the Alps to the Franks under their king Theudebert from the Merovingian dynasty. The tribe of the Baiuvarii between the Lech, the Danube, the Enns, and the Alps continued to enjoy substantial independence under the rule of the Agilolfingian dukes, who had many connections with the Lombard dynasty. In the sixth and seventh centuries settlement expanded rapidly and, in northern Bavaria, eventually spread across the Danube toward the north. Under Charlemagne a split occurred with the last Agilolfingian, Tassilo III, who was deposed in a.d. 788. After that, Frankish officeholders ruled the Duchy of Bavaria.


In northeastern Bavaria, in the present-day government districts of the Upper Palatinate and Upper Franconia north of the Danube, archaeological finds beginning around a.d. 700 indicate a Slavic population that had migrated into the region from Bohemia. By the eighth century, there are also historical sources that confirm the presence of a Slavic population east of the Steigerwald. These Slavic groups were integrated into the Frankish empire and were under the administration of the church. Frankish colonists migrated into their settlement region from the west. In northern Bavaria, Slavs are mentioned as late as the eleventh century. Many place names in northern Bavaria still have Slavic origins.

the magyar invasions of the tenth century

Beginning in the late ninth century, the nomadic Magyars (Hungary), horsemen from the Volga-Kama region and originally from central Asia, settled in the central Danube region. They soon began to terrorize southern, central, and western Europe with their highly effective and devastating raids. Especially after the defeat of Bavaria in the Battle of Pressburg in a.d. 907, southern Germany became the focus of the Magyar assaults. In a.d. 926 the German king Henry I paid tribute to purchase a ten-year truce. He used this period to reorganize the German army and build castles. The crushing defeat of Hungary at Lechfeld near Augsburg in a.d. 955 put an end to the Hungarian invasions. The archaeological traces of the Hungarian raids and the German countermeasures have been well summarized in the literature.

castle building

After a.d. 926, the building of castles in southern Germany was intensified to ward off the Hungarian threat. While castle building in the Early Middle Ages started on the initiative of the king, bishops and monasteries soon added their own fortifications. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the nobility began to erect castles, one of the most important bases of territorial power in the later Middle Ages.

See alsoBaiuvarii (vol. 2, part 7); Merovingian Franks (vol. 2, part 7); Slavs and the Early Slav Culture (vol. 2, part 7); Hungary (vol. 2, part 7).


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Thomas Fischer

(Translated by Gina Broderick)

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Southern Germany

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Southern Germany