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The Burgundians or Burgundes were an East Germanic tribe which may have emigrated from Scandinavia to the island of Bornholm, whose old form in Old Norse still was Burgundarholmr (the Island of the Burgundians), and from here to mainland Europe. In the Thorstein saga Víkingssonar, Veseti settled in an island or holm, which was called Borgund's holm. Alfred the Great's translation of Orosius uses the name Burgenda land. The poet and early mythologist Victor Rydberg (1828–1895), (Our Fathers' Godsaga) asserted from an early medieval source, Vita Sigismundi, that the Burgundians themselves retained oral traditions about their Scandinavian origin, but the Vita is a much later source. Other sources, including Tacitus, make no mention of the original homeland of the Burgundians.


Possible origin and early history

After possibly having dwelt in the Vistula basin, according to the mid-6th century historian of the Goths, Jordanes, they were beaten there in battle by Fastida, king of the Gepids and were overwhelmed, almost annihilated. They migrated westwards in the 4th century CE, and settled in the Rhine Valley during the Völkerwanderung, or Germanic migrations. Somewhere in the east they were converted to the Arian form of Christianity, which long sustained a gulf of suspicion and distrust between Burgundians and the Catholic Roman Empire of the West. Divisions were evidently healed or healing circa 500 AD, however, as Gundobad, the second to last Burgundian king, maintained a close personal friendship with Avitus, the Catholic bishop of Vienne. Moreover, Gundobad's son and successor, Sigismund, was himself a Catholic, and there is evidence that many of the Burgundian people had converted by this time as well, including several female members of the ruling family.

There was, it seems at times a friendly relationship between the Huns and the Burgundians. It was a Hunnish custom for females to have their skull artificially elongated by tight binding of the skull when the child was an infant. Germanic graves are sometimes found with Hunnish ornaments but also with skulls of females that have been treated in this way; west of the Rhine only Burgundian graves contain a large number of such skulls (Werner, 1953)

In the Rhineland, though the Burgundians were nominally Roman foederati, they periodically raided portions of eastern Gaul. Burgundians lived in an uneasy relationship with the imperial Roman government: in 370 the western Emperor Valentinian I attempted to enlist the Burgundians against their enemies the Alamanni, promising to support them with Roman forces. Negotiations with the Burgundians broke down when Valentinian, not understanding that a Germannic treaty was essentially a personal bond, refused to meet with the Burgundian envoys and give them his promise of Roman support.

The Burgundian kingdom

In 411, the Burgundian king Gundahar or "Gundicar" set up a puppet emperor, Jovinus, in cooperation with Goar , king of the Alans. With the authority of the Gallic emperor that he controlled, Gundahar settled on the left bank of the Rhine (the Roman side) between the river Lauter and the Nahe. Burgundian raids into Roman Upper Gallia_Belgica became intolerable and were ruthlessly brought to an end in 436, when the Roman general Aëtius called in Hun mercenaries who overwhelmed the Rhineland kingdom (with its capital at the old Celtic Roman settlement of Borbetomagus Worms) in 437. Gundahar was killed in the fighting, reportedly along with the majority of the Burgundian tribe. The destruction of Worms and the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns became the subject of heroic legends that were afterwards incorporated in the Nibelungenlied—on which Richard Wagner based his Ring Cycle where King Gunther (Gundahar) and Queen Brünhild| hold their court at Worms, and Siegfried comes to woo Kriemhild. (In Old Norse sources the names are Gunnar, Brynhild, and Gudrún as normally rendered in English.) In fact, the Atli of the Nibelungenlied is based on Attila the Hun.

Under the new king Gunderic (died c. 473), the refugees from the destruction were settled by Aëtius near Lugdunensis, known today as Lyon, which was formally the capital of the new Burgundian kingdom by 461. In all, eight Burgundians kings of the house of Gundahar ruled until the kingdom was overrrun by the Franks in 534.

As foederati or allies of Rome in its last decades, the Burgundians fought alongside Aetius and a confederation of Visigoths and others in the final defeat of Attila at the Battle of Chalons ("Catalaunian Fields") in 451. But Burgundian support couldn't invariably be counted on as the Western empire foundered. An ambiguous reference infidoque tibi Burdundio ductu (Sidonius Apollinaris in Panegyr. Avit. 442.) implicates an unnamed treacherous Burgundian leader in the murder of the emperor Maxentius, which lead directly to the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. Perhaps Burgundian concerns lay elsewhere: two Burgundian leaders Chilperic and Gundioc accompanied the Visigothic king Theodoric in his invasion of Spain later that same year, according to Jordanes, Getica (ch.231).

The Burgundians were extending their power over southwestern Gaul; that is, northern Italy, western Switzerland, and southeastern France. In 493 Clovis, king of the Franks, married the Burgundian princess Clotilda, daughter of Chilperic. At first allies with Clovis' Franks against the Visigoths in the early 6th century, the Burgundians were eventually conquered by the Franks in 534 CE. The Burgundian kingdom was made part of the Merovingian kingdoms, and the Burgundians themselves were by and large absorbed as well.

The Burgundian Laws

One of the earliest Germanic legal codes, the Lex Gundobada or Lex Burgundiorum, is a written collection of laws issued by king Gundobad, (reigned 474 516) the best-known of the Burgundian kings. The Lex Gundobada was a record of Burgundian customary law and is typical of the many Germanic law codes from the period. The Lex Romana Burgundionum was Gundobad's contribution towards providing laws for his Roman subjects as well as the Burgundians. Finally, King Sigismund, who died 523/4 had the Burgundian Prima Constitutio written down.

Origin of Burgandy

The name of the Burgundians has since remained connected to the area of modern France that still bears their name: see the later history of Burgundy. Between the 6th and 20th centuries, however, the boundaries and political connections of this area have changed frequently; none of those changes have had anything to do with the original Burgundians. The name Burgundians used here and generally used by English writers to refer to the Burgundes is a later formation and more precisely refers to the inhabitants of the territory of Burgundy which was named from the people called Burgundes.

See also

For later legends of the Burgundian kings, see Nibelung.


Werner, J. (1953). "Beiträge sur Archäologie des Attila-Reiches", Die Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaft. Abhandlungen. N.F. XXXVIII A Philosophische-philologische und historische Klasse. Münche Shanzer, D. and I. Wood. Avitus of Vienne: Letters and Selected Prose. Translated with an Introduction and Notes. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002.

External links

  • Table of the house of Gundahar/Gundicar, 411 - 534

Last updated: 02-06-2005 04:28:49
Last updated: 02-24-2005 14:50:12