It is this process that has been called ‘ethnogenesis’ by Herwig Wolfram and his school: the recognition that ethnic identities were flexible, malleable, ‘situational constructs’; the same ‘barbarian’ in sixth-century Italy could be Rugian, and Ostrogothic, and (though only after the east Roman reconquest) even Roman. Such people would have picked up different identities successively (or contemporaneously), and these would have brought with them different modes of behaviour and loyalties, and even, eventually, different memories. As Walter Pohl has recently put it, the ‘kernel of traditions’ that made someone Ostrogoth or Visigoth was probably a network of contradictory and changeable beliefs; there does not have to have been a stable set of traditions in each group as it moved from beyond the frontier, to discontinuous service in the Roman army, then to settlement in a Roman province. By 650 every ‘barbarian’ kingdom had its own traditions, some of them claiming to go back centuries, and those doubtless were by then core elements in the founding myths of many of their inhabitants; all the same, founding myths not only do not have to be true, but also do not have to be old. Each of the ‘Romano-Germanic’ kingdoms had a bricolage of beliefs and identities with very varying roots, and these, to repeat, could change, and be reconfigured, in each generation to fit new needs. Historians tend to give more attention to the account that Clovis’s grandfather was the son of a sea-monster, a quinotaur, than to the account that the Franks were descended from the Trojans, which seems more ‘literary’, less ‘authentic’; but the first record of each of these traditions appears in the same seventh-century source, and it would be hard to say that one was more widely believed — or older — than the other.
From all of this, one has to conclude that post-Roman identities were a complex mixture, and they had a variety of origins: Roman, ‘barbarian’, biblical; and also both oral and literary. What they had to do was less to locate an ethnic group in the past, than to distinguish it from its contemporary neighbours. This means that to ask what was non-Roman or ‘barbarian’ about the new ethnic groups is in part the wrong question; Arianism, for example, was a very Roman heresy, but by 500, for most people, it had become an ethnic marker, of Goths or Vandals. The Gothic language itself was by 500 in large part a liturgical tradition, associated precisely with that ex-Roman Arianism, rather than with ‘Gothic-ness’ in an ethnic sense; many Goths just spoke Latin, without their Gothic-ness being affected either positively or negatively. Indeed, unlike in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, language was not, as far as we can see, a strong ethnic marker anywhere in our period. Plenty of Franks in 600, say, still spoke Frankish (a version of what we now call Old High German), but very probably not all did, and many were certainly fully bilingual. Gregory of Tours, the most prolific writer of the sixth century in Gaul, who was a monoglot Latin-speaker, never gives the slightest indication that he had trouble communicating with anyone else in the Frankish kingdoms. Neither he nor anyone else in the Frankish world, until the ninth century in fact, makes anything of communication difficulties between primary speakers of Latin and Frankish; it must have happened, but it was not a problem for Frankishness.
The “kernel of traditions” idea is nicely illustrated in a contemporary context by Mikhail Iampolski in a recent article (Russian, English — I’ll note that the latter contains a confusing typo, “a war reenacted” for “a war reenactor”); Iampolski has a good quote from Jean-Luc Nancy, who in The Inoperative Community (pp. 43-44) “proposed an imaginary scenario behind the formation of collective identity[…] people sitting around a campfire and listening to the myth of their shared origin”:
They were not assembled like this before the story; the recitation has gathered them together. Before, they were dispersed (at least this is what the story tells us at times), shoulder to shoulder, working with and confronting one another without recognizing one another. <…>He [the founder of the community] recounts to them their history, or his own, a story that they all know, but that he alone has the gift, the right, or the duty to tell. It is the story of their origin, of where they come from, and of how they come from the Origin itself—them, or their mates, or their names, or the authority figure among them. And so at the same time it is also the story of the beginning of the world, of the beginning of the assembling together, or of the beginning of the narrative itself….
Iampolski adds, “When he describes this mythical scene containing echoes of Schlegel, Shelling, Görres, Bachofen, Wagner, Freud, Kerényi, Cassirer, and Goethe, Nancy shows it to be pure myth, part of collective memory.”