The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2014, 116-130

Migrations and state formation in the early middle ages: A view from the west

H. Härke


Migrations of “tribes”, and mobility of elites, figure in many narratives of state formation and nation-building. But the frequent assumption that early medieval migrations regularly led to state formation is not borne out by a critical look at western European cases between the fifth and eleventh centuries AD. The outcomes of migrations in this period varied considerably. The case studies discussed in this paper include the Anglo-Saxon immigration into England and other migrations of the fifth – seventh centuries AD in western Europe, and the Viking immigration into the British Isles as well as other Scandinavian cases of the ninth – eleventh centuries AD in the west. Taken together, these cases demonstrate that migration does not necessarily lead to state formation. But even in the absence of state formation, some social change among migrants is likely because migrations require organisational leadership.

State formation appears to have been a likely consequence only where immigrants encountered native populations of a certain level of social complexity. The reason might lie in the nature of segmentary (tribal) organisation: it presupposes social links and shared ancestry among the lineages of the tribe. This imposes size limitations, but more importantly restrictions in terms of identity. After conquest by an immigrant population or elite, one possible solution is that the native population is reduced to the status of slaves who are attached to the households of lineage members. The alternative would be the creation of a joint state based on a common ideology (such as afforded by Christianity in early medieval western Europe).


Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, migration, colonization, state formation




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