The Economic and Social Foundations of European Civilization

By Alfons Dopsch | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II THE SO-CALLED "EARLIEST" PERIOD (CÆSAR AND TACITUS)

THE study of every civilization must begin with an examination of the potentialities of its natural environment, since these form, as it were, the basis of its development. It is precisely in this respect that recent research on the so-called Urzeit, or earliest period of German history,1 has produced revolutionary results, by proving the bases on which the old theory was built up to be untenable. It was an hypothesis essential to this theory that at the time when Germans and Romans came into closer contact with one another, Germany was covered with marshes and dense primeval forests.2 Irrefutable evidence of this was found in the accounts of Cæsar and Pliny, from which scholars chose to draw their pictures of conditions at this time. But, in opposition to this view, students of prehistoric archeology, geography, and philology have now come to unanimous conclusions which give us a safe starting-point for critical examination.

It must, of course, be conceded that in prehistoric and early historic times Central Europe was much more densely wooded than it is to-day, and marsh and moorland were certainly more extensive. But earlier scholars have taken too little notice of the fact that besides the great forest regions, and beside marsh and moorland, there were also considerable unforested zones, which did not need to be cleared or broken up, providing places for settlement. These unforested regions were settled in the Stone Age, several thousand years before Cæsar or the beginning of the Christian era. Robert Gradmann, to whom above all we owe our knowledge of this important question, considers that one of the most surprising facts of prehistory is the "lack of any geographical progress in land settlement from Neolithic times throughout the Bronze Age and the Hallstatt and La Tène epochs down to file threshold of Roman times".3 O. Schlüter, too, has been able to show from a detailed examination of Northern Thuringia, especially the regions of the Unstrut and Helme, that the extent of marshland was greatly exaggerated by early scholars, and that between the edge of the old forests and that of the ancient marshes there was a strip of unforested land, open and fit for agriculture, which had never been wooded.4

All the evidence for this new knowledge cannot, of course, be given in detail here. But an especially important and characteristic example of the inadequacy of the old theory of extensive marshes and primeval forests is provided by K. Schumacher's instructive evidence concerning the old cultural district of the Rhine plain of Baden. In 1902 Schumacher showed, from numerous

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1
I use the phrase "so-called earliest period" (in German Urzeit) for the period so described by economic and legal historians in general, since it is now realized that the true Urzeitof the Germanic tribes in much earlier. See Kossina, Die deutsche Vorgeschichte( Mannusbibl. ix), v, 62 ( 1912), and Hoops, Waldbäume und Kulturpflanzenin Altertum ( 1905), 494 ff.
2
See among others v. Wietersheim-Dahn, Geschichte der Völkerwanderung ( 2nd edit. ( 1880), i, 9). See also i, 77, 146.
3
"Das Mitteleuropäische Landschaftsbild nach seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung," Geographische Zeitschrift, vii, 374 ( 1901).
4
Die Siedelung im nordüstlichen Thüringen ( 1903), 153 ff., 159 ff.

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