Walter Goffart
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Walter Goffart

Walter André Goffart (born February 22, 1934), is an American historian of the later Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages who specializes in research on the barbarian kingdoms of those periods. He taught for many years in the History Department and Centre for Medieval Studies of the University of Toronto (1960-1999), and is currently a senior research scholar at Yale University.


Walter Andre Goffart was born in Berlin on February 22, 1934, the son of Francis-Leo and Andree Goffart. His father was a Belgian diplomat of Walloon descent, while his mother, born in Cairo, was of French and Romanian descent.[1][2][3]

Goffart spend his early years in Belgrade, where his father worked. In 1941, upon the Invasion of Yugoslavia, Goffart and his mother evacuated with the Orient Express. Through Turkey, Beirut, Jerusalem and Cairo, they eventually reached New York City, and then Montreal. He became an American citizen in 1959. Several writers have suggested that Goffart's dramatic childhood might have impacted his interpretation of history.[3][4]

Goffart received his A.B. (1955), A.M. (1956), and PhD (1961) from Harvard University. From 1957 to 1958 he attended the École normale supérieure.[1]

Goffart became a lecturer at the University of Toronto in 1960. He was made an assistant professor in 1963. In 1965-1966 he was a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He was made an associate professor at the University of Toronto in 1966. In 1967-1968 he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Goffart was an academic secretary of the Centre for Medieval Studies in 1969-1971. He was made a full professor of history at the University of Toronto in 1971. In 1971-1972 he was the acting director of the Centre for Medieval Studies. Goffart was again an academic secretary of the Centre for Medieval Studies in 1972-1973. In 1973-1974 Goffart was a visiting fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies. In 1986-1988, Goffart was coordinator of graduate studies in department of history at the University of Toronto. Goffart retired from the University of Toronto as a professor emeritus in 1999. Since 2000, Goffart has been a senior research scholar and lecturer in history at Yale University. In 2001 he had a study center residency at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Goffart is a member of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, the American Historical Association, the Haskins Society, and the Medieval Academy of America, of which he was a councilor in 1977-78, and became a fellow in 1982.[1]

Goffart was a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies fellow in 1973-74, a Guggenheim fellow in 1979-80, a Connaught research fellow in the humanities at the University of Toronto in 1983-84, and the recipient of a standard research grant at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada in 1990-92. In 1991 he received the Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America, for his book, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800).

Alexander C. Murray edited a Festschrift for Goffart called After Rome's Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History (1999).


What we call the Fall of the Western Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand.[5]

-- Walter Goffart

Goffart specializes in the fiscal and administrative history of the Roman Empire, and the examination of medieval authors and texts.[6] He is especially well known as a primary exponent of a revisionist approach to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, which suggests that the Western Roman Empire did not collapse as such, but merely absorbed invading "barbarians" in a relatively peaceful transition.[a] In this approach, Goffart is heavily influenced by nineteenth century theories, particularly those of Henri Pirenne.[7][4]

Strange as it may seem to hear it said, there were no Germanic peoples in late antiquity... The prehistoric Germans never existed... they are an illusion of misguided scholars. The nonexistence of ancient Germans is perhaps the most important thing one can say about the barbarians of late antiquity... The G-word can be dispensed with.[b]

-- Walter Goffart

The circle of scholars associated with Goffart is often referred to as the Toronto School of History. They are opposed to the Vienna School of History, which posits that Germanic peoples were multi-ethnic coalitions led by warrior elites carrying on a core-tradition (German: Traditionskern). According to Wolf Liebeschuetz, Goffart's school denies that the Germanic peoples had any core tradition neither as a whole or as individual tribes, and contend that Germanic culture, if it ever existed at all, was entirely derived from the Roman Empire.[8] Goffart has argued that the theories of the Vienna School are indebted to Nazi views of the past.[4] He criticizes the field of Germanic philology for failing to thoroughly reconsider (following World War II) the theoretical basis and assumptions underpinning it in order to excise earlier racialist or nationalist assumptions (famously shared by the Nazis); he sees the faults in these theoretical underpinnings as the origin of the notion of pre-Carolingian "Germanic peoples", which he considers to be bogus.[9] According to Goffart, this Germanic concept cannot become valid simply by purging it of Nazi influences, it has to be completely discarded.[10] For this reason, followers of Goffart such as Michael Kulikowski generally use the term "barbarian" rather than "Germanic".[11]

Goffart's theories have found academic support in the European Science Foundation project Transformation of the Roman World Project, which is alleged by opponents to be strongly ideologically influenced by the multicultural and relativist values ascribed to the European Union.[a][c] More recently, Goffart's theories have been scrutinized by a younger generation of historians associated with the University of Oxford, such as Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins.[12] Heather has described Goffart's theories as "deeply mistaken",[14] while Ward-Perkins charges Goffart with waging a campaign to "play down the role of the Germanic peoples in European history".[c]

In his most recent work, Barbarian Tides (2010), Goffart contends that Germanic peoples, early Germanic culture, early Germanic law, Germanic art and the notion of a Migration Period, are pseudoscientific inventions of German nationalist scholars. He believes that the Germanic peoples never existed, and that there was no "Germanic world" until the Carolingian dynasty. He insists that the term "Germanic" should be purged entirely from academia beyond the field of linguistics.[b]Bryan Ward-Perkins of the University of Oxford has suspected Goffart of seeking to "play down the role of the Germanic peoples in European history".[c] Although having insisted upon his views on Germanic peoples since the early 1970s, Goffart laments that his theories have had little influence in wider scholarship. He claims that Nazi-influenced beliefs in the existence a Germanic culture has strengthened since World War II, and that these beliefs in recent times have emerged stronger than ever. [d][e]

Personal life

Walter Goffart married Roberta Frank, a university professor, on December 31, 1977. They have the children Vivian and Andrea Judith.[1]

Selected bibliography

  • "Byzantine Policy in the West under Tiberius II and Maurice: The Pretenders Hermenegild and Gundovald (579-585)", in: Traditio 13 (1957), pp. 73-118
  • "The Fredegar Problem reconsidered", in: Speculum. A Journal of Medieval Studies 38:2 (1963), pp. 206-241.
  • The Le Mans Forgeries (1966)
  • "Le Mans, St. Scholastica, and the Literary Tradition of the Translation of St. Benedict," Revue Bénédictine 77 (1967), pp. 107-41.
  • Caput and Colonate (1974)
  • Barbarians and Romans, A.D. 418-584: The Techniques of Accommodation (1980)
  • "Hetware and Hugas: Datable Anachronisms in Beowulf" in: The Dating of Beowulf, ed. Colin Chase (1981), pp. 83-100.
  • "Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarian", in: American Historical Review 86:2 (1981), pp. 275-306.
  • The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (1988)
  • Rome's Fall and After (1989) (collected studies)
  • "The Historia Ecclesiastica: Bede's Agenda and Ours", in: Haskins Society Journal 2 (1990), pp. 29-45.
  • "The Theme of 'The Barbarian Invasions' in Late Antique and Modern Historiography", in: W. Goffart (ed.), Rome's Fall and After, London 1989, pp. 111-132.
  • "Breaking the Ortelian Pattern: Historical Atlases with A New Program, 1747-1830," in Editing Early and Historical Atlases, ed. Joan Winearls (1995), 49-81.
  • "The barbarians in late antiquity and how they were accommodated in the West", in: B. H. Rosenwein and L. K. Little (ed.), Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and readings, Malden, Mass. 1998, pp. 25-44.
  • Historical Atlases: The First Three Hundred Years (2003).
  • "Conspicuously absent: Martial Heroism in the Histories of Gregory of Tours and its likes", in: K. Mitchell and I. N. Wood (ed.), The World of Gregory of Tours, vol. 8 (Cultures, Beliefs, and Traditions 8), Leiden 2002, pp. 365-393.
  • "The front matter of J. G. Hagelgans's 1718 Atlas historicus at Princeton University Library and the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, Jerusalem," in Princeton University Library Chronicle LXIV, 1 (Autumn 2002), pp. 141-162.
  • The narrators of barbarian history (A.D. 550-800). Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon, Notre Dame 2005.
  • "Jordanes's Getica and the Disputed Authenticity of Gothic Origins from Scandinavia", in: Speculum 80 (2005), pp. 379-98.
  • "Bede's uera lex historiae explained", in: Anglo-Saxon England 36 (2005), pp 111-116.
  • Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (2006)
  • "The Name 'Merovingian' and the Dating of Beowulf", Anglo-Saxon England 36 (2007), pp 93-101
  • "Frankish military duty and the fate of Roman taxation", in: Early Medieval Europe 16:2 (2008), pp. 166-190.
  • Barbarians, Maps, and Historiography. Studies on the Early Medieval West (2009) (Collected Studies)
  • "The Technique of Barbarian Settlement in the Fifth Century: A Personal, Streamlined Account with Ten Additional Comments", in: Journal of Late Antiquity 3:1 (2010), pp. 65-98.
  • "The Frankish Pretender Gundovald, 582-585. A Crisis of Merovingian Blood", in: Francia: Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte 39 (2012), pp. 1-27.
  • "Le début (et la fin) des sortes Vandalorum", in: Expropriations et confiscations dans les royaumes barbares. Une approche régionale, ed. Pierfrancesco Porena, Yann Rivière, Roma 2012, pp. 115-128.
  • "»Defensio patriae« as a Carolingian Military Obligation" in: Francia: Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte 43 (2016) pp. 21-39.
  • "The Recruitment of Freemen into the Carolingian Army, or How Far May One Argue from Silence?" in: "Journal of Medieval Military History" 16 (2018), pp. 17-34.

See also


  1. ^ a b "One of the primary exponents of this relatively sunny view of the fifth-century 'transformation' has been Walter Goffart... Goffart sets out how the fragmented foreign peoples once living on the edges of the Empire participated with the Romans in the larger stirrings of late antiquity.' Rome did not fall, it experienced 'stirrings'; barbarians did not invade and conquer, foreign peoples 'participated' with the Romans in the 'stirrings'. This is the essence of the revisionist 'trans-formation and accommodation' view of the fall of Rome. This revisionist approach got a great boost from the European Science Foundation's ongoing project on The Transformation of the Roman World which, since 1995, has sponsored conferences and workshops, and published papers in a monograph series (The Transformation of the Roman World) that has now reached fourteen volumes. This project has turned the transformation-of-Rome theory into a scholarly industry. It tends to reflect the political climate of the contemporary European Union, with values such as multiculturalism, relativism, and a distaste for judgements..."[12]
  2. ^ a b "Strange as it may seem to hear it said, there were no Germanic peoples in late antiquity... I would be content if "German" and its derivatives were banished from all but linguistic discourse on this subject... The prehistoric Germans never existed... they are an illusion of misguided scholars. The nonexistence of ancient Germans is perhaps the most important thing one can say about the barbarians of late antiquity... Germanic collectivity exists in linguistics but never existed anywhere else... [A]n "early Germanic world"... had no existence anywhere... There was no Germanic world before the Carolingian age... The history of a language as known to philologists has nothing to do with that of human beings... No discernible benefit comes from our being reminded again and again in modern writings that many of these barbarians at each other's throats probably spoke dialects of the same language. The G-word can be dispensed with... "[15]
  3. ^ a b c "When Goffart launched his theory of peaceful 'accommodation' in it therefore fell on fertile ground. Goffart himself seems to have intended his book to play down the role of the Germanic peoples in European history... The European Union needs to forge a spirit of cooperation between the once warring nations of the Continent, and it is no coincidence that the European Science Foundation's research project into this period was entitled 'The Transformation of the Roman World'--implying a seamless and peaceful transition from Roman times to the 'Middle Ages' and beyond.[13]
  4. ^ "[M]any scholars of today in Europe and the United States still cherish the existence of a "Germanic world" long antedating medieval and modern Germany... The myth of the Germans before Germany is hard to suppress... The faith in Germanic continuity has prevailed for many centuries, damaging everything it has touched..."[16]
  5. ^ "As long ago as 1972, I expressed a wish that someone should write a history of the Migration Age detached from German nationalism... Nothing has happened since then to fill this desideratum. On the contrary, the front of the stage has been occupied by talk of "ethnogenesis" and of the importance of ethnicity in late antiquity. Philology, archaeology, comparative religion, etymology, and whatever else have been exploited in the tried and true fashion of deutsche Altertumskunde in efforts to render the "tribes" more tribal than ever. As little thought as possible has been given to making them less resolutely German... This model... found regaining strength after World War II in the Gottingen historian Reinhard Wenskus, in the Cambridge classicist A. H. M. Jones, and in hundreds of scholars outside as well as inside Germany, all agreed in seeing an existing "Germanic world" getting the better of a "Roman world." That vision of outsiders intruding successfully where they were not wanted is an illusion fostered however innocently and festering ever since the sixteenth century."[17]


  1. ^ a b c d Contemporary Authors.
  2. ^ Dictionary.
  3. ^ a b Murray 1998, pp. 3-4.
  4. ^ a b c Wood 2013, p. 314.
  5. ^ Goffart 1980, p. 35.
  6. ^ Noble 2006, p. x.
  7. ^ Wood 2013, p. viii.
  8. ^ Liebeschuetz 2015, p. 85-100.
  9. ^ Noble 2006, pp. 11-12.
  10. ^ Pohl, Gantner & Payne 2016.
  11. ^ Kulikowski 2002, p. 69.
  12. ^ a b Rutenburg & Eckstein 2007, p. 110.
  13. ^ Ward-Perkins 2006, p. 174.
  14. ^ Northover 2015, pp. 14-15.
  15. ^ Goffart 2010, pp. x, 4, 20, 25, 55, 221.
  16. ^ Goffart 2010, pp. 40, 51-52.
  17. ^ Goffart 2010, pp. IX, 227-228.


External links

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