The Heruls in Scandinavia


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The movements of the Heruls

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Published June 15 2000 - Updated April 11 2018

Troels Brandt - troels@brandt.mail.dk

The Heruls were first time mentioned at the Black Sea and followed later the Huns as an East Germanic people. They settled in the 5th century in Mähren / Moravia where they apparently acted as a warrior class. Here they became feared as Roman mercenaries and terrorized their neighbours until they were defeated by the Lombards 508/9 AD. A group chose to join the East Roman emperors as mercenaries and were baptized. Another group with the royal family went north to the Scandinavian Peninsula - probably as pagans. A smaller group, the Western Heruls, were met since 286 AD at the North Sea coast. They became known there as Roman mercenaries and later as pirates until they disappeared in the 5th century.

To day their history in Southern Europe is settled as much as it is possible as the sources are sparse, but their connections with Scandinavia are eagerly discussed due to earlier mistakes, where conservative Scandinavian scholars need to turn their old view upside down, while the leading international scholars are approaching a consensus regarding their precense in Scandinavia:

1. No indication of a Scandinavian origin of the Heruls: The earlier claim about Scandinavian origin before 200 AD was a misinterpretation in 1783 of the text of Jordanes. He mentioned that the Danes expelled the Heruls from their settlements, but he gave them in the same work an ethymology at the Black Sea. The expulsion is now by international historians and linguists regarded as a recent event, when Jordanes wrote in 551 AD - which we already were warned about by Lauritz Weibull in 1925. Procopius just told they used to dwell beyound the Danube from old.

2. The royal Herulian family's presence in Scandinavia in the 6th century verified: Modern scholars have been sceptical regarding Procopius' 40 years old narratives about their journey to Scandinavia after the defeat in 508/9 AD - which was the story being told for centuries. The long narratives are not regarded as verified, but when Jordanes' expulsion was interpreted as a recent event the focus turned against an event contemporary with the authors. Procopius told that a Herulian envoy from the East Roman Empire in 548 AD was sent to their defeated royal family in Scandinavia to bring back a new king, and they returned with a prince pushing aside the candidate of the emperor Justinian, the commander of Constantinople, Suartuas. This story must have been "hot stuff" in Constantinople, when both Procopius and Jordanes finished their works in the city within the next 5 years - both telling about the Heruls meeting the Danes in Scandinavia. Procopius could not lie about the envoy picking up royal familymembers in Thule to the Illyrian Heruls, when all his readers knew the truth - and Jordanes confirmed that the Heruls met the Danes in Scanza. We have in this way two contemporary sources with opposite motives telling about the Herulian presence in Scandinavia - we could not expect a better evidence from that time. We may believe the old narratives or not, but most international historians now include in their history the envoy and its retrieval of the royal family in Scandinavia in 548 AD - which is even supported by archaelogical traces - and consequently the family and their supporters must have moved and settled there. We still need to make reservations for the details of the old narratives, but the main lines appear in this way more reliable.

As trained Roman soldiers they had undoubtedly an impact where they settled - in Sweden it is not an "if" - it is a question how many they were and where they settled down. However a Swedish professor in English language wrote that they all went back with the envoy, though they had to go back for a new candidate, when the first died. Pretty illogical as much else in the article, but the Swedish scholars grabbed his article as an alibi to claim that all development is Swedish until the opposite is proven - and then nobody searched for the Heruls, who are neglected by the Swedish scholars.

The hypotheses of this paper is that the Heruls first settled in Blekinge / Värend / Scania, but before 548 AD most of them were expelled further away by the Danes as mentioned by Jordanes. Most likely the next target for a main part of the group was the expanding economi of Uppland which flourished as an international, religious and military centre in the next centuries. Probably they simply served as mercenaries and military advisors as they did in the Roman Empire. When they were integrated in the Nordic societies their name disappeared and most likely it became the title earl.

Beowulf, Widsith and Saxo contain distaint memories of the expulsion which probably provoked the establishing of the kingdom of the Danes, but these works cannot be regarded as history. Consequently, the destiny of these trained and frightening mercenaries has been discussed for centuries.

The web site consists of a shorter main article in English and Danish, a detailed article in pdf in English with notes and references - all versions are using the same numbers in the index in order to make it possible to find references when reading the short articles.

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