The German bought his wife from her father by a gift of cattle or weapons; he had the power of life and death over her and their children, subject to the approval of the tribal assembly; nevertheless, women were held in high honor, were often asked to decide tribal disputes, and were as free to divorce their husbands as these were to divorce them. Some chieftains had several wives, but the usual German family was monogamous and maintained (we are assured) a lofty level of marital morality. Adultery was “seldom heard of” and was punished in the woman by cutting off her hair and driving her naked through the streets to be flogged as she fled. The wife was allowed to practice abortion if she wished, but normally she bore many children.
A man without children was so rare that wills were not made; it was assumed that the property of the family would go down from father to son, generation after generation. Four classes composed the population: (1) bondsmen, some of them slaves, most of them serfs bound to the soil and obliged to pay the landowner in produce; (2) freedmen- unfranchised renters; (3) freemen- landowners and warriors; and (4) nobles- landowners who traced their pedigrees to the gods, but based their power upon substantial patrimonies and armed bodyguards ( comites, companions, “counts”).
The tribal assembly was composed of nobles, guards, and freemen; they came in arms, chose the chief or king, approved the proposals submitted to them by clashing their spears, or rejected them by a majority of grunts. The second and third classes were partly engaged in handicrafts and the metallurgical industries, in which the Germans excelled; the fourth provided the lords and knights and chivalry of feudal Germany. Very little cultural superstructure was added to this simple social organization. Religion had at this time barely emerged from nature worship into the cult of anthropomorphic deities. Tacitus calls them Mars, Mercury, and Hercules- probably Tiu (Tyr), Wodin (Odin), and Donar (Tor); we still unwittingly commemorate them, and Freya, the goddess of love, on four days of every week.
There was a virgin goddess Hertha (Mother Earth), impregnated by a sky-god; and every imagination and need was supplied by a varied population of fairies, elves, cobolds, nixes, giants, and dwarfs. Human sacrifice was offered to Wodin, perhaps tastier animals to other gods. Worship was conducted in the open air in forests and groves, for the Germans thought it absurd to confine a nature spirit in an abode built by human hands.
There was no powerful sacerdotal class like the Druids of Gaul or Britain, but there were priests and priestesses who presided over religious ceremonies, sat as judges in criminal cases, and divined the future by studying the motions and neighings of white horses. As in Gaul, there were bards who sang in rude verse the legends and history of their tribes.
A small minority could read and write, and adapted the Latin characters to form the “runes” that serve for their alphabet. Art was primitive, but skillful work was done in gold. When Rome withdrew her legions from Germany she retained control of the Rhine from source to mouths and divided the majestic valley into two provinces- Upper and Lower Germany.