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The Burgundians were an East Germanic tribe who probably emigrated from the island of Bornholm, whose old form in Old Norse still was Burgundarholmr (the Island of the Burgundians): in the saga of Thorstein Vikingsson in the Prose Edda Vesete settled in an island or holm, which was called Borgundís holm. The poet and early mythologist Victor Rydberg (1828-1895), (Our Fathers' Godsaga) asserted from an early medieval source, Vita Sigismundi, that the Burgundians themselves retained oral traditions about their Scandinavian origin. After possibly having dwelt in the Vistula basin, they migrated westwards in the 4th century CE, and settled in the Rhine Valley during the Völkerwanderung;, or Germanic migrations. Somewhere in the east they were converted to the Arian form of Christianity, which long sustained a gulf of suspicion and distrust between Burgundians and the Catholic Roman empire of the West.

Certain cultural practices such as binding the heads of infants at birth are said by some historians to have been absorbed by the Burgundians from their mortal enemies, the Huns, during their period of dwelling in eastern Europe.

In the Rhineland, though the Burgundians were nominally Roman foederati, they periodically raided portions of eastern Gaul. Burgundians lived in an uneasy relationship with the imperial Roman government: in 370 the western Emperor Valentinian I attempted to enlist the Burgundians against their enemies the Alamanni, promising to support them with Roman forces. Negotiations with the Burgundians broke down when Valentinian, not understanding that a Germannic treaty was essentially a personal bond, refused to meet with the Burgundian envoys and give them his promise of Roman support.

In 411, the Burgundian king Gundahar or "Gundicar" set up a puppet emperor, Jovinus, in cooperation with Goar, king of the Alans. With the authority of the Gallo-Roman emperor that he controlled, Gundahar settled on the left bank of the Rhine (the Roman side) between the river Lauter and the Nahe. Burgundian raids into Roman Upper Gallia_Belgica became intolerable and were ruthlessly brought to an end in 436, when the Roman general Aëtius; called in Hun mercenaries who overwhelmed the Rhineland kingdom (with its capital at the old Celtic Roman settlement of Borbetomagus Worms) in 437. Gundahar was killed in the fighting. The destruction of Worms and the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns became the subject of heroic legends that were afterwards incorporated in the Nibelungenlied where King Gunther (Gundahar) and Queen Brunhild hold their court at Worms, and Sigurd (better known as "Siegfried") comes to woo Kriemhild.

Under the new king Gunderic (died ca 473), the refugees from the destruction were settled by Aëtius near Lugdunensis, known today as Lyon, which was formally the capital of the new Burgundian kingdom by 461. In all, eight Burgundians kings of the house of Gundahar ruled until the kingdom was overrrun by the Franks in 534.

As foederati or allies of Rome in its last decades, the Burgundians fought alongside Aëtius and a confederation of Visigoths and others in the final defeat of Attila at the Battle of Chalons ("Catalaunian Fields") in 451. But Burgundian support couldn't invariably be counted on as the Western empire foundered. An ambiguous reference infidoque tibi Burdundio ductu (Sidonius Apollinaris in Panegyr. Avit. 442.) implicates an unnamed treacherous Burgundian leader in the murder of the emperor Maxentius, which lead directly to the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. Perhaps Burgundian concerns lay elsewhere: two Burgundian leaders Chilperic and Gundioc accompanied the Visigothic king Theodoric in his invasion of Spain later that same year, according to Jordanes, Getica (ch.231).

The Burgundians were extending their power over southwestern Gaul; that is, northern Italy, western Switzerland, and southeastern France. In 493 Clovis, king of the Franks, married the Burgundian princess Clotilda, daughter of Chilperic. At first allies with Clovis' Franks against the Visigoths in the early 6th century, the Burgundians were eventually conquered by the Franks in AD 534. The Burgundian kingdom was made part of the Merovingian kingdoms, and the Burgundians themselves were by and large absorbed as well.

One of the earliest Germanic legal codes, the Lex Gundobada or Lex Burgundiorum, is a written collection of laws issued by king Gundobad, (reigned 474 - 516) the best-known of the Burgundian kings. The Lex Gundobada was a record of Burgundian customary law and is typical of the many Germanic law codes from the period. The Lex Romana Burgundionum was Gundobad's contribution towards providing laws for his Roman subjects as well as the Burgundians. Finally, King Sigismund, who died 523/4 had the Burgundian Prima Constitutio written down.

The name of the Burgundians has since remained connected to the area of modern France that still bears their name: see the later history of Burgundy. Between the 6th and 20th centuries, however, the boundaries and political connections of this area have changed frequently; none of those changes have had anything to do with the original Burgundians.

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