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Feud, Vengeance, Politics and History in Early Medieval Europe

[ This is the text of a paper I gave at a very good conference in Aarhus in October 2003, which I haven't (yet) written up (the rest o...

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Peoples of Northern Europe: Text updated

I have updated the text of the three previously-posted instalments of my chapter on 'The Peoples of Northern Europe' for the forthcoming Cambridge Archaeology of Late Antiquity.

Part 1 (Introduction, Political Geography, Preliminary analytical points)
Part 2 (Description of data)
Part 3 (Discussion)

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Peoples of Northern Europe in Late Antiquity: A Bibliography

Here, in case it is of any use, is the doubtless rather hit and miss bibliography to my chapter on 'The Peoples of Northern Europe' for the forthcoming Cambridge Archaeology of Late Antiquity.  It is based on the footnotes to that chapter so there's a lot of stuff left out on some pretty major topics (most obviously the recent stuff on the wetland areas of the Netherlands/NW Germany) because I couldn't cover everything. It is also heavily weighted towards the most recent stuff I could find, and preferably in English, given the publication, so a lot of classic stuff is missing too.

Primary Sources:

Gregory of Tours, Historiae: Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks, trans. Thorpe, L., (Harmondsworth, 1974).

Notitia Dignitatum: Notitia Dignitatum accedunt Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae et Latercula Provinciarum, ed. Seeck, O., (Frankfurt am Main, 1876; repr. Frankfurt, 1962).

Tacitus, Germania: Tacitus: Germania, trans. Rives, J., (Oxford, 1999).

Táin Bó Cuailnge: The Tain. Trans. T. Kinsella (Oxford, 1969)

Secondary Sources:

Abegg-Wigg, A., & Lau, N., (ed.) (2014). Kammergräber im Barbaricum: Zu Einflüssen und Übergangsphänomenenvon der vorrömischen Eisenzeit bis in die Völkerwanderungszeit (Schleswig),

Åberg, N., (1922). Die Franken und Westgoten in der Völkerwanderungszeit (Uppsala).

Åberg, N., (1923). Die Goten und Langobarden in Italien (Uppsala).

Åberg, N., (1926). The Anglo-Saxons in England (Uppsala).

Alföldi, M.R.-, (1997). ‘Germania magna – nicht libera.  Notizen zum römischen Wortgebrauch.’ Germania 75:45-52.

Almagor, E., & Skinner, J., (ed.) (2013). Ancient Ethnography: New Approaches (London)

Andrzejowski, J., (2010). ‘The Przeworsk Culture: A brief story (for the foreigners)’ in Worlds Apart? Contacts across the Baltic Sea in the Iron Age (Nordiske Fortidsminder C/7: Copenhagen/Warsaw), pp.1-52

Arrhenius, B., & U. O’Meadhra, U., (ed.) (2011). Excavations at Helgö XVIII (Stockholm)

Autorenkollektiv (1983). Die Germanen. Geschichte und Kultur der germanischen Stämme in Mitteleuropa. Ein Handbuch in zwei Bänden Vol.2 (Berlin).

Balsdon, J.P.V.D., (1979). Romans and Aliens (London).

Bazelmans, J., (2014). By Weapons Made Worthy: Lords, Retainers and Their Relationship in Beowulf (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies)

Becker, M., (2009). ‘Germanische Eliten der späten Römischen Kaiserzeit’, in Burmeister & Derks (ed.) (2009), pp.358-69.

Bemmann, J., (1999). ‘Körpergräber der jungeren römischen Kaiserzeit und Völkerwanderungszeit aus Schleswig Holstein. Zum Aufkommen einer neuen Bestattungssitte im überregionalen Vergleich.’ Studien zur Sachsenforschung 13:5-45.

Besteman, J.C., Bos, J.M., Gerrets, D.A., Heidinga, H.A., & de Koning, J., (1999). The Excavations at Wijnaldum. Reports on Frisia in Roman and Early Medieval Times (Rotterdam).

Bona, I., (1976). The Dawn of the Dark Ages: The Gepids and Lombards in the Carpathian Basin (Budapest).

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Borg, K., Näsman, U., & Wegraus, E., (ed.) (1976). Eketorp. Fortification and Settlement in Öland/Sweden. The Monument. (Stockholm).

Brather, S., (2004). Ethnische Interpretationen in der frühgeschichtlichen Archäologie: Geschichte, Grundlagen und Alternativen (Berlin).

Brather, S., (2009). ‘Dwellings and settlements among the Lombards’ in The Langobards Before the Frankish Conquest, ed. G. Ausenda, P. Delogu & C.J. Wickham (Woodbridge), pp.30-68.

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Brink-Kloke, H., & Meurers-Balke, J. (2003). ‘Siedlungen und Gräber am Oespeler Bach (Dortmund) – eine Kulturlandschaft im Wandel der Zeiten.’ Germania 81:47-146.

Campbell, E., (1999). Saints and sea-kings: the first kingdom of the Scots (Edinburgh)

Campbell, E. (2007) Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400-800. (York).

Capelle, T., (1998). Die Sachsen des frühen Mittelalters (Stuttgart)

Clarke, D., Blackwell, A., & Goldberg, M., Early Medieval Scotland. Individuals, Communities and Ideas (Edinburgh).

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Crubézy, E., (1990). ‘Merovingian skull deformations in the south-west of France’ From the Baltic to the Black Sea. Studies in Medieval Archaeology (One World Archaeology 18), ed. Austin, D., & Alcock, L., (London), pp.189-208

Curta, F., (ed.) (2010). Neglected Barbarians (Turnhout).

Dench, E., (1995).  From Barbarians to New Men. Greek, Roman and Modern Perceptions of Peoples from the Central Apennines (Oxford).

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Dijkstra, M.F.P. (2011). Rondom de Mondingen van Rijn & Maas. Landschap en Bewoning Tussen de 3e en 9e EEuw in Zuid-Holland, in het Bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (Leiden).

Drinkwater, J.F., (2007). The Alamanni and Rome 213-496. Caracalla to Clovis (Oxford).

Dunbar, L., & Maldonado, A., with McLaren, D., & Melikian, M., (2012). A long cist cemetery near Auchterforfar Farm, Forfar, Angus – Christian or pre-Christian? Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 18, pp.63-80.

Edwards, N., (1996). The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland (paperback edition: London).

Eger, C., (2014). ’Early migration period hillforts in southern Germany. State of research and interpretation’, in Las Fortificaciones en la Tardoantigüedad. Élites y articulación del Territorio (Siglos V-VIII d.C.), ed. Catalán Ramos, R., Fuentes, P., & Sastre Blanco, J.C., (Madrid), pp.21-42

Elton, H., (1996a). Frontiers of the Roman Empire (London).

Elton, H., (1996b). Warfare in Roman Europe, 350-425 (Oxford).

Esmonde Cleary, S., (2013). ‘Northern Britain in late antiquity’ Antiquité Tardive 21:33-44.

Ethelberg, P., (2011). Early state formation in southern Scandinavia: a proposal for a hierarchical terminology’, in The Iron Age on Zealand: Status and Perspectives, ed. L. Boye (Copenhagen, 2011), pp.67-73.

Ethelberg, P., Jensen, S., Jørgensen, L.B., & Madsen, T., (1986). Hjemsted-en gravplads fra 4. og 5. årh. e. Kr (Haderslev)

Feachem, R.W., (1955-56). ‘The fortifications of Traprain Law.’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities for Scotland 89:284-9.

Fischer, S., (2014). ‘Swedish Migration Period Chamber Graves’, in Abegg-Wigg & Lau (ed.) (2014), pp.401-21

Fischer, S., & Victor, H., (2011). ‘New Horizons for Helgö’ in Arrhenius & O’Meadhra (ed.) (2011), pp.79-92.

Foster, S., (2014). Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland (2nd edition: Edinburgh)

Fraser, J., (2009). From Caledonia to Pictland. Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh).

Fries-Knoblach, Steuer, H., & Hines, J., (ed.) (2014). The Baiuvarii and Thuringi. An Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge).

Fuchs, R., Kempa, M., Redies, R., Theune-Großkopf, B., & Wais, A. (ed.) (1997). Die Alamannen (2nd edition; Stuttgart).

Fulford, M.G., (1985). ‘Roman material in barbarian society, c.200BC- a.d. 400’, in Settlement and Society, ed. T. Champion & J.V.S. Megaw (Leicester, 1985), pp.91-108.

Galestin, M.C., (2010). ‘Roman artefacts beyond the northern frontier: interpreting the evidence from the Netherlands.’ European Journal of Archaeology 13.1, pp.64-88.

Gebühr, M., (2009). ‘Reiche Bauern oder Fürsten.’ In Burmeister & Derks (ed.) (2009), pp.342-51

Geiberger, M., Stute, A., & Hofmann, A., (ed.) (2005). Imperium Romanum: Römer, Christen, Alamannen – Die Spätantike am Oberrhein (Stuttgart).

Geuenich, D. (ed.) (1998). Die Franken und die Alemannen bis zur “Schlacht bei Zülpich” (Berlin).

Goetz, H-W., Jarnut, J., & Pohl, W., (ed.) (2003). Regna and Gentes: The Relationship between late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples and Kingdoms in the Transformation of the Roman World (Leiden).

Goffart, W., (2006). Barbarian Tides. The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (Philadelphia)

Haarnagel, W., (1979). Die Grabung Feddersen Wierde: Methode, Hausbau, Siedlungs- und Wirtschaftsformen, sowie Sozialstruktur (Wiesbaden).

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Halsall (2000). Burial customs around the North Sea, AD 350-700’ in Kramer et al. (ed.) (2000), pp.93-104.

Halsall, G., (2007). Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge).

Halsall, G., (2009). ‘Beyond the northern frontiers’, in A Companion to Late Antiquity, ed. P. Rousseau & J. Raithel (Oxford), pp.409-25

Halsall, G., (2011). ‘Ethnicity and early medieval cemeteries.’ Arqueología y Territorio Medieval 18 (2011), pp.15-27.

Halsall, G., (2013). ‘Northern Britain and the fall of the Roman Empire’. The Mediaeval Journal 2:1-25.

Halsall, G., (2014). ‘Two worlds become one: a ‘counter-intuitive’ view of the Roman Empire and ‘Germanic’ Migration’. German History 32:515-32

Hamerow, H., (2002). Early Medieval Settlements. The Archaeology of Rural Communities in North-West Europe 400-900 (Oxford).

Hammer, C., (2011). ‘Early medieval Bavaria: A late antique Italian perspective.’ Journal of Late Antiquity 4.2,  pp.217-44.

Hansen, H.J., (1989), ‘Dankirke: Affluence in Late Iron Age Denmark’ in The Birth of Europe. Archaeology and Social Development in the First Millennium A.D. ed. K. Randsborg (Rome), pp. 123–8.

Hårdh, B., (2003). ‘The contacts of a central place’ in Larsson & Hårdh (ed.) (2003), pp.27-66.

Hardt, M., (2003). ‘The Bavarians’, in Goetz, Jarnut & Pohl (ed.) (2003), pp.429-61.

Hausmair, B., (2015). Am Rande des Grabs. Todeskonzepte und Bestattungsritual in der frühmittelalterlichen Almannia (Vienna).

Heather, P., (1996). The Goths (Oxford).

Heather, P. (1998). ‘Disappearing and reappearing tribes’, in Pohl & Reimitz (ed.) 1998, pp.95-111

Heather, P., (2001). ‘The late Roman art of client management: Imperial defence in the fourth-century west’ in The Transformation of Frontiers. From Late Antiquity to the Carolingians, ed. W. Pohl, I.N. Wood & H. Reimitz (Leiden), pp.15-72.

Heather, P., (2005). The Fall of Rome: A New History (London).

Heather, P., & Matthews, J., (1991). The Goths in the Fourth Century (Liverpool).

Hedeager, L., (1978). ‘A quantitative analysis of Roman imports in Europe north of the Limes (0-400 AD) and the question of Roman-Germanic exchange.’ Studies in Scandinavian Prehistory and Early History 1, pp.191-216.

Hedeager, L., (1987). ‘Empire, frontier and the barbarian hinterland: Rome and northern Europe from AD 1-400’, in Centre and Periphery in the Ancient World, ed. M. Rowlands, M., Larsen & K. Kristiansen (Cambridge), pp.125-40.

Henderson, G., & Henderson, I., (2004). The Art of the Picts: Sculpture and Metalwork in Early Medieval Scotland (London).

Hodder, I., (1986). Reading the Past. Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology (1st edition; Cambridge)

Hoeper, M., & Steuer, H., ‘Eine völkerwanderungszeitliche Höhenstation am Oberrhein—der Geißkopf bei Berghaupten, Ortenaukreis—Höhensiedlung, Militärlager oder Kultplatz?’, Germania, 77 (1999), pp. 185–246.

Horsnaes, H.W., (2013). ‘Networking in north-eastern barbaricum: a study of gold imitations of Roman coins’, in From Goths to Varangians: Communications and Cultural Exchange Between the Baltic and the Black Sea, ed. Bjerg, L., Lind, J.H., & Sindbaek, S.M., (Aarhus), pp.87-130.

Hunter, F., (2007). Beyond the Edge of Empire – Caledonians, Picts and Romans (Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie).

Hunter & Painter

Hvass, S., (1983). ‘Vorbasse: The development of a settlement through the first millennium AD.’ Journal of Danish Archaeology 2:127-36.

Ilkjaer, J., (2001). Illerup-Ådal – Archaeology as a magic mirror (Moesgård).

James, S., (2005). ‘Large-scale recruitment of auxiliaries from Free Germany?’, in Limes XIX: Proceedings of the XIXth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies held in Pécs, Hungary, September 2003, ed. Visy, Z., (Pécs), pp.273-279

Jensen, J., (2003). The Prehistory of Denmark (2nd edition: London)

Jensen, S., (1991). ‘Dankirkje-Ribe. Fra handelsgård til handelsplads’ in Morotensen & Rasmussen (ed.) (1991), pp.73-87.

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Kharalambieva, A., (2010). ‘Gepids in the Balkans: A survey of the archaeological evidence’, in Curta (ed.) (2010), pp.245-62.

Kleemann, J., (1999). ‘Zum Aufkommen der Körperbestattung in Niedersachsen.’ Studien zur Sachsenforschung 13:253-62

Klevnäs, A., (2015). ‘Abandon Ship! Digging out the Dead from the Vendel Boat-Graves.’ Norwegian Archaeological Review 48, pp.1-20.

Koch, U., (1968). Die Grabfünde der Merowingerzeit aus dem Donautal um Regensburg (Germanischer Dankmäler de Völkerwanderungszeit. A.10) (2 vols.: Berlin)

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Lamm, J.P., & Nordstrom, H., (ed.) (1983). Statens Historiska Museum, Studies 2: Vendel Period (Stockholm).

Larrick, R., (1986). ‘Age grading and ethnicity in the style of Loikop (Samburu) spears.’ World Archaeology 18:269-83.

Larsson, L., & Hårdh, B., (ed.) (2003). Centrality-Regionality. The Social Structure of Southern Sweden during the Iron Age. Uppåkrastudier 7 (Archaeologia Lundensia Series in octo 40) (Lund).

Lee, A.D., (1993). Information and Frontiers. Roman Foreign Relations in Late Antiquity (Cambridge).

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Mejdahl, U., & Siemen, P., (2000). ‘Living around the North Sea’ in Kramer et al. (ed.) (2000), pp.79-92.

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Moerman, M. (1968).  ‘Being Lue: Use and abuses of ethnic identification’ in Essays on the Problem of Tribe Proceedings of the 1967 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, ed. Helm, J., (Seattle), pp.153-69.

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Myhre, B., (1997). ‘Boathouses and naval organisation’, in Military Aspects of Scandinavian Society in a European Perspective AD 1-1300, ed. Nørgård Jørgensen, A., & Claussen, B.L.  (Copenhagen), pp.169-83.

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Nicolay, J.A.W., (2014). The Splendour of Power: Early Medieval Kingship and the Use of Gold and Silver in the Southern North Sea Area (5th to 7th Century AD) (Groningen)

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Wainwright, F.T., (ed.) (1955). The Problem of the Picts (London).

Ward-Perkins, B., (2005). The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (Oxford).

Welch, M., (2000). ‘Trade and trading places around the North Sea’, in Kramer, et al. (ed.) (2000), pp.67-78.

Wells, P.S., (ed.) (2013). Rome Beyond its Frontiers: Imports, Attitudes and Practices (JRA Supplementary Series 94: Portsmouth, RI).

Wickler, S., & Nilsen, G., (2012). ‘Pre-Modern Boathouses: a maritime perspective from northern Norway.’ The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 41.1, pp.106–119

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Whittaker, C.R, (1994). Frontiers of the Roman Empire (Baltimore, Maryland).

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Happy Holidays

I wish you all a happy festive season and send all best wishes and hopes for a peaceful 2016.

Thanks for continuing to read this blog.

2015 has been a lousy year for me, by my privileged first-world standards (though it picked up dramatically at the end) as you might have surmised from the rather infrequent posting, and an impossibly worse one for millions of others across the globe.

Let's hope for and work - in whatever way we can - towards something better for all.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 3A

So, you're maybe saying, if History isn't about, or doesn't matter because of, all of the things you discussed in Parts 1-3, why does it matter? Rather than repeating myself yet again, allow me simply to refer you to The Manifesto. On the important emancipatory potential of a closer and more sophisticated study of the moments of undecidability that are historical events, I would just stand by the points I made when I last discussed public interventions by historians. It remains to explain why the discipline of history seems to be so resistant to these points.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 3

More on the deconstruction of narrative and the political irrelevance of specific histories...

Part 1 of this essay is here
Part 2 of this essay is here

Some further points might bring this [The argument advanced in Part 2] home.  The first is that, even if straightforward, binary hostility between Romans and barbarians, or between Christians and Muslims, does fundamentally account for a particular event in the narrative ‘chain’, that does not mean it explains any of the others. Equally, if one event can convincingly be explained according to a ‘longue durée’ account of the conflict for the control of long-distance trade within the ecological and economic context and constraints of interconnected Mediterranean communities – with ethnic or religious labels only used as rallying cries – that does not mean it necessarily works for any other event in the ‘chain’. In other words, any event can only be understood on its own.

The second – and quite obvious – point,  developing one I made earlier, is that no event in history has ever been caused by a preceding event.  The First World War did not in and of itself cause the Second World War. The assault on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 did not – in itself – cause, or bring about, the ‘War on Terror’.  At no point was anyone compelled by the First World War or ‘9/11’ to do anything in particular.  What they did, they chose to do.  I do not claim that anyone had a completely free choice or that there were no constraints on their actions or their political vocabulary but there was never a single way to respond to the attack on the Twin Towers, there was never a single way in which the trauma of the Great War had to be employed in German, or French or British politics in the 1920s or 1930s, and there was never a single way in which people had to respond to such uses of past events.  There has always been a choice.  The role of the historian is to account for and understand why certain responses, or certain vocabularies (or discourses), rather than others were chosen and ‘worked’ with their political audiences.

The third point that I want to make – and again it is a fairly obvious point and one that I have made many times before – is that the results of historical actions and events can be the diametric opposite of those intended by any of the agents involved. It is this accidental or ironic aspect of history (and indeed of being) that in my view continues to be under-explored, whether in history or in philosophy. An event intended as a straightforward crusade/jihad by one set of monotheists against another might in the end result in some sort of cohabitation and understanding; an event or action intended to bring faiths together might do the opposite (e.g. the Council of Florence alluded to earlier); an event or action not intended to have any religious significance at all might become the casus belli for a vicious inter-faith conflict.

If we choose to analyse any action or event in history, it is – obviously – us who define that event and its parameters.  Once defined, any event is – obviously (yet again) unique and unrepeatable.  It has, furthermore, no inherent relationship, qua event, with any other event, earlier or later. It may be linked by contemporaries to other events in various forms of political and social discourse, or by later historians constructing narratives as discussed above, but any such links are only ever made in the moment, in the ever moving present, and with effects (as with the events themselves) that can never be assured.

We must embrace the irreducible singularity of historical action and, therefore, history’s radical discontinuity.

Admittedly, this sounds like uncomfortable advice, not least because it undermines almost every justification for the study of history that is ever trotted out.  What I just referred to as embracing the radical discontinuity of history and the irreducible singularity of past events cuts the ground from beneath any attempt to claim that history has any relevance at all, at least as usually defined.[1] Indeed, when I last discussed these ideas, one commenter claimed that I was arguing for the removal of the ‘whole point’ of history.  Historical narratives, which are supposed to be so important to the teaching of history,[2] and to the maintenance of cultures and nations, do not explain anything.  Indeed they only inform you of the most banal descriptive sequence.  Imagine blindfolding yourself, being spun round three times and then trying to walk through your house, while a friend filmed you bumbling about, walking into doors and furniture and trying different directions.  Playing the film back and watching it would serve exactly the same purpose as learning any historical narrative.  Historical agents have no idea where they are going.  They might think they know but it rarely turns out that way.  You can’t see the decision-making process from the film, and that process itself was based upon half-remembered, misunderstood, often misleading past experiences. And that is with a single, unilinear sequence, unlike the infinite different strands that can be followed in history.  History does not tell us who we are and how we got here except in the most banal fashion possible. This happened. Then this happened, and then this happened. But none of the happenings chosen was caused by the previous event selected or caused the one that came next. So there is actually no explanation at all; just a selective and misleading description.

The ideas I have proposed are also antithetical to any of the claims made that history has any bearing on what might be termed ‘policy’. I have argued before that no knowledge of history was of any value in the debates on whether or not to attack Iraq.  The argument that Blair and Bush would not have invaded Iraq had they but known more about history is one that has only been made effective with hindsight.  As I have said before[3], the argument that the British experience in Mesopotamia should have deterred the invasion is extremely weak and relies upon the notion that the inhabitants of the region were somehow bound to behave in 2003 in exactly the same way as they had in 1920. Such an argument could easily enough be disposed of in the run-up to the invasion and, had the war somehow been a success, would hardly  be being presented as a justification of history now, after the event. No. The only forceful intelligence available to help judge the feasibility or otherwise of attacking Iraq at the time was that which related to Iraq and its internal politics in 2003 – and we all know how much of that was either ignored or falsified – and the necessity of having some sort of reasonable plan for what to do afterwards. History had nothing to do with it. When Tony Blair told the US Congress, before the Iraq War that ‘[t]here has never been a time when … a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day’ it was the first half of the statement that was wrong, not the second. A study of history (by which, in this case, I mean the simple study of past events seemingly similar to those happening in the present) has never been capable of  providing much, if any, instruction.

The deconstruction of narrative fatally undermines the arguments for the importance of the long term in providing history that is somehow useful to the formulation of policy that have been made recently (by two more history professors from Harvard – it’s a faculty that seems currently not to be excelling itself in the intellectual stakes). Long-term narratives, as noted, are artificial constructs. The proposal that they can show which ‘threats’[4] are major and which are merely passing trends will simply not withstand scrutiny.  In addition to the selective construction of narrative (as above), the argument is obviously teleological and – ironically – therefore entirely contingent, dependent upon the short term. Yet, the book in which these extremely weak arguments were put forward managed to become the subject of a special issue of the once-great journal Annales. Thus far have we fallen.

Paul Krugman, Nobel-laureate economist and sharp observer of and commentator upon current affairs, has recently read both Tom Holland’s and actual historian Robert Hoyland’s accounts of the ‘Rise of Islam’ (the phrase emplots the narrative in itself, of course).  He concluded that, while they were interesting, he doubted that either tell us very much about the current situation. He is absolutely correct.  The only thing that helps us to understand what is going on now is the analysis of what people are doing now and why they say they are doing it.  This, clearly, follows on from the point I made earlier about past events having no force in and of themselves.

Clearly, the argument I am making here is probably profoundly shocking to people who actually do think that a study of a particular past can somehow usefully inform government. And yet the arguments to the contrary are uniformly weak.  Why has the discipline History let itself get into the position where it can make no robust argument for its intellectual value other than cock-eyed notions of relevance on the one hand or an élitist argument that historians need not justify what they do at all,[5] on the other?

[4] I leave aside the profoundly conservative concerns of this work.

[5] This, I am informed – perhaps wrongly – was the argument presented at Kalamazoo by Prof Marcus Bull: that medieval history us inherently valuable and interesting and that’s that.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Refugee Crisis, the Paris attacks and the Death of History. Part 2

[In this part I begin to look at the ways in which the narratives used by 'historians' to comment on current affairs are constructed and the problems inherent in this.]

Part 1 of this piece is here.

So let us look back at the actual ‘argument’ set out by Holland (in the Daily Mail, discussed yesterday).  Needless to say, it’s not one that he has devised himself, and this, fundamentally, is the problem with which I am concerned; it is one that has been espoused by some genuine historians.  What it illustrates is what I have called (and this is hardly novel on my part) the tyranny of narrative.  Ever since the 1960s, some historians, at least, have been aware that history does not – indeed cannot – exist outside the stories we tell about it.  [Note for the hard of thinking: that does not mean that individual events did not happen, or that people did not experience them in the ways that they describe in the sources, or that any historical account is as good as any other, or that it is not possible to redescribe historical events in adequate fashion.]  All history has to have some sort of shape imposed upon it, in order to be able to be grasped - or given a semiotic existence - in the first place.  History (the practice) can never step outside that: there is no neutral, non-narrative, non-textual vantage point from which different accounts or reconstructions can be judged. As Derrida said, there is no outer-text.  We might say there is no outer-history.  Again, far too many historians (indeed, the majority) have refused even to attempt to grasp this point[1] and its implications, which to me – is disgraceful.

Holland has taken a selection of events from the past 1400 years (in no sub-period of which, let’s remember, can he claim to be an expert) and linked them together causally or at least juxtaposed them in such a way as to create that impression.  This then becomes the standard narrative of millennial east-west conflict.  As ever, he is hardly the first to do this: Anthony Pagden, to take but one, has written this sort of grand narrative. [I sometimes wonder whether there is something in the water in some US history departments that makes male history professors, once they reach a certain age, feel the urge to write a grandiose millennial history about the Supremacy of the West or some such but let’s leave that to one side.]

What is at issue is not so much whether or not things happened, or whether or not they had certain results; it is not always even the causation of individual events that is at stake.  It is the way such events are couched, linguistically, and how they are positioned, linked or structured, narratologically.  It is the coherence and reality of the narrative itself.  Put yet another way, the problem lies in the very production of history.

It would be possible to construct the whole of the Christian-Islam narrative differently (leaving aside the fact that Holland manages to ignore the relations Islam might have had with other regions and religions, across the rest of the world).  But it’s not simply that Holland leaves out a whole string of facts that would have allowed him, even in a short newspaper article, to tell a different and more complex narrative of the interaction between Christianity and Islam.[2]  I am not suggesting that he claim that it had been a history of harmony, peace and light, which would be a yet greater distortion; not even that he give equal attention to religiously-motivated aggression on the Christian side; simply that one can tell this story in a way that shows that conflict has not been the whole story, and that Christianity and Islam have not always been the prime motivators in such conflicts as did occur.  

The more serious problem here is that there have been book-length studies by actual professional, qualified, eminent historians that have done much the same (see above).  The fact that in the early 21st century this kind of unsophisticated, unreflective master-narrative can still be churned out by trained, successful, intelligent historians seems to me to be absolutely shocking.  If anything it suggests that the practice of history is not merely stagnant; it has somehow managed to go into intellectual reverse. I will return to suggest reasons for this.  Most importantly of all, though, the problems with Holland’s (or Pagden’s) accounts would not be evaded simply by producing a different master-narrative, emplotted in a different fashion.  Or even in the provision of a set of alternative narratives.  The problem lies, as I noted earlier, in the very conception of history that is embedded in all narratives, the idea of history as coherent story.  Academic history, as practised at universities across the globe, is doing nothing (or almost nothing) at all to challenge this because, well, why should it? It sees no need for that as it slides ever further into being a simple, cosy, intellectually unthreatening subject, a divertissement, if you will, to round off a fine young gentleman’s, or lady’s, education before their career in the law or the civil service.  Well, fuck that.

If we were to look at the master-narrative of Christian-Muslim relations, we could pick apart each and every point selected as a dot to be joined up in the story (comedic, tragic, epic, romantic, whatever-ic).  (And we must never forget that all narratives originate in an act of selection, from a sea of other historical happenings, of particular events, relating to a pre-determined tale.) It might for example be that some events in the story were conceived of and enacted at the time as episodes of straightforward, binary Christian-Muslim hostility, but such events were rare, if dramatic.  In most, other factors come into play, frequently – perhaps usually – reducing the religious element to rallying cries, if that.  When Süleyman the Magnificent first fell out with the future Emperor Charles V the cause was that Charles had taken the title of caesar, which Süleyman regarded as his own.  This was a quarrel about who was the legitimate ‘Roman Emperor’, which is an interesting and illuminating point in itself, suggestive of a quite different narrative, but it was ultimately a round in the developing conflict for Mediterranean hegemony between imperial Spain and the Ottomans.  Those kinds of politics can be brought into play in explaining the alliance between the Turks and Francis I of France, or the fact that when the fort of Sant’Elmo on Malta was finally captured by the Ottomans in 1565 the Venetian Republic rang its bells in celebration.  Neither of those historical facts or events find their way easily into the simple narrative of a centuries-long hatred between Muslims and Christians.

Nor does the history of the Byzantine Empire, if examined in the round, or the rise of the Ottoman.  Far from being the sentinel of Christendom, a bulwark holding back the ‘Muslim onslaught’, the Byzantine Empire spent much of its time fighting other Christians, whether ‘Latin’ westerners or Balkan ‘orthodox’ Christians like the Bulgars.  Its emperors were in no way above making alliances with Muslim powers, sometimes to fight other Christians.  The last emperors’ acceptance of western theology and papal supremacy, made in order to gain western support against the Ottomans, was regarded with disgust by their subjects, who were presumably well aware that the Osmanli had little or no interest in compelling eastern Christians to adopt a different Christian theology.  800 years previously, some evidence suggests that some imperial subjects in places like Egypt, members of the Miaphysite Church (which historians used to call Monophysite), welcomed the Arab invaders as
 more tolerant of their belief than the Chalkedonian emperors, who had recently begun a persecution of their church.  Holland omits to mention that the first ‘barbarian’ sack of Constantinople was at the hands not of Muslims but of western Christians in 1204; he omits the complex whirligig of thirteenth-century political alliances of Latin Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and others that resulted in the re-establishment of the Greek-speaking ‘Byzantine’ ‘Roman Empire’ and the elimination of the Frankish (Latin) ‘Roman Empire’ in 1261.

Although first appearing on the western edge of Asia Minor, the Osmanli developed their regime simultaneously on both sides of the Aegean, fighting Christian and Muslim rivals in the complicated aftermath of the demise of the Latin Empire.  It was after the Empires of Constantinople and Trebizond fell (already Turkish vassals in any case) that the Ottomans began their major expansion eastwards and southwards across Asia Minor, against the Islamic Black- and White-Sheep Turks, Persians and Mamluks, and then westwards along the Islamic north coast of Africa.  The famous campaigns in the Balkans, Hungary and eventually up to the gates of Vienna and Malta were only one front of Ottoman political and military history, one which featured alliances with particular groups of Christians.  Only a singularly distorting view of Ottoman history can reduce it to the simple, if well-known, narrative of an Islamic assault on Christendom, whose various ‘prongs’ were halted at Vienna, Malta and Lepanto. One could go on: one could detail the lengthy western attempts in the nineteenth century to shore up the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Tsarist Russia, and so on. But I hope you get my point.

A whole series of similar points can be made about the master-narrative of the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth century allegedly at the hands of barbarian immigrants or invaders. Battles between armies simply composed of invading barbarians on one side and defending Romans on the other were rare in the extreme in the period between 376 and 476 and those that there were mostly had little or no effect on the political developments of that period. Almost all of the crucial military campaigns or encounters of the period of the ‘Fall’ of the Western Roman Empire were waged (usually on both sides) by armies composed of Romano-barbarian confederacies, or of ‘barbarian’ soldiers fighting for a Roman faction. Most of the most important ‘barbarians’ of the fifth century grew up inside the Roman Empire. Even Alaric, the sacker of Rome, had been in alliance with the Roman Senate itself the year before, during his rebellion against Emperor Honorius.  A narrative that selects a handful of events that seem to involve invading barbarians, reads them – partially – with that interpretation in mind and then joins them up to create the narrative of ‘Barbarian Invasion’ is making up a story to fit a preconceived idea.  It is not a narrative that, to judge from the evidence they created – written or otherwise – all fifth-century people would have recognised.  Of course it is highly unlikely that they would recognise any modern narrative of the times in which they live.  All historical narratives are constructed after the event.

The point is not just that multiple narratives can now be told, nor even that modern ‘barbarian invasions’ narratives differ profoundly from most of the narratives composed in the fifth century itself. The point is that all narratives constructed to present a story that explains a particular end-point or outcome according to a certain cause or set of causes and as the result of a specific combination of prior events are fundamentally artificial. No argument can be ‘won’ here by the simple listing of other, additional or alternative historical facts (as above).  No one narrative, provided it follows the usual rules of evidence and logic (and admittedly not all do), can be declared to be any more or less ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful’ than any other. Strategies like the one I have adopted in the preceding paragraphs only work in showing that there is not one, single, ‘truthful’ story to be told about history.  The real strategy to be adopted in ending all of this sort of nonsense (as with the ‘Historians for Britain’ squabbling) lies in the deconstruction (in Derridian terms) of historical narrative and its production.

To that I will turn in Part 3 (tomorrow).
Part 3 of this essay can be found here.

[1] This is a point that the – bizarrely – self-styled ‘post-modernist’ critics of historical practice – Jenkins, Munslow and the rest – have singularly failed to comprehend, because their view of what history, ideally, is is fundamentally exactly the same as that of the sort of extreme positivist empiricists that they portray the rest of the historical profession as being. History should be ideologically neutral and empirically, factually accurate or truthful and, if that is not possible, history itself is impossible. What they fail to appreciate is that history’s very condition of possibility in the first place is precisely this impossibility. The fact that supposedly theoretical work that is as philosophically weak as that of Jenkins, Munslow and the rest should have acquired its eminence,
 influence and/or notoriety is yet another indictment of history’s sorry intellectual state.

[2] It is indicative of the attitude of Holland and his ilk that,according to his entry in Wikipedia he claims to ‘pull his punches’ about Islam for fear of being drummed out of the ‘liberal club’.  Not, n.b., because he has no claim to being any sort of expert or authority on Islam or the Arabic world (he churned out a book on the topic after a couple of years at most of reading other historians’ work; does he read Arabic, Persian or any other relevant language?) but because he might allegedly be turned out of the liberal club. This kind of grandiose self-delusion is absolutely characteristic of his ilk.