Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Some heartening feedback

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You all know what I think of the numerical aspects of feedback and (even more so) the production of league tables from the National Student Survey, and none of what I am about to say changes any of that.  Allow me, nevertheless, to blow my own trumpet a little.  I had this free text comment from end of degree NSS feedback passed on to me today, about which I am chuffed.


'The most rewarding academic experience was the privilege of being able to participate on my second year Histories and Contexts module, End of the Roman World, which greatly developed my understanding not only of the course but also of myself as a person.'


I always say (and always have said) that if I can make that sort of difference (by which I mean the last few words of this comment) to just one student it would all be worthwhile.  I have been saying it a lot of late as I have had the feeling that, as I feel myself increasingly out of step with what is euphemistically called "the modern university", it is something I haven't been doing because the set-up makes it harder to do, so I am very, very heartened by this.  Whoever it was, thank you very much! It encourages me to keep plodding away.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Otherness and Identity in the Merovingian Cemetery

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[This is a draft version, without proper footnotes, of the paper I mentioned in my previous post.  It attempts to expose the evidently widespread confusion between alterity (otherness) and difference and to make clearer the important distinction between the two notions and their different interplay with identity.  On that basis it argues that otherness cannot be visible in the archaeologically-visible diversity within the early medieval cemetery.  It then goes on to demonstrate that further through a closer examination of different types of, er, difference and the contexts within which they were made manifest, concluding with the discussion of 'gender-inappropriate' artefact-kits included in the previous post.  It sums up by arguing that this discussion has important implications for the politically-committed in the present.

The theoretical discussion at the beginning, by the way, goes some way towards explaining why I like the concept, much used by Levinas, of the 'autrui', the other person, differentiated from the 'autre', the other.]

***
In this essay, I wish to ask whether it is possible to study the late antique or early medieval construction of ‘the other’ via the analysis of the archaeological remains of the period’s cemeteries and, if so, how.  By viewing early medieval data, mostly but not exclusively from Merovingian northern Gaul, through the prism of modern philosophy, largely that of Jacques Derrida, I will attempt to show that – at least in the terms usually envisaged – otherness, unlike identity, is not visible in early medieval cemetery evidence.  By their very nature, the processes involved in the creation of the early medieval western European cemetery, especially the classic communal Reihengräberfelder and their analogues, exclude the notion of ‘alterity’ from the range of issues overtly spoken about by that evidence.    

At issue, fundamentally, appears to be some confusion between ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ and the relationship between those two concepts and that of identity.  To blame may be some fashionable but (at best) analytically vague, usually meaningless and largely euphemistic employment of the term ‘othering’.[1]  Conceptual ground-clearing is therefore necessary.  Identity and difference are simultaneous creations.  The establishment of an in-group always involves the definition of an out-group or groups.  At the same time, however, the ‘inside’ – the identity – is itself constituted by the ‘outside’, by what it is not.  These points are absolutely elementary but the fact that they are yet to make a significant impact upon discussions of archaeological cemetery data requires that they be spelt out.  No social identity is immanent.  All are imposed as means of organising the world, as categories.  As such, social identities are constructed as signs or groups of signs.  Even where those signs are based upon differences that are, or might be, naturally-occurring or visible regardless of categorisation (hair-, skin- or eye-colour for example; or differences in genitalia; or physiological stages of ageing), the choice to use them as categories, their precise definition, the way in which they are employed and therefore the ways in which the people of the categories so created experience their lives, depend upon their position in a historically- and socially-contingent system of signs.  As signs they function textually, within chains of presence and absence, of similarity and difference.  The term ‘textually’ is used in its Derridean sense, following his argument that all signifying systems share the fundamental features of writing or, in his terms, ‘écriture’.[2]  This point is one to which I will return.  Because no concept can be understood separately from those signifying chains, comprehended apart from its relationship with other signs, there is always something of the ‘different’ within the ‘same’.  Concepts of the ‘different’ and the ‘other’ therefore begin from analogous starting points.

However, at that point they start, crucially, to diverge.  The ‘other’ is not simply the ‘unlike’; it is the very negation of the ‘same’.  In a situation of difference, a particular category of the world, a dog for example, may be constituted within a socially-contingent sign-system by all the categories that are outside and relate to it, in our example all the ‘non-dog’ categories.  We might, provisionally at least, like to think of this as a situation of taxonomy or classification.  By contrast, in a situation of otherness, the ‘constitutive outside’ is concentrated in a single categorical term.  So we arrive at something more like binary opposites.  That, however, binds the opposed concepts more, not less, closely.  Inside and outside, ‘same’ and ‘other’, function like the two sides of a single piece of paper.  The ‘other’ is the supplement without which the ‘same’ cannot exist.  Without adopting a rigidly structuralist position, these oppositions can nevertheless be seen as organising the whole system, acting as fixed points within it.  Concepts of good and evil, law and freedom might be considered as examples, as, in a slightly different way, might light and dark or night and day. 

These points are perhaps best illustrated, in a late antique context, by the Roman:barbarian dichotomy.  This operated at a quite different level from the taxonomic ethnic difference between a Gaul and a Spaniard, between an inhabitant of Tours and a citizen of Bourges, between a Frank and an Alaman or even between a Roman citizen and a Vandal.[3]  Obviously, in some circumstances (most famously the Roman state’s treatment of Stilicho after his downfall[4]) the Roman:barbarian dichotomy could be mapped onto the difference between the Vandal and the Roman.  In particular situations, however, it could equally be laid over the difference between the Gaul and the Spaniard, the Tourangeau and the Berruyard or even the Frank and the Alaman.[5] 

However, like many other oppositions of the type discussed, what is at stake in the antique opposition of Roman and barbarian is not a simple binary polarity.  This scheme of ideas in fact has only a single pole: that of the Roman.[6]  There is no separate, single pole of attraction represented by the barbarian as opposed to the Roman.  Everything is judged by nearness to or distance from that ideal.  In the corpus of Graeco-Roman ethnography positive comments about barbarians almost always revolve around fundamentally Roman virtues that the citizens of the Empire have lost or run the risk of losing, through social or political corruption.[7]  The barbarian who is freer or more civilised than the Roman is a cliché of Roman socio-political critique.[8]  Even where, in late imperial politics, we find instances where barbarian tropes are actively employed to create a political identity, this is still done entirely within Roman politics and its traditional norms.  Thus, as a means of creating an identity when the traditional discourse of civic Roman male identity became circumscribed within the imperial civil bureaucracy, the ‘barbarizing’ Roman army adopted and valorised a number of features ethnographically held to mark the non-Roman (whether barbarian or animal), above all wild ferocity.[9]  But there can be no doubt that this performance was entirely ‘scripted’ by traditional ideals, or that civic Roman male identity remained the pole against which one was ultimately judged.[10]  Similarly, in fifth-century politics, when military leaders performed their non-Roman ethnic origins (or in some cases adopted the latter), this was when they found themselves cut off from the traditional pole of imperial political legitimacy, the court, when the barbarian was the only legitimate role they could play.[11]  

In all this, unlike the dialogue between taxonomic identities (as above), the discourse of Roman:barbarian did not take place between actual Romans and barbarians, but within the  Roman polity.  It was not a dialogue between opposed identities: ‘we are like this and you are like that’.  Instead it was a discourse around a single positive ideal: ‘we are (or should be) like this because they are like that; you are bad because you are like them; if you wish to bracket us with them, by excluding us (and breaking up the community of ‘the same’), then we will act like them.’[12]  In this regard, the discourse of barbarian and Roman was analogous to the classical discourse around gender, as revealed in recent studies.[13]  Indeed, the two often ran side by side.[14] 

In the taxonomic situation, identity could be based around various objectively measurable markers: language, descent, place of birth, costume, ritual and social practices, and so on.  Most of these things have, of course, been the staple of traditional attempts to locate difference within the archaeological record.[15]  Classical and early medieval descriptions of peoples were far from uninterested in such matters,[16] but it is important to recognise that Graeco-Roman ethnography itself operated at a taxonomic level as well as dealing with the organising civilised:barbarian dichotomy.[17]  Nonetheless, it is a fundamental mistake of primordialist views of ethnicity to view even these identities as immanent.  They functioned in the imaginary as well as the symbolic registers.  That is to say that there remained (as with all signifiers) a notion of the ideal member of the category.  Normally that was structured by some of the aspects which helped define the category (social and ritual mores, etc.) to create concepts of the ideal member of a sub-group within it (young woman, male elder, etc.).  This has two very important implications.  The first is that social identities are constituted by performance and citation.[18]  The second is, if anything, even more crucial: the performance of identity is itself a motion towards an ideal.  The ideal can never be attained, because it never had a pure, originary existence.  It is fundamental that, in order to have been capable of communicating any sort of information, any concept or category, even on the very first occasion it was ever used, had to be capable of iteration, that is to say it had to refer not simply and exclusively to that specific instance but rather had to have the capacity to be used in others too.[19]  To that end it already had to relate to an ideal, which was (and is) never coextensive with that which instantiates it, and to its constitutive outside (all the things which, ideally, it was not).  Thus – crucially – even the identity (the sameness) being performed by an individual is, to some extent, a difference from him or her.[20]  In other terms, it is the ‘constitutive lack’.[21]  Once again, there is no simple distinction between identity and difference.  There is a difference within the subject, and ‘identity’ lies outside.  These points leave aside the fact that those ideals are always themselves changing in the course of social practice.[22]  They can never be entirely recreated, not least because, as I have just mentioned, there was never anything there that was susceptible to pure recreation.  It is thus fundamentally mistaken to talk of the maintenance of a Gothic or Frankish identity by a particular class; no such thing had ever existed that was capable of maintenance in the first place.  It may be argued that the only time when subject and identity are coextensive is in death: a point of considerable relevance to this paper.

With a situation of alterity, all these points are even more significant.  Here the concepts operate entirely within the register of the imaginary.  The subject strives towards an ideal, as before, and imagines him or herself performing that identity in the gaze of, and judged by, others.  The measure of any identity – even one stressing sameness and community – lies to some extent in an imagined other to which one addresses the performance.  That other can be envisaged in several ways – as God, the Law, ‘society’, the Lacanian ‘Big Other’ (the symbolic order), the doxa in Bourdieu[23] – but always plays fundamentally the same role.  What importantly distinguishes the ‘other’ from the simply, taxonomically ‘different’, is that the ‘other’ is always central within the imagined audience in whose gaze identity is performed.  Thus, Romanness is performed not only in the imagined gaze of the ideal Roman but of the barbarian – not members of specific gentes (those these may doubtless be encompassed within a specific action’s imagined social audience) but the stereotypical, idealised barbarian figure.[24]  Similarly, masculinity is performed in the imagined gaze not just of ideal manhood but of ideal womanhood.

These points emphasise another crucial distinction between the ‘different’ and the ‘other’.  In the taxonomic register any person possesses a range of identities, based on age, gender, family, ethnicity (at various levels), profession, religion and so on.  Many of these are visible in the archaeological evidence recovered from furnished inhumation cemeteries.[25]  All are fundamentally ‘different’ from each other, not least in that all can be used situationally, strategically, in social interaction.  People who may share a gender but be divided by familial connections, or who may have different ethnic identities but the same religion, can decide either to overcome potential difference by stressing the shared, or to negate what is held in common by emphasising that which differentiates.[26]  In other words, within the taxonomic register, any particular role or identity can register either sameness or difference depending on the situation.   This is not the case with alterity.  The oppositions around which the truly ‘other’ is constructed represent the fixed points, the poles with reference to which other identities can be situationally evaluated.  I further contend that alterity can never properly be performed, even to the extent that identity can (reiterating that the performance of identity is only ever a motion towards an ideal).  Alterity cannot be performed without one of two things: reducing it to a metaphor in the taxonomic register (a particular barbarian identity, for example, to represent the barbarian[27]), or through the inverse citation of the ideal (that is, performing the barbaric by enacting the bad Roman).[28]  It is precisely this feature, this location in the sphere of the imaginary, which gives racism and anti-semitism their resilience in the face of empirical observation.  The character of actual, known, individual black people or Jews can be talked down as exceptional, or can be incorporated within the negative stereotype (as an example of treachery or slipperiness) or, conversely, be used as a basis for the denial of racism (‘some of my best friends are black’).[29]  In a late antique context, these features can be seen in practice in some of the examples referred to earlier.

These points, taken cumulatively, make it clear that it is a serious category error to think of variations in the mortuary presentation of different social identities as representations or constructions of the ‘other’.  The argument can be underlined via a different route, which considers the processes by which the archaeological record of the early medieval cemetery was constructed.  Especially when looking at the furnished inhumations of the late and post-imperial period in western Europe it is of fundamental importance to remember that these displays of identity were – in an important sense – transient.  Although Howard Williams has correctly drawn attention to the fact that the semiotic richness of a multi-sensory performance allowed important memories to be created,[30] it obviously remains the case that, once the grave was filled in, the display of grave-goods was no longer visible.  For the message created by the ritual to convey information about the deceased (and his or her family), therefore, an audience was required at the funeral and burial itself.[31]  The furnished inhumation cemetery was, therefore, a communal cemetery, a shared ritual focus.  Someone interred in a communal Reihengräberfeld, in a costume and accompanied by goods (and other archaeologically-invisible elements of the performance) that were intended to make clear their position or role within that community cannot possibly – because of that very fact – be considered as representing the ‘other’, according to the discussion above.  Identity and difference are inherent in the process; otherness is not. 

If one were attempting to seek alterity, the ‘other’, properly conceived, in the early medieval burial record one would have to look outside the cemetery, at isolated burials removed from the community of the living or the dead.  Andrew Reynolds’ discussions of execution burials in Anglo-Saxon England later in the first millennium might constitute an example of such an enquiry.[32]  Studies of the topography of burial might also allow us to identify those regarded as somehow outside the community and thus perhaps more representative of a concept of otherness.[33]  Obviously, however, there are different forms of removal from the main communal cemetery.  The deliberate inhumations increasingly known from settlement sites, commonly with significant grave-goods, do not represent that sort of exclusion.[34]  Similarly, the processes of Separierung attested around 600, which led to local élites being interred in their own burial-grounds or churches, away from the earlier communal cemeteries, cannot be regarded as a manifestation of the ‘other’, rather than an attempt to create difference.[35]

Where we are certainly not on firm ground in looking for ideas of the ‘other’ is in alleged ‘ethnic’ differences in burial style.  I have repeatedly argued in the past that the empirical grounds for interpreting ethnic identity from difference in burial ritual – whether from the presence or absence of grave-goods, the forms of object deposited or the forms of costume in which the dead were buried – are mostly very weak indeed.[36]  There is little to be gained from repeating those arguments.  More satisfactory, perhaps, would be to adopt an approach that could be followed independently of any subscription or opposition to the ethnic interpretation.  It is in any case surely obvious that, even if one accepted (as I do not) that the observable distinctions in furnished burial in this period relate to incoming ethnic groups, not all of the incomers were interred in that fashion.  They are too few, even for minimalist views of migration.  From that fact one has to conclude that something other than the barest fact of an ethnic identity must have lain behind the decision to bury the deceased in a particular way.  Some other sort of distinction was (at least) simultaneously being made manifest.[37]  If that was the case, then we should consider what statements about the dead are being made within the funerary ritual.  One must examine the issue of why the burial took that form.

The obvious starting point is that the dead do not bury themselves. Those directly responsible for the interment were presumably the deceased’s family, although close study of later sixth-century northern Gallic Reihengräberfelder suggests that the broader community probably played a determinant role in governing appropriate and inappropriate forms of ritual expression.  Both points underline that made earlier about the fact of inclusion inherent in burial in the communal cemetery.  Although there were many means by which identity and difference could be manifested within the post-imperial furnished inhumation rite, it is important to remember that all were developed on the basis of a common ritual.  All the inhumations within a Reihengräberfeld followed a shared, basic script, including the choice to inhume (rather than cremate), the orientation of the burial, the shared cemetery, the supine deposition of the corpse and a corpus of grave-goods that could be found in burials of all types.  The number of types in this non-diagnostic, ‘neutral’ corpus might very well outnumber those used to mark difference.[38]  Even the latter, however, operated within the community norms mentioned earlier.  The community’s role in establishing the norms for inhumation of individuals of particular types – and there would have to be such norms for any communication of identity to succeed – means that subscription, however general, to those norms implied active inclusion within society. 

There are instances where those rules may be breached or inverted but, again, the point being made by such strategies can only be made by reference to the normal grammar of display.  For example, when the family of the occupants of graves 70 and 71 in the cemetery of Ennery (Moselle) chose to demonstrate their distinction from the community by burying their dead accompanied by an entirely masculine assemblage of artefacts including two weapons, that point can only have been effective with reference to the communal norm (on that site, at that time) that the age-groups to which deceased belonged, a young boy and an old man, were not, or were only rarely, associated with weaponry and masculine artefacts.[39]  The same point stands for their choice to orient the graves differently from those surrounding them.  Here, the bereaved family demonstrated inclusion in the community, by playing with its rules, but simultaneously manifested a claim to be different from it.  That claim, however, is most unlikely to have been based around any sort of alterity; quite the opposite.  This point can be made for a number of ‘rule-breaking’ burials, especially in the phase of aristocratic Separierung, c.600, mentioned above, and in the seventh century.[40] 

There are other unusual burials within cemeteries where the issue is more blurred: where the subject was supposedly immobilised, headless or prone.  The data need close examination before the claim can stand; many alleged instances are very dubious.[41]  Even with examples that are established beyond doubt, the fact that these individuals were nevertheless interred within the community’s grave-yard speaks heavily in favour of a certain level of inclusion.[42]  So does the fact that grave-goods often accompanied such burials.  We may, of course, have an instance of dialogue here, with a family making an argument, via the burial, for their continued inclusion within the community in spite of one of its members evidently being somewhat unusual or excluded in some way.  A simple argument for ‘otherness’ cannot stand, unmodified, in such an instance.  At best we have an occasion where an attempt, within a community, to place someone in a category of ‘otherness’ has been contested.

The other point made earlier was that the act of burial is organised as a public act by the bereaved family.  Inscription evidence makes clear that a family could be joined by that of the deceased’s spouse in commemorating the dead.[43]  This supports the reading of furnished inhumation as an attempt to smooth over the tensions caused by a death within a community.  Thus, as I have demonstrated before, the most lavish funerary displays tend to be those of people whose death would create the most tension: young adult women (betrothed or in the earlier years of marriage, before children had come of age), and mature adult males (dying before their sons had come of age).[44]  Therefore, what is at stake in the creation of the archaeological record of post-imperial burial is not to the attempt establish or reflect alterity or ‘otherness’, but the effort to maintain a form of community, although the latter obviously includes taxonomic difference.[45] 

The argument can be pursued by a consideration of the artefacts employed within the burial ritual.  A good example where what might be seen as a manifestation of ‘otherness’ in fact demonstrates the opposite may be found in the late fourth- and fifth-century ‘Föderatengräber’ of northern Gaul.[46]  Whether or not these graves are those of incoming settlers from barbaricum is fortunately an issue that can, for now, be bracketed.  What is at issue is the choice of object employed to represent the deceased’s status within society.  In male burials these objects make statements about traditional sources of legitimate power and authority within Roman society.  This is clearest with the items of metalwork (crossbow brooches, buckles and other appliqués from belt-sets, strap-ends and so on) which were associated with imperial service, whether in the army or in the civil service.  The weapons deposited with the dead also made a claim to legitimate power and, probably, an association with the Roman military.  Weapons like spears might also have referred to the characteristically aristocratic pastime of hunting, also depicted in some artefacts deposited in the grave.[47]  The glass, bronze and ceramic vessels placed with the dead were surely connected to the traditionally élite practice of banqueting and the distribution of food.  These items were also deposited with female dead, otherwise more notable for the items of a more archaeologically-visible costume marked principally by brooches of various sorts, together with other items of jewellery.  Whether or not this costume marked ethnic identity (I do not believe that it does, but that can as noted be left aside from the current argument), we can plausibly suggest that it was also intended to depict the deceased woman as a virtuous daughter or matron.  Some of the items of jewellery were decorated in the same ‘chip-carved’ technique as was typical of the official belt-sets and other metalwork and doubtless made the same reference.[48]  While I should reiterate my view that there is no prima facie evidence that these burials were of immigrants from Germania, that, as I have always argued, does not exclude the possibility that at least some of the dead were of non-Roman origin.[49] However, even if one believes that these graves were those of outsiders, the conclusion cannot be avoided that the ritual display involved in their burial was intended to make clear their inclusion within traditional imperial power-structures.  In other words, even if these burials are those of ‘barbarians’, their funerals were attempts to play down any possible ‘otherness’.

An analogous point can be made for the overwhelming majority of post-imperial funerary displays involving the burial of grave-goods.  For example, the distinction between younger adult males buried with weaponry and those buried without in sixth-century northern Gallic cemeteries makes reference to accepted roles and identities in that society.  One may hypothesise that, because of the association of the Franks with the military at this time, the weapon-graves might be those of ‘Franks’.[50]  Nevertheless, it must be stressed that at this point, although there were legal and other benefits associated with Frankish identity, the Roman and Frankish free population existed as parallel groups.[51]  The display represents difference and some sorts of power relations but one cannot read it as manifesting any idea of ‘otherness’, not least because, in their funerary, displays both groups were essentially playing according to the same set of semantic rules.  This leads us back to the point made earlier about the shared basic grammar according to which all funerary displays were made.

There may be one category of burials about which we can say something a little different.  This is constituted by burials which have grave-goods which generally seem to be inappropriate for people of the biological sex in question.  A discussion of this group will lead me to my concluding points.   It must first be conceded that this group of graves is very small; the vast majority of alleged cases may be questioned either on the basis of inadequate osteological data-survival or analysis or, more commonly, because of insufficient contextual examination of the normal gender-associations of objects on that site at that period.[52]  Often, the artefact-classes of ‘weaponry’ or ‘jewellery’ are too loosely defined.  Nonetheless, there are certainly some examples which appear to be genuine.  How one analyses these within the problematic of alterity is a difficult issue.  On the one hand the point must be reiterated that the bare fact of inclusion in the communal cemetery, as well as the evidence that the interment was conducted with appropriate ritual, care and attention by surviving relatives speak against seeing the occupant of such a grave as somehow ‘other’.  The fact that a difference from the normal is made clear in the evidence, in the public deposition of artefacts and costume accessories, also removes the possibility (discussed earlier) that the deceased’s family were trying to cover up any difference and stress consensual normality.  On the other hand, however, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the deposition of (in biological or osteological terms[53]) a man or woman with items overwhelmingly associated with the opposite sex represents an inversion of one of the most important structuring norms in social organisation, one with which concepts of alterity were very strongly associated, as noted above. 

The first point to be made in confronting this conundrum is that we should not see the interment of biologically female subjects with masculine artefacts analytically equivalent to the burial of biological males with feminine material culture.  One of the detectable movements in Merovingian material culture in the sixth and seventh centuries is the adoption of some masculine artefacts by women.  This is best seen in the case of plaque-buckles.  These started out as strongly masculine items of apparel but seem gradually to have been adopted by women.  This in turn led to a redrawing of this gender distinction, with decorated and larger examples being buried with males.  The dynamic continued to operate, however, with women starting to wear decorated plaque-buckles and men investing more in the size and decoration of their belt-buckles.[54]  This dynamic is of course well attested in many social contexts.  The construction of masculinity and the boundary it erected against the feminine were therefore always under a certain degree of pressure, with a constant level of ‘background noise’ where women were adopting masculine items.  This movement is in many ways to be expected in situations where women could be judged positively for the possession of at least some masculine qualities.[55]

The handful of plausible cases of women interred with weapons needs particular care.  It has been tempting, especially for non-academic readers, to leap to conclusions questioning the male dominance of warfare and even to refer to mythic concepts such as ‘shield-maidens’.[56]  This is especially significant for this paper as societies which contained armies of women (notably the Amazons) constituted one of the key manifestations of alterity in the Roman ethnographic imaginary.[57]  Some caution is required.  Heinrich Härke long ago drew attention to the fact that close study suggests that a strict, functionalist connection between weapons and an actual warrior role is highly questionable.[58]  Most obviously, there are small children buried with weapons – rarely in Merovingian Gaul; more commonly in Anglo-Saxon England and the Alamannic regions.  We do not assume that this implies that children habitually went off to fight.  That said, I have argued before that the symbolism of weaponry was more specific than merely a right to fight.  The written sources in any case tell us of women involved in low-level violence.  I have suggested that the level of violence referred to in the deposition of weaponry was that of the army, of warfare, and the right to take part in it. 

There is no evidence that women had a right to participate in the activities of the army but there are nevertheless several ways in which weaponry could still appropriately be employed in the interments of females.  One might be through the breach of norms to manifest a family’s distinction, as noted earlier; in other words a family might be suggesting that its right to participation in the military and political activities of the army inhered in, and could be passed through, its womenfolk.  Similarly, the family into which such a woman had married might have been staking a claim to acquire that right, or the military obligations that came with particular lands, through that marriage.  The written sources do tell us occasionally of women involved in some military activities.  The Liber Historiae Francorum’s admittedly problematic account of Queen Fredegund accompanying the Neustrian army on campaign against the Austrasians is perhaps the best instance.[59]  Weapons could represent the control of warriors.  It is also well-attested that a female role in leading the defence of settlements was accepted in the early Middle Ages.[60]  Weapons in a female burial could represent recognition of such a role or achievement.  There are therefore many interpretive options available before we appeal to shamanism, the historical existence of warrior maidens or a mass conspiracy on the part of male writers to conceal the existence of the latter.

The points made in the preceding paragraph are, however, only valid where weapons accompany an otherwise feminine burial assemblage.  Where a subject biologically sexed as female was interred with a masculine complement of grave-goods different issues arise.  If what we might think of as a biological woman lived her/his life as a man, then there is no necessary transgression of the usual societal norms.  This is where the more recent revision of the common idea that gender is a social construct on the basis of biological sex make their point.[61]  If such people were interred as men then clearly the community regarded them as men, not as women acting as men.  The only transgression would be when women who lived their lives as women take part in what were regarded as exclusively masculine activities.

Females buried with what we might call a mixed gender-kit – weaponry alongside the usual female assemblage – nevertheless raise a crucial point, with which I will end.  The female warrior was, as noted, a classic sign of alterity in the late antique imaginary.  And yet, we do seem to have some actually-existing female subjects whose involvement in warfare was recognised as apt by the community – hence its recognition in the burial rite.  This same seeming paradox may be attested in the interment of males with female artefacts.    As I intimated earlier, these examples raise some different issues from those brought up by the females with masculine goods.  First, there is no commensurate valorisation of the male adopting feminine attributes.  Here we actually have a written text to help us, although it is not one without problems.  Gregory of Tours does refer to a man dressed as a woman, during the tribunal at the end of the revolt of the nuns of Holy Cross, Poitiers.[62]  The man justified his wearing of female garb in terms of his inability to perform ‘manly work’.  Whatever this may have meant,[63] it was evidently not an unalloyed positive.  As Nancy Partner has pointed out, moreover,[64] it is significant that this subject was described by Gregory and, evidently, the other participants in the episode as a man wearing woman’s clothes, not as a woman.  It seems therefore that the episode shows us costume being employed an outward sign of some kind of falling away from ideal manliness, rather than a ‘biological male’ living life as a woman.  It is also unlikely that we would encounter burials of the ‘mixed’ type just discussed with biological males.  Someone recognised as a man, but buried in feminine costume would be unlikely also to receive the weaponry customary for someone of his (biological) sex, for the simple reason that a decision to live life as a woman would undermine the ability to participate in the masculine activities symbolised by weapons.  It might, however, be the case that we might find men buried with masculine costume but with female artefacts appended – items evidently symbolic of female work such as weaving batons, loom-weights and so on, for example.  This would require close examination because methods of determining the gender association of artefacts might simply render these objects ‘gender-neutral’ and the fact that they are not items of bodily or costume adornment (jewellery) would make the anomaly less immediately obvious.  Thus the known ‘transgressive’ burials of biological males seem to be those interred in female costume, like the Poitevin mentioned by Gregory.[65]  The inclusion of these people within the communal cemetery, and the respect and recognition given to their identity in the public burial ritual, show that even though one might consider their life-style to have represented the very acme of ‘otherness’, as envisaged in writings about ideal behaviour, in practice room could be made for them within the early medieval community.  This point would seem, as intimated earlier, to apply quite commonly within early medieval society, as it is manifested in the burial record.

This illustrates a vitally important element of alterity, which has been much discussed in modern philosophy, and returns us to our starting point.  The social and political value of ‘otherness’ resides precisely in in the fact that it cannot be actualised; it can be confronted on the basis of the empirical only with difficulty, as was mentioned earlier.  It is extremely difficult to illustrate the ideology of alterity via actually-existing communities.  As Slavoj Žižek has repeatedly argued, the ideological function of otherness is to act, so to speak, as a peripheral ‘blot’ which draws the gaze away from tensions that might threaten the status quo.[66]  When one attempts to view it constantly moves again.  The only way to tackle it, argues Žižek, is to adopt a perspective different from that assumed by ideology.  One might argue that such a move is made easier by returning to the points made earlier in this paper and remembering that any identity or categorisation, ascribed or adopted, is never coextensive with itself but only exists by virtue of a system of relations and differences.  It contains within itself the resources for its deconstruction.[67]  On the other hand, the tragedy of identity and alterity is that that ideology can be used to rupture communities that have long lived side-by-side, as in the countless instances of nationalism and ethnic cleansing in the modern world.  The variability that we can see within the post-imperial cemetery record may suggest, more happily, moments when such differences could be incorporated within everyday interaction.

The study of early medieval cemetery archaeology and its confrontation with the images of society and its ideals given in the written sources therefore has extremely valuable things to teach us.  It instructs us that while we should not assume that ‘ideology’ was something somehow different from ‘reality’ with no bearing on how ordinary people lived their everyday lives, statements of ideology should, as they still must, be closely interrogated.  The gap opened up by the burial evidence, between articulated views of alterity and interactions ‘on the ground’, must be explored.  Then as now, that gap shows us that ideological visions of alterity are constructs with little or no empirical grounding.  It teaches us above all that our perspective must always be shifted to expose that discrepancy in the interests of freedom and humanity.





[1] E.g. Nelson on Vikings.

[2] Basic Derrida biblio

[3] Taxonomy ref Kulikowski

[4] Refs. CTh; De Reditu suo

[5] Cp Dench

[6] Ethnography biblio

[7] Cp Tacitus and Salvian

[8] Other egs.

[9] Halsall 2007

[10] Halsall ‘Funny Foreigners’

[11] Kulikowski

[12] Refs?

[13] Classically, Cooper 1995.

[14] The barbarian was often feminised.  Ferris, etc.

[15] References.

[16] Examples.

[17] E.g. Tacitus’ Germania.

[18] Refs.

[19] Derrida.

[20] This ‘lack’ should not be confused with alienation: S. Skempton, Alienation after Derrida (London, 2010).

[21] Lacan

[22] Refs to Bourdieu and Giddens.

[23] Refs.

[24] Eg panegyric references.

[25] References.

[26] Halsall 1995 &c.

[27] This seems to be what, at best, is represented in the concept of ‘othering’.

[28] Halsall, ‘Funny foreigners’.

[29] This point has repeatedly been made by Slavoj Žižek, perhaps best in The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, 1989). An example can be found in a British local news story. A defendant charged with the racially-aggravated harassment of a Bangladeshi couple defended herself against the charge of racism by claiming to enjoy a curry and to have had an Asian grandparent! http://www.barkinganddagenhampost.co.uk/news/crime-courts/dagenham_couple_guilty_of_racist_campaign_against_neighbours_after_row_over_curry_1_3751858 (accessed 01/09/2014).  At a possibly higher intellectual level, the point is amply illustrated by Niall Ferguson’s attempt to deny the implicit racism and homophobia of some of his pronouncements by pointing out that he is married to a Dutch Somali and has gay friends: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/5/7/Ferguson-Apology-Keynes/

[30] Williams refs.

[31] Refs my work.

[32] Refs.  Reynolds; Geake on deviant graves?  Sutton Hoo Mound 5 executions?

[33] Effros; Tréffort; Rébillard.

[34] References. Theuws; Hamerow; Loveluck.

[35] References to strategies and  instances of Separierung.

[36] Halsall biblio.

[37] Refs to earlier expressions of the view.

[38] Examples and references.

[39] Ref. Simmer ; Halsall

[40] Ref. Double burials.

[41] E.g. Audun-le-Tiche.  Simmer.

[42] Audun 103

[43] Eg.

[44] Refs to my work.  Confirming studies like Brather.

[45] We need to rethink what we mean by community.  Nancy.

[46] Refs.: Böhme; Halsall

[47] refs.

[48] Refs.

[49] Refs.

[50] Provided one accepts two caveats: that there is nothing inherently Frankish about the rite itself, of inhumation with weapons, and that by ‘Frank’ we mean those people adopting that identity in socio-political interaction; not simply a population of incoming settlers.  Halsall, Warfare and Society.

[51] Halsall ‘Transformations of Romanness’, forthcoming.

[52] References to such burials and discussion.  Reading as shamanism etc.  inadequate.

[53] Theoretical clarification.

[54] Typologies and examples.

[55] Refs.  Gender.  GT VP ref as example.

[56] Refs to Viking (non-)evidence

[57] Pohl in Brubaker and Smith

[58] References.

[59] Ref.

[60] Refs.

[61] Refs to Butler.

[62] Ref to text and discussions.

[63] Impotence or inability to do a man’s work, in the fields for example.

[64] Ref.

[65] Ennery grave 32.

[66] Žižek bibliography.

[67] Meaning of deconstruction.  Issues in bringing Derrida and Lacan/Žižek together. Refs.