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Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The 'Barbarian Migrations' in the 21st Century

[This is the paper I presented at the kind invitation of Prof Martial Staub, at the University of Sheffield last night.  My thanks to Martial, Simon Loseby, Charles West and others for their hospitality, and to the audience for excellent questions.
The piece is in three parts: a discussion of why the topic of the barbarian migrations matters; a close reading of a recent article about palaeogenomic evidence; and some things that I need to think about in revising Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West.]

Twelve years ago, beating the deadline for the REF census by a week, I published my Big Book of Barbarians. To my disappointment, although it’s a book I am proud of and indeed currently regard as my magnum opus, it hasn’t, in spite of some very good academic reviews, had the impact that I naturally had hoped it would.  Partly this was down to pretty minimal publicity by the publishers, and it hasn’t been translated into many other languages unlike its competitors. 

Partly, though, I suspect it is down to the fact that it doesn’t toe any party line or fall neatly into any sort of historiographical camp.  It doesn’t argue for long-term continuity, it doesn’t argue that Rome never fell, or that the fifth century wasn’t an important rupture in European history, but it doesn’t argue that the Fall of Rome was all down to Barbarian migrations or invasions either.  Equally it doesn’t argue that there were no barbarian migrations.  One of the many reasons I find the historical profession so dispiriting is that people didn’t appear to be able to grasp the argument but tried to shoe-horn it into some pre-existing historiographical niche.  So, I have been accused of being an ‘anti-migrationist’, something that I am not, as ought to be clear to anyone with basic literacy reading p.418 of the book and the succeeding discussion about how migrations work.  Although, like many others, I have wanted to think critically about the numbers given in late antique sources, I have to my knowledge never even denied that significant groups of people migrated from Barbaricum into the Roman Empire.  My argument doesn’t rely on any assumptions about the scale of migration although ultimately that’s unknowable anyway; it can cope with all realistic orders of magnitude. What I have questioned is, firstly, whether these represented the only or even the most numerically significant, population movements in late antiquity and, secondly, and more importantly, whether such migrations were a cause or consequence of, or became a focus for the changes of the ‘long fifth century’.  Indeed, to be blunt, while few things in history might be labelled as simply, empirically wrong, I think that the idea that barbarian migrations brought down the Western Roman Empire is one such.

So why does that idea live on?  I have attempted, not without controversy, to address this tricky issue before.  The knots in which eminent academic historians and archaeologists tie themselves in order to make the case can be quite extraordinary.  You will find the partial or selective citation of evidence, its tendentious employment, absolute Pretzel logic, the airy refusal to engage with critique and the similar dismissal of counter-arguments via ad hominems. (1) Placed alongside mockery of complex ideas, accusations that the latter are simply ‘fashionable’, all the usual rhetorical techniques, one must ask why there is such investment in the idea.  On p.445 of The Fall of Rome, Peter Heather says, ‘there is no serious historian who thinks that the western Empire fell entirely because of internal problems or entirely because of exogenous shock’. That sounds fair enough but either he’s subtly telling us that he’s not a serious historian or it’s just rhetorical window-dressing, for four pages later he comes out with the following:
‘Without the barbarians there is not the slightest evidence that the western Empire would have ceased to exist in the fifth century.’
Now, if you can parse the logic of that word-salad, good luck to you – you might for instance ask how there can logically be evidence for a counter-factual – but what it appears to be attempting to say is that Roman Empire would not have fallen had it not been for the barbarian invasions. If you are saying that the Empire would have gone on and on had it not been for the barbarian invasions, then you are – very clearly – saying that the Roman Empire fell, ultimately, entirely because of exogenous factors.

Why do we so badly need the barbarians to have brought down the Empire?  Partly, as I have argued before, there’s – bizarrely – a certain comfort to be had in the idea that the barbarians did it: it frees us from the need to think critical or uncomfortable thoughts about society and politics.  The barbarians are just out there and ‘other’, beyond any sort of control; raging, gnashing their teeth, intent purely on invasion and conquest.  Simple explanations are always more attractive and they don’t come much simpler than the idea that there was this furious, savage barbarian world opposed to the Roman Empire, which eventually crashed through the frontier and destroyed civilisation, especially when one eschews any explanation for that crashing through.  The barbarian invasions are often a bit of a deus ex machina in modern anlyses, even more so when just pushed by an even greater deus ex machina: Huns.  Now, with Kyle Harper's work, the Huns themselves need even less explanation, for their migration was itself brought about by another deus ex machina – climate change.  So now we have a Holy Trinity ex machina.

All this of course has enormous modern resonance.  During the build-up to the 2016 Referendum, Arron Banks, leader of Leave.EU, tweeted about how uncontrolled migration had brought down the Roman Empire and he came into conflict with Mary Beard (ironically, since Beard’s own book on the Roman Empire is very traditional in its view of Gothic Migrations bringing about the downfall of the West, partly because she seems unaware of recent scholarship on the issue, and partly because the ‘Late Antiquity’ paradigm has always had a weird blind-spot when it comes to the end of the Western Empire).  The barbarian migrations have been a political football since well before the French Revolution but the simplistic Barbarian Invasions argument has a lot of traction currently, amid the rise of the Far Right, ethno-nationalism and xenophobia: the ‘legitimate concerns about migration’ in the media’s preferred euphemism.  A tranche of populist books has appeared recently in France, likening the so-called ‘threat’ of Islamic migration to the civilisation-destroying narrative of the barbarian invasions.  You don’t need to ask who the only anglophone historians cited in these books are.  Amazon reviews of books on the end of the Roman world make interesting sources for research into popular perceptions of the period.  You will find books which don’t rework the barbarian invasions narrative dismissed as ‘liberal’ political correctness; arguments (like mine) that even try to explain how migration works dismissed as ‘sociological clap-trap’ – you don’t need to explain barbarian migration: that’s just what barbarians do!(2)

You’d think on that basis that there’d be some attempt to insert a modicum of nuance into the discussion, especially in this post-truth, ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ age.  Sadly not.  The arguments have become less subtle but wider-ranging; the evidential sleights of hand more egregious; the wording ever more unsubtle.  Lazy references to the results of ‘immigrant violence’; discussions of the tensions of having to live among immigrants, as though this is a natural cause of stress; desperate attempts to pin even change that effectively predates significant barbarian settlement as nevertheless down to barbarian attack, even where the latter is barely evidenced.  The repeated use of ‘immigrant’ as a synonym for barbarian – sometimes ‘armed immigrant’. The description of groups that have been inside the Empire for between two and four generations as ‘immigrant groups’ or ‘outside groups’.  This is horrible, incendiary – at best irresponsible – language.  One book structures its argument around these points: 1: barbarian immigration destroyed the Roman Empire – it didn’t mean to but it did; 2: the end of the Roman Empire was the end of (a) civilisation; and 3: we need to be careful about our own civilisation (note that the first two elements of the book are replete with all kinds of dubious uses of evidence, some of which the author must surely have been aware of); attending Daily Mail-funded festivals giving lectures on how migration brought down the Roman Empire, as part of a strand on the ‘migrant crisis’.  The loaded language referred to above, the assumption that people who have never known life outside the Empire, and nor had their parents, and even grandparents, as ‘immigrant groups’ is soaked in assumptions and dog-whistles.  

This language doesn’t impose itself.  I managed to write a 500-page book about the barbarians without using the word ‘immigrant’ to describe a barbarian group more than once (and then to describe a third-century Germanic-speaking Gothic elite moving into what became ‘Gothia’, outside the Empire) and never as a synonym for barbarian; I checked yesterday.(3)  This language is a choice. 

I confess I don’t understand it.  I have always found this difficult to square with what I had always got the impression were the perpetrators’ fairly liberal politics.  Does one simply not want to alienate one’s book-buying fan-base and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?  If you’re going to pander to them like that, though, you might as well hold their views.  Is it some abstracted essay-tutorial idea about ‘winning the argument’?(4) Have these people just not noticed that words have implications and effects? 

I am convinced that there is a core ethical demand at the heart of historical research.  Clearly, bad stuff happens in history; historical explanations aren’t dependent upon ethics. Would that they were.  In that case, though, why are these authors refusing to even engage with people who try to bring more nuanced readings of the sources to the table, and indeed being so downright snide about their work?  Why are they making their arguments less, rather than more, subtle? With less, rather than more, nuance?  Why aren’t they thinking harder about their vocabulary? Why haven’t they at least stated that, although this is how they see the end of the Roman Empire, and that that’s just unfortunately how it was, we ought to be very careful about applying the lessons to the modern world?  (I challenged one of them to do so, to no avail.) Or maybe they are happy about all this.  As stated, I find this very hard to believe but there comes a point when the evidence begins to pile up…  The most charitable explanation, as I have said before, is an incapacity for, or aversion to, serious, sophisticated, subtle, self-reflexive thought.

So, the resonance and contemporary importance of the debate on the invasions or the migrations and the role of the barbarians in the end of the western Empire (the Fifth-Century Crisis as I prefer to call it) simply won’t go away.  That, the fact that I have changed my mind or developed my ideas about lots of it, and the fact that there’s been huge amounts of new work, especially archaeological, since I finished writing Barbarian Migrations in about 2005 have led me to want to produce a radically revised second edition.  I want to do a second edition because there are nonetheless large swathes that I still stand by and I want to keep as they are.  I don’t want to keep reproducing the same book under a new title.  There’s been enough of that.

As a focus for some thoughts I want to talk a little about an area that has – quite alarmingly – become a growth area of late: the use of genetics, DNA, to discuss the Barbarian Migrations.  I will focus on one particular article that made quite a splash last year (full reference at right: it's open access). It is an interesting and important piece, to be sure, with all kinds of things to think about.  The paper looks at a cemetery at Szolad in modern Hungary, Late Antique Pannonia, and another at Collegno in Northern Italy, areas linked by involvement in the Lombard Migration.  It showed that there were discrete groups within both cemeteries which showed different genetic traits, which it related to northern and southern Europe.  These groups showed some similarities with different methods of burial and in terms of their diet.

There is a Collegna as well as a Collegno in  the Metropolitan City of Turin; make sure you type the right one into Google maps...

When the paper was published, one person retweeted the link with the claim that it showed ‘Peter Heather was right. The Völkerwanderung was a thing!’  Does it?  We’ll see.  Does it indeed do anything to help us ‘understand’ ‘6th-century barbarian social organization and migration’. Here I will be definitive: no. No, it doesn’t. At all.  What it might do is describe a couple of situations where people had moved and one case where people who might have been the incomers used different burial practices, and that’s valuable, if it does that.  But if we want to understand that migration we are no further on than when we were at the start, unless (and this is important), the implicit argument is that if migration occurred it must have been ‘barbarian’ and, as we have seen, barbarian migration needs no explanation, and that material culture and social organisation must be explained by migration.  Unless, in other words, the fact of barbarian migration is the necessary and sufficient cause for late antique population and cultural change.  You can therefore understand, in the current climate, the gushing about how this had proven that the Great Migrations were ‘a thing’.

But let’s hold on right there.  Let’s have a look at the data.  Now, I am not a scientist and make no pretence at being, so I have absolutely no reason to doubt or cast any aspersions whatsoever on the lab science.  I have no option but to assume that it was all entirely rigorous and I see no reason to doubt that.  And the correlations are interesting.  But scientific rigour is about more than lab technique.  I want to say at the outset that these data and the correlations are extremely rich in potential implications but that their ability to contribute to our understanding, to use their term, of late antique society has been completely clouded by an unfortunate – I would say quite unscientific – attempt to shoehorn it into a particular narrative, a particular set of presumptions based upon specific readings of the written sources, and a failure to question with sufficient rigour its presuppositions about material culture.

Anyway, here (right) is the palaeogenomic make-up of the two samples.Now, look at those and you will see that the two sites on either side of the Alps look pretty similar.  So, the first question is this: why are we assuming that this has to be about migration and change in the 6th century? The reason for that comes when we look at the two groups (red and blue in these diagrams).  The blue group are identified as having a palaeogenomic signature that is ‘northern European’ and the red are those with a signature that is more in line with southern Europe.  How is this established?  The two groups were compared with DNA profiling from modern European populations and then from a range of historical DNA samples from across Europe.(5)

The first problem here is that the blue and red dots on this map are not easily identifiable with particular graves. I am assuming that they might be if one went back through the data published in the supplementary documents (which I haven’t had time to do) but it would have been really helpful to have had the graves identified on this diagram for ease of comparison with the kindred groupings showed earlier.  This presentation (again a result of deliberate choice) obscures things.  As you can see the blue and the red look pretty clearly distinguished.  Set against the modern DNA populations, though, it’s not entirely helpful that South-East Europe, Southern Europe and Central Europe are put in more or less the same colour; squinting away at the diagram shows that the spread within these modern populations is nevertheless pretty broad and overlaps quite a lot. (I have tried to indicate the spread through an overlay on the published diagram, above) The means of the three are fairly close together. (Also shown in an overlay, with the area shaded blue.) Note too how the modern Hungarian population (lime green on the diagram: this spread again is overlaid onto the published diagram, marked with the lime green line) differs quite a lot from the 6th-century samples.  This seems odd given that the authors wish to use the other modern populations as a meaningful background sample to identify local groups in the past.

The problems are underlined if you compare the results with the historical DNA samples. If you look at the historical DNA samples from Hungary you will notice not only that they are quite different from those of the modern population of Hungary, but that actually they cover a range that would include most of the ‘blue’ group of putative northern immigrants. (I have overlaid the published diagram, right, with an open blue ring indicating the spread of ancient Hungarian DNA samples, and a shaded red ring showing that spread if one excludes its the outliers).  The ‘red’ group of supposed locals, by contrast, is excluded.  We’ll come back to that.  Note though that there are no historical DNA comparanda from Italy.  Why do the authors think that these are, in the case of Collegno at least, locals? Well that’s partly because the red group has most affinities with the modern southern European population.  That doesn’t really amount to much given what I just said.  Their local status is actually established not by genetics at all but by the strontium content of their teeth.

[I have rewritten this bit after a closer look at the data]
In the diagram above I have re-coloured the various groups under discussion in order to make the differences between the two cemeteries clearer.  The 'blue group at Collegno has been re-coloured in a dark olive green, and the red group at Collegno in a sort of horrid puce shade.  The distribution of the four groups has then been enclosed in an open ring of the appropriate colour.  A number of things become immediately apparent.  The first and most obvious is just how discrete the two groups at Collegno are.  They are the upper-most and bottom-most groups in the diagram.  That is clearly an important result.  On the other hand, though, it does reveal how disparate in size those two sample-groups are, with only four 'local' subjects.  The third kindred at Collegno also emerges more clearly, between the other two (the purple triangles)

On the other hand, though, it shows significantly different things for Szolad, and emphasises some points made, but played down, in the article.  Both blue and red groups there (still blue and red, circles, in the redrawn diagram) are more disparate and both have internal variation that is sometimes greater than the variation between the two groups.  Here we seem to have something rather more like a spectrum than two clearly distinct groups, so one is entitled to ask why they have been presented as representing such clearly discrete groupings.  

The other thing that emerges is the subtle but interesting difference between the 'blue' group at Szolad (circles) and the 'blue' (now 'dark olive') group at Collegno (I suspect a nearest-neighbour analysis would highlight the relative lack of overlap) and, even more so, between the 'red' group at Szolad and the 'red' (now 'puce') group at Collegno.  Again, we need to ask why the data are being presented like this?  Why present the groups in the same colours, suggesting the same binary, on the two sites?  Why, for instance, is the 'red' group at Szolad not being presented as 'purple' like the 'purple' group at Collegno, who seem rather more closely related according to the diagrams above?  Why the blue/red binary?  What interpretation are we being steered towards?  Shading the two groups in the same colours, even while using different shapes, nonetheless works to obscure the differences between the groupings at the two sites.  This is important if we are supposed to see the 'blue' group at Collegno as somehow related to that at Szolad.  The data seem to permit the possibility that this group had come from somewhere quite different.
Another representation of these points.

If one were to plot the different graves according to the sort of nearest neighbour analysis suggested above and colour the samples according to some sort of gradient, how different would the diagrams of the two cemeteries' genome samples look? 

It is also important to remember that deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) doesn’t have either an ethnic identity or a prima facie geographic signature.  When the authors talk about southern or central or north-western European genomes, that is a potentially misleading shorthand for a whole series of statistical analyses, probabilities and judgements, comparing data with ancient and modern samples.  Neither sample, at either end of the chronological span, can be claimed to be unproblematic or to have a secure or necessary linkage with specific, precise regions. Whenever one reads about the regional genetic similarities of the subjects of these burials one needs to explode that phrase and imagine someone trying to match a small piece of a jigsaw against the images on two overlaid, but changing kaleidoscopes, neither of which has a hard and fast linkage with any precise geographical location.

None of that need matter, nonetheless. Let’s assume (as I must) that the analyses have the techniques to be able to do that and that the stats, in the current state of our knowledge, are significant.  The labelling of genomes by European region (and by percentages according to European region) remains problematic, nonetheless.  We can however enquire seriously about the extent to which the experiment is being structured by the answers it wants to give.  In other words, how good is the science in terms of the setting up of the experiment? Two samples have been selected from two regions known from historical sources to have been, at some point, occupied by Lombards.(6)  Where is the control?  Surely, we need a sample either from a period in which, or a place where, Lombards weren’t involved.  What if this sort of pattern is typical for cemeteries in the Po Valley, or in Pannonia/Hungary?  The historical samples from Hungary gives us reason to suspect they might be.  The lack of Italian comparanda gives us no sound basis for judgement one way or the other.  Think back to the red group.  Why is a so-called ‘South European’ group in Pannonia being assumed to represent the local population when, as we have seen, it differs from the general range of historical DNA samples in the region far more than the ‘blue group’.  Why aren’t we looking at these as the migrants?    

The analysis of the strontium content of the teeth did not seem to suggest that the blue, ‘northern’ group were necessarily more likely to be outsiders than the ‘southern’ red group.(7)  They were, however, evidently more heterogeneous in origin than the red group.  According to the ‘narrative’ the study was supposed to be ‘testing’ barbarian immigrants were heterogeneous, but on what basis would one assume that the population of late Roman Pannonia wasn’t?  In Collegno, by contrast, it seems that the ‘northern group’(8) does appear to have migrated into the area recently, unlike the red, which is interesting and very valuable.  (Note, though, that it doesn’t prove either that the red group had not also been outsiders, but more than a generation previously, or where the blue group had been more than a generation earlier.(9) Indeed, ‘[e]ven amongst the two family groups of primarily central/northern ancestry [sic] there is clear evidence of admixture with individuals with more southern ancestry’.)  The conclusions, say the authors, are ‘consistent with an origin of this group east of the Rhine and north of the Danube and we cannot reject the migration, its route, and settlement of the Longobards described in historical texts.’(p.9) Indeed they are, but the problem is that they are simultaneously at least as consistent with an almost infinite range of alternative interpretations and do nothing to render that reading more plausible than the others.  In short, we set out with a series of assumptions and the experiment did nothing to rule those out, so we are going to imply that it has confirmed them.  This is bizarre.  I had always thought that scientific method proceeded by deduction, by ruling explanations out, rather than simply picking, out of a wide range of possibilities, the one that accords with the analysts’ preconceptions on the grounds that it had not been excluded by the experiment.  There is actually very little that is ruled out by this experiment, other than the idea that late antique populations were entirely static and genetically homogenous, which I do not think anyone was proposing in the first place.

And yet, another assumption, common to many such studies, appears to be that historical populations have generally been stable.  Three quotations:
'While previous sampling from the era has been limited, we note that published fourth- to seventh-century genomes from Britain, Bavaria, Lithuania, and the Caucasus, analyzed alongside our own ancient samples, cluster close to their modern counterparts.' [Here, they leave out the fact that the Hungarian data don’t.]
'We found no evidence that such ancestry was present in northern Italy during this time (who instead resemble modern southern and Iberian Europeans), which would be consistent with inferred long term barriers to gene flow in Europe across the Alps.' [This is bizarre.  The only ancient DNA data they had from Italy (the cemetery at Collegno) included substantial evidence of such ancestry in a larger number of cases than the others.  Remember there were no historical DNA samples for comparison.  By any rigorous scientific standards, this ancestry is being rejected as Italian purely on a priori grounds.  Not for the first time, logic has a bad day in 'barbarian migrations studies']
'Modern European genetic variation is generally highly structured by geography.'
This latter puzzling.  Population movement across the Alps, while difficult and dangerous, has been constant since Ötzi the Iceman   Going over the Alps like Ötzi (bue arrow, at right) is not, in any case, how you get from Pannonia to Italy (red arrow) but, even if it were, a cursory glance at Roman history will show numerous fairly large-scale movements of people, whether barbarians or Roman armies, as well as constant traffic across the Alps – and this is crucialin both directions.  This is why a control, or other comparanda, was essential.  How likely is it that a sample of any cemetery in the Po Valley, dating to any period between the ‘Celtic’ settlement of Cisalpine Gaul and now, would contain at least some people with genetic make-up suggestive of comparatively recent origins north of the Alps?  Would, in other words, have a profile looking rather like this?  I strongly suspect that the answer is ‘pretty likely’ at the very least.

The analyses made no linkage between the incoming group in Collegno and the supposedly immigrant group at Szolad, other than the broad similarity of their genetic make-up when plotted on diagrams 2a and 2b, [and, as we've seen, their similarity is rather less striking than at first seems to be the case, suggesting different origins].  The (modern) geographical regions associated with the blue group are moreover pretty broad, so things are far less precise than they might seem.

Think of all the possibilities. If the incomers at Collegno do have, loosely, ‘central European DNA’ could they not be descended from Ostrogoths, or from any of the barbarians who made up Odoacer’s army?  For that matter, although growing up in the locality, why can the ‘red’ kindreds at Collegno not belong to either those groups?  What if they were descended from ‘Romans’ who had moved back from the transalpine provinces (cp the Life of Serverinus of Noricum)?

Many studies like this seem to offer two options: a: telling us something that we already knew and no sane person doubted (people moved into the Roman Empire from barbaricum), or b: telling us something that must be wrong because it’s impossible and no one was suggesting anyway (no one moved and populations were entirely homogeneous).  Hence, they frequently rely on setting up ‘b’ as a straw man.  In this case, so far from proving that the Great Migrations, the Völkerwanderung, were ‘a thing’, as far as late antique barbarian migrations are concerned, this article, I contend, tells us – at best – nothing we didn’t know already and, with considerable likelihood, not even that.  I wonder how much money it cost...

There are many troubling aspects of the analysis.  One is the assumption that, rather than being a constant of human history, migration has to be pinned to one particular period, ‘the migration period’, and must go in one direction only (that set by a certain reading of the narrative sources). Another, implied earlier, is the way in which migration is assumed to be a necessary and sufficient explanation for cultural change.  It is, to be sure, interesting that the analyses suggest a linkage between different kindreds and particular funerary rites and diets, and that these include the evident incomers at Collegno, but this does not explain the use of those rites.  For one thing, the association between the furnished inhumation burial rite and ‘Germanic’ ethnicity has absolutely no prima facie evidential support whatsoever in the archaeological record.  For one thing, it is clearly developed within the frontier provinces of the Roman Empire.  For another, as Irene Barbiera has proven, inhumation with weapons was a rite known in Northern Italy since before the ‘barbarian migrations’.  That cannot be stressed strongly enough.  If repeated ancient DNA studies reveal that furnished inhumation was generally employed by incoming groups from Germania Magna, then that will demonstrate that this old assumption was the luckiest guess in the history of archaeology; it won't retroactively confer logical and empirical rigour on earlier studies that made that assumption.  But it will not explain why these groups, with no prior history of using the rite before their migration suddenly decided to employ it once on Roman or formerly Roman territory.(10)

What does this sentence even mean?
Even more troubling is the analyses’ conclusion that genetic or biological kinship might underline ethnic identity.  It tries to hedge around this but that is clearly the implication.  There is absolutely no reason why all of those different kindreds could not have all shared the same ethnic identity. 

The only grounds for presuming ethnic difference, other than the notion, which the authors make a show of rejecting, that ethnicity is biological and that different genetics mean different ethnicities, is the idea that burial ritual is linked to biology/ethnicity. That assumption is no more than that and finds little support in serious archaeological analyses.  For one thing, the relative furnishing of burials has been linked to age and stage of the life-cycle in numerous studies across western Europe over the past thirty years.  At one point the authors of the piece even talk about ‘religious evolution’ at Collegno, wheeling on another presupposition about the meaning of burial rites that has been repeatedly knocked on the head since the 1970s.  If the significance of the rite is religious, how and why is it also ethnic?  If the idea, which is implicit in this piece, that ethnicity, based on ‘blood’, is sufficient to explain material cultural difference (the second quotation above talks about a 'link'; it does not talk about an explanation: this is elementary), gets any traction, we run the risk of setting back by a generation, perhaps two, the understanding of early medieval western European social history, as analysed through its burial data.  There are interesting and enormously important things to ponder about the linkage between kindred, rite and diet demonstrated in these analyses, but they aren’t the ones suggested by the authors and a link is not an explanation.

The really disturbing aspect of historical DNA studies in recent years – not necessarily this study, although, as I have just said, it is not free from the problem – is, however, an attempt to link modern regions with historically attested ethnic identities via genetics.  The implications of this don’t need to be spelled out.  Long-term, ethnic, geographical, genetic continuities are being suggested, not unproblematically, and getting huge media coverage.  We are on the verge of turning ethnic identity back into race.  We are running the risk of turning the clock back even further in our understanding of society and identity, to a return to 'blood and soil'.  I don’t entirely know whether the people working on these projects – generally scientists with a very poor understanding of late antique history and archaeology – have considered the implications of what they are doing.  Those out there writing their Amazon reviews deriding ‘sociological clap-trap’ will love this of course but, as the fact that Amazon itself has to hide some of their comments as potentially offensive shows, they are, in the current parlance, ‘gammons’ and they would.  The academic community has a duty to be better than this.  This is not, as I have been accused by the self-same Amazon reviewers of wanting to do, to cover up uncomfortable data; it is to think harder about those data and what they mean,(11) and to make sure that scientific experiments are driven by cutting-edge historical thinking and set up in rigorously scientific fashion so that they can contribute to debate and public knowledge in responsible fashion.

And note (wearily) that, by the end of the article, our supposed migrants have become invaders…

In the time that remains, I want to talk briefly about what – if it were to constitute that sort of research – my revision of the Barbarian Migrations book needs to address.  Again, this is not to deny that there were barbarian migrations or that they were an important feature of the period, but an attempt to recast the ‘Fifth-Century Crisis’ that includes the fragmentation of the western Empire and the movement of barbarian groups. It’ll be a list of things we can discuss.

The first is to develop the idea that I proposed in an article that Martial [Staub] invited me to write for German History, and which was clearly too complex for one Spanish professor, who tweeted that it was ‘the most ridiculous presentism’.  Once again, to some people, any attempt to rethink the mechanisms of migration and the nature of the frontier that moves away from the gnashing-teeth, ‘waves of savages’ view is simple ‘presentism’: political correctness gone mad.  We need seriously to rethink the relationships between the Empire and northern Barbaricum, not as two opposed worlds but (as indeed some Romans also considered it) as a core and a periphery.  The late imperial Barbaricum was soaked in Roman influences and relied heavily upon a set of well-managed relationships with the Empire for its political and social stability.  If you want to think responsibly about migration you need to think critically about dominant cores and politically, economically subordinate peripheries.  One of the most important aspects of that relationship was the frontier itself.  It is vital to think how the frontier was not simply a barrier, straining to hold back a tide of barbarians (even if the author of the De Rebus Bellicis and other Romans often conceived of it as such) but was also a managed relationship and a key mechanism for migration.  To think further about that we need to consider the movements not simply from Barbaricum into the imperial provinces but those in the opposite direction as well: above all, barbarians going home, but also traders.  We need to look at the exchange systems that ran from the Empire to the north, the movements of goods in those directions.  These are all well studied: they aren’t new areas by any means, but we need to integrate them into how we see information flows as well as population movements, into an overall understanding of how migration operated.  And we need to think of how political and cultural groupings moved up and down the great routes between the Baltic and the imperial limes.(12)

This has two important implications.  One is that, contrary to the idea that the barbarians had acquired so much wealth from the Empire that they were by c.400 richer, more powerful, and more independent, the opposite is the truth.  The collapse of those well-managed relationships around 400 caused, as such things had caused earlier, crises beyond the frontier.  As had also happened throughout imperial history, those crises created winners and losers and the losers headed for Rome: drawn as well as pushed; not simply shunted along. 

But the really surprising thing about the fifth century, as I began to explore in that article, is the fact that the eventual collapse of the frontier, so far from opening the floodgates to mass migration sweeping over the provinces, actually more or less killed off large-scale, long-distance population movement.  After the ‘Great Invasion’ of 406, and the Burgundian crossing of the Rhine a few years later, there are really no more great barbarian invasions in the west from barbaricum, until the Lombards.  What we have instead is the sort of slow, gradual drift across the frontier, over the Rhine, across the North Sea.  What sort of scale this operated on at any one time is difficult to establish but it was very clearly a quite different phenomenon from many of the types of migration that had dominated the Imperial period.  As I said in the article mentioned, the dictum I came up with in the 2007 book, that the End of the Roman Empire caused the Barbarian Migrations and not vice versa, is, as I now see it, quite wrong.  The End of the Roman Empire was effectively also the end of the barbarian migrations.  Remember, the Lombards migrated into a reconquered Italy across a re-established imperial frontier, and the Ostrogoths came from the Eastern Empire.  Bizarrely, the Franks seem to have inherited the Roman attitude to the Rhine as a frontier, but in practice the Frankish frontier seems to have been quite different.

There are a couple of points stemming from that which I think a revised Barbarian Migrations… needs to develop. The first is to expand the points I made about the human, lived scale of the period, the fact that people get old and they die, that twenty years took as long to happen in the fifth century as they do now.  These are, weirdly, points that have not impinged on a lot of the scholarship.  But we need to remember that – probably – most of the Vandal warriors who sacked Carthage in 439 had almost all been born, and had grown up, in the Roman Empire.  Only those older than 33 would have been born in Barbaricum.  How many actually had any meaningful memory of life outside the Empire?  Geiseric, the arch-Vandal of so many narratives, was almost certainly born on Roman soil.  So, probably, were all the leaders of the (Visi)Goths after Athaulf.  By 414 that group of Goths – if, that is, they were related to those who crossed the Danube in 376, though perhaps not all of them were – had been in the Empire for thirty-eight years.  Theoderid, killed in battle in 451, is unlikely to have been older than seventy-five at the time.  The warriors who followed Euric in the late 460s and 470s, as well as being born in Gaul, were probably the children of Goths born in Gaul, and grandchildren of people born either in the Balkans or en route across Italy or Spain.  The Burgundian warriors famously mocked by Sidonius, if young warriors, had probably been born in Sapaudia, likely sons of men born elsewhere in Gaul.  And who were their mothers?  Likely provincial Romans.  These men, of these generations, Burgundians, Vandals, Goths, are those referred to as ‘immigrant powers’ or ‘outside groups’ by Peter Heather on p.435 of The Fall of Rome.  What assumptions lead one to call a second-, third- or even fourth-generation provincial Roman, even one also deploying a Gothic, Burgundian or Vandal identity, an immigrant or an outsider?  Referring to such people, still, as immigrants or outsiders might well of course be simply lazy rather than ominous, a basic failure to remember the biographical details of such ‘barbarians’ (just as Heather forgets the biography of Emperor Honorius, whom he calls an 'infant' in 406, when he was actually 21).  That however is all the more reason to emphasise them, when assessing the role of soldiers and leaders who held non-Roman identities in the fragmentation of the Empire (an issue of such contemporary importance).  Identities are not entities; they are not essential or immanent.  As I argued recently, they are wagers; the section on identity is another part of Barbarian Migrations in need of a rewrite.

Growing out of that is another point that needed developing in the first edition: that the Fifth-Century Crisis is not about Barbarian Invasions but above all about factions and civil war.  Those factions are regional alliances between soldiers and their commanders, with barbarian identities – as many of the fourth-century Roman army had already deployed – and provincial Roman aristocrats.  We need to rethink the assumptions that bedevil the discussion of provincial politics: that the barbarian soldiers had the whip-hand and were the leaders, that they were seeking to create independent kingdoms, and that people knew or even thought that the western Roman Empire was dying in the fifth century.  A key change I will make to the book is abandoning the idea that in the 470s people knew the Empire had fallen.  They clearly hadn’t, and they didn’t until Justinian’s Wars in the mid-sixth century.  People very clearly, I think, knew something had gone badly wrong in the 470s and that the pars occidentalis was no longer functioning as such, but I can see no reason to think that they knew it was never going to make a come-back.  What exactly was a ‘king’ in the fifth-century west?  We need to stop thinking about this through a medieval lens and think harder about what the ‘courts’ of barbarian ‘kings’ meant in the fifth century.  As I have said before, kingdoms were for losers.  The intention of all the factions that we can identify, was to gain control of the Empire, on the fourth-century model and, for generals, barbarian and Roman, on the model of Stilicho.  Those that managed to control the imperial centre – Ricimer and Gundobad for example – did not use the title king.  Wherever we can make the comparison, military and civilian elites are in cahoots and evidently equals.

Above all, though, what the fifth-century crisis is about is Christianisation.  This is the gaping hole in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West.(13)  Survey pretty much any body of evidence from the fifth century and you will find that the narrative it tells you is not about barbarian migrations or invasions and the end of the Roman Empire but about the encroachment of Christianity into all areas of life.  What is happening, as part and parcel of the politics I just referred to, or hand-in-hand with it, is a reorganisation of the ways in which people organised the world, from one with the civilised Roman male at the centre and barbarians as one of the elements that circled around that, with the civilised Roman male as the ultimate manifestation of legitimate authority, to one where the legitimate centre was defined by religious orthodoxy, correct belief, and the outside by heresy.  The stories of the barbarian migrations and the end of Rome, and of fifth-century western Christianity have too long been studied separately so that they appear to be contemporary but somehow running on different tracks.  I think though that the two are far more intertwined than we have thought, even in Peter Brown’s recent(-ish) books.

Finally, in Brother Bobby’s words, ‘I got one more thing I’d like to talk to y’all about right now’. And it is the last aspect of the book that I want to develop – again something that is there, and to a greater degree than in other books, but which needs expansion – is a further return to the human scale of the history of the period.  Where do all of these things intersect – identities of various sorts, religion, politics, community, the ironies of political narrative – if not in gender and the family?  The very basic structures or environment into which the historical actor is ‘thrown’, if one can use a Heideggerian term without being suspected of advocating a return to Blut und Boden.  Julia Hillner kindly tweeted that I was one of only a few people who crop up in bibliographies on the End of the Roman World and The Roman Family.  Those two areas do – like Religion and secular politics, economy and society – need to be put together.  In Barbarian Migrations I concluded by saying that I was trying to put people back into their history, but I think that there was more that could be done there, and above all I do think that that has to be done if one is going to get at what the changes from a series of Roman provinces to a congeries of accidental barbarian kingdoms was really about.  We really need to put migration into a much more rounded total history of the fifth century rather than prioritising it as an explanatory focus.

It has been a long time since the story of the Fifth-Century Crisis has mattered, politically, as much as it does at the moment.  It matters that we think hard – harder – about it; it matters that we get our approaches right; we need less concentration on argument and rhetoric, on winning debates, and more on understanding and hermeneutics(14); it matters above all that we do it better.

1: My anger about all this is justly infamous but has been badly misrepresented.  I do think that some things are worth getting angry about, and the misuse of the Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman Empire to fuel xenophobia and racism, and the way some modern authors pander to this, is one such.  However, to look at the origins of this ire and animus, I invite you to compare my engagement with Peter Heather’s work in Barbarian Migrations, and its tone, with Heather’s engagement – if you can call it that – with my work, and its tone, in Empires and Barbarians.  I never expect to be agreed with; I do expect basic academic courtesy to be reciprocated.  If people see fit to treat me intellectually as a second-class citizen, the gloves will come off.  That may stem from my own biography as (unlike so many) a first-generation academic not educated at the 'right' schools and universities, but there we are.  I will be leaving the profession within the next four years (well done, guys) so I have nothing to lose by not apologising for that.

2: Check out the reviews by someone who writes as 'E.L. Wisty', a walking illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  Also a sadly typical illustration of how little regard the historical profession is held in by hobbyist 'know-alls'.

3: I wondered whether I had been hypocritical about the use of the word 'immigrant' so searched for 'immigra' through all my Word files for the book.  It is used principally in the discussions of ethnicity theory, migration theory and references to modern politics and in considering how one might  identify an immigrant archaeologically.  Beyond that it hardly appears at all: twice in total in all the narrative chapters.  I don't recall trying hard to avoid its use.

4: This is a bugbear of mine at the moment, which I want to blog about: the way in which a particular type of 'brilliant', rhetorical argumentative style, fostered in the educational establishments that furnish us with our top politicians has come to dominate British politics and broadcast journalism.  It's a style that eschews subtle or deep thought or reflection and we need to address that.  It has done the nation a great deal of harm and precious little good, especially of late.

5: Another issue that I was unable to elucidate is why grave Sz19 is listed as part of a 'blue' kindred.

6: Assuming the Lombards who moved to Pannonia and the Lombards who left were still significantly the same groups of people.  This appears not to be addressed.

7: This would tally with the considerably less discrete genome signature of the 'blue' and 'red' groups at Szolad.

8:  Again, remembering all the problems in such designations

9: Remember that the genomes do not forcefully suggest that they originated in the same part of the world as the 'blue group' at Szolad.

10: One of the problems seems to stem from the fact that although the team included a couple of historians who are (though less so than is sometimes thought) progressive in their interpretations, the archaeologists involved are much more traditional.  The absence of a specialist in more rigorous analyses of cemeteries was felt in the contradictions within the published argument.

11: The article under discussion shirks badly on hard, clear, rigorous thought.  I was enormously disappointed by it.  The word on the street was that it was a real game changer which would force us to rethink all sorts of things.  In the end it's intellectually sloppy, like so much 'historical science' coming out of the USA these days.

12:  It is a matter of urgency to think about the links between the dominant, 'core' part of the world and its dependent subsidiaries, and the responsibility of the former for what goes on in the latter.  It is by no means 'ridiculous presentism' (sorry, David Alvarez Jimenez, but you really aren't the sharpest knife in the drawer) to see that this mattered in Late Antiquity as much as in the modern world and that we need to internalise that for all our sakes.

13:  The same gap can be found in the roughly contemporary books by Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins of course, but with much less importance.  It matters far less to the arguments they make and indeed in Ward-Perkins' case, he is arguing that there has been too much concentration on religion.

14: See note 4 above.


Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Heroes and Villains Again

Journo: “Churchill:  Hero or villain?”
John McDonnell:  “Villain – Tonypandy.”

And we were off. As an attempt to find anything to do – anything at all – rather than sort out the whole Brexit mess, the issue of Churchill’s legacy surfaced yet again.  A few days later, Jacob Rees-Mogg [who else?] attempted to defend the British policy of creating concentration camps during the Boer War.

Fellow Kidderminster boy James O’Brien has called the furore part of the ‘footballification of everything’: you pick a side and on one side your hero can do no wrong; on the other he can do no right.  So we have Churchill: for one side a national hero whose actions in 1940-45 trump everything and who must be venerated or you can just leave the country and go home (as one person told Priyamvada Gopal on Twitter); for the other a mass-murdering white supremacist whose many bad deeds trump everything else he might have done.  While there are very important issues at stake here, none of the competitive historical fact-wielding seems to me to have very much to do with the study of History or why it might be valuable.  (The Boer War controversy is rather different; where the Churchill case has been about weighing up ‘facts’ that are generally not in dispute, Rees-Mogg’s defence of Boer-War concentration camps was based upon a profound ignorance of historical record.) It seems more akin to a sort of secular ‘theology’.  Who is damned and who saved?  Who should be commemorated and how?  Who goes into the secular liber vitae or Pantheon, and who is cast out?  What goes into Historical Hell and what is redeemed? It’s all very eschatological in a way.  As I have said before, the realm of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people is that of theology, not history, not because history should not be about judgement (quite the opposite) but because it seems to be a profoundly un-analytical, ahistorical way of thinking.  

In the early-ish days of this blog I wrote about the problems of judging history (here and here, especially – which might or might not be worth a read for background).  

As I have also said many times before, context explains but doesn’t excuse things. That nevertheless does not mean we get very far by ignoring context and simply imposing a trans-saecular, context-free set of moral judgements. There is, as Derrida later modified his famous dictum to say (I don’t know where), ‘no outside-context’, or, as Wittgenstein evidently used to say, when discussing such issues, ‘you can’t shit higher than your own arse’. Curiously, however, many of the people who are uninterested in acknowledging context when it comes to Churchill or the British actions in the Boer War (and – just so we’re clear – I basically agree with them) are (rightly, in my view) insistent on seeing the importance of context in the case of Shamima Begum, the British woman who was groomed by and then ran away to join, ISIS.  Equally, on the other side, those who want to whitewash (pun intended) Churchill’s record or the British concentration camps in South Africa with a simple, airy appeal to ‘context’, are desperate to judge Ms Begum without enquiring any more closely into her circumstances.  The ‘secular theology’ implicit in these positions simply creates a huge unhelpful, inconsistent mess.  Indeed, it is difficult to find any instance, where theodicy has come into play, where that hasn’t ultimately been the outcome to some extent.

If history has any value in the present, context does not, and should not, excuse but saying that something was ‘A Bad Thing’ (in 1066 And All That-speak) is insufficient without an attempt to explain and understand it.  That effort to explain and understand cannot be simply dismissed ad hominem, without further consideration, as an attempt to whitewash the past.  Put briefly, ethical judgement on one side and explanation and understanding on the other are both – or ought to be – part of the historical project; neither side makes any moral sense without the other.  But the ethical evaluation needs to be about events or deeds, not overarching judgements of people in terms of Manichean binaries.  History is about making things messy and uncomfortable for everyone.  I once likened this to the ‘Internal Affairs Guy’ on US cop dramas: there to potentially shed a bad light on heroes or a good light on villains.

Some of the ‘anti-context’ comments rely on the point that not everyone at a particular historical moment thought or behaved in a specific way.  Some people criticised the British concentration camp policy during Boer War at the time.  Many people Churchill’s day didn’t share his racist, white supremacist views – even within a British context that was generally racist by any reasonable definition.  This is of course an important point.  As you would expect me to say, it is a vital one for showing that things didn’t have to be that way (and don’t have to be this way, now, either): one of, in my view, the most important things I believe a historical education should inculcate.  The issue is what exactly one does with that point.  Unless these worthies and their opinions were in a majority or at least made up a substantial portion of those with sufficient clout to have their views heeded, I am not sure that it helps to use the existence of such people simply to damn those with less forward-thinking or humane ideals. It seems to me to be more useful celebrate the non-conformists, the critics, the people who put forward ideas that were out of line with the general racist/imperialist/repressive views of their day. These, if I understood him correctly, are those who Giorgio Agamben calls ‘true contemporaries’: those are not ‘Ceux qui coïncident trop pleinement avec l’époque, qui conviennent parfaitement avec elle sur tous les points’.(1)  The ‘true contemporary’ does not go with the flow of the period with which s/he is contemporary; s/he looks it in the face.  Celebrating these people seems to me to be a rather more useful approach than simply using them to try to redefine the ‘context’ of the period.

As I have said before, just wagging your finger at the past is a pointless exercise. Churchill, and the perpetrators, victims and critics of the British Boer War Concentration Camps are all just as dead at the end of the day as they were at the start.  It is little more than grandstanding.  If one wants to do anything at all effective with an ethical approach to history, there are two immediate things that I propose (and, again, not for the first time).  The first is to concentrate upon the events, the doings and not on the personalities or, to some extent, the institutions, the beings.  This is because, as I said earlier, judging people, overall, as Good or Bad, saviours or demons, heroes or villains, seems to me to be an unhistorical exercise.  As with institutions, like The British Empire, the risk is to end up with what has been called ‘the Balance Sheet’ approach.  One the one hand, this; on the other hand that.  To borrow from Kate Boehme, how many miles of railway tracks makes up for a massacre?  And, although it’s hardly an unimportant point to make in modern UK politics, once you have said the Empire was a Bad Thing, where do you go?  What do you do with that point?  This is part of a much bigger issue that I want to blog about soon, that of History’s over-concentration on argument (rhetoric), as opposed to interpretation and understanding (hermeneutics).  Make an argument for or against X, as opposed to Y.  The Balance Sheet lends itself more easily to essay questions.

The ethical evaluation of deeds/events rather than people has the important further advantage of studying things that can be and are repeated, rather than (like their perpetrators) being dead and gone: ‘every time, unique, the end of the world’.  This allows us to circumvent the curious issue of the ‘historical statute of limitations’ which has bothered me before: the bizarre idea that if someone discussed a fourth- or eighth-century atrocity in the way that critics of the Boer War Concentration Camps do, they would be condemned for their overly emotional and judgemental approach; historians there are expected to take a more Rees-Mogg-like attitude (though they are also expected to get their facts right).   This leads to the second of my proposals.  If you want to discuss history in an ethical fashion you need too turn the telescope round.  Not ‘what do we have to say to the people who made the Boer War camps?’, but ‘what would the people who built, suffered and died in, and criticised the camps say to us?’ Critique the camps, sure, but ask about the position from which we criticise? What have we learnt?  Are we emulating the critiques of imperial policy, or the Imperial officials? What if anything do those who (rightly) damn the British in the Boer War have to say about Gaza?  About Guantanamo? About current western policies in the Middle East, Africa, South America?  You can’t condemn the atrocities of the past and stay silent about the present.  The former is safe, empty posturing without the latter.  If you are going to make excuses for Netenyahu, Bush, Blair, Trump… shut the fuck up about Kitchener and his defenders.

That then leaves the thorny issue of why these debates repeat and repeat and why they get so heated: commemoration and national history.  That’s for next time.

1: Giorgio Agamben, Che cos’è il contemporaneo? (Rome, 2008) / (trans. M. Rovere) Qu’est-ce que le contemporain? (Paris, 2008).

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Decentring Western European History … in the History of Western Europe

As many of you will know, I am (endlessly it seems) working on a book about Western Europe around 600 AD.  I work on Western Europe partly because it is what, over the years, I have become most (if far from exclusively) interested in, and partly because it is the limit of my scholarly competence.  I have little time for people who study regions or periods of history where they can’t read the sources in the original language (why yes, ‘Latin East’ Crusades studies, I am looking at you, but not exclusively).  I can get by in reading all of the western European Romance or Germanic languages, to some degree, ranging from fluent (French) to ‘basically getting the gist if it’s not too complex’ (Norwegian; Portuguese).  But my Greek is pretty basic; I have a very (very) little Turkish but not enough to call a reading knowledge (and none at all prior to Ataturk’s reforms of script and grammar); and I can’t read any Slavic languages, let alone Arabic or Parsi, or Sanskrit, or Chinese…  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the main reason why I restrict myself to the West.  The other reason is simply to put some sort of geographical limit on the projects.

Partly, though far from entirely, as a means of making a virtue of this necessity, I have developed an interest in the North-South axes of communications and connections in the West, from Scandinavia to the western Mediterranean, rather than in the East-West axis that has generally dominated the historiography.  I think that has allowed a slightly different perspective on the ‘Late Antique Paradigm’ and a slightly different way of seeing the last century or so of the Western Roman Empire.  Clearly, it’s impossible to study that period without keeping the Eastern Empire in the picture but I maintain that the disintegration of the Western Empire was chiefly attributable to entirely western imperial factors.

One of the many things that is interesting about the period between c.550 and c.650 is that in this period links with the East, the old East-West Mediterranean axis, let alone more far-flung connections, began to reduce further, and dramatically.  Now, this is not news, and not just because it’s stuff that happened 1400 years ago.  If Pirenne was right about anything, it was about the ways in which the North-West, the North Sea World, had become more important in Western Europe, than the Mediterranean world by Charemagne’s day.  That’s not to say that the Mediterranean was without any importance at all; recent studies have shown that East-West contacts were much more important than Pirenne, for instance, had thought.  But the picture, grosso modo, pertains.  In Pirenne’s narrative, the closing of the Mediterrranean by the Arabs, as he thought, led to western Europe turning inwards and creating new economic systems around the North Sea.  ‘Without Mohammed, Charlemagne is inconceivable’, in Pirenne’s famous dictum. Pirenne was wrong about almost all of the specifics of his model.  The North-Western European, North-Sea world was effectively separated from the Mediterranean at least by the fourth century, for example.(1)  Whether the Arabs are to blame for the end of the Mediterranean’s domination of the western economy is debatable; the shift comes a generation or more too early in my view but Simon Loseby, whose understanding of the Mediterranean economy is far superior to mine, thinks otherwise (or at least used to).  Nonetheless, that the shape of western European networks, c.650, differed very importantly from those of c.550 seems incontrovertible to me as does the comparative applicability of the phrase ‘inward-looking’ to those networks.

In even grander narratives, of European exceptionalism, of the Rise of the West and so on, that phase becomes yet more important.  Allegedly, it is this ‘inward-looking’ period that saw the creation of the features, and the dynamics, that enabled Europe to expand outwards, ultimately to dominate the world in the period after c.1800.  There’s a danger, perhaps, of this study of western Europe in the generations either side of 600, becoming incorporated in one of those tiresome narratives about Why the West is the Best, worse still in one of those narratives of modernity.  Rather like Simon Critchley, I don’t really believe in modernity, other than as a narrative construct, and I reject ‘modernity fundamentalism’.(2) The concept of the modern world is a rather Eurocentric one.

It has become fashionable recently to discuss Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in more global terms.  In some ways this is excellent; in other ways it’s a huge conceptual muddle.  Of course, the rest of the world had a history before European colonization and there were links that connected Europe with most of that world.  Traditional Late Antique Medieval History can be criticized for its Eurocentricity (or Mediterranean-basin-ocentricity) but I am not sure that foisting European periodization on the rest of the world is any less Eurocentric; perhaps it is more so.  I recently received a ‘reply-all’ email criticizing a proposed history general course for being divided into Medieval, Early Modern and Modern on the grounds that that periodization made no sense outside Europe.  That of course begs the question of whether it makes any sense within Europe.  It is a bit disheartening to see a history professor mistake traditional, contingent chronological divisions, which have been endlessly called into question and have never really been based upon more than convenience, for reflections of concrete, regional historical actuality.  But we are were we are, and the proposed response, to divide world history into two equal periods, before and after 1800, is (among many other absurdities) even more Eurocentric.

As signs, labels have their signifieds.  To talk of the global Middle Ages or the global Late Antiquity, implicitly confers on extra-European, or extra-Mediterranean, regions not simply a name but a place in a teleological narrative or a historiographical problematic.  Periods referred to as a ‘middle’ age in various parts of South or East Asia, for example, are so called for quite different reasons than those which led European humanists to designate the period between them and the Roman Empire as the age that lay ‘in the middle’ between them, and consequently those different Middle Ages do not map directly onto each other.  Does the history of South Asia benefit from being labelled according to a periodization devised to address the issues of continuity on either side of the political events of fifth-century Western Europe and the Mediterranean?  I am not sure it does.

That is not, by any means, to argue against the interest or importance of looking at the links that existed between western Europe, say, and China or South Asia, via the Steppe, or the sea routes around the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.  There has been much recent work done that sees Roman history as a part of a Eurasian history that connects it with the other great Empires of the period.(3)  I am thinking about a radically revised, second edition of Barbarian Migrations and these developments definitely need to be taken into account there.  Just the other day, via a quite different process, I found myself wondering whether the collapse of the Gupta state in India had some role in kicking off the changes in East-West connections that can be seen in the period I am studying.

But connections need closer critical consideration.  There are two dangers, as I see it.  One is that the Eurasian perspective on Late Antiquity runs the risk of reintroducing the idea of the Huns as the Deus Ex Machina that ruins the Roman Empire (though of course there are some areas where that idea has never gone away).  It either kicks the explanatory can back off across the steppes, leaving us not to have to worry about conflicts, tensions and political dynamics within the Roman Empire itself, or it leads us on a goose-chase, wild or otherwise, to seek some sort of ultimate point of causation, the place where change started, where no further external factor can be adduced: an Ursache indeed.(4). 

This raises the next problem, which is that connections, like narratives, have to be deconstructed.  When we join the dots are we creating a picture that had no contemporary historical reality?  Just as the arrows on ‘migration maps’ have been correctly critiqued for joining up into what looks like a coherent process series of separate phenomena, distinct, contingent movements motivated by quite other intentions than to arrive at the next ‘stage’ on the map or the final ‘goal’, carried out by fundamentally different groups of people.  Do links that join up trading connections or cultural contacts commit the same fundamental error?  Do the people who stood at the beginning and end points of these arrows even have an awareness of each other?  What does this connectivity mean? How does it compare with other social relations, if at all?  How is each link in the chain seen, enacted and employed by the people involved?  What are the (quite possibly very different) effects of connectivity, on the various societies connected by these chains?  These questions are not at all posed to reject placing fourth- to seventh-century Europe and the Mediterranean in a wider world of connections and contacts.  They are meant to invite a more critical reflection, even if also to challenge the notion that joining the dots is a blessing in itself.

But what if, as I think is the case, the dots leading to or from Western Europe between c.550 and c.650 don’t actually go very far?  Is there a less Eurocentric way of thinking about European history of a period when Europe (if we can even talk about Europe – let’s call it Europe ‘sous rature’) had little to do with anywhere else?  Is it possible to recast the period in terms other than those of European exceptionalism: the time ‘when Europe discovered itself’ and when the foundations of modern Capitalism were laid?  Maybe there isn’t and it isn’t.  One idea that occurred to me comes out of the placing of Europe sous rature, just now.  I once referred to the area I work on as ‘far western Eurasia’.  I did so partly in jest but perhaps it is worth taking that nomenclature seriously.  It has the benefit of decentring the perspective that led westerners until recently to talk of the ‘near’ and the ‘far’ East.  It has the advantage, too, of pointing out, that in global terms, especially if you eschew the Mercator Projection, the area I work on lies at the extremity, at the edge, whether of the great Eurasian landmass, or northwards, across the sea, from the equally great landmass of Africa.  It is interesting to think not only of Britain, but of all of Eurasia west of the Upper Elbe and the Adriatic, as peripheral.  But that, it seems to me, if very much the case in the period I am currently looking at.    In many ways it won’t make much difference to the story I have to tell and the factors I want to adduce, but words matter and ‘The Isolation of Far Western Eurasia’ has a rather importantly different signified from ‘The Origins of Europe’.

[1] Indeed the preceding period, between say the Late Roman Republic and the ‘Third-Century Crisis’ when this may not have been the case, is rather more exceptional.

[3] See Nicola Di Cosmo and Michael Maas (ed.), Empires and Exchanges in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran, and the Steppe, Ca. 250-750 (Cambridge, 2018).  Some of this thinking makes its way into Michael Kulikowski’s excellent Imperial Triumph. The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine (London, 2016), which I heartily recommend.

[4] The German word die Ursache (‘cause’,‘root cause’, ‘reason’)  contains the stem ‘Ur’’, which usually denotes something primordial or original, and die Sache – ‘thing’, ‘matter’: the ultimate, primary thing. A root cause indeed.