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Here, in order from oldest to most recent are the not-exactly-numerous posts that have appeared on the other site in the past two and a half...

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Year 600 Project Book Title

After a mere eleven years of working, on and off, on my 'Transformations of the Year 600' project, I have finally come up with a title for the book that might eventually appear based upon this work. I was always a bit uneasy about using 'The Transformations of the Year 600' as the main title, partly because it is a little unwieldy and partly because it was always a play on the late Guy Bois' Transformations of the Year 1000. That said, I also wanted to keep 'The End of the Roman World' as the title for part 2 of the book. The other day, though, I had a bit of a revelation, so the title I have come up with is (drum roll please) The End of Western Antiquity: The Transformations of the Year 600.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Trace, space, place: The materiality of identity in Merovingian Gaul

[This is the text of the paper I presented at this year's IMC, Leeds.  Thanks to Catherine-Rose Hailstone for organising, to Catherine-Rose and Edward James for their papers and to Simon Loseby for effortlessly stylish chairing.  It is an effort to counter claims about material agency, object biographies and so on, by reference to the Derridian concept of iterability and the ever-present possibility of misrecognition or miscommunication, which returns all the crucial aspects of agency to the human agent and to the issues of the so-called linguistic turn.  From there it looks at how costume was used in the citation of identity but subject to the same issues, and thus a crucial locus of social change.]

1. A First blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of the Material Turn

Figure 1
I’m not a fashionable historian – stylish maybe; never fashionable – so it will come as no surprise that I am a little skeptical of the new materialisms.  All of these of course have important things to offer but I wonder to what extent they are being employed critically. As approaches drawn upon in post-humanism I find them, potentially at least, politically problematic and I wonder whether they represent the radical way forward from the so-called linguistic turn (figure 1, left) that some claim.

In Kristina Sessa’s recent tour-de-force critique of environmental historical approaches to, and explanations for, late antique history, Sessa writes that new materialist approaches are a way beyond seeing everything in terms of social construction and rhetoric which she appears to equate with the linguistic turn.  We read about the agency of non-human actors – animals, objects, the environment. Sadly, ending a very fine composition on a little bit of a bum note, Sessa writes of the possibility of knowing ‘what the physical world actually looked like’, which sounds uncomfortably like a translation of ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’.

Figure 2
With some help from a learned colleague (figure 2, right), I have several questions to hang over the theme of this year’s congress, gradually rippling outwards in their implications.  The first is whether a critically-undigested Material Turn is simply a convenient ‘line of flight’ for historians unsettled by the epistemological challenges of the Linguistic Turn.  The second is whether the so-called Linguistic Turn ever really made itself felt in Late Antique/Early Medieval history beyond a few exemplary but isolated studies.  Rippling outwards again, if history is to remain a human science (in the sense of Wissenschaft) is it actually possible to go beyond the Linguistic Turn?

2. Derrida 101
Let’s go right back to basics, with apologies to those for whom this is elementary.  Here’s a passage from Simon Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge (figure 3).
Figure 3
If there’s nothing outside the text, how can you be hit by a bus? Ho ho. If you’ve actually read Derrida you will know that he never actually said there was nothing outside the text and you’ll know that, by ‘text’, he meant much more than writing on a piece of paper, or similar surface; and ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ doesn’t mean ‘there is nothing outside the text’ anyway!  And Blackburn and his ilk like to set themselves up as the policemen of analytical rigour… By ‘text’ Derrida meant something that went to the very bases of recognition and communication.

The keystone of Derridian philosophy is his notion of iterability.  Once something conveys information to something or someone else, that sign becomes capable of reproduction in infinite contexts, whether or not the original transmitter or receiver of the signified information are present.  This applies to any signifying unit (grapheme in Derrida’s term), in any sensory context: visual, aural, whatever. It applies whether the information conveyed is of the most general kind; whether it applies to categories or their members (figure 4); 
Figure 4

Figure 5
whether it applies to the seemingly unique (figure 5), or even names (figure 6). The signified, furthermore, is always defined and refined by the grapheme’s relationship to all the signifiers in the system, a system of spacing, physical and temporal. The network of interrelationships, similarity and difference, of spacing, Derrida called the trace. So, one can never get back to a self-present original – and meaning depends on an endless series of juxtapositions and contrasts.  This is différance.  Clear in written form, key characteristics of text are shared by all forms of communication.  If the bus in Blackburn’s facile discussion wasn’t textual – in Derrida’s sense – you wouldn’t know to get out of its way.
Figure 6

Figure 7
This blurs the distinction between the human and the animal, and even the natural, world, as Derrida’s late work emphasized.  The iterability always already present in a sign means that there can never really be an original context and that graphemes can be deployed in situations where their content is played with.  Things disguise themselves as or mimic other things on the basis of that very principle (figure 7, right).  There is always potential for slippage and miscommunication: deliberate or accidental.  The bus might bearing down upon you might only be a papier-maché model… (In the UK we are quite used to the concept of bus-related miscommunication: figure 8, below) 
Figure 8

The ever-present possibility of miscommunication (and of wager and irony that go with it) is central to my critique, and indeed to my conception of history.

Figure 9
In Lacanian philosophy the order of the Real is that which eludes signification – inclusion in his orders of the Symbolic and Imaginary: it’s the unassimilated material. This includes the pre-symbolised and (I would add) mis-symbolised.  Yet we can only understand the inevitably traumatic - if not fatal - encounter with the Real retrospectively – teleologically – by its incorporation/reincorporation into the orders of language.  To illustrate this, no one encounters the Real as often, or as traumatically, as Wile E. Coyote (figure 9, right).  But the joke – even if you don’t find Loony Toons very funny – depends entirely upon textual signification and irony.

3. Actors, agents and actants
So, to return to the material world (by which I mean principally the insentient, or the artifact), can an object have agency?  Can it occupy a subject position?  Can it recognise itself? Most importantly, can an object misrecognise itself? – that question, it seems to me, remains valid even in the age of AI.  It’s difficult to respond to those questions in the positive, so it helps to think instead of Latour’s notion of the actant: the element of the network that acts upon a human actor or agent.  Again, I am skeptical and the notion of miscommunication and misrecognition is the key.

If you throw a ball at a wall and the ball bounces back unexpectedly and hits you in the face can you say the wall acted upon you? Perhaps. Has the cliff face acted upon Dr Coyote? Do material objects prompt human action? Did the bowl allegedly from the sack of Rome really exert a political force on the Goths who objected to its being handed over to the Franks?  Does an object’s biography add to its estimation in the eyes of people, like, perhaps, the great silver bowl made by Chilperic I?  Did the treasure being sent by Fredegund to Spain with Rigunth really provoke anxiety on the part of ‘the Franks?  Did the finger bone of Saint Sergius really excite Mummolus and the pretender Gundovald to have an undignified scrap with a Syrian merchant on the floor of his house?  Did climatic change and plague produce human responses in the later sixth century?  Bracketing for now whether or not one would agree in the last case, you can, with Latour, answer all of those questions in the positive, and that is important. 

However, a crucial modification is necessary. Every instance relies upon recognition. Although the cliff face clearly acts upon Wile, it possesses no agency. The only agent is Wile E Coyote, who misread it as a tunnel. Does it matter whether the Visigothic bowl really had been captured at the Sack of Rome? Does the reality of an object’s biography have any bearing? Was the bit of bone in a house in Bordeaux really the finger bone of the martyr Sergius? Was it even human? That didn’t matter; Mummolus and Gundovald thought it was.  What matters is nothing intrinsic to the object itself, but to its perception.  When the leudes of the Rhineland Franks betrayed their king for Clovis they did so for an enormous treasure of gold coins.  But those coins turned out to be bronze.  The perception of the value of Fredegund’s treasure mattered; who knows whether it was more - or less - valuable than the Franks thought, or whether it had, as Fredegund claimed, really come entirely from her own revenues?  If one accepts that various later sixth-century beliefs and behaviours were responses to climatic and environmental events, was the climate or environment the agent?  Or was it people’s misreading of those events as the sign of the End of the World?

There is no guarantee against misrecognition; that possibility inheres in – is the guarantor of – all communication; all noesis.  A human subject experiences – intends – an object not simply in its material givenness, but textually: as that subject reads or misreads that givenness. 

4. The Materialisation of Identity in 6th-Century Gaul 
Now comes the twist. The philosophy I have been discussing – the sort of thing widely believed to be central to the Linguistic Turn – is in fact, materialist.  That’s another reason why, in crucial regards, the so-called Material Turn can’t be set up in opposition to, or as an advance on, the Linguistic Turn.
The materialization of identity can be explored on the basis of the points I have made so far.  Identity is one of those words that is ubiquitous in early medieval studies, in the titles of books, chapters, articles, papers and conferences.  Yet I know of almost nothing serious written about identity as a concept.

Identities are categories: means of organising the world. As such, they are constructed as signs, or groups of signs, and function in the Imaginary as well as Symbolic registers. That is, the signified is the ideal member of the category (young woman, male elder, monk, king etc.), created by social and ritual mores, etc. Identities are constituted in citation and in performativity.

Identity is itself a motion towards an ideal. That ideal can never be attained, because it never had a pure, originary existence. It’s a motion of desire: what do I want to be, but also, crucially, what do they want me to be? What do I think they want me to be?  

In any interaction there are at least two sets of signifieds in play: both parties’ ideals of what their status and identity and that of the other person mean.  These might, of course, not coincide.  The performative citation of identity is always, to some extent, a risk, a wager.  That’s one of the most important things I want to stress.

Those ideals are always themselves changing in the course of social practice. They can never be entirely recreated so it’s critically mistaken to talk of the maintenance of an identity by a group, whether the bearers of the Traditionskern or an equally mythical group of Gothic Königsfreie; no such thing had ever existed that was capable of maintenance in the first place.  It was always already in a state of renegotiation and reinvention.

How does one convey a subject position?  Another thing that interests me about the sixth century is the break-down, redefinition and relocation of the architectural delineations of space which acted as a brake on the social change inherent in social interaction. (I have discussed this elsewhere.) In the absence of those classical spatial delineations, the cues about identity and appropriate behavior were given through a relatively greater investment in costume. 

Merovingian cemetery-analysis has repeatedly shown that costume, was capable of transmitting quite detailed information about the social categories to which the deceased belonged. Sufficient evidence supports the hypothesis that funerary costume at least bore a reasonable relationship to formal dress.  One might suggest that the very degree to which Merovingian people lived their lives in the gaze of the community suggests that even ‘everyday’ costume may have borne some sort of relationship to the formal and stylised construction of social categories in death.

Clearly, the elements of costume – broadly defined – transmit information textually, individually and in combination.  A trace, in Derrida’s term, governs the spacing and interrelationship on which their signification depends. Elements of costume can also be disassembled and reassembled, providing new contexts.  I’m not suggesting that any of this is unusual or specific to sixth-century Gaul, but I do think it had a particular valence in earlier Merovingian social formation. 

Figure 10
Identity’s materialisation isn’t simply about its signification via objects.  Merovingian people were – like Clovis – well aware that you could disguise one object as another to produce a desired effect, via alloys, by silvering or gilding bronze, or even in objects like Balthild’s chemise (figure 10, right).  It is also about the very fact that performative or citational identity is itself the materialisation of identity.  And it is about the material effects that that had.

Figure 11
Merovingian law, which penalises the touching of women’s bodies, shows some of the ways in which costume created social space.  These parts of the body are generally those highlighted by Merovingian jewellery (figure 11, left). The system of wergilds also set out levels of legal protection for particular categories: women of child-bearing age; young boys; Franks; royal officers, and so on.  All these seem to have been visible in costume. 

Costume could work reciprocally with specific occasions to furnish a script for the bodily comportment expected.

If, with Giddens and Bourdieu, you see social structure constraining but simultaneously constituted by practice, a constantly rewritten archive of the right (and wrong) means of relating to people of particular social categories, then there is another aspect of the materialization of identity that can be mentioned.

The perceived objects making up costume, transmitting information, are in effect the repositories of those archives.

As we’ve seen, iteration implies the ever-present chance of misunderstanding or miscommunication.  This is a key support of Butler’s work on performative gender and drag.  An example close to Butler’s might be found in the Poitevin who appears in Gregory of Tours’ account of the tribunal that ended the Nuns’ Revolt.  In Gregory’s report, this was a man who dressed as a woman, he said, because he was ‘incapable of manly work’.  This is a difficult text from which to read that person’s identity.  The difficulty is only magnified by another iteration of feminine costume.  Several late antique texts notionally about paganism condemn the practice of dressing up as an old woman on the Kalends of January.  This alone gives us a range of different possible ways of reading feminine costume: different signifieds.

My final point concerns how one might escape situations where a miscue, misfire or miscommunication had occurred.  Even if elaborate costumes or layers of social skin aim to convey one identity, they can be peeled back to reveal others.  Laying aside the weaponry that conveyed Frankishness or an age-grade, for instance, could strip that persona back to a shared general masculine identity; buckling such items back on could remake distance. The multiplicity of identities assembled in the subject makes this possible. 

5. Conclusion

I have had several aims in this paper. I have at one level wanted to suggest that costume, by communicating textually key information about identity, creates both social space but a sense of one’s place within it and that this mattered in particular in a sixth-century Gallic context.  I have tried to suggest that it functioned as the archive for social knowledge and thus imply that it was crucially implicated in processes of change.  I have attempted to stress the fluidity of such communication, of the extent of uncertainty and wager involved, not least because of the constitutive possibility of miscommunication, and how reference to the same battery of material signifiers could provide lines of flight from such situations.  More than that though I have wanted to argue that you can have material effects without a concept of the agency of objects and, above all, that seeing a supposed material turn as an opposition to, or an advance on a hermeneutics based upon the concept of textual or linguistic communication is crucially mistaken.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Non-Migrating Barbarians: Late Antiquity in Northern Barbaricum

[This is the paper I gave on Tues 22 October to the inaugural meeting of the Seminar für Alte Geschichte at the University of Tübingen, where I am delighted to be spending most of this academic year as a visiting fellow, hosted by the Migration and Mobility project there.  For the second time in three months or so I thank Prof Mischa Meier for a lovely introduction (and congratulate him on the appearance of his monumental volume on the Völkerwanderung).  The second part of the paper is largely drawn from the text of my paper for the Cambridge Archaeology of Late Antiquity but with some key modifications.  I also modify my ideas about the relationship between migration and the end of the Rhine frontier.  Indeed, as I was writing this, I began to see why I am not as successful as certain other historians of this period.  With some famous historians of the migrations you can read a work of theirs from the '90s and be 95% sure they still agree with their arguments there; with me you can't even be sure that I still agree with something I said - and categorically at that - three months ago...

Be that as it may, the paper opens with a discussion of some of the issues with the 'Late Antique Paradigm' and why it might be worth exploring it from the perspective of  lands beyond the Roman imperial frontier, makes some points about the evidence and its structuring and then discusses in turn, the relationships between Empire and Barbaricum, changes in the fifth century, and change around 600 to conclude that the period has a unifying feature in the importance of the Roman Empire and that the big changes at the end of the period covered are linked to an end of Rome, all of which might pose some interesting and ironic problems for the Late Antique Paradigm.]


The first thing I want to say – I seem to have to keep saying this – is that the first part of my title should not be read as a statement or claim that there were no Barbarian Migrations: no migrating barbarians.  It is a simple statement of what the paper is about, which is to say, those barbarians who didn’t migrate or at least about those who, if they did migrate, came home again: surely – in anyone’s estimation – the overwhelming majority of ‘Barbarians’.  It is concerned with the territories north and west of the western Roman Empire between the later third and the earlier seventh century, which you might see as the heart of late antiquity, a ‘core late antiquity’, or even a short late antiquity. 

The question before us – and has been posed by me and others before – is whether there is a northern or north-western European late antiquity.  Does the ‘late antique paradigm’ apply to the regions beyond the Rhine-Danube limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Irish Sea?  If it seems uncontroversial to speak of late antique Persia or late antique Arabia – areas beyond the Roman frontiers of course – why does it sound strange to speak of late antique Denmark or late antique Pictland – especially in an intellectual climate where we are encouraged to think of a ‘global late antiquity?  I don’t think that ‘global late antiquity’ (or for that matter the global middle ages) is an especially helpful term, but that is a separate issue from realising that the Mediterranean was not the centre of the world, that it was connected directly or indirectly to most other regions of the globe and their own centres, or that in some ways the various Eurasian imperial ‘centres’ – the Mediterranean, China and India – were all peripheral to each other and especially to the Eurasian steppe.

Of course, what makes late antiquity tricky as a descriptor in all these cases is that it is not merely a chronological term, but a paradigm or problematic.  To speak of the chronological period of the third-to-seventh centuries of the Christian Era across, say, the north-west of Europe – the far western Eurasian capes and islands as I sometimes like to call them, to try to decentre Europe – is possibly fine (I hope so as I want to write a book on that topic).  But that is subtly different from talking about ‘late antiquity’ in those regions. No one needs reminding of the origins of the concept of late antiquity, as a means of side-stepping the old idea that in the fifth century, with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the ancient world ended and the medieval world began (whatever that may have meant): a caesura in the whole of European and Mediterranean history.  Naturally, very famous scholars had been questioning the nature and reality of that caesura since the late nineteenth century, but the idea of a new periodisation stressing continuity seems to have been new, from the 1950s onwards, until – famously, classically – popularised in the general consciousness by Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity.

Equally, however, the notion has not gone uncritiqued.  The paradigm works best in geographical regions closest to the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean, and thematically in areas like those in which Brown was most interested: religion and society; thought.  There might be something to the unity of the ‘short’ late antiquity I am discussing in the economic sphere as well, even if not in the way that Pirenne imagined – albeit before the notion of Late Antiquity had emerged.  However, the concentration of Late Antique scholarship on the East, and on themes like Christianity, the church, ideas, society and the holy, meant that the problem it had initially seemed to confront, that is to say the supposed ruptures of the fifth century, were in practice rather sidestepped.  To what extent had people ever generally supposed a huge rift in eastern Mediterranean society, religion, art and thought as a result of the fifth-century Barbarian Invasions or Migrations and the collapse of the Western Empire? (That’s not a merely rhetorical genuine question, by the way.) 

As I see it, the politics of the fifth-century west have remained something of a blind spot for the Late Antique paradigm.  How to explain the fact that the western Roman Empire existed in 400 but had at least ceased to be effective by 500 and was generally recognised by contemporaries to have disappeared by the middle quarters of the sixth century?  The solution appears to have accepted the paradigm of ‘barbarian invasion’ but to deny that this made much difference – in a way similar to Pirenne’s or Fustel’s interpretation (you might call this the ‘Weak Thesis’ of the Barbarian Migrations).  Or generally just to gloss over the problem.  That solution does not appear to be effective.

Consequently, since about 1990, there has been a steady come-back for – if you like – the ‘Strong Thesis’ of the Barbarian Migrations: the idea that the Barbarian Migrations brought down – conquered – the Roman Empire in the West and that this was a dramatic change – catastrophic even – an End of Civilisation.  Contemporaneously, other historians took continuity to extreme lengths: that nothing significant really happened at all in the fifth century.  In 1999 I had labelled the historians who supported the ‘Strong Barbarian Invasion Thesis’ and the ‘Late Antique Continuity’ paradigms, ‘movers’ and ‘shakers’ respectively: admittedly this was not meant as any more than a potentially amusing stylistic device (amusing to me if no one else).  That was before the ‘Ultra-Continuity’ and ‘End of Civilisation’ variants had even come to full fruition.  As a result, much of the debate appears to have been couched in terms of binary oppositions, first between seeing the 5th century as a period when nothing very much happened at all, or viewing it as one when everything went to dramatically to pieces because of the barbarians.  The second, related, crude binary presented is between seeing the Barbarian migrations as having destroyed the Empire and not really believing that barbarian migrations happened, or were important. The first options are very clearly equated with the ‘Late Antique’ paradigm by Bryan Ward-Perkins in his 2005 volume The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation.  Indeed, he also equated it with the paradigm of the 'Transformation of the Roman World' project of the 1990s.  Now, even leaving aside the straw-men set up by Ward-Perkins and his rather childish mockery of the terminology of certain scholarship about Late Antiquity, the fact remained that – as Walter Pohl pointed out in his review of the book  – a pretty crude caricature.  There were and are, as Pohl said, quite a lot of historians who see the fifth century as anything but cosy, peaceful and harmonious, even if they don’t subscribe to the Barbarian Migrations Thesis, at least in its strong form.  And there are those who see barbarian migrations as having happened and been significant, but not responsible for the fragmentation of the West.

I have never been convinced by continuity arguments, which very often boil down either to the continued existence of institutions with the same name, or of very general social, political or economic features.  The idea that people continued to be wealthy but used the wealth in different ways, or continued to spend money on public buildings, just of radically different sorts, or continued to be more powerful than other people and to dominate the local population but in different ways; palace officials or particular taxes continue to be visible in the sources, although probably articulated in quite different ways, or in entirely altered contexts. These arguments seem weak to me.  Many of the titles of members of Queen Elizabeth II’s court go back to the late Middle Ages at least.  The main impost on modern British citizens, Income Tax, was introduced in the 1790s to pay for the war against Revolutionary France (the interest on which, I once read somewhere, the British government still hasn’t paid off).  How much continuity is implied with the late eighteenth, let alone the fifteenth centuries, does that imply? 

We must be much more rigorous in our arguments for continuity, and not simply try to downplay change which might have been very important in the lived experiences, in the human scale, of the past.  If we do, I think we find that constant change rather than continuity was the norm. Nonetheless, there were (and are) periods of more dramatic change, and the fifth century in the western half of the Empire (at least) was certainly one.  It is difficult to see how it could not have been when it saw the dissolution of a centuries old Empire.  That must call for some sort of rethinking of the Late Antique problematic discussed earlier.

As I have argued for some time now, we should not be seeing the Empire and Barbaricum as two opposed worlds in constant tension, opposition and confrontation but rather as the core and periphery of a single world – even if, as I said earlier, hardly the only or necessarily most important one – in other words, even if that core was not the core, and lay itself only in the most peripheral vision of other cores, with their own surrounding worlds. 

Consequently, when thinking about the Late Antique Paradigm, it is vital to consider the regions to the north and west of the Pars Occidentalis.  If life went on there on either an unbroken trajectory or its own rhythms independently of events in the Empire one might be able somehow to further relativise the dramas of fifth-century imperial politics, although – given my point about the interconnectedness of the Roman and Barbarian worlds -  that might be rather surprising.  It might, however, in some ways support a ‘Strong’ Barbarian Migrations Hypothesis: the Imperial frontier could no longer hold back the surge of the barbarians; some got in and conquered the Roman Empire but the rest stayed at home and just got on with things like they always had.

What if, on the other hand, the demise of the Western Empire had crucial effects on the territories to the north and west of the Empire and caused dramatic changes there?  In view of the argument about Barbaricum being the periphery of an intimately connected (small) world system, that would be less surprising.  It would not in itself rule out either a Strong or Weak Barbarian Migrations hypothesis but it would probably shed more light on the nature of the migrations that took place in that century.  In that regard, therefore, it is quite strange that in the vast majority of works on the Barbarian Migrations the lands beyond the limes, if they feature much at all, drop out of the story after the barbarians have moved, as though the large-scale but short-term movements involved had no sort of effect on the territories they left behind.  This also prevents an investigation of what effect the demise of the Western Empire, which had been a dominant presence for the inhabitants of Barbaricum for centuries, had upon the lands beyond the former frontier. 

A discussion of the socio-politico-economic developments in Ireland, Britain north of Hadrian’s wall, Scandinavia and Germany and the Netherlands east of the Rhine and north of the Danube over the long term surely has the potential to tell us much about how those lands related to the provinces, or former-provinces of the Western Empire.  That is the main project I am working on this year, research for a volume provisionally called Imperial Periphery: Northern Barbaricum in Late Antiquity

Evidence and problems

A topic like this must be based, overwhelmingly, on archaeological material. This project, in any detail or comparative sense, would not have been as feasible all that long ago.  Although the archaeology of Germania Magna has long been rich, the archaeology of this period north of Hadrian’s wall has undergone a surge of interest over the past few decades. Across all of the areas under review, our knowledge and analyses of the archaeological data have advanced considerably: another reason why an overview might be valuable.  For the non-archaeologists here, the types of evidence available can be grouped under a few key headings: settlement sites; cemeteries; ritual deposits; stray finds; palaeo-environmental data.  Most of those can of course be subdivided into, for example, high-status sites, fortified sites, communal cemeteries; isolated burials; and so on.  The knowledge of such categories, and even their existence, varies between regions and from one period to the next.  This is not necessarily because of their non-existence.  There are many reasons for the blanks on archaeological maps; one of those is a lack of understanding of, or ability to recognise, particular classes of site.  The comparison of excavated evidence for settlement and the results of palaeo-environmental survey in several areas – where no datable settlements from the period are known but where the paleo-environmental data makes it clear that complete abandonment had not happened – reveals that sometimes we must simply not be recognising the relevant sites.  All of these classes of data require particular skills for their evaluation and interpretation.  As a result of this and many other similar considerations, not to mention my own ignorance, much of what I say today can only be interim or provisional: a basis for a conversation and, perhaps, a starting point for new questions.

North-western Barbaricum is naturally a variegated place, containing many different regions and even micro-regions, the differences between which cannot all be reflected even in a much longer presentation than this one, which attempts to look at general trends and to stress diversity and change.  Inevitably, I am going to have to generalise and hope that I am not doing too harsh a disservice to the experience of many local communities. 

In previous musings on this subject, drawing inspiration from an article from the 1980s by Lotte Hedeager, I have experimented with a tripartite division of the lands beyond the limes: a frontier zone, which I now prefer to call the ‘immediate zone’, bordering the Empire; an intermediate zone beyond that; and an outer zone.  The more I have thought about this, the more caveats I have found myself needing to make about it; the more ‘exceptions’ that need to be noted. 

The important caveats that I must make are as follows.  First, there isn’t any sort of neat algorithm between distance from the frontier and the ‘zone’ in which a region is located.  Some areas that can be reached by sea, around the North Sea coast from Britain or the Gallic provinces, show features that align them in some ways more with the ‘immediate’ than the ‘intermediate’ zone.  On the other hand, Ireland, in spite of being accessible by a short crossing from Britannia and so effectively lying on the imperial frontier, shows no such signs of structural proximity to the Empire, and its archaeological ‘signature’ looks more like that of the ‘Intermediate’ zone.  At a very local level, too there can be important variations.  The distance between North Sea Coast Terps with evidence for close links with Rome, and those which look like they belong to the ‘Intermediate’ zone is often not great.  Indeed, the difference between the zones is more structural than geographical; perhaps the physical-geographical-sounding concept of ‘bands’ needs to be replaced.

The ‘Immediate zone’ is characterised by a dense network of contacts – economic, social, political – between it and the Empire. The frontier itself provides a framework for these rather than strictly regulating, let alone restricting, them except during short periods and along particularly stretches of the limes

The ‘Intermediate zone’ is characterised by less frequent contacts, heavily mediated by political relationships.  Trade contacts are less regular or reliable, possibly controlled by regional elites in order to bolster their position.  Large-scale Roman diplomatic payments which, as throughout Barbaricum but especially in this zone, could play a vital role in local and regional politics.  The Outer Zone is that wherein contacts with the Empire might still be very valuable but are either scarcer or on a smaller scale, and thus where socio-political development generally takes place with little reference to imperial economic and political networks.  Within each of zone, in my hypothesis, the effect on the region of changes or fluctuations in the relationship with Rome is felt in different ways.  That’s going to be central to my discussion. 

Romano-Barbarian Relationships

When we consider the dynamics of Late Antique Roman-Barbarian interrelationships, we start in a period of important change.  The third century, as is well-known, saw the formation of major confederacies on the Roman frontier most of which were unknown or – in the case of the Saxons –hardly-known before that century: the Franks, the Alamanni, and Picts (the common assumption about the location of the third-fifth-century Picts north of the Forth is based upon a retrojection of seventh-century political geography and thus in my view mistaken).  What these confederations were like, how real they were, how different in practice from earlier trans-Rhenan or northern British polities, can be debated but, however one – rightly – questions whether they were the dramatic shift or break that is sometimes assumed, I don’t think one can escape the fact that this was something different: something that had the potential at least to articulate barbarian politics and the possibilities for power at a higher level in a quite different fashion from before.  On occasions, some quite formidable foes emerged across the Rhine.

The archaeology of trans-Rhenen Barbaricum appears to show a consistent pattern of increasing social complexity from the late second century and the beginning of what, since Eggers, German archaeologists (confusingly to this Brit) call their Late Roman period, through into what British archaeologists would more conventionally think of as late Roman, the late third and fourth century, to the start of the fifth.  This can be seen in the layout of settlements, the appearance and development of Herrenhöfe, sometimes separated from the remainder of the settlement, the fencing of properties, and so on.  In this part of the world, of course, we encounter the Höhensiedlungen, a diverse phenomenon to be sure, but one that shows the ability of local leaders to mobilise manpower on quite a significant scale.  There seems to be increasing evidence of craft specialisation; wheel-thrown pottery and so on.  By the fourth century we know of several settlements with populations estimated and two to five hundred people which, if hardly counting as significant on a general Roman Imperial scale, were nonetheless fairly substantial nucleated settlements and, indeed possibly compared favourably with some of the late Roman intermediate settlements in northern Gaul and Germania and were possibly not too much smaller than some of the most contracted civitas capitals, like Bavai for example. Increasingly effective political organisation can also be seen, as noted, in the Danish bog-finds.  The rare and scattered fourth-century use of funerary ritual as a focus for local competition also suggests more settled social structures. 

The key point that I would stress is that Barbaricum east of the Rhine and in the regions immediately north of Hadrian’s Wall were saturated with Roman influence in the late imperial period.  The expression of high status in fourth-century barbaricum is invariably coloured by Roman ideas.  For barbarians the emperor was the fons et origo of real power.  We do not know how Roman idioms and objects were translated in their use by non-Romans but we cannot now identify any distinctively barbarian ideas of rulership in the late imperial era. 

The Alamans produced brooches that clearly imitated those issued to imperial officials.  Possibly manufactured on high-status Höhensiedlungen, they these may have been issued to royal followers as signs of status.  Roman military metalwork was buried quite frequently in the cremation cemeteries of the ‘Saxon homelands’.  Clearly, the families of Saxons who returned home after serving in the Roman army could think of no better way of symbolising the deceased’s prestige than to cremate them in their old uniform or publicly inter their ashes alongside badges of their imperial service.  In the same part of the world, around 400, a wooden chair was included in a prestigious burial.  This was carved with designs based upon the ‘chip-carved’ ornament that decorated official imperial metalwork. 

After the third century imports into Germania Magna are much greater than before and, at least in the immediate zone, appear to conform to broad trading patterns rather than periodic surges related to diplomatic activity.    The presence of the frontier and its economic possibilities might have been one of the motors for social development.

One of the most important third-century changes is the increase in contact between Scandinavia and the Roman Empire, above all the eastern Roman Empire.  Glassware replaces bronze vessels as the most frequent import and such objects are found more widely throughout Scandinavia than before.  This may reveal an increasing importance of the (possibly misleadingly-named) ‘amber routes’ from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.  The distribution of many objects reveals the importance of this artery (or cluster of arteries) of communication and, in turn the political value of controlling such a route.  The spread of political authority and identity up and down these routes is an important element of the patterns of migration in the Late Roman Iron Age.  One effect of this increased power may be a more secure local power of the regional élites.  According to Dieter Quast, the distribution of ‘lavish burials’ in Germanic-speaking barbaricum shifts noticeably westwards from the valleys of the key ‘amber route’ rivers to the part of my ‘intermediate’ zone behind the western ‘immediate zone’ in the Late Roman period.

Even in areas quite far from the frontier, trans-Rhenan craftsmen had imitated Roman products since the early Roman period.  By the fourth century, the ‘immediate zone’ of Germanic-speaking Barbaricum might be seen as northern Gaul’s economic hinterland.  Exports of Argonne ware are frequent there and bronze vessels evidently made on the Meuse were exported as far as Norway.  In the late Roman period, influences from the Empire seem to have begun to penetrate Irish politics and society and perhaps became a significant engine of social change.  This influence did not only take artefactual form.  The appearance in Germania of inhumation, the standard fourth-century provincial Roman burial rite, has long been recognised as indicating imperial influence.  Inhumation appeared in northern Britain too, likely in a similar cultural imitatio imperii

Approaches driven by the traditional ‘barbarian migration’ narrative have frequently argued that the Roman-barbarian frontier was deepening into the Empire, but when read on their own terms the archaeological data suggest quite the opposite: the increasing ‘Romanisation’ of barbaricum.  This should not surprise us.

‘Career migration’ into the Empire was a standard feature of barbarian life.  The late Roman army may or may not have recruited more barbarians than before but, with the separation of civil and military service, the opportunity for non-Romans to rise high in the army was certainly greater.  Alamans and, later, Franks did very well in the fourth-century military.

The Empire continued to intervene in barbarian politics, paying large sums to barbarian groups to keep others in check and periodically launching military operations.  Diplomatic payments became extremely important in politics beyond the limes.  Setting up and knocking down barbarian leaders remained essential to Roman frontier policy.  As had been the case since the late Republic, losing barbarian factions tended to move to imperial territory for security.  That north-western barbaricum was a periphery of the Roman Empire and the dynamics involved in this relationship are hugely important in understanding fifth-century history.

Although it would be as mistaken to view Romano-Barbarian relationships as uniformly harmonious (or to downplay the seriousness of warlike interactions) as it is to see them as constantly confrontational, it is likely that broadly peaceful social, political and economic relations were, proportionately, more normal than warlike.  A fairly tightly organised pattern of relationships and interactions with Rome is probably the most important element to emphasise in explaining the steady increase in trans-Rhenan barbarian socio-political complexity.

A similar picture might be posited for northern Britain.  Although the archaeological evidence is less plentiful and varied than in Germania, written indices of new confederations, the concentration of Roman imports in particular points and the emergence of large high-status sites suggests some parallels.  Close study has suggested the Empire’s ability to build up and knock down powerful groups here, just as east of the Rhine.  Again, the northern frontier was, more often than not, fairly calm; the existence of an established order within which relationships could be structured must be underlined.

Ireland was drawn more tightly into the Roman orbit in the fourth century as archaeological evidence makes clear.  One element was doubtless the raiding referred to by contemporaries.  This should probably be seen alongside the possible élite distribution of late Roman imports.  Whether these come from such attacks, or from Roman payments, or from Irish leaders being able to organise exchange relations with Roman traders, they underline the increasingly important contacts across the Irish Sea.  Again, though, raiding was rarely the sole form of political relationship between the Empire and its neighbours.  Other links might have included recruitment as federate troops or into the élite auxilia palatina, two regiments of which are named ‘Attecotti’.  Who the Attecotti were and where they came from are mysterious but they were certainly associated in some way with the Irish.  Irish settlement in western Britain may have begun within the Roman period, although the evidence is nebulous.  Another form of Roman influence was, of course, Christianity.  Attempts to evangelise the Irish were made during the fifth century, but possibly began earlier. This thickening network of connections doubtless lies at the root of the changes beginning in this period.  Here, however, such change may have involved the break-up of old, loose but extensive kingdoms.  It certainly seems reasonable to envisage more political stress in Ireland than in northern Britain or Germania in this period.

Another point I want to stress is the role played by Roman infrastructure beyond the wall, whether in the former agri decimates or immediately north of Hadian’s Wall, in enabling closer links between imperial core and barbarian periphery (perhaps something similar in the provinces north of the Danube too).  There had always been a notion of ‘forward projection’ from the limes, entirely in line with Dick Whittaker’s early 1990s reading of the frontier as a ‘membrane’, through which the Romans could pass at will.  The continued existence of road networks and other infrastructure must have made this even more possible. I was recently wondering whether the permission giving for Frankish settlement in Toxandria was not an effort to create a similar situation on the Lower Rhine.

Fifth-Century Change

The fifth century is obviously crucial to considering the ‘late antique problematic’ beyond the limes and elsewhere.  Barbaricum was the imperium’s increasingly intimately-connected periphery.  The crisis into which the Western Empire was plunged from the 380s, after Magnus Maximus’ usurpation, lasting until c.420, and – more so – the failure to weather that crisis inevitably and profoundly affected the territories beyond the frontiers.  Closest to the limes, where local kings were apparently propped up by further Roman gifts and payments during the civil wars, this crisis had no immediate effect;  Franks and Alamans were only minimally involved in this period’s incursions.  Archaeologically, in some areas the period continues fourth-century developments, especially in settlements around the lower Rhine frontier. 

Major problems arose behind the ‘immediate zone’, in the intermediate zone of barbaricum.  Here, the contacts with Rome that were necessary to the maintenance of prestige were more precarious, although possibly even more important in underpinning political authority and stability.  Late fourth- and early fifth-century civil wars ended the carefully managed frontier system, which had ensured a rough parity between groups.  Barbarian leaders in the interior had often been paid to counterbalance the frontier peoples.  When that managed system ended, and especially as the distracted Romans simply shored up their allies on the frontier, political stress was inevitable.  It is very significant that the barbarians who invaded Gaul in the early fifth century were from the ‘intermediate band’ of barbaricum: Sueves, Vandals and Burgundians.  The political stress in these regions may have led some factions to ask for support from the newly-hegemonic Hunnic leaders north of the Danube, which may have been decisive, propelling defeated elements towards the Rhine. 

The early fifth-century crisis is most visible archaeologically in the North Sea Coastal regions.  The ‘Saxon Homelands’, although showing some similarities with the ‘immediate zone’, also have features of the interior band.  The socio-economic crises affecting the north-western Roman provinces at this time, very clearly visible in settlement abandonment, economic decline and changes in burial, doubtless impacted seriously upon the closely connected Saxon regions.  We can see this in settlement change and abandonment and the transformations in burial rites.  Saxon archaeology shares numerous features with the archaeology of Britain and northern Gaul, underlining the analytical usefulness of the concept of a North Sea cultural zone.  This period seems to have seen the re-emergence of Frisian, Anglian and Jutish identities, suggesting a break-up of the Saxon confederacy.  Migration to Britain was a crucial product of these developments.  Related to these changes are those mentioned in the heart of the interior band of Germania.  The Elbe Valley had been a crucial artery linking barbaricum and the Empire and the Roman crisis around 400 doubtless had a knock-on effect there.  By the later fifth century a new Thuringian kingdom had established its authority along the river.

The changes around 400 had effects in Scandinavia.  Certain forms of import began to dry up for example.  By the sixth century something of an archaeological ‘Dark Age’ is noted in some parts of the region.  It does not, however, seem to be the case that this necessarily implied social or economic decline.  Many specialists believe that the relative archaeological invisibility of ‘Early Germanic Iron Age’ Denmark may attest more to a slow consolidation of power and social hierarchies.  It may be better to think of a longer term readjustment in response to Roman political change, rather than the short-lived but dramatic crises seen elsewhere.  Settlement patterns may intensify rather than decline, and new forms of agriculture were introduced.  Nonetheless, bursts of larger or more lavish inhumations around 400 and 500 imply some crises during the period in some regions. Another key element there is the import of large numbers of solidi, interestingly analysed by Svante Fischer. Fischer’s hypothesis of opportunities for mercenary service perhaps especially in the eastern Empire and perhaps diplomatic payments might significantly have disrupted patterns of contact with the Empire that had persisted for some time.

Similar dynamics are visible in Britain.  Possible changes in Roman Britain’s governance meant that the frontier band, north of Hadrian’s Wall, became more like an interior zone.  This produced some archaeologically visible signs of crisis, such as the abandonment of hillforts, like Traprain Law, and changes in burial rite, wherein funerals became important in local community politics.  Fifth-century crisis apparently led to a break-up of the Pictish confederacies and, while one group had, by the seventh century, retained the name of Picts, other identities reasserted themselves.  Earlier tribal names like the Votadini and Maetae resurfaced.  In Ireland, the break-down of the imperial links that had been developing earlier, and which had probably lain behind a certain amount of political change and stress, doubtless only emphasised the latter and, as elsewhere, produced migration into former Roman territory.

On the Rhine frontier, crisis came later, with the failure to re-establish imperial authority along the limes and thus continue to back frontier kings.  This is detectable in Frankish and Alamannic archaeology.  The political stress this produced led to incursions into northern Gaul and elsewhere.  Eventually the situation was resolved when the Frankish faction that controlled the Roman army on the Loire established its dominance first over the Paris Basin and then over its northern rivals.  This group, the Merovingians, extended its hegemony over the Alamanni, Thuringians and Saxons, as well as, by the 530s, removing the other barbarian kingdoms from Gaul.  Frankish overlordship extended well beyond the Rhine, though, as far as the Elbe, and down the Danube. 

The extent to which the Empire’s demise had changed the relationships between the trans-Rhenan peoples and the territories west of the Rhine can be discussed.  The Merovingian kingdom in some ways inherited the Empire’s role in what had been Germania Magna but the situation differed somewhat.  How similar its relationships with Saxons, Thuringians, Hessians, Alamans, Bavarians were to those between the Empire and the barbarians is debatable. Frankish territories straddled the old frontier and leaders of non-Frankish groups were often closely involved in Frankish politics, having marriage and other ties with Frankish aristocrats.  The Merovingian realm was able to maintain an effective trans-Rhenan hegemony through the sixth century, but the relationships that had cyclically produced migration from barbaricum to imperial territory ceased with the Empire’s collapse.  As I have argued before, the fall of the Roman Empire ended the ‘Barbarian Migrations’.

… Or did it?  Since I last expressed that view – here, barely three months ago – I wonder whether I am missing the point by concentrating upon the Rhine. Here is a slightly different proposal, which might I admit be quite mad.  Might the Merovingian hegemony in Germania Magna, which was in many ways the end result of the fifth-century crises on either side of the Rhine, have in fact incorporated much of the intermediate zone within something more like an immediate, or even provincial, relationship with the former imperial territories?  In the former provinces, the fiction endured for some time that the new rulers were still encompassed within the imperium, deriving their authority from official Roman political and administrative titles.  Connections with a Frankish king’s imperially-bestowed honours, possibly even including a consulate of some sort, with a Burgundian king who was a patricius or with an Ostrogothic king who was a magister militum had much the same cachet as earlier relations with a governor, vicarius or Praetorian Prefect.  Before the middle of the sixth century the Frankish kings in Gaul were even not above dipping their toes in the waters of imperial pretensions – especially under Theudebert I, who had been involved in the conquest of the Thuringian realm on the Elbe.  Can we think about the frontier and its dynamics in some ways being pushed forward to the Elbe?  That would certainly fit well with the tone of Theudebert’s famous letter to Justinian and his other actions.  Theudebertus Germanicus?  Is this something that deserves greater emphasis in thinking about the population movements and changes beyond the Elbe in the sixth century – I can’t be the first to have suggested that but I wonder if it at least permits a slightly different perspective on its role in those changes.  

Changes around 600

Change in the latter part of the sixth century and around 600 can be traced almost everywhere from Scandinavia to the Rhine and from Ireland to Bavaria.  We can see changes in burials in several regions, with the increasing importance of above-ground monuments in many – northern Britain, Ireland, the Rhineland and Scandinavia.  If the archaeology of some areas, like Denmark, becomes less visible, this too must be seen as an important change.  New high-status settlements appeared in northern Britain whereas the number of small fortified farmsteads (raths, cashels and crannogs) in Ireland underwent something of an explosion.  Trading patterns changed, connecting Ireland and northern Britain with France.  This hardly exhausts these important transformations.  Their explanation is complex and regionally varied but one element may, not insignificantly, have been internal political crises in the lands west of the Rhine, in Gaul. 

The Merovingian kingdom experienced a profound political crisis from the 570s to the 620s, with royal minorities and civil wars.  As with the imperial civil wars 200 years previously, this produced faction-fighting and a slackening of control over peripheral peoples.  Within Gaul, the circumstances produced an increase in local aristocratic power and more rigid social stratification.  The very analogous archaeologically-visible changes in southern Germany suggest similar developments.  By the mid-seventh century Merovingian hegemony east of the Rhine was in tatters and this must have affected local social structures. 

These events, however, surely cannot lie behind the changes in Scandinavia, northern Britain and Ireland.  They are unlikely entirely to explain the Gallic changes.  We should perceive some broader shifts under way, doubtless connected to the fall-out from the Emperor Justinian’s wars of reconquest, launched in the mid-sixth century.  These terrible, destructive conflicts failed to restore imperial hegemony and had effects far beyond the areas fought over.  They were, furthermore, accompanied by a terrible outbreak of plague, adding – regardless of recent debate about its real extent – to the period’s generally apocalyptic feel.  These changes, which did much to rupture long-standing patterns of life in the Mediterranean, doubtless played a significant role in producing the change in economic patterns mentioned earlier, leading to closer links between Ireland and northern Britain and mainland Europe.  Those shifts in long-distance trade patterns were probably an important element in political change in northern Britain and Ireland, perhaps producing, as elsewhere, more intensive local authority and a break-up of earlier, looser hegemonies.  These Mediterranean crises may even have affected Scandinavia, where the Eastern Empire had been an important source of precious metals and other prestigious imports. 

A shift in ideas may however have been as important as any of this.  As we have seen, the Roman Empire had been an overwhelming presence for the people beyond the frontiers, moulding all sorts of ideas about power and authority.  Some fifth-century bracteates derived their models from depictions of the Emperor on much earlier, fourth-century Roman coins.  Therefore, even after the Western Empire’s collapse, ideas continued to be shaped by notions of Rome and the emperor.  Indeed, I just suggested that such ideas might have started to have more of a direct impact further east than before.  The Justinianic wars changed this.  Justinian based his wars on a strident proclamation that the Western Empire had been ‘lost’ to barbarians and thus needed to be reconquered.  The ultimate failure to reintegrate all the western territories resulted in a new, formal boundary being drawn around the imperial territories in southern Spain and Italy.  I have suggest that as a result of this, perhaps, a new, more integrated zone with what might loosely be called ‘inward-looking’ relationships and political dynamics developed within Germania Magna.   From this, eventually, the polity of ‘Germany’ emerged.  More significantly, perhaps, the impact of these changes on what I suggested had in a way become a kind of new ‘immediate’ or even provincial zone may have played a role in the break-up of the Merovingian hegemony east of the Rhine, even though, as is well known, it was more the case that the links binding these territories into Frankish politics changed rather than broke.  This must surely be crucial to the changing population structures and political relationships on the Elbe.

Awareness that the Roman Empire no longer existed in western Europe produced a profound crisis in the former imperial territories there.  No more could legitimacy be based on an allegedly official position in imperial bureaucracy or a claim to represent the Emperor.  The Emperor himself had made it clear that his writ no longer ran in the West.  ‘Barbarian’ territory’s integration within the imperial orbit made this crisis as visible beyond the old limes as within them.  New ideological underpinnings were sought.  In the former provinces these largely came from the Old Testament and it may be no accident that this was a period when Christian (and again Old Testament) ideology became more influential beyond the old frontier – most obviously in Ireland but also in northern Britain.  Christian foundations spread into Germania Magna and, further away, shifts in the ideological bases of power apparently occurred. 


The study of late antique barbaricum has very important points to make in any discussion of the Late Antique paradigm.  Certainly, the experience of the peoples of northern Europe contradicts the view of Late Antiquity as a period of continuity or even one of steady, uniform development in a particular direction.  There was constant change, and, frequently, periods of considerable upheaval.  North-western European archaeology shows, furthermore, that the fifth-century demise of the western Empire was a dramatic series of events producing crisis throughout barbaricum, as well as within the western provinces.  The structure of relationships between Barbaricum and the Empire meant that any period of important change in the Empire would have repercussions beyond the frontier, including migration. I do not see those migrations as having produced imperial crisis, or to have been the crucial factor in bringing about the fragmentation of the Empire, but that does not mean that they, or the fall-out from them, were not an important feature of fifth- and early sixth-century politics.

However, one thing that remained constant between c.300 and c.550 at least was the Roman Empire’s dominant influence in these regions.  In that sphere, the collapse of the West made little immediate difference and, there, part of the traditional framework of Late Antiquity would seem to be underlined.  It was the mid-sixth-century dramas and their fall-out in the century or so afterwards that made a huge difference, perhaps as much in these far northern and western regions as in the Mediterranean itself.  One reason for this was the awareness, finally, of living ‘after Rome’.  In that sense the period c.300-c.650 has a unity in barbaricum, very much a Late Antique unity, based perhaps ironically around the continuing influence of the Roman Empire.