This is the text of a paper I gave last night (26 May) to the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where I'm currently a Nominated Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH).
This paper is a short overview of the project which I am working on at the moment, provisionally entitled, in a shameless rip-off of the title of Guy Bois’ controversial book on the Year 1000, ‘The Transformations of the Year 600’. The aim is not, as was Bois’, to argue for a point at which the ancient world became the medieval world. These sorts of ‘X marks the spot’ debates very quickly become sterile, as indeed that on the Year 1000 has, in becoming a shouting match between people who think that everything changed at precisely that point and those who think that nothing much happened at all. My own view, long argued, is that change – not slow barely perceptible transformation, but significant and dramatic change – was something that happened pretty regularly in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless the period encompassing the last third of the sixth century and the first half of the seventh does seem to have seen some especially significant restructurings and other transformations. This era is well-known as an epoch of change in Byzantine history but its significance is far less widely appreciated in western European history, possibly because, while historians of the eastern Mediterranean still have an imperial Roman/Byzantine master narrative to unify their efforts, after 476 the history of western Europe is fractured by many different national historiographies with their own grand narratives.
I am going to give something of a whistle-stop overview of some of the issues involved in my project, organised around a unifying theme of ‘the end of the late antique state in the West’. This, thrown together in some haste, will be superficial and fragmented but with luck that might provoke some discussion and provide me with some helpful pointers and corrections.
When I speak of the end of the late antique state, I am not speaking simply of the demise of a particular ideal sub-type but of the end of anything that can reasonably be called a state with any analytical precision. This is historiographically unfashionable. It has become normal for people to talk about ‘the state’ in early medieval Europe. This in some ways is the outgrowth of a long tradition. In days of yore the post-imperial world was seen as experiencing a collapse into anarchy. In that context people discussed things like ‘blood-feud’ which were supposed to have existed as ‘self-help mechanisms’ in a stateless world – supposed to have existed at all, some would say – the rise of ‘feudalism’ was seen as a response to untrammelled violence and disorder. The move away from these historical myths has entailed the rise of another; that of the early medieval state. This has owed no small amount to the rise of what is called the ‘consensus model’ of early medieval politics, which argues that political negotiation and the use of royal ritual created the consensus necessary to keep aristocrats in league with the kings and to get anything done. This, for sure, has shown us that cohesive kingdoms existed in the early Middle Ages and this has been elided into the idea that therefore such polities were states. Indeed in 2003 someone called Halsall published a book about Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, which talked willy-nilly about coherent kingdoms as ‘states’. But cohesion, to me, does not equate with statehood. A polity whose rulers do not tax and thus have no income derived other than from their position as simply one élite landholder among many, and who have no effective independent coercive force, cannot, in my vaguely Weberian view, be called a state. Proper states – as I hope to demonstrate and, with less likelihood, explain – came to an end in the West (however temporarily) around 600.
2: The decline of state apparatus
A number of themes run through western European political and social history in this period, centring in my view – at least in Europe north and or East of the Alps and Pyrenees – on a growth in the importance, and a crucial change in the nature, of the regional aristocracy. There might be something of a chicken-and-egg relationship between the growth of aristocratic power and the crucial decline of the old state apparatus but, for reasons that might become apparent later, it seems best, at least provisionally, to talk about the latter first and then move on to other evidence for the increase in aristocratic authority in the localities.
First of all, tax. How tax was levied in the sixth century is a difficult matter. Much of the West, especially north of the Loire, was effectively non-monetary; all of the West outside Marseille lacked small denomination currency. The recipients of much of the late imperial government’s taxation in kind, a regular standing army and large central bureaucracy, no longer existed. In a fifth- and sixth-century context, though, the point of taxation may have been less about revenue than about patronage. That is to say that most tax remained in the areas where it was levied, as a salary for the royal officers there. Whatever can have been levied as bullion, in the form of old coins, can have been passed on to the centre. Either way, however revenue was raised and whatever it was used for, the fact was that the post-imperial governments taxed. That is crystal clear from the sources, which not only mention taxes and revolts against raises in the tax-rate or what was held to be against unjust taxation, but also refer to tax-lists. It has also long been known that some late Roman taxes have lineal descendants in the dues levied by the lords of ninth-century estates. Other – lesser – duties and obligations that the king could still call upon, at least in theory, at that date also seem to derive from late imperial taxation. In 1982, Walter Goffart proposed that, as the lords had long since appropriated the more important revenues, immunities from these minor revenues and obligations were all that was left to ninth-century kings to reward their followers. As it happens, Goffart has abandoned this position in favour of a more extreme argument that all late Roman taxation continued without a break into the ninth century. This aligns him with French historians like Elisabeth Magnou-Nortier and Jean Durliat but the argument for extreme fiscal continuity is very much a minority position; indeed I would say it was just empirically wrong.
Nonetheless, Goffart’s 1982 position was unobjectionable, especially in its contestation that taxation itself withered around 600 in Gaul. If there was any post-imperial taxation in Britain, and there’s really no good reason to suppose that there wasn’t, then similarly, by the time one gets to the earliest surviving written data, forms of revenue have clearly followed the same path, with more or less the same survivals, as in Gaul. The same seems to be true in the north of Italy in the Lombard kingdom, although we could hardly claim to be well-served by relevant evidence. Paul the Deacon’s story about the distribution of the northern Italian Roman population among the Lombards as tributarii might be an index that taxation was still in operation or it could be a sign that Italy was already seeing a development in the nature of military service that is better documented in Gaul very slightly later. Given the political circumstances, the latter may well be preferable. Similarly, as far as I know, it seems to be the case that taxation had atrophied in Spain by the seventh century, although this is very much an area where I need to do more work.
Given that taxation withered precisely when something of an economic revival took place in north-western Europe, including the reintroduction of coinage, explaining this change means dealing with more than the practical difficulties of collecting revenue in kind.
Another crucial factor, well evidenced in all areas under discussion, is the spread of a political/ethnic identity hitherto associated with military service and at least partial tax-exemption, to more or less complete equivalence with legal free status. By this I mean the Frankish identity in northern Gaul, the Gothic in Spain, the Lombard in northern Italy and the English in lowland Britain.
Military service has already been mentioned and is of course the other principal means by which states impinge on the lives of their subjects, or the other factor which enables a central government to ensure that its authority penetrates local communities. The standing army withered in western Europe in the fifth century, at least in its usually understood form, the Roman form. Nevertheless, that being said, the armed forces of the later fifth and sixth centuries had clearly developed from the last imperial armies. As just intimated, they were founded around the levying of a group of privileged freemen whose status was probably inherited, or inheritable at least, and based on a real or more likely claimed ‘barbarian’ ethnicity. This situation pertains in almost all of the areas where we have clear written evidence and probably applied in those where we don’t, if one can extrapolate from the symbolism of artefacts placed with the male dead in areas like Anglo-Saxon England. As far as one can tell (in the areas with written evidence), these individuals were called out within administrative districts, civitates and commanded by royal officials. And because of the importance of their patronage and the access to power that military service provided, Kings continued to be able to use these armies as independent coercive forces, against recalcitrant aristocrats and other rebels.
As far as the Frankish kingdoms are concerned this means of raising an army had more or less completely eroded by the middle of the seventh century. By that date it seems pretty clear that armies are now being raised from aristocrats and their clienteles. Instead of being described as drawn from particular administrative units, civitates, the elements of Frankish armies start being described as scarae –shearings off – and the implication seems to be that although the idea of military service as a general obligation had far from disappeared, it was now heavily moderated by ties of dependence and lordship. The description of an army campaigning in Burgundy from about a century later sums up the new situation ‘a multitude of magnates and a great band of their followers’ (multitudine primatum et agminum satellitum plurimorum; Fred. Cont., 24). A similar process towards an army with aristocratic retinues has been identified in Gothic Spain and at this date Anglo-Saxon armies seem to be broadly similar (indeed the military history of Anglo-Saxon England runs along a very similar course to that of early medieval Francia). The heads of these bands do not seem to command simply by virtue of royal office, as had been the case in the sixth century, but from their socio-economic standing. I’ll return to this.
It is I think no coincidence that it is at about this time that immunities are documented much more often, in forms that apply to aristocratic or church estates. Kings envisaged areas into which their officers could not enter unbidden, either to collect revenue or, it would seem from the inclusion of the haribann in the list of things they weren’t allowed to collect, enforce military service.
Thus, by way of concluding this section, one can argue that the aristocracy, had managed to interpose itself effectively between the kings or the central government and the local population, in the extraction of surplus and the raising of armed forces. Now, it is clear that this did not affect the cohesion – or at least the basic unity – of the western kingdoms, north or south of the Pyrenees, for different reasons, but it does equally make it clear that the ability of whoever controlled the centre of the realm had a markedly lesser ability to enforce his writ in the locales of the kingdom and this, in itself, would, for me, signal the end of the state in the late antique West.
3. Social developments
What I want to do now is look at the problem from a different angle; from the perspective of local society and economy. I am going to do this by looking at north-western and Mediterranean Europe in turn because, as in the fifth and sixth centuries, as I discussed in Barbarian Migrations…, there are important differences between the two zones. I will say far more about the north-west because it is the area I have done way more work on, especially in Gaul. Gaul between the Loire and the Alps and Pyrenees will stand somewhere between the two.
The North: If one looks at the settlement pattern it is quite clear that the late sixth century marks an important phase. In England and in northern Gaul/Francia similar transformations are observable in rural settlements. In France this phase has been described by Édith Peytremann as marking a crucial rupture with the tradition of late antiquity; villas had long gone but it seems quite clear that settlement had nevertheless carried on within the general outlines of the late Roman pattern – this is in many ways a useful metaphor for the late fifth and sixth centuries in the West as I see them. There is a significant expansion of settlements and the sites known to us are more archaeologically significant. Some sites of this phase show far more investment in buildings that are differentiated from the norm. In association with this there seems in Gaul to be a reorganisation of the landscape, with new boundaries and so on. By the seventh century too there is much more evidence of craft specialisation and manufacture within settlements and some settlements also appear to have been specialised in their economic focus. Generally this is a feature which one sees more often from the later seventh century but one begins to see attested settlements which are based around cereal farming to a much greater degree, something plausibly associated with an increase in aristocratic estate organisation.
Simultaneously, there is a major shift in the nature of the burial rite in these areas, which takes very similar forms in northern Gaul and in Anglo-Saxon England, as well as to the east of the Rhine – all of which must make the usual ascription of the English developments to conversion deeply questionable. In brief, the changes take the following form: a reduction in the numbers of grave-goods; a simplification of the types of grave-goods deposited; the reduction of gender-related object-types, especially feminine ones. In Gaul, the characteristic organisation of sites by rows breaks down – as far as I can see this sort of change is not as clear in other areas. There is, around 600 itself, a flurry of lavishly furnished élite burials on the fringes of Frankish power, fringes in which I would include Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell, a phase when standing in local society is demonstrated much less subtly than had been the case before. This phase also includes the removal of the burials of families of high standing to separate areas within the cemetery as well as their marking by above ground monuments. Indeed the investment in the transient display of grave-goods is significantly reduced when compared with that in above ground markers, not just gravestones and inscriptions but stone sarcophagi with lids at surface level, walls around groups of graves and so on. The ultimate expression of the trend is the funerary church, which begins to appear in the rural areas of the north of Gaul by the middle of the century. Cemeteries in the seventh century are also far more numerous, if smaller than their precursors, possibly matching the expansion of settlements, possibly also indicating the break-up of earlier ‘burial communities’.
That security is probably also manifested in the increase in craft-specialisation that is attested at this time, in changes in artefact forms, in the revival of organised stone-working and transport, and in an economic upsurge. The early seventh century is well-known as the period of the origins of the emporia around the North Sea in England and on the mainland, but it is similarly the period when northern Gallic towns begin to revive from the stagnation of the fifth and sixth centuries and – in Gaul – from a decline that had set in as early as the third century. As well as North Sea trade, The seventh century is a period when church foundations in towns really take off: earlier than in the countryside. This is also the era when coinage begins to be minted again after a hiatus of about a century and a half.
All of these changes, when compared with the late fifth- and sixth-century situation, suggest an élite that was far more secure in its local standing than had hitherto been the case, one with a far greater control of surplus and thus better able to sponsor craft-specialisation, manufacture and urban renewal, and found monasteries. This security of position is, furthermore, I think behind the fact that legal and other administrative documents begin to be more regularly kept from the end of the sixth century onwards.
In southern Gaul these changes are more subtle as, in general, the late antique model survives there until perhaps the end of the seventh century. Villas continue to be occupied and towns, as far as I can see, remain much the same. There do seem to be some transformations related to the shift in trading patterns, and perhaps some economic decline. This is seen clearly at Marseille but then Marseille was always unusual and maybe to be seen as a part of the southern, Mediterranean sphere and thus affected by the demise of the old Mediterranean trade networks. On the other hand, a trade network is established between the west coast of France and the Irish Sea – now reaching both of its shores and further north than earlier. There are no real shifts in the social structure that I have seen. The aristocracy appears on the whole to have become more like that in the north, a general levelling out of the regional differences that had existed in the sixth century.
The South: In Spain and in Italy, by contrast, the period seems to be remarkable mainly for the end of the old Roman villa system, which had been in decline since the start of the fifth century but which had nevertheless survived far better than it had done further north, before taking a real beating in the mid-sixth century and fizzling out by its end. The seventh century in the Mediterranean is an area I have still to explore in any depth. Nonetheless what does seem clear is the decline of the Mediterranean trade networks of the late Roman period. This might very well affect the coastal cities of Spain detrimentally but even in the late Roman period the hinterland of Spain had been economically separate from the coast so one ought to expect some differentiation. What one can see nevertheless is the end of the region’s TSHT finewares and some important shifts, as elsewhere, in the nature of material culture which, ironically given what was just said about trade routes, are generally said to show more Byzantine influence, and the end of the old supposedly Gothic material culture of the sixth century. At the same time the rite of furnished inhumation spreads within Spain, having hitherto been something of a peripheral phenomenon. When taken with economic decline, the end of villas and so on, I think we have to explore the possibility of some significant social change more akin to that which took place further north in the fifth century, a weakening of social structure. This might explain the continued existence of an extensive but fragile polity in the peninsula. I would not want to push that too far but it seems to me that as early medieval Spanish archaeological data increase in quantity and quality we might need to nuance our received pictures of the Spanish Gothic nobility, based as they are on not over-plentiful written sources, something which might perhaps allow us a new insight into the old debate about the strength or otherwise of the later Gothic kingdom.
Some similar points might be made for Italy, another area which I have yet to explore in any detail. The transformations in the nature of the Romano-Byzantine élite have been well documented by Tom Brown. Further north there are the same sorts of changes in the settlement pattern that I have mentioned in Spain. Similarly too there is the spread of furnished inhumation, still too crudely associated with Lombard ethnic identity. It seems pretty clear that there was major change in the social structures of the Po valley and elsewhere. What is needed is a more subtle and locally or regionally focussed consideration. On the whole, as in Spain but probably to a far greater degree, Italy was experiencing a crisis similar to that of the fifth-century north-west, even if it never reached quite that degree of seriousness.
Generally speaking, though, the sort of repeated evidential ‘contour lines’ that I discussed in Barbarian Migrations continue to be visible. That is to say that the distribution of written sources tends to match the distribution of prosperity in the urban and rural settlement patterns and so on.
The one area of my project that I generally haven’t mentioned thus far is the sphere of Europe beyond the old Roman limites in Ireland, northern Britain, Germany and Scandinavia. This is partly because I know even less about it, on the whole, and partly because it would make this paper even more superficial and disjointed than it already is. Suffice it to say that significant change in the period I am discussing is at least as visible, and in some ways more so, there as it is in the former provinces. This is something that challenges yet further any attempt to explain the transformations.
4: Gender, the family and the community
Thus far I have discussed a series of changes in the political, social and economic structures of the West that took place in the generations either side of 600. One area of social history that I think is important to say something more about is gender and the family, and here I am focussing entirely on my north-western ‘sphere’.
I have already mentioned the change in the nature of grave-goods burial around 600 and the decline in gender-signification. Actually it is more of a decline in sex-signification. One of the interesting points about sixth-century society in the north-west is the fact that the burial custom appears to recognise a binary opposition of sexes; a bipolar gendered organisation based around sex. In other words, rather than the single masculine focus of classical Roman ideals, with women, barbarians and other ‘others’ defined by closeness to or difference from a central civic masculine ideal, one seems to have an idea of female status and identity that is not defined simply by difference from the male, it has, if you like, its own pole.
What happens in northern Gaul especially (but I think in Anglo-Saxon England too) is that specifically feminine artefacts are reduced much more seriously than masculine. What is more, whereas in the sixth century brooches and other feminine jewellery and costume accessories had been the focus for display in costume and (with the exception of swords and, one imagines, helmets and armour, which are not as a rule buried) the most sophistication in production techniques, in the seventh century masculine items like the large, ornate belt buckles take over in both spheres. The most elaborate brooches of the period are sometimes found in male graves.
The other thing that happens in this period, as can be seen principally from the written sources but which might also be detectable in the archaeology is the triumph of the martial model of masculinity. By 600 there seems to be no other model to rival it outside the church. The Roman civic model of masculinity has disappeared entirely and, to judge from conciliar legislation, even the ecclesiastical model seems to have been troubled to some extent by the dominance of martial expressions of manhood.
The demise of the feminine pole within the furnishing of cemeteries suggests to me a return to something more like the Roman construction of gender, with a dominant – now almost entirely martial – élite masculine focus against which other identities were judged by proximity or distance. I don’t think that it will suffice to explain away the changes in female costume simply by reference to changes of fashion – as has been done in the past. That is to say that there was less need for brooches. Nor will it suffice, even if it is a more sophisticated argument, to explain it in economic terms. Greater craft specialisation might have meant greater ability to display status through embroidery and so on, but that would be true of male clothing too, and this argument would not account for the investment of resources and skill in the inlaid buckles and disc brooches of the period. Studies of the Carolingian period seem to me to have emphasised a single-pole political conception of gender much along the lines I am suggesting. In the seventh century, then, the family became a dominant form of political and social organisation, determining rank and status.
Here, I have something – part suggestion, part plea for information and guidance – to throw out. This concerns political vocabulary and ideology. What I wonder is if there is, as part of the ideological refashionings I will come on to, a concomitant switch to an emphasis on the family and metaphors of kinship and the household in political vocabulary. Certainly, as far as I can see, it is the seventh century that sees the serious beginnings of the concern of kings (and others) in genealogies. Families become particularly important in the political ideology of the Bavarians and the Lombards. What of the terms for royal servants? The late Roman Empire had of course made a big deal out of the ‘sacred’ palace, the imperial bedchamber and so on, but I wonder if it is significant that it is particularly in this area that the early medieval kings not only drew upon their predecessors but developed the idea. So in addition to the domestici and comites stabuli, derived from Roman palatine administration, retinues are the king’s (or other magnates) ‘boys’. The Gothic Gardingus derives his title in part from the Gothic word for ‘house’. In Francia it might be significant that political power came to be wielded by someone called the Maior Domus, usually translated as Mayor of the Palace, but note that the word is domus, not palatium. The Lombard court was also replete with its marshals (from the same origin as the count of the stables) and other household officers, whose functions had nothing, it seems, to do with the literal meaning of their titles. When do the meanings of familia come to lean more towards the biological family than the notion of the household? [I don’t know; I am asking you.]
I have already mentioned the fact that, in terms of their organisation, cemeteries manifest an increasing concern with what seem to be family plots. Investment in burial displays of whatever sorts seems now to be more evenly distributed between ages and sexes than was the case before. Other aspects of hitherto communal norms in terms of organisation and the grave-goods custom are similarly reduced. What appears to be taking place is a rise in the importance of the family, vis-à-vis the community in local social organisation, and family identity and status appears to transcend status based around the occupation of life-cycle roles within families.
All this ought not to be controversial given the fairly clear implication in the written data that family identity was becoming more important and that we can start to detect aristocratic lineages in the north. Indeed the word nobilis, defined in this period by Isidore of Seville as 'one whose name and lineage are known', starts to be used. Now some have argued that nobilis is not really the usual term for the Frankish nobility maybe until the ninth century but there’s no doubt nevertheless that it is far more commonly used in the seventh century in northern Gaul than it had been in the sixth. The security of a family’s local standing and the importance of the lineage and of the male family head go hand in hand with this and this is reflected in the changing nature of the burial record.
5: Explanations (1): Political Crises and Justinian’s Wars
So I come to an attempt to try and explain all this. One overall cause seems to have been the problems that beset western European kings in the period either side of 600, in differing forms and at slightly different points in the various areas. A series of royal minorities in Francia between 575 and 613; chronic dynastic instability and repeated usurpation and civil war in Spain between about 600 and 640; the apparent decade-long interregnum of the Lombard monarchy, which may only have been revived as a result of negotiation between the successful candidate and his rival dukes (and we all now know what kind of compromises get made in these sorts of situation…). The communis opinio among Anglo-Saxonists is that kingdoms only appear at the end of the sixth century but this view lacks real evidential support and, like most things in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology, founders on comparison with mainland Europe. On the basis of the evidence we have, it is certainly not to be ruled out that what happened in England around 600 was the break-up of earlier, fragile but more extensive kingdoms into smaller more coherent ones.
To return to the Frankish example, the crucial importance of the series of minorities lies in the very success that the Merovingian dynasty had had over the previous century or so in creating a view that they were the only throne-worthy family, in ensuring that it had no familial connections with the Gaulish aristocracy and in reducing the élite, in northern Gaul especially, to the status of a service aristocracy. This meant that while the court and access to the king remained central, as indeed it did for the next 100 years, the faction controlling the palace had a crucial legitimacy gap but every reason to try and hold on to power as tightly as possible. Controlling access to the court was essential to this but only emphasised the difficulty of their political position. Thus power was bought by the granting of ostensibly royal patronage and, as I see it, the transformation of what had earlier been rather temporary grants of revenue or resources into permanent ones, often as outright gifts of land. This in turn allowed the aristocracy to cement its position vis-à-vis the remainder of the free population in ways that were far more independent of royal favour than had hitherto been the case. Hence the visible increase in control of land and estates and all the other economic changes that I have already listed.
Concepts of heredity of local power weakened the kings’ abilities to make their writ run in the localities and contributed decisively to the withering of the state. In this situation, male heads of households became even more important than they had been before and ideas of gender were renegotiated accordingly. Thus gender and the family are inextricably linked with, and have a very important role to play in, high politics and high political change, rather than changing simply as a passive response to the latter.
Many similar factors could have played a part in producing change in Anglo-Saxon England, especially if we abandon the unhelpful insularity of the explanations used in early insular studies. Where things must have been importantly different is in my southern, Mediterranean, sphere. Here it is perhaps boring and predictable but it is nevertheless impossible to get away from Justinian’s Wars as a major catalyst.
That and the possibly related decline of the Mediterranean trade routes might very well have brought about the changes in Spain too, though Leuvigild’s wars might also have critically undermined some local and regional élites. In Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, attention is drawn to the paradox between the supposed political power of the Gothic aristocracy and the archaeologically-revealed material poverty of the peninsula. This paradox cannot be resolved simply by dismissing the archaeology, but it might start to look more apparent than real if one questions the extent to which our idea of a mighty Gothic nobility is securely founded. The idea I am toying with, and I put it out for you to shoot down, is that the unity of the seventh century kingdom might have been a product of the weakening of such local élites, leading to a greater dependence upon access to the central royal court – a similar dynamic to that of earlier Merovingian Gaul in my reading. And yet, simultaneously, the failure of any dynasty to establish itself produced the spiralling stakes of internal Spanish politics and the ongoing, increasingly hysterical attempts to establish other underpinnings for royal authority. It can’t be that simple. I’ve already mentioned that the legal and other sources suggest some similar features in the Iberian aristocracy’s insertion of itself between kings and the remainder of the free in matters the law and of raising armies. Yet it might be a question of scale, of aristocrats whose power and local influence was greater than that of sixth-century aristocrats in the north-west of Europe but still less than it had been in some parts of Spain or than it was becoming in Francia. A similar dynamic to that in Gaul but involving rather different types of player. As stated, this is an area where I would welcome discussion and suggestions.
6: Explanations (2): Political Ideology: The end and remaking of hegemony
This explanation so far has focused on the material. I feel no shame about that. It goes a long way towards explaining the changes which are observable in the data, as I hope to have suggested. But it still leaves crucial areas unexplained. Where I think we go further towards a more rounded explanation – and it might be an explanation that would be serviceable in bringing the former barbaricum into the picture as well, given the inextricable inclusion of barbaricum within the Roman world, which I attempted to demonstrate in Barbarian Migrations – is if we look to this huge raft of changes as a response to the realisation that one was no longer living in a Roman world. The last chapter of Barbarian Migrations started to float some suggestions based initially the not very original notion that after the political demise of the Western Empire in the later fifth century politics and society nevertheless continued to run along within ostensibly Roman frameworks. What I then suggested was that the frameworks were increasingly unable to contain the socio-political realities they were supposed to contain.
This would probably make some reorganisation and reworking inevitable at some point but it became all the more crucial after the ideological output of Justinianic Constantinople proclaiming the West to have been ‘lost’ to barbarians and thus in need of reconquering. This at a stroke undercut the claim of any post-imperial ruler to be governing as ‘Old Empire under New Management’ (I currently ponder a sort of brief window of opportunity between about 480 and 515 when western kings might actually have been toying with the idea of becoming emperors). It demonstrably made things difficult even for Merovingians in the north of Gaul. Yet this was also a period that saw the emergence of a new, more self-confident ideology in those kingdoms, perhaps as a response to the Constantinopolitan ideology. This would include the later phases of Theoderic’s ideological output in Ravenna and the strident claims of Theudebert I of Austrasia slightly later. When these ideologies ran up against each other in the maelstrom of the Gothic Wars the seal was set. In the aftermath of Justinian’s military project running out of steam, a wholesale ideological reworking was necessary.
Thus, as is well known, the western kings moved away from their earlier dependence of Roman exemplars to make more use of biblical models of kingship. Davids and Solomons replace Trajans and Constantines. Compare Gregory of Tours’ Clovis with the Clovis who emerges from the documents of that king’s own time. Note the emerging Old Testament-based rituals of the Visigothic monarchy.
We can see other shifts as in the theological developments so interestingly discussed in Markus’ studies of Gregory the Great. Gregory of Tours’ works might themselves show similar moves – again, one might profitably compare his theological concerns with those, say, of Caesarius of Arles, who died when Gregory was four. One might, indeed, compare, Caesarius’ concerns with those of the clerics who composed his vita, nearer contemporaries of Gregory.
One can turn to the history of artistic decorative styles. From the middle of the sixth century, a new artistic style – Tierstil Zwei; Salin’s Style II – becomes increasingly popular across north western Europe. It is of southern Scandinavian origin but it spreads as far as Lombard Italy. It is different from its predecessor, funnily enough Style I, in that it is more orderly and the beasts within it are more coherent, although the human figure largely remains absent. Now there is a sort of metaphor here. The crisis of the fifth century is essentially, as I see it to a large extent the dislocation of the central figure of the civic Roman male, the ‘point de capiton’ or the master signifier of the whole Roman system of signification – I have alluded to this already. The disintegration of the image in the north west seems to me admirably to reflect this situation. Its coming back together in Style II matches the re-emergence of a new order, one which is crucially different from that of the old Roman world.
This leads me to another factor in my explanation of all this. The dialectical materialist framework that has governed most of my explanation above copes adequately well but it leaves unanswered a fundamental question of ‘why’. I am now not entirely impressed by my old argument which seems to imply that there would somehow naturally be an upsurge of conflict for resources between rulers and local élites. It was a argument I developed essentially because of I was (and am) even less impressed by the cosy, conservative (with big and small Cs) ‘consensus model’ I mentioned earlier. Yet why ought local élites not continue to do what their rulers said? Even in times of crisis.
So what I am playing with at the moment is Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. This – if I understand it correctly and I have only just started thinking about this; correct me if I am wrong – is an alliance of the political and the civic, the former the formal institutions of political power, the latter the less formal institutions that govern morals and so on. In Gramsci’s terms this represented State and Church. I wonder whether what happened in the fifth and the sixth century was that with the erosion of the old Roman civic model and the gradual erosion of the non-military aristocracy went a simultaneous erosion of old ideas about the correct political behaviour, so that eventually these would be quite out of step with the de facto practice of politics. This would compel serious ideological reworking. With the old Roman ideals out of reach in the post-Justinianic world it is perhaps not surprising that kings and others went back to the Old Testament as a source. Out of this perhaps we get a world that is as profoundly different from the classical, in its conceptions of the world, its ideas, its mental structures, as it is from that old Roman world in the spheres of economy and social structure.