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Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Gender, Family, Community and State: Change Around 600

This is the text (more or less) of the plenary lecture that I gave to the Gender and Medieval Studies Conference back in January. It'll form the core of what I have to say on these topics in the eventual project publications.

Now it might be that, to any early medievalists in the audience, the phrase 'the end of the late antique western European state' jarrs. Many books have been published over the past decade, which talk about the early medieval state, including the Carolingian period (say the eighth-tenth centuries) in this, some good, others not so good. There seems to have been an emerging consensus that it is OK to talk about the state in early medieval Europe, and indeed in 2003 I published a book which talked in these terms at some length. Not for the first time in my life, I have changed my mind; not for the first time in my life I am in disagreement with the consensus. One reason for this is that I do not think that these studies – some of which I could not hold in higher esteem (and I don’t just mean my own book) – have not used a sufficiently rigorous analytical definition of the state. Much of the work on the so-called early medieval ‘state’ has dwelt on ideas of cohesion, and this has owed a great deal to some truly excellent work on politics and ritual (and using those words together makes it clear that I am alluding to the oeuvre of Dame Professor Janet L. Nelson) and the ensuing ‘consensus’ model of politics. The rulers of early medieval polities – let’s call them that – could be highly successful in persuading the powerful magnates of their realms to buy into their regimes, which as a result could demonstrate remarkable cohesion even in times of severe crisis. That all seems to me to be right, but it doesn’t appear to be adequate to define a state meaningfully in opposition to any other sort of polity. I would want to stress not cosy community, consensus and cohesion, but rather competition, conflict and above all coercion. This will not come as a surprise to those of you who know me…

As more than one person at least since Weber has said, it is the effective, accepted, routine ability to coerce those who do not want to do what the rulers wish that differentiates the state from other forms of government. My moment of epiphany came when co-teaching a seminar on war and society with Professor Alan Forrest, an authority on Republican and Napoleonic France. When I was holding forth on the remarkable cohesion of the Carolingian ‘state’, with its ability to raise armies essentially because it had created a situation wherein it suited people, for their own local purposes, to get involved in royal administration, Alan said something like ‘well that’s all very well, but what could Charlemagne do if people, say in the Camargue, refused to join his armies? Napoleon could send an armed force in and force them into line.’ To which my response was along the lines of ‘er…’ In other words, the Carolingian kings were highly effective at talking people into going along with their ideas – that much is evident. It is, however, equally clear from ninth-century history, that they had pretty much no ability at all to compel people to do what they wanted.

The capacity for early medieval western European rulers to tax or raise independent coercive forces ended around 600 AD, as I see it. Now, some historians – using the term loosely – see regular armies on the Roman model continuing well beyond then, and others see the attendant fiscal systems surviving similarly. This is a different historical model from the academically solid and respectable ‘consensus model’ of the ‘state’ but I pay it no further attention here as its adherents are, well, mad really. This end of the western European post-imperial state lies at the core of a vitally important, wide ranging and closely interconnected set of changes that took place around 600.

It has been a challenge, and one still not adequately answered, to bring gender into the explanation of the end of the western Empire (at least for those of us who believe the western Roman Empire actually did end). I have tried to out hack some sort of way into this and while I think it is a roughly hewn path going in more of the right sort of direction than the alternatives, I still do not think I have my answer wholly worked out. Bringing gender integrally into the changes that took place around 600 is, I think, at least in those parts of Europe that I know best, a little easier, and that is what I want to concentrate on.

What I want to explore is the ways in which the nature of gender construction is related to the importance of the family in politics, at the local, community level and thence to what we might call high politics. In doing so I am, I am afraid, going to go over some material that I have discussed many times before, including at previous meetings of the GMS, but I am hoping that at a pan-medieval, multi-disciplinary conference this will not be too boringly familiar to too many of you. For those of you for whom it is too boringly familiar, I can promise that I am going to develop earlier ideas, relate it to a wider range of geographical regions, and suggest some new thematic areas where I think we might be able to push forward the debate. The focus will, unsurprisingly, be on the areas I know best, in north-western Europe, particularly Gaul and northern Gaul especially.

Some Late Roman Background
Before going further I need briefly to set out some background. First, the conceptual background: I locate the dynamic for the sorts of political change that I am going to explore in the need for the locally or regionally powerful to secure that power through the legitimation provided by the central authorities and participation in their government of the realm. Where this is very strong, the likelihood is that state power will be effective.

That was the case in the fourth-century Roman Empire, though the dynamics differed in detail from one region to another. The end of that situation was a crucial component in bringing about the break-up of the Empire in the fifth century but even in the sixth century the political cores of the smaller post-imperial realms still had all the political aces. This made, albeit in different ways in different places, participation in their regimes essential for any sort of legitimate power at local or regional level. Even without a standing military establishment of any significance, rulers could still assemble an army and use it as a coercive force against recalcitrant aristocrats or regions.

In terms of gender and the family, put briefly and simplistically, the late Roman system was based around an idea of civic masculinity that went way to Republican times, based around the idea of reason and the control of emotions. The Roman concept of gender can essentially be envisaged as a single, masculine pole, against which everything was judged, either positively by its ability to emulate the ideal, or negatively by its distance from it. Things radiated away from this central ideal in different directions – according to sex (women were held typically to be unable to manage their passions, for instance, for pseudo-biological reasons), civilisation (barbarians similarly were slaves to their passions and unable to see things in a reasoned manner, for climatic reasons), or species (animals differ from humans in the same way as barbarians differ from civilised people, as more than one Roman writer said). Thus while barbarians and animals could be and were assimilated, barbarians could be argued to share similar features as women and children; the barbarian is often feminised in Roman imagery. Participation in government at all levels depended upon the performance of civic Roman masculinity, and a perceived inability to do so called the legitimacy of any power into doubt. So, the Empire was to its very core a profoundly gendered artefact.

At the other level that concerns me, although the family was obviously another central concept within Roman society, and de facto power could be and was passed from generation to generation at the more powerful levels, it was participation in the imperial government that brought the ability to take part in politics beyond the local or regional level and, perhaps more importantly privilege, and precedence within a peer group. Although a senatorial family might expect to be involved in imperial level politics it still had to compete for imperial patronage and – even if the offices were determinant in maintaining patronage networks had at a local or regional level – no accepted right to expect to inherit a precise role in a particular geographical area. One generation of a family might govern Spain, for example, the next take a role in the Balkans and the one after that in Gaul or the East. Put bluntly, it was the end of this system that meant that the western Empire broke apart in the fifth century. I have tried in the past to suggest some ways in which gender played a part in this and in responding to the crisis. One means of navigating the crisis was through the employment of a rival concept of masculinity that appears to have been developing since the early fourth century. This was a martial masculinity that was developed in the army, now divided from the civic bureaucracy and associated with a sort of barbarisation, even if the latter was very much a Roman creation. I will return to this.

The Sixth Century Situation
Some of you will know that the bulk of my work on these issues has concentrated on the north of Gaul and so it will be no surprise that I am going to home in on this area to set out one kind of situation to emerge from the events of the fifth century. I have made the detailed case behind much of what I am about to say in various publications and conference papers over the years, the most important of which I have recently gathered together in a single volume. I hope therefore that I can pass over the details in some haste.

Now, the north of Gaul was an area which was tied very closely to the Roman state. It had – outside the Trier region, to which I will return – never been an area where the local aristocracy was particularly wealthy or powerful and from the third century it seems that the state itself acquired much of the landed resources of the region, harnessed to support the large concentrations of troops and bureaucrats based on or near the Rhine frontier. Lands were also probably used to reward soldiers and other officials. So, for a number of reasons, the local aristocracy was heavily dependent upon the existence and effective presence in the area of the Roman Empire. Not surprisingly, therefore, the break-up of the Empire, the beginning of which can, in this region, be traced to the end of the fourth century, had profound effects on local society and economy, which went into a deep crisis. Villas were abandoned, towns shrank to a shadow of their former selves and were in some extreme cases abandoned, the economy contracted (maybe less than was once thought) and so on.

By the start of the sixth century we can see fairly clearly the sort of situation that had evolved in response to the fifth-century crisis, and we can see this most clearly through the medium of archaeological cemetery evidence, written data being scarce for this region, something which in itself is a product of the social and political situation. By about 525 at the latest, whole communities were burying their dead with grave-goods. For non-early medievalists and perhaps even for early medievalists, it is worth stressing that this custom has nothing to do with pagan religion or Germanic ethnicity, although both misconceptions persist, in Anglo-Saxon archaeology as well as mainland European. Again, to be very brief, the practice of burial with grave-goods is a symptom of precarious local authority, of a situation where community leadership was open to competition and passed with difficulty from one generation to the next.

Analysis of the patterns of distribution of grave-goods within cemeteries reveals a situation where the artefacts deposited with the dead were based heavily around age and gender, as I have discussed on many other occasions. Analysis reveals that those deaths that caused the greatest tension within local social relations were those which were marked with the greatest ritual display. This display, to be meaningful, required a large audience present on or about the day of the funeral. To state the obvious, a display of grave-goods is not meaningful to anyone once the grave is filled in. Significant above-ground monuments are rare. The resources spent on a funeral are concentrated on the here-and-now display. This is a feature of sixth-century northern Gallic society and politics that can also be seen in sixth-century law. It is also significant that sixth-century cemeteries tend to be fewer but larger than their seventh-century successors, possibly serving several different settlements.

These included the deaths of men between the ages of about 40 and about 60 and those of women in their teens and, in a different way, between about 20 and about 40. If we combine this data with the evidence of the written sources we can put together a plausible image of different life-cycles for men and women, of which a key difference is age at marriage, with women marrying at about puberty and men rather later, in their late twenties. Thus the picture that emerges is that tension was created by the deaths of men who had died before their sons were old enough to have married and established their own household. It was also created by the deaths of women who were of marriageable and/or child-bearing age. I have tended to explain this on the basis of the stress in social relations produced by the dissolution, through death, of an alliance between families and by the issues of inheritance, especially where children who had not yet reached maturity were involved, raised by the death of a mother, such as can be revealed by consideration of the legal evidence.

Now, this hasty sketch raises a series of issues that are of importance to our theme at this conference. One concerns one of the ways in which local communities responded to the crisis in the legitimation of local power produced by the disintegration of the Roman Empire. Power was established and maintained through the costly series of what historians rather slackly call gift-exchanges (something can’t really be a gift if it is also an exchange) associated with the creation of bonds between families: we can detect rituals around the coming of and in feasting, and it is in this connection that much of the funeral display has to be seen. But also, of course, these exchanges took place in betrothal and marriage, exchanges of wealth, landed and moveable, and – of course – of people, particularly women. One can of course, following the classic Gail Rubin article of 1977, see this exchange as of primary importance in that participation in such politics and exchange requires the gendering of individuals as men or women. It also seems to be the case that female status and power was more – even more, I should say - based around sex than had typically been the case under the empire.

Another implication, which I have begun to consider more and which ought perhaps not to come as a surprise after the preceding comments, is that I think that the archaeological data might show that there developed a more bi-polar (I’m not sure if this is quite the word I want but still) idea of gender. Instead of things being judged exclusively by proximity to or distance from a single male pole, a single set of ideal qualities believed to be generally reserved to men, I wonder if what we see here might instead be the creation of a separate female pole, a set of feminine qualities, actively different from the masculine. I base this suggestion – and obviously it is only a suggestion – on the existence of separate artefact assemblages for men and women. Now this might not be as simplistic as it at first sounds. The differences do not simply concern dress or costume items, and masculine artefacts in Francia are not entirely items of weaponry. The latter include a number of other things, especially in the graves of mature adult males, who we might see as heads of households, which seem to relate to the hearth or other areas of the household. As far as I can tell, although it might be worth looking at this again, and there are, I admit, some serious methodological problems which I will flag up in a minute, I cannot currently detect a situation where female status is manifest in a movement towards the masculine end of the spectrum, such as one can detect in some written sources from the Roman period.

The principal methodological problem concerns the fact that, by the nature of things, if an object is found in the burials of men and women analysis will move it out of the gender-specific groups and into the ‘neutral’ group, thus thoroughly obscuring any gendered content that the artefact might have had, without closer and more specific study. Second, such a movement might indeed actually be visible in the way that with age, women tend to lose many of the gender-specific artefacts acquired at puberty but acquire larger numbers of what the analysis throws up as ‘neutral’ objects. One might suggest that this could – possibly – be an archaeological manifestation of the kind of late antique valorising of the matron that Kate Cooper has explored through written sources – admittedly from a different time and place. And third, if we move out of the static analysis of a particular phase of a site to look at change through time, there does seem to be a process of the acquisition by women of certain hitherto masculine artefacts, forcing their redefinition in male burials. We’ll come back to this dynamic aspect of the data.

In defence of the proposition, however, a number of points can also be made. One is that there is a separate set of objects related to the household which occurs in female burials but not in male ones, further suggesting a separate pole. Another is the fact that in prestigious female graves another set of artefacts is found which are not discovered in men’s burials, and a third is that study of the cemeteries does appear to suggest that as far as grave-goods were concerned, female status within the community does seem to have revolved principally around the number and quality of feminine-specific grave-goods. So, provisionally, I think that a case can be made for retaining the proposition that a separate female pole, valorising different aspects, was a feature of sixth-century social organisation. As I said earlier, when taken alongside other aspects of the gender history of the period in this region, it is an idea that does seem to make some sense.

Another development, which I have discussed before – not least at the GMS in 2001 - and is pretty well known anyway, is the gradual demise of the civic model of masculinity. It is gradual and we should certainly not regard the process as over and done with too soon, but it is nevertheless the case that the martial model of masculinity fairly quickly acquired a significant dominance over other models. At the same time, and in connection with this, Frankish identity acquired a clear dominance over Roman in most of the north of Gaul (I will come back to an exception), though again it is worth stating that what we have is still a situation with parallel populations. It is also important to note that as far as I can tell, ethnicity was itself gendered in sixth-century Gaul. Ethnic identity is only ascribed to adult males – indeed adult male heads of households - in sixth-century Frankish law. It appears from analysis of the written as well as the archaeological cemetery data that masculine status was achieved over a long period of socialisation rather than entirely governed by birth.

Another descriptive point that I want to draw out from the study of 6th-century cemeteries, which is of some importance to the conference theme, is the way that – as I alluded to earlier – fairly clear rules govern what were the acceptable numbers and types of grave-goods for people of particular ages and sexes. Any attempt by a particular family to demonstrate its standing within the community was thus heavily circumscribed by the fact that it needed, it seems, to play within a set of communally accepted norms. The importance of the community in social politics can be further suggested by consideration of the organisation of sixth-century cemeteries, which, in Gaul, are famously characterised by being laid out in more or less neat rows. Furthermore, on some sites it seems that there were rules or norms governing where men and women – or women at least, were buried. On these sites it is difficult to detect any sort of family plots and indeed I wonder if the means by which researchers like myself have been wont to try and identify family groupings – and the very preconceptions underlying those attempts – are not fundamentally mistaken.

Overall, it seems that in this region in this period – generally – local standing was based upon the fulfilment of particular roles within families, rather than entirely through membership of particular families. Historians used to talk about the early medieval kindred as a widely spread ‘clan’. More recently this sort of thinking has been heavily nuanced. In the kaleidoscope of ever-changing familial alliances alluded to earlier, each of which created fictive or affinal kin, practical kinship can only have worked using the smallest familial group as its building block, with other kinship relations beyond that being activated only in particular contingent circumstances. And so the sixth-century community remained, I would say, more powerful in local politics, than the family. This conclusion goes against the grain of usual assumptions about medieval societies, and indeed I would not argue that it is generally applicable for the sixth century in western Europe, but in many of the regions of north-western Europe I would maintain it is a valid and important conclusion.

All of what I have just said has important implications for why the sixth-century Merovingian kingdom was so strong – why, indeed it can be seen without very much difficulty as a state. In this situation in the political heartland of the kingdom, it can be seen from this analysis that there were few means of establishing local dominance. This is not, let me stress, to say that there were no aristocrats or that there were no families that maintained local power over several generations, just that these aristocrats were not very powerful – I have before termed them a ‘squirearchy’ – and that maintaining their power at a local level, firstly, cost them in gifts, ritual and the maintenance of a household, the bulk of whatever surplus they did manage to extract, leaving little for the construction of elaborate dwellings, supporting craft specialists, organised manufacture, urbanism and the rest. Secondly, that power was always up for grabs and passed with difficulty from one generation to the next. In this context, the best means of underlining and strengthening local power was in obtaining the patronage of the Merovingian kings, directly or via their officers, down a chain of command. In a way this continued the situation of the late Roman Empire in the area, but the kings held even more of the aces. They distributed and redistributed their patronage at will and such was its importance that – in a way that ninth-century Frankish kings never managed – they were able to mobilise their aristocrats as an independent coercive military force and set it on other recalcitrant or rebellious members of that aristocratic class itself.

I should stress that you will find a rather different reading of the sixth-century Frankish aristocracy in Chris Wickham’s monumental Framing of the Early Middle Ages, where he argues for a strong, abnormally wealthy and powerful aristocracy in northern Gaul. Now Chris and I have disagreed about this for many years, in the nicest and most respectful way. Actually I think he is probably right for the seventh or – especially – the eighth or the ninth centuries. Probably my major criticism, though, is that he lumps the sixth-century data too much in with the seventh and thus obscures the differences between the two that I am going to dwell upon. As a result I think he has simply misunderstood the sixth century in the north of Gaul. In the nicest and most respectful way… Be that as it may, I thought it fair at least to point you at a very different reconstruction from my own.

I have just sketched out some aspects of the relationship between gender construction, the family and the community and the ways in which it related to the nature of the state and of high politics in the sixth century. In its specifics it is relevant only to the north of Gaul, especially north of the Seine and south of the Rhine, but in its general outlines it is of wider applicability. The last couple of decades of archaeological research have demonstrated very similar sorts of pattern in other grave-goods-burying regions of north-western Europe. South-western Germany, the Netherlands and northern Germany, Anglo-Saxon England, and so on. In detail there are important differences. Anglo-Saxon and Alamannic children were, unlike Frankish ones, buried with weaponry. In Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, in a way diametrically opposite to contemporary Frankish ones, there are far more feminine objects than masculine ones, and many more that are not directly related to clothing. The masculine objects are limited and seem to have stronger individual symbolism – this is actually, in my view, much more like feminine artefact types in Frankish Gaul. Regional differences can be accounted for in ways that relate to specific political structures. The lavishness of the Alamannic burials probably relates to the fact that this was, after the Franks’ destruction of the Alamans as an independent polity, a political fringe where local power was even more open to competition than in the Paris basin. By contrast the more muted displays and the absence of proper ‘row cemeteries’ among the continental Saxons probably speaks of more secure local power there, after a fifth-century crisis. Similarly, further south in the Paris basin and in northern Burgundy there is greater evidence of post-imperial continuity, though the extent of dislocation and crisis should not be neglected, and the grave-goods display is correspondingly more limited. The greater emphasis on the female pole of the ‘bipolar’ sixth-century gender construction among the Anglo-Saxons might – as other researchers have also suggested albeit in different ways – attest to the greater degree of post-imperial collapse there.

I said above that there were parts of northern Gaul were things were different. I meant in and around the former capital of Trier. In the highlands of the Triererland cemeteries are much the same as those around Metz, but in Trier itself we can see something different. Here there is an unusual degree of post-imperial survival of a local aristocracy, an élite that was very self-conscious in its Roman identity and which as a result seems to have consciously spurned the Merovingians, to some degree. We can detect this in the written sources but also in a quite remarkable series of late antique funerary epitaphs. Over 800 gravestones survive in whole or in part from the period that concerns me, that is about a quarter of the whole Gallic corpus and almost the entire body of epitaphs from late antiquity north of the Loire. The obvious difference between an epitaph and a grave-goods assemblage is that the former is intended at least to be permanently visible. We have a clearer idea that people were thinking in terms of projecting commemoration of their dead, and their identity, into the future. We can read this as a greater confidence in social position. The sponsorship of stone-dressing and carving also relates to a slightly more stable élite control of surplus. The awkward Roman, ‘senatorial’ (as it styled itself) élite of Trier seems rather different form that across the rest of the north of Gaul and analysis of its epitaphs underlines this. Now when these gravestones were discussed in detail by Mark Handley, in an analysis that provides the basis for my own, he thought that he detected similar patterns and concerns as are visible in the distribution of grave-goods which I had studied. My own analysis, however, comes to rather different conclusions. One of the most important is the far greater investment in the commemoration of children; another is that whereas the grave-goods are much more heavily invested in male burials, among the epitaphs the number of commemorands is more or less equally divided between the sexes; a greater relative investment is thus made in female commemoration. Perhaps this gives us a glimpse of what we ought to expect in areas where local power and élite familial identity are more established.

Further towards the Mediterranean, the picture is different. Greater continuity of social and economic systems meant a much more limited need to invest in the sort of short-term display of status to the local community as is manifested in grave-goods. Instead the élite marked its presence through above-ground monuments: churches at the most lavish level, rural baptisteries, funerary mausolea, and sarcophagi either resting on the surface, with elaborate sides in the Roman tradition, or with lids visible at ground level. Here the patterns of aristocratic involvement with the state continued broadly on late Roman lines, although within smaller political units and with more restricted political horizons. As far as I can tell, at least at the levels of social élites, late Roman ideas of the family and gender continued.

Even in the Mediterranean world, there were nevertheless some similarities with the northern European areas harder hit by the fifth-century crisis. One was the gradual dominance of the martial model of élite masculinity. Another was the gradual spread of non-Roman ethnic identity at these levels, Gothic, later Lombard in Italy; Gothic in Spain.

The Change
And so we come to the issue of how and why all this changed around 600. I’ll start by drawing a few vignettes to point the way to some of the issues involved.

First, we can compare two passages of Frankish law concerned with what happens when someone cannot pay the fine imposed by a law-court for a murder or other wrong done to another family. In the sixth-century Pactus Legis Salicae the law-makers envisaged a bizarre-looking set of rituals whereby the bankrupt wrongdoer displayed to the assembled local legal community that he had no further resources left, and then – again publicly and via a ritual display – brought in members of his kin to help him pay. The display brought in kinsmen in widening ‘ripples’ of relationship until they reached those living people who were related to the guilty party within three generations. The parallel clause of the seventh-century Lex Ribvaria – a code that generally likes to pretend that it is a simple reissue of the Pactus Legis Salicae – just says that if the guilty party cannot pay then his family have to pay over three generations. There are two noteworthy points in this. One is the decline of the here and now ritual display; the other is the increased concern with – and indeed the acceptance of the possibility of – projecting situations into the future.

The second concerns costume – and is not entirely frivolous on my part. Here is a reconstruction of sixth-century Frankish male and female costume from a French text-book. The point is that there is a significant change around 600 in the nature and decoration of artefacts and costume accessories.

The third little comparison concerns two double burials. The first is the one I spoke about when I last addressed the GMS, Ennery graves 6 and 8. This is a sixth-century grave, possibly one of the earliest burials on the site, with two males, one with weapons, one without. The one with weapons is probably the older of the two, probably around 20 years of age, and the younger, a teenager, lacks weapons as is usual for males of this age-group. Thus the burial, although unusual, conforms to the general rules of the cemetery. The other, Audun-le-Tiche grave 103 comes from over a century later, although also from the department of the Moselle in France. Here both of the deceased are adolescents, but both are buried with weapons and indeed are among the best furnished burials on the site. This breaks with the old norms. Furthermore the burial was surrounded at surface level by a stone wall, marking it off from other graves. Finally, and most bizarrely, both subjects had had their heads removed, seemingly post-mortem. This illustrates a number of salient points. The shift from conformity with community rules to the obvious demonstration of difference; the movement from concentration on grave-goods to an increased concern with above-ground markers; finally I have interpreted the absence of the heads as possibly indicating their separate burial in a new family church, such as began to appear in the countryside of northern Gaul at about this time.

Before looking at these issues in more detail a couple of preliminary points need to be made. First is the issue of chronology. Although I continue to use ‘around 600’ as a sort of shorthand, the period of change encompasses the late sixth century in particular, and the early seventh. The precise dates of some of the changes I am going to discuss are still quite vague and the subject of much debate in archaeological circles. Some see the changes taking place from the last third of the century at least. This is something that I need to consider more closely but I still wonder to what extent chronologies are really independent of the recent attempt to push the so-called Arnegund burial under Saint-Denis back to c.575/80 essentially for purely documentary historical reasons, rather than the old early seventh-century date that was initially proposed on archaeological grounds. I’ve never been very convinced by this.

The other points I would like to make concern the nature of the change. The way of the lecture might make it look as though I am arguing for abrupt and dramatic shifts from one way of doing things to another. For one thing, while the change I am discussing is still fairly dramatic it is taking place over a lifetime; for another, the changes are more about shifts of emphasis, even if important shifts, not about things first being like this and then being like that. This might get obscured in the sketches I’m about to give but I’d ask you to try and bear these qualifications in mind.

Another set of qualifications concerns the evidence, which changes itself as part and parcel of the changes I am considering. One tends to see repeated the same sorts of ‘contours’ in the survival of evidence. Written sources, the survival of urban and rural settlement patterns and trade networks from the Roman period, map onto each other pretty well in the sixth century; so too do the absence of written data, the decline and disappearance of Roman settlement forms, the decline of the Roman economy and the appearance of grave-goods. The changes I am interested in bring about the survival of documents in more areas, the appearance of new types of settlement and the decline of other types of archaeological data. Sadly, too, the changes affect the different parts of western Europe in different ways with different results. Thus we are rarely comparing like with like, in evidential terms, whether we are looking at change through time within a region or contrasting different regions at the same time. All this, too, needs to be borne in mind.

Again I will start by focussing on the north of Gaul and again with the cemetery evidence. In the seventh century, cemeteries became smaller and more numerous. In terms of their organisation, they became less regular, on the whole and grouping into what look like family plots becomes much more visible. If we read this as showing that they served a smaller community than before, and thus perhaps that a smaller audience was present at the funeral, then it will perhaps not be surprising that the number and range of grave-goods deposited shrinks significantly as well – indeed by the last quarter of the century the deposition of artefacts in graves had ceased more or less completely in northern Gaul. One important feature that concerns us is that the number of gender-specific artefacts is particularly reduced, and within gender-specific artefacts, feminine artefacts are far more reduced than masculine. Unsurprisingly, in comparison with the sixth century, it becomes much more difficult to gender graves on the basis of their goods, and relationships between age and grave-goods become extremely vague.

Some types of object which had earlier only been placed in female burials are now to be found in male graves as well. In particular this means certain types of brooch. At the same time, the plaque buckles which had initially been an item of masculine apparel are now found in female burials as well. Overall, although masculine items such as weapons are much less varied or plentiful than before, the focus of the grave-goods display shifts quite dramatically towards the male end of the scale. Whereas the greatest craftsmanship in sixth-century artefacts, leaving aside swords, was invested in feminine artefacts such as brooches, in the seventh century the most elaborate items are large plaque buckles found in male graves – buckles whose size and decoration seems to increase as smaller plainer versions begin to be worn by women. Such brooches as remain, other than elaborate disc brooches worn by both sexes, are plain and simple. Equally, from about 560 onwards, on the northern fringes of the region, there appears what is known as Salin’s Style II, a form of animal decoration on metalwork, and this too is initially found on masculine items and only later spreads to feminine artefacts such as jewellery. What, in the sixth century, I identified as a female pole of gender creation is significantly attenuated.

As the grave-goods become fewer and less significant in their symbolism, there is a concomitant increase in other forms of commemoration. In this period in the north, we can detect a sharp rise in more permanent, above ground monuments: sarcophagi with lids visible at surface level; gravestones and other above-ground markers; walls around burials and so on. The ultimate expression of this is of course the construction of a church and it is in the seventh century that churches begin to spread into the rural districts of the region.

It is difficult to avoid reading these developments in terms of the growing stability, security and power of the local aristocracy, especially if one looks at the broader picture. The seventh century in northern Gaul saw urban revival, evidence of rural settlement evidence becomes clearer, the building of churches in towns as well as, slightly later, in the countryside starts to enter a boom period, and there was economic change and expansion. The economy began to become more monetary and there is greater evidence of craft specialisation and organised manufacture. At the same time, documents begin to survive, or rather to have been kept, and these very largely concerned with the greater land-holding capacity of the regional élite. The crucial moment in this, I have argued, is the series of Frankish royal minorities from 575 to 612, which saw the kings lose the tight grip on patronage that I described earlier as being crucial in maintaining the power of the state. Taxation declined as privileges increasingly devolved such dues to local landlords, and the army shifted decisively from being a force levied on what might loosely be termed a ‘horizontal’ model, raised by royal officers from a broader social stratum defined by ethnicity and thus a relationship to the king, through to a ‘vertical’ model, down chains of lordship, retinue and dependence. We can start to trace northern Gaulish – Frankish – aristocratic lineages whose members seem to keep local and regional political roles more securely in their hands. The importance of royal patronage in establishing or determining élite status was weakened dramatically and so consequently was the ability of royal power to intervene in the localities. These are crucial issues in the withering of the western state.

In this context, the changes we can see at the local level are only to be expected. As power became more secure, dominant families no longer needed to compete with their neighbours in local communities. Displays to these people at the funerals of family members were no longer as necessary. The old strategies were now more important at a further-flung peer-group level. As the power of individual families within small regions became more secure, family identity became more important. The old communal norms and rules broke down and cemeteries began to be organised around familial concerns. As some families broke away from their erstwhile neighbours and rivals, displays of status became less subtle. The deceased of powerful families, of whatever age or sex, were buried with – for the period – lavish goods. At Audun-le-Tiche for example, there are in the opening phase of the cemetery, well-furnished burials of old women, quite unlike anything found in the region earlier on – whose burials furthermore make use of above-ground monuments. I already mentioned the adolescents of grave 103. The use of sarcophagi, as with the Trier epitaphs, was also more evenly spread across age and sex within these families. Physical separation in burial became more common and eventually the elite were buried in their own churches.

These families had a much greater ability to project their status into the future, something that explains not only the greater use of the permanently visible funeral marker, but also the retention of documents and the legal concern with the longer term.

Thus we can detect a significant change in the relationship between the family and the local community and between local élite families and the political core. If we return to how this related to gender, I would like to suggest that this increasing stability also saw a change in gender construction. 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 pole 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 slightly later 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. Concepts of heredity 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.

As before it is possible to compare this situation with other areas. Again I’ll split my very brief comments into two areas: North-West Europe and the Mediterranean. As before much of the northern Gallic situation finds broad parallels in Germany and Anglo-Saxon England, although, again with significant differences in detail that can be explained according to more local factors. Many of the funerary changes I have described in Gaul are directly paralleled in the so-called ‘final phase’ cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England, something which – at some point, surely – must lead to thinking about these English changes in ways that are not connected solely to the Augustinian mission. The implications for Anglo-Saxon political organisation really need to be explored in less insular fashion.

In the south, around the Mediterranean, we can see a number of similar changes. The southern Gallic evidence is dominated by large ‘Aquitanian’ plaque buckles. In Spain, brooches more or less disappear from the archaeological record and similar developments to those in the Frankish and Alamannic cemeteries can be found on so-called Lombard cemeteries.

But importantly the seventh century saw a significant reduction of the differences between north-western and Mediterranean Europe. As the north entered a period of economic expansion, the Mediterranean economy began to decline. The seventh century saw the final abandonment of villas in the area. It might be an index of the ‘downward’ movement of the south that local funerary display, manifested in grave-goods, became more common in southern Gaul in this period, as the huge numbers of plaque buckles attest.

Finally, I have a suggestion to throw out. This concerns political vocabulary and ideology. In the sixth century, 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. What I wonder is if there is 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.

What I hope this, admittedly rather breathless whistle-stop tour of western Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries has shown is not simply that this was an important period of change and diversity, but also the ways in which interconnected ideas of gender construction and the family lay at the very heart of the processes of change. In her classic article, Joan Scott coined the phrase of gender as a useful tool of historical analysis. I hope that I have shown that this remains so and not just in the traditional areas of social history but also in binding those spheres to the high political. I also think that there are important ways forward in thinking, similarly, of the family, as a related useful tool of historical analysis.


  1. love this. is it published? Can i cite it?

  2. Sorry, Sarah - only just saw this. Thanks! It's not published except here but of course you can cite it. (It's only provisional of course!)


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