Here's the cover of my book. I hope you like it. I think it'll work to draw in the audience I'm trying to reach, even if, yes, it's a tad hackneyed and yes, a bit 'ooh does it come with a free CD of 'Arthurian Moods'?*).
You can pre-order it direct from Oxford University Press here, and from Amazon here.
I just read the first chapter of Narrative and History. Not sure I'll read any more but we'll see. Let's just say I am unimpressed. It's not that I went into it with any particular preconception; I've not been very impressed in the past with the author's work or that of his guru, Keith Jenkins, but I've no axe to grind against critiques of traditional history. If anyone ought to approach someone who claims to represent 'deconstructionist history' positively it ought to be me, especially now I'm a card-carrying Derridean. But, well ... what is the author of this tome? Does he see himself as a historian? If so he seems to have a very odd view of the practising historian and her/his attitudes. Most of what he says on that score (thus far) is unsubstantiated caricature. Or does he think he's a philosopher of history? Because if so, his understanding of the post-structuralist philosophy he claims to advocate is shocking. And I say that as someone, as you know, who makes no pretence at all to be a philosopher. Or is he just Keith Jenkins' panegyrist? The fawning over Jenkins is really quite nauseating.
So far, we have a lot of long words but our man hasn't demonstrated very clearly that he understands that many of them. Certainly he seems not to understand what deconstruction means. At all. In spite of writing a book called Deconstructing History (see also here). He also has a curious understanding of what 'historicism' is too. He seems to see no contradiction between his premise about history being essentially 'authored' and history being inseparable from the politics etc of the writer of history ('authored history') and everything that Barthes and Derrida (whom he cites as being behind the view of history he champions) said about the author. Thus far (this might get resolved) we seem to be told that we can identify the ideological positioning etc of a modern writer of history, but the ability of a modern historian to do something similar with his/her sources appears to be pooh-poohed.
This book is apparently a primer for history students, but I don't think it could safely be given to any undergraduates - even on a course about post-linguistic turn approaches to history - without seriously misleading them. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh - it wouldn't be the first time after all - but this whole project seems to me to be predicated on no one knowing anything about either history or philosophy, on the assumption that practising historians mostly don't think about what they're doing (and maybe that's truer than it ought to be, but less true than many seem to think) and on the reader not actually going and checking out and engaging with the philosophy on its own terms but simply 'applying' the bizarrely cock-eyed critique presented in the book, willy-nilly, to set texts. I really cannot see the point beyond that. So far this seems to me to be a very bad book, even on its own terms. Maybe it'll get better. I'm not confident.
[Here is the text of a key-note paper I gave yesterday to this conference, under the title of 'Each thought is a throw of the dice: Transition and Irony, Chance and Change'. it was a nice one-day follow-up conference (to a larger two day affair in May). It is in part a rework of my earlier 'Gaps, Ghosts and Dice' post which I think makes it those points a lot more clearly. Then it develops the points to explore some implications (including ethical and political ones) for the study of transition and change in history (or indeed in related disciplines). The clarifications and digressions of the initial version still apply!]
Seventeen years ago I published
an article entitled ‘The Merovingian Period in North-East Gaul: Transition or
Change?’ In this piece I principally argued
two things: first, at a general level, the concept of transition is essentially
teleological. The whole concept of
transition depends on one having determined, after the event, the start and end
points of the transition. ‘From X to Y’:
think of how many books and articles have titles of that formula or the related
one: ‘the origins of X’. It relies on
one determining from what, and to what, things are in transition. This tends to remove people from their
history; mostly people don’t experience their lives as transitions, largely
because they don’t know where their lives are going. I borrowed a rather nice quote from
Ferdinand Lot to open the article - ‘…we who, in regard to our ancestors, are
gods because we know their future’ – and, characteristically perversely, the
example of Fountains Abbey. The transept
tower at Fountains was completed in 1526, and is an impressive monument at an
impressive site – but a ruined site.
Within ten years of the tower’s completion Henry VIII had begun the
process of dissolution which in 1539 would see the Fountains monks expelled
from their site. If historians regard
the sixteenth century as a period of transition, it can hardly be thought that
the Cistercians of the Yorkshire Dales saw things the same way. As I wrote in 1995:
The only transition that, in c.1520, the Yorkshire monks and canons
thought they were living through was one to a period of prosperity and better
management, as manifested by their works of restoration and improvement,
certainly not one of ‘reformation’, let alone one from ‘medieval’ to ‘early
modern’; in that respect they had more important things to think about.
The second, more specific, point
developed the first. The article
originated as a contribution to a conference on ancient to medieval
transitions. I argued that to view late
antiquity, or Merovingian Gaul, as a period of, or place in, transition muddied
the waters by obscuring all the dynamic change that took place within the
centuries grouped together under the heading of ‘late antiquity’ or ‘the
Merovingian period’. In all such
approaches we prioritise processes that we
see, from our perspective, as having
led somewhere, at the expense of all those which we know, but crucially people at the time didn’t, weren’t to lead
anywhere. I didn’t make as much of that
last point as I would have done had I written the piece ten years later.
In 1995, I was concerned with the
dynamism of change. Partly this was
political – partly local, academic political, in that I wanted to make clear
that the Middle Ages wasn’t one big millennium-long lump that a single member
of staff could be expected to cover all of; partly political in the wider sense,
in that I wanted to argue for the human scale, the lived experience, of
historical change and thus that all people have a role to play as historical
agents (this, remember, was written in the depressing aftermath of the 1992
general election). High level political
change was intimately related to myriad decisions made at local levels – even
in the fifth-to-eighth centuries. All
this, it won’t be surprising to learn, was born of an encounter, via
post-processual archaeology, with Anthony Giddens’ concept of structuration and
Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the ‘habitus’, both of which in their own ways
concern the recursive relationship between ‘structure’ and agency. The structure within which people act is itself
formed by a sort of memory bank of all previous actions and their acceptance or
otherwise, a memory bank constantly remade or altered (in however infinitesimal
way) by practice, by the innumerable, on-going actions of myriad social agents. This approach has informed almost everything
I have written since then.
That said, the extent to which it
can be harmonised with the approach that I am going to suggest today is a
problem to which I don’t yet have an answer.
What has increasingly interested me over the last decade is the irony of
history. That is to say that what
happens in history may not be the result of one social actor failing or
succeeding, or compromising to some extent, vis-à-vis his or her aims, in his
or her relationships with another, which is the way that I – and I suspect most
historians – have tended to view the issue.
Rather it might be something intended by nobody. This is something I discussed in the central
section of Barbarian Migrations and the
Roman West, where I tried to construct a historical narrative in the ironic
mode, attempting to depict events unfolding without colouring my account or
analysis according to what I know (but my subjects didn’t) was going to happen
next. This was to some degree an
exercise in writing without the usual portentous phraseology of historians:
‘and so it was that, for the last time, the Roman army campaigned north of the
Loire’; ‘this decision was to have fatal consequences’; that sort of
thing. It’s a lot more difficult than
you might think… Going back to the terms
of my 1995 article, what sorts of ‘transitions’ did contemporaries think they
were living through, or trying to bring about, which actually went nowhere, or
went in a completely different direction from the one intended? The usual methods of history have a
tendency to ignore all this by assuming that the path of history is cut by
agents who know where they are going and are capable of bringing about the
changes they want. History is thus
deliberate. While I don’t want to remove
the knowledgeable social actors or the ability to effect change from the
equation, I am increasingly convinced that the course of history is
fundamentally unintended, chaotic and accidental.
Folding the Ribbon of Time
To explore all this further I am
going to talk about historical narrative and to explore it using some concepts
from the two Jacques: Lacan and Derrida, principally the latter. Where these thinkers and their like have been
used in the past, it has generally been in the issue of analysing written (or
other) sources or in the problems of extrapolating from such data to historical
‘reality’, a rather pointless debate in my view. I’m sidestepping that to some extent to look
at history, or rather at narrative, itself.
I’m also going to use Derrida to do something creative rather than in
the way that he has been used by past theorisers of history, where he serves
simply to bolster a posturing, half-thought-through epistemological nihilism –
which does him scant justice. Before I
go any further I should make clear that I am no expert on the philosophy that I
am using as a springboard for these thoughts; I’m not setting myself up as, any
sort of philosopher. I’m an absolute
novice in all this.
I am currently working on a
project provisionally entitled ‘The Transformations of the Year 600’ – an
exploration of the wide-ranging and diverse changes that occurred between c.560
and c.650. As this period has long been
regarded as one that saw the ‘transition to the Middle Ages’, the issues of
change and transition are of some importance, as they have been throughout my
work – perhaps even more so. In tandem
with this, though, I am also interested in the politics and ethics that inhere
within the historical project.
All that having been said, none
of this represents any kind of fully worked out thesis. These are ideas, if you will, in transition
and – like, as I will argue, everyone involved in what might someday be seen as
a transition – I have no idea at all how they’ll turn out, if they turn out as
anything at all. Let me just try out
some ideas with you and see where they go.
Let’s start with some pretty
basic and uncontroversial modelling. Maitland
said “[s]uch is the unity of
all history that anyone who endeavours to tell a piece of it must feel that his
first sentence tears a seamless web”. I think that it is time, as it is lived and experienced,
that is the seamless web (or, for the sake of diagrammatic convenience, we
might see it as an endless undifferentiated line). History,
I will try to demonstrate, is itself the
seams in the web. Let’s envisage past time as an endless
ribbon; a ribbon extending up to the present moment (itself ever moving) (as left). Now, while we might be able to imagine that
past, it is, I contend, impossible to make sense of it without selecting
particular elements from all those events that have already happened and
placing them in a sequence, rightly or wrongly.
Prior to such activity the past is shapeless, amorphous, unsymbolised,
rather than our neat ribbon (right). It can be
imagined but not really made sense of. History
is surely the inescapable and absolutely essential process of making seams in
that web or, in our diagrammatic metaphor, that ribbon. That process inevitably involves a process of
winnowing; you can’t remember everything that has happened (unless you’re Funes
the Memorious in the Borges story), and you can’t record everything in a
history. We’ll return to the
implications of that.
For now, let us
place our chosen sequence of events along our ‘time-ribbon’ (left). The space between our chosen events is the
amount of time that elapsed between them.
However, when we compose, relate and perhaps write a narrative, those
time-lapses are erased. It is as though
we bring all those events together, bunching up our ‘time-ribbon’ between
them (right). We often talk of a narrative
thread and I would develop that metaphor to mean that thread that we use it to ‘stitch
together’ or sew up the events in our story.
If we give a more 3-D representation of the effect, it would look like
this (left). All the ‘loops’ in the ribbon
are, as we have seen ‘eradicated’ and thus concealed from the reader, listener
or other consumer of the narrative. Thus
to envisage what our narrative really looks like, concealing the ‘loops’ of
unrepresented time, we have to view the ribbon from this side, [the blue arrow in the diagram) so in fact it
looks like this (above right). Each of these folds
stitched together by our narrative thread is an event, between our start and
end points, and here the only thing that determines the width of the fold from
this perspective is the amount of time we devote to describing the event, and
thus its relative importance, as we see it.
The relative time between each event has no depiction in the account.
If you want an idea of how things
might look otherwise, it might look this two-page spread from Stéphane
Mallarmé’s most famous poem, ‘Un Coup de Dés’ (above).
Mallarmé set out the poem with varying spacing over each two-page spread
and in different fonts, to try to represent the themes he was exploring. Different fonts linked particular ideas which
made sense on their own, even though the poem read left to right (over each
spread) and down the page, as usual.
This, for example, is actually part of the title (Un Coup de Dés n’Abolira le Hasard). I often wonder about writing history like
this, with spaces of different lengths indicating the amount time elapsed
between events, and different fonts and font-sizes representing the different
threads within the story. It'd be a huge
task and a real work of art, and would sell about three copies even if someone
took it on. But it'd be interesting.
To return to our ribbon metaphor,
though, you could break the thread at any point and look at the cloth opened up
– say look at the space or the transition between the second and third ‘events’
in our sequence (left) – but to understand it you would still need to make it into
a sequence of smaller folds (right); open up one of them and look at a smaller piece of
time but have to stitch that into smaller folds still, and so on. Or you can unpick all of the seams and behold
the whole ribbon opened up – and return us to our blurry, undifferentiated ‘ribbon’
but, inevitably, you will only be able to make sense of it by stitching it
together again, even if in a new way, with different bits of cloth (time)
concealed in the folds. You can argue
that the latter is what happened when historians stopped thinking that their
subject was simply the chronicling of high politics, kings and wars, and
started thinking about social history, or women’s history. For today’s purposes, you could say another
example came when historians cut the thread at the great fold that lay at 476
and the End of the Roman Empire and made a new fold, called Late
Everyone who has ever lectured to
first-year history students about the perils of periodization knows that
historical periods are, fundamentally, simply units of convenience that mask
certain continuities by fastening upon other pre-determined aspects of
change. But the problem reaches down
much further than that into the very way in which we write the narratives (I
like to call this stage ‘chronicling’ rather than ‘history’) that we then
analyse and explain, which, in my view, is ‘history’ properly defined.
Obviously, though, all that
folding or seaming, stitching or threading happens after the event. Deciding what constitutes an event in the
first place, what marks the edges of a fold, how we write about them in purely
descriptive terms, and so on, is all ex
post facto. It’s a truism that very
rarely (outside the obvious limit cases) do people see the events through which
they’re living in the same way as later historians will. Between 1914 and 1918, for example, we could
say that people were experiencing the horrors not of a ‘war to end wars’, as
they (or some of them) thought, but of a curtain raiser for an even more horrible
war. I have written that before about
470 at least, it is very unlikely that anyone alive in the fifth century
thought they were living through ‘the Fall of the Roman Empire’. Now I’d argue that that may even have been
true for people alive for two or three generations after 470, too.
None of my comments thus far is –
I readily admit – startling, new or profound.
At its most basic, essential but initial level, history is the process
of symbolising the past. It’d be
uncontroversial to say that we can’t even imagine the past in any meaningful
way without this sort of process happening first. We can imagine all that protean mass of
‘stuff what happened’ but we can’t access any of it without selecting from it,
placing those selections in sequence, evaluating them and having some idea of
their meaning; in other words without placing it within the symbolic
order. Only then can we really begin to
think about the past. Thus, ironically,
it is true to say that memory – or history – happens before the past.
Historical Narrative is structured like a Language
Here, I hope, things might begin
to get more interesting. I’m going to
steal Lacan’s famous comment that ‘the unconscious is structured like a
language’ and twist it to make a different point: Historical narrative is
structured like a language.
What I mean by that is that events
gain their meaning within sequences from their juxtaposition with other events,
before and after, like words. It is these
juxtapositions that allow us to emplot historical narrative as tragedy or as
heroic epic, or in an ironic mode, or however.
It’s not just that we have to use words to describe events, which make
sense only through signifying chains of difference; events themselves – types
of events or specific events – have different meanings according to the way
they are emplotted within a narrative.
This is old news as anyone who
has read Hayden White knows. But let’s
return to our stitched ribbon of narrative and explore what is implicit in that
potential difference in meaning. Behind
the ribbon, invisible from our perspective, are all those loops of ribbon: time
that has escaped symbolisation (as right).
It’s these loops which I want to
think about. The spaces or gaps in the
narrative that they represent are where history happens. They are the spaces – as I will return to
discuss – where nothing is decided and where time has not yet been symbolised
in any way – where time or the past has not yet become history. In that sense I like to think of them as the
spaces of The Real in a way that is influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis via
Slavoj Žižek. For those who haven’t risked an encounter
with Lacanian theory, The Real is, with The Imaginary and The Symbolic, one of
Lacan’s three orders (right). Essentially the
Real – the trickiest of the three orders to grasp, not least because Lacan
himself changed what he meant by it – is
the stuff that’s out there; it’s not ‘reality’, as such, as distinct from
imagination, so much as what escapes the process of symbolisation. It is fleeting, always shifting around on the
edge of your vision, and yet always in the same place. Any encounter with The Real is
traumatic. We could attempt a preliminary
transposition of Lacan’s three orders, as they relate to history, thus (below, right).
The spaces closed up, represented
metaphorically by the loops in the ribbon represent the temporal Real of lived
experience. This can only be folded and
seamed after the event, thus symbolising and historicising it. This process only (as we’ve seen) creates
further loops (unless, as I said earlier, one were to write in spaces that took
as long – relatively – to navigate as lived time) and so it can never be
grasped. Yet it is always there, always
in the same temporal place. In grasping
it you pass through it; it is like a ghost, a spectre. In my transposition, the Symbolic – the order
of language – is ‘history’, the incorporation of the past into a sort of
semiotic order, and The Imaginary – the sphere of the ideal – is ‘Narrative’ or
emplotment, especially personal narrative.
I’m not investing much in that transposition. It might work or it might not; you can
dismantle it at will.
But let’s shift our ground, our
viewpoint, and move from the après coup historian’s construction of narrative
to look at what happens in these loops. This
historical, ‘temporal’ Real is where things happen without us yet being able to
understand or place them in any sort of symbolic order. Encountering this Real can (as in Lacanian
theory) be a terrible thing. To take the
usual limit case, who can have experienced the Shoah (in whatever role) without
being aware of living through terrible history as it was being made?
These spaces are zones of
infinite possibility. Let’s assume we can somehow open up the tiny temporal
space closed up by the ‘and’ of the sentence ‘Napoleon’s army met Wellington’s
south of Brussels and was decisively defeated in the battle of Waterloo’. (Forgive me for using a non-medieval
example.) This space – the morning of 18
June 1815 – is inhabited by about 150,000 men and women. French and allied armies are deployed but not
engaged. Blue-clad troops swarming over
the horizon to the east are Prussians.
At this point anything is possible.
Napoleon can disengage; he can fight and win (or lose). He (and the other 149,999) can yet survive
the day or be killed. The day can turn
out to be the allied victory of Waterloo, or the French victory of La Belle
Alliance, or an insignificant encounter some days before the great Battle of
Somewhere Else, that no one other than Napoleonic military history buffs have
ever heard of. It could be the day that
Wellington died heroically, trying to stem the rout of his army, or the day of
infamy when Gneisenau inexplicably halted the Prussian army, leaving Wellington
to be defeated. Or the day the Emperor’s
head was knocked clean off by a Prussian canon-ball at the moment of his
greatest triumph. Or whatever.
Now, this does not simply mean
that ‘what happened’ was different; the whole way in which we symbolise and
understand it differs. That
symbolization is ever shifting as the narrative lengthens in time. Thus the symbolization of an historical event
is never fixed.
Our temporal Real – lived time –
is a true zone of Derridean ‘differance’.
That is to say that its meaning derives from difference from other
signifiers and that any ‘true’ meaning is endlessly deferred. For those unfamiliar with it, Derrida’s
concept of differance (with an ‘a’) was – to put it very simply – formulated in
the course of his argument against speech having primacy over writing, having a
prior link to a metaphysical presence of meaning. What Derrida argued was that spoken words
operate in the conveyance of meaning in the same way as written ones. This is why he coined the term ‘differance’ –
pronounced exactly the same (in French) as difference (with an ‘e’) but meaning
something, well, different. That
difference could only be established through a mental process of
differentiating the two words or graphemes.
And you can still get the meaning wrong, or repeat it and convey a
different meaning to someone else. Differance
with an ‘a’ merges the terms ‘differ’ and ‘defer’.
As another modern example, take
the history of Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War. If we were writing in 1946, say, we would
doubtless see ourselves in a space of triumph after a terrible ordeal; although
the future would seem very uncertain, there would be grounds for hope that a
new and better world was coming into existence after the horrors of
Nazism. If we were writing in 1982,
though, the picture of these events would look very different, a melancholy
exchange of one tyranny for another with no sign of anything getting any better
any time soon. Even respected professors of modern history could see no
prospect of the Fall of the Wall – a good example of why you should never ask a
historian to predict the future. If we
wrote that history now, the Soviet occupation would look like an interlude. The description and analysis, not just the
narrative, changes. The future looks
different from the way it looked in the ‘80s but it is no less
unpredictable. Donald Rumsfeld (of all
people) once said that the future is no less predictable than the past; the
past wasn’t predictable when it happened.
Moving back to our period, a
history that stops around 500 finishes with the end of the Roman Empire (Good
Thing/Bad Thing/Supreme Irony/whatever) but a cultural history of the period
c.300-c.700 can pass through it as though, in most meaningful terms, the Empire
didn’t end at all (as in some works within the Late Antique paradigm). A political history that continued to 814
would end with the revival of the Western Empire under Charlemagne – so the
Empire hadn’t really ended after all.
And what if, hypothetically, in our unpredictable post-banking-crisis future,
something very odd happens, with the EU becoming a pan-European dictatorship
renamed as a revival of the Roman Empire?
Do the 207 years since Francis I’s deposition as Holy Roman Empire
become an interval or blip, like the 324 years between Romulus Augustulus and
Charlemagne? Even the history of the
Roman Empire hasn’t necessarily ended yet…
What was the significance of 476?
It’s too soon to say.
The Temporal Real is a zone of
pure chance and encounter. As in my
Waterloo scenario, it’s not just the relative skill in generalship of
Wellington and Napoleon (and Blücher/Gneisenau), nor the bravery and skill of
their troops, nor any combination of those that determines the signification of
the event. All sorts of chance events could
intervene. Turned the other way round,
and using a late antique example, no one could have expected, on the morning
that the ambassadors of the Quadi came to visit Emperor Valentinian I on the
Danube, that their statement – that they had a right to attack Roman troops
building a fort in their territory because
they had intruded into their territory – would anger the Emperor so much that
he would drop dead of apoplexy. That was
a ‘response of the [temporal] Real’ if ever there was. As I set out in Barbarian Migrations, at the start of 421 it looked as though the
Roman Empire was going to weather the crisis of 395-413 and re-establish its
borders, having gone from this state in 410 (above left) to this one in 421 (below, right). Who knew that Constantius III was about to
contract pleurisy and die, leaving the Empire to a four-year-old Valentinian
III and his incompetent uncle Honorius?
This is by no means the ‘What
If…’ history beloved of right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson and his
ilk. In this type of history, the
premise is that if one thing happened
differently, the whole of European or world history would unfold in a quite
different way. This is logical
nonsense. In the poem discussed earlier,
Stéphane Mallarmé wrote that ‘a throw of the dice will never abolish
chance’. Quite so, but for Ferguson and
co. a different throw does. What if
Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?
Well, what if he did? What if he
fell off his horse and broke his neck the next day? Or, alternatively, what might have happened
if Napoleon had lost the Battle of
Waterloo? By 1848 both branches of the
Bourbons had been deposed anyway and by 1851 Napoleon’s nephew was ruling
France. Different outcomes are always
possible – they’re still possible. Vive
l’Empereur! Julius Caesar declared the
die to have been cast when he crossed the Rubicon. He must have thought he’d rolled high, too …
until he got stabbed to death by Brutus and the rest, having ended up in the
wrong place at the wrong time after all.
The throw of the dice did not abolish chance. There are no endings in history.
Quite apart from the competitive
interplay of actors’ intentions (which side ‘wins’) or the intervention of
chance, the outcome of actions can be quite unintended by anyone. I’ve argued – I hope I’ve demonstrated – that
the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century came about in
spite of the fact that in the hundred years prior to 476 we cannot find a
single person who actively tried to bring the Empire down. I described the end of the Western Roman
Empire as an ‘accidental suicide’, the ironic result of actions aimed not at
destroying the Empire at all, but at dominating it in the tradition of more
traditional fourth-century politics.
Every crucial action contributing to the Empire’s political demise was
brought about by people trying to preserve it.
The ‘Fall’ was an outcome that no one intended. The intervention of chance and the fact that
the outcomes of actions are not reducible (usually teleologically) to the
achievement or frustration of particular actors’ aims is a major problem with
many models of social interaction – even phenomenological. My way of seeing might help us avoid the
totalising tendencies of such approaches.
I would like to suggest that this
way of seeing has some quite important implications for thinking about the
concept of transition, which are somewhat different from the problems with the
idea that I set out in 1995. For one
thing, even the teleology inherent in the definition of transition is further
relativised by the approach to thinking about the symbolisation of time and
narrative that I have set out in this paper.
In 1995 I argued that one had to separate early medieval data out by
time and place. In the neutral sense of
comparing data from the same place and time, this is something that I’d still
stand by. What the approach I have been
trying to set out makes problematic is the idea of ‘context’, that key premise
of historicism. Context is everything,
we are told, and indeed it is – except, that is, when discussing the importance
of context, which is supreme, regardless of context… Obviously context is vitally important, but what exactly is context? We can leave
aside the fact that historians often treat context pretty loosely, so that
putting – say – Gregory of Tours’ writings of the 570s in context means setting
them alongside texts by Gregory the Great written ten or twenty years later, or
those of Isidore of Seville from later still (this chronological woolliness is
born of several different traditional approaches to the period, which we’ll
leave aside for now). A Derridean
deconstructionist approach actually relies on a certain contextualism, not
least to provide the other traces that go to make up the ‘texte’ – the network
of traces – of which our written texts are part. It also relies on a certain stability of text
which is not often available in early medieval studies; these points are often
Nonetheless, these points being
made, it must be said that many of the premises even of so-called New
Historicism are questioned by the approach I’m exploring. How, after all, do we define context? Surely, as often as not, that is done after
the event too, when we select those features which we think define the
thought/society/politics of a particular period – when we do this we select and
obscure just as much as when we select events – joining up features and leaving
others out of the equation. Indeed those
two processes are often interlinked.
Context, in terms of politics, is often related to the selection of the
events used to fold up our ‘ribbon of time’ – we saw already that this
selection can differ from those used for, say, gender history. The whole contextualist historicist approach
is essentially circular: first one creates a context from the available
evidence by selecting key points, features or areas of similarity from it; then
you argue that the evidence is best analysed against the context you just
created from it. These are the people
who like to mock Derrida for saying there was nothing outside text (something
which, incidentally, he never actually did say)…
Leaving the absurd – or some of
it – that to one side for a moment, another problem with the contextualist
approach is the way it artificially closes down the range of
possibilities. Part of that closing down
comes from the approach itself, as I just described. As a historian I find the approach worrying
in that it denies creativity, experimentation, invention, failure – the blind
alleys that I have referred to before.
It denies the possibility of non-orthodox readings, subordinate
readings, mis-readings. It denies
chance. A throw of the dice never will
abolish chance, said Mallarmé, and (in the last line of his poem) every thought
is a throw of the dice. Thinking about
other disciplines than history, I find it bewildering that a source can only be
read and analysed in the terms of its own period. I wonder of historicist readers of literature
think that medieval writers’ readings of the Classics or the Fathers are to be
condemned for not reading them ‘in context’?
The more I think about historicism, the more utterly incoherent it all
seems, heretical and subversive though such thinking is in [Poppleton].
So much for all that. What I want to dwell upon is deconstructing historical
narrative. Deconstruction is a grossly misused (and abused) word. People often
describe simple close reading as deconstruction; alternatively, people who’ve
never actually read Derrida (like, it has to be said, most of Derrida’s
historian and analytic philosopher critics) have alleged that it opens the way
to holocaust deniers, complete relativism and so on. It isn’t; it doesn’t. Deconstruction, said Derrida, is ‘what
happens’ (‘ce qui arrive’”). To be
super-simplistic, when dealing with texts, what deconstruction (as I understand
it at least) tends to involve is the identification of pairs of concepts, one
being haunted (to use a term from later Derrida) by the other but sublimating
it. Then that sublimated term is brought
to the fore.
If we take that as a means of
reading narrative, then what it allows us to do is to look at historical
moments (our loops in the ribbon), what happened and the terms we use to
describe it. All that is haunted by the
spectres of their opposites, the reverse concepts (victory/defeat, for
example), and the things, the outcomes that didn’t
happen, the outcomes that perhaps people (even the people who seem to have
got their way) were trying to bring about.
In a sense that allows us to deconstruct transition itself.
To return to the sorts of
dynamics that I thought in the mid-1990s were implicit in social change – the
interplay of identities – one has to look very closely into the loops in the
‘ribbon of time’, into context if you like.
Identities, by their nature, are about likenesses and a likeness can
only imply looking backwards. Ambitions,
obviously, by contrast, can only imply looking forward. In both cases what one has, in Lacanian
terms, are elements of the imaginary; in later Derridean terms you have
spectres: no one can quite imagine things as they aren’t. Such ideals are like ghosts, spectres. Actions are ‘haunted’ by these spectres. In later writing Derrida coined the term
‘hantologie’ (hauntology), which in French sounds the same as ‘ontologie’
(ontology). We’re back to
differance. Nonetheless, that gives us a
way into the sorts of unintended outcomes that I’ve been interested in.
Lastly, though, this approach
permits, as I see it, a more ethical reading of history. At the heart of the whole historical
enterprise, as I see it, lies an ethical demand to listen attentively to the
voices of the past. Attentive listening
doesn’t imply acceptance of their point of view; it implies engagement. Engagement is consistent with
deconstruction. Deconstruction was
always concerned with politics and ethics, as Simon Critchley has argued and
indeed as Derrida himself was at pains to make clear in the last decade of his
life – it was just that the political element in his thought became more
visible later on. Deconstructing
narrative (or transition) means listening for the ideas that didn’t come to
fruition, for the ambitions that failed, for the outcomes that didn’t come out. As I see it there’s nothing more ethical than
Ultimately, what an ethical,
politically-committed approach to history is about is telling us that things don’t have to be this way. It is about (to use a phrase of Frederic
Jameson) keeping faith with the impossible, with the once possible
impossibilities of history. A throw of
the dice, after all, will never abolish chance.
And each thought is a throw of the dice.
[This is the text of a paper I gave in Frankfurt a couple of weeks ago to an interesting conference on 'predation'; my thanks to Laury Sarti and Rodolphe Keller for the invitation. The argument is essentially that although one could take considerable wealth in early medieval warfare this was not in general done through 'plundering warfare' but through battle and the taking of tribute (brought about by the threat of battle). It then moves on to argue that in fact the principal rewards in early medieval warfare were not physical ('loot') but intangibles such as prestige, honour and patronage. It's still very rough round the edges, but see what you think.]
The terms of this conference ‘Looting,
tribute paying, and the taking of captives: Predation…’ are haunted by some
important assumptions. One is an
implicit opposition between predation and some other type of warfare,
presumably, following usual military historical typologies, based around
set-piece battles. Is any sort of
warfare not predatory? Also possibly implicit in the conference
rationale is a concentration on what we might term the physical or the material,
on the economic uses of the things taken during such warfare. In that analysis the focus remains on the
deliberate, human manipulation of objects.
This paper aims to rake up those presuppositions, bring them to the
surface and swirl them about.
My first point concerns the
diversity of early medieval warfare. One
cannot take the whole era from 450-900, across all of Western Europe, and treat
it interchangeably as far as warfare is concerned. The sixth century differed from the seventh
in many areas, one of the clearest of which was the organisation and practice
of warfare. The late seventh century and
the decades around 700 saw further important economic developments. Finally, there were more changes in the ninth
century, many of which were at least exacerbated by the Vikings, the way in
which they practised warfare, particularly raiding and predation, and by the
responses to it. In Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West I found it helpful to
discuss the raising of armies century by century. To do otherwise obscured many important
changes, although of course these generally remained in the sphere of
hypothesis. Separating the data according
to date and place usually left one with little evidence but did reveal
potentially important differences between various times and places.
In assessing the role of plunder
and booty in medieval warfare, the composition of armies, their size and how
they were raised are all issues of crucial importance. One might expect the distribution and
circulation of plunder to differ significantly in small armies composed
essentially of aristocrats and their retinues, compared with that in large
armies with a greater percentage of small-holding farmers, or ones raised on
more of a levy basis. The ease with
which armies might have been raised might have been closely related to issues
of remuneration through booty.
Historiographically, the clearest example of the exploration of such a
possibility would lie in the late Tim Reuter’s theories about the ends of
Carolingian military expansion. We
cannot speak of a general early medieval culture of predatory warfare, in any
detail at least. The shortage of data
makes precision difficult and aggregation almost unavoidable, but what we say
should be inflected by this point.
One particularly important
variable that underlines this point is the economic context within which warfare
was waged. The nature of early medieval
evidence is such that we can say far more, in far more detail, about the
economics of different regions at particular points in time than we can about
the armies that operated in those contexts.
This in turn means that this knowledge must govern what we suggest about
armies and warfare, not the other way round.
Historiographically, this seems like an insultingly obvious point, but
it must be remembered that the most prolific writer on early medieval warfare,
Bernard S. Bachrach has adopted the diametrically opposite approach.
Working from these data further
underlines regional diversity and chronological change. If fifth- and sixth-century north-west Europe
is a particularly clear point of economic regression, more southerly regions
cannot exactly be said to have been experiencing economic growth at that time. The northern economy picked up, as is
well-known, in the seventh century, but by the end of that century other
regions, like the south of Gaul, were undergoing economic decline. The eighth and especially ninth centuries saw
further growth, especially in towns and markets, in the north. The economic possibilities of warfare – of
predation – were not constant across early medieval Europe, even within the same
century. If warfare was for plunder,
what were they plundering?
Settlement archaeology implies
that for much of the period there was little by way of wealth to be gained from
looting settlements – even the larger commercial centres that began to emerge
from the seventh century – until perhaps the ninth century. Fifth- and sixth-century northern Gaulish and
English settlements are pretty ephemeral.
It has taken fairly detailed work with the pottery of the period even to
identify certain periods in the excavated record. Such is the decline in the complexity of the
pottery industry and its transportation.
Much of the period which concerns me was
incompletely monetised.It might, then,
not be coincidental, that the fortification of such settlements only begins to
look significant from late within my period, the fortification programme of
Alfred of Wessex, for instance.The
exception, of course, would be furnished by churches and monasteries.This is the obvious reason for their targeting
by Vikings, but it might also explain why even Christian armies were incapable
of always leaving them entirely untouched.
Related to this is the decline in
fortification and siege warfare. Roman
towns, of course, retained their walls but numerous sources suggest that these
were not always kept up in a very good state of repair. Indeed some stories suggest their deliberate
dismantling – at Reims and at Mainz for example – in the eighth century. Fortified rural settlements are rare, outside
Ireland from the seventh century onwards.
The processes of incastellamento
are a matter of debate but they certainly do not span the whole early medieval
period. As with the forts of Scotland,
the purpose of even these fortifications might be debated. What size of threat did they protect
against? What other social factors might
have led to their appearance? Again, it
seems no coincidence that the true aristocratic fortified settlement is
something that generally appears at the end of the period that I am talking
about, in the ninth century.
The Strategic Consequences of the Economic Background
This archaeologically-revealed material
poverty has several important implications, which begin to stir up the
sedimented assumptions with which I began.
Where is the wealth that we know existed? This wealth may have been rather less than
was accumulated by Roman senatorial aristocrats or later medieval noblemen but
it existed. Some fairly spectacular
archaeological finds have suggested this (although it is always worth reminding
ourselves how small the value of even the greatest finds is, compared with the
treasures alluded to in the written sources).
Yet the very context of such finds points us at an answer. It seems to me that the disjuncture between the
settlement archaeological record and the written sources is best explained by
the assumption that early medieval wealth went into adornment and other,
essentially portable, items. People wore their riches. When one looks at some of the costume adornments
found in burials like Sutton Hoo Mound 1, or many others, this conclusion does
not seem very surprising. It can easily
be set alongside considerable written evidence for the importance of costume in
competitive status display.
If we pursue this possibility
into the military sphere it gains further credibility. The lavish burials of the first part of the
period make clear that weaponry and other military accoutrements were one of
the main foci for the expenditure of wealth.
Almost every surface that could practically be decorated was decorated. Look at the helmets of the period as
examples. Even spurs were frequently
inlaid with precious metals, and the belts by which they were attached to a
rider’s boots had similar, intricate inlaid patterns. Bridles and elements of horse-harness, too,
show similar attention. The
Staffordshire Hoard underlined much of what we knew already about this aspect
of early medieval warfare, but did so spectacularly. Elements of over eighty decorated swords were
found in the hoard. Much of the gold in
the treasure was incorporated in their hilts and fittings.
That, of course, is to limit the
discussion to the things which are in general archaeologically visible. Written texts tell us of the provision of
clothes for a retinue. One imagines that
the appearance of one’s followers was as much a source of competition as that
of the warband leader himself. The
horse, too, a sine qua non of the
early medieval warrior, was costly.
Although horseflesh was highly vulnerable on campaign and a warrior
would need more than one horse if he could afford it, it is clear from charter
evidence that horses were not cheap – they could be exchanged for pieces of
land. The cost of a decent horse appears
to have remained fairly constant at about ten solidi (whatever that might have meant in practice) throughout the
period, and that could equate with the cost of the rest of the warrior’s
In addition to all of the above,
it is clear that kings and their aristocrats took their treasure with them on
campaign. The social élite stayed in
costly tents. What all this means, when
placed alongside the general poverty of the archaeological record in terms of
the settlements and economy of the period, is that, in fact, looting in early
medieval warfare was best focused not
upon raiding and harrying but upon battle. This erodes the frequently-assumed opposition
between raiding or plundering warfare and the warfare of fixed battles. Battle does seem to have been comparatively
common between the mid-fifth century and the end of the ninth. Its size may not have been great when
compared with other eras but its importance is best measured in terms of stakes
fought for. Quite apart from loss of
life – and the numbers of early medieval aristocrats killed in battle are high
throughout the era – there were the political consequences of a defeat in terms
of the instability that would follow the deaths of a portion of the realm’s
royalty and aristocracy. A king’s defeat
could and did frequently lead to deposition and assassination.
Why did early medieval leaders so
frequently play for such high stakes, when even people at the time (such as
Sedulius Scottus) knew that battle was a complete lottery? One reason is the importance of warfare and
battlefield prowess in the construction of especially élite masculine
identity. I will return to this but for
now as good an illustration as I know can be found in Paul the Deacon’s account
of a catastrophic Friulian Lombard defeat against the Slavs. One Lombard leader accused another of
cowardice, which resulted in the latter challenging him to follow him in a
charge uphill against the fortified Slavic camp. The rest of the army followed because, in Paul’s
words, ‘they considered it base not to’.
So many were slaughtered that the next duke had to set up a sort of
orphans’ home for the children of the aristocrats who had been killed.
Apart from the demands of honour,
the other reason for the frequency of battle must have been that it was the
best way of taking treasure or increasing one’s wealth from warfare. This sort of context is, I think, probably the
best mechanism within which one might imagine the assembly of the collection of
objects found in the Staffordshire Hoard.
The Strategic Role of Harrying
All that being said, it cannot be
denied that early medieval armies did harry and raid their enemies. One must, therefore, ask why. If the movable objects to be found in the average
settlement were unlikely to oil the cogs of early medieval politics – unless
fairly undiagnostic common wares were more sought after than we have hitherto
imagined – what was at stake? One might
envisage the taking of cattle and other livestock. Perhaps this is where we touch upon the theme
of slave-taking. And yet I do not find
either possibility particularly convincing.
Obviously there are exceptions. Cattle
were effectively the units of currency of early medieval Ireland, held as much
as signs of status as for any actual economic value. The slave-raiding of the Vikings is
well-enough documented, and so is that of Franks on their eastern
frontier. But we might be cautious about
generalising from these examples.
The importance of cattle within
the Irish political economy is particular to the island. Do we really think that an aristocrat like
Robert the Strong was really that interested in livestock? The Vikings struck across the sea and were
able to carry captives, quickly, far away from their homelands. For similar reasons, sea-borne attack
remained the principal mechanism of slave-taking in Europe and the Mediterranean
(and beyond) into the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The Franks appear to have established a solid
military superiority over their Slavic neighbours by the tenth century. Absolute military dominance (as with
Europeans or European-backed Africans in Africa, or with the early Roman
expansion) or the capacity for rapid transportation overseas seem to be the essential
requirements for significant slave-taking.
Most early medieval warfare was small-scale and waged against enemies of
roughly equal military capacity. Trains
of slaves and herds of captured cattle would slow down an invading army making
it vulnerable to attack.
But perhaps that was the
point. In my reconstruction, the main
objective of early medieval raiding was to provoke battle – partly of course
for the economic reasons just set out. Harrying
territory, burning houses and crops, killing or dispersing livestock, ripping
up vines (Gregory of Tours gives a good account of what was involved in Book II
of the Histories) struck at the
political legitimacy of the opposing realm.
A king or lord, after all, was supposed to defend his subjects,
followers or clients and their property from these sorts of depredations. A ruler who shut himself up in his fortresses
might well see off an invading army, given the risks of disease and the usual
inadequacy of early medieval logistics and siege techniques – but the efficacy
of this strategy was strictly limited over time. Repeated plunderings that went unchallenged
could produce political crisis. One
early ninth-century Slavic leader faced down the Franks for several years by
avoiding battle but eventually was assassinated by his followers. One could stop the plundering by paying
tribute: the other means by which considerable wealth might be transferred from
one early medieval western polity to another.
The advantage of tribute, of
course, was that it diverted resources used to maintain political support and
military effectiveness away from one ruler and towards his overlord. Further light might be shed on this by the
Staffordshire Hoard with its dozens of sword pommels and other fittings. Some look like they have been snapped off
their swords with minimal care. This
might of course have taken place on the battlefield during looting of the dead
but it might also have taken place in the context of tribute taking, with the
enemy army forced to give up the decorations from their weaponry. With the concentration of precious metal in
these items it is not difficult to suppose that items like this could have been
the currency of such transactions. It would
also, of course, remove from the enemy army much of the display and show that
was so important, as discussed: a very visible means of shaming an enemy.
Important quantities of wealth
could be obtained in early medieval warfare but not – I suggest – simply by raiding. More important was battle, either through the
destruction and looting of an enemy army, or through strategies that turned
upon battle’s very real possibility.
The Other Purposes of Harrying
Nonetheless, raiding and harrying
operations were common in the early medieval west, and often produced neither
battle nor tribute. Sometimes one might
wonder what sort of tribute might be forthcoming in any case. Visigothic armies appear to have fought in
Basque territory frequently, often it seems as part of the process of
establishing a new king. According to
Julian of Toledo’s account, the new king Wamba spent a week ravaging Basque
territory before the Basque leaders submitted and paid tribute. But what booty, I wonder, could one take in
the Pyrenean foothills? Sheep?
One might furthermore suppose
that, in the cattle-raiding that took place in Ireland, Wales or Scotland or
the cross-border raiding that, to judge from the treaties signed between the
Doges of Venice and the Carolingian Kings of Italy, formed a sort of background
noise to early medieval politics, much of the booty taken by one side in one
raid would be taken back by the other next time.
Plunder flowed in other
directions than from king to follower.
One is suggested by the story of John, a warrior on the Franks’ Spanish
march who sent the loot he took from a defeated Moorish warrior up the political food-chain to his lord,
Louis the Pious – who in turn bestowed lands upon him. Other stories contain some admittedly
problematic indications that loot might actually be returned to the people from whom it had been taken. Gregory’s story of the Vase of Soissons and
Felix’s tale of Guthlac returning a third share of the loot he took in his
warrior days both come from hagiographic contexts that should make us hesitate
before accepting them. Nonetheless there
are reasons why such a thing might be plausible.
Thus we can suggest that the flow
of objects in raiding warfare was not always or exclusively in the direction
that one might expect. What I want to
stress, though, are the non-material rewards of raiding: the moral rewards as
opposed to the physical. I will suggest that
these were, given the economic realities discussed earlier, often actually
rather more important than the material rewards. I have alluded to the importance of warfare
in the construction of identities. It
was also, warfare, specifically, rather than violence or fighting in general,
that was important to these identities.
In the fifth and sixth centuries in particular, military service was
important in the construction of ethnic identities. Attendance in the ranks (and the acceptance
of one’s attendance) when the army was called out was, one imagines, a very
important way of underlining a claim to a particular ethnic identity. Later, involvement in military activity was a
sign of belonging to a particular stratum of the free population. By the ninth century this was so important
that aristocrats were known to attack lesser freemen who presumed to take up
arms. Both mechanisms required, one
imagines, fairly frequent mustering of the army. Not only does this explain why, in some times
at least, we can see the army being assembled without any significant military
activity ensuing – it was the assembling of the force that was important, with
the consequent selection of who was and was not deemed to be of military rank. Military assemblies on 1 March seem thus to
have been annual events in Merovingian Gaul and in eighth-century Lombard
Italy. Theoderic of Italy is known to
have held regular assemblies of the Goths, the army.
The importance of warfare in the
construction of royalty must also have led to frequent mustering of the
army. Few ere the times and places were
kings did not feel the need to place themselves at the head of their armed
forces on a regular basis. The
Merovingian realms during the reigns of Clovis’ grandsons seems to be one such
moment, but more typical, one might suggest, is the kingdom of Mercia, where,
between 600 and 850, military action on such a scale as to be recorded in the
later Anglo-Saxon Chronicle took
place within four years of a king’s accession at the latest. We can imagine that smaller-scale actions
might have been brought about rather sooner.
Wamba’s harrying of the Basques seems like another example.
A further reason for military
assembly of course was that it was the closest thing that a king had to a
parliament. It was thus a prime occasion
to expose the political and military élite to royal ideology. It was an occasion, documented in several
contexts, for the bestowal of royal patronage.
Warriors who had done well were rewarded; those who had not were
punished. Such seems, for instance, to
have been the case at Theoderic’s military musters. If military assemblies were important for
all these reasons it is not surprising that some sort of military activity
might follow. It is probably not
coincidental then that the three recorded Marchfields of Childebert II of
Austrasia in the 590s all took place on his Rhine frontier – convenient for
some sort of display of strength in the trans-Rhenan areas of the Merovingian
Thus I want to suggest that the
assembly of an army was itself a crucial – if not the crucial – political and even political-economic aspect of
military activity, more important, I propose, than any material wealth obtained
That leads me to what might be my
main point, that for most warriors warfare’s primary purpose was as a means of
coming to the attention of their socio-political superiors. Performing well on campaign was a means by
which pueri could come to the attention
of their lords, by which their lords could come to the attention of the
magnates of the kingdom, or of the king himself. Such attention could bring patronage in the
form of offices and of gifts, whether of lands or of movable objects – not
necessarily or even, perhaps, very often those taken on campaign. To be granted lands, titles or honores was probably far more
economically valuable than anything that might be taken on campaign – but
warfare was the principal means by which one showed that one deserved such
patronage. The Hispanus John’s despatch of loot to Louis of Aquitaine in return
for land illustrates this well. Thus it
might be that whatever was stolen during raids in effect served more as tokens
or even as proxies for more important gifts, of intangible things like
patronage, of titles, or of lands and movables that were actually transacted afterwards. If you look at it in that perspective, the
returning of the ‘loot’ taken on campaign seems less bizarre than it might
My thesis is also supported by the
events of the first crisis of Louis the Pious’ reign. The actions of Hugh and Matfrid, sent away to
campaign on the Spanish March, make it clear that campaigning, even with the
chance of loot, was less important than being close to the king at the centre
of politics. Remember too that the
possibilities of real loot were more likely in campaigns in Spain than on
perhaps any other of the Franks’ borders.
Hugh and Matfrid’s actions make no sense at all if booty and predation
were as essential to early medieval politics as we have been given to believe.
Predatory warfare might then have
been like hunting was at this point in time.
The assemblages from high-status sites, where they exist show
startlingly low percentages of hunted animals, compared with those from the end
of the first millennium and later. Set
alongside a story towards the end of Gregory of Tours’ Histories the suggestion can be made that hunting was more about
training, teamwork and prowess, and about the simple killing of animals – not
then taken home to be eaten. Similarly,
much low-level warfare might have been an exercise that served more to
demonstrate skill and bravery than to produce valuable treasures.
Different Ways of Seeing Objects
Finally, I want to look again at
the material gained on campaign. The
standard way of seeing predatory warfare in the early middle ages, which I have
been at pains to disturb, sees the personnel involved taking material and
exchanging it with each other, with these transactions embodying various
political relationships. Then it is a
natural tendency to match the value of the relationship to an assessment of the
value of the objects which established the relationship: a richly adorned
sword, for example, might well embody the loyalty of a powerful magnate to his
king. Clearly this is reasonable enough,
given the early medieval obsession with precious metals and stones.
In putting this forward for rethinking,
I don’t want just to point out that the biography of an object – to whom it had
belonged, the events in which it had participated in the past – might be more
valuable than its adornment. Nor do I
want solely to repeat the point that an object’s value transcended its simple
cost in terms of labour and materials. A
sword’s value in some early medieval texts, vis-à-vis other items such as
cattle or bread, is derived not from its relative cost, a frequent mistake, but
from what we might loosely term its use value – the fact that its possession
enabled participation in particular social circles.
Following on from that I want to
open up the possibility of seeing particular types of plundered or looted object
as ‘actants’, according to ‘object theory’.
Perhaps certain objects – ones that we might not now immediately detect
– had such a link with the essential
political activity of warfare that they shaped relationships between
individuals in a way that seems both to transcend their material value and not
to fit what one might expect to be their rational use by human agents. The case of the gold plate given by Sisenand
to the Franks, and then asked for back as a result of Gothic outcry, might be a
good example of an actant object.
With all this in mind, in early
medieval warfare it might well have been that, to quote Napoleon, ‘the moral
[was] to the physical as three to one’.