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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Predatory Warfare: the Moral and the Physical

[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. 

Economic Background

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 equipment.

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 hegemony.

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 on campaign.

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 otherwise appear.

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’.