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More Posts you might have missed on the other site

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

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Habla Espanol?

Me neither, as you can tell.  However, if you do, you might be interested to know that (apparently) Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West is now available in Spanish translation (see here).  Shame the publishers hadn't thought to tell me, though...

Rethinking Arthur's Britain

As a shameless bit of publicity, you can find my list of 'Ten Ways to Rethink "Arthur's Britain"' on the OUP Blog here.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Recent (and recent-ish) publications stemming from this blog

This post (one of my most popular) has now been written up and published as ‘Northern Britain and the Fall of the Roman Empire’.  The Mediaeval Journal 2.2 (2012), pp.1-25.

This one is now written up and published as  'Archaeology and Migration: rethinking the debate', in The Very Beginning of Europe? Cultural and Social Dimensions of Early-Medieval Migration and Colonisation (5th-8th Century), ed. R. Annaert, K. de Groote, Y. Hollevoet, F. Theuws, D. Tys and L. Verslype (Relicta Monografien 7. Brussels, Flanders Heritage Agency, 2012), pp.29-40.

This post now is footnoted, written up and published as  ‘From Roman fundus to Carolingian Grand Domaine: crucial ruptures between late antiquity and the middle ages.’ Revue Belge de Philologie at d’Histoire 90 (2012), pp.273-98 (the articles on this issue’s theme were also published, with the same pagination, as a separate volume: Autour de Yoshiki Morimoto. Les structures agricoles en dehors du monde Carolingien: formes et genèse, ed. J-P. Devroey & A. Wilkin, (Timperman: Brussels, 2012): ISBN 9-789461-360243).

In addition, as noted some time ago you can read the written up version of the original of this post as ‘Ethnicity and early medieval cemeteries.’ Arqueología y Territorio Medieval 18 (2011), pp.15-27.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Open Access and its surprising dangers

I'm moved to write this by this blog piece from the States.  I comment 'be careful what you wish for'.  Why?

The UK government announced some time ago that it was going to insist that academic research was made open access.  Open access sounds like a great idea and - in principle - it is.  Using this sort of vocabulary is doubtless a sure-fire way of getting people outside academia to support it.

Many journals charge exorbitant prices for on-line access to their articles; the authors, editors and peer-reviewers of said articles get paid nothing for their work but are compelled to participate by the usual demands of academic life, so it's a pretty good situation for the publishers.  Now, it must also be said that publishers do invest in the printing, presentation and marketing of the journals and thus spend money on the diffusion of learning.  Thus it's reasonable for them to want to make a return on that investment.  Whether the sums they actually make are justifiable is quite another issue.

What the UK government wants to do is to pass the costs of instantly-available on-line publication on to the authors of the articles themselves.  A conservative (ahem) estimate of the costs is £1450 per article.

There are considerable drawbacks to this (of which more anon).  But one might also like to ask the following questions:
  • Who, outside academia, really wants to read most scholarly journal articles immediately?
  • If Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) get to decide which scholars and what research they underwrite in terms of access costs, what effect will that have on freedom of research?
  • How will HEIs and departments decide who gets the funding?
  • How will young scholars finishing their PhDs or in temporary teaching-heavy contracts get the funding for the publications they will need to get employed (or, perhaps, promoted)?
  • Will HEIs fund publications by temporary staff likely to move elsewhere?  It's very unlikely.
  • Will publication only take place if grants have been secured to cover the costs of publication?  (Most scholars who publish in history journals are not in receipt of such grants, and the volume of grants available would hardly cover even the top-quality output within history alone.)
  • What if future research assessments only count work published in journals participating journals?
  • What if HEIs only count such publication in promotion procedures?
  • How do we decide which are the best journals?

Already a raft of dubious journals has appeared, hoping to make money out of the government's proposed reforms.  You can read a list of these here.

Pressure on publishers to reduce significantly the costs of on-line access to journals and articles, especially pressure to reduce such costs - seriously and incrementally - in line with the date of the journal/essay, would be a far more reasonable way of ensuring public access to funded research.

Past experience does not, in any case, suggest that publishers will seriously reduce their charges for on-line access.  Once again, the UK government is acting simply to provide more money to their friends in business, albeit under a smoke-screen of liberal-sounding 'public access'.  As is so often the case, this is a 'useful hard science' model into which everyone else is being shoe-horned.  Or - and I suspect that, as with Impact, this is more likely to be the case - it is what is thought to be a 'useful hard-science' model, which in fact 'useful hard scientists' don't like very much and are as opposed to as much as anyone else, into which everyone is being shoe-horned.

As it is, Willett's proposals run a very high risk of reducing the quality, quantity, range and freedom of academic research in the humanities.

I have been critical in the past of the Royal Historical Society's fence-sitting with regard to past developments and policies, such as Impact or the AHRC's move towards prioritising funding into Cameron's spurious 'Big Society' non-idea.  But Colin Jones, out-going president of the RHS, has written an excellent open letter on the subject which very clearly sets out the dangers to the academy (and thence to the public who might be interested in the results of its research).  This touches on a whole range of other problems I haven't mentioned.  You could (and should) read it here and should circulate it as widely as possible.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Morris 5: Deary 0

Marc Morris is a writer of history books who cut the mustard in academic history first and is thus one of a select band who deserve to be called 'writer and historian'.  Here he is pithily giving Terry Deary (at very much the opposite end of the spectrum) something of a pasting for his idiotic comments about how public libraries should be closed because they threaten the book trade...  Nice work, Dr Morris.

As the comments-list gets longer, some of the anecdotes and references given do leave you to wonder.  Is Mr Deary curmudgeonly, mischievous, refreshingly disrespectful, or merely a bit of a dick?

By the way, and this is important, if you do really want to support authors (and I admit that there's no especial reason why you should), get books out of the library rather than buying them second hand.  Authors get some money for that; they (obviously) don't get any from 2nd-hand sales.

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Siege Part 2 (Against Compulsory Populism)

[Here is the next instalment of the section of Why History Doesn't Matter.  Editing and revision of the chapter means that there are some paragraphs repeated here which appeared in the first part.  My apologies for that but I think they work better here.

There has been some reaction to the original piece, which has given me pause and things to think about.  I am a little surprised, though (I ought not to be, but I am anyway) at how people have misread what I am saying.  The ubiquitous 'Anonymous', commenting on another blog which kindly plugged Worlds of Arthur, expressed surprise at the publicity given to someone who, according to the first part of this post 'clearly' [clearly] believed that blogs by interested lay enthusiasts 'shouldn't exist'.  Now, I am unsure exactly where in that post I come even remotely close to expressing such an idea, even implicitly, let alone clearly.  But I suspect that 'Anonymous' is one of those people whose hobby is reading early medieval sources for proof of what they don't say, such that King Arthur owned a pub in Yeovil, or that Jesus went to school in Taunton, and so is well versed in finding what he wants to read in a text, rather than what is on the page.

More disconcerting to find a similar misreading by a professional historian, although I concede that I might not have progressed far enough with the argument for it to become clear.  Anyway, before making some comments which are worth thinking about, the author of this blog-post, describes the piece as a call to 'stay off my patch' and one that advocates 'policing the boundaries'.  I had rather hoped that it was pretty clear that I was not arguing for either of those things.  Nor, contrary to the author's assertion, do I think that amateur writing is itself a threat to history.  And I don't say that there are no disciplines where similar problems arise.  There is a crucial 'm' that distinguishes the phrase 'not many' from 'not any'; just one letter, but analytically it does quite a lot of work.  I won't cite the relevant passages but just invite you to read the first part again, but carefully.  If there is boundary-policing implicit it concerns what history is and who can legitimately claim the status of historian, it is not about who can or can't write about the past and it makes no claims that writing about the past by historians is always better than writing about the past by non-historians.  Let me underline that.

Where Dr Kelman makes substantive points, they are interesting, however.  I think, though, that I disagree fundamentally - or at least that what I want to talk about is something else.  His best point is of course that the historical profession is still a comparatively young one, and that many of the key shifts and texts in the development of history were made or written by people who would not today be considered academic historians.  That is absolutely right, although something similar would be the case for every academic discipline.  Turning to areas of disagreement, I do not see satisfying the readership of writing about the past, outside the academy, as (academic) history's primary task - this will become clearer in the post below.  Good popular writing about the past does what there is to do in that area.  This is not to say that historians should not write accessibly or try and get their work 'out there'.  But (and here I suggest there might be a political gulf between me and Dr Kelman) I am not happy to let the market  decide who gets published.  I am not happy to let anything be governed by the market.  The market, as I described last time, is not neutral.  The market could only decide if all history writing were given equal marketing and publicity and equal distribution, at least initially.  There are people between historians and the market that prevent that, and they are not neutral in their opinions.  More to the point, if the market decided, and if the market wanted what we're told it wants (which I doubt) then hardly anything would be published except on the twentieth century and/or on political/military history.  The exceptions would be the historically light-weight equivalents to Downham Abbey or various bodice-rippers.  In some of these crowded, best-selling fields (most notably the Third Reich) a close inspection reveals that, historically, there really is nothing new or interesting being said.  Which is sort of ironic given specialists in that period's view of things like the Middle Ages, but I digress.  

I think my second reservation is that I would like to know what sort of things Dr Kelman means when he dismisses certain books on topics no one is interested in.  This may be unfair, but my own experience has been that very often, when modern historians dismiss books or topics as of marginal interest or importance, they mean anything not on modern history.  That may just be my own suspicion, as stated; I might have been rendered unduly wary by past experience.  Be that as it may, though, even if books have no readership, that is no argument that they should not be published.  It is the self-same argument as the Impact argument used by the UK government.  What if a book goes unnoticed for a decade before being taken up as actually quite paradigm-shifting (in the jargon)?  The journal article is not appropriate for all sorts of research; how does history as a discipline progress if no book-publishing is allowed if it will not sell (or, more to the point, if publishers think it will not sell) to the lay audience (at that moment in time?

Anyway, here, is the remainder of this section of my argument, which I hope clarifies things a little more, as I trust will the sub-title added to this instalment.]

Let me pause here to clarify my position.  This is not an argument for the restriction of the right to write books about the past, for any sort of ‘policing’ around the borders of the discipline.  I have not, as I hope has been clear, argued that amateur history is automatically ‘bad’.  To reiterate, the problem posed for academic history is its quality.  Note, further, that the argument is that this is a problem for, not a threat to, history.  What has been a threat has been the acceptance of unqualified writers about the past as the principal commentators on the subject and their marginalisation and exclusion of professional historians.  This threat has been exacerbated by governmental policies adopting ‘impact’ outside the academy as a measure of research quality, impact, it needs to be said, measured over a very short time span.

What I have set out thus far is a description of how, in some important respects, serious academic history doesn’t – or has ceased to – matter.  If one considers why historians think their discipline is important, the picture becomes no less gloomy.  At one level this is because, according to these readings, the professional historian has nothing to offer that the popular writer has not, or which, often, the popular writer does not in fact do better.  If one thinks that history matters simply for the creation of a narrative against which to set oneself, to show how we got where we are or to reveal who we are, or for the compilation of ‘instructive’ (glib) parallels from past societies, then bookshop and television history do the job at least as well as – usually better than – most academics.  The argument of this book, though, is that these reasons for studying history are deeply flawed.  They are not why history matters.  More than that, they provide succour to beliefs and movements which scholarly historians should be using their discipline to unsettle and oppose.

Why then do we ‘do’ history?  At the basic level, the inescapable point is that one studies history simply because one finds it more interesting than other subjects, and one studies a particular, period place or type of history because it attracts you more than the others.  I have never met a historian who took up his vocation from utilitarian motivation.  No historian has ever said to herself ‘well, I am really interested in accountancy but what the country needs is more historians.’  This is a shame in many ways, as I suspect that the country does need more historians rather than more accountants, but let us leave that aside.  Some historians, for sure, do argue that their period or topic of interest is ‘more useful’ or ‘more relevant’ than others but I shall return to demonstrate the weakness of such reasoning, which mostly serves the purposes of departmental politics.  I call this moment of attraction the aesthetic moment.  Something about the past draws you.  It may not be an aspect that stays with you as what it is that fascinates you about history or becomes what you study if you continue to work on the subject.  Many, especially male, historians – I suspect more than would readily admit it – were initially drawn to history by illustrations of battles, knights, colourful Napoleonic uniforms, perhaps even military ‘hardware’ – Spitfires, Tiger tanks and the rest.  I know; I am one such.  Unlike most others, I have retained a hobby interest in those areas and even a professional interest in the broader, social history of warfare.  For others it might be pyramids, temples, great structures, strange rituals and beliefs, dazzling artefacts, paintings of past events hung in galleries, costumes, stories one heard or any number of other things.  It is a non- or pre-rational moment, something that cannot be analysed.  It is impossible to convince someone by logical argument to share that fascination; it either speaks to them (admittedly perhaps at a different stage in their life) or it doesn’t.  It is that thing that made you wonder, both in the sense of creating a sense of awe and in the sense of making you wonder about it.  In a very real sense it captivates us.  That ‘aesthetic moment’ is the only way the past can hold us which is not entirely dependent upon our decisions.  I will return to try and open up this moment and its implications later in this volume.

My argument, though, is that this initial curiosity can be satisfied at least as well by good non-academic writing about the past as by anything written by a professional.  It is in this regard, therefore, emphatically not – it is quite the opposite of – the professional’s ‘stay off my patch’ argument.  Historians who can write good popular narrative or descriptive history should do so, but it is not a skill that all professional historians have and they should not be compelled to acquire it. 

The reason why professional historians do not often satisfy or engage that initial aesthetic desire to know more is that they do not simply narrate and describe.  Although, certainly, at the introductory level, this is what is required, history is about more than that.  Professional historians do not necessarily think it is even possible simply to narrate and describe the past.  They are concerned with the problems of evidence, they are interested in analysis and explanation.  Simple or accessible stories or definitive answers – ‘the truth’ – are rarely part of good history’s remit and the practice of history should not regress to make it part of its goal.  Yet basic, interesting narratives, clear, hard-and-fast answers, ‘truths revealed’ and ‘secrets unlocked’ have become the standard fare of bookshop history.  What the consumer of popular history has come to expect from such work is, generally, a story that tells it as it really was.  More complex and sophisticated histories, however accessibly related, are often kept off the shelves and screens by the gatekeepers of those outlets: the ‘trade’ publishers and marketers, the editors and producers – often, of course, close associates of the authors and presenters of popular history. Whether this is really what the interested public does or does not demand, it is what the gatekeepers tell us they want.   

In one of my own specialist areas, the so-called ‘barbarian migrations’, there has never been a TV documentary on the subject that has not retold the same old story of how the barbarians conquered the Roman Empire, in spite of attempts (including my own) to try and pitch an alternative, more accurate version.  I once acted as a consultant to an historical atlas produced by a major publisher of lavishly illustrated books.  I attempted to have the spread on the barbarian migrations designed so as not to perpetuate old myths through the repetition of the usual swirling arrows starting in central Europe and ending in Africa or Italy.  But my advice was entirely ignored.  What was published was yet another map with spaghetti-like arrows tipped all over it, transmitting the same misleading idea to another generation of potentially interested readers.  I asked the editor why and was told that that was what people wanted from a historical atlas.  Such publishers and TV editors, with no educational experience, apparently know what people can and cannot grasp.  It is an astonishingly patronising attitude.

Sometimes, though, the compilation of ‘fact’ (pretty much the antithesis of sophisticated history) is what the amateur wants.  My ‘hobby’ interest in the military history that initially drew me to the past continues largely through the sphere of tabletop wargaming (playing with toy soldiers, if you prefer; there’s more to it than that, the wargamer will respond, and indeed there is – but not much).  My earliest vaguely historical writings were in wargaming magazines.  Wargaming produces a lot of popular writing about the past and a large audience of people with a genuine interest in at least some sorts of historical writing, who want to be informed about the latest research and how to think about history.  Sadly it also yields a significant crop of self-proclaimed military history experts.  The latter defend their status through the relative knowledge of facts.  Their knowledge, and ability to cite chapter and verse of, ancient and medieval sources are often impressive: better than professionals’.  The interest in the approach, though, stems entirely from its objectively-measurable quality; who knows the most facts?  For obvious reasons, then, such pundits are not merely uninterested in the difficulties and uncertainties of the evidence and the problems of drawing neat conclusions; they are (and I speak from personal experience here) actively hostile to them.  To some extent the position is reasonable; it is difficult to compose a set of wargaming rules from a series of ‘we don’t knows’.  Nonetheless this produces a sometimes visceral hostility towards academic historians which is perhaps not common elsewhere in popular history.  Perhaps this is because, to use the old quote, the stakes are so low. Even so, the possibility remains that sometimes, some of the lay audience is less interested in being communicated with by professional historians than the latter are in communicating with them.

Just as the public interested in science goes from basic, introductory, simplifying presentation to more difficult, complex studies that point out problems, undecidabilities, exceptions to what at lower levels are stated as ‘rules’ then – similarly – what the academic historian is there to provide is more advanced fare.  And, as with science, sometimes people actively do not want the more complex and challenging picture.  This point should not, however, be taken as an injunction to professional historians to compete in the popular market.  In terms of sales, what the public seems to want from visual art is hyper-reality, the near-photographic – not half-cows in formaldehyde.  No one doubts the technical ability of the painters of old steam-trains or of couples ball-room dancing on a beach.  No one, however, expects, on the basis of that point, that all artists emulate Jack Vettriano.  As with conceptual artists, it is what professional historians do that differentiates their work from populist productions.  This book argues that the exploration of what is involved in the writing of history opens up the real reasons why it matters.

Sunday, 10 February 2013


Historian on the Edge tweeteth no more.  My foray into that medium was very short-lived.  For possibly contingent reasons, it soon revealed itself to be the empire of the gobshite and ideal home of drive-by personal abuse: even worse, possibly, than Facebook and the discussion threads under on-line articles.  Speaking for myself, I prefer my anonymous abuse to take a more traditional form.  In January, regular readers may remember, I received a post-card bearing a personal attack.  Post-marked Edinburgh and clearly from an academic of some sort, over the age of 60, it didn't seem like the work of a well man (or woman, but I'm guessing a man) as it soon went off into orthographically and logically incomprehensible ramblings.  It did seem to originate from one of our more privileged citizens, since it used the phrase 'chip on your shoulder' (that's what the toffs call it when you get angry at being been talked down to or otherwise treated as a second-class citizen).  I'm currently guessing at a classicist, but who knows?  That, after all, is the point of anonymous abuse.  

Anyway, hats off to his retro-trolling.  Maybe he can be a fellow founder-member of The Campaign for Real Anonymous Abuse (CAMRAA, to be pronounced 'Cam-rargh').  The post-card is clearly an important step in the right direction - back to the way things were done in the good old days - but there are other alternatives.  What about the anonymous letter from 'A. Wellwisher'?  Or the epistles made from letters cut out from Newspapers?  Even that seems to me not quite to capture all the possibilities of retro-trolling.  Perhaps we can return to leaving scurrilous notes in 'talking statues', as they did in early modern Rome, or pay orators to denounce people in the public square via specially (but anonymously) commissioned diatribes or wicked satires?  Personally, though, I look forward to a real return to basics and surely the origin of anonymous trolling: writing curses on scraps of wood and throwing them into a sacred bog.  I'm sure my Edinburgh correspondent knows a few locations where he can perfect his art.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

My kingdom for a ... cardboard box covered by an old tea towel

[All credit to a Christopher M. Cervasco for this pic that's
been doing the rounds on the interweb.  Of course, pedants
among that select band that really enjoyed Series 1 of The
Black Adder will point out that Baldrick was the clever one
in that series...]
Well, what a week it's been for fans of short-lived, inconsequential 15th-century monarchs!  As it happens I was in Paris when the University of Leicester revealed that its archaeologists had discovered what was, fairly convincingly, the body of Richard III and missed *that* BBC TV programme.  That said, I feel, from the sheer quantity of Facebook commentage, that I might as well have seen it.

Apparently there are some data that don't fit but it's still very interesting and credit where credit's due.  But let's just remember that whether or not it is Richard III and whether or not he did therefore suffer from a painful condition, his bones don't tell us that he was or was not a child-killer or that he was a nice man.  There are other questions that remain to be asked and debated.

But there is one issue that the project, its news coverage and BBC programme laid to rest (leaving aside the implication of some gushing comments that most people had hitherto either believed that Richard III had lived an incorporeal existence or, alternatively, was still roaming the earth as a zombie).  After their enthusiast-in-chief insisted that the bones of the king were taken from the site in a cardboard box covered in what (apparently) looked like an old commemorative tea-towel, and confessed to getting a tingle down her spine when she entered the car-park (that's happened to me before now), sure that Richard III had to be buried under one of the Rs of Car Park, there is one thing that is now beyond doubt.  And that is that the Richard III Society definitely contains some really, seriously ****ing weird people.

Here is a selection of the better web-satire that caught my eye:

Classical Gender in Deconstruction

[Next week I am off to Padova to the VI Congresso della Società Italiana delle Storiche, where I've been asked to speak about a n episode in Gregory of Tours Histories.  I think that what the organisers wanted was my paper on the implications of this for the gendering of grave-goods, as published in Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul (2010), ch.9.  What they're getting though is this doubtless cock-eyed cod-Derridean meditation...  Mwahahahahahaha.....]

Until quite recently, one of the stranger stories in Gregory of Tours’ Histories had largely gone unremarked upon, in spite of its interesting possible implications, or its possibly implied possibilities.  When the Nuns’ Revolt at Holy Cross, Poitiers (590) was supressed, says Gregory, the nuns’ leaders, Chlothild and Basina, made a series of accusations against Leubovera, their abbess.  One of these was that the abbess kept about the nunnery a man dressed as a woman, so that she could have sex without arousing any sort of suspicion.  Chlothild pointed the man out.  And so a man stepped forward, dressed as a woman.  He said, though, that he was impotent and that that was why he dressed that way.  In any case, he claimed, he lived a long way off and, though of course he’d heard of the abbess, he’d never actually met her.  This testimony was enough for the bishops (including Gregory) sitting in judgement and the charge was dismissed.

Now, one might say that the bishops had been surprisingly easily duped by this implausible tale and assume that Leubovera had indeed been rather less than virginal in her abbacy.  The presiding bishops had a vested interest in suppressing the rebellion and so simply squashed the evidence that it had been justified.  That possibility should be no means be ruled out, although the story rather loses its potential interest in the process.  One might also wonder why we would want to dismiss the nameless Poitevin’s own account.  It seems to mark a double suspicion.  Firstly a suspicion of the Church – the Catholic Church, the medieval Church – and a suspicion of testimony that something as troubling and seemingly ‘modern’ as cross-dressing might have gone on in early medieval society.  This leads to the preference of one greater ‘conspiracy theory’ over a lesser, local one, of one story over another.  Nonetheless, as stated, that might have been what happened. 

Venantius Fortunatus riffs on the subject of plums
(Carmina 11.18, 11.20; cross-dressing Poitevin [probably]
not pictured)
Alternatively, one might take the Poitevin’s testimony at face value; the rebellious nuns’ were searching desperately to justify their actions and made up a story based around the presence at the tribunal of the man in women’s clothing.  The judgement was not entirely uncritical of Abbess Leubovera; though it made no condemnation of her lifestyle, there’s no reason to suppose it would not have done had the evidence been compelling.  The rebellious nuns were frequently of the same aristocratic senatorial origin as the presiding bishops and two of their leaders, Chlothild and Basina, were royal princesses; other reasons stated for the nuns’ actions included resentment of the abbess’ strictness.  Nonetheless, Venantius Fortunatus’ poems to the abbey’s founder, Saint Radegund, do not suggest that the abbess’ dinner table was as ascetic as one might have expected.  Accepting the Poitevin’s account might be somewhat naïve but, again, he might have been telling the truth.

Gregory’s narration provides little to help us decide between these alternatives.  He largely employs reported speech, about which he passes no comment.  There is no analytical resource in his silence.  For him the whole episode illustrated a key theme of the Histories: that transient worldly life and status cannot be translated into the eternal merit of the truly saintly.  The only thing that might help us evaluate the story is the fact that, if Gregory’s account is truthful, the Poitevin had come up with this explanation in the first place in the expectation that it would be believed, and that he had come to the tribunal dressed as a woman.  If Chlothild’s accusation were correct, it certainly seems odd that the abbess’ former lover should have attended to tribunal in his usual disguise.  This, however, is not something that the historian can second guess.

I am going to proceed on the basis that Chlothild’s was a groundless accusation and that a man from sixth-century Poitou did feel compelled to dress as a woman because of his impotence.  This allows us to think through some changes that had taken place in gender-construction since the late Roman period and perhaps others that were under way when Gregory was writing.  It is quite interesting that, within a house of female religious, the accusation of sexual transgression was entirely in terms of heterosexual activity.  The possibility of same-sex desire among the women of the abbey is simply concealed by silence.  This is hardly unusual.  What I want to concentrate upon is the relation between sexual activity, reproductive or otherwise, clothing and gender-construction.  In particular, I want to explore the origins of the social space within which the anonymous Poitevin acted.  This, as I have written before, enables us to read some aspects of post-imperial funerary archaeology in more nuanced and less essentialist fashion.  My starting point in understanding this story might be mistaken; it is certainly not the only one.  And I will not draw any definite conclusions but leave different possibilities open.  That is not simply out of methodological honesty, but also because I cannot myself decide which interpretive possibility I prefer!  Much thinking remains to be done on this subject and a theme of undecidability runs through this short communication.

Let me start by re-stating some fairly uncontroversial bases for the analysis.  The first concerns the nature of classical gender construction; the second involves the distribution of grave-goods within post-imperial cemeteries.  It seems to be well established that Roman gender was constructed around a central masculine ideal: the notion of civic Roman masculinity.  This was historicised; the Romans did not think their men had always possessed such advantages in spite of the biological reasons for it that they proposed.  Roman accounts of the remote past saw their ancestors as barbarous.  The moment when such barbarism was transcended came with the discovery of law and – entirely related to that – the restriction of the choice of sexual partners.  The very movement to civilisation had in their eyes, therefore, been gendered.  What defined the civic Roman male was moderation, reason, the control of passions and the ability to see both sides of things.  This enabled their employment and reception of the law, rendered their government something other than tyranny, and its performance justified a man’s involvement in such legitimate government.  This was not simply psychological.  As mentioned, in classical thinking it was entirely bodily, biological.  The female body’s different constitution, in terms of the humours, made women less capable of such ideal behaviour.  Yet, the non-possession of the characteristics of civic male virtue was not restricted to women.  A too emotional, irrational character – justified similarly by imbalance of the humours –separated barbarians (male or female) from the civic ideal, and the barbarian’s wild ferocity made him assimilable with the animal, a third axis along which one might move away from the masculine.  The animal, the barbarian, the feminine and the infantile could therefore be condemned by their distance from the civic masculine ideal or praised for their closeness to it.  Indeed, barbarian men could acquire the attributes of civilisation so completely that their origins were entirely effaced.  Male children, of course, could be educated, grow into and acquire these characteristics (through the processes of paideia).  A woman, though, no matter how virile could, because of her sex, never entirely occupy that ideal centre.  In sum, then, Roman gender was constructed around the masculine.  The feminine was envisaged in terms of a fundamental lack. 

Now, from around the end of the first quarter of the sixth century in various parts of what had been the western Roman world – particularly those where a social structure based around the villae had gone into crisis with the Empire’s political disintegration – it became common to inter artefacts with the dead.  What matters for the purposes of this discussion is the well-known distinction in grave-goods assemblages between men and women.  This, as has now been pretty well established in several different areas of the post-imperial West, was modified by social age and position in the life-cycle.  Feminine grave-goods centred upon clothing and the adornment of the body, although some symbols of female work are occasionally also found.  Masculine artefacts on the other hand focused on weaponry, although, again, in some areas other types of artefact were at least as significant.  In the area I know best, northern Gaul, the latter comprised items such as flints, strike-a-lights, awls, tweezers and so on, often originally placed in a pouch attached to the deceased’s belt. 

The archaeological evidence suggests two conclusions.  One – quite unsurprising – is that masculinity was increasingly coming to be defined by martial characteristics. The other is more controversial or problematic and that suggests that there were two opposing poles of attraction in the material construction of sixth-century gender: a masculine and a feminine.  In other words, the feminine was not a simple, relative absence of the masculine but was constructed around its own set of ideals.  The patterning in the funerary data suggests that these ideals were structured around sex, by which I mean the female role in reproduction.

How might this shift from the classical situation have come about?  I suspect that the gradual demise of the model of civic masculinity lies at the core of the situation.  One of the main problems of the factional civil wars that ended the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century was that – especially after Valentinian III’s murder in 455 – no clear winner managed to establish a claim to legitimacy that was accepted by all other factions outside Italy.  This meant that, particularly in the provinces, any claim to traditional civic masculine virtue stood on very uncertain, shifting grounds.  A different model of Roman masculinity had emerged during the course of the fourth century, following the separation of the military and civil branches of imperial service under the Tetrarchy.  This ‘martial model’ more consciously incorporated elements of the animal and the barbarous, antithetical to the classical ideas of the virtuous civilised man.  As time passed, this model became dominant across the West, with eventually only the model of Christian religious masculinity existing as an alternative.  As a model constructed (at least in part) in opposition to the civic male, the martial model was less affected by removal from the legitimisation of the central government.  Thus I propose that what we are faced with during the course of the fifth and especially the middle quarters of the sixth century is two gendered ideals, both to some extent constructed in opposition to civic masculinity, a central definitive norm fast disappearing from actual practice.  This is what gives us, in the sixth-century cemetery data, the appearance of two opposed poles.  Both gendered ideals here are based around concepts that had hitherto been subordinated to the ideals of the Roman male.  The raising of these to the surface, as positive bases of identity, seems to me to be a kind of analogue, in social practice, to the processes of Derridean deconstruction.

All signs are, of course, inhabited, or haunted, by their opposites.  The Roman civic male was haunted by the irrational, the emotional, the feminine, the infantile, the barbarous and the animal.  For the Romans the civilised man acted as a sort of quilting point for the signifying system.  I have argued before that in the fifth century this point-de-capiton became unfixed.  Yet it had never represented an absolute point of origin because it had always contained – even in Roman terms – the image of its pre-civilised Roman precursor.  That historical dimension made the central image occupied as much by what it was not as by what it was.  What is different, I think, about the sixth-century situation is that while, of course, male and female are defined by what they are not, the ‘supplements’ which round out their meaning come not primarily from what we might think of as their structural opposites – man:woman – but from an ideal that was fast disappearing from social reality leaving only its spectre.  This ghost of the civic Roman male, haunts the gendered identities of sixth-century men and women but these relate more to that than to each other.

Statue of Dionysius from the National
Museum of Roman Archaeology in Rome
I would like to suggest that this process opened up the signifying space within which the Poitevin mentioned by Gregory of Tours was acting.  The classical world, of course, had concepts of mixed gender or sexuality: the hermaphrodite and the figure of Dionysius come to mind.  And yet I think that the classical notions are somewhat different from what is signified by the man at the Nuns’ tribunal, not least in their removal from the field of the mortal.  Here, again, we must take Gregory’s account at face value.  As Nancy Partner said, it is worth noting that the account describes the Poitevin as a man in women’s clothes, not as a woman, or a woman who turned out under closer inspection to be a man.  The implication of the story is that the man was not considered female by his contemporaries, and the extent to which he lived his life as a woman cannot be guessed at.  He claimed that his decision to dress in women’s clothing was motivated by the fact that he was impotent – or, as he put it, that he could do nothing of manly work.  It is interesting to wonder what exactly his costume comprised.  Here an archaeological example might help.  Grave 32 at the cemetery of Ennery (Moselle) contained a skeleton sexed as male but the deceased had been buried wearing a necklace and with an item of pottery normally only found in female graves.    The assemblage would on that cemetery have been appropriate for a woman of his age, above forty, as it did not stress the sexuality of the deceased in the way that was common with younger women still involved in the processes of reproduction, especially teenagers. 

What is at stake in this relationship between gendered costume and sexual reproduction?  Masculine objects in Frankish burials probably refer – at least obliquely – to the ability to start a family and govern a household.  The distribution of goods does not seem to relate directly to sexual potency, at least in purely ‘biological’ terms – Frankish adolescents are rarely buried with masculine items, in spite of being of an age-group whose sexual proclivities could worry Christian moralists and which was linked in the law-codes to the kidnapping of young women.  One penitential text suggests, however, that before the age of about twenty (the age, interestingly, when Frankish males start to be buried with weapons) male sexual practice, same-sex or otherwise, was more a matter of experimentation, of ‘games’. 

What interests me is that the construction of identity revolves not simply around the absence, or lack, of masculine items but the active employment of feminine ones.  This is underlined in the archaeological example, where the dead man’s family displayed this feature in his grave, in public ritual.  One might wonder whether this suggests something more positive about the reception of identity, whether this was not simply negative, a distance from the masculine ideal, but also perhaps something positive, a movement towards valued feminine ideals.  If so, and this can only be a suggestion, this underlines the ‘bipolarity’ of sixth-century concepts of gender. 

How one reads opposite instances, where biologically female skeletons are associated with masculine grave-goods, like weaponry, is something I cannot address.  I suspect, however, that this is a rather different circumstance, perhaps more akin to the classical situation and thus, I suspect, not to be read crudely as ‘transgression’ – perhaps quite the opposite.

The subsequent history of gender-construction in Francia perhaps supports the tentative reading I have made.  In seventh-century cemeteries, in a change beginning at about the time of the nuns’ revolt, cemeteries show important changes.  One of these is the reduction of feminine gendered grave-goods and a greater stress on the masculine.  This seems to me to represent a final triumph of the martial model of masculinity, which has now entirely supplanted the civic.  This situation seems more akin to the Roman, with a central masculine ideal and the feminine judged by proximity to or distance from this.  What has changed is simply the nature of that ideal, which is now based upon the martial model and a different, more warlike, set of virtues.  How male sexual impotence was judged, and whether it was marked at all, within that system is not something the evidence I have allows me to discuss.  I suspect, however, in a society more defined by masculine heads of lineages, that it was rather different though, not symbolised in clothing and certainly not valorised by a family.  The case of Gregory’s Poitevin suggests a glimpse of a historical moment when, however briefly, something different was possible.  The importance of that is that it cautions us not only against seeing modern categories as ‘natural’ but against positing an essential, unchanging ‘medieval’ set of categories with which to compare them.

Friday, 1 February 2013

A new type of memorial?

This pic is from the National Art Gallery in Copenhagen, which my partner and I visited over Christmas.  It is called 'A Victorious Danish Soldier' (after the first Schleswig-Holstein War), by H.W. Bissen.  According to the accompanying plaque, this is the first war memorial to depict only a common soldier, rather than an officer, general or member of the royalty or nobility.  The date of its execution (1850-51) is surely not coincidental.  The First Schleswig-Holstein War (a rather bizarre, stuttering conflict won eventually by the Danes) broke out in the aftermath of the revolutionary movements of 1848.

"I found the source of the irritation!"

A thoughtful response

Here is a thoughtful response to my last post - not in entire agreement, but that's not the point.  This is sort of what I had hoped blogging might be about.  Lots for me to think about and take on board, though not today because I'm late for work...

This is what I had imagined the blogging republic of letters to be about, not the anonymous 'drive-by' commenting (to borrow a phrase of Jeffrey Cohen's) that has led me to change the commenting rules on the blog (and evidently - unintentionally - stop anyone from commenting at all...).  OK - I know I don't do 'thoughtful', myself, as often as I'd like...

P.s. I also ought to check out Dr Kelman's book on Sand Creek.   Looks like just the thing I ought to read.