[This is the paper that I gave yesterday at the very enjoyable conference, Subterranean in the Medieval World, organised by Meg Boulton and Heidi Stoner. As it says at the start, just a few rather basic points. I will add some pics and links in due course.]
My paper is essentially stating the bleeding obvious, or what ought to be: just a few basic but important points by way of some conceptual ground-clearing. The first is to associate two aspects of early medieval burial. One is the use of features of the pre-existing landscape as a focus for burial: prehistoric barrows of one sort or another, standing stones or Roman buildings or monuments. This is common across a wide swathe of north-western Europe, whether we are looking at Anglo-Saxon England, northern Britain, northern Gaul, Burgundy, or trans-Rhenan Germania, north or south. So, my first point is that a single specific explanation, above all one relating the phenomenon to supposedly pagan belief, especially Anglo-Saxon pagan belief, is not going to work. We have must be absolutely clear about that. It is also important to distinguish communal from individual or familial use of these monuments.
The second feature is the trend, beginning around 600 of building new, above-ground monuments to the dead. These too take various forms, from barrows of various shapes and sizes, ring-ditches (whether revealing an original small barrow or just a ring of up-cast earth), stone grave-markers, walls around graves or groups of graves or, ultimately, funerary churches. Again, it’s impossible to study the phenomenon in regional isolation; it is attested in rural districts right across western Europe. The unavoidable conclusion – and although I have stated this repeatedly over twenty years or so it has made not a jot of difference – is that Anglo-Saxon barrows, most famously Sutton Hoo, cannot logically be read a priori as a sign of ‘pagan’ resistance to Christianisation. That conclusion does, alas, consign whole books by nice people to the bin, but logic is logic and, as Derrida once said, the critique of reason can only come from within reason.
Key to my argument is the association of those two elements, individual or familial use of monuments, and the building of above-ground monuments.
To read this, a little more ground-clearing is necessary. Let’s, first, assume that the features chosen as foci for sixth- and seventh-century burial were visible at the time. Howard Williams undertook the necessary ground-work for Anglo-Saxon England, probably longer ago than he’d like to be reminded, and concluded that, though some monuments might have been ploughed out, the data suggested that a significant percentage were still visible when they were used or reused for burial.
The second point which, obvious though it is, hasn’t always been taken into account, is that we have no way of knowing what age early medieval people thought any of these remains were, other than that no one could remember them being built. We have no grounds for assuming that the Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Alamans, Burgundians, continental Saxons or Picts, had any sense of what was or was not Roman. Prehistoric mounds are described in Old English verse in just the same way as decaying Roman cities. In a problematic book that I have critiqued at length before, John Moreland says of Wigber Low that
‘[b]y inserting their dead into the barrow the organisers of the seventh[-]century burial collapsed and sought to command time. By making their dead contiguous with those of remote antiquity, they were making an eloquent statement, informed by oral tradition and memory, about their relationship with the dead and place among the living’
Let’s, so to speak, excavate the sentence. The most obviously questionable element is the phrase ‘remote antiquity’. The good folk of seventh-century Derbyshire did not have C14 dating or a three-age system, or a complex set of typologies to help them evaluate past remains’ relative age. If they were trying to collapse time – and they might have been – we can have no idea of what amount of time they thought was at stake, whether they thought the barrow was ‘Roman’ or from some ill-defined time of their grand-parents, or from some time out of time, a world of monsters, demons and gods, pagan or Christian. The second questionable element is ‘the dead of remote antiquity’. How can we know that the people of seventh-century Wigber Low thought the barrow had had any funerary function? It seems to me that, by purely archaeological logic, they would not find traces of the site’s Bronze Age funerary usage until they dug their own graves into it.
Ailcy Hill, Ripon is a useful comparandum. Widely believed to have been a motte or barrow, this mound is a natural glacial feature. Middle Saxon dead are buried there, however. Of course, the people of Anglo-Saxon Ripon, ‘informed by oral tradition and memory’ might have wanted to make their dead contiguous with those of the past, but there were no dead of the past, remote or otherwise, to be found there. The actual past function of a monument provides no grounds for establishing what early medieval people thought they were doing when they reused it. You could use Wigber Low and its many comparanda to argue that the local Anglo-Saxons thought Ailcy Hill was a burial, but you might as easily use Ailcy Hill to argue that Wigber Low and other sites were chosen because they were visible mounds, marks on the landscape, not because of any funerary associations. Many other types of folklore could account for an unusual mound – a devil’s spade-full for example – and we are unduly second-guessing early medieval people when we assume that they thought that monuments were things from the past with religious or funerary overtones. There might have been any number of other, archaeologically invisible, features of the landscape that early medieval people associated with the past, the divine or the monstrous, all of which makes it, logically, entirely illegitimate to select a particular class of feature as allegedly revelatory of these concerns. Finally it is no more than an assumption that ‘memory and oral tradition’ played any part in determining the choice of site. If it was, then it could equally have featured in any other choice.
No. This won’t do, by any standards of rigour or logic.
That means we have to take Ockham’s razor to a lot of recent work, not just on Anglo-Saxon but also mainland European archaeology. Frans Theuws has argued that usage of old landscape features manifests a concern with ‘ancestors’. This invocation of ancestor veneration is becoming quite common in early medieval archaeology, but critique is overdue. It isn’t attested in early medieval data.
The only piece of evidence that I can conjure up is the well-known story of Radbod of Frisia. You know the story: he would rather be with his ancestors in hell than go to heaven on his own, right? Wrong. It’s another one of those famous textual snippets that ‘everyone knows’ but no one reads (other than Ian Wood probably). Here is the text. It was written by a Frankish monk, nearly 100 years after the event, in Latin, describing an exchange that, if it took place at all, certainly didn’t take place in Latin. There is no way of seeing through this later text to a pagan reality. This is all we have and all we can do with it is try to unravel what its author wanted to say about pagans, and that was not that they were obsessed with ancestors.
Radbod has asked Wulframn where the greater part of the kings, principes or nobles of the people of the Frisians are (ancestors doesn’t come into it): in heaven or hell?
‘Then the blessed Wulframn [(rather stupidly), said] ‘Do not stray, shining prince; it is certain that with God are the numerus [which can mean number or a military unit, a band or following] of his chosen. But it is certain that your predecessors, the princes [or the foremost men] of the Frisian people who have died without the sacrament of baptism have received the sentence of damnation; but henceforth he who shall have believed and shall have been baptised will rejoice with Christ in eternity.’ Hearing this, the unbelieving duke – for he had processed to the font – drew back his foot from the font, as they say, saying that he could not lose the company of his predecessors, the princes [or foremost men] of the Frisians, to go and live with a small number [or a small band] of poor people in that kingdom of heaven.’
Radbod doesn’t decline to leave his dead ancestors; he doesn’t want to spend eternity among horrible poor people. The opposition is between princes and paupers rather than ancestors and strangers. Praedecessores is a fairly neutral term for those who predeceased him, as easily encompassing currently-living or recently-dead friends amongst the principes as long-dead relatives. And it is the wealth issue is what Wulframn harps on about throughout ch.10: all these fine principes live out eternity in the dark, not in the bright, shiny, gold-plated House of the Lord. This is about class, money and status, not family. In this ninth-century reconstruction, the pagan thinks he can take status and wealth with him when he dies.
So, if we rule out or at least think of less mystifying terminology for this ancestors stuff – and we should – where do we go? My answer is essentially that we should think about all this not so much in terms of the past as of the future. The shifts under discussion take place in the decades around 600, which have been the focus of my work for the past few years. I suggest that behind them lies, partly, a change in concerns about time and partly (where I come closest to current interpretations) a new élite seeking legitimation.
The problem is in the future perfect: what will have been. That seems to me to lie, understandably, behind of a number of muddled treatments of the issue. If there is a concern with the past or even with ancestors here it is in the sense of looking forward to what will have been: the past in the future. If we think, comparatively, about the Antique world what is far more frequently attested is an overwriting of the past. The obvious example is Rome itself. What is Rome if not a massive, complex architectural palimpsest? Of course, this is making an association with the past but it is not a simple legitimising association. Each generation writes itself over the last, looking to the future. The Church overwrote all sorts of classical pagan monument, not so much temples but the other crucial areas of pre-Christian Roman life: bath-houses especially, theatres, and amphitheatres. Especially in the 75 years or so after the Western Empire’s disintegration, new powers sometimes reused Roman sites to express legitimacy. [pp] Far more usual around 600, however, is the stamping of the new over the old. Gregory of Tours’ writings are full of the church overwriting the pagan past in ways fundamentally no different from the use of monuments for cemeteries. The evidence from the period suggests that the use of ancient monuments for burial was as likely motivated by a concern to overwrite, bury it. I will, however, back-peddle from this position slightly, at the end.
There are widespread cases of sixth-century Gallic cemeteries located near monuments, especially villas but, as with the case of St-Vit, also other types of site. Placed alongside other aspects of the sixth-century burial ritual, however, what seems to be at stake is the use of a local landmark as a focus for a new, communal cemetery, itself a focus for a fairly dispersed community. The communal reuse of prehistoric sites in England, like the barrows used as communal cemeteries, seems analogous. But the main focus of the burial rite is transient – even if, as Howard Williams entirely correctly pointed out in a very valuable and pertinent critique of my work, the multi-sensory performance of these burials probably left a very rounded memory for participants. Nonetheless, once a grave is filled in, once it is rendered entirely subterranean, that statement was no longer visible and thus it had to employ a rich and clear semiotics. Furnished burial is about competition and social instability. Differences in the lavishness of graves cannot be read off as differences in wealth and power.
What happens around 600 – and it happens in all sorts of regions across the West – is a shift from this transient form of commemoration to more permanent forms. The point about investing, in relative terms, more resources in the above-ground monument than in the in-ground (subterranean) is that it is intended to be there permanently. Unlike ancestors-veneration we can document this concern in actual European evidence from the period. I have written about this at some length before but I want to put a slightly different spin on it in the light of more recent thinking on the subject. The period saw the beginning of the retention and survival of written documents (I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that that is as true for Gaul as for England should make us think twice before assuming that pre-Augustinian England was illiterate), seventh-century Frankish law, unlike sixth-century, projects situations into the future and is concerned with mechanisms whereby legal transactions might be remembered – one of which is through the use of written records.
I have previously associated this, in Francia, with a solidification of the social structure at this period. The sixth century’s potential fluidity and competition made it difficult to project status and a place in the landscape into the future; that became much more possible around 600 with the emergence of a more secure aristocracy north of the Loire. The personal or familial occupation of monuments, prehistoric or Roman stands alongside the creation of new above-ground monuments, as I mentioned at the start: gravestones and inscriptions, walls around burials, sarcophagus-lids visible at surface level, sarcophagi standing above ground, barrows and churches.
The material signature of these processes is very similar to that in Anglo-Saxon England which is why I have repeatedly argued that we ought to see analogous processes at work, and not get too hung up on the issue of conversion. Although the record takes a different form, the archaeology of Northern Britain suggests something similar. Indeed right across north-western Europe, the written and archaeological data show the emergence of more locally intensive forms of lordship and a weakening of earlier, broader but perhaps looser kingdoms. Local aristocrats were able to inscribe themselves onto the landscape in permanent form, just as we see them undertaking all sorts of other measures to preserve their place into the future, and as we become, in turn, able to identify their families over time.
I said earlier that I was going to back-peddle slightly from my point that this is not about a connection with the past. The changes I have just alluded to come, themselves, out of a crisis in connection with the past. The touchstone of legitimacy, up to the middle of the sixth century, had been the Roman Empire. After Justinian’s wars this was no longer possible in the old ways. People now knew they weren’t in the Roman Empire any more and any claim to legitimacy staked on imperial office wasn’t going to work. That meant crises for all sorts of power, from the royal down through society, to gender relations and the meaning of Roman ethnicity, outside the former Empire as well as within it. And indeed it meant some profound rethinking in the east as well as the west. New reference points were needed.
Those new reference points, largely biblical, Old Testament, worked not via simple lineal (ancestral) descent, as earlier legitimising touchstones had. Instead they worked typologically. That is to say that something in the present was foreshadowed by, was a ‘type’ of, something in the past. This is very visible in thinking about history and time in the late sixth century, when some people seemed to think they were in a time after time – after linear time – a time when causation worked vertically according to the type of situation. The beauty of the typological as a legitimising touchstone is that it is always already there, and it requires no claim about lineal descent, ancestry. Not, we are them, but we are like them. They don’t even have to have been here. Whoever these people were, who put these marks on the landscape, we don’t know – they aren’t us – but we are here now, like them and we will make our mark, beside theirs, over theirs. Nonetheless, although that takes a look back at a strange other past, its primary concern is with when the present would be the past, in the future, and creating for the new elite, a future perfect.