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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...

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Why History Doesn’t Matter: Historians for Britain (or, Where does a Chaotic/Ironic view of History leave the Socially-/Politically-Committed Historian?)

So, um, I decided to join ‘Historians for Britain’.

 … Nah, not really.


If you live in the UK and keep an eye out for history-related news then, unless you have been hiding under a rock or, alternatively, buried under dissertation-marking, you will have heard of Historians for Britain, a group of mostly right-wing mostly historians (as Neil Gregor says in this piece for the Huff Post, if you weed out the non-researching purveyors of pulp history, journalists, polemicists, raconteurs, vel sim, the number of actual historians in Historians for Britain drops quite considerably).  Amongst the actually-qualified historians, in addition to the palpably racist Starkey, they include the honorary chairman of the Royal Holloway student Tories and a Manchester ancient historian who once, on Facebook, described David Cameron as a communist.  So, when they say they represent a range of political opinion, I suspect that the range runs from the moderate Right to the far Right.  Their website contains some less-than-optimally-honest shenanigans (such as apparently we can now expect in all areas of British public life).  Andrew Roberts is styled ‘Doctor Andrew Roberts’; he has an honorary doctorate from Saint Frithfroth’s college or some such. Still, as the ever-hilarious Sepp Blatter (the git that keeps giving) recently said, you can’t simply expect people to behave ethically.

Anyway, be all that as it may, Historians for Britain (hereafter HfB) are in favour of a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union.  I suspect this may be code for a harder-line Eurosceptic view but, even if not, the suspicion was not helped by an article published in History Today by David Abulafia. This disappointed me - whatever else may be the case, I have admired Abulafia’s historical writing - but it did not, alas, surprise me.  This produced a wave of reactions.  In addition to Neil Gregor’s piece, the most significant, in some ways, was a letter entitled ‘Fog in the Channel: Historians Isolated' sent to History Today and signed by over 250 academic historians (including yours truly).  A Royal Holloway-based group called Historians for History was set up (let’s all just take a moment to ponder that name … and … moving on) there is another group called, predictably enough, Academics for Europe (and apparently a #historiansforEurope hashtag). A blog post calling out the historically-misleading earlier medieval elements of Abulafia’s narrative was posted by Charles West.(1)  A little later, West’s colleague Martial Staub posted another, to my mind more sophisticated, take on the subject and a similarly thoughtful piece, which (after some initial scepticism) impressed me, was posted by Lucy Inglis.  Bizarrely, Sean Lang, last seen in the company of most of HfB, the AbuMafia if you will, in their support of Michael Gove’s triumphalist British history curriculum proposals, derided the idea that Europe was threatening some sort of takeover of history.(2)  Eventually the whole business became the subject of a Guardian editorial.

It is of mild amusement (to me if no one else) that the allegedly Whiggish historians of HfB appear to be predicating their argument not upon a Whig notion of progress but rather upon a very un-Whiggish idea of a sort of mythic golden age when things were so much better, before we got involved with Europe.  They seem to me to want to return to, or (probably with more likelihood) at least reaffirm a loyalty to, that mythic past.  By contrast, the arguments espoused by their opponents (those accusing HfB of Whiggishness) seem logically (and ironically) predicated on the very Whiggish idea that where we are now is, in some small way or other, the best of all possible worlds.  Britain has always been a part of Europe, which has been A Good Thing (or at least A Better Thing than its alternatives), and with closer ties it is An Even Better Thing.  Without the existence of these predicates (whether held consciously or otherwise), you would have to ask why either camp is arguing the toss at all about the UK’s relationship with Europe.  After all, if you think that the current Britain, in Europe, is better than a past Britain, more separate from the EU, why would you be putting forward a reading of history that stresses an englischer/britischer Sonderweg as a positive argument?  Similarly, why  valorise a reading of the history of Britain as integral to Europe if you think that greater separation would be better?  Without these predicates, therefore, you have to wonder why either set of arguments would matter a jot, unless this were simply a rather pointless and old-fashioned positivist-empiricist in-house squabble over whose reading of the ‘facts’ was ‘correct’. That or plain old personal animosity.

The answer of course is that – while I find Abulafia’s arguments (empirical and methodological) a little, shall we say, surprising for someone with a chair in history at Cambridge, and while I must in honesty also admit (personally) to not much liking HfB’s supporters while having a number of friends in the other camp – neither set of arguments in fact does matter a jot, as far as the debate on Britain’s place in the EU is concerned.  If historians should get involved in this debate (and I think that they probably should) it must be in a very different – a better, more sophisticated – way than this.

What disappoints me about this debate, if you can call it a debate, is the view of history’s, and historians’, role in discussion of public policy.  What most of the debate thus far boils down to is this:  “I am a Euro-sceptic and ‘history shows us’ that Britain  has always been separate from (= is best off out of) Europe” versus “I am pro-EU and ‘history shows us’ that Britain has always been an integral part of (= is best off in) Europe”.  There is I suspect a further level to this string of binaries, although it is doubtless much less clear-cut, and that is a rough equation of the first position with the (broadly-defined) Right and of the second with the (broadly-defined) Left.  I confess to being very much a pro-European.  Indeed I dare say that, as a socialist and thus a staunch opponent of any and all nationalisms, I am probably more in favour of a federal European state than most, even among HfB’s opponents (and that would be the basis of my own desire/demand for necessary EU reform); that was one reason I signed up to the ‘Fog in the Channel...’ letter.  And I confess to finding HfB’s arguments historically less subtle than those of their opponents. I cannot honestly judge the extent to which the former confession governs the latter: to a significant extent, no doubt, but not, I think, entirely.

The point is this: HfB and its opponents share exactly the same, entirely conventional approach to the ‘relevance’ of history to current political debate; in other words, to ‘why history matters’. That relevance, as is clear from any close reading of almost all of the contributions to the exchange, consists entirely in the deployment of historical ‘fact’. I find this, to be blunt, more than a tad wearisome. [The involvement of historians in the referendum on Scottish separatism took exactly the same tedious form.] What seems largely to be at stake is who can assemble the biggest pile of facts.  This is not going to make much of a difference, let alone decisively carry the day, either way. By way of demonstration, and if you can bear it, just read ‘below the line’ on the on-line version of the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ piece. To quote the (in my estimation) criminally underrated Andrew Roachford,  ‘I don’t want to argue over who is wrong and who is right’.

Let me row back from the extreme position that might be inherent in that statement. First, it is very important to deploy historical fact to counter misleading public presentations of what ‘history shows us’.  This was another reason I signed up to the ‘Fog in the Channel…’ letter.  There were some seriously dubious elements in Abulafia’s piece and it was important to point out that what he set out was very far from being the whole, let alone the only, story of British history, as he and HfB – implicitly (by their very name) – claimed. Second, you can’t get far in any discussion of history without some attention to the basic facts. Put another way, while you can oppose positivism from a discrete non-positivist standpoint, you can never stand outside empiricism – critique (to paraphrase Derrida on Reason) can only come from within.  However, as I have said too many times to count, history (as opposed to chronicling or antiquarianism) is the process of thinking, interpretation, explanation and critique, carried out on the basis of those facts, it does not stop at the latter's simple accumulation (most historical 'facts' are, to me, not especially interesting in and of themselves: this happened; that did not happen – factual accuracy is a duty not a virtue).

More seriously, both sides essentially see the course of history (as established by these facts) as providing a set of tramlines governing the proper path we should take in future.  This removes any kind of emancipatory potential from the study of history. Put another way, and to restate the counter-factual posited earlier, suppose you agreed with Abulafia (and after all he’s not wrong about everything) that Britain’s history was, fundamentally, profoundly different from that of mainland Europe and had run a quite separate course (there is a case that could be put to support that contention that would have to be taken seriously, even if it is not the one put forward by HfB).  But suppose that, unlike him, you thought that this had been a terrible thing and thought that Britain needed to incorporate itself more fully in Europe.  Or suppose that you thought that the authors of ‘Fog in the Channel…’ were fundamentally right that Britain’s history was entirely entwined with that of the mainland but that you thought that this was wholly regrettable.  In still other words, suppose that – like me – you thought that the course of the past had no force and provided no secure or reliable guide at all to what ought to be done in future.

So, what would one be able to contribute to a debate on these (or other) issues if one held a (superficially) seemingly nihilistic view, like mine, of history as random, chaotic, ironic, and unpredictable, and of the past as having no ability in and of itself to compel anyone to do anything? What, so to speak, would be the point of history?  Why would it matter?

In his excellent blog-post – in my view, the best intervention in this discussion by some way (impressive not least for its concision) – Martial Staub draws attention to the discontinuities of history that subvert any attempt at a unified narrative or quest for origins. This seems to me to point us at a much more valuable and sophisticated means by which the study of history (rather than ‘History’ itself, that somehow mystic object, or objective force) can make a political contribution.  Every dot that is later joined up to make a historical narrative represents a point of decision, of potential or, if you prefer, of freedom, where something quite different could have happened.  To understand any of these decisions, as again I have said many times before, it is necessary to look at what people were trying to do, at what the options open to them were, or those they thought were open to them, what they knew – in short at all the things that didn’t happen, which frequently include the intended outcomes.  You cannot simply explain them as steps on a pre-ordained path towards a later result, or as the natural outcomes of the preceding events.  Any present moment of political decision represents the same thing: a point of choice, of decision, which requires serious thought.  It should not be closed down by the idea that some 'burden of history' or other compels us to go one way rather than another.  Those decision points that I just called the dots joined up to make a story were, at their time, points of freedom when any number of things were possible.  The unpicking of narrative constructions makes this very clear and that – in my view – is the point that emerges from historical study.

This lesson, for want of a better word (I mistrust ‘lessons from history’), points at a string of possible subversions.  Staub points out the subversion of the ‘national’ story but at the same time it subverts any similar ‘European’ master narrative.  Britain can be said to have had a history different from that of other European countries – true enough - but to no greater extent than any other region of Europe has a history different from the others.  It may be true that at some points British history seemed to run on a course that bucked European trends, but exactly the same can be said of, for example, Italian or Spanish history at various points.  What is Europe anyway?  Is it any more natural a unit of analysis than any other?  In the Roman period, the idea of thinking of the north of Africa as somehow a different area from the northern shore of the Mediterranean would be very odd. Indeed the Mediterranean basin can be seen as a unified area of historical analysis (who, after all, knows that better than David Abulafia?), rather than as different continents divided by a sea – perhaps one with different histories from northern Europe or the North Sea cultural zone (which obviously includes Britain).  All of these points also contribute to a historical critique and dismantling of the idea of the nation (any nation) itself, not simply the national story (see also here). All historical narratives are constructs so (unless one is based upon the misuse or fabrication of evidence, or not staying true to the basic 'facts' of what did or did not happen) one cannot be claimed to be more accurate than another.  No one can win an argument on that basis.  The best that can happen (and it is important) is the demonstration that there is more than one story to be told.

Above all, what I find to be one of the most important contributions that historical study can make, in terms of social/political engagement, is the subversion of all reifications, of all attempts to render contingent categorisations as natural.  And of course it similarly subverts claims to represent contingent oppositions as eternal or natural.

All these subversions arise from what I have repeatedly argued on this blog are historical study’s most important benefits: the critique of what one is presented with, as evidence, and the simultaneous requirement to see similarity – shared human experience – in difference and diversity, or to listen to and understand that evidence).

So I would contend that the view of history sketched above is very much not a disabling, nihilistic one but quite the opposite.  The careful, sympathetic yet critical investigation of the traces of the past, the deconstruction of narrative, nation and so on, can and should free us from the burdens that people want to impose on us in the name of history.  The appreciation of the once possible but now impossible potentials at the decision-points of the past can and should allow us to think twice about what people tell us are now impossibilities and open our minds to the potentials and possibilities of the present.

If you want a catchphrase, try this: think with history, act in the present.



(1) Some sort of Twitter exchange ensued (as far as I can tell) between West and popular story-teller Tom Holland, who claimed that the ‘fact’ that Æthelberht of Kent issued his laws in English showed the distinctiveness of early medieval English history.  West retorted that Æthelberht was following Roman precedent, but the real point, in my view, is that we don’t actually know for sure what language Æthelberht’s laws were issued in.  Indeed, I think it inherently unlikely that they were initially issued in Old English rather than Latin.  Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, pp.464-5.

(2) Lang was responding to this very bizarre piece by Abulafia.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Unit Names in the Western Late Roman Army

Ah, so many things to blog about right now - Historians For the Britain, the disastrous election, Charlie Hebdo and Islamic 'extremism'*, 'Why is my curriculum so white?', the History Manifesto - but so little inclination to finish any of them off.  Ho hum.
Instead of any of that serious stuff then, here is a table I just came across, which came out of research I was doing in 2004, preparatory to Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West and which I used in a hand-out at my first Kalamazoo in 2004.
This was part of my thinking about the 'barbarization' of the late Roman army and how this may have been as much a deliberate construct within the late imperial army and its search for new identities after the separation of military and civil services.  The point was that the bulk of the ethnic names of the auxilia palatina that have been used to argue for 'barbarization' (the regiments of franci, etc. - understood as being recruited entirely from the barbarian groups of that name) are found in the context of the elite praesental field armies.  These armies, as this table shows, also contained the bulk of units with 'warlike' and 'animal' names.  I wanted to show, too, that the 'contemporary' ethnic names had to be seen in the context of the use of other non-Roman ethnic names from past history.
These names are quite different from earlier imperial names, not least in that they are cast in the (usually) masculine plural, thus referring to the men in the unit, rather than in the feminine singular (thus referring to the unit itself) as had earlier been the norm.  They also stress qualities that are the very antithesis of classically-defined Romanitas : animal names, ferocity and fierceness (also animal qualities).  In the imperial field armies, then, there seemed to be a competitive discourse stressing the non-Roman, the animal, the barbarian.  Indeed the boasting inherent in these titles also makes a difference from traditional ideas of Romanness.
This could then be placed alongside many of the usually-supposed barbarian 'imports' into Roman military life to suggest that the army was the locus of a different discourse of Roman masculinity that stressed an opposition to traditional 'civic masculinity'.
I think that might I now row back from an extreme view negating the barbarian recruiting of the auxilia palatina with those 'current' ethnic names, though I would still want to see the titles given them as indicative of something new.  I also think that any recruiting from the specific group in question probably quickly declined and the name became more of a unit identity (like the franci still serving in Justinianic Egypt centuries later) rather than a simple description, and that that fit well into the military culture just suggested. 
I similarly wanted to suggest that, later, at the end of the fourth century, the new units of foederati underwent a similar evolution as the barbarian auxilia palatina had experienced, from new elite units raised from barbarians into Roman elite units recruited from all sorts of people (as indeed Olympiodorus says in the earlier fifth century).

Note: I don't vouch for the exactitude or rigour of these counts but I think that the overall pattern is right.

Ethnic names - current ethnic names like 'Franci', 'Alamanni', 'Attacotti', etc.
Warlike names - things like 'feroces', invicti (?) and the like.
Imperial names - Honoriani, Arcadiani, etc.
Animal names - leones, cornuti, etc.
Antique names (If I remember rightly) include ancient ethnonyms like sabini, celtae, parthi.  This could also include Arcades, if this is not a corruption or variant on the Arcadiani.
Theogonistic names - Herculiani, Ioviani, etc.
Functional names - Sagittarii, lanciarii, (possibly) exploratores or superveniores.
Old unit names are names that derive from early imperial legionary or auxiliary unit titles
Rank - prima, secunda, etc. (I now realise that these could be a sub-set of "old unit names").

                                                     Western Empire                               

                                               Praesental field armies.    Non-Praesental forces                    

Ethnic Names                                    13                                           5                         
Warlike Names                                 18                                         12                         
Ethnic and Warlike                             4                                           -                            
Imperial & Ethnic names                    7                                           1                           
Imperial name                                                                
               + warlike name                    4                                           -                            
Province + warlike name                    4                                           -                            
Animal Names                                    6                                           -                            
Antique Names                                   6                                         12                         
Imperial names                                    5                                           5                           
Imperial and provincial                       4                                           -                            
Province or town                                46                                         94                         
Old unit name                                     16                                         41                         
Old Unit name +
               Imperial                                2                                            1                           
Old unit name + town                         2                                            2                           
Theogonistic name                              5                                            8            
Theogonistic name +                      
               Imperial                               5                                             3            
Other                                                  4                                             1
Functional title                                 14                                           10
Rank                                                   3                                             9

* I am just not sure that 'extremism' is the right word as it implies that such beliefs represent Islam taken to its extreme, rather than a perversion of Islamic belief as it often is.  Imagine calling the Westboro Baptist Church 'extreme Christians' and you'll see my point.  I have the same kind of problem with 'fundamentalist' Islam.  I do not know what term I'd use instead so the inverted commas will have to suffice.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Consensus: A Historical Lesson from UKIP

UKIP is 100% united, said Nigel Farage earlier this week, making a public pronouncement of the consensus that exists within his party in much the same way as early medieval rulers did when they proclaimed that their laws etc. had been promulgated with the advice and consent of all their leading men.  Indeed the whole episode has a sort of medieval flavour about it, if perhaps not quite as expressed here (which is hardly the first time that 'medieval' and 'feudal' get used in a rather looser way than is entirely helpful). 
Anyway, for those outside the UK, who are not familiar with the continuing tragicomic saga of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, the deeply unpleasant demagogue at its helm promised that he would stand down from the leadership if he failed to win the seat of South Thanet in the recent (disastrous) general election, making various high-minded statements about how he could not credibly lead a parliamentary party if he was unable to win a seat inside parliament.  And so he rode off like many another hero of English history (like, er, Hengist ... the immigrant) to do battle in Thanet.*  Ah, but - alas and alack - he was defeated by the Tory candidate and so had to make at least a show of being an honourable man of his word and resigning the leadership.  For many of us this was one of the few rays of light on May 8.
After three days, however, he rose again, claiming that his resignation had been refused by the party, who had begged him to stay on.  (This is one area where all this starts to look quite familiar to medievalists.)  Probably with wailing and rending of garments (...which is a horrible image that I am now trying to wash out of my brain).  When it was pointed out that the tendering of resignation had to bring about a leadership contest, various comic excuses were wheeled out about how the resignation letter had to be typed and Nigel's was only hand-written, and by the time he had got it typed up the party executive had determined not to accept his resignation.  Nevertheless, just as an early medieval king's defeat in battle produced political crisis (and the possibility of deposition or abdication) various of King Nigel's leading aristocrats stated that the whole non-resignation affair was shabby and that his leadership was less than ideal (see here and here and here).  Lesser aristocrats (local councillors) defected.  A crisis appeared to present itself.
Within a few days, however, the revolt had been squashed and the rebels punished.  Those who had spoken out resigned from their positions (stripped of their honores) and public apologies were elicited (public penance; confessions?) (see here).  People removed from their posts made public statements about how they had not been fired but had chosen to go (here).  (See also this.)  And so, having ruthlessly purged it of any dissenting voices, Farage proclaimed that his party was '100% united'.  The only person he had to tread carefully with was Douglas Carswell, UKIP's one and only MP, with whom a front of unity was patched up.
The whole story seemed to me to illustrate what I have been saying for some time about 'consensus politics' in the early middle ages.  Does Farage 'need' to rule by consensus?  No.  Clearly not.  All he needs is a public rhetoric of consensus and 'union'.  After all even the Soviet communist party liked to promulgate the idea that all were unified behind the leader and get those who were purged to admit their treason.  That rhetoric functions to deter further disagreement or rebellion.  What we normally have in our sources is the equivalent of Farage's eventual declaration of consensus, sometimes with a partisan account of the antecedent proceedings.  Many years ago, Stuart Airlie wrote a very good piece for (I think) Past and Present about the trial of Tassilo of Bavaria, reading it in much these terms, but I think the lesson is much more widely applicable to internal politics.  We need to foreground the general nastiness that doubtless preceded cosy ritual declarations of consent and union.  We need to interrogate much more critically the precise form of political community that lies behind the obsession with proclaiming consensus.  Above all we ought to beware this insidious vocabulary whether in academic politics, or in national politics, past or present.  As I argued at Kalamazoo, we need to create a politics within which disagreement and diversity are acknowledged as constitutive of community and debate, not something to be swept under the carpet.
* - Perhaps he gets his history from 1066 And All That, where people land in Thanet by accident and therefore become king.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities

[This is the paper I gave yesterday at Kalamazoo, in what turned out to be a very successful and (given there were a lot of clashes) gratifyingly well-attended session.  Thanks to Laurent Cases for inviting me and to Michael Kulikowski and Stefan Esders for their papers, with which I thought this meshed quite well.]

This experimental paper looks at political community.  Comparing the Roman Empire with the seventh-century Frankish kingdom it considers the link between subject-formation and membership of a polity.  The initial thesis was that a fundamental link between subjectivity and the political community would increase a polity’s resilience in the face of crisis.  Whether this is the case remains to be seen but the comparison of Roman and Frankish polities may lead to some interesting suggestions.  Finally, I will draw on this to meditate briefly on how we might rethink community in the present.

Fundamentally, an identity has no fixed and stable meaning present in and to itself.  The failure to appreciate this vitiates all work treating early medieval ethnicities (like the Gothic) as unchanging monoliths. It’s difficult to see how such views could ever have gained any traction had history paid attention to philosophy. As categories into which the world is divided, identities are signs (or complexes of signs) and function, as such, as combinations of signifier and signified.  One implication of this is that they can only be located on endless chains of signifiers, each sign bearing the trace of all the signifiers and signifieds to which it’s linked. But although signified may be linked to signifier in the realm of the Symbolic, there is no fixity about what, say, ‘Goth’ may mean in the Imaginary – the complex of ideals, identifications and differences that make up the ideal ‘Goth’. That changes contingently, through time and space.  Furthermore there can be no absolute guarantee that  someone’s understanding of the signified ‘Goth’ is precisely the same as anyone else’s.  Political communities do attempt to limit this fluidity.  In the UK, efforts to fix a signified to the signifier are manifest in periodic hand-wringing about what it might mean to be British or, especially, English, or in confident, ill-informed proclamations on the subject by nationalists.

Identities are never immanent, but manifested by various forms of what Butler termed citation, and especially performance. Here is where we consider subject-formation.  As a child enters the world of language, she learns what the society into which she’s born considers to be correct behaviour.  In some thinking, adopting Bourdieu’s ideas, this point has been employed to allow a form of primordialism to re-enter the discussion of ethnicity by the back door.  This approach nonetheless ultimately fails to rescue the concept of unchanging, primordial ethnicity. It assumes that such ideals as are manifest in, in Bourdieu’s terms, habitus and doxa can be transmitted in static form.  More importantly, it equates habitus with ethnicity.  That is the key relationship I will explore.  My contention is that this is less problematically the case in the Roman than in the later Merovingian example.

The crucial point concerns the linkage between correct performance of masculinity (or femininity) and Romanness.  For now, we can bracket the sometimes-alleged distinction between Romanness and ethnicity.  Correct conduct, as a man, defined the core of legitimate political behaviour.  To behave as a man – a Ro-man – was to be capable of involvement in the Roman imperial body politic. Appropriate  behaviour could bring a barbarian so closely within imperial structures as to efface any trace of non-Roman origin.  As Michael Kulikowski has cogently argued, furthermore, the deliberate performance of non-Romanness, when excluded from government, became an established strategy within political dialogue.  This in no way challenged the link between legitimacy and Romanness.

This can be explained by considering the young Roman’s socialisation, which, as is well-known, involved induction into the ideals of correct civilised, masculine behaviour: reason, moderation, the control of emotions and bodily urges, and so on.  Performing these traits manifested  suitability for political office.  They also, as is equally well-known, demonstrated correct leadership of a family and control over women, children and dependents.  The male Roman’s ego-ideal was central to involvement in the sex-gender system, and both were inextricably tied up with membership of the imperial polity.

One could not, therefore, turn one’s back on Romanness without calling into question aspects of identity that enabled local leadership and even participation in marriage politics.  This goes far towards explaining how the Empire endured the so-called Third-Century Crisis.  The absence of a real alternative meant – briefly – competing empires but no fundamental challenge to Romanitas’ monopoly of legitimate political expression.

When Laurent and I first discussed this session, I believed that the third- and fifth-century situations were fundamentally different; I still thought that the key explanandum of the fifth century was the demise of the Western Empire, which had survived the third century.  I wanted to explain the divergent outcomes of the two critical periods.  Having been working on the sixth century, I now think those situations were rather more similar than I imagined.

There were nonetheless important differences. A rival, martial form of Roman masculinity, playing with traditional Roman ethnographic ideas to stress non-Romanness, emerged in the post-Tetrarchic army.  The fundamental point remained, though, that, like the performance of an anti-Roman stance discussed by Kulikowski, even this remained nested within standard Roman world-views and, as – again – Kulikowski has demonstrated, only underlined the importance of a link with the Emperor in ensuring the legitimacy of claims to Romanness.  Nonetheless, as I have argued before, martial masculinity with its citation of barbarisms, and the equally performed anti-Roman stance in political dialogue, provided resources which gave fifth-century political history a different texture.

Third-century polities opposed to the nominally legitimate emperor at, in theory, Rome either took the form of rival empires or attempts to usurp the ‘legitimate’ title.  Either way, as for dmuch of the fourth century, the lesson was evidently that rival empires governed by different dynasties would inevitably face off for control of the whole.  Perhaps this dynamic goes all the way back to the Republic’s death-throes.  It seems to have been clear by 425 that third-century tactics no longer worked and politics took on a subtly different aspect.  In particular, polities outside the Emperor’s sphere could establish a different legitimacy as ‘barbarian’ kingdoms.  The mistake is to assume that these realms constituted the political aims of non-Roman peoples.  This is to fall victim to two teleological fallacies: one of intention – that what eventuated was what people wanted – and the fallacy that what turned out to work was what was best.  As I have said before, kingdoms are for losers.  The leaders of all the barbarian kingdoms or, better, the regionally-focused Romano-barbarian factions, wanted to control the centre.  Kingdoms were a temporary expedient: a means of legitimate government and dialogue, faute de mieux.  The problem was that, after the Theodosian dynasty’s extinction, no faction was able to subdue the others.  When eventually even the Italian faction was declared to be in the political cold and so took the ‘kingdom’ route, the whole pars occidentis found itself in an indecisive face-off between different political units.  By way of analogy, imagine that neither Marc-Anthony, nor Octavian, nor Lepidus was able to eliminate either of the other Triumvirs and so politics settled down into regionally-based Republican successor states.

This constituted only (to modify Piganiol once more ) a ‘first death’ of the Roman Empire: in the order of the Symbolic.  In the order of the Imaginary, the Empire lived on until its ‘second death’, during Justinian’s wars of reconquest. I can find no evidence that between c.475 and c.525 westerners believed that the traumatic and unprecedented non-existence of a western Empire, which they certainly noticed, or the stalemate between the kingdoms, constituted a permanent state of affairs.  I would even suggest that the situation emerging c.510, in which Theoderic and Clovis, both of whom allowed themselves to be called augustus, were evidently squaring up to each other, might have been perceived simply as the next round in the Gallic-Italian factional rivalry for control of the West.  The ongoing importance of by now quite traditional Roman political discourse and bases of legitimacy meant that the West maintained a significant existence as a political unit – in the Imaginary – long after its evident dissolution.

The ideological and military offensives of Justin I and Justinian ended this situation.  They involved the strident proclamation of the West’s loss to barbarians and exclusion from the Empire.  For the first time, therefore, an Emperor could unproblematically acknowledge barbarian control of formerly imperial territory, as when Justinian recognised Theudebert’s rule over Provence during the Gothic Wars.

The political options available around 400 allowed the Empire to endure the fifth-century crisis in ways that have some analogies with but also certain differences from its survival of its third-century problems.  However, that situation also eventually permitted the rug to be cut from beneath old expressions of legitimacy.  This caused a profound crisis: the end of the Roman world.

It’s clear that by this time, the later sixth century, the Merovingian family had created a monopoly over legitimate rulership, such as eluded all other post-imperial dynasties. I suggest, however, that one root of the earlier Merovingian state’s cohesion was the continued significance – in subject-formation and socialisation – of behavioural ideals still ultimately underpinned by relationship to the Roman Empire; that – in however spectral a form – the figure of the Emperor still bound civic Roman and martial barbarian identities into a whole.

The Justinianic wars’ effects were visible in the rapid evaporation of a meaningful Roman civic identity within the Merovingian realms.  It even appears to have become a derogatory term for ‘southerner’. Seventh-century Frankish leaders made various proclamations of political community but I think that historians have seriously overestimated the extent to which their declarations described – or could describe – a reality.  We must reconsider how the later Merovingian kingdom functioned and what, if any, sort of political community it constituted.

I will have to be telegraphic.  No seventh-century linkage between subjectification and socialisation and the polity existed. If one can identify attempts to perform a martial Frankish identity, one must remember that that ethnic identity was not coextensive with the kingdom. Several other ethnicities could claim legal recognition in seventh-century law, and the Frankish army’s multi-ethnic character is described by Fredegar in ways that seem subtly different from Gregory of Tours’ accounts.  If the triumph of the martial model of secular masculinity produced a common aristocratic identity it was not one intimately connected to membership of the Frankish polity.

Christian behaviour, the other basis of the ego-ideal, can claim no more linkage with the Merovingian kingdom.  There were, however, ways in which the different role of religion in politics from c.600 undermined old forms of community.  Especially interesting in subject-formation is the introduction of confession and private penance.  This form of the narration of the self underlines the importance of a Christian ego-ideal, not specifically connected to a polity; it also, as Foucault said, marks a change from public forms of giving an account of oneself, in which communal behavioural ideals might play a part.

Monastic developments, including aristocratic sponsorship of new types of rural monastery, fostered
the linkage of Christian ideals with family identities, also strengthened at this time, but which equally bear no connection with the Frankish kingdom as such.  If kingship was becoming a ministry, as one can suggest from Guntramn’s reign onwards, with a king responsible for the good Christian behaviour of his subjects, that still did not somehow specifically link the latter to the former.

Connected to this, one can identify a privatisation of political space.  Many monasteries – and at least some aristocrats - were granted immunities, removing them from the usual ecclesiastical hierarchy and protecting them from governmental imposts like taxation and military service.  Royal officers could not enter these zones to collect such revenues or collect fines. The immunities represent small holes appearing in the coverage of the kingdom’s ability to penetrate local politics.  Even if the immunity grant worked, as patronage, to bind the recipient into the kingdom’s government, as has plausibly been argued, the basic fact remained.  Other holes appearing in the kingdom’s political space are revealed by a shift in politics’ focus away from the public administrative nodes – cities and small towns – to royal and aristocratic monasteries and estate centres.  The imperial or royal court had always been a focus of activity but it seems now to be more rural in its location and – functionally – to seem like a variant on the usual, privatised foci of political behaviour.

Without the Empire’s social foundations of political community, therefore, the effort expended on seventh-century proclamations of consensus seem to me to reflect contingent factional claims for legitimacy: not claims, as in the Roman situation, to lead the community, legitimately, but to be the community.  Early medieval historians’ obsession with reifying consensus has meant that the insidious nature of this vocabulary and of the work it does – then as now – has not been duly acknowledged. These statements define who is in, for sure, but also who is out.  Those who are excluded are held to have withdrawn themselves from the community, depicted as refusing consensus.  This was the inevitable correlate of civil war for control of the palace and of Frankishness.

We must not overstate the differences.  Controlling the royal court exerted a powerful attraction, ensuring the realm’s continuing existence as a political arena, in the Imaginary. Exclusion could find regional and ethnic expression, but the kingdom’s poly-ethnic nature meant that a link to the Merovingian king was still important in relating to other groups.  Peripheral ethnic groups did not therefore become kingdoms, even if they may have been to all intents and purposes independent of royal rule.  This led to very fluid boundaries, that in turn drew out Carolingian military campaigning
In the 730s-740s the Merovingian kingdom functioned without a king for six years.  This illustrates the extent to which it functioned in the Imaginary but also the – by this date – obsolescence of the Merovingians themselves. Without stronger bases, the integrative forces weakened over time.  The revived kingdom of the Carolingians needed new bases for community.

So: a few unsurprising conclusions and the promised meditation.  The close linkage between subjectivisation and membership of the Roman polity gave the Empire remarkable resilience in the face of political crisis and even fragmentation.  It facilitated its effective functioning as a state, by anyone’s definition. The late Merovingian kingdom’s longevity and coherence are striking but there is no doubt that it was less cohesive than even the fifth-century Empire. Nor, I think, more controversially, is it helpful to classify that realm as a state, unlike its earlier precursor.  The lack of linkage between subjectivisation and membership of the polity makes a crucial difference.

None of that may be especially surprising, and perhaps not even very interesting.  What interests me more is using this as a springboard for thinking community and its possibilities in the present.  There is much discussion of integration in current European politics, especially as regards immigrants and above all Muslim immigrants. But into what assimilation is sought remains, at best, ill-defined – a buzz-word in dog-whistle politics, contingent and inconsistent when probed.  If, as I believe it should be, history provides a means of challenging the accepted bounds of the natural or the possible, then the discussion of late antique political community provides some interesting parameters.

The current rhetoric of assimilation and integration, of subscription to norms, the disagreement and conflict over what those norms might be, seems to me problematic and indeed dangerous.  For, just as in the Frankish case, these notions of community are in fact predicated upon exclusion and intolerance. In this case there is no recognition of dissent within the community.  Although politically more coherent and resilient, and much more successful in, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s term, ‘working’ a community, one can ask whether the Roman model is ultimately much better.  For, although the models of behaviour held to underpin the Romanness of the community allowed the inclusion of outsiders, this was based upon sometimes vicious intolerance.  Again it has its modern parallels in the discourse on integration, when we hear calls for immigrants to adopt western ways.  We will tolerate you, they (like the Romans) say, as long as you promise to be like us.  That, as many have said, is not toleration.

In her 2007 book The Politics of the Veil, Joan Scott talks of the pressing need to create forms of community that accept difference. The Roman-Frankish comparison might help us think this further.  On the one hand, as in the Roman case, community should be linked to engagement in its structures.  It should, like the Merovingian, lack a hegemonic identity, but unlike the Merovingian, not strive to create one. Within a common legal framework it would nevertheless have a meaningful existence in the Symbolic. In Nancy’s terms, an ‘unworked’ community hesitates permanently at the moment of mutual recognition, within the Hegelian Aufhebung, recognising difference within community but without seeking to remove it. Meditating on the diversities of the past to help us push the bounds of the possible in the present may be one way of allowing History to face up to its most important humanist responsibilities.