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Tuesday, 8 December 2020

Ethnicity in Late Antiquity (5): Ethnic transformations in the West, c.600

As we have seen so many times already, major change took place in the late sixth century. The most important aspect of this was the spread of non-Roman identity. By the middle quarters of the seventh century everyone who mattered in the north of Gaul was a Frank; something similar seems to have taken place in Spain, with Gothic identity; the Lombard Laws don’t seem to feel any need to deal with Romans other than those from outside the kingdom; The early Anglo-Saxon law-codes similarly pay little attention to Romano-Britons or Welsh. Furthermore, by this time the earlier situation where ethnicity in the law was generally limited to adult males had come to an end. The types of ethnicity with which the law was concerned were now held by adults and children, men and women. It ran in families.

What’s more, when the seventh-century law-codes do talk about Romans they are now firmly in a lower legal position. This is very clear in early Anglo-Saxon law-codes’ references to the Welsh, who are now often even slaves, or at least unfree. Whereas 6th-century Salic Law had envisaged the Roman population of northern Gaul as a roughly parallel population to the Franks, even if the latter were privileged, seventh-century Ripuarian Law saw Romans within the Ripuarian territory as essentially half-free, and requiring a Ripuarian Frank to speak for them at law.  In other words, all of those among the free population who hadn’t managed to make an effective claim to a non-Roman identity had effectively missed the boat completely.

Even in areas like the south of Gaul, where non-Roman identities didn’t become dominant, we can still see a shift to Germanic personal names by the seventh century. In the church, too, whereas Roman names had predominated before around 600, after that date Germanic names became more common. It is difficult, once again, not to link all this to the responses to Justinian’s wars and his ideology of reconquest. Roman identity lost whatever was left of its cachet. It’s difficult not to link this with the shifts in ideology we’ve already encountered, and with the final triumph of the martial model of masculinity, as well as with the changes in the organisation of the state, taxation and military service that I discussed in [a previous lecture that I hope to upload in future].

One of the other developments around 600 was the introduction of the idea of the personality of the law. It is often said that after the collapse of the western Empire law became personal. In other words, if you were a Frank you were tried according to Frankish Law; if you were a Roman you were tried according to Roman law, and so on. Since about 1980 it has been shown increasingly that post-imperial western law-codes were territorial, not ethnic as had been believed: in other words they applied to everyone in the kingdom rather than just to the Franks or the Goths. This changed around 600. To my knowledge the first mention of the personality of the law – i.e. the right to be tried by the law of your people – comes in the Frankish 7th-century code, Ripuarian Law, which explicitly states that people of particular non-Ripuarian Frankish identities should be tried according to their own law. Obviously (or to me it seems obvious anyway) this can only have been an aristocratic privilege, so this would be something else associated with the emergence of a more secure social elite around 600 in the north-western areas of Europe. The one place where personality of the law didn’t seem to apply was Iberia, where seventh-century Visigothic law said that no other code was applicable within the kingdom. I suspect this is another example of the universalising claims of the Visigothic kingdom – its claim to be the legitimate heir of Rome.

Related to these developments was the creation of a range of new ethnic law-codes in the first decades of the seventh century. As well as Ripuarian Law, which seems to have been envisaged as the code for the eastern Frankish kingdom of Austrasia, the reign of the Frankish king Chlothar II also saw the drafting of law-codes for the Bavarians, Alemans and other peoples under Frankish hegemony. It is possible that the Kentish laws of Æthelberht are another example of this.

By the second quarter of the seventh century, then, not only were kingdoms made up of different ethnic groups but the elites within those groups could take their legal identity with them if they moved around.  We have seen that in the Roman Empire Roman ethnicity was bound up with the process of socialisation and of being a man; everything about your identity was crucially linked to your membership of the Roman body politic. By about 625 there seems to have been no part of the western world – or perhaps even the Eastern Empire – where this was still the case. This too must surely have meant an undermining of the old late antique state as discussed in [previous lectures that I hope to upload in future].