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Thursday, 27 January 2011

More on the end of the late antique state, and how I might (possibly) be just a wee, teency-weency bit, well ... wrong, basically (in which I go to Cambridge and get a sound kicking - in the nicest possible way)

[Some thoughts, additional to those given in my earlier post (May last year) on the end of the late antique state.  These focus essentially on the definition of the state, and on an extra point of detail on the Gallic situation, relating to Argonne Ware (pottery) production.  These are followed by some reflections on some very pertinent and useful critical points brought out in discussion with a seminar at the Cambridge Late Antiquity Network and finally some musings on the attractions and importance of having to change your mind!]

So on Tuesday I went down to Cambridge to speak to the Cambridge Late Antiquity Network Seminar (CLANS); to talk to the CLANS - see what they did there?  Everything has to have an acronym that spells another word these days, or it doesn't count.  Next week, for example, I am looking forward with unbounded excitement to hearing about PURE, my own institution's new system for something-or-other to do with research 'outputs'.  I am assured that this does not stand for Pile of University-Regulated Excrement although, interestingly enough, I am reliably informed that in early modern England a 'pure-collector' was indeed someone who gathered up fresh dung.  This may or may not be coincidental.  [As it happens, it turned out to stand for PUblication and REsearch, and was a pretty good, useful system.]

Anyway, as it happens this was the first time I had ever given a paper in Cambridge.  If anyone had been waiting for the last (almost) 25 years (since I started my post-graduate research) for me to register on this index of academic acceptability, I can't help feeling that they'd have been more than a little let down, for reasons that will become apparent.  The paper was in many respects a re-run of the hastily assembled piece I presented in Edinburgh last May but I had decided to make it a case study of Gaul.  This meant editing out the comparative thoughts on Spain, England and Italy, which in turn gave me room for an expanded section on defining the state and for some more detail on the Gallic situation.  Here I will just give the 'new bits' (although some is lifted from a paper I gave in Manchester, years ago, on 'state, violence and state violence') and then move on to the important bit, which is the response from the audience.

1. The State
"There are two ways of reading my title. From its current phrasing, you might probably see at as discussing the demise simply of a particular ideal sub-type: the end of the ‘late antique state’. Let’s call that the ‘weak thesis’. Alternatively, it might be seen as meaning the end of anything that can reasonably be called a state with any analytical precision, in the late antique west. The latter, ‘the strong thesis’, is actually the way that I mean it and so I should probably have entitled the paper ‘the end of the state in the late antique west’, although I feared that that might imply that that was where the state ended; that the state didn’t continue in other areas. The ‘strong thesis’ is what I want to try and convince you of, but if not then I hope acceptance of the weak thesis will suffice and that you might pick up on other issues of interest, although, truth to tell, the weak thesis is a bit banal.

The idea that anything that could helpfully be called a state ended in around 600 in western Europe is a historiographically unfashionable view. It has become normal for people to talk about ‘the state’ in early medieval Europe. There are different ways of looking at the genealogy of this topic. In some ways the idea of the early medieval state has quite deep roots, since some of the 19th-century Germanist historians did not seem to have much of a problem in thinking about the ‘Staat’ in this period. On the other hand, the idea of the break-down of the state is also pretty old. In days of yore the post-imperial world was seen as experiencing a collapse into anarchy. In that context people discussed things like ‘blood-feud’ which were supposed to have existed as ‘self-help mechanisms’ in a stateless world – supposed to have existed at all, some would say – the rise of ‘feudalism’ was seen as a response to untrammelled violence and disorder. The move away from these historical myths has entailed the rise or more properly the rebirth of what I at least consider to be another; that of the early medieval state.

It is quite likely, I imagine, that the scepticism about early medieval statehood arises from the influence of thinkers like Weber, whose definition of a state does not really fit early medieval examples. Subsequent theorists have tended to go down similar routes.

But in early medieval history, there has been a counter-move, towards rehabilitating the notion of an early medieval state. This is, to no small degree, linked to the rise of what is called the ‘consensus model’ of early medieval politics, which argues that political negotiation and the use of royal ritual created the consensus necessary to keep aristocrats in league with the kings and indeed get anything done. This is a move linked most obviously to the writings of Professor Dame Janet L. Nelson. The idea of a zero-sum model of politics, wherein a growth in aristocratic power equals a commensurate reduction of royal power (or vice versa), was seriously questioned by, for example, the ‘Bucknell Group’. More fashionable now is the idea that kings and aristocrats worked together in mutually beneficial fashion, in which a growth of the power of one can lead to a growth in the power of the other too: a constantly increasing total amount of power, if you like. Many good historians have shown pretty convincingly that early medieval people had an idea of a political community that existed outside the persons who happened to rule in particular ways at particular times and places. Whether or not – like me – you don’t think that a Personnenverbandstaat is much of a Staat at all, even the most un-state-like of early medieval realms existed on the basis of more than mere personal links, though I suppose there could have been short-lived exceptions or temporary blips. All this, for sure, has shown us that cohesive kingdoms existed in the early Middle Ages and this has been elided into the idea that therefore such polities were states. Indeed in 2003 someone called Halsall published a book about Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, which talked willy-nilly about coherent kingdoms as ‘states’.

But cohesion, to me, does not equate with statehood. None of the more recent ‘statist’ historiography, which is usually (though not always) impressive in qualitative as well as quantitative terms, seems to me really to have made the case for thinking of the early medieval realm as a state, in an analytically useful fashion. No one has managed to explain the demise of the late Roman bureaucratic state in the west – for I think that unless you are Bernard Bachrach, Jean Durliat or Walter Goffart, you do have to accept that the Roman state did end. No one has managed to produce a reliable and/or theoretically coherent ‘worked example’ which shows exactly how aristocrats and kings worked together to maximise the power and authority available to each. Although the zero-sum model may not have existed as such, in its crude form, I do think that something very like it did exist: in other words that the acquisition of certain types of local power by local or regional aristocracies did mean a relative diminution of the effectiveness of central government. When all power, ultimately, comes from the land, there is really no way of avoiding this point, as I shall return to discuss in a minute.

Similarly, the flaws of the approach are pointed up if you look at ‘horizontal’ as well as ‘vertical’ competition, that is to say competition within the strata of the élite classes as well as between them. No one, to my mind, has explained, why, if, in the words of one fairly recent (if unreliable) writer on the topic bluntly says, ‘the struggle for political power was not a zero sum game’, was there a struggle at all? And indeed the consensus, statist model of the early medieval state does usually appear to be pretty struggle-free. Almost every paper on the topic piously says at some point that ‘we should not assume that this was a cosy state of affairs’ although, if one continues to read, one rarely gets the impression that it was anything but a cosy state of affairs.

And yet these were polities where kings blinded their own sons, where civil wars broke out that occasionally at least resulted in fairly bloody battles, one of which produced the death of one of the authors much studied by those holding to the consensus view. As I wrote in 2003, ‘there is precious little heroic in death brutally administered by spear, axe and sword’. So what on earth, if everyone gained, were they fighting, killing and dying over?

There are perhaps three main problems with the current historical trend in favour of the early medieval state. First, all the work upon ‘buying in’, upon consensus, has moved us too far away from coercion, from the radiating out. For a state to exist meaningfully both have to be present. A state must be able actively to penetrate local and regional society from above as well as to persuade local and regional élites to invest in it from below. To take an example, local aristocrats and others might have used the legitimacy of power provided by involvement in the structures of Charlemagne’s realm to further their own ends. This helped the coherence of that realm as a political entity. But what if any chance did Charlemagne have of enforcing compliance with his wishes in the localities? The former state of affairs suggests a coherent kingdom but only if we can answer the latter question with evidence of at least relatively effective instances of coercion are we in the presence of a state.

The second problem, closely related to the first, is that historians of all perspectives, Marxist or otherwise, have assumed an alliance between local élites, or aristocracies, and central government, kings, emperors or whatever. Yet this alliance has never been shown to be necessary. Indeed I think it is a fundamentally mistaken assumption. This will underlie much of what I am going to talk about.

The third problem is that the appreciation of collective power has come at the expense of a neglect of what Mann called distributive power: power which, if more is accumulated in the hands of one person or group, does involve a decrease in the power of another. We must appreciate, as Mann argues, that both types of power exist simultaneously, and so that we are not talking about a crude zero sum game. In an early medieval context, there is an important materialist challenge to the concentration upon ideology and collective power. The period that concerns me (and indeed most of the early medieval period in the West) was one where power ultimately resided in the control of land and its surplus. Most of it was non-monetary and, on either side of the 600 watershed, there were few truly urban centres. Trade and commerce were in any comparative sense, rudimentary, in spite of the wealth of very good work done in recent decades on unravelling such exchange systems and networks. Certain types of power might have been collective and potentially infinite, but the material basis of power was finite. Especially in a period with low seed-yield ratios, there was a very clear limit on the surplus to be drawn from land; technology limited surplus extraction to muscle power, human and animal – again finite. And the amount of land available was – also – finite. Thus whatever the ideological and other investments in effective power, when you come down to the basics, the resources of power were limited.

There is a very basic – indeed a brutal – implication of all this. In a socio-economic situation such as existed in western Europe after the break-up of the Roman Empire, armed forces could only be maintained by and rewarded with land and/or (as just noted) comparatively limited surpluses from land. Thus armed force, and armed force like agricultural techniques in this period, was a simple question of human and animal muscle, was a fixed resource. Control over armed force, over the military source of power, was, ultimately, therefore distributive.

By way of a hypothetical illustration let us suppose that territory X, a component of Kingdom A, can support 200 warriors from the surplus generated by its land. If access to Territory X is lost by the King of A, either through conquest by Kingdom B or the secession of the local Governor of X, then the King of A loses 200 warriors, whose control is gained either by the King of B or the Governor of X. He cannot simply raise another 200 men to replace them. He cannot increase the surplus commensurately from the rest of his lands to support the extra men – either technologically by increasing yield, because the means don’t exist, or through increasing the rent or tax because that might reduce to starvation the workers of land, who, remember live on a low, indeed knife-edge seed:yield ratio. Nor can he feed 200 more men through state credit or loans, or control markets and so on to pay 200 men in cash. In the post-imperial situation it is difficult even to raise 200 more men: no large urban or rural excess poor populations, the fertile recruiting grounds of later eras. In the military technology of the times, and the time taken to train a warrior, even producing 200 men as tactically effective as the 200 lost from X is going to be difficult.

A polity whose rulers do not tax and thus have no income derived other than from their position as simply one élite landholder among many, and who have no effective independent coercive force, cannot, in my vaguely Weberian view, be called a state. I hope to demonstrate and possibly even explain that proper states came to an end in the West (however temporarily) around 600.

Talk of ‘proper states’ requires definitions. Definitions of a state tend to converge on key issues. Two examples from consciously opposed theoretical camps can serve to prove this. First of all, Michael Mann in The Sources of Social Power (vol.1,p.37):
The state is a differentiated set of institutions and personnel embodying centrality, in the sense that political relations radiate outwards to cover a territorially demarcated area, over which it claims a monopoly of binding and permanent rule-making, backed up by physical violence.

Secondly, John Haldon’s, from The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, a Marxist work written explicitly to counter Mann’s modified Weberianism (pp.32-33):
[A state is] ‘a set of institutions and personnel concentrated spatially at a single point and exerting authority over a territorially distinct area.'
Mann, of course, also argued that a state had to control all four of his sources of social power: ideological, economic, military and political. He also, interestingly, completely skipped over the period that concerns me today. Indeed, as far as I can see the whole 5-600 years of the early middle ages constitute the only era of recorded human political history in Europe that he did skip. Nevertheless, on p.390 of The Sources of Social Power he does say that some post-imperial states existed but that they were small and short-lived. I can say fairly confidently that he is wrong on both of these counts, for the period before 600, but not after.

To take a third example from a historian (like Haldon) for whom I couldn’t have more respect (even if I do seem to disagree with him quite frequently), Chris Wickham’s definition of the state in Framing the Early Middle Ages turns on five things:
1. The centralization of legitimate enforceable authority (justice and the army)

2. The specialisation of governmental roles with an official hierarchy which outlasted the people who held official position at any one time;

3. The concept of public power …;

4. Independent and stable resources for rulers;

5. A class-based system of surplus-extraction and stratification

This might broadly be acceptable as a definition, although I might quibble about point 5, or at least require a fuller definition of what was meant, and I would certainly place heavier emphasis on point 1, stressing the crucial importance of independent coercive force, possibly even above the idea of a monopoly. Such a definition tallies reasonably well with those of other thinkers, including those who work on the middle ages, such as Susan Reynolds. It is broad enough to encompass a range of state forms, as perhaps we shall see, but it is also strict enough to rule out other forms of complex political organisation. The risk run by the current consensus view is that it becomes difficult to see any sort of extensive, coherent polity that might not be called a state. A recent review of an edited volume on the early medieval state concluded by saying that although students of later periods might find it odd to see early medievalists talking about states in their period, this volume made it clear that specialists on that era saw no problems in using the word and that ought to suffice. I don’t think it does suffice.

To return to Wickham’s definition, and to cut to my general thesis, I think that the polities of western Europe before a period of change that I refer to, as a shorthand as ‘around 600’ would generally fit that definition, with a few minor modifications, but that those after that period would not. To demonstrate this, I will, as stated, focus upon Merovingian Gaul."


2. Gallic Economic Decline and the implications for the aristocracy
[Chris Wickham and I have - entirely amicably, I should stress - disagreed about the nature of the very early Frankish aristocracy for a good ten years now.  I've yet to land a really good blow.  Here's my latest effort:]
"One aspect of this which deserves brief comment is the production of ceramics. In Framing the Early Middle Ages, Chris Wickham argues for a wealthy and independent Gallic aristocracy right through the period that concerns me. His case is largely – I would say almost entirely – based upon an argument about the late production of Argonne Ware. Here he is on the topic (on p.795):

In northern Gaul around 400 by far the commonest fine ware in the sigillata tradition was Argonne ware … often quite elaborately decorated with a roller wheel … with a 400km radius of distribution from the Rhine to well south of the Loire … [I]t continued into the late sixth century; it reached less than 200km by now … but survived a century into the Merovingian period as a production on a substantial scale.  [My ellipses conceal only some descriptive comments.]

This conclusion forms the basis of other arguments about the extent of economic decline in the north and, as mentioned, therefore of the weakness or poverty of the local élite, which could sponsor such craft specialisation and an exchange system over a wide area.

The fifth-century decline in Argonne Ware production,
as shown by the spread of sites yielding this form of
pottery
But we can examine these statements on the basis of Didier Bayard’s study of this form of ceramics and if we do a rather different picture emerges. We find that in his early fifth-century Phase 2, almost all Argonne ware is actually found within a 300km-radius of the kilns (6 sites yielding such pottery beyond that radius compared with 66 within it) and within in a box 500km east-west by 300km north-south. That’s an impressive area of 150,000 km2, but still rather less than the 500,000+ km2 implied by Wickham’s statement. More to the point, by the time of Bayard’s Phase 3 (roughly the 440s to 460s) this had contracted so that all was within a 300km radius, 67-79% of it within 200km. Most lies in a box covering 120,000 km2 which is about the same as the area you could calculate on the basis of the radius of distribution. Thus, this contraction, which Wickham implies was something that had happened only by the later sixth century, actually happens by the middle of the fifth century and the abandonment of the Rhine forts. In fact, even by the time of the political end of the western Empire, Bayard’s Phase 4, the distribution of Argonne ware had already contracted so that 98% of it was found within a 200km radius – in fact within a 200kmx200km box (a considerably smaller area) – though fairly evenly distributed within that area. Argonne ware does indeed continue into the late sixth century but it is worth clarifying that the last decorated phase dies out around 540 and thereafter only standard undecorated forms are produced. 

In terms of sites producing this pottery, for Phase 2, N=74, for Phase 3, N= 62, and for Phase 4, N = 27.  This would seem to show a big decline from the last quarter of the fifth century.  Bayard says that output for Phase 4 is about the same as for Phase 3, which, if so, would seem to show that there are fewer sites using this pottery  rather than there being less pottery produced.

Now this, I think we can agree, is not quite the picture that Wickham paints. Overall, the collapse of the Argonne fineware production was rather earlier and rather more serious than is admitted.  Instead I would argue that this picture tallies rather well with my own reconstruction of the northern Gallic élite, never wealthy to start with, being critically badly hit by the end of the western state around 400 and, by the second quarter of the sixth century, having gradually been reduced to the status of a service aristocracy by the canny policies of Clovis and his sons."

Response
I've never been good in the question sessions after papers.  In fact I'm useless.  It's a big hole in my game.  Some might call it the academic equivalent of a glass jaw in boxing, although Audley Harrison* doesn't have the option of pondering it all, publishing a thoughtful theoretical justification of why it was actually better for him not to duck that haymaker, and getting a retrospective win on points or at least a draw.  I've never been good at thinking on my feet; better at mulling things over and at reflecting on them in depth.  Not having attended the Academies of Slick Bullshitting I've never mastered the techniques of the Airy Dismissal, the Dazzling-But-Glib Analogy, or expressing yourself in language so carelessly leaden and obscure that everyone thinks you're brilliant because they haven't got a clue what the hell you're on about.  My own approach tends to focus on waffling, going off the point, speaking for too long and generally bumbling, compounded by the fact that I'm no good at all at wrapping my answers (such as they are) in the usual good manners - 'thank you for your question', 'that is an excellent point', that sort of thing - which makes me seem blunt as well as waffly: quite an achievement.  Nonetheless, it was a virtuoso shambles in Cambridge on Tuesday; if there was a Eurovision Waffling-and-Floundering Contest, this would have cemented my status as the Johnny Logan** of the event.

That being said, it should not detract from the fact that the questions and issues raised afterwards were uniformly very good, important and helpful.  Catherine Hills pointed out that it would be useful for me to up-date the distribution maps that I still use from my early work on Metz, in the light of the masses of new data that has come out since then.  Indeed I ought to do that, not least because the maps are purely based on cemeteries, whereas we now have significant quantities of settlement evidence.  Nevertheless, my sense is that that work doesn't actually affect the overall patterns and conclusions that I drew then.  One of the more infuriating things about the fact that my work never gets cited in France is that much of the new work in fact generally confirms the model I proposed in 1995.  Charles West asked whether there were indeed no means of increasing yield in the early middle ages (with reference to my point about the finite and therefore distributive nature of power).  I dare say I need to do more reading on this, for nuance at the very least, but my understanding is that, clearing new lands and bringing them under the plough aside, the really significant increases in the ability to raise the productive level of land, through better seed-to-yield ratios, didn't come about until rather later in the middle ages and after.  Talking to Rosamond McKitterick afterwards made me think that using Charlemagne as an example in my discussion of the state was probably not a good idea.  Charlemagne - at least early on in his reign - does seem to have been able to employ coercive and punitive force against his aristocrats.  But then I do think that the reign of Charlemagne (or at least its first 2/3) was something of an unusual phase in post-seventh-century Frankish rule.

More significant was Charles' point about the Church, which - as (depressingly) usual - I am guilty of neglecting, in favour of a concentration of lay power, lay office and so on.  If I did mention the foundation of churches and monasteries in town and country it was in the context of lay aristocratic consolidation of landholdings, and in discussion of a shift towards more biblical ideologies of power - points that in many ways render my ecclesiastical blind-spot more culpable still.  In conversation, Charles elaborated on this by talking of where the really dense 'nodes' of social relationships were in the early middle ages.  This seems to me to be an excellent issue to ponder, and I think there would be two principal axes to the analysis.  One (perhaps the more direct, but no less important) would be the way in which central government controlled the localities by using the institutions of the church, perhaps counteracting local aristocratic powers (much good work on this for the Carolingians and Ottonians); the other, more subtle, would be to move through the idea, related to the last point, that perhaps church offices and thus personnel in fact came to be - de facto - the 'state personnel' or the 'state class', replacing earlier secular offices and office-holders, to the idea the ideology of the church and its involvement with kingship played a crucial part in 'gluing' the localities together into a polity.  This latter is the focus of a great deal of excellent analysis by Carolingian historians (Professor Dame Janet L.Nelson, Rosamond McKitterick, Mayke de Jong, etc. etc.).

The first line of attack might not affect my overall thesis too badly, either because the control of churches and monasteries in late seventh- and eighth-century politics seems to have operated pretty clearly on a zero-sum principle, or because this sort of role was less in the sixth century and royal control, proportionately greater.  It is the second line of attack that concerns me more, and keys in with other questions about early medieval analogies to 'civic duty' and similar components of the state.  This makes me wonder whether I have been too keen to play up the necessity of the possibility of autonomous action (which is a better formulation than coercive force) and play down the ideas of consensus (though I remain convinced that they do need a bit of a critical re-think: if people radically interrogated the insidious work that the term 'consensus' does in political discourse they might find a way out of the bind of talking about consensus and then having to make statements - which rarely carry much conviction - that this didn't mean things were cosy).

This was then compounded by a question from an anthropologist (whose name alas I didn't get - if you're reading this, get in touch!) to the effect that polities where the use of coercive force is necessary and frequent, regardless of the ability to use it, are regarded as failed or failing states.  I'd probably need to mull this over more but on the whole I thought that this really was an excellent point that I hadn't considered before.  At all.

The Importance of Being Erroneous (once in a while at least) - and acknowledging it!
So.  A lot to think seriously about and I consider that that is an excellent seminar outcome for a speaker.  The best outcome (possibly) is for everyone to love what you've said and think it really important, but next best is to get useful feedback, even if it means you have to abandon some ideas and theories.  The feedback I received, I should say, was presented much more on the lines of an active engagement with the ideas presented than simply from a confrontational desire to stick to an alternative or opposing line, even if people didn't agree.  That is so much better as an outcome than the bland 'yeah, fine, whatever'  that one can encounter all too often.  Much to ponder.  As it is I might be able to reconfigure my thesis in a sounder and more sophisticated form, or it might be that I am - basically - wrong about all this and that what we have is indeed something akin to my 'weak thesis', that what happened 'around 600' was more a shift in the nature of the state (or the type of the state), rather than the state's actual demise as a useful category.  That could, on the basis of the points raised, be more interesting a proposition to explore than I thought.  Quite a big thing to be wrong about, given that I was toying with The End of the Late Antique State as the title for the (or a) book of the project, but if that's the way it is, that's the way it is.

Sometimes I am surprised by the phobia of 'being wrong' that one encounters in the profession, but what, really, is wrong with being wrong?  OK, I suppose that if you are always wrong there must be something awry with your basic capacity for historical reasoning and deduction (see the work of Bernard S. Bachrach passim) but surely being able to admit that an avenue one is exploring is a dead-end or a bit mistaken is a strength rather than a weakness.  With that in mind I have always quite enjoyed changing my mind about things (e.g. 'Female Status and Power', p.18, n.52; Barbarian Migrations, p.229, n.45) and acknowledging good, effective critique of my ideas that makes me reconsider my position (e.g., Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul, pp.243-7).  I will admit nevertheless to defending vigorously my interpretations where I think they are better than the alternatives (e.g. with the non-Germanic nature of furnished inhumation, or with so-called 'feud') and to being a bit withering with incoherent critique.  But if someone convinces me that there are some holes in my thinking, why not change tack, and why not admit it?  (Some scholars I could name do change their mind, but are never up-front about it, which I think is a shame, because somehow it tacitly denies the importance of dialogue.)

One of the many things that I try (and seemingly increasingly fail) to instil in my students is the idea that education is a journey and that dwelling on the qualification alone - the destination - is the equivalent of the budget airline option.  You could say something similar about 'being right' in history.  It's not a destination - there are no right answers, as we all (well, most of us) know, but some are less wrong than others - but a journey.  We should enjoy that journey.  We should value the detours and having the confidence to accede to the request to 'turn around when possible' because they all help us to get to know the historical landscape and the things that matter in exploring it.

So - to conclude - to all of you who came on Tuesday: thanks very much and sorry about the waffling!

Notes
* A British pugilist renowned principally for falling over quite early on in his fights.

** Australian-born Irish warbler, famed for the unequalled feat of winning the Eurovision Song Contest twice as performer and twice as song-writer (three wins overall).

Philip Pullman on the importance of libraries

Read this: it's beautiful (I'll forgive him the reference to the library of Alexandria...) and relevant wherever you live.  We need more speeches like this from people in influential positions.  In the comments, there is the inevitable buffoon who believes the nonsense about the cuts all being necessary because of the Labour government, so some more speeches about why this IS nonsense are probably even more necessary.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Historical Documents of the Future #1

No.1: The UK Border Agency Tier 4 Consultation
(essentially a move to stop overseas students - already charged huge fees by the way - from working on any day except weekends, and to pack them off home as soon as they're qualified.)

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/BDPMGTM

Q.1 Either:
List at least three reasons why you do not believe the sincerity of the first sentence, in the light of the second.

Or:
List at least three reasons why the allegation of problems in the second sentence is undermined by the first sentence.

Q.2 Suggest how the concern about the quality of overseas students doing higher education complements the moves to 'widen participation' by home students in HE to 50%.

Q.3 Would you prefer to be sent home by aeroplane, packet steamer or given a rail-card and put on the ferry to Calais?

Q.4 Explain how sending overseas students home as soon as they are qualified helps to ensure that immigration continues to enrich British society and strengthen its economy.
(Show your working or, preferably, show you're not working)

Q5. Comment on the quality of English in the phrase "sensibly limit the number if migrants coming to the UK while ensuring that the brightest and the best people to the United Kingdom to live, work and study"; and speculate on the educational background of the person(s) who wrote and cleared it for release in a government document.

Q.6. "The Government believes that immigration has enriched our culture and strengthened our economy. However, in recent years, the system has been allowed to enrich our culture and strengthen our economy a bit too much, what with, you know, Johnny Foreigner and his funny-looking skin and odd beliefs about pigs, causing a bit of a brouhaha, that sort of thing."  To what extent would this be a more honest opening paragraph, and why do you think it was not adopted?

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

There is Unrest in the Forest, there is Trouble with the Trees (or 'Climate change brought down the Roman Empire, scientists *don't* find')

[Research on Tree-Rings has recently grabbed the headlines as showing that 'Climate change may be responsible for the rise and fall of the Roman empire'.  This is unlikely.  The problem lies principally in the scientists trying to explain phenomena which are not now thought to have existed in the form the scientists believe.  Furthermore, there are all sorts of logical problems in arguing that climatic features explain the multifarious, divergent features of a 300-year long period of European history!]


The chance to use the opening lines of a Prog classic as the title for some writing on late antiquity comes but rarely in a career, so when it does it should be seized with both hands. 

My texts today are taken from The Daily Telegraph and from the BBC's news website:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/8262919/Climate-change-may-be-responsible-for-the-rise-and-fall-of-Roman-empire-scientists-find.html
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12186245
The abstract of the research in question can be found here:
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2011/01/12/science.1197175

Reduced to a couple of headline-grabbing paragraphs, what the research is claimed to show is that:
"Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period," the team reported.
"Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces of Gaul"

The first thing that needs to be said is that this approach is not new.  Back in the mists of time, when I was preparing to go to university, I read Geoffrey Parker's Europe in Crisis (recently a second edition has appeared, which I have not read [http://www.amazon.co.uk/Europe-1598-1648-Blackwell-Classic-Histories/dp/0631220275] - these comments may well not apply to the new version, though a quick skim on Amazon suggests they do).  This began with a discussion of climate history and how tree-ring research suggests that the seventeenth century was a period when bad weather might have helped to produce the turmoil of the era.  At the time this fired my imagination (if I hadn't turned out to be an early medievalist I would almost certainly have specialised in the sixteenth or seventeenth century) as a real New History.  Over time, of course, my faith in this sort of environmental determinism (as in all other sorts of determinism) waned.  I ceased to be convinced by this kind of explanation, parodied by a friend and colleague as 'there was an unusually heavy frost, so the Thirty Years War broke out.'

As with my comments on DNA, my gripe is not (it cannot be) with the science itself, with the reality of the observations.  Similarly, if the aim of the researchers is to use these findings to try and spur governments on to act further and faster on climate change, then I can cut them quite a lot of slack.  But we do need to show a considerable degree of caution about their historical conclusions, at least as far as the Roman Empire is concerned.  Here are some points which you might like to bear in mind:

As with the DNA research, the scientists have not critically probed the reality of the historical phenomena they claim their research explains.  First, recent research has poured considerable doubt on the idea that the third century was an economic crisis in the sense that used to be understood, that is as a period of economic decline.  It might have been a crisis in terms of a weakening of the economic unity that had characterised the Empire in its very early phase but in large parts of the Empire (such as Britain) there is no trace of any decline at all: quite the opposite.  And the fourth century in Britain and elsewhere was an era of prosperity.

Second, the turmoil of the migrations.  Again, one needs to think much harder about what these migrations were like.  No one sane denies that people migrated in the last century of the western Empire's existence, but people have always migrated.  We do not know whether more people migrated in the fifth and sixth centuries than did in the third or fourth, or the first or second.  There were, allegedly, tribal movements on a considerable scale in the Roman Republican period too.  Large numbers of people migrated from the heart of the Empire out to the peripheries during the centuries of Roman expansion.  It is a curious view that sees the Roman invasions as a period of 'prosperity' and the probably far less dramatic migration of barbarians in the fifth century (as stated, the continuation of a set of relationships that had lasted for centuries) as one of turmoil.  More curious still that one movement might be explained by one climatic set of conditions and the other by another. 

So, again, this science is bolted on to explain a historical 'problem' whose outlines have been entirely changed as the result of serious historical enquiry.  Sometimes they have changed so far as to make it no longer a problem at all, or at least no longer a problem that can be explained in those terms.  How to explain this by analogy?  This is the best I can do.  It is 'a bit like' a situation where 'scientists' claim that the kind of wheat grown in later ninth-century England would produce a flour that, if used in cakes, could suddenly and unpredictably burn.  'Scientists show Alfred unfairly blamed for burning cakes!' then gets plastered across every news site in the land.  But we now know that the story of Alfred burning the cakes at all is a twelfth-century invention...

That is the main flaw in these sorts of explanation.  But there are myriad other issues.  The collapse of Roman civilisation in Britain was the affair of a couple of generations around 400, after a century of prosperity.  Difficult to explain that through climatic variations over the longue durée, but socio-political explanations do perfectly well.  Migration is a constant of human existence.  Barbarians had been moving into the Empire for centuries, from Caesar's time (and indeed before) right through to the fifth century, and the factors and processes behind their movement remained demonstrably analogous throughout.  Whether any more (or fewer) moved in the fifth century than the third is impossible to know, but the migrations of the third century did not spell doom for an Empire in the thoes of all sorts of other political problems, whereas those of the fifth century did become a focus for political developments that ended up in the fragmentation of the western Empire.  Climate seems incapable of explaining this difference.

Equally, the fourth century was a period of strong imperial rule and remarkable coherence for the Roman Empire, in spite of its situation in the heart of the period where climatic features are supposed to be causing crisis.  The economic revival of the West during the seventh century could be said to fit with the findings of this research but again problems soon arise.  It seems clear (to me, at the moment, at least) that this revival began in the late sixth century and has perfectly adequate socio-political explanations.  More importantly, this does not explain the fact that, although the north-west may have revived, the Mediterranean world experienced a comparative economic decline at this time.  What about the Arab invasions of the seventh century?  Is this sort of 'turmoil' not explained by climate (people used to think it was but - as far as I am aware - this is an explanation in desuetude)?  If it is explained by climatic optimum, then the opposite climatic conditions cannot in themselves explain migration, can they?  Not without considerable modification to the thesis.  And if the Arab expansion is to be explained by politics, society or ideological/religious factors, then why can the northern barbarian migrations not be explained in those terms?

And so on, and so forth.  Let us be clear that this research is valuable and interesting and that it doubtless adds important and interesting details to the picture we have of these centuries.  But we need to think much more carefully about how and why they are important and interesting.  That means asking new and better historical questions that these data can go some way towards answering, not in bolting them on to explain problems which they can't explain and which, in some cases, are no longer problems in any case.

The article concludes with the researchers in question saying "We are very interested in understanding past civilisations and making our research more dense."  More dense.  Ah, that'll be because of the 'less favourable growing conditions' then: the funding 'drought'.  That, at least, is one conclusion that all of us in British academia will currently find it hard to disagree with!

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Sad News: Major Richard (Dick) Winters dies, aged 92.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12158637

This makes me very sad, not just because I am always sad to see the living links with the titanic events of 1939-45 gradually passing on, but because Dick Winters seems to have been not only a very brave and skilful soldier but a gentle, humane and intelligent man.  Like one of the people who commented on this BBC piece, I'd somehow hoped he'd always be there.

There's been much comment on the web about appreciating what we owe to Winters and his fellows.  It'd be nice to think that that was more than empty rhetoric as the USA and UK are so busily throwing it all away.  We do, of course, owe him and his comrades a huge amount, but to me that still somehow sells him short.  He was a skilful battlefield soldier, no doubt, and he did more than the average 'bit' to defeat Nazism but I think that what matters to me, to judge from seeing him interviewed on the Band of Brothers DVDs and to see his career depicted in those programmes and the Stephen Ambrose's book, is the way he did this, not tactically, but morally, as a human being.  A lot of very bad things were done, not always by bad people, in the cause of defeating Nazism.  To me Richard Winters seems to be raised above any of that sort of tarnishing of what Eisenhower called the Great Crusade. We now have to think twice about using the word Crusade (and not just thanks to George W. Bush and his cohorts) and, at the end of the day, probably rightly so but if, just for a minute, we can take those words purely in the sense that Eisenhower and the people who read and listened to him in 1944 meant them, as a campaign against evil and to make the world a beter place, then Dick Winters was a Great Crusader.

He struck me as the sort of person whom you'd be honoured even to meet, let alone to serve with or to count as a friend.  I do hope his memory and legacy are properly appreciated.

Monday, 10 January 2011

News from 'the siege' (or On 'Being Brought up to Speed')

Last week I made the inaugural ‘Historian on the Edge Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week Award’. Not, you'll agree, something that was meant (or indeed deserved) to be taken very seriously.  I went on to express a view that this bit of egregious nonsense presumably entered the programme courtesy of the director/researcher/script-writers rather than the person upon whose book it was based, one William Hastings Burke (aet. 27).

However, although on the TV he seemed nice enough, a sensible sort and certainly someone whom you couldn't fault for involving himself with a just cause, I then read this in Burke's on-line biography:
Fed up with the stuffy academic approach to history, he is part of a new generation bringing history up to speed.
http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/william-hastings-burke/

I expressed the view that, if he agreed that blurb or (worse) actually wrote it, then it smacked of more than a little arrogance. I went on to describe what sort of arrogance it was in some fairly 'up-to-speed' language rather than in the 'stuffy' discourse of actually qualified historians, as it seemed more appropriate.

None of this was meant massively seriously; I certainly never expected the outcome.  Today I heard from his publishers, demanding that I modify this ‘defamatory’ comment, which I have done, cheerfully enough. It was probably inappropriate, though I don't agree that it was actually defamatory. They make the very good points that Burke spent five years on his book, working in near poverty, devoting himself to promoting the rehabilitation of Albert Goering.

Well if that's true, (seriously and honestly) hats off to Burke for all that. But none of that is what I was talking about. The point I was discussing was his on-line biography and its claims. You might wonder why I get so angry with this sort of blurb from pop publishers; why I seem to be getting my Calvins in a bunch over one stupid twenty-one-word sentence. Here’s why (and remember that here I am entirely dealing with the claims made in his blurb, not with his espousal of the cause of Albert Goering, whom he rightly regards as a hero – good luck to him on that front and all congratulations on raising A. Goering’s profile are deserved):

Burke claims (or his 'literary and talent agent' claims on his behalf) to be part of new generation ‘bringing history up to speed’. For someone with no qualifications beyond a BA (and not even a BA in History!) to claim to be able to do this is – let’s face it – monstrously arrogant. Such is the lack of funding for post-graduate degrees that ‘stuffy academics’, in order even to get on the path possibly to being ‘stuffy academics’ in the first place, have to pass exams at a level that puts them in top few percentile of people who read history at university, making them well within the top 1% of people interested in history. They then have to work hard (and hardly rolling in wealth as they do it, even if ‘near poverty’ might be going a bit far) while they carry out their research, research which must then be judged by their elders to be of a sufficient quality to earn them their MA and then their doctorate. Then, to get a job in academia, of which there are few, they must additionally prove themselves better than significant numbers of their contemporaries in a tough competition. To get published they must again prove their right to enter the field of historical debate through acceptance by more established scholars (‘peer-review’ is in effect something you only get later on in your career). And their first book (and subsequent ones) usually take a sight more than five years. More to the point, I don’t think it unfair to suggest that ‘stuffy’ academic historians see what they are doing as a real cause for the betterment of humanity. Many stuffy academic historians (not least those who work on the Nazis) have worked hard for real causes every bit as serious as the rehabilitation of Albert Goering.

But after all this, they have to endure the likes of William Hastings Burke, and/or his publishers/agents, telling them they are stuffy and need bringing up to speed, while publishers refuse academic historians’ work because it does not tell simple enough stories. Of course I get angry, and so should all professional historians and indeed anyone who gives a damn about the place and value of proper history in modern society. If my selection of William Hastings Burke as an example happens to be fortuitous or even contingent (there are - sure as hell - more deserving targets and, unlike some I could mention, he has at least done his own research), the case is entirely symptomatic of the threat that proper historians face from pop/TV history and its perpetrators. Evidently, historical training and qualification are irrelevant.  Real historians aren't needed.  Anyone who can read or write can do history.  I refer to the situation as ‘the siege’, but I will have to come back to that anon.

To expand: Burke has not had to put himself or his work, or his scholarly abilities, through any of the process above (which is certainly not to say he has none - for all I know he might (potentially) be the world's greatest living historian - just that he hasn't exposed those abilities to rigorous scrutiny) and has not had to do any teaching of history and so hasn’t had to face up to the problems of making serious history less ‘stuffy’ to undergraduates like Burke himself. That’s all fair enough; it’s not something one can be criticised or blamed for, in itself, so I don't regard any of the above as defamatory or intend it to be read as such.  What is (to me) objectionable is that he then claims to be (or his agents claim he is) in a position to "bring the discipline up-to-speed". In my book, whether on his part or his publishers’, that is arrogant, pure and simple. The claims made in his on-line biography won't win William Hastings Burke any friends among proper historians.  He may not care, and that's fair enough - there's no reason why he should - but, if he does and he didn’t write it himself, his agents aren't doing him any favours by writing and publishing it.

Here is some more from the blurb on his 'literary and talent agents'' page (try not to laugh; I assure you I am not making this up; read it for yourself here: http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/william-hastings-burke/thirty-four/):

Enter William, a twentysomething from Sydney, Australia, who stumbles upon the tattered pieces of Albert’s history. Shelving plans for a Ph.D., William sets off on a three year odyssey across eight countries and three continents to piece together the puzzling life of Albert Göring.

Forget staid biography. Think seat of your pants travelogue mixed with a Spielberg eye for storytelling and you start to get a taste for the energy William brings to the page. Delivering the kind of must-read story that turns history on its head, Thirty Four gives us a new hero. Standing alongside Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg is the Göring history forgot.

No one should necessarily be blamed for the idiocies of publishers' marketing departments (when my first book came out, the CUP marketing department produced a flyer which mangled my blurb from saying that this was 'the first study in English of a part of the Merovingian world for nearly twenty years', to saying that it was 'the first study of the Merovingian world for twenty years': oh, the embarassment).  If it were true that Hastings Burke were indeed ‘stumbl[ing] upon the tattered pieces of Albert’s history’ for the first time, to ‘piece together the puzzling life of Albert Göring’, whom ‘history forgot’, to ‘turn history on its head’, then one would have to doff one’s hat to him and forgive a certain amount of misplaced chutzpah.  Likewise even if it were only the case that the claim made by his publishers in their letter me were true: that 'his book and dedication to Albert's legacy have meant that this story has been able to reach a far broader audience.  Until recently Albert was almost unheard of'.

Here are three points.  You can draw your own conclusions:
1. The documentary (at least in the part I saw – I missed the beginning) did not note that much of the story was already easily available on line, having been posted by Louis Bülow:
http://www.goering.dk/.
Bülow’s website also draws attention to the suspicious resemblance between Albert Goering and his godfather, though it at least does not explain the differences between the brothers on the basis of alleged illegitimacy.

2. As Bülow points out, the German Journalist/TV-Historian Guido Knopp had, in a book published in German in 2000, already drawn attention to Albert Goering’s work in rescuing people from the Nazis. Knopp’s book appeared in English in 2001 and is, I believe, a best-seller translated into many languages.
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hitlers-Holocaust-Guido-Knopp/dp/0750937823

3. Nor (again, as far as I could see) was any mention made of James Wyllie’s book, The Warlord and the Renegade: The Story of Hermann and Albert Göring (2005) which, five years ago remember, had also drawn attention to the fact that:
“Albert deferred to Hermann as head of the family, but spent nearly a decade working against his brother's regime, intervening wherever possible to rescue the victims of Nazi tyranny, from humble shopkeepers to heads of state.”
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Warlord-Renegade-Hermann-Albert-Goring/dp/0750940255

Neither Knopp nor Wyllie are professional academic historians (though Wyllie at least has a history degree) but neither, to their credit, has made silly claims about how they are bringing ‘stuffy’ history ‘up-to-speed’.

Now, all that having been said, you’d have to be mad not to wish William Hastings Burke the very best of luck in getting Albert Goering recognised more generally or formally, but it is, to say the least, more than a little ‘naughty’ of his publishers and producers to claim that all this is ground-breaking news or fresh research. For all I know, Burke may have brought some new insights and information to all this (rest assured I will find out and let you know one way or the other) and Albert Goering's story probably does indeed need to be better known, but for historians, ‘stuffy’ as well as ‘up-to-speed’, Third-Reich-specialists or (like me) not, or for the many (hundreds of) thousands of people who have read Wyllie and Knopp's books or visited Bülow's web-site, Albert Goering’s courage and good works were not news.

Last week I suggested that being young and good-looking probably makes up for a lack of qualifications or originality in the world of Popular/TV history. Good luck to them that’s got the looks and the youth, but – please – don’t set yourself up as something you ain’t. You’ll just look silly, arrogant or w … orse.

Thanks all the same, but academic history doesn’t need 'bringing up to speed.'

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week #1

In the first of an occasional series, the prize goes to Channel 5's otherwise rather interesting documentary on Albert Goering, 'the good brother' (http://www.five.tv/shows/goerings-last-secret-revealed/episodes/goerings-last-secret-revealed).  The prize is awarded on the basis of the moment where, in explaining why Albert was, if a bit of a philanderer, evidently a genuinely brave and humane individual who saved a lot of people from the Nazis while his brother was, well, Hermann Goering, the documentary dredged up basically unfounded rumours to the effect that Albert was illegitimate (the son of his godfather if I remember correctly).  So that's it, then: he just didn't have the 'evil Nazi gene'.  Phew what a relief, not least for Hermann, whose behaviour probably resulted from a simple inherited genetic disorder rather than from any decisions he might actually have made for himself.  Not such good news for Albert, of course, who, rather than having made conscious and courageous decisions, was spared such torment by having got the 'nice gene' (albeit also evidently inheriting the 'philanderer gene' from his godfather/father).

So (drum-roll, please), on the basis of:
                              1.  Reduction of 'evil' to something pathological and
                              2.  Implicit invocation of genetics to explain everything
I award you, Channel 5's 'Goering's Last Secret: Revealed', the inaugural 'Historian on the Edge Dumb-Ass TV-History Moment of the Week' Award.  Congratulations.

Also a special 'Highly Commended' to the Channel 5 web-site for accompanying the info on the programme with an utterly gratuitous pic of actors dressed up as (suspiciously healthy-looking) concentration camp inmates.  Nice work all round.

Also, this week:
History on Film Bluffing/Irritating your Family, Co-workers and Friends Tips no.1
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
No one sane watches Indiana Jones films for historical accuracy, or expects it from them, but here are a couple of irritating, anoraky things you can say to annoy people, based on watching it last night for the umpteenth time (leaving aside the vexed issue of where Indy got that suspiciously RPG7-like rocket launcher from, towards the end, or the origin of the bizarre 'flying wing' Nazi plane, which at least has a plausible Blohm und Voss prototype feel to it):
1: (This is the penny that dropped last night) A bit of blatant orientalism here in that Egypt is depicted as a sort of backwards Middle Eastern country with no option but to allow the Nazis to send in armed forces to find the Ark of the Covenant.  In some ways not far wrong, of course, but wasn't Egypt a British protectorate in the 1930s?  Do we think that the British/Egyptian government would have allowed a Nazi contingent (with significant contingent of troops, an air-base with armed aircraft etc etc) into the country?  Hmmmmm....
2: A common Hollywood problem this: Every Nazi soldier seems to be armed with the MP40 sub-machine gun (erroneously known as the 'Schmeisser' - extra bluffing/irritation points for that).  Leaving aside the fact that this was a weapon principally issued to NCOs and officers only, the clue lies in the name: MP40.  It means it was developed in 1940 - so what's it doing in universal service in 1936?  The date (courtesy of the opening sequence) also rules out its predecessor, the MP38, which came into service in 1939 for the invasion of Poland.
That should get you banned from any further communal watching of Indy films. 
I thank you.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Historian: The 8th best job in the world (apparently)

Or 193rd worst job in the world.

I can't help thinking there must more than seven better jobs (and/or more than 192 worse ones) than historian, but here's the Wall Street Journal, no less, on the subject:

http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/st_BESTJOBS0104_20110105.html?mod=e2tw

The (Ab)Use of DNA in the Study of Early Medieval Cemeteries

[Much attention has recently been given, especially in popular news sources, to the use of DNA evidence in elucidating the 'Barbarian Migrations', whether in looking at the DNA of modern populations or in the use of ancient DNA from archaeological samples.  It is argued here that such approaches are potentially far more dangerous than helpful.  They risk returning us to ideas of ethnicity as a simple, inherited genetic entity, something akin to those on which the 19th-century idea of the Nation State was based.  The unpleasant uses to which such misleading ideas can be put do not require much imagination to envisage.  Ethnicity is multi-layered, flexible and about ideas.  The genetic approach ignores such things or even individuals' knowledge of their geographical origins.  A worked example or thought experiment argues that even with - from a migrationist perspective - a perfect data-set the explanatory possibilities of DNA are severely circumscribed.  Other questions need to be asked which this potentially valuable source of evidence is capable of contributing meaningfully to answering.]

When I was giving the paper posted below (as ‘Ethnicity and Early Medieval Cemeteries’: http://600transformer.blogspot.com/2010/12/ethnicity-and-early-medieval-cemeteries.html) in Vitoria, one of the questions I was asked concerned the use of DNA as a means of establishing the ethnicity of the deceased and its role in the community. The way the question was phrased was more interesting than usual, in that the argument was that if population elements from outside the area were identified in the skeletal remains, then that would be a means of explaining tension, stress and archaeologically-visible responses to them. As I said, this is more interesting than the usual approach, but I still had to respond fairly negatively, stressing that – when applied to the question of ethnic identity – the potential to distort and mislead hugely outweighed the possibilities offered to advance our knowledge and understanding.

As a convenient (if lazy) means of starting my discussion, here is the relevant section on the topic from my Barbarian Invasions and the Roman West (pp.451-2):

‘Most famous, however, has been the intrusion of the study of DNA into the investigation of the migrations, especially in England. It has, for example, been suggested that DNA can ‘prove’ that there was mass migration and dramatic population change in lowland Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. The potential of DNA to show significant, precisely-datable, movement within the human population of Europe since the Neolithic can, however, be seriously questioned. Migration is a constant of European history; not something that occurred in specific, discrete episodes. More to the point, the samples used in these (and other physical anthropological analyses) have generally been selected in accordance with a particular view of history (specifically that of migration from northern Germany to Britain). Any similarities that emerge might thus be deemed simply to reaffirm a preconception. No controls are sought from such ‘unlikely’ areas as Italy, France or Spain, let alone Africa. That samples from the much more mixed modern populations of the cities of England and northern Germany show greater variation than those from the highlands of North Wales or Norway might also be unsurprising. Catherine Hills has said that, just as ‘historians hoped archaeologists would answer their questions, now archaeologists look to genetics … [as a] solution to all problems.’ In truth, the geneticists do not often seem to be answering archaeologists’ questions at all, but those of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians.

‘Most importantly, however, none of these analyses, even if possibly yielding information on geographical origins, tells us anything about what people thought they were, and ethnicity is a matter of belief. People who crossed the North Sea to Roman Britain in the third century and served in the Roman army adopted Roman culture and ethnicity. Any of their fifth-century relatives who did the same proclaimed their non-Roman identity, and may even have made different choices of which ethnicities based around their place of origin (Frisian, Angle, Saxon, Jute) they did stress. Yet their physical remains, DNA, stable isotopes in their tooth enamel, and so on, would all presumably be extremely similar. The fortuitous discovery of Stilicho’s body, conveniently wrapped and labelled, in a Ravennate grave, would tell us nothing of his own complex identity; what he thought he was, or what other people considered him to be – let alone the way in which his non-Roman antecedents were principally brought out once he had fallen from favour with the western court.

‘We know that people moved in the fifth and sixth centuries. The discovery of people of northern German origin in lowland Britain ought not to be a revelation to any sane scholar of this period. And, again, the absence of physical change does not imply a lack of population movement. What differentiated migration in the post-imperial world from that at other periods of history were the complex shifts in political and social identity of which it became one component, and which are studied in the next chapter. This cannot (and indeed can never) be examined through bones or teeth. The current vogue for forcing modern archaeological science to yield answers to old-fashioned and crudely-formulated historical questions runs the risk of returning us to a primordialist view of ethnicity and identity, such as was popular 150 years ago. These scientific techniques may yet yield interesting details about the personal histories of individuals. However, as far as the question of movement from barbaricum into the Roman Empire is concerned, without considerable refinement and greater sophistication, the study of the physical anthropology of the fifth- and sixth-century dead has no capacity to tell us anything that we did not already know, and every potential to set back the understanding of this period by a century or more.’

This – overall – would still represent my position. Here (with apologies for a degree of repetition) are some passages from a forthcoming (I hope) book I am writing at the moment, about post-imperial Britain (Jon Jarrett should note another mention of the King’s German Legion – information, by the way, which I owe to Alex Woolf…):

‘The employment of the DNA of modern populations to study the Anglo-Saxon migration is a deeply problematic and indeed – I would argue – dangerous line of argument. The problems lie in the methods used, not so much in the scientific analysis of the DNA itself but in the movement from such analysis to interpretative conclusions about the early Middle Ages, where the approach becomes decidedly unscientific. European DNA has been inextricably mixed since prehistoric times and the distribution of particular DNA traits reveal very broad areas with these similarities, so that the self-same maps have been argued to reveal the spread of Indo-European language and the movement of the Anglo-Saxons some millennia later. This in turn reveals a further problem: the date at which these patterns became similar cannot convincingly be dated. If, for example, a DNA pattern very similar to that modern inhabitants of Saxony was reported for the inhabitants of a southern English town, need that result from a fifth- or sixth-century migration, or from sexual encounters with a unit of the King’s German Legion (largely from Hanover) stationed there during the Napoleonic Wars? Or from sexual encounters between troops from that town and the women of northern Germany after 1945? A DNA similarity will not tell you the direction of population movement. A Saxon soldier could return home from the Roman army with his British wife and have a family there; Saxon raiders could take British slaves and sire children on them. And so on. We have seen that movement around the North Sea was an important feature of late Roman history.

‘Moving beyond the methodology used, yet further problems arise concerning the analyses’ assumptions. One is that migration is something that happened in discrete periods, so that, for example, the fifth and sixth centuries are often known as the period of the migrations (an appellation long criticised). Thus, in this view, demonstrable population-mixing can be dated to such specific blocks of time. Yet migration is a constant of human existence. We’ve already seen that people were moving from barbaricum east of the Rhine into the Roman Empire for centuries before 400. People moved, within the Empire, on a large scale too. And of course people have continued to move and to marry the inhabitants of other areas ever since. The similarities between the DNA of England and Germany might result from migration from Germany in the late antique period but, as intimated, it might stem from such movement at many other times and, indeed, from movement in the opposite direction. Once again, movement from the Empire to barbaricum, amply demonstrated in the archaeological record, is excluded from reasoning because it does not fit a model derived from problematic written sources. Thus this use (or misuse) of DNA is driven by a particular, and a particularly crude, reading of history and its results chosen to fit this story rather than to examine it.

‘Another, perhaps even more serious problem concerns the movement from DNA to conclusions about ethnic or political identity. As we have seen, ethnic identity is multi-layered. It is deployed (or not) in particular situations as the occasion demands, and it can be changed. A person’s DNA will not give you a sense of all of the layers of that person’s ethnicity, or of which s/he thought the most important or even if s/he generally used a completely different one, or of when and where such identities were stressed or concealed. Let me illustrate this. A male Saxon immigrant into the Empire in, say, the fourth century, would – one assumes – have DNA revealing the area where he grew up, but he would probably increasingly see himself, and act, as a Roman. His Saxon origins would have no part in his social, cultural or political life, and even less for his children, if he stayed in the Empire. If he returned home with all the cachet of his imperial service, even then it might have been his Roman identity that gave him local status. However, if a distant male relative of his moved into Britain a hundred and fifty years later, his DNA might be very similar but, in complete distinction, this man might make a very big deal of his Saxon origins for they would, or could, propel him to the upper echelons of society. DNA tells us nothing about any of this. What is pernicious about this use of genetic data is that it is essentialist. That is to say that it views a person’s identity as one-dimensional and unchanging, and it sees that dimension as entirely derived from that person’s biological and geographical origins. It is, in short, a view that reduces identity to something very similar to nineteenth-century nationalist ideas of race. Everyone sane knows that people moved from northern Germany to Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. In that sense, these expensive analyses tell us nothing that we did not know already. In their implicit reduction of identity to a form of race, and by masking all the other contingent and interesting aspects of cultural interaction and identity-change, they not only risk setting back the understanding of this period by more than a century but provide pseudo-historical and pseudo-scientific ammunition for present-day nationalists, xenophobes and racists. Before leaving the topic of recent DNA analyses, the last thing to flag up is that the historical sources cited to show racial segregation are used very uncritically and rarely say what they are claimed to. ’

These extracts are, however, as stated, largely concerned with the attempts to draw conclusions about the extent of migration from the DNA of modern populations. When that section of Barbarian Migrations was written (around summer 2005), my understanding of the scientific situation at that time was that there was profound scepticism about the possibility of extracting usable DNA from ancient skeletal samples because of the dangers of contamination. As I understand things now, developments in science have reduced those dangers and there is apparently now the possibility even of using old skeletal data from excavations conducted years ago, to extract usable samples.

If so, these developments, to be sure, present us with much greater possibilities. But we must be sure that we are asking the right questions. The problem with the use of modern genetic data (quite apart from the fact that it seems to me to be principally aimed at getting the researcher in question into the headlines) is that it is (as I said in Barbarian Migrations, as quoted above) framed around questions aimed at a view of post-imperial history from over a century ago. The genetic evidence (assuming that the claims newly made for it are sound) must be used on its own terms, and historians of the period should be involved in framing sophisticated questions. Here is a potential area where I think that DNA analyses could be hugely valuable in the study of furnished inhumation (grave-goods) cemeteries:

Identifying family groups: Results could be compared with the detailed rites used in the burials of the deceased to see whether assumptions about preferred familial burial practices are well-founded, whether assumptions (made by me, for one) about similar rites possibly indicating kinship are soundly based. Where are the burials of genetically related burials found within a cemetery? I have suggested, for example, that the sixth-century phases of Frankish ‘row-grave’ cemeteries were laid out according to community rules, rather than organised by family. That said, I still originally interpreted clusters of similar graves (within the rows) as representing families. Subsequently I mooted the idea that clusters of similar burials were to be explained more plausibly according to their closeness in time rather than the nearness of kinship between the deceased. DNA would be the only way of deciding between these options – as also perhaps in investigating things like the double burial, ‘graves’ 6 and 8, at Ennery (Moselle); were they brothers? Are the seventh-century clusters of burials indeed, as I and others have always assumed, family plots. Etc.

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So, what of ethnicity? What if, as my questioner asked, one could show that some people within a cemetery had significantly different DNA profiles from those of the rest of the population? Would that not help us to look at migration and its effects?

In the first instance, of course it would. Yet, there would be some fairly stringent methodological requirements, and some pretty strict limits to what it did tell us, and more importantly some very gave dangers. Let’s start with the methodological requirements.

One would have to know where these people came from, and that would have to mean the accumulation of a huge body of samples from all over Europe, North Africa and the Near East. The problem to date is that the samples have been chosen according to pre-conceived ideas and (given the huge degree of mixing in European genetics) often one geographical area of origin has been chosen from several equally plausible alternatives according to the (usually pre-determined) story that the researcher wants to tell. All the possibilities or variables (however implausible, however much they contradict what we think we know) have to be entered into the equation.

Second, we need to know just how different these genetic samples are and thus, related to that, how recently the ‘newcomers’ came into the community. Obviously, a cemetery founded in, say c.350 AD, with new rites adopted c.450 AD, cannot be explained according to the existence of a genetic ‘out-group’ that arrived in the region say 6 generations before the appearance of the new rite (i.e. in c.300). How fine can the chronologies given by DNA be (I ask because I don’t know, not as a rhetorical question)?

The strict limits on the conclusions would be that they were purely descriptive. Some people moved from A to B at some period between X and Y. As I have been at pains to argue, migration is a constant of human history, and we know perfectly well that significant numbers of people moved around in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, though whether more or fewer than in, say, the third or seventh is sadly a question rarely asked. We know that some people descended from people who lived around the Danube washed up in Spain in the late fifth and early sixth century. We know perfectly well that people moved from northern Germany to lowland Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. DNA analyses that show that – after satisfying all the methodological requirements given above – are not telling as anything (at all) that we didn’t already know. Let’s (considering the cost of these analyses – is it $10,000 per sample?) be quite clear about that.

So the possibilities of DNA to tell us much about migration – at least until such time as we have so many (hundreds of thousands of) samples from across Europe and the Mediterranean basin for us to be able to make statistically significant statements about the scale of migration and the extent of intermarriage (this would be very important, but let’s remember the cost of the exercise and the likelihood that it might only confirm what sophisticated analyses of written and archaeological data already suggest…) – are meagre.

Migration happened. It is always going on. The real issue is why, during the fifth and sixth centuries, it became such an important feature of social change, and here DNA and other scientific techniques can tell us nothing. At all.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example. Let us suppose that we have a rural cemetery with a significant number (say 600: 200 per century of the site’s use, 50 per generation) of intact burials, founded in the Meseta (Spain) around 350 AD and lasting until 650. A new rite of burial with grave-goods, appears on this site c.450 AD and, of the people of that generation a clear genetic, DNA difference is found between the burials with grave-goods and those without, the latter showing the same profile as the burials in the four generations of the pre-grave-good period. Rigorous comparisons show that it is likely that the newcomers came from the Danube area about 3-5 generations earlier. The newcomers are thus buried in a different fashion from the ‘locals’. Over time, the DNA differences between the furnished (with grave-goods) and the unfurnished (without goods) graves decreases and, while the number of grave-goods burials increases, the range and number of objects decreases. In the last generation or so of the site’s use, the population is more or less genetically homogenous and grave-goods have been more or less abandoned.

This would be a case study that would be pretty much ideal (superficially at least) for the ‘migrationist’ perspective: we’d have a clear example of an out-group moving in from outside and their place of origin would seem to tie in unproblematically with their identification as Goths. They mark themselves out from the locals by the use of a new burial rite but over time they intermarry and eventually create a new community. This would tally with what we see as the historical narrative of the Goths in Spain. Hurrah! Case closed. Or is it? First of all, let’s be quite clear that not only would this be the ideal case for the migrationist view but – and this is especially important to stress for those not au fait with late antique and early medieval cemetery archaeology – the chances of finding such an ‘ideal type’ are slim indeed, for a whole range of reasons concerning each of the variables (the chances of such clear and neat distinctions, the length of use and the dates of foundation and abandonment of the cemetery; the chances of so many intact burials being found; the even spread of burials across the period of use; the ability to date burials with, let alone without, goods to within a generation, etc., etc.). Nevertheless, let us assume that this ‘dream data-set’ has indeed been located and scientifically excavated (and the DNA analysed, at the cost of $6,000,000 or so). What’s wrong with the migrationist interpretation?

First of all, any blurring at all of any of the clear lines I have proposed for this data-set weaken the strength of the hypothesis, even at its most basic descriptive level. Next, for us to explain the change according to the migration, we would need to be certain of two things: that this was the case generally in Spanish cemeteries with grave-goods, across the different regions of the Iberian Peninsula, and, secondly, that Spanish cemeteries without grave-goods, across the rest of Iberia, didn’t contain dead people with this ‘Gothic’ DNA profile (incrementally increasing the cost of the exercise…). Why do we need to know this?

First, because grave-goods burial is not a traditional Gothic rite. No amount of new, ‘ideal’ archaeology can change that fact. For the 80 or so years that the Goths were in Aquitaine, hardly anyone at all was buried in this fashion, during the 30 or so years of their migration from the Danube to the Garonne pretty much no one was, and before that it could hardly be described as a typical Gothic rite either. Thus we need to be sure that this was a new development associated exclusively with ‘being Gothic’.

But, even if the new rite was clearly Gothic, if there are regions of Spain (or other cemeteries in the same area) where, either, there are people with ‘Gothic DNA’ who didn’t get buried with grave-goods at the same time as our Goths on this ‘ideal site’ were being distinctively buried with goods, or, where people with ‘non-Gothic’ DNA were buried with grave-goods in the same generation as (or earlier than) the newcomers appeared and started interment with grave-goods in our ‘dream cemetery’, either alternative fatally weakens the migrationist hypothesis. It does so for the very simple reason that it means that, although we can see that (in this case) the new rite was associated with the intrusion of a new genetic group, it cannot be argued that the rite was in itself a straightforward sign of Gothic identity, because it can be shown that Goths themselves did not always use it and that non-Goths did use it. Therefore, we would have to conclude that, although in our community the Goths did adopt a rite which marked them out from their indigenous neighbours, the simple facts of their ‘Gothic-ness’ and of their migration into the area did not explain their choice and the change in the material cultural record. Immediately the explanation of the change must become much more subtle and complex. (All the more so, in fact, since in fact the new rite isn’t traditionally Gothic.) The grave-goods symbolise something else, or result from another causal factor, meaning that migration is largely if not entirely (in our specific case study) removed from the explanation.

Making a scientific theory stick does not mean just showing that one possibility fits the data; it also involves showing that all the others don’t fit it as well. Since human behaviour is messy, unpredictable and the rules that govern it are never better than fuzzy, the likelihood of being able to prove that all possibilities except one can (in the current state of knowledge) be ruled out range between slim and non-existent. Therefore explanations have to be more subtle and flexible than migrationist hypotheses invariably are. They must be able to accommodate a number of alternative possibilities.

But let us return to our hypothetical case-study and assume that – amazingly – it could be shown that in the earliest generations of grave-goods burial the rite was always and exclusively associated with ‘Gothic DNA’. Would this at least not prove the migrationist line?

Overall, of course, it would – to some extent. But, as mentioned above, the fact that the rite is, before the Goths’ arrival in Spain, not traditionally Gothic would immediately mean that some contingent variables (explaining the choice of artefacts and their symbolism) had to be incorporated. That would mean that elements to do with the contingencies of local and regional politics and social structure would need to be brought in to explain why the Goths did this. Migration alone would not explain the issue. After all, in other areas where the Goths had settled (such as Aquitaine, where they had lived for 70 years or more) this material cultural response to migration had not ensued.

What, however, if association between grave-goods and ‘genetic Goths’ could not be proven across Iberia (as is much more likely to be the case)? What about our (from a migrationist perspective) ideal, dream data-set? We’ve already had to conclude that ‘although in our community the Goths did adopt a rite which marked them out from their indigenous neighbours, the simple facts of their ‘Gothic-ness’ and of their migration into the area did not explain their choice and the change in the material cultural record.’ This is already a conclusion that would be too subtle for most migrationists to comprehend. The problem with migrationist hypotheses is that they narrow the range of interpretations and prejudge the explanation. If there is an observable material cultural difference between two groups with different genetic make-up, then that genetic difference must explain the material cultural variation. Think about that for a moment and how essentialist it is – as well as how essentially dubious its political implications are.

In our hypothetical case-study, the genetic difference would not tell us what this variation in the presence of grave-goods meant. Were the incomers staking a claim to power? Or was it, by contrast, a sign of the group-solidarity of a group with less social power (after all, generally speaking, groups with securely established authority do not tend to display that power to their local neighbours in grave-goods burial)? Did it proclaim Gothicness? Or (given the non-traditional nature of the rite) a claim to being, within the circumstances of the fifth century, ‘more Roman than the Romans’? Put another way, does such a display mark a ‘strategy of distinction’ (something which historiography has, in my view, been too preoccupied with) or a ‘strategy of identification’ (that is to say of identifying with the other people, already inhabiting the area)? What do I mean by the latter possibility? We can safely assume that the non-grave-goods-burying folk did not walk around naked, but their unhelpful burial practices remove the possibility of studying their costume. If the grave-goods-burying people interred their dead not in a different costume but in a form of ‘Sunday best’ that was actually normal in the region then their practice of depositing their dead in public ritual wearing costume that would be accepted for a person of that gender, age and status might in fact be a way of saying ‘we are just like you’. In other words, their origin as outsiders is being played down rather than played up. (On supposedly barbarian costume I can do no better than refer you to the works of Philipp von Rummel, notably his book, Habitus Barbarus).

If we could not make a link between the genetic out-group and Gothicness or – still more so – if all we had was genetic difference, we would not be able to say for sure whether the material cultural variation resulted from locals trying to look Gothic, incomers into a Gothic community trying to look Gothic, or locals or incomers trying to look Roman. Scientifically, these would all be possible, and the reduction of the range of alternatives in accordance with pre-conceived notions drawn from one old reading of the documentary sources would be neither scientific nor even historical.

Underlying all these points, furthermore, is the fact mentioned in the quotes from my books given above, that the DNA or other genetic information does not (and cannot) tell us what people thought they (or others) were, or what other people thought they were. People with ‘Gothic DNA’ (were we able to identify such a thing) need not have known they were Gothic. By the time they arrived in Spain, as many as six generations can have passed since the immigrant Goths had lived in Gothia. Can we be sure they still thought of themselves as Gothic? If they did, what did they think that that meant? Did any sense of a genetic origin mean anything, compared with claims to social or political status? Did the people in our cemetery even know that they were of such different biological origins? We can’t know. Answering that they must have done because of the material cultural difference yet again prejudges the issue and takes us close to a circular argument.

Further, again as mentioned above, the migrationist interpretation assumes that people only have one form or level of ethnic identity. There were different Roman and there were different Gothic identities, based on civitas, pagus (perhaps) or province for the former, based on different Gothic group, different village, different unit within the Gothic forces (I assume), possibly even differences the Goths brought with them only from Aquitaine (and thus quite Roman in their structure). Which, if any, level of such identities does the material culture represent? In other circumstances, genetic difference might mark difference between Goths of different origins.

And of course, the migrationist argument shares with other interpretations an assumption that these differences relate to identities in what I have called the ‘ethnic arc’ of the spectrum. They might also refer to socio-political function (soldier families for example – in the fifth century military status was associated with ethnic identity, to be sure, but this is a more complex issue than is often assumed, and in the late Roman world, we ought to remember that military service was likewise hereditary), or simple familial/kin-group differences, or social rank, or any number of other things.

Thus, even where we have what might seem to be the perfect data to fit a migrationist hypothesis, the explanatory value of DNA evidence is severely circumscribed. Every incidence or variable where the data fail to live up to the ideal type described above weakens its value yet further. Even in descriptive terms alone, for the foreseeable future it is highly unlikely that DNA evidence will do more than confirm what we already know. More seriously, though, the latching on to one form of (in its employment) pseudo-scientific evidence as a catch all explanation is dangerous in that in reducing ethnicity to a primordialist, monolithic genetically-based reality it runs the risk of taking us right back to nineteenth-century ideas of the nation-state and thus turning the clock back on our understanding of the early middle ages by a century and a half. The horrific political uses to which this sort of argument can lend itself do not require much imagination to envisage.