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Monday, 28 November 2011

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 4 of 4)

The earliest Merovingian aristocrats: the ‘Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon’

The period between the final demise of the Western Empire and the end of the first quarter of the sixth century has long been considered to form a fairly discrete chronological unit, in its first phase largely defined by a series of prestigious graves. From two of the best-known, this archaeological horizon is often known as the ‘Flonheim-Gültlingen Horizon’ or, from a specific form of metalwork and ornamentation, defined by the ‘polychrome’ style. When chronologies of objects were developed through typology and patterns of association, the last quarter of the fifth century and the first quarter of the sixth became known as Böhner’s Stufe I. The coherence of this phase has been confirmed by subsequent studies of other regions, refined through the use of computerised techniques.

These burials have long been the subject of discussion. The traditional reading is that they represent the leudes of Clovis, settled and granted lands in conquered territory. The dates of the burials thus represent the stages of the Frankish conquest of northern Gaul, the latter seen very much in line with the ‘moving front’ model. There is no reason to dispose of this interpretation, provided that one is clear about how one understands the power relationships involved, both between the king and the aristocrats and between the aristocrats and the remainder of the free population.

The burials of the first half of Böhner’s Stufe I are – classically – those of adult males, lavishly furnished with grave-goods: weaponry above all, but also with belt-sets (like the sword hilts decorated in particular styles), ceramics and bronze and glass vessels. Furnished inhumation (especially of male graves) had been less common in the middle quarters of the fifth century (a decline which I have associated with an uncertainty over how one displayed legitimate status in the de facto absence of the Empire but with no clear successors to that power either). With the burials of the last quarter of the fifth century, it burst back into fashion. Many of the graves under discussion are, furthermore, ‘founder graves’. Some may have been accompanied by above-ground monuments. Burial no.319 at Lavoye (département of Meuse) possibly had a barrow built above it; Childeric I’s famous grave in Tournai almost certainly did. Indeed, the relationship between burials like Lavoye 319 and Childeric’s grave has lain at the heart of the problem. Classically, the aristocratic graves, tombes de chef or Adelsgräber are seen to be copying the royal ‘mode funéraire’ established with Clovis’ interment of his father. Thus, runs the argument, when Clovis arranged for his own burial in a church (Holy Apostles, later Ste Geneviève) in Paris in 511, the Frankish aristocracy imitated this too and were interred under their own newly-founded Eigenkirche.

There are important problems with this interpretation. One is that of relative chronology. It is by no means clear that Childeric’s burial predates its ‘imitators’ – if we leave aside the universally-cited but entirely unreliable date given for Childeric’s death by Gregory of Tours, the Tournai burial has exactly the same absolute chronological indicators as Lavoye 319, for example: 474x491. Thus, when he buried his father, Clovis could have been developing a form of burial that was already being employed by local aristocrats to demonstrate their standing, but taking that demonstration to an extreme degree – as one might expect. The relative chronology of these burials and their use in establishing a political history of northern Gaul is also blurred, first, by a reliance upon Gregory of Tours’ dubious chronology of Clovis’ reign and, second, by circular arguments. Burials south of the Somme, for example, must date to after 480 because that was the date at which the Franks (to whom these burials are attributed) acquired this region; the Franks only occupied the lands south of the Somme after 480 because Frankish burials in those lands are all later than that date. When one adds the facts that the historical record provides no support for the vision of a steady, north-to-south advance of the Franks (as discussed above) and that there is no good a priori reason to assign these burials necessarily to invading Franks in any case, it becomes apparent that the traditional reading is no more than an elaborate construct. Whether Clovis started a new fashion by burying his father in this way or whether (as seems to me to be rather more likely) he employed an existing fashion in an unusually elaborate fashion to make a particularly important statement at a moment of dynastic crisis, is impossible to establish from the evidence as we have it.

Apart from issues of chronology, the ‘emulative’ nature of the late fifth- and sixth-century ‘tombes de chef’ is further questioned by the fact that such burials continue through the sixth century and even beyond, whereas Childeric’s grave is, as far as we know, unique amongst Frankish royal burials (with neither predecessors nor successors), especially if one looks more closely at cemeterial context. To found a new cemetery or a new part of a cemetery one might expect unusually lavish displays of grave-goods; that such displays were not exactly replicated in succeeding generations is not really surprising. The absence of such graves does not imply that the local aristocrats had taken to interring their dead under churches. The building of churches to serve as aristocratic mausolea does not, in any case, really take off until the seventh century whether in town or country. In the sixth century, if aristocratic burials took place under churches, they did so in the civitas-capitals and in the castra and vici, on which the pagi were centred, in other words in the administrative nodes of the kingdom.

Associated with this suggestion is the fact that, at least In Picardie, the ‘tombes de chef’ associated with the ‘Frankish conquest’ are actually away from the civitas-capitals and other centres of the region (figure 2 [This is just a net of Thiessen Polygons based on the towns of the area and laid over the distribution of burials, in the best traditions of the New Archaeology of the 1970s]). Taken together, these points shed an important light upon the nature of these early ‘aristocratic burials’. The rite of burial with grave-goods is essentially a transient display of status (or a claim to status) that requires an audience present either at the grave-side or along the route of the funerary procession. Burials in the countryside, like Lavoye 319 (in Lorraine rather than Picardie but likewise located some way from a civitas-capital) would thus represent demonstrations of status to other members of a rural community. Interestingly Françoise Vallet showed many years ago that these late fifth-century graves are, while often on different sites, found in roughly the same (thus peripheral) parts of the countryside as the late fourth- and early fifth-century lavish burials.

There are some key differences nevertheless. The changes of site or the foundation of new areas within cemeteries is one; the different forms of material culture are another. Rather than being imported from barbaricum, ultimately from the Danubian Hunnic realm, it now seems most likely that the costume represented by the grave-goods of the Flonheim-Gültlingen burials was of a more widespread later fifth-century type, using artefacts made in the Mediterranean and associated with the ‘barbarian’ late Roman armies. The ‘barbarian’ import of the costume is thus of a rather more subtle and specific form than was once thought. In a northern Gallic context, especially when one remembers the intimate connections between the Merovingians and the Loire army (demonstrated clearly enough in Childeric’s burial), such a ‘Roman-barbarian military’ identity would be associated with the Franks. Nonetheless, the material’s association with a new political order seems clear, as is further underlined by the fact that this material tends to appear in burials only from c.475, and thus the precise moment that the western Empire was dissolved, de facto if not de jure. Another difference between the graves of ‘Stufe I’ and those of the late fourth-/early fifth-century ‘horizon’ is that the former are overwhelmingly the burials of adult males.

If we take all of these features together a significant change is suggested. The rite itself makes clear that local instability continued. However, a rupture with the preceding situation is evident. The bases of local pre-eminence had changed; claiming legitimate imperial Roman status in the old way was now ruled out. Local authority was associated with the Franks and their military forces (once again demonstrating the Merovingians’ political advance from the south rather than the north). This might have involved changes in the local ‘pecking order’; new families might (as in the traditional interpretation) have been brought in and settled on lands by Childeric and Clovis. Alternatively, a local family might have sided with the Franks, adopted their identity and been given power in the community. Such a family could well have been that which had held sway since the fourth century or before, or it could have been an opportunistic rival. In each case, a dependence upon the Franks is clear enough. So too are the risks involved in the gamble. Unlike twentieth- and twenty-first-century historians, the inhabitants of the late fifth century did not know that this move towards the Franks would turn out to be the ‘right’ one. Furnished burials of Stufe I are not especially numerous, especially in its first half (the Flonheim-Gültlingen horizon proper); only after about 500 are women and children found in any numbers. At Lavoye itself only a dozen or so burials belong to the half-century between 475 and 525, compared with about 200 from the succeeding fifty to seventy-five years – although the group is characterised by well-furnished burials with clearly-marked gender differences. Even the probable family of the ‘chieftain’ of grave 319 do not appear to have associated themselves with him in death until the second quarter of the fifth century. Evidently it took time to convince the people of northern Gaul of what Hegel might have called the Reason of History! In such a situation the dependence of the subjects of these burials upon Frankish backing is underlined. The developments of the remainder of the sixth century (not the subject of this paper) only serve to emphasise this.

Closer to the urban or sub-urban nodes of the region, it may be that the families who supported the Franks demonstrated this link to their rivals and the potential distributors of patronage in burials in the civitas-capitals, the castra and the vici themselves, perhaps under any churches that existed at that time. Some of the burials of the period, grave 1760 at Krefeld-Gellep for instance, are found close by such nodal points. Again, though, a link to the new powers is clear. In defence of the old view, however, it must be repeated that the bulk of locally-important families simply (in terms of their archaeologically-visible traces) sat on the fence for much of this period. That said, the dynamics of the situation are clear. The economic stagnation of the period is amply demonstrated. The craft-specialisation visible in the polychrome objects of Stufe I soon disappears and the further decline of Argonne-Ware production by c.540 has been mentioned. Rural settlements and any urban occupation remain notable chiefly for their archaeological invisibility. Acquiring the resources to establish local leadership on a more solid footing, let alone breaking out of very local political arenas, was fast becoming a matter of association with the Frankish kingdom as it became ever more powerfully established in Gaul. This dynamic is even visible in the Triererland, where (in contrast to the so-called Föderatengräber horizon, c.375-c.450) some (albeit not many) Stufe I burials are known and where, as in the rest of northern Gaul, furnished burial had become common across rural communities by c.525, even if the epigraphic habit of the ‘senators’ continued in the civitas-capital itself.

When the Merovingians established their rule in Gaul north of the Loire, then, it can be fairly solidly established on the basis of the evidence we have that, even by the last quarter of the fifth century, they held the ‘whip hand’ in any dealings with the local aristocracy. Outside Trier, no independently powerful aristocracy existed (whether in socio-economic or cultural terms). There was no need for widespread purges, exiles or expropriations across the region. What made the core of the Merovingian kingdom so resilient was the fact that, by 500 at the latest, local leaders came to the kings for the basis of their authority. The creation of an independently wealthy, powerful Frankish nobility would, in the context I have outlined, have been a more difficult task than the acceptance of the existing situation. The class of landed magnates that we know so much about by the late seventh century and which was indeed (or at least could be), by the late eighth century at the latest, unusually wealthy in pan-European terms (richer indeed than many a king in the British Isles), was a much more recent creation.

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 3 of 4)

Part 2 of this article can be found here
The Frankish Aristocracy


A Frankish aristocrat...
 Those Treveri who turned to the barbarians for support bring us to the other element involved in studying the origins of Merovingian northern Gaulish social structure: the incoming Frankish aristocracy. The social structure of the Franks, when living outside the Empire, is, however, difficult to evaluate. The archaeology of the Frankish homelands is in many regards exiguous and relevant observations of Roman writers are scanty – a fact that Gregory of Tours encountered as early as the 570s. Frankish communities seem by and large to have employed an unurned cremation rite that left no archaeological traces. Nonetheless this does suggest that the funeral ritual was not the focus for significant expenditure of resources on the manifestation of status, or for competition between kindreds in that regard. Settlement architecture offers some insights suggestive of similar trends. The site at Heeten reveals a small fortification controlling iron extraction. Whether the iron obtained was used within Frankish society and politics (restricting access to the material to those with good relationships with the ruler) or traded with the Roman frontier is unclear but either scenario would see a ruling stratum with politically valuable assets. Trade with the frontier probably also explained the growth of the site of Wijster (Netherlands). It does not seem unreasonable to posit a steady increase in the stability of the power-bases of the numerous local Frankish leaders. Roman frontier policy, insofar as it existed, seems to have prevented the emergence of rulers of the whole Frankish confederacy during the fourth century but does not appear to have undermined the reality of the power of local leaders. When the late fourth-century civil wars broke out, one response to the withdrawal of troops from the frontier to engage in warfare in Italy and elsewhere was evidently the signing of treaties with the barbarian leaders beyond, further bolstering their authority. This will not have been lessened when two such rulers, Sunno and Marcomer, inflicted a defeat upon Roman forces despatched by the equally Frankish magister militum Arbogast. Arbogast’s death in civil war did not produce any amelioration of the situation on the frontier. Claudian is clear that Stilicho’s flying visit to the region did little more than shore up the treaties with the barbarians beyond. As a strategy, this neglect of the crucial Rhenish limes may seem surprising to those brought up on the traditional, misleading narratives of ‘barbarian invasion’ but it fits well with the way the Romans assigned little practical military (as opposed to ideological) value to the so-called barbarian threat, especially when conflict against rival Roman forces loomed. Furthermore, it was not necessarily an ineffective strategy. When a large group of barbarians from the interior of Germania arrived on the Rhine in 405 or 406 and forced their way into the Empire, the local Franks fought hard – if ultimately unsuccessfully – to defend the frontier, killing a Vandal king in the process. No resistance by regular Roman forces is mentioned.

Thus, if there was no established, independently wealthy Gallo-Roman aristocracy for the Merovingians to deal with in northern Gaul, it seems much more likely that a group of powerful Frankish noble or royal families existed with quite well-established power within their communities. Whether there were similarly established aristocratic rungs beneath these lesser rulers, or whether the power of the kings was based upon a more fluid network of leudes or followers is difficult, even impossible, to establish. Nonetheless, traditional historiography has tended to assume that these social strata were those from which the sixth-century Merovingian Frankish leudes (or at least those of this class whose families hailed originally from barbaricum) ultimately descended. Some link seems probable, but the model needs reassessment. For one thing, it remains predicated upon a vision of Frankish settlement that sees it operating as a moving front of invasion, gradually rolling from north to south, somewhat in the manner of the front lines in the World Wars. The reality is likely to have been considerably more complex.

The Frankish settlement of northern Gaul was a slow, complicated process. Some Franks had been settled in Toxandria since the fourth century and doubtless retained contacts with their relatives north of the Rhine. It is probably a mistake, however, to see Frankish migration into northern Gaul as an inevitability once the Romans’ hold on the Rhone frontier was loosened, as it was, fatally, between 388 and 413. The mechanisms of migration require closer consideration than, typically, is involved in the usual assumptions and narratives that see the barbarians as piling up against the limites for some generally unspecified reason and thus inevitably spilling into and swamping or flooding the provinces beyond (in the usual liquid metaphors beloved of the idiom) once the barrier (seen, naturally, as a dam) was removed. The latter is, unsurprisingly, an interpretation beloved of those who present the ‘barbarian migrations’ as a xenophobic, anti-multiculturalist warning to us all. Some barbarians moved as large groups, not peoples but as sizeable contingents related in some way or other to a leader or group of leaders. The latter usually moved into the Empire, in a dynamic witnessed over and over since at least the first century BC, when their standing in their homeland was seriously challenged (often, ironically, as a result of Roman interference). Such mechanisms explain most of the well-known large-scale movements such as the Gothic migration into Thrace in 376 and the ‘Great Invasion’ of 405/6, some participants in which eventually ended up in Carthage thirty years later (these barbarians had arrived in Spain in 409, making this the only dramatic short-term, long-distance migration by any large group in the whole fifth century). There was no Frankish migration of this sort in the first half of the fifth century.

Other migrations were undertaken by small groups or individuals. Sometimes these constituted ‘career migration’, such as motivated by the desire to serve in the Roman army. A permanent change of residence did not necessarily ensue although frequently it did, especially if the recruit reached the army’s higher echelons. Otherwise, barbarians might cross the frontier in search of ‘a better life’, perhaps employed by the Roman state to farm otherwise ‘deserted’ lands, and have a steadier and more assured access to the items of Romanitas which held such attraction in the barbarian homelands. Some furnished burials of late fourth- and early fifth-century northern Gaul have been interpreted as those of such immigrants. Although the evidence for this reading is more or less non-existent, it is likely that some of the local leaders whose families displayed their status in these graves were of non-Roman or specifically Frankish extraction. They nonetheless used the occasion to stress just how Roman their status was.

It is valuable to ponder the existence of these dynamics in the early fifth century. At the higher political level, the withdrawal of organised Roman presence from the Rhine seems – fatally for the ‘straining dam’ hypothesis – to have had no immediate effect on the Frankish polities beyond. Stilicho and, perhaps, other leaders bolstered the power of the frontier kings with treaties and subsidies. This encouraged the Franks to the active defence of the Rhine against the Vandals noted earlier. In this connection one might nevertheless envisage some Frankish groups moving into the Empire, centred on aristocrats or petty kings, perhaps ousted as the greater kings became more powerful in the absence of the old imperial frontier regulation. Although it is likely that they moved further into Gaul to seek the sources of imperial power, it is also possible that whatever residual forces remained on the Rhine (perhaps fast turning into local warlords rather than regular units) would have taken on such recruits. It is also conceivable that such leaders were drawn in by the social and political crisis in northern Gaul, where they could provide armed backing to particular factions. This would be the situation that Salvian witnessed. In this context one might see how an émigré Frankish aristocrat could quite easily become a local leader of some standing and authority. This dynamic might lie behind Gregory of Tours’ famous account of how the Franks crossed the Rhine and set up kings in each pagus. A need for powerful support and backers in the unstable northern Gaulish local politics might also have sucked the power of the Frankish kings southwards and westwards across the Rhine. Such an expansion could also have been produced by the movement of other Franks into the region, when political differences and hostility spilled over into the old Roman province. The dynamics here could have been rather different, though, as any Frankish leaders installed in regions would (it seems reasonable to assume) have been those in a particular relationship with the king. Frankish leaders settled independently might also have been able to maintain their position only by accepting the rule of a greater king.

The proliferation of ‘woulds, coulds and mights’ in this discussion so far illustrates our absence of hard data and reliance upon hypothesis and analogy. Nonetheless, the mechanisms proposed appear plausible and some support for these dynamics can be found in the scanty written record, outside Salvian’s diatribe. Sidonius’ panegyric for Majorian refers to a victory by Aëtius at the vicus Helena – somewhere in northern Gaul (Hélesmes in the département of Nord [France] has been suggested) – over a group of Franks. The ‘battle’ itself seems principally to have involved breaking up a wedding party. This need not have been as farcical an event as might initially seem to be the case, bringing with it as it does the image of grizzled legionaries overturning the cake and skewering the best man in mid-speech. Quite apart from possibly representing a marriage alliance with a northern Gallic magnate family (as Salvian might have envisaged) such an occasion would doubtless have been the occasion for the bestowing of gifts upon local aristocrats, cementing the Frankish leader’s local standing. To have attracted Aëtius’ attention, this must have been a political event on some scale. The location at a vicus is perhaps also instructive, given what was said earlier about the possible roles of such intermediate settlements in late imperial Gallic society. The incident underlines the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy followed by the representatives of the Ravenna government whenever they were in the region, governing ‘by punitive expedition’, and the seriousness of the decision to join the barbarians or otherwise unauthorised local leaders. An earlier defeat by Aëtius of an encroaching Frankish group is mentioned in the 420s.

The movement of ordinary groups of Franks in search of social and economic betterment seems less likely in this scenario. The socio-economic crisis in northern Gaul would surely act as a deterrent compared with the comparative stability (at this stage) of the trans-Rhenan lands. Migrating groups tend also to have to be sure that there is an extant community within the host population that will accept them. Under imperial government (ironically for the usual views), official sanction and organisation of barbarian settlement eased this process considerably. Without organised imperial presence on the frontier the information exchange across the Rhine must have become much more irregular and unreliable. Fifth-century Frankish migrants, then, would have moved in anything other than the ‘wave’ usually envisaged. It is far more likely that they trod well-known routes towards already-existing Frankish communities. The military leaders mentioned above could thus have acted as ‘scouts’; once established, news of their success could have travelled back to their homelands and possibly encouraged others to join them. In this scenario, the local standing of such leaders would be enhanced by the arrival of their fellows from beyond the old frontier. Nonetheless, one still needs to question why, in the circumstances of the earlier fifth century, other Franks would want to leave their old homes and move to Gaul.

On the other hand, the crisis of the Empire and the decline of effective imperial presence on the Rhine might have made extant Frankish immigrant communities more permanent. Critical study of modern migration suggests that the relative closing of borders and clamping down on state benefits for immigrants in the late 1970s and afterwards, rather than cutting off the flow of incomers, made those already living in the host countries less likely to return home (as had previously been the case) – for fear that movement back again, to find work, would become impossible – and instead a desire to bring their families to the host country to ensure the benefits that were still available. It is not difficult to see similar mechanisms at work in the fifth-century frontier provinces. A big part of the migration of Germanic-speaking barbarians in the fourth century was ‘career migration’: service in the army followed by a return home. Without the regular army’s presence, the Frank was more likely to stay in Gaul than to return across the Rhine, and perhaps find a means of bringing his relatives to join him there. There might have been a shift in the dynamics of Frankish involvement in northern Gaul during the late 440s, as will be discussed later.

The late Roman army in Gaul was, however, still recruiting from the Franks, and this point piles further problems upon the traditional ‘moving front’ model. From the middle of the fifth century the Roman field army in Gaul seems to have operated from bases along the Loire valley. Controlling this line enabled easier movement to north, south, east and west, while holding the crossing points effectively prevented such movement by opponents of the government. The stationing of some barbarian groups settled in the fifth century might, by the middle of the century, have been aimed at further strengthening this strategic deployment (doubtless seen neither as a permanent arrangement nor as acknowledging any formal retreat of the frontier). As the lands that could effectively be taxed by the imperial government shrank during the fifth century crisis, it became more necessary to recruit troops from barbaricum. Thus any Franks entering Roman service would have been drawn to the Loire rather than the Rhine. Given the points made earlier it might be the case that, to a greater degree than in the fifth century, those who had them brought wives and families along as well. It is therefore far from unlikely that Frankish settlement did not simply push southwards according to the ‘moving front’ model. An important focus for settlement was well ‘behind the lines’ in central Gaul.

By the late 450s, the recruitment of Franks to the Loire army was such that the army itself appears to have been known and referred to as ‘the Franks’. One stimulus for this was Frankish politics. In the last major barbarian invasion of Gaul, by Attila in 451, the Huns were joined by a king of the Franks whose candidature for the throne they had supported. His brother and rival, following to the traditional mechanisms of barbarian politics, fled to the Empire and thus the Loire army. Consequently, when the Roman army met the Hunnic forces at the Campus Mauriacensis (or the Catalaunian Fields) there were Franks on both sides.

It might be the case that, by the middle quarters of the fifth century, the Frankish territories were suffering experiencing their own crisis. Early fifth-century stability had, as mentioned, been brought about by treaties with and subsidies from the Empire, as it turned its gaze inwards, away from the frontier. By the 440s, though, the Empire had been absent from the Rhine frontier zone for a generation or more. This might indeed have produced a crisis of legitimacy for the Frankish rulers, especially in times of succession, as the events before Attila’s 451 invasion illustrate. Archaeology provides some confirmation of the hypothesis. Wijster had been abandoned by the second quarter of the fifth century, by which time furnished inhumation, a classic index of some sort of social instability at the local level, had made their appearance in the region. By the last quarter of the century, the rural settlements (like Gennep) that were flourishing at the century’s start also experienced contraction.

It is quite likely that the Frankish king supported by Aëtius before the Catalaunian Fields was Childeric, eventual founder of the Merovingian dynasty, found leading the Franks in campaigns on the Loire by the 460s. When he was stripped of office following the execution of emperor Majorian in 461, Aegidius, the magister militum commanding the Loire forces, apparently (according to a famous story told by Gregory of Tours) adopted the title of ‘King of the Franks’. Gregory tells us that this was during an eight-year exile of Childeric amongst the Thuringians. One possible reconstruction of events is that Childeric had been given command of the Loire forces by Aëtius but was removed from that command under Majorian (who became emperor in 457) and replaced by Aegidius. He resumed his command after Aegidius’ death, which took place eight years later, in 465. Childeric might have returned from the north two years earlier, either as a rival for military leadership or as a subordinate commander for Aegidius. The latter is possible as Aegidius, whose command had been ‘illegitimate’ since 461 might have needed to win allies and support (and Frankish recruits) in the face of aggression from the Ravennate government and its Gothic army in Aquitaine. Aside from his famous grave in Tournai and Gregory’s story of his exile in ‘Thoringia’, the sources locate Childeric, without exception, on the Loire or near Paris.

The military power of Childeric (son of Merovech and thus the first Merovingian) thus originated largely in the Roman Loire army. Childeric’s theatre of operations, on the Loire and around Paris, suggests that he had control, early on, of the more prosperous southern half of the Paris basin. It was for the control of these military and economic resources that, after establishing his right to succeed to his father’s position of a king of the Franks, Clovis competed with Aegidius’ son Syagrius, with the aid of some of his northern relatives. Syagrius’ defeat at or near Soissons made Clovis the most powerful northern ruler. By the first years of the sixth century, Clovis’ Franks had cowed the Burgundians and even the Goths of Toulouse, signing a treaty with the latter at Amboise which brought a large amount of gold into the Frankish coffers. Rather than proceeding is a steady north-to-south advance, then, Clovis’ control over the Paris basin extended more in the manner of a pincer, like the legitimacy of his rule, expanding from one base in the north amongst the Salian Franks and another between the Loire and Paris, founded in what had been the Loire army, ‘the Franks’. With the advantages brought by his control of the southern Paris basin, Clovis was able to turn north and gradually eliminate his Frankish rivals. The chronology of these operations is difficult to unravel, as Gregory of Tours’ grouping of Clovis’ campaigns against the other Franks at the end of his reign results from his stylistic desire to portray the Catholic Clovis as a divine avenger. Nonetheless, the take-over of the Rhine Franks of Cologne must have taken place after 507 and the defeat of Alaric II of Toulouse. The conquest of Gothic Aquitaine was another event that brought great wealth and resources to the Merovingian king, with important consequences.

This discussion has crucial implications for the present enquiry. For one thing it implies that many of the leudes and other officers of Clovis and Childeric owed their position to a role in the Loire army. While military service was hereditary in the late Empire, a position in the command structures was not. The economic resources, booty and tribute acquired by the first Merovingians will also have given them great powers of patronage, attracting Franks to them from the north. Any northern Frankish aristocrats who joined the Merovingians will have found themselves competing for royal favour with the officers of the Loire army and other men – Franks, Romans and others – who had risen in and owed their standing to the service of the kings. The Merovingian take-over of the other Frankish kingdoms saw the transfer of the loyalty of the deposed kings’ leudes to Clovis’ family. These too found their position dependent upon Merovingian favour, as Gregory’s stories make clear. The reward of good service with lands and local position underlined this position.

So far, our enquiry has demonstrated that neither the Gallo-Roman population of northern Gaul, nor the incoming Franks had a significant, powerful aristocratic stratum, with which the Merovingian rulers of the late fifth and sixth centuries would have had to contend. Indeed, especially once Clovis had eliminated or cowed his rivals for authority in the north (the other Frankish kings, the Alamans and the Thuringians) it is clear that he held the whip-hand in any relationship with local leaders. Archaeological cemetery evidence further illustrates the situation.

Part 4 can be read here

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 2 of 4

Part 1 of this piece can be found here

Transformations around 400


Thus far, the evidence points overwhelmingly to the facts that the northern Gallic social élite was, outside the Triererland, not especially wealthy and that, along with the region’s economy and most of its social structures, it was intimately connected to the imperial state focused upon Trier. Considering the main issue with which this article is concerned, we can conclude that, even were the Merovingians handed control of northern Gaul via treaty in a smooth transfer of political authority, they would not have inherited a powerful, independently wealthy regional aristocracy.

The preceding discussion renders almost predictable the effects on the region produced by political changes after c.380. In 381 Emperor Gratian moved the imperial court from northern Gaul to Italy and Milan. A series of changes is then visible across the region. In most areas villas enter a final phase of desertion, being abandoned by the second quarter of the fifth century. There were exceptions of course. In more southerly areas, around Paris, there is much better evidence of villa survival until rather later in the century, something that seems also be true in the Triererland. The picture, as before, is rarely a straightforward one of economic decline. In the south of the modern Netherlands, around 400 there is a late phase of construction on some rural sites, such as at Gennep. However, these are not villas of the old type. Even with these caveats, however, the impression cannot be avoided that the very late fourth and earlier fifth centuries constituted a period of profound change in the northern Gallic rural settlement pattern and economy. The development is again incompatible with an explanation in terms of an alleged ‘de-Romanisation’ (as is made clear by the continuing – indeed the increased – usage of Roman symbols in burials) or simply through a new military culture. The fifth-century end of the villas makes the latter explanation unlikely. The fourth-century aristocracy of the region had already, as we have seen, been very largely militarised and even those not involved in the army directly were linked to it economically. We cannot be sure that fifth-century aristocrats were markedly more militarised than most of their predecessors. Indeed, sixth-century Frankish law suggests that civic, Roman aristocrats were still a feature of the area’s social structures. If the fifth-century insecurity led to more fighting and greater (and more violent) competition for local leadership, then this affected the survival of villas not through a shift towards a more military state of mind, allegedly eschewing elaborate building, but through the need to spend surplus on local alliances and the equipment of a retinue, leaving little for the upkeep of stone buildings. Aristocrats had to choose where to spend their limited resources and the times ultimately demanded that they choose politics and security over architectural embellishment. Ultimately, the final demise of the northern Gallic villa is an economic issue, not one of a shift in mentalities – even if the latter can reasonably be postulated.

This impression is underlined by study of the region’s towns, which underwent further dramatic contraction and in one or two cases died out completely. There is little trace of occupation on the intermediate settlements, the vici and castra. This is partly related to the problems of dating very late Roman occupation. The two principal supports for such chronologies are coins and finewares and both are problematic after c.400. The latest developments of Argonne Ware pottery, to which we shall shortly return, were not recognised as such until about 1990, which probably means that traces of fifth-century occupation had earlier been wrongly assigned to the fourth century instead. Additionally, the region’s coin supply dried up early in the fifth century after the closure of the Trier mint. While undoubtedly making the identification of late Roman levels very difficult, these changes are themselves significant. The end of coinage and the failure of local powers to mint replacements, after the end of a series of silver imitation solidi in the middle quarters of the century, imply a significant reduction in the scale and complexity of the economy.

Truly monetized commerce requires a neutral medium of exchange and a guarantee of a coin’s value, accepted by both parties to a transaction. The government of a state or polity has the power to provide such a guarantee, moreover one which can be accepted across large distances. With the crisis of the imperial state in northern Gaul around 400, such guarantees disappeared and the areas over which objects were traded shrank accordingly. In whose name the silver imitation solidi, already mentioned, were struck remains mysterious but these coins nevertheless enabled some monetary transactions to take place across a reasonable distance in the middle quarter of the century. Their face value was nevertheless fairly high and the absence of small change is a crucial index of a downturn in the extent of the economy’s monetization. Such coins possibly served other purposes than the strictly commercial, as was the case with the gold solidi. When these silver coins, which are not numerous in any case, ceased to be struck, coinage in the region was limited to imported Eastern Roman solidi until the Frankish rulers began to strike solidi themselves in the sixth century. The function of this type of high-value coinage (1/72 lb. of gold) might very well have been more political than economic. Small denomination coinage remained absent until the seventh century.

Other coins were available nonetheless. The frequency with which Roman coins are found in the pouches buried with sixth-century Merovingian males suggests that such coins continued to serve as handy units of bullion. Their use was more limited than that of a properly minted and guaranteed currency. It has long been known that, in the sixth century, scales or balances are known in northern Gallic burials. Frequently found in lavishly-furnished graves, their symbolism seems to refer to a role in vouchsafing ‘weights and measures’ and this might (though there are other interpretations) have been related to determining the correct quantity of precious metal in old coins. Although these data come from a later period than that which under consideration, they seem suggestive of mechanisms that could have existed as the late imperial monetary economy collapsed. If we combine this evidence with the conclusions just reached about the relative power of the local aristocracy, it is clear that the word of such a local leader would not be recognised by both parties to a transaction over wide areas: another feature in restricting the distances over which commercial exchanges might be made. Some evidence, to which we will return, suggests that the standing of northern Gallic aristocratic families might have been somewhat more secure in the early fifth century than it was a hundred years later and this could have extended the zones over which their word was held to be good, but the general point will surely stand. With the collapse of monetary exchange, the only other mechanism for long distance movement of goods was that associated with the imperial economy but, in the context we have outlined, this too was fading fast.

It is here that Wickham’s attention to the ceramic data is important. His account is as follows:

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.
If this conclusion can be reached from this evidence, then there must – clearly – be something wrong with the model I have sketched. Something about the other evidence, whether of the rural and urban settlement sites or of the burials, to which I will shortly return, must conceal a crucial element in the equation or else the way we read such data is fundamentally mistaken. The picture of imperial crisis and collapse in the region, after c.380, that I have drawn from the written sources must also be wide of the mark. Wickham has (as we have seen) ways of explaining the exiguous settlement evidence in terms of a shift in aristocratic culture to a more military model, which would fit with the idea of the region’s militarisation. This latter proposal is not entirely satisfactory for reasons that have been discussed, but the main point is that Wickham presents a coherent, rounded argument.

Whether intended this way or not, a fair and straightforward reading of the passage quoted is as follows: this pottery was distributed over an area in excess of 500,000 km2 and continued to be produced ‘on a substantial scale’ through the fifth century to the end of the sixth century, even if the area over which it was distributed had shrunk by half by then. The image presented by such a reading is, however, misleading. If we examine Didier Bayard’s study of this form of ceramics, a rather different picture emerges. We find (figure 1) that in his early fifth-century Phase 2, almost all Argonne ware is 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 is an impressive area of 150,000 km2, but still considerably less than that implied by Wickham’s statement. More to the point, by the time of Bayard’s Phase 3 (roughly 440s-460s) this had contracted further. All of the finds he catalogued from the middle decades of the fifth century lay within a 300-km radius and most (67-79%) of them within 200km. Most lie in a box covering 120,000 km2, less than half the area calculated on the basis of the 300km radius of distribution. Thus, this contraction, which a straightforward reading of Wickham’s account implies was something that happened slowly over the fifth and sixth centuries, actually happened quite suddenly around the middle of the fifth, with the abandonment of the Rhine forts. By the time of the political end of the western Empire in the late fifth century (Bayard’s Phase 4) the distribution of Argonne ware had contracted so that 98% of it was found within a 200km radius – in fact within a 200kmx200km box (a considerably smaller surface area) – though fairly evenly distributed within that zone. Argonne ware does continue into the late sixth century but it is important to clarify that the last decorated phase dies out around 540 and that thereafter only standard undecorated forms were produced. So, rather than being distributed across somewhere between 125,000 and over half a million square kilometres during the late fifth and sixth centuries, the impression easily gained from Wickham’s statement, this pottery was in fact only traded across 40,000km2 during this period. In comparative terms, nevertheless, that might represent a widespread distribution of material, but how it relates to other post-imperial ceramics needs to be reassessed. It is now, for example, suggested that some post-imperial wares made in Leicestershire were distributed over an area ranging from the Channel coast to Yorkshire, a not dissimilar reach. It is also important to note the end of decoration in the early sixth century and the restriction in the range of forms, both of which features underline an economic change not unfairly characterised as decline.

The last phases of occupation on the Rhine forts are shadowy and a sophisticated reinterpretation, pondering whether they were still bases for regular troops or, moving away slightly from the usual narrative, centres for local warlords, is overdue. Either way, it seems clear that after the middle of the fifth century whoever did control these forts was no longer in a position to be able to guarantee a market for the products of the Argonne kilns on anything like the old scale. Overall, the link between the collapse of the state and severe economic contraction could not be clearer.

The archaeological cemetery evidence fits this picture of crisis. From about the time that Gratian moved the court back to Italy, the number of lavishly furnished burials in northern Gaul increases steadily. In these burials, men are interred with weapons and, more frequently the belt-sets and brooches that were the insignia of imperial office. In some cases they were accompanied by burials of women and children, the former buried with a wide range of new jewellery forms, notably brooches. The latter and the desire to fit this change in the record into the old narrative of barbarian conquest led to the assignment of these graves to incoming ‘Germanic’ settlers. A closer examination of the archaeological data (the rite itself and the artefacts deposited), freed from these assumptions, combines with the lack of any documentary historical support for the notion to compel a more subtle reading. This sees the subjects of these burials, as yet comparatively few in number and found in small clusters, often on larger cemeteries, as representing locally powerful families whose status was called into question by the death of a member. Given what has been said about the bases of the northern Gallic aristocracy’s power, so closely related to the presence and legitimation of the Roman state it should be no surprise that their local standing should have been jeopardised by the removal of effective, regular governmental presence. It should equally be unsurprising that the Moselle valley, where the wealthiest nobles seem to have been concentrated, is largely free from such burials at this time. The choice of items, and their symbolism, also makes sense in the context described. In the absence of effective imperial presence, the bases of a family’s legitimate authority were proclaimed, especially when an adult male member died, questioning the inheritance of such authority. In this situation, legitimate power was proclaimed by the use of badges that made a link with imperial power. Otherwise they stressed traditional Roman aristocratic virtues and pastimes, such as hunting. The women’s costume, one imagines, made a comment about their status as a chaste wife, a good mother, and so on. As imperial presence grew ever more distant, the use of the badges of office waned accordingly, although other symbolism persisted. Nonetheless, examination of the ritual in comparative perspective suggests that, as yet, the power of these families was not decisively threatened. In a slightly later period, the distribution of furnished burials was far more widespread across communities, and the choice (and number) of goods related to the life-cycle and gender. Rather than being concentrated in the burials of a particular kindred, but spread across subjects of both sexes and all ages, grave-goods were focussed upon mature adult males and younger women.

On the eve of incorporation into the Merovingian kingdom, the northern Gallic aristocracy was even less wealthy than it had been before and its status within local communities was more under threat as the effective legitimacy of a claimed link with the Empire faded. Although this does not imply that many aristocratic families had necessarily lost their local pre-eminence, it seems to be the case that the social, political and economic arenas within which they lived had shrunk considerably. It is against this backdrop that the famous passages of Salvian’s De Gubernatio Dei should be understood. Long taken, doubtless wrongly, as the paradigm for late Roman western aristocracy, Salvian’s comments must be placed in a very specific chronological and geographical context. The assumption that his tirades against the corrupt aristocracy of his times were aimed at the magnates of the Trier region whence he hailed (and whence he had fled, not least as a result of the actions of these rapacious individuals) is not certain but is a reasonable working hypothesis. We have already seen that the Triererland was an exceptional region of northern Gaul. Archaeological data make it clear that we should have no reason at all to generalise from the aristocrats of the lower Moselle valley. What has perhaps been less fully discussed is the precise moment that Salvian was describing. Writing in the 440s, it is reasonable to suppose that his account of the tyrannical curiales belongs to the 430s or perhaps slightly earlier; the issue turns on how recent one supposes that Salvian’s arrival in the south was at the time of his writing. If the picture he painted does belong to the 430s then it is quite instructive when viewed against the archaeological evidence.

In our current state of knowledge, this decade would lie towards the end of the period of occupation of the Triererland’s villas. The sharp decline in the distribution of Argonne ware and the end of occupation of the Rhine forts in the 440s have also been mentioned, and the politically-active generation of the region would largely have been children (at most) when even a usurper emperor last ruled at Trier. The area was fast approaching a severe, critical point and it is unsurprising that it had become a political hot-house. There was no imperial presence to regulate those who claimed to wield power in its name and none of the usual rotation of offices that was part of the efficient management of patronage. Thus those who could continued to cling onto their ‘legitimate’ power, and in the critical situation of the second quarter of the fifth century they exploited it to the maximum. Without the opportunity to share this power, their opponents could only adopt the strategies mentioned by Salvian: either to wield local authority without formal imperial legitimation, that is to say to become rebels or bagaudae (in the eyes of the imperial government or of those who claimed to act in its name) or to turn to the barbarians for support. The three responses to crisis described by Salvian (claiming legitimate power; claiming power without allegedly imperial legitimation; and turning to the barbarians for support) were, in general, the options available to the political classes throughout the fifth century west, but around Trier they took on a particular form and intensity. The fourth option, the one taken by Salvian, was to flee to areas where the Empire’s writ still ran, and he does not seem to have been the only one to have chosen this course of action. In the Triererland of the 430s-440s, this must have seemed an attractive choice, especially as (unlike us) contemporaries did not know that the Empire would not return. Indeed their knowledge of history doubtless suggested that, eventually, inevitably, it would. For these reasons, the decisions to join the barbarians or to follow the ‘bagaudic’ course – those that seem to modern observers to be the ‘far-sighted’ or ‘realistic’ options – must have been taken by contemporaries very much in extremis. On their periodic forays back into northern Gaul (fizzling out in the 440s – as we know but contemporaries did not), the representatives of the Empire dealt equally harshly with bagaudae and barbarians. As well as creating these risks, turning one’s back on the traditional bases of political power brought all sorts of other identities into question, not least one’s masculinity. That the depredations of those who claimed a legitimate imperial basis for their power should have driven their rivals to take these actions is a graphic indication of how critical the situation on the lower Moselle had become.

Part 3 here.

The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy (Part 1 of 4)

[Here - broken down into four parts for - comparative - ease of reading, is a piece I have been working on of late.  It is still very much in first draft form and thus very woolly, un-foot-noted and unchecked.  When it is foot-noted, checked and edited down, I will send it off to a journal and take it down from the blog, so if you wish to comment or otherwise have any input - which will duly be acknowledged - now is the time. 

Essentially the piece confronts a key element in the debate over whether or not the Merovingian aristocracy was an independently wealthy magnate class or - essentially - a service aristocracy dependent upon the kings.  It deals with the assumption, which would be very important, if not fatal, for the second interpretation (which has generally been my own), that there were established Gallo-Roman and Frankish aristocracies/magnate classes existing in northern Gaul when the Merovingians took over.  Using a full range of evidence and paying close attention to regional diversity, the paper demonstrates (I hope!), first, that outside the Triererland the late Roman aristocracy was not an independently wealthy nobility of the type known elsewhere, second (Part 2) that the crisis of c.400 reduced the Gallo-Roman aristocracy's wealth and power further, third (Part 3) that, via a close study of Frankish migration and its mechanisms, we can see that the Frankish leaders who settled in Gaul in the fifth century were already closely dependent upon the Merovingians by c.500 at least, and fourth (Part 4) that a consideration of the archaeological traces of the northern Gallic aristocracy between 475 and 525 underline the point established in the rest of the article: that neither the Franks nor the Gallo-Romans presented the Merovingians with a powerful landed aristocracy with which to contend.  The mighty landed aristocrats of the seventh, eighth and especially ninth centuries were members of a class that was a later creation (of c.600).]

The nature of the Frankish aristocracy has featured heavily in the historiography of Merovingian Gaul. One of the main problems has been whether or not the northern Gaulish aristocracy, which we might term Frankish (as opposed to the more Gallo-Roman magnates of Aquitaine and Provence or the hybrid Gallo-Roman/Burgundian/Frankish élite of Burgundy), was formed of families whose wealth, local standing and power existed independently of the patronage of the Merovingian royal dynasty. This debate has never been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Perhaps, one hopes, it never will be (at least in its entirety) but a new contribution is nevertheless required. Chris Wickham’s monumental Framing of the Middle Ages recently presented a strong case for the wealth and independence, indeed for what he suggested was, in comparative perspective, the quite unusual wealth and independence, of the northern Gallic Frankish aristocracy throughout the early medieval era.

Wickham’s contribution is unusual in that it made well-informed use of archaeological as well as documentary sources and, perhaps more importantly, excavated material other than that normally employed for this kind of enquiry. Most previous studies have drawn mainly upon the evidence of excavated cemeteries for an archaeological insight into local social structures, giving at best a partial image. Wickham however employed ceramic data, which now exists in sufficient quantity and quality for reasonable observations to be made – something that was not true even twenty years ago. This would itself be reason enough for a re-examination of the economic bases of the Frankish aristocracy.

Wickham’s case is solid and well-argued and, for the second half the period covered by his survey (thus c.600-c.800), his conclusions seem entirely valid. Moreover, they are in harmony with what has, perhaps, always been the most common interpretation and with other recent scholarly work which has suggested a more direct continuity between the Gallo-Roman nobility of the region and the land-owning magnates of the Carolingian world. This paper argues against this trend. In a companion essay I deal with the nature of the sixth-century northern Gallic aristocracy and its transformation around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries. Here, I address a fundamental basis of the ‘established aristocracy’ view. That is the nature of the social élite that existed in northern Gaul at the time of the establishment of the Merovingian kingdom. This paper questions the validity of Wickham’s (and others’) assumption that the Merovingian kings had to confront already-established Gallo-Roman and Frankish aristocracies in the creation of their realm.

Like Wickham’s discussion, it will use the whole range of data available to us, documentary, archaeological, epigraphic and numismatic. As well as chronological change, geographical diversity will be noted. One problem with the period covered by this paper, the late fourth and fifth centuries, is the general absence of written evidence. This means that the overwhelming bulk of the evidence used will be archaeological. Nevertheless, a great advantage of this form of data, and of the cemetery material in particular, is that, as well as being increasingly voluminous, it is securely anchored in time and space, allowing us to explore change through time, something which, as noted, has not always been recognised in previous studies, even Wickham’s. It will also allow us to shed a critical light upon the handful of well-worn fragments of written evidence which do seem to treat with the social structures of the region, most notably Salvian’s On the Governance of God.

Late Roman Background

The obvious preliminary to any discussion of the Merovingian aristocracy in northern Gaul is to examine the regional élite during the late Roman Empire. If a magnate stratum can be shown to have existed there, with secure local pre-eminence and secure control of extensive estates, how the Frankish kings could reduce such a group to the level of a service aristocracy would constitute a sizable historical problem, though not an insurmountable one. After all, such a reduction need not involve forcible displacement or dispossession, let alone the widespread slaughter, of such aristocrats. In fact, however, this problem does not, on closer inspection, really present itself. Across most of the region, the late Roman aristocracy was not composed of independently wealthy, powerful landowners. It seems to have been every bit as dependent upon the state as I would argue that their Merovingian descendants were. There were variations in the degree to which this was the case and at least one region where it certainly was not true but, as a broad categorisation, it will suffice.

This conclusion is based principally upon the archaeological evidence. The northern Gallic aristocracy had never been the wealthiest in Gaul. Studies have suggested that it was less locally dominant than its counterparts in southern Gaul even at the time of the Roman conquest. An exception to this rule might have been found in the civitas of the Treveri, in the lower Moselle valley, and the unusual character of the aristocracy in this area persisted throughout our period and beyond. In the prosperous early imperial era, northern Gaul saw the creation of numerous villas, but these tended to be fairly small establishments. A crucial change occurred after the third-century turmoil, when these settlements were either abandoned or (probably to an even greater degree than is currently known) changed decisively in their form and archaeological visibility. Increasing stress has recently been laid on the fact that better quality excavation and analysis reveal that many fewer of these sites were abandoned than had been believed. This has been vital in reassessing the settlement pattern and economy of late Roman northern Gaul. Nonetheless, even the more subtle analyses suggest that the rates of abandonment were very high, frequently in the region of 50%.

Concentration upon continuity of occupation also ignores a very important aspect of the problem – the change in the character of the settlement itself. The classical villa, stone-built with tiled roofs and, frequently, mosaic floors, often with under-floor hypocausts, manifests a particular set of social and economic relationships between the owner of the villa buildings and other inhabitants of the locality. Whatever the precise function of the site, whether working farm, ‘country house’ or hunting lodge (and this surely varied from site to site and from one phase of occupation to another), the villas reveal an ability to concentrate surplus and spend it upon the construction of a building that made a permanent mark upon the landscape. Such a building made a claim for the owner’s active subscription to a particular set of cultural attitudes associated with the Roman Empire, however those attitudes were played with and modified in local context. Stone-quarrying, tile-manufacture and mosaic-construction all required specialist manufactures and industries, organised transport networks and so on. Though the potential sophistication of timber architecture should not be neglected, it remains the case that the construction and maintenance of stone buildings necessitated a more complex matrix of specialist skills and industries. The change from these structures to timber, thatch- or shingle-roofed halls therefore marks a vitally important change in the nature of the local social élite and of the northern Gallic economy.

Debate on this change has hitherto tended to focus upon whether the shifts involved implied an economic decline. It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in some ways at least, this must have been the case, but the best explanation of the transformation of the northern Gallic countryside in late antiquity seems to be to link it to the nature of the Roman Empire that emerged after the ‘third-century crisis’. It has for some time been noted that the evident change in the region’s settlement actually post-dates the conventional dates of the ‘crisis’, coming after Gaul’s reincorporation into the legitimate Roman Empire by Aurelian, who crushed the separate ‘Gallic Empire’ in the 270s. This precise political historical context can be combined with what we know of the Late Empire’s political economy to produce the following reconstruction.

One effect of the third century’s economic difficulties was, as is well known, an increase in the levying of taxes, and in the payment of state employees, in kind. Another well-known late imperial characteristic was the residence of the emperors on the frontiers, in the west most often at Trier (former home of the Gallic emperors). This presence was associated with a concentration of higher-grade troops near the Emperor himself and renewed emphasis on frontier defence and military operations against the barbarians (classic signs of imperial good management). This change, the shift in the system of taxation and payment, and other reorganisations of the hierarchy of troop-types within the army resulted in troops being concentrated in northern Gaul but spread over a wider expanse of the countryside. These features were crucial to the survival of the ensuing ‘inside-out’ late Roman Empire.

These points can be combined with the suppression of the Gallic Empire to suggest that the transformation of the northern Gaulish countryside resulted from the harnessing of the region’s surplus to the maintenance of the huge imperial presence now more or less permanently stationed in the area. Confiscation of the lands belonging to supporters of the Gallic imperial regime may have been associated with other expropriations or ‘compulsory purchases’ to ensure that the production of foodstuffs and other materials was geared to the supply of the large number of troops and civil servants. This hypothesis sidesteps the old argument about economic decline. Production could have continued on a scale commensurate with, or even greater than, that which existed before, but far less of the surplus would have accrued to the region’s local élite. This could nonetheless have meant a decline of sorts – in aristocratic wealth and in some of the industries that had hitherto existed to maintain high-status dwellings and way of life. Some slack was nevertheless taken up by the imperial presence in the region. The regional distribution of the late Roman northern Gallic fine-ware, Argonne Ware, seems geared to the supply of the frontier bases and the Rhenish glass industry flourished as well. The scale of production created by this demand might have stimulated the export of these classes of material further afield, to Britain and elsewhere. Indeed northern Gaulish products were traded far beyond the imperial frontier. Bronze bowls known as the ‘Vestland Type’, because of the concentration of find-spots in Norway, seem for example to have been produced in the Meuse valley. The precise form of exchange represented by this ‘export’ doubtless varied between a possibly ‘normal’ market exchange with barbarian communities immediately beyond the limes, through exchange with what resemble ‘gateway communities’ around the Baltic coasts, to diplomatic payments to the interior of Germania Magna. To whom any profits from the commercial transactions included within this range fell is impossible to establish. Some of it doubtless went to the imperial treasury, other elements probably ‘piggy-backed’ upon the empire’s ‘command economy’ and ended up with those to whom this was entrusted, and some surely represented independent commercial enterprises conducted by such producers, perhaps generated by the possibilities attendant upon large-scale imperially-sponsored manufacture. Some, therefore, must have ended up in the hands of the northern Gallic aristocracy, probably explaining the continued existence, as such, and refurbishment of at least some of the region’s villas.

Overall, though, the nature of this élite very likely changed too. If the majority of northern Gallic land was now imperially-owned, it could nevertheless have been leased to palatine aristocrats on long-term emphyteutic leases. Other parcels of land might have been used to reward civil and military service and still others could have been used for the traditional retirement gifts to soldiers. In all of these cases it is easy to see how insufficient surplus remained for estate-owners to continue the construction and maintenance of old-style villa buildings. Either possession of the territories and revenues was temporary or the land was not owned on a very large scale. One imagines that the managers of fiscal or imperial estates would not, furthermore, be retaining more of the fruits of the lands for which they were responsible than was necessary for the upkeep of ordinary dwellings and storage facilities. In this context the observable developments in the late Roman landscape of northern Gaul are easily explicable, without resort of ideas of economic decline or a rejection of Romanitas.

The latter concept, although much promoted in recent years, is particularly unlikely. Building a villa in the fourth century did not make a political statement in the same way as the construction of such a building in the centuries around the birth of Christ, in that it did not represent a new form of monumentalisation that differed from that which went before and proclaimed an adherence to new social, cultural and political modes of life. Nonetheless, the continued centring of Roman aristocratic culture on the villa cannot be denied. Furthermore, if one looks at the symbolism of the grave goods deposited in burials during the time of crisis around 400 (to be discussed shortly) one can see that they focus overwhelmingly upon the traditional symbols of Roman aristocratic life, the bases of social distinction and élite pastimes. A continuing subscription to precisely these well-established modes of Roman aristocratic life is clearly attested. The idea that the regional élite engaged in some form of active ‘de-Romanisation’, let alone ‘anti-Romanisation’ is extremely improbable.

Wickham presents a more interesting and subtle modification of the idea under the heading of the region’s militarisation, a process which is certainly demonstrable. Buildings within late Roman fortifications have frequently proved difficult to detect, leading Wickham to suggest that the late imperial military did not invest resources in lavishly-appointed dwellings. Therefore, runs the argument, a more militarised aristocratic culture would involve much less attention devoted to lavish building. This is an interesting possibility but it seems less plausible if scrutinised closely. The absence of buildings within late Roman forts is sometimes possibly explained by a lack of excavation within the walls, and on occasion, doubtless, by the failure to detect structures on top of more elaborate and indeed more sought-after early imperial phases. Nonetheless a relative reduction in the permanence and elaboration of officers’ quarters is a hypothesis worth testing and, if accurate, could be significant in the ways that Wickham suggests. It might be the case that the Roman army’s officer corps had (when compared with civilian private building) never invested in especially elaborate dwellings within their forts. If so, though, even if there were not a decline in the relative sophistication of their quarters, a militarisation hypothesis could explain a shift from investment in buildings to an investment in other forms of display. The Roman army’s officer corps was especially fond of its ‘awe-inspiring’ costume and adornment. State factories, interestingly known as barbaricaria, were devoted to the gilding and ornamentation of officers’ armour. All these points support Wickham’s idea.

However, other points counter it. One is that the late Roman ‘soldier emperors’ were very far from neglecting their private quarters and constructed new and very elaborate palaces (most notably, perhaps, at Salona in Dalmatia). The lavish villas in the immediate hinterland of Trier, the imperial capital, also suggest that imperial officers, at the higher end at least (some of whom, surely, were military), still desired impressive homes. A vital factor might have been late Roman aristocratic culture, which tended to avoid spending private money on public building, something which doubtless goes far to explaining the changes on urban sites. The early imperial army had sponsored local markets and private craftsmen to a considerable degree, in a way that paralleled the use of private money on civic projects in the civilian sphere. Given the fluidity that existed between civil and military careers at this time, this is not surprising. The later army, by contrast (and again unsurprisingly given the contemporary nature of civilian political life), was supplied overwhelmingly via the state and its workshops. Roman officers might, like their civilian counterparts, have spent money on private dwellings (urban and rural) but not on the public structures of their barracks. Given Late Roman law’s frequent enactments about officers who stayed away from their regiments for long periods of time, this suggestion gains further credibility. These laws demonstrate that military service continued to be an option for the Roman aristocracy and that it was encompassed within the usual aristocratic norms of otium and negotium. Roman officers seem to have spent large amounts of time living away from their barracks. Further, when, during the fifth century, we can examine areas of Gaul where the Roman aristocracy became militarised but remained wealthy, we see that they continued to spend money on their villae (even if, admittedly, less than before) as well as maintaining retinues and taking part in campaigns. A simple militarisation of the northern Gallic aristocratic culture seems, then, to be unsatisfactory as an explanation for the reduction in the number and scale of villas.

This thesis proposed here, relating changes in the region’s settlement pattern and economy to changes in the late imperial state, accounts for the developments on urban as well as rural sites. Late Roman northern Gallic towns famously underwent serious contraction. This has largely been judged from the length of the late imperial walled circuits, a blunt method which must give misleading results in at least some cases, such as that of Bavay, where the town walls only enclosed the forum. Even so, recent excavation confirms the abandonment of large areas of early Roman towns. These restricted urban ‘enceintes’ probably do not mark economic decline as such. Where details of their above-ground appearance are known, they often show care and attempts at decoration. That the foundations (frequently the only element retrieved archaeologically, of course) include large amounts of reused masonry from demolished early Roman buildings and grave monuments permits no extrapolations about the haste or emergency conditions in which the walls were built. The period of these walls’ construction is much less well established than was once thought. Rather than having been thrown up rapidly in the last quarter of the third century in response to barbarian invasions, their construction could have extended through the fourth century and possibly beyond. Nonetheless the use, in the walls’ foundations, of large quantities of often good-quality sculpture from cemeteries and public buildings makes a statement about urban change that cannot be lightly dismissed.

These fortifications and their scale have valuable things to tell us nonetheless. I suggest that their short length results partly from the well-documented unwillingness of late Roman local aristocrats to spend their money upon public building projects. It might also stem, to some extent, from a lack of independently wealthy aristocrats in the towns’ hinterlands. This decline in the prosperity of the northern Gallic elite probably also lies behind the reduction in the scale of occupation in towns as the small landowners, those not employed to manage imperial estates, seem, as we have noted, to have generally lacked the secure control of surplus necessary to sponsor urban development and manufactures, town houses and so on. A further factor, quite well understood in Britain, would be the rise of lesser settlements, the so-called vici (now often themselves fortified as castra or castella). These settlements often arose as markets and by the late imperial period had probably done much to erode the civitas-capitals’ dominance as economic central places, in economic terms. The Gallic urban hierarchy underwent significant changes in the late imperial era, with some sites (like Verdun, in northern Gaul) gaining civitas status. Slightly further south, by the sixth century (when Gregory of Tours famously remarked upon the fact) the castrum of Dijon had become notably more important than its civitas-capital, Langres. Against such a back-drop it should not be surprising if intermediate settlements rose in importance relative to that of the cities.

The general thesis proposed here to explain late imperial change in northern Gaul is confirmed to some extent by exceptions to what seems to be the general rule. One is the region around Trier, which, although quite badly hit in the third century in terms of the rate of villa-abandonment, nevertheless has the largest and most lavish examples of fourth-century northern Gallic villas (as intimated earlier). Trier itself, of course, saw a rash of public building focused on the imperial presence there and that is the crucial issue. With the emperors and their senior palatine aristocrats resident there for much of the late third and fourth century, it is no surprise that resources could be spent on the city, or that wealth found its way into Trier’s immediate surroundings. When one considers that the prosperity of the aristocrats of the Treveri had been unusual in the early and even pre-Roman eras, the fact that the Triererland bucks the general trend should scarcely be unexpected. The idea that imperial patronage was the main factor determining variations from the norm gains further support at Metz, the next city on the Moselle, to the south of Trier. If Trier’s abnormally long walled circuit probably belongs to the early Roman period, then the 72 hectares enclosed at Metz make that city’s walls by far the longest late Roman enceinte in northern Gaul, perhaps in all of Gaul. The castra of the civitas of Metz also have unusually long walled circuits. This exceptional scale of fortification surely relates to the presence around Trier of troops available for such building projects. An inscription documents the construction of the Langmauer, a long wall presumably enclosing an estate, by a unit of primani.

Even if it does not explain the decline in the number and elaboration of villas, the militarisation of northern Gaul is nevertheless a feature of the region’s archaeology which supports the general hypothesis. The fortification of granaries and other rural sites seems to be associated (as indeed may the walling of urban administrative centres and some villages) with a concern to ensure the safety of supplies ear-marked for the army. The deployment of symbols in inhumations in the region, especially when these become more lavish in the century’s last decades, underlines the close link between imperial (probably especially military) service and local status. For most of the period before 400, official belt-sets and brooches, the badges of rank in the army and civil service, are the most common grave-goods in male burials.

Part 2 Here

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Meandering from the Individual to the Human

[In a particularly inchoate and convoluted stream of thoughts that I have found hugely difficult to write, I am going to try and critique the idea of the individual, on the basis of various bits and pieces of philosophy that I've been reading.  This will involve me unpicking some of my own work to address and maybe resolve something of an aporia within it - that is to say between wanting to write a history that enables in a radical, left-wing political sense and my insufficiently theorised use of the term 'individual' which could be read to (and perhaps does) imply an adherence to key concepts of bourgeois, liberal capitalism.  It also exposes the fact that my own discussion of 'the individual' in fact saw it as anything but individual.  Thinking on the basis of what my earlier writing implied (in the light of what I've read and written since) suggests that the social actor is overdetermined by identities.  Those identities, furthermore, involve (obviously enough) identification with others, so that the social/historical actor overflows the boundaries that might be seen to be imposed by the body or the notion of the individual.  Going further, exploration of how identities function in action shows that psychoanalytically the actor is not individual; s/he is a 'dividual' in Simon Critchley's terms.  As an umbrella term I want to use the word 'human' to encompass all possible acts of identification with other actors.  Multiple identities and the lack of an absolute, totalising individual 'core' permit an ethical engagement with the past which moves us past 'identity politics' history.  It also permits a more diverse ethical political action in the present, not prescribed by dominant or hegemonic identities (as, in turn, defined by party political dogma.  Well ... see what you think ...  As always when I write about this sort of thing, any reference to a theorist or philosopher's works should be prefaced by 'if I understand it correctly'.  ]

As you know, I’m not a philosopher.  I always feel the need to say this for several reasons.  One is that I get very annoyed by people who set themselves up as historians, who aren’t, and I’m sure (indeed I know) that philosophers get annoyed by people who set themselves up as philosophers, who aren’t (some indeed deny the title of philosopher to extremely important philosophers by holding a prescriptive definition of what philosophy is, but that’s another issue).  Another is that a small group of ‘post-modernist’ philosophers of history has had an influence out of all proportion to its value; the problem is not that these people aren’t historians so much as that they aren’t really philosophers either.  The position they have adopted is that (discussed in my piece on so-called interdisciplinarity) of the interlocutor: the person who stands at the edge of the ‘set’ of one academic discipline and reports on or critiques it through appropriating the perceived stance of another, without actually being situated within that discipline. 

I am a historian but, as you also know, I am interested in exploring a theory of how the study of history has ethical and political value in the present.  This, as yet again you will know, stems from a view that assigns a value to historical study not on the basis of the knowledge of ‘what happened in the past’ but on the basis of the ways in which one studies ‘what happened in the past’.  This project has led me to an ever-greater interest in ‘continental philosophy’, which seems to me to be far more meaningfully politically-engaged than its ‘Anglo-American’ ‘analytical’ counterpart.  My approach is (ideally) not just to see how I can employ this philosophy in thinking about history (the classic ‘interlocutory’ move), but also to see how my understanding of history allows me to engage critically with the philosophy.  As yet, though, my reading has been more of an exploration of different strands of philosophy, getting myself oriented within a large and complex body of traditions and ideas, and with less (thus far) of the critical engagement from a historical perspective.  What this series of meandering and largely inchoate thoughts will be about is how I might get from the problematic notion of ‘the individual’ to a more helpful (if in some areas unfashionable) concept of ‘the human’ and, simultaneously, about how I might get from the analysis of social action in the past (in other words from historical explanation) to an understanding of and guide to action in the present. 

I have to make it clear that I am a very long way from being an expert in or authority on any of what follows.  I’m using this as a means of putting my thoughts into some sort of order, to attract comments and criticism and in the hope that it might be of some use to someone out there as well.  I have recently (Early Medieval Europe 19.4 (2011), p.461) been described as ‘only a theorist en passant’, using theory ‘pragmatically’.  This is just, and indeed possibly even more so than intended.  I’m not a pragmatist in the Rorty sense but my readings of philosophy are themselves pretty pragmatic rather than truly, rigorously systematic let alone dogmatic.  This (especially the lack of rigour) will doubtless be underlined in what follows.

So, preliminaries aside…

The individual is a subject I have been mulling over of late.  It has a particular historical weight.  In the British (and especially English) context it has an especial resonance.  What is held to be specific and different about the trajectory of British/English history (its Sonderweg – special path – to borrow the German term) is very often couched in terms of individualism.  Alan Macfarlane classically considered the origins of English capitalism and thus individualism to be sought in the end of a true peasant class in England at a point at the end of the Middle Ages, much earlier than in other European nations.  Richard Hodges later tried to move the origins of English individualism even further back, into a putative tenth-century Anglo-Saxon ‘industrial revolution’.  The links between this form of analysis and a nationally-centred, economically- (and perhaps politically-) conservative form of history is clear.  Indeed, the concept of the individual is something of a corner-stone of modern capitalist politics and economics, of all shades, not just the conservative.  Individualism is connected with the (competitive) pursuit of personal interests and the ability to pursue personal interests, vis-à-vis other people’s interests is widely held as a mark of liberty and even (even more problematically) of ‘human rights’.

Another famous historical aspect of the problem is the ‘twelfth-century discovery of the individual’, presented in a classic article by Caroline Walker Bynum.  I have never found Walker Bynum’s argument especially convincing but it raises the question of the reality of the individual as an analytical unit.  The approach, perhaps, is mistaken on two counts.  First, it might teleologically be looking for a ‘point at which’ where the conception of what we regard (now) in liberal capitalist western democracy to be a fundamental unit or building block of society emerged from an earlier concept of society.  Again, the idea might have been to push Macfarlane’s ‘point at which’ back earlier into the Middle Ages.  But to do this it needs to assume something ‘natural’ – even essential – about the notion of the individual, as we understand it.  Maybe it is not so natural.  So maybe past understandings of (let’s call it) personhood cannot be so easily assimilated with modern ideas.  Second, more fundamentally, what if our concept of the individual is itself just a misleading, politically-contingent construct?  If that were the case, then it would be no more meaningful to talk of the twelfth-century discovery of the individual than it would be to talk about the fifth-century (BC) discovery of Atlantis, or the fourth-century (AD) discovery of the hippocamp, or of Pliny’s discovery of the African Blemmyes (with faces in their chests), or Aethicus Ister’s discovery of the cynocephalus (the dog-headed man).  Discovery would be the wrong word.  Did twelfth-century people develop a concept of the individual that is like that of the modern world?  That would be the less politically-loaded formulation of the question (the answer in my view would still be ‘no’ but that’s a separate issue).

To indulge in a little autobiography, my work has very often been concerned with the individual.  Ever since Settlement and Social Organisation (1995) I have tried to open up the possibility that every individual social actor has a role to play in history.  The course of history, in other words, is not just determined by the actions of a few ‘great men’ and nor is it determined by economic, technological, climatic or ecological considerations beyond ordinary human intervention.  I also wanted to avoid seeing history governed by faceless ‘class analyses’ of classic Marxist formulations and similarly I wanted to argue against the idea that past people acted in equally predictable ways according to other ways of dividing up society (gender, kindred or ethnicity).  Now, some people expressed the thought (in conversation) that this meant that I was, by stressing the individual, advocating a fairly conservative approach to history.  What I was trying to do (in a work written during what seemed at the time to be an interminably disastrous period of Conservative government) was to argue, from a historical analysis, that claims that there was nothing that we, individuals, could do, or that certain things represented the ‘natural’ and thus unchanging/unchangeable ‘common-sense’ or ‘human-nature’ way of things could and should be countered.  Or, you might say, ‘Change?  Yes We Can!’

My analysis of Merovingian social interaction saw social change as happening as the result of myriad infinitesimal modifications to the social structure (formed not as a body of laws and modes extrinsic to social action but as continually constituted by action, by a society’s accumulated knowledge of all previous interactions, those deemed correct and those considered wrong).  Interactions were based on the interplay of identities chosen situationally by social actors in order to pursue their own aims (achieve power/wealth/general satisfaction in life).  This could be fundamentally be based around a struggle for finite material resources between particular types of élite group and their competitors (as I saw it in Warfare and Society [2003]) or less uniquely concerned with material gain (Barbarian Migrations [2007] made some important changes by acknowledging the existence of affective bonds that might transcend material advantage).  Nonetheless the image was, one might say, agonal if not agonistic.  This was in opposition to what I saw (and see) as a historically and politically deeply problematic conception of ‘consensus’. [Again, that’s for another time; for now let me just say that the idea of ‘consensus’ and the repressive political work that the term does has not been sufficiently rigorously theorised.] 

So: agonal, based around competition for resources or the achievement of other ‘satisfactions or aims in life’: there are points of contact here between my conception and that of the liberal, bourgeois notion of the individual.  That must be acknowledged. 

Digression: Words and Why they Matter: There is an interesting point here about how one’s political intentions for a piece and how it can be read might not match up.  As some of you will remember I have made the point forcefully (indeed deliberately shockingly), and I will make it again at some point (just how is the issue that concerns me), that it is simply not good enough to disclaim any responsibility for the use made of one’s words, as an excuse for lazy thinking and lazier writing in the discussion of politically sensitive, current issues like, oh, ... say (for the sake of argument), immigration.  One hard-of-thinking possessor of a D.Phil accused me (in an offensive message) of having a ‘shallow’ understanding of history because I didn’t appreciate (or accept) that how someone uses your words is independent of what you write.  One might call this the philosophically-uneducated man’s post-modernism because it shows absolutely no understanding of the issue at all.  This kind of lazy get-out-of-jail-free card – or, as I would rather call it, this kind of complacent, elitist, sophist fuck-wittery – just won’t wash.  All readings are not equal (and, as far as I am aware, neither the terribly-maligned Derrida nor any of the other continental philosophers regularly blamed for the idea ever said they were).  At one extreme, no guilt can be laid on an author for a clearly forced reading with little or no regard to the text itself; but when, at the other extreme, one can interpret one’s words (whether or not the author agrees) via a more or less straightforward retelling, then – whatever you believe – you have responsibility for not being able or willing to think more carefully and responsibly about the composition of your text.  Taking (ironically given the usually avowed contempt for what they call ‘post-modernism’) the relativist line that anyone can read your text any way they like might enable you to quaff your free port at Saint Frithfroth’s high table with a clear conscience the next time someone, drawing their motivation from a matrix of ideas and attitudes to which you have - however unwittingly and in however small a way - contributed, fire-bombs an immigrant hostel or guns down an island-full of Norwegian children in the name of the defence of Europe, but it cuts no ice around here.

So, as you can imagine, whether or not my earlier writings can be taken as a straight endorsement of capitalist individualism is an issue that troubles me more than somewhat.  Indeed, with the current neo-liberal UK government and its policies, it troubles me deeply.  Going back over the texts I’m not sure it could be done very easily, given the stress I laid on everyone having a role to play and everyone being able to change the system, to it being a way of moving away from ‘safe’ history (Settlement and Social Organisation, p.281), and to putting people back into their history (Barbarian Migrations, p.518).  At no point do I say anything like ‘anyone can do what they like and stuff society; and that’s how progress comes about.’  Nonetheless if someone presented a deconstruction that showed how what I said was actually supportive of an opposing political stance, then I would have to put my hands up and admit that I hadn’t thought it through hard enough.  A fortiori if someone were able simply to juxtapose verbatim quotes to make the point via an entirely unforced reading.  Well, to suggest that I was either right-wing, careless or stupid would be fair enough.  [And yes, that is a challenge, by the way…]

Similarly, I think that the consensus theory of medieval politics and the ways it envisages social/political power are, if you scrutinise the concepts closely, pretty reactionary and thus quite the opposite of the political beliefs that I know are held by some of its proponents.  I could not, however, (I think) make that reading and interpretation emerge simply from a series of quotes from, say, Dame Professor Janet L. Nelson’s writings.  It would have to be a close, deconstructive reading.  And because of that it would have no adverse critical bearing on the quality or intentions of the original work itself except (if it could be done) to say, ‘I think one needs to probe these concepts more carefully’.  I admit I need to probe my own concepts more closely - see below.

Satis.

As a (however gloomy) analysis of how things happen in social change, I still think that this is broadly on the right lines, though always susceptible to greater refinement and subtlety, but with one key drawback to which I will return at the end.  That does not imply that that is the way I think things ought to be or of how I think one ought to behave.  However, the fault-line that I can now identify within my argument – its aporia if you like – is that my concept of the historical actor was in fact anything but individual.  It could be divided along any number of lines.  The actor (let’s call him/her that) is a unique node where different identities meet.  But this node is not static and never just identified with a single identity (it is this that makes me opposed to identity politics and – more so – to the writing of history for the purposes of identity politics).  This is not simply because there is nothing immanent about an identity and not simply because an actor often can choose which identity to play in a particular situation.  It is also because the nature and range of identities changes through time (gender modified by age or the life-cycle for example; the precise value of an age-based identity changing through life; etc.).  And it is because the nature of an identity deployed in a given social situation is governed by the broader historical setting.

The situation:setting opposition was something I adopted and adapted in Barbarian Migrations from an article on ethnicity by J.Y Okamura ( ‘Situational ethnicity.’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 4.4 (1981), 452-65).  The situation is the specific encounter between human beings during which identities are deployed, and the setting is the broader social background against which it is set, and which defines the precise ways in which identities are seen.  What I did was to assimilate this with the reflexive relationship between social structure and social interaction that I had already long used, inspired by Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice and the ‘habitus’ and Giddens’ theory of structuration.  Thus the ‘setting’ determines the weight and nature of particular identities and how they can be used in particular ‘situations’ but is itself constituted by the results of all previous ‘situations’.  Although I used this to discuss ethnicities, the idea could be applied to any sort of social identity.

This, in turn brings up the question of what an identity is.  The key point about identity – and it is one I haven’t really made enough of in the past (though there is a nod towards this on Barbarian Migrations, pp.168-9) – is that it is fundamentally an identification, an association, a sameness with an other.  In this perspective, then, what might be called the ‘individual’ is only created through an identification with the other.  At this point one can employ Žižek’s use of Lacan’s ‘graph of desire’ to explore subjectivity in The Sublime Object of Ideology, focussing as it does on the inter-relationship between identities and the way that behaviour is defined as much by what someone thinks other people expect (“Che vuoi?”) if someone playing a particular role as by ‘free will’ and intention.  Žižek more than once quotes Lacan to the effect that ‘a fool who thinks he’s a king is no crazier than a king who thinks he’s a king’: in other words identities and roles are not immanent but constructed from people’s expectations about how they behave and how to behave towards them (which in its own way brings us back to Bourdieu and Giddens).

The ‘individual’ can, as I see it, never be all the things that it is at any given time.  It is never a totalised/totalising whole.  It is an overdetermination.  Perhaps, too, it only has something like unity bestowed upon it and its actions in retrospect.  In any given situation, which is always a situation of becoming, after all, an actor could try to deploy/could be allowed to deploy different identities, to greater or lesser effect.  Only afterwards, in retrospect, once their results are perceived, might his/her actions be understood as those of a male/female, young/old person, person of a particular ethnicity, family, religion or social rank, etc.  I wonder whether, when we confer meaning upon interactions, there is a point of contact here with the Derridian notion of différance.  This may or may not work.  I also need at some point to sit down and read Badiou’s Being and Event and The Logic of Worlds and his application of set theory to social action, to see whether it can be harmonised with some of the other ideas I have been playing with.

So, thus far we can see that an ‘individual’ is not really individual at all.  S/he is not singular, sui generis – far from it – even if s/he occupies a particular, unique place on what I once called the social map.  This is true even in terms of self-identification.  Therefore the individual is in psychoanalytic terms not individual either, as a subject.  One is measuring one’s own actions against the sorts of images and backgrounds I have already discussed: this is the realm of the super-ego.  In these terms, Simon Critchley therefore calls the subject a ‘dividual’.  No matter how one looks at it, then, the individual is a myth.  The twelfth century can thus no more have discovered the individual than it can have discovered the unicorn.

One must then be very wary of the ideology of the individual, where the latter is a figure for liberty.  We must look behind the figure to the ideology that it obscures.  I wonder if you could unpick the figure of the individual how much of the rest of capitalist ideology would come adrift.  I wonder whether the figure of the individual is the ‘point de capiton’ of the whole signifying system (as I argued the figure of the civilised Roman male was in the Roman Empire).  Now, unpicking the individual is not necessarily a move back to simple ‘class analyses’ or a move toward dismissing human life in the interests of a greater good (I think Alain Badiou comes close to both of these things in some of his writings, like The Century).  Quite the opposite.  This is where I want to start thinking in terms of the human instead.  Now, I know that the concept of the human is historically localisable and was in many ways bound up with enlightenment ideas that were Eurocentric, sexist, racist even but I think that it is salvageable as an important concept, for reasons to which I will return.  After all, I have spoken before about putting the humanity back into the humanities. 

I think this means that I am critiquing the ‘individual’ in a similar way to that in which Jeffrey Jerome Cohen critiques the ‘human’ in Medieval Identity Machines (though I’m as yet not too far into that very interesting volume).  However, while I am irresistibly attracted to the idea (if I correctly detect the way Cohen’s argument is going) that Europe was post-human before it was human, there are ideological reasons why I want to stick to the individual, rather than the human, as the term for the notion I am critiquing, and for why I want to preserve the human as something to strive for.

I recently read Le Mythe de L’Individu by the argentine philosopher and ex-guerrillero Miguel Benasayag.  This – funnily enough – was one of the prompts to write this piece.  Dating to 1998, it’s a remarkable book, weaving philosophies together from Plotinus through Spinoza to the present.  [You will understand that I don’t buy his critique of Camus’ Le Mythe de Sisyphe as entirely fair, but there you go.]  One of the things I like is Benasayag’s way of thinking of the human being as not individual and not bound by the body (coming close to Cohen’s critique of the human) but as a sort of shapeless, amoeba-like thing that extends arms (or pseudo-pods, as he says) in all sorts of directions, binding with particular other people in particular times and places: family, friends, colleagues, fellow travellers.  In all these cases the human sees him/herself as part of other people and (I suppose) vice versa.  This I think is implicit in what I said earlier about identification.  Going back to the ways I thought about things sixteen years ago, in Settlement and Social Organisation, what I said about links and barriers could be transposed into a situational willingness or otherwise to ‘extend’ oneself towards identification with someone else or to accept or refuse someone else’s ‘pseudopodal’ extension towards oneself.  Benasayag’s philosophy is phenomenological, focussing on ‘the situation’ and stresses trying to see the universal in the particular, the eternal in the fleeting.  He postulates that one can free oneself from the condition of lack, of ever-waiting, of desire for mastery that never – can never – come that the concept of the individual brings with it, by living in and for the situation.  There is thus an ethical side to all this that brings me back to ideas I have expressed before, about pre-rational ethics and history, etc.

Meandering my way towards a conclusion, then, what I think has been wrong with my thinking in the past has been its concentration upon the ‘rational’, the conscious pursuit of aims, with regard, say, to control of material resources etc.  This is not to deny that this is important but simply to push the idea further (re. the ‘affective’ community mentioned in Barbarian Migrations, p.41) that the non- (or pre-) rational also play an important part in such relationships.  There are two points that I think could emerge from this admittedly disorganised thinking.

One is that in ‘identification’, in that extension of a ‘pseudopod’ towards others there is some of that pre-rational ethics of empathy, of seeing oneself in others that I discussed before.  Therefore the most creative and positive identification of all must be (as Schopenhauer thought) the recognition of another striving, struggling human being.  And this, because it permits no exclusions (apart from other species, which is a problem I admit), must be crucially important.  As I see it, it trumps all the other identifications.

The other point, which stems from the non-immanence of identities, and the non-existence of the individual, affects historical methodology and political action equally.  We don't have a single dominant 'individual' identity - and even if we did, its nature would perpetually be changing, as above.  This makes history written to extend present identities backwards problematic.  For the same reasons I am dubious of identity politics generally, I suppose.  What I think the movement away from the individual to the human might permit, politically, is a non-doctrinaire, non-partisan, piecemeal kind of political action that operates situationally according to the ethical demand.  This, then, would be the sort of ethical ‘anarchist’* politics of commitment that Simon Critchley advocates in Infinitely Demanding.  By stressing a shared humanity we might be able to get around having to choose which identity we see as most important in an absolute way, and thus get some purchase on the problems of hegemony and socialist strategy (on which I need to go back and finish my reading of Butler, Laclau, Žižek, Mouffe etc.).  We might find a new kind of ethically-founded community (which reminds me that I need to get round to reading Agamben on The Coming Community) – one that would itself be (in my way of seeing) as ‘amoebic’ as the ‘human’.


* Not anarchist in the traditional sense of Bakunin, Kropotkin and the rest, but as rejecting the rule of a single political dogma and programme.
[This took me days to write and it has made my head hurt (although that might admittedly be because my varifocals were broken when I got attacked in Poppleton town centre a couple of weeks back) - I might keep tinkering with it for a while yet.]