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Thursday, 29 January 2015

An old review of Bachrach's Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire

[Bernard Bachrach occupies a vitally important place in modern medieval studies, a real asset.  We live in a world, in which the tenets of Rankean positivism are avowed to be no longer tenable.  I have dealt with the problems of this before but either way the idea that there is a single right answer is widely admitted to be outmoded.  Thus a plethora of rival interpretations occupies the field.  Indeed this is a world where some historians hold that a multiplicity of equally valid readings is a desideratum, and that there is no right and wrong.  What is the newcomer to do, confronted by this confusing, shifting sea of  - seemingly - equally plausible reconstructions? 

Well, fear not, o newcomer, for help is at hand, thanks to Professor B.S. Bachrach of the University of Minnesota.  Bachrach provides us with an invaluable fixed point, a point de repère as the French would say.  In a fluid historical landscape where truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are chimaera we can at least orient ourselves on Bachrach's work, secure in the knowledge that everything he says is wrong.  It is a kind of Cartesian point of origin, a historical thinking degree zero, from which any move in any direction will represent a positive step towards understanding.

Bachrach continues to churn out massive tomes about early medieval warfare, accompanied by masses of endnotes containing vicious ad hominem attacks on his critics (largely yours truly).  For those who may be taken in I offer this review of an earlier instalment, which appeared in Peritia and is thus perhaps not very widely available.  It sets out most of the key objections to his work, objections with which the overwhelming majority of students of the early medieval period would agree.  This, however, is not quite my text as published, which was very slightly edited.  This is, if you like, the 'director's cut'.]

Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2001, xiv + 430 pp. $55.00. ISBN 0-8122-3533-9

Over the last thirty years or so Bernard S. Bachrach has been painstakingly, indeed fearlessly, building what might best be termed a parallel early Middle Ages.  The names and the events are familiar and the landscape just about recognisable, yet something is not quite right.  In this early Middle Ages, not only did Rome not die, it never even grew old.  Indeed it became bigger and better than ever before.  The changes that took place in ‘conventional’ late antiquity have little or no place in this world.  Here, the Roman state was all-powerful; its army an efficient, well-oiled fighting machine; its towns mighty fortresses.  There is no sign of the corruption and inefficiency, of the negotiation and bargaining at all levels of government and administration, or of the economic contraction and urban decay revealed by four decades of sophisticated documentary and archaeological study of the western Roman Empire in the ‘other’ Late Antiquity.  In BachrachWorld, moreover, this maximal Roman state continued without a break into the post-Roman period, especially in the field of military affairs.  The western kingdoms of the period between c.500 and c.900 commanded well-equipped and numerically enormous standing armies.  In Bachrach’s latest book, the Carolingian regular army numbers tens of thousands of men drawn from a ‘manpower pool’ of two million, all rigorously trained and disciplined according to the best Roman theories and supplied by centralised state workshops.  They fight with throwing spear and stabbing sword, just like Caesar’s legions, and march across the countryside in step, to the tune of Venantius Fortunatus’ hymns.  If only Charlemagne himself could have seen them!

Were this a work of science fiction or part of the curiously booming ‘what if’ historical literature it might be very interesting.  Alas it is not.  It is presented, and pretty aggressively at that, as a serious work of historical scholarship.  In fact Bachrach repeatedly stresses that his is the correct view of the era, dismissing most other current practitioners of early medieval history, particularly Anglophones and especially the growing phalanx of those who have dared to criticise his imaginative reconstructions in the past, as doctrinaire slaves to a ‘primitivist’ agenda.  The book begins with an account of political history – or long-term strategy, as Bachrach calls it – between the supremacy of the mayor Pippin of Herestal and the coronation of his grandson Pippin the Short as King Pippin I in 751.  The argument is that there was a conscious and coherent long-term strategy, based upon a knowledge of which areas had once been governed by the early Merovingians, to reconquer and absorb peripheral areas into the regnum francorum.  Bachrach then moves on to look at military organisation; the Franks maintained a huge and highly organised regular army, as mentioned.  The book next considers training and equipment, morale, battlefield tactics, campaigning strategies and ‘naval assets’.

The problems with the book are many but most relate to Bachrach’s rather individual modus operandi, which have repeatedly been criticised in the past.  A few causes célèbres relating to the different chapters (none of which will surprise aficionados of Bachrach’s work) may suffice.  Bachrach reads very widely in the English and German secondary literature and his knowledge of the primary sources is extensive.  As often as not, a cited source, if taken absolutely literally and in isolation, does say what he claims it says.  The problem is that these sources are taken too literally and often out of context.  For example, a very brief passage (a handful of lines) from the epic Waltharius becomes the subject of an extensive exegesis on cavalry warfare (p.196 ff.).  Leaving aside the problems of the poem’s provenance and purpose, in Bachrach’s analysis Waltharius’ troop deploys and redeploys from line to column and back again, all whilst within spear-throwing distance of the enemy, who (apparently) kindly allow them to continue with this country dancing, never once attacking them whilst in the middle of their manoeuvres.  Nineteenth-century tactical theorists, who said that any unit that manoeuvred in the face of the enemy was disordered, would have been astonished.  But there would be no need for their astonishment.  Bachrach has simply translated literally the two synonyms for battle-line (acies and cuneus) used by the poet.  Neither word had such technically precise usage in the early Middle Ages, and nor did they in classical Latin (as even a brief perusal of Lewis and Short’s Latin dictionary will rapidly demonstrate).  This is indeed an interesting passage but Bachrach takes his analysis much too far, and the same is true of source after source.

Another problem concerns the Frankish political ‘master-plan’.  Bachrach’s reconstruction is based mainly upon the Annales Mettenses Priores, written well after the close of the period under discussion and, as has very widely been appreciated, recasting the history of the late seventh and eighth century as the inevitable and entirely justified, because divinely-ordained, rise of the Carolingians to control of the whole Frankish world.  Bachrach pays lip-service to this point but does not allow it to impinge in any way on his argument, which involves the early Carolingians closely scrutinising the works of Gregory of Tours and other sources in order to find out the original extent of Merovingian dominion and then planning a long-term strategy to reconstruct this polity.  Yet at the same time, in the period studied, they neither retook all of the areas where the Merovingians had had usually fairly ill-defined hegemony (sixth-century Frankish gains in northern Italy are the subject of no part of the plan, although admittedly that could be because these are only vaguely mentioned in less well-known sources possibly absent from the Carolingians’ Strategic Studies research library), nor stop at the limits of Merovingian power (thus Septimania was conquered).  The fact of the matter, as has been clearly revealed in sensitive studies of the Frankish politics of the period (most recently and notably Paul Fouracre’s The Age of Charles Martel), is that the regional elites on the periphery of the Frankish world who broke free of direct Merovingian rule in the course of the seventh century, nevertheless at the same time became ever more assimilated with the aristocracy of the kingdom’s heartlands.  They neither achieved nor desired complete independence from Frankish politics but (and this has long been appreciated) retained close familial and other links with it, and intervened in Frankish high politics as and when they wished, or were able to.  This fact in itself meant that in the aristocratic faction politics of the day, Pippinid/Arnulfing political dominance could never be secure until the dynasty had ensured that its allies controlled all of the areas of this loosely nit polity.  Thus early Carolingian military activity tended to be drawn out from core to periphery in often piece-meal and usually contingent fashion.

The chapter on the organisation of the Frankish army suffers from being based upon almost no sources actually written in the period under review (c.687-751).  The main evidence used is ninth-century Carolingian capitularies.  Bachrach assumes that the legislation in these documents was generally closely adhered to in practice.  Leaving this questionable assumption to one side, students of the period (most significantly the late Timothy Reuter) have long underlined the fact that the absence of military legislation from the substantial corpus of Charlemagne’s capitularies before about 800 is unlikely, when compared with the heavy attention devoted to the subject after that date, to be fortuitous.  Times had changed and there was a greater need for legislation, even if the precise nature of that change is still a matter for debate.  This material cannot, as Reuter said, simply be projected back into earlier periods.  Other material is drawn from Hincmar of Rheims’ De Ordine Palatii.  Bachrach claims that this text was written by Adalhard of Corbie in the late eighth century (in which case it would still belong after the era covered by his book).  Hincmar does indeed say that he had copied Adalhard’s work, but the fact remains that Adalhard’s text is lost and it is quite clear that Hincmar interpolated his own views to a now unknowable extent.  Even recent optimistic interpretations, by Brigitte Kasten and Janet Nelson, which see this text as essentially Adalhard’s, push it only to the very end of Charlemagne’s reign, and Hincmar himself twice claims no greater antiquity for the information contained in it than the reign of Louis the Pious.  The use made of the text here, where it is claimed to represent an unproblematic reflection of how things actually were in the eighth century, is perilous to say the least.

The chapter on equipment and training takes a similar approach.  Here the source is Hrabanus Maurus’ reworking of Vegetius’ De Re Militari – once again a mid-ninth-century text which, even if one could accept its testimony as a faithful description of Carolingian actuality, would relate to the middle of the ninth century, not the beginning of the eighth.  Bachrach’s is in fact a useful survey of the ways in which Hrabanus modified his source, but the problems are (if you will excuse the pun) legion.  First of all, the purpose of the text is not closely analysed.  Secondly, Hrabanus’ was not the only reworking of Vegetius in the period; Freculf and Sedulius also produced versions, rather different from Hrabanus’.  As Paul Kershaw will argue in a forthcoming paper, whilst Freculf and Hrabanus seem genuinely to have felt their works might be useful for the kings to whom they addressed them, Sedulius’ is more like unashamedly gleeful antiquarianism.  Recent work has stressed the authority given by Carolingian writers to classical works, whether or not they bore any relationship to ninth-century reality.  Natalia Lozovsky’s work on geography is a case in point.  Thirdly, the information contrasts with what we know of Carolingian weaponry from archaeological sources.  Bachrach elides the gladius mentioned in Hrabanus’ version of Vegetius with the archaeologically attested scramasax, but the two are different.  The two-edged early Roman legionary short sword (it had largely gone out of use even by Vegetius’ day) was a stabbing weapon, a usage completely unsuited to the single-edged scramasax which, especially in its later forms, from the seventh century onwards, was a chopping weapon.  Bachrach dismisses such comparisons through a pseudo-statistical argument about the smallness of the archaeological sample (he threatens a whole monograph on archaeological and pictorial sources in the future), in apparent unawareness of the contradiction between this point and his own generalisations about actual practice from a single version (out of at least three different ones) of an ancient text of uncertain application.  Fourthly, Hrabanus’/Vegetius’ accounts of military practice are quite at variance with what we know of ninth-century campaigns and battles (see further below).  Finally, Vegetius’ was an antiquarian work even when he wrote it, full of criticisms of ‘modern’ practice and recommendations about going back to the Good Old Days.  There is little or no evidence that the De Re Militari either adequately described or had any effect on most late Roman military practice. This alone must have some implications for Bachrach’s arguments about direct Roman-post-Roman military continuity.

When looking at battlefield tactics and campaigns Bachrach again often relies on unexpected sources.  Apart from the use of Waltharius mentioned above, he discusses Agathias’ account of a Frankish battle in Italy in the 550s.  The precise relevance of this to early Carolingian warfare is unclear.  Archaeological sources make clear a dramatic shift in the nature of weaponry around 600, which in turn points to a radical change in tactical practice away from more open and fluid battlefield usages, involving greater use of missile weapons, towards a heavier reliance upon what might be termed shieldwall combat.  One of the few even remotely detailed accounts of a battle from Bachrach’s chosen period, the Chronicle of 754’s description of the battle of Poitiers, is hugely over-interpreted, ignoring the biblical resonances in which it is steeped.  Otherwise, whenever a source runs contrary to the clinical Roman science that Bachrach believes Carolingian warfare to have been (and as soon as we get detailed accounts of warfare with anything like regularity, in the later ninth century, this is almost always the case), Bachrach dismisses them as representing the wilful, ideologically-driven misrepresentation of warfare by churchmen opposed to violence (evading the point that, as numerous scholars have shown, the church’s attitude to war in this period was far from being either so clear-cut or so uniformly negative).  A more disturbing aspect of Bachrach’s work is its sanitisation of warfare.  The huge Carolingian military machine moves through the landscape causing barely the slightest hardship or disruption to the locals, for this would run counter to the rational purposes of the war and defeat its aims.  Similarities with modern euphemisms such as ‘friendly fire’, ‘smart bombs’ and ‘collateral damage’ are doubtless not coincidental.  Indeed the book is fairly soaked in modern military jargon and seeks to demonstrate that the Carolingians, like ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf, were adherents of the doctrine of overwhelming force.  What impact the ‘Rumsfeld doctrine’, of small, highly trained and rapid forces striking directly at the enemy heartland, will have on military history of the Bachrach type remains to be seen.  One might suggest that it will result in a picture more easily supported by actual early medieval evidence…

Bachrach’s attitude to archaeology resurfaces, not for the first time in his oeuvre, in his discussion of the economic background to early Carolingian warfare.  Decades of archaeological work on the settlement geography of the period, stressing late Roman decline before resurgence from the seventh century onwards is dismissed as ‘primitivist’ or statistically worthless, in favour of works by historians dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Indeed much of the bibliography of the book is very old, though claimed to retain its value (although given that Bachrach simply dismisses anything more recent it is difficult to know how he can ascertain this).  Bachrach’s methodology, as usual, is to start from questionable assumptions about Carolingian military capacities, based, as we have seen, on an idiosyncratic and problematic use of a small range of written sources, and then extrapolate from this to assert the existence of a socio-economic base capable of sustaining such military activity, with evidence hammered to fit.  Surely in early medieval studies one has no option but to work from the known to the unknown.  Although not without its problems, we have far more data on the social structures, settlement geography and economic organisation of the early Middle Ages (none of which supports the Bachrach thesis, which is why he dismisses it as unrepresentative) than on military actuality.  A more reasonable methodology is therefore to work from this base to reconstruct the levels of military activity it could support, not vice versa.

Oddly in view of his diatribes against other researchers, this is not a careful book.  Hrabanus is curiously spelt Rhabanus throughout; the Süntel are rendered ‘Süntal’ (which would imply that they were a valley rather than a mountain range); even Latin terms, upon which Bachrach places such heavy weight, are not given correctly – contubernium and castrum are given as contubernia and castra in the nominative singular.  The prose is leaden; readers might keep themselves amused by spotting the repetition of key phrases (almost refrains) like ‘massive army’ and ‘old Roman fortress city’.  More seriously, Bachrach repeatedly completely misrepresents the arguments of his opponents, cases in point being the supposed ‘primitivism’ of some modern researchers (mercifully, his rants on this subject here do not come as close to implicit racism as in some of his other writings), the arguments against the efficiency of Carolingian legislation, and those about warfare being driven by booty.  Even works claimed to support the Bachrach thesis are misrepresented.  The volume is dedicated to F.-L. Ganshof, whom Bachrach claims as a sort of intellectual father figure (what Ganshof would have made of this honour is sadly impossible to know), apparently in the belief that Ganshof (in my view rather harshly treated by recent scholarship) represents modern paradigms of early medieval history.  Yet Ganshof’s work on the Carolingian military was quite at odds with Bachrach’s arguments.  He thought armies were fairly small and was, as the discussione after K.-F. Werner’s famous paper on the subject makes clear, unconvinced by the notion of the 20,000 man army in practice.  Bachrach is tacit on this subject, yet takes historians to task, probably rightly, for misrepresenting Werner (although in my reading Werner was concerned with theoretical maxima and open to the objection, put forward by Ganshof, that forces in reality might be as low as 40% of the theoretical totals).  Bachrach’s bugbear, archaeological work on late Roman urban decline (curiously claimed to represent only a vestige of an outmoded idea), is inaccurately rendered, although it has almost no relevance to the period being studied.  In opposition to the alleged (but grossly misrepresented) argument (by this reviewer) that Metz had become a ‘ghost town’, Bachrach cites the construction of a ‘massive cathedral’ within the walls.  We know absolutely nothing about the size, plan or even the construction materials of the fifth-century cathedral in Metz, although admittedly it probably was inside the walls.  More to the point, the argument critiqued here, like most other work on the subject, argues for rapidly growing and indeed thriving urban centres by the period covered by Bachrach’s book.

This raises what is perhaps a more important issue.  Leaving aside the point that they largely cite Bachrach’s own earlier outpourings, the extensive notes (there are 257 pages of text in this volume and 134 pages of endnotes at, thus, a ratio of over a page of notes to every two pages of text) repeatedly descend into tirades against his critics.  Indeed this section is, to considerable degree, an extended diatribe against Ian Wood.  Much of the critique takes the form of unsubstantiated generalised claims about levels of scholarship, ideas about proof or evidence, and so on.  An historian of Bachrach’s age and experience should know that this runs contrary to academic rules of engagement.  If you are going to assert that a scholar has no idea how to use evidence, you are obliged to back up your claim.  As implied above, in order to attack his critics, Bachrach often deviates considerably from the point under discussion.  One really must ask why the publishers allowed this over-inflated and self-indulgent use of the endnote apparatus.

There is no doubting Bachrach’s intelligence and scholarship; what remains, at best, curious is its funnelling into an increasingly strident and wilful insistence upon a version of events which has little or no support in the evidence and which diverges increasingly from the readings of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages by almost every other scholar of the period.  All told, it is probably best to file this book under quaint historiographical dead-ends.