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Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The ghostly horizon of the year 600

[Here, for your comments and reactions and to help me get back into it, is the current draft of the opening to my book of the Transformations of the Year 600 - or whatever I decide to call it in the end.  As with other recent posts, it was mostly written over a year ago]

Spectres stalked western Europe in the decades around 600.  The Western Roman Empire was dead.  In the last decades of the sixth century surely no one could any longer be in any doubt about that.  The last legitimate western emperor had been murdered in 480 but, even so, the body of the pars occidentis (Western Part) had remained, like a body that no one was quite sure had breathed its last.  For a good half-century, western European politics had carried on as though the Western Empire still lived, encircling its still-warm carcass as though it might at any moment sit back up.  At certain times it seemed that someone – Theoderic the Ostrogoth or Clovis the Frank – might yet even be able to breathe life back into its lungs.

But the most obvious attempt to do so – by the eastern Emperor Justinian – had put it beyond doubt that the West was no more.  It was an ex-Empire. It had ceased to be.  It is difficult to see how things could be otherwise.  After all, Justinian’s had self-consciously been an attempt not to revive a comatose body but to reanimate a corpse.  It had begun by pronouncing the Western Empire dead and specifying the cause of death.  It had, said Justinian, been murdered and, indeed, the murderers were the very people who at that moment were wondering whether there remained any life in the old body, the ‘barbarian’ kings of the West.  Justinian’s ultimate failure to bring the Western Empire back to life as a territory directly administered by an emperor left ’Rome’ as something that henceforth could have only a spectral existence in the West.  It had lived and it had died; it might return but only as a ghost.  And that not yet.  In the century or so after the traumas of the Western Empire’s death agony in Justinian’s wars, it seems that Rome was simply dead.  And gone.

There was, however, another, much more important ghostly presence haunting Western Europe around 600, the ultimate revenant expected any time soon: the Messiah, Christ himself.  The demise of the Western Empire was but one of a number of signs and portents that seemed to announce the Second Coming.  For several hundred years, Christians had lived with the idea that the Roman Empire was commensurate with the Sixth Age of the World.  Had Christ not been born during the reign of the Empire’s founder, Augustus?  Now that the Empire no longer existed, surely now was the time for the Kingdom of Christ to come.

In the writings of the period there is a very clear sense of living in time ‘out of joint’.  The present is a fleeting, spectral moment which no one can grasp, an ever moving threshold between what is coming and what has gone.  For those alive around 600, it was as though that fleeting moment had opened up to encompass a whole epoch out of time.  Events were seen not as elements in a continuous sequential narrative or chain but as reappearances of stories told in the scriptures.  Individuals and actions stood as repetitions of types.  The characters of the Old Testament, in spirit, walked the earth again.  In a time out of time cause and effect stood not in relation to contingency or as responses to previous events, not – in other words – in a linear, horizontal sequence but in a vertical relationship between man and God.  Any action had its forerunner in the tales of the Bible and its consequence could be seen accordingly as direct punishment or reward.  This, after all, was a world in which the not only the tombs of the saints but also their relics operated as timeless points of contact between the earthly and the celestial.  Holy men did not live particular lives but shared, said one contemporary, a single life, regardless of time or place.  In this world the past had gone and yet endured.  Figures long dead inhabited the actions of living men and women.  All deeds and all persons could be seen as further reapparitions of these ghostly forerunners.  But as time seemed to stand still all appeared to herald a future long predicted, an end of worldly time.  The world of 600 was haunted by spectres of the remote past and by the expectation of a messianic future. 

One might even get a sense of this by leaving the world of the learned men, churchmen most often, who narrated, insofar as they could narrate, this ghostly time out of joint – or perhaps within the joint of past and future – and entered (where better?) the cemeteries wherein ordinary folk laid their kin to (as they hoped) rest.  Here too there was a sense of timelessness – perhaps there always is in graveyards.  The rites for the dead were transient, leaving little by way of visible monument.  Across much of western Europe north of the Loire, the dead were interred in a ritual that was played out for an audience, often seemingly a large audience of local people, that conveyed much about the deceased and his or her family and how they wished to be seen.  That involved gift-giving and feasting among the living and dead and the corpse was accompanied into the tomb by objects deemed appropriate.  It is these and the skeletal remains of the dead that permit an insight into society at a local level, such as frequently eludes the attention of the authors of the written sources.  The deposition of grave-goods was, however, governed by rules, albeit ones which changed in detail at least from one area to another.  Those rules or norms determined what sorts and numbers of objects were appropriate for people of a particular age and sex.  The effect of this ritual was frequently to telescope the time that had lapsed between this and the last interment of a person of the same category.  This surely worked in a way to normalise quite abnormal and traumatic events, reassuring the bereaved but at the same time the very sameness of time, the taking of the specific out of the normal temporal sequence, meant the haunting of the ceremony by the ghosts of previously departed people of the same age and sex.  In many ways the funerals of north-western Europe operated in a fashion that was as typological as the writings of hagiographers and theologians.

And yet, although there was a clear similarity between the thinking of these people at quite different levels, which surely emanated in some way from their shared milieu, there were important differences.  The transience of community ritual in the earlier sixth century, which finds parallels in rites and ceremonies unconnected with death and mourning, appears to originate in the world of uncertainty that surrounded the first death of the Western Roman Empire.  Had the Empire gone, or not?  The fifth-century crisis had undermined centuries-old social hierarchies in the provinces north of the Loire.  Social and economic stress and competition meant that a position in local society was likely to be transient, within a lifetime and could be projected into the future, from one generation to the next, only with difficulty.  The funerary rites just mentioned were one means by which people attempted to deal with the crises in local society which death brought about.  The future was uncertain and there seemed little point in investing in it.  An irony came in that, around the end of the sixth century this fluidity of social structure in the former provinces of the north-west (and beyond the former limes too) was beginning to settle down into a more stable social organisation.  One might begin to project a family’s status into the future with some confidence. Yet, especially if one took part in the sorts of Christian commemoration that were becoming fashionable among a newly-emerging aristocracy, one might well do so in the knowledge that such a future might be very short.  The idea of permanence might be tempered by an awareness that the days of tribulation were upon us.  Or nearly so.

These developments themselves raised ghosts.  An élite only just establishing itself, whether as a noble caste in some areas, or as a royal one, perhaps, in others felt the want of a direct pedigree.  Again the typological, the vertical link to God, would stand in for the linear, the sequential or the horizontal.  And so, again, the spirits of the biblical past came to possess the living.


The apocalypse was expected, and soon, but quite when no one knew.  In this strangely still time, out of time, the present was part of the past and part of the future, part – indeed – of the end.  The horizon formed by that end was, therefore, not fixed.  It remained open, fleeting, moved towards, a future that was ever-present, spectral in itself.  It was with a gaze fixed upon that ghostly open horizon that the people of western Europe passed from the Roman world and into that which, with the passage of centuries, would come to be called the medieval.