Two seminars, two cities, part 1: Seminary XL with Peter Heather

Tuesday 3 February was a rather busy day for London-range early medievalists. The afternoon had Peter Heather speaking to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title, “Predatory Migration and the First Millennium”, and then the evening saw Wendy Davies (for it is again she) asking, “What Can We Say About Local Priests in Northern Spain before the Year 1000?” in front of the London Society for Medieval Studies. Although Britain was at that time suffering considerably from its rulers’ conclusion that it’s not economical to avert the loss of billions of pounds of revenue by giving local authorities enough money to keep some snowploughs about the place, meaning that transport was heavily disrupted when prolonged heavy snowfall occurred, it was just about possible to manage both… But I’ll blog them separately, as there was little connection between the two and comments may be less confusing that way. So here’s Peter’s first and Wendy’s will follow.

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

A map of supposed invasions of the Roman Empire, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned Professor Heather here in the past as being someone unafraid to imagine large-scale population movements in the early Middle Ages, which somewhat sets him apart from his contemporaries who have often feared that all numbers in medieval sources are exaggerated (because, for example, if that really is a barbarian army coming across the steppe, are you hanging round to count them?), that they indulge in literary tropes related to origin myths in which peoples move en bloc without losing any of their identity—tropes that subsequent work on ethnicity has problematised—and lastly because modern migrations just don’t look like this. The old-style ‘age of migrations’, the ‘invasion hypothesis‘, presupposes population movements that are deliberate (as opposed to unplanned flight), aggressive (that is armed, ‘predatory’) and closed; that is, that the Sueves were still Sueves when they’d reached Galicia from Darkest Germania, because they had neither shed many people to local populations as they passed nor taken in so many as to dilute their identity or material culture. To a generation or more of scholars this has seemed very unlikely to have occurred very much, if at all.

Peter, who was in part plugging a new book called Empires and Barbarians which must be continuing the theme of his last one in this respect, laid these planks of the counter-argument out (and I wouldn’t like to say there might not be others, but these certainly exist) and conversationally but thoroughly jumped on them until he felt that they were broken. Part of this involved a saving strategy, mind: he agreed that many supposed invasions were not what they are cracked up to be, but because we can tell this from, for example, Ammianus Marcellinus’s descriptions, then when Ammianus does say that a full-scale migration of a people with predatory intent was afoot, as he does of the Gothic revolt in 376, we ought to take him seriously in that case too. Ammianus also describes the refugee Alemans as a people being made up of lots of separate bands of followers briefly united under one ruler, and Peter compared that to the shifting Viking warbands that made up the Great Army five centuries later. Peter pointed out that such a combination of elements must have been very hard to maintain, and that no-one would do so without some kind of plan in mind, although questions forced him to concede that that plan might well no longer be the one that the ‘people’ had had in mind when they had set off. Lastly he explained the difference compared to modern migrations, so fluid, open and multivalent with a composition of small bands of individuals or families, as being one of economic determinism. Nowadays, he argued, immigrants can not only amass the capital to move by themselves but can expect to be economically able to sustain themselves alone when they arrive at destination, because there are many jobs and a specialised economy and it is possible to access wealth in many ways. In late antiquity on the other hand, he argued, while you can certainly find work, you can’t individually find wealth because, apart from loot that you can only keep if you go away again, wealth is land and land needs many people to run and still more to roust its previous occupants. If you intend to take land, he argued, better bring an army.

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

Romantic depiction of the Gothic invasion of the Roman Empire

I’m okay with this as long as it’s allowed to represent an extreme case. I think it is, yes, arguable that the Goths in 376 formed themselves into a confederacy whose express object was to take land in the Empire by force where the Huns couldn’t reach them and that to this end they moved en masse with women and children (for which Peter had textual support too) to make it so. On the other hand, it was certainly possible to find a livelihood on your own terms in the Roman Empire as a small-scale immigrant: look at all the legislation about waste land needing farmers. It may have been harder to find a bit of waste to call a new home under the Empire because of the claims of the state than it was, well, on the Spanish March of the Carolingian Empire (hem hem), but people did move in in small numbers without fighting, I’m sure. So there is some reason that the Goths don’t break up and try that which is bigger than simple economic necessity, and I don’t think that Peter has saved the invasion hypothesis. He’s just made the (special) cases where we ought to allow it more explicable, and therefore defensible. No small thing; but between that and the lively disagreements over DNA evidence that also emerged in questions, he may have to argue a bit more yet.

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9 responses to “Two seminars, two cities, part 1: Seminary XL with Peter Heather

  1. North America has many well-documented cases of tribal migrations within historic times, in which family groups of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, moved considerable distances with the specific intention of setting themselves up in a new locale. Sometimes this involved making war against existing occupants of a place. Sometimes they were compelled to do so by defeat at the hands of another tribe. At other times it involved deal-making or confederation. It is not known what prompted the entire Mandan Nation, for instance, to migrate a thousand miles from the Midwest to the Upper Missouri country, but they were joined there by the Hidatsa, who were migrating from the equally distant Gulf coast, and they established themselves as allied farmer-traders in a region that had known no agriculture. Some of the locals joined them, some among them split off to become plains warriors. Western Canada witnessed many large scale migrations of people that are traceable over a period of three centuries.

    We cannot assume automatically that things worked the same way in the Europe of late antiquity, but drawing analogies from native North America seems to me a valid way of discussing what is likely, unlikely, possible, or impossible.

    • Hmm. That has some of the basic problem of applying the anthropology of low-stratification societies to those of medieval Europe, in which at least the destination society was very highly stratified, whereas the peoples you’re talking about were contending with, I presume (and correct me if I’m wrong) their equals in social complexity. The learning and aspiration curve would be, it seems to me, much steeper for a barbarian tribe taking on Rome than one Indian Nation taking on another. That said, this is still a far better parallel than the ones from modern Europe, though part of the strength of Peter’s theory was that it found a plane between the two times on which a fair comparison could be attempted. Have we got such a plane in this case?

      I’m sorry, I’ve been reading theory again.

  2. Has anyone other than the most extreme gradualists claimed there was *never* a predatory barbarian army in the Empire? Is Peter really claiming that because there was some barbarian military activity aimed at getting land, therefore any barbarian acquisition of land is more likely to be a result of military activity?

    And the Gothic revolt of 376 is a rather bad example of an invasion, what with it being a revolt and not an invasion. ; )

    (By the way, Jon, did you get to the Anglo-Saxon Purgatory seminar?)

    • No, I think he was claiming more or less that trying to do completely without the invasion hypothesis was Political Correctness Gone Mad, but without sounding quite so Daily Mail. I think 376 works all right as far as outcome goes but I agree that it does typify shifting goals. That said, as I say I think the aim was always to invade and take land so maybe it’s just misnamed in the historiography, and maybe that’s why your smiley and I’m taking it all far too seriously.

      As for Purgatory, yes, I’ve been and come back, as it were, but I have two other seminar write-ups to post in between everything else before I get to that one. I submitted final copy of a paper and abstract for another on Monday, finished a pamphlet for work on Tuesday, have just wrapped up final copy of a third paper right now, will be actually printing out submission text of the book over the course of the evening rather than adding to the backlog of seminars to write up, and then work on a fourth paper at work and a fifth one badly overdue at home, and there’s a review I’ve promised before the end of the month too… Normal service will be fitted in as far as possible but may experience some slight delay, basically!

  3. Some Amerindian societies were extremely stratified (such as those on the British Columbia coast). However, the automatic equation of social stratification with “complexity” seems to me to be one of the most irritating of unquestioned platitudes. In this case, it seems irrelevant. The question being asked is “did entire tribes migrate long distances, taking their women and children, pots and pans, dogs and cats with them, retaining some sort of cultural integrity in the process?” How does their degree of social stratification bear on this?

  4. Many countries in Latin America, equipped with modern armies and technology, are unable to prevent tribal peoples from migrating to the edges of their cities and setting themselves up in favelas or bidonvilles, retaining their own languages and customs without much difficulty. Often this takes the form of “chain migration”, where small groups make a foothold, and then whole villages follow them. The national authorities often send in police, or even the army, to stop such incursions, only to find themselves faced with well-organized and effective opposition.

    Despite the Roman Empire’s urbanization and fairly impressive technology, the various tribal peoples on the periphery of the empire could often put together fighting forces that had a good chance of defeating a legion. The difference in military technology was not great — it was money and large-scale co-ordination that kept them out. If that co-ordination and financing was absent, then what was to stop any enterprising, and reasonably aggressive group from simply walking in and carving out a little space for themselves? Especially if they found depopulated areas, or plantations farmed by slaves or aged coloni, or areas in which the local elite saw no percentage in defending the Empire? The fact that the Romans had aqueducts and hypocausts, and the invaders did not, doesn’t seem to weigh much in the equation. Nor does any greater degree of “social complexity” the Empire may have had. The invaders didn’t have to be complex, they just had to fight well. In such a situation, the invading “horde” need not be especially large to put it’s stamp on a region. A well-organized empire could rush disciplined troops to stop isolated incursions — but what about when there were twenty incursions occurring simultaneously, in different locations? The logistic problems pile up quickly. Whatever differences in social complexity existed might work as much in the barbarians favour as against it, just as the crude tribal organization of Afghanistan’s Pathans has proven to be militarily effective against British, Soviet, and American global empires.

    The Rajputs of India were little more than a small military caste with an associated ethnic group, from the marginal lands of the Thar desert. Their associated peasantry migrated with them in some conquests, but not all. The states they attacked far surpased them in organization, wealth, and technology. Yet Rajputs ruled more than four hundred of the estimated six hundred princely states at the time of India’s independence.

  5. I seem to have sent you down a path which was not the one I intended by either not giving enough context or by careless phrasing, sorry. What I was getting at was the intent of the invaders in question, and its comparability. The Latin American groups you describe in the second comment are presumably coming to the cities to exploit them and to join in in their economy, albeit as you stress very much on their own terms, not to take them over; but some of the invasions of the Roman Empire were apparently aimed at taking over a social structure from the top. That’s the difference that Peter was admitting scholarship has highlighted. The Rajput example, about which I know nothing to my shame (though my scepticism about claims of descent would prompt me to ask whether the 1947 Rajputs were as Rajput as, for example, the early Ottonians were Carolingian), looks a lot closer to the mark.

    It’s that question of comparability I’m firstly getting at, but also the question of intent. If you’re migrating a whole tribe across pre-conquest America (if that’s a safe periodization to use), is the goal to join in with the destination society, to destroy it, to displace it or to take it over? And, if contrariwise you’re leading a bunch of fifth-century barbarians the society you’re taking on is the Roman Empire, are you trying to become part of it, on your own terms or otherwise (the Franks), to break a bit of it off for yourself (the Sueves), to conquer its edges and diminish it (the Huns) or to take it over at the top (the Ostrogoths)? It seems to me that these aren’t the same thing and so when making comparisons from other societies we need to be clear, not just about what they were trying to achieve and how that affected the way it was carried out, but also about which sort of ‘invasion’ we’re comparing to. I don’t think this “platitude” is irrelevant or unquestioned.

  6. Many countries in Latin America, equipped with modern armies and technology, are unable to prevent tribal peoples from migrating to the edges of their cities and setting themselves up in favelas or bidonvilles, retaining their own languages and customs without much difficulty. Often this takes the form of “chain migration”, where small groups make a foothold, and then whole villages follow them. The national authorities often send in police, or even the army, to stop such incursions, only to find themselves faced with well-organized and effective opposition.

    Besides, unwillingness to commit large-scale murder because of international backlash was rather less of a factor in the fourth century, wouldn’t you say? The recent right-wing actions in Bolivia suggest that such violence against indigenous settlers is still happily embarked upon by those who think they can get away with it…

  7. ¿Y que es la batalla de Adrianópolis comparada con las seguidas de Tesino,Trebia,Trasimeno y Cannas?
    El poder militar bárbaro era ridículo.
    El Imperio Romano Occidental cayó mas que por la presión bárbara por su esclerosis.
    La decadencia del ejército romano era directamente proporcional a la falta de recursos para mantenerlo una vez que el Imperio dejó de expansionar.
    La germanización del ejército romano junto a su prolongado deterioro por falta de recursos,la socavación de los cimientos del estado y de la autoridad del emperador por parte del cristianismo y la evolución a un mayor dinamismo y dimensión de las jefaturas bárbaras hicieron el resto.
    Yo no creo que el Imperio Romano Occidental haya sobrevivido en una trasformación y reencarnación hasta el Imperio de Carlomagno.
    Cayó cuando Alarico tomó Roma en el 410 y en dicho acto la autoridad romana quedó pulverizada tanto internamente como externamente.
    Esa fue la estocada mortal y lo que vino del 410 al 476 fue una agonía y un reparto de despojos.
    En realidad no hubo ningún hecho militar decisivo que contribuyese a que cayera Roma sino mas bien cayó por vejez y oxidación.
    ¿se podria haber impedido? No lo creo pues debiera para ello darse tal acumulación de factores que lo hacian prácticamente imposible.

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