In theory I don’t need to write anything about the penultimate IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of this term, because Magistra beat me to it already, but though she and I (as you can tell from her comments trail) have a lot of similar views on the early Middle Ages, when Peter Heather speaks, on “Vandal religious policy under Geneseric” or on anything else, views will frequently differ… I defer to Magistra for the actual description of the paper, and indeed deeper discussion about some of the themes, but I just wanted to mention a few things that came up in discussion.
Firstly, the Alans seem to be the barbarian group that everyone forgets. The first non-medievalist I mentioned this paper to reacted with incredulity that there was seriously a barbarian group called Alan, and refused to be as intrigued by their apparently Iranian dialect (as Professor Heather put it—I suspect much of the world would prefer the term Farsi, but as with his redefinition of Vandal Christianity as Homoian rather than Arian, again not a definition with which all would agree, this just shows that Professor Heather is not afraid to bend words to his views) as by their incongruous name. I was intrigued to learn that apparently there is a reasonable body of epigraphic evidence for this group and their tongue from around the Black Sea, where they’d been neighbours of the Goths with whom their successive generations eventually crossed Europe.
Another of his points that I wanted to hold onto was the amazing career of the Vandal king Geneseric (or Geiseric as he’s also called). As Professor Heather said, his people when he was born around Hungary can hardly have known about Africa, much less Carthage, its Punic heritage, or Christological heresy, but he leads his men through central Europe all the way to Spain, takes ship to Africa with many thousands of troops, takes one of the grandest capitals of the ancient world by marching along several hundred miles of desert coast in a ten-year campaign, while changing faith to one of two hotly debated brands of Christianity and thus becoming responsible for the passage of hundreds of thousands of people safely to a Heaven of which he can hardly have heard as a teenage warrior king. Before the end of his life he’d had the gates of Rome flung open to him as well. He died in peace. Not a bad run! As Professor Heather again said, almost none of the other barbarian kings travelled so far or lived long enough to see and do so much.
That takes me to the last point, which is one about numbers. Professor Heather is unusual among historians of what used to be called the Age of Migrations in as much as he still believes in migrations, or is perhaps the new wave of a counter-revisionist account of the last years of the Roman Empire in which large numbers of barbarians genuinely do move across Europe. He is not afraid to deal in large movements of peoples. So we talked about the extent to which Gothic names are picked up in Spain, and I said that this is curious because the prevailing wisdom doesn’t contemplate very many immigrants, and talked in terms of Nick Higham’s arguments about the rôle of political status in language change, but Professor Heather thinks it’s easier just to accept that actually there were quite a lot of Goths. As I say, the prevailing wisdom doesn’t, mainly because the immigration is almost archaeologically invisible, but Professor Heather made it clear that he didn’t see why he should defer to archaeologists in dealing with historical evidence, and I saw no point in making enemies there and then. (In this respect he may not fit perfectly into Jinty Nelson’s place at KCL…)
So I asked him for his views on Richard Hitchcock’s ideas about Vandals in the Muslim army that invaded Spain in 711, and he was, although justly critical of Procopius’s numbers for the immigration into Spain, much surer than Professor Hitchcock had been that the Byzantine clearance of Vandals from Africa after the defeat of King Gelimer in 534 could have involved most of them; he said we should be thinking in terms of ethnic cleansing more than political settlement there. It’s this lack of fear to think in terms of really big events that makes Professor Heather’s take on things interesting. All the same, in this case I’m not sure I agree, or at least, I think that Vandal embedding into the Berber population over those centuries of rule in Africa would mean that the Vandal armies and the Vandal population would be rather different-looking bodies and the deliberate deportation of one would not necessarily remove the other. On the other hand, how militarised would the remainder be? and how much would that change in the three generations before the Muslims arrived? Nonetheless, at this beginning of the Vandal kingdom rather than the end where I was last caught thinking, I was entertained by Professor Heather’s take and as ever learned a lot from talking to him. My students will do well from him being their new lecturer…