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.
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.
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.