Monthly Archives: June 2012

Seminars CXIII & CXIV: Vandals and burning houses

Okay, the marking is done, the exam scripts handed back, and I have a bunch of posts mostly written up, just wanting images and links. But on the other hand I also have a load of freshly-transcribed charter data, an upcoming fortnight of very welcome and distracting house guests and then Leeds (I am going, but for once not presenting), and possibly I should think about finishing some work, you know. So those posts can wait till time is shorter and in the meantime I shall make a gesture towards reducing my ridiculous backlog with reporting on seminars, by telling you about two papers I saw back in January, to wit, Philipp von Rummel presenting on “The Search for the Vandals on the North African Kingdom” to the Late Roman Seminar in Oxford on the 19th January and Maureen Mellor presenting on “The Archaeology of Stuff: scorched interiors” to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on the 23rd.

Silver coin of Carthage in the name of King Gelimer, 530x534

Silver 50-denarius coin of Carthage in the name of King Gelimer, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons. Barbarians I tell you! Denominations of 50 denarii? It’s just not Roman!

Dr von Rummel was asking a simple but important question, which was basically, how much difference did the historically-attested ‘migration’ of the Vandal armies from Spain into Africa in the early fifth century make to the archæology there? Is there a rupture, or continuity? This is not, of course, a simple question because it has been usual to assume that we can recognise barbarians in the archaeology, whereas firstly material culture is portable which means anyone can wear or use it, depending on how the fashions of the day are running, and secondly the fifth-century Roman military and a fifth-century group that identified as barbarians but who’d spent most of a king’s lifetime travelling through the Roman empire and some of that time doing military service for it might well look pretty similar, if not actually be the same.1 And in fact the archæology of the supposed Vandal homelands obstinately refuses to provide anything much one could use as a marker by way of distinctive material culture, because they were already looking pretty similar back there too. So, until very recently, contended Dr von Rummel, archæology of these areas was looking at burials for ‘Europeans’, ‘Germans’ or some other form of alien, and being surprised how little evident they seem to be, focussing on types of fibula that are not foreign so much as new and can also be found in Rome of the period, and so forth. But we know the Vandals came so there must be something, right? I mean, Victor of Vita talks about habitus barbarus and Victor was an honourable man. But no: we get slow change in military culture and no destruction layers.2 Archæologically you’d not know it happened. The towns were in decline in the Vandal period but they were before as well, so that’s actually continuity. And these factors only get worse when one asks the question that’s not about reprehensible but memorably-painted supposed Germans and says, “what about the local ‘barbarians’?” because the same arguments apply to Moorish populations in the archæology, except without the variety, even though their leaders’ names are inscribed in major towns.3 Even the mausolea that now arose were not so much new as really old-fashioned (and with good precursors, see below). And these are of course the populations among whom the Tablettes Albertini were written and that written Latin was continuing alongside a vibrant set of local languages and that, too, was nothing new.

The tomb of the Numidian king Juba and his Queen Cleopatra Selene, Kur-er-Rumia, near Algiers

The local `Moorish’ heritage: the tomb of the Numidian king Juba and his Queen Cleopatra Selene, Kur-er-Rumia, near Algiers, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s not, however, that there’s no crisis or no collapse. The economy shrank considerably over the fifth century, and that does show up in the archæology. Roman state patronage had stopped and the new masters had an alternative organisation to support in the form of the Arian church. The market for products seems to have gone local, the land market’s prices to have shrunk, and the North Sahara zone may be drying out, making previously habitable areas marginal. But it’s hard to blame the Vandals for that! The end of Roman state patronage, of course, is probably a fairer cop, but since what that probably meant was that the area was getting a better return on its exports (and imports of Eastern Roman pottery actually go up during the Vandal period at the coast at least, or so we were told), the effects of it are not actually simply and obviously destructive.4 Instead, Dr von Rummel argued, what was happening if anything is that Rome ceased to be the best alternative and what has been really going on, old habits and practices, returned to view with the ceasing of the Roman cultural bombardment.5 And the Vandals just didn’t matter in any social way. Poor Vandals.

Pottery crucible for metalworking from the Saxon village at Faccombe Netherton, now in the British Museum

Pottery crucible for metalworking from the Saxon village at Faccombe Netherton, now in the British Museum

By contrast with the Vandals, ironically, Dr Mellor was talking about places where destruction was much more obvious, because in the course of a much larger project about domestic interiors of the Anglo-Saxon period, a tricky thing to reconstruct as you may imagine, she has repeatedly come up against houses that were burnt. This was probably pretty common – interior hearths, thatched roofs, straw mattresses, you can see the problems – but of course it can preserve a building in a ‘Pompeii moment‘, even if it was then flattened and built over; at least the warped and scorched stuff under the collapsed roof and so on stays where it was in the house, thus giving some kind of sense of what ‘lived’ where. This is handy because a lot of the time objects one finds in Anglo-Saxon domestic buildings, of which we do know the locations of a good few, and of which some have yielded a lot of small finds,6 are not where they were used, whether because they’ve been swept to the edges of the floor having broken or been lost, or because they were deliberately put in foundations or elsewhere as special deposits. That could obviously make a fantastic amount of difference to how we should interpret the objects: waste or treasure? Functional or token? And even when something is broken, it might tell us a lot about how it had been used if we were able to say how it had broken… And this work of distinction has not really been done and interpreting objects could really be an awful lot more complicated than it usually is. So now Dr Mellor is in progress with this work, but the task is immense and maddening, so I don’t know how long it may be before we hear more, which is a pity because, whether I’ve made this clear or not, this was a really interesting paper. One often says that archæology gets you back to how ordinary people lived but this kind of work gets a lot closer to taking you into their houses and watching them cook, eat and generally do things with stuff than, some.

1. As you know by now I guess, my text of resort for these matters is Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), and here esp. pp. 101-110, but you may justly suppose that others would disagree and chief among them would be, I imagine, not yet having made time to read it, Peter Heather, Empire and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe (Oxford 2010). I don’t see exactly how one argues with Professor Halsall on this but I’ve heard Professor Heather do it anyway.

2. Dr von Rummel did, in justice, admit that this is easier to say since one of the few places the sources are insistent was destroyed, the theatre at Carthage, was excavated but the findings never published and then it was reconstructed over the diggings so that there’s no prospect of checking again. But even then, we have seen in our lifetimes, have we not, that the destruction of an iconic and highly-visible building in a busy city does not in fact equate to the end of that city’s urban existence…

3. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 405-411, is illuminating about these supposed barbarians who didn’t migrate.

4. The economic effects of the Vandals now owning one end of the old grain supply route to Rome are teased out and placed in context in Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 635-644.

5. Something like this argument has also been made about the ‘return to the hills’ in sub-Roman Britain, of course, a native culture resurgent, but there the circumstances are rather different because of the scale of social collapse. Africa kept most of its cities and continued to ship in wine, use Latin and worship Christ, and the situation is just a bit different…

6. Here again, however, work is stifled by the amount of these sites which have never been published, like the many boxes of small finds from a post-late-seventh- but pre-mid-eleventh-century mill at Old Windsor, never catalogued because of the increasing difficulty and then death of the excavator, Brian Hope-Taylor, only one of several examples that featured in the earlier part of this paper.


Foreground, right to left: laptop displaying mark scheme; notepad and red marking biro; unmarked exam script, obscuring mark-sheet; mug of strong Kenya tea; typewriter with hard-copy comment sheet wound in.1 Rear of table: exam paper, atop one of three packets … Continue reading

Seminar CXII: ladies love generalisations based on gender

This is longer than I meant resumption of blogging to take, though posts have been being written behind the scenes, but in any case, as a blogological colleague has but lately observed, when you fall off a horse it is commonly recommended to get back on. And when the post you have been tinkering with most immediately is a difficult one to write right, and may well cause unwanted offence or feature catastrophic gender-fail, obviously that’s just more reason to remount, right? Oh well, here we go. I owe Professor Miri Rubin of Queen Mary a favour or two for offering me the teaching slot I had there a few years ago, and for helping out with some of that teaching, and when you’ve seen someone give a scratch lecture on Pope Innocent III to a group she’s never met before, while you stand on a chair in front of her desperately trying to keep going a failing data projector that forces her to do much of the lecture without her slides displaying when planned, and she still rocks it, then you acquire a respect for them that’s entirely apart from their work. I have somewhat reluctantly gathered that Professor Rubin’s work has a mixed following, including among this blog’s readership, and I don’t actually know it that well, but I know that she’s interesting to listen to, and so when she came to present at the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar in Oxford on 17th January 2012, I made sure I was there.

What she gave us was something like a state of the question paper garnished with a mise-au-jour, and its title, “Gender: a useful concept for medievalists”, was of course a knowing reference to an article by Joan Scott from the 1980s.1 Of course work on gender is older than that, but it began enveloped in work on women, work that was more or less politically driven, and strands of it have periodically returned there, while others have broken off to join larger politically-driven subfields. The overall trend that Professor Rubin sketched out, with detailed bibliography in support, was for the subfield of women’s studies, and then gender studies, to have made their way upwards into the light of more general recognition and be diffused by acceptance, more or less grudging, and incorporation into everybody’s mental toolkit. If I can use myself as an example, I am not a historian of gender. But, I was taught by and have been encouraged by people who have published such work, and I happen to have some extremely informative sources that were written for, and in some cases on by, nuns. The nunnery that generated these documents, Sant Joan de Ripoll of course, was shut down in 1017 by a papal Bull that had been obtained because a good chunk of the Catalan ecclesiastical establishment went to Rome and told Pope Benedict VIII that the nuns were “parricides” and “whores of Venus” (meretrices Veneri), and then pensioned most of the nuns off and used the remainder of the lands to endow a new and ephemeral bishopric for the then-top count’s son. You can’t really ignore how that episode is loaded with and operates using gender politics, or at least, I can’t, now, having come up through the fields I’ve come up through, and that’s more or less what I mean; mostly, people are aware that this stuff is worth considering. What this might then mean, of course, is that like any subfield, gender is forever in danger of losing its distinctiveness as an interest and field of enquiry, so that periodically it goes through a ruction and a new flower blooms from the stem that recovers some of that speciality. I’ve struggled somewhat with describing this and in the end I decided it would be simplest just to try and chart it.

Sketch diagram of the development of gender studies

Sketch diagram of the development of gender studies, by Jonathan Jarrett (you know, me), very possibly without adequate information or thought (full-size version linked through)

And from that you’ll see where I worry about ending up, in much the same boat as Guy Halsall floated about interdisciplinarity at Leeds in 2009, to wit, that beyond a certain point of despecialisation, basically every way of looking at the past becomes cultural history. I mean, this is in some ways the mirror of the old Raymond Chandler argument that genre fiction that’s good enough transcends genre and just becomes literature.2 But when a field has a political agenda, such generalisation threatens to rob it of the power to change things. Now this was not what Professor Rubin was arguing: she was more of the view that gender has gone mainstream and thus won the battle for recognition that the work in the 1960s started. “Gender has rewritten what it is to be human in the Middle Ages,” she said, by opening up questions about agency, social rules and programming, inner worlds and feelings that were opened up initially as a way to study women and recover their experience but have turned out to have application to the whole human experience, as indeed one might have hoped given that all persons involved were and are human.

So I pondered this for a while while writing it up, and began to worry that I was treading water in which I’m not qualified to swim. (It wouldn’t be the first time, after all, and I would welcome perspectives and corrections this time too.) But, I’ve consulted one of my female gender scholars of resort and they said, “Have you read Judith Bennett? Judith Bennett covers this.” And a few years ago, largely because of the really interesting round-table that was mounted at Blogenspiel and The Adventures of Notorious, Ph.D., among other places, on Judith Bennett’s book, History Matters, but also because the author of Blogenspiel was standing at my elbow telling me how much I needed to read it, I did actually buy History Matters and to my shame I had not yet read it. So on receiving this instruction I went and got the book off the shelf, burrowed into the first couple of chapters and topped that off with the conclusion. It’s nicely easy reading, in fact, and it does indeed cover the question of what happens if you let gender history get `mainstreamed’.3 (I will read the rest at some point, honest.) But it fits much more closely to my misgivings than to Professor Rubin’s optimism: Bennett argues that gender history has achieved what general recognition it has largely by detaching itself from feminism and depoliticising itself, that it has had to draw its own teeth to be allowed into the public sphere. And she argues that the field needs to recover its sense of its own history, and of the long-term history of women’s second place in society, and remember what the issues are that it has the power to address. In other words, Judith Bennett sees women’s and gender history as being under threat from a patriarchally-structured normalisation; Miri Rubin, if I was following her correctly, sees it as having got within the normal structures and altered them in a lasting way. For Bennett, the field is in danger; for Professor Rubin, it’s never been better. Is this just a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty matter of perspective? Can both be right? I don’t know, but while I want Professor Rubin to be right my natural paranoia and cynicism mean that I struggle to accept it. Did I just read The Second Sex at too formative a stage? What do you think?

1. Joan W. Scott, “Gender: a useful category of historical analysis” in American Historical Review Vol. 91 (Chicago 1986), pp. 1053-1075.

2. I remembered that this point is made in R. Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 174 no. 6 (December 1944), pp. 53-59, repr. as “The Simple Art of Murder: an essay” in idem, The Simple Art of Murder (Chicago 1950), and I suppose it is, but I seem to have adopted a formulation of it I came up with in a review I wrote as an undergraduate and not one that Chandler actually used. Chandler’s essay, however, is very much worth the read, which is more than mine likely was. It’s where the phrase “Down these mean streets a man must walk…” comes from for a start. It’s not so hot on the gender issues, of course…

3. Judith Bennett, History Matters: patriarchy and the challenge of feminism (Philadelphia 2006), esp. pp. 6-29.