Tag Archives: barbarians

A disconcerting realisation about my past (and perhaps yours)

As I got set up, in early 2016, for teaching the high Roman Empire for the first time as described three posts ago, I obviously had to do a lot of reading, and in the course of that I came up ineluctably against the name and ideas of Edward N. Luttwak. Since Luttwak has been writing for a long lifetime and has probably not even finished, I’m not by any means going to attempt a summary of his impact on the field of Roman, Byzantine and indeed world history here; suffice to say it’s considerable. But both because of teaching the third-century crisis and because of my own interest in frontiers and how early medieval polities (and thus, often, late antique ones) managed them, the work that did keep coming up was his [Edit:]oldestfirst venture into history, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.1

Cover of Edward Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

Cover of Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the First Century A.D. to the Third (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)

Now this is a work that has spawned a slew of refutations, and again that is a debate I don’t want to try and reprise here.2 But while I was reading other things around the issue, I came across something that made me suddenly feel decidedly uncomfortable, as follows:3

“Luttwak gave scientific precision to the theory of defensive imperialism, arguing that the ‘escalation dominance’ of the legions (that is, their perceived efficacy as a weapon of last resort) would serve to deter any large-scale attack without their actually having to be used. Meanwhile a ring of satellite states (client kingdoms) was expected to cope with ‘low-intensity threats’ beyond the borders of the Roman provinces; and the territory of the satellite states could be used as the battle-ground if the legions had to be deployed. Needless to say, this made extremely uncomfortable reading in Europe during the 1970s, and particularly in the 1980s under President Reagan, whose leading security adviser was none other than Edward N. Luttwak.”

In short, Luttwak is where the idea that Rome maintained a range of barbarian ‘buffer states’ about its borders as first-line protection came from, but it was an idea as much from his now as the Roman then. Now, you will not know this about me, could not know this about me unless you are the one sometime commentator here who goes this far back with me, but I was schooled at a place really quite close to the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. The Navy base there used our playing fields. Every now and then a helicopter landed there to shuffle some dignitary outside the M25 more easily than a motorcade would. We were pretty clear, therefore, in the last days of the Cold War, before even Gorbachev had begun to defrost things, that when the four-minute warning went, we probably wouldn’t get four minutes (and no-one ever told us if there was a bunker). In short, we were in the firing line. We weren’t really into the full-on, “who cares, man? The bomb may drop tomorrow” disengagement; this was the era of Thatcher as well as Reagan, after all, and most of us would wind up yuppies not hippies (and as far as I know no yippies). But still, we had a certain bitter consciousness that the absolute best we could do for our futures could, still, be totally extinguished any minute by a decision that was utterly out of our hands, and we wouldn’t even know till it happened. And well, how that paragraph above takes me back.

Cover of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome?

Cover of Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I love this as a teaching example.

Of course it’s not surprising that any state that gets big enough to push others around, and which sees its roots in the Graeco-Roman intellectual complex, begins to see the similarities between itself and its own archetype of super-state, the Roman Empire; it can’t be escaped, and one can only hope that people are conscious of the fact that there are important differences between then and now, or of the fact that they’re drawing those parallels.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934. Not sure how fully this was thought out…

Some of the lessons drawn from the comparison can be good, some can be bad, but they can all be instructive if handled well; that’s fine. It’s just that, perhaps especially since I grew up in a state that still sees itself in those terms really, I had not till I saw those words above ever realised that from some points of view, I and my fellow countrymen were just expendable barbarians whose strategic purpose was to keep the real new empire safe. And Edward N. Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire helped make us so.



It’s probably safe to say that the current US régime, whose exalted leader has indeed just left my homeland, doesn’t think much on Luttwak’s work by now. Maybe I’m wrong, and as all the reviews one can find of it admit, it’s not as if it’s not good, well-historicised, amply-supported work. But it’s not often you read academic work that could have helped get you killed, and as you can tell even some years later I’m not quite sure how to process it yet…


1. Now available as Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third, 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore 2016). For the crisis of which I speak, a quick introduction to the debates is Lukas de Blois, “The Crisis of the Third Century A. D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?” in idem and John Rich (edd.), The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire (Leiden 2002), pp. 204–217.

2. I believe a good place to start is C. R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore 1994), but Glenn Bowersock, “Rules of Battle” in London Review of Books Vol. 32 no. 3 (London 2010), pp. 17-18, online here, brings you more up to date in one direction at least.

3. Tim Cornell, “The End of Roman Imperial Expansion” in John Rich and Graham Shipley (edd.), War and Society in the Roman World (London 1993), pp. 139-170 at p. 143.

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 1

People in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo

Other people in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo (official photo)

Well, we’ve had another lapse in posting, for which I apologise, but there was good reason, I promise you, not least the International Medieval Congress just gone, which was a success but really very busy. I will write about that at some point, I promise, but my ridiculous backlog is only made more so by the passing of another IMC, not least because the next thing I have to write about is an ICMS, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at West Michigan University, which I didn’t make it to this year but did last year, that being where the trip to the US lately described wound up, and that’s how far behind I am. Given that, while I don’t want to say nothing about it I do want to say less than usual, so: I am going firstly to let all the stuff about dreadful accommodation, food and coffee go as standard; secondly I will add that the actual town of Kalamazoo does however have some places worth exploring for food and drink if you are not, as I used to be, determined to scrounge all the free alcohol going on campus; and thirdly, I will try and keep my reportage on the papers I saw down to one sentence of summary or commentary each, a writing challenge I should probably set myself much more often. So, here we go with day 1, 14th May 2015!

45. The State and its Loyal Constituencies in Late Antiquity

  • Michael Kulikowski, “Saying No to Government: Disintegrating and Reinstating States”
  • One sentence for this is actually all I have, because I arrived late to the session and missed almost the whole paper. That sentence therefore is: “A ‘collective sovereignty’ model of northern barbarian kingship gets picked up by those further south over the 5th and 6th centuries”; make of it what you will, but I wish I’d seen more.

  • Stefan Esders, “Regnum, Civitas, and Pagus: Rearranging Spatial Structures in Merovingian Gaul”
  • Arguing that although in Merovingian Gaul many of the functions of the Roman state fell away or were loaded onto new counts or old bishops, the territorial structures through which they continued to be organised necessitated a continuing level of fiscal sophistication that we could safely call a state. As Julie Hofmann pointed out, the missing part of this picture was Church organisation and its imprint on bishops’ fiscal responsibilities, but that was a part of the study still to come.

  • Guy Halsall, “Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities”
  • Guy, who it was that I had particularly come to see, argued instead that Merovingian Gaul was not a state, in as much as there was no single identity of which people could claim membership, but several, Frankish military, Catholic Christian, Arian Christian, Gallo-Roman aristocrat or peasant, all partially replacing the now-discredited Roman civil and patrician identity that, until Justinian I’s campaigns excluded them from it, the ruling élites in this area were still emulating. Michael Kulikowski pointed out that that identity had never been available to most of the Roman population either, but Guy argued that patronage would have joined them up to its holders.

Gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London

Arguably a part of a state apparatus, a gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London. By PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5969234

80. Leadership Profiles in the Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Church

  • Edmund McCaffray, “Leading by Example: customaries and abbatial conservatio at Cluny in the eleventh century”
  • Argued that we should see John of Salerno’s biography of the famous Abbot Odo of Cluny less as a straight biography than as a set of descriptions of the abbey’s custom justified by Odo’s good example, something that became irrelevant as actual custumaries became common and the Life was rewritten.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “In the Teeth of Reform: reprofiling the Catalan Episcopate around the year 1000”
  • Argued that the commonly-propagated picture Catalan Church of the millennial era as a worldly monopoly of the comital family is based on misreadings of Catalan secondary work, rather than actual evidence, but that a binary appraisal of them in terms of being reformed or not in any case misses out what most of what made them suitable for their jobs. Rereading this paper makes me think I should get on and do something more with it, it’s maybe quite good.

  • Pieter Byttebier, “Intitulatio or Æmulatio? Developing New Forms of Episcopal leadership in Eleventh-Century Lotharingian Contexts”
  • A series of examples of new, and often foreign, bishops, boosting the reputation and even cults of their predecessors in order to better anchor themselves in the local traditions of their offices, and arguably imitating what could be known of their lives—Heer Byttebier argued it, but some of those supposed imitations were post mortem so I had trouble taking his case at full strength. Someone in questions asked about the æmulatio part of his title and he admitted that he had no examples as yet, so probably more could be done here.

St Clement of Metz  leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille

One feat probably beyond imitation, St Clement of Metz leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille, a legend of the tenth century. Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17574925

99. Women and Power to 1100 (A Roundtable)

Quite how I, with only one paper on anything like gender to my name and that unpublished, got in on this may never be entirely clear but it was fun and I don’t think I disgraced myself. I think Julie Hofmann won the day early on with her remark that we’ve been being surprised by women with power in the Middle Ages since 1908, but her deepest point may have been that when you’re dealing with power, their gender is not as important in defining what power someone has as their placement in society and their efficacy at using that. There was a general preference for the word ‘agency’ over ‘power’, which got challenged in discussion by Teresa Earenfight for I think good reason—Lois Honeycutt offered ‘autonomy’, a right to decide, as being closer to what we were getting at. Martha Rampton spoke about magic, one sphere in which women were perhaps dominant, up until around 1000 at least, and I focused on the apparent plenitude of examples from my material of women doing stuff without reference to men, usually with property but still untrammelled, and suggested that even that could more usefully be seen as a way they operated within larger family contexts than trying to separate them out into a female sphere that never existed by itself, any more than a male or indeed, as Jonathan Lyon pointed out, royal or imperial, sphere did. Lastly in the formal section, Phyllis Jestice pointed out that work on women and power has either focused on individual strong women or the whole aristocratic class and asked if there was a middle level where variation and over-generalisation might coalesce into useful conclusions. In discussion I managed to steer that through my favourite point that we need to distinguish between things that are usual but infrequent and things that are actually unusual, and Julie reminded us that the limits on female power were less institutions than straightforward misogyny, so looking at rules about what women could do only gives us the tip of the iceberg. This was all fun to be part of and I felt a lot like a real scholar afterwards, but I can’t help feeling looking back that although progress does seem to have happened these are all quite old problems. The new work that many of us were agitating for seems to be hard to do.

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone

Not everybody can be Matilda of Canossa…

So that was the end of the first day, and then there was a certain amount of free wine and catching up with people. I can’t, by now, remember who those were, or what we did for food, but I don’t think we can have gone far because there was a blogger’s meet-up later in the evening. I felt somewhat as if I shouldn’t show my face at that given how little blog I’d written in the previous few months, nay, years, but others were in the same case and in any case these are to some extent my people, so, if any of you are reading, Another Damned Medievalist, Notorious Ph. D., the Medieval History Geek and Vellum (and others? Sorry if I’ve forgotten you), it was good to catch up and I learnt a lot in that conversation too. It overran well into the evening sessions: does anyone ever go to those? I’m not sure I ever have. Anyway, with that all concluded, it was off to my awful bed and ready for the next day, on which I will try and report shortly!

Seminar CLXXXV: checking what the genes mean

The week after the seminar just reported, I was back down at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to hear no less a notable than Professor Patrick Geary of UCLA address us with the title “Preliminary Reflections on Genomic Evidence and Medieval Migration History”. Perhaps because I was only just out of Oxford at this point, I had all kinds of misgivings about this talk: other notable historians who’ve lately got into scientific methods have perhaps let enthusiasm outrun rigour, and the only previous time I’d seen Professor Geary talk I’d taken away what seems to have been a quite misleading impression. In fact, this talk was earnest, humble even, critical and very interesting.

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples

Map of distribution of Y-haplogroups in modern European DNA samples, source unclear

Professor Geary was introducing to us a seriously international collaborative project that seems to have no name, quite hard to do these days, but which is described on his web-pages as “Tracing Longobard Migration through DNA Analysis”. You can probably see immediately why my alarm bells were ringing: a lot of fashionable work has been done with DNA lately that hasn’t thought terribly hard about what the actual meaning of its data might be. Professor Geary took us through the immediate problems: if you are using the DNA of modern populations, then you are looking at the sum of their total genetic background, including not just the episode of change in which you as historian might be interested but everything before and since, including the Black Death, the Wars of Religion, Industrial Revolution, various kinds of diaspora, and ultimately every human population change since the Second Ice Age, so it too often becomes a matter of proving what we already wanted to believe rather than showing anything new.1 On the other hand, historical DNA is far harder to come by, rarely adequately preserved, usually only recoverable in either its mitochondrial components (which descend in the female line) or its Y-chromosomal components (which do so in the male line) but not both (or so he said) and still has the same back-history problem even if subsequent accretion can be eliminated. And of course, both of these approaches tell you only what the (successful) components of someone’s biological descent were, not what they thought they were or how they behaved. DNA is not, now that we’re out of the nineteenth century, much of a determinant of identity. So what on earth can we hope to show with it?

Supposedly 'Lombard' funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf

Supposedly ‘Lombard’ funerary goods from a burial at Hamburg-Marmstorf. Photo by James Seakley [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, the answer is of course in comparison. We can, with adequate funerary archæology, hope to see change in the DNA record, and can get some idea of the size, gender and composition of the groups in movement in the so-called Age of Migrations. Checking these findings against texts, material culture and stable isotope analysis can then also give us some means of establishing whether culture or population change in any one correlates with change in any of the others, which is really quite important to do since so much of what is wrong with current work on migrations in any one of these genres of evidence is the assumption that it must do so.2 Already, at what was then an early stage of this project, Professor Geary’s colleagues sifting through data from recent excavations were getting results showing mixed populations in movement, ‘Lombard’ cemeteries that did not include just Lombards and so on, though there was not enough asked here about how the checking category was constituted, I think. It was easy to miss such things when the following example was of a cemetery in Thuringia where they had women buried with material culture kits usually held to signify Thuringian origins and ones betokening Saxon identification and found from the isotopic analysis that it was the Saxon ones who were local! Given that most of us would perhaps cynically have expected no correlations at all, or in the case of some perhaps hoped for positive ones, negative ones was not what was expected by anyone! So some synthesis of this project’s results should prove eye-opening for us all, but will hopefully also allow some actually founded generalisations about what, in fact, an early medieval migration might have been like to be in the middle of.

Artistic depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage

Depiction of the Vandal army arriving in Carthage, apparently what the Deutsche Post still think that looked like

There were, as you might imagine, lots of questions, and this not least because the actual presentation was relatively short. Some of the questions seemed to be aimed to reassure the questioner that this work would not be bringing back the spectres of nineteenth-century racialism that Professor Geary has previously done so much to dispel, but he assured us that the wrong questions of that era would continue to go unanswered.3 Others were keen to be assured that this work would not, ultimately, be able to disprove migrations, those others having their book sales to think of after all.4 The most interesting questions however came from Dr Mark Thomas, responsible for some of the DNA work that Professor Geary had attacked, and who was clearly coming from a very different place to the rest of us that made me briefly sad I was no longer so close to scientists as I had once been, so as to debate it with them: he was out to argue that historians’ tendency to make models more complex ineluctably made them subjective and therefore biased, and that the only hope for such work is to generate simple models that can thus hope to escape the biases inherent in, for example, choosing ‘ethnic’ markers.

Fig. 3 from Thomas et al., "Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in early Anglo-Saxon England"

I would feel better about his criticisms of historians did Thomas’s own work not include things like this graph, fig. 3 from his and others’ “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure” cited below

This boiled down into the clearest two-cultures confrontation I’ve ever observed, Professor Geary wishing to abjure Occam’s Razor to describe a process we can see must have been incredibly varied and Dr Thomas obdurate that if we historians tried to find that variation in the scientific data all we would wind up doing was repeating the process of choosing the patterns we like best, because the results would be too diffuse to clearly prove anything. Either of them could have convinced me separately: put together, it made me suddenly wonder whether we weren’t here exactly at the point where what we can genuinely know starts to dissolve, and amid the general hope that we would know a lot more for Professor Geary and his colleagues’ project I thus took away a nagging reminder that in real terms we actually ‘know’ almost nothing about the past, which implies not least that convincing people with racist agendas that they’re wrong is going to be tricky. Still: since even hard science is finding out these days that data does not convince, I’m not sure that leaves us so much further apart after all…4


1. One example of such work used by Professor Geary was Mark G. Thomas, Michael P. H. Stumpf & Heinrich Härke, “Evidence for an apartheid-like social structure in Anglo-Saxon England” in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Vol. 273 no. 1601 (London 2006), pp. 2651-2657, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2006.3627, a paper also criticised by Magistra from a mathematician’s point of view here, and this one was indubitably the most sharp critique just because, unknown to Professor Geary of course, its lead author was in the audience. Also singled out, however, were Cristian Capelli, Nicola Redhead, Julia K. Abernethy, Fiona Gratrix, James F. Wilson, Torolf Moen, Tor Hervig, Martin Richards, Michael P. H. Stumpf, Peter A. Underhill, Paul Bradshaw, Alom Shaha, Mark G. Thomas, Neal Bradman & David B. Goldstein, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles” in Current Biology Vol. 13 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 979-984, DOI: 10.1016/S0960-9822(03)00373-7 and most of all Peter Ralph & Graham Coop, “The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe” in Public Library of Science: Biology Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2013), e1001555, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001555, this last for spotting Hunnic migration using modern state boundaries, uncontrolled dataset and strictly out-of-date scholarship with which to interpret, according at least to Professor Geary: the historical cites actually seem fairly up-to-date to me, but this is not a paper one can skim for solidity of interpretation, so I haven’t…

2. Isotopic work on other hand takes a particular joy in exploding everyone else’s ideas, e. g. Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland & Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138, DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20111, and it’s hard not to like it for that but it is still using one form of evidence to show a bigger condition, even if that condition is undefined free flow of movement.

3. Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton 2003).

4. If this all leaves you wanting more, you may be pleased to know that Professor Geary has written what seems to be a short version of this paper as “Using Genetic Data to Revolutionalize Understanding of Migration History” in The Institute Letter Spring 2013 (Princeton 2013), web version here.

Leeds 2013 report part 1

I’ve been backlogged with reporting nearly this far before now, of course, and it’s the annual conferences that always seem silliest to report on in these circumstances. Who cares about the 2013 International Medieval Congress now? We’ve already had the 2014 one! Thoughts like this flap round this entry, but completeness compels me, and besides, hey, maybe you weren’t there, maybe you were and just didn’t go to the things I did, I’ll cover it, but because it’s also huge, I’ll put the actual paper reports behind a cut.

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Last year’s conference theme at Leeds was ‘pleasure’, and perhaps I’m just a gloomy type but this didn’t engage me much, so I found myself drawn by neither of the keynote lectures that always start the conference. Instead, I made an early assault on the second-hand book fair (which only runs till lunchtime the second day, so you have to be quick) and generally tried to get the shape of the new premises, because as you may recall the previous year saw the Leeds conference finishing its residence out at Bodington and Weetwood campuses and getting ready to happen on the university’s city centre campus. As you can see from the above left, parts of that are fairly splendid, and in general it did seem an improvement. There were still rooms that had people on the floor while in others seats were empty, and to be fair the conference staff did try and swap some sessions over when this became clear, at the cost of some delay, but in general the spaces and moving between them were more comfortable and having everything on one site was worth a lot.

Entry to the Great Hall on the main camopus of the University of Leeds

Entry to the Great Hall (where, in fact, I think I never went)

My fears that the essential communality of Leeds would be lost was unfounded, too: a centrally-positioned marquee serving still-dreadful but essential caffeine proved an anchor point past which almost everyone had to pass sooner or later, and in the evenings the main bar proved a reasonable place to search people out also and also had better beer than Bodington ever had (though not than the sadly-missed Stables pub at Weetwood). So in general the move seemed OK. But, the papers! Continue reading

On being one of the barbarians

I had high intentions for this post when I made a stub of it many moons ago. I wanted, having read some thought-provoking scholarship and some argument-provoking blog comments, to write something trenchant about how what the people who seek to identify themselves with the migrating peoples of the early Middle Ages are looking for is not always biological race, which is inherently ridiculous to hang on to given the number of intervening generations diluting its supposed ancient purity (itself equally diluted from something else, of course), but a kind of either locational or cultural continuity, or both. And I wanted to contrast that to how fascinated people now get with tracing DNA mutations back, not to a modern or even ancient people of some kind, but beyond it to an origin group that doesn’t relate in any obvious way to where they are now or how they identify. There’s a number of arguments that could spin off this, one for example about how difficult it seems to be getting to confine the status of ‘human’ to homo sapiens as it turns out to share DNA with ever more other hominids, one about how the link between those two fascinations may most obviously be in the way that time renders their visible or functional effects irrelevantly tiny, or even the one about whether migration makes any long-term genetic difference that isn’t just as explicable by distance, but I can’t tell from my stub which of these, if any, I’d intended, so I’ve decided instead to just make a couple of glib observations about supposed barbarian identity and the modern day, one which I owe to teaching and the other of which came to me in a flash of hilarity during the summer.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Roma nova, Roma felix

The first of these was started off by a sharp set of observations in something I was reading about how rather too much scholarship for analytical neutrality has been founded in the idea that we, the scholars, represent civilisations in some way continuing the identity of either Romans or barbarians.1 Again, one could get serious about that, but I found it more fun in teaching to question our ability to call ourselves civilised. Witness this well-known piece of Roman writing by Sidonius Apollinaris,2 in a letter to his friend Catullinus:

Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid
me compose a song dedicated to Venus the lover of
Fescennine mirth, placed as I am among long-haired
hordes, having to endure German speech, praising
oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Bur-
gundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair?
Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry?
Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has
spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld
these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call
your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for
you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions dis-
charged upon you at early morn from ten break-
fasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn,
like an old grandfather or a foster-father, by a crowd
of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen
of Alcinous could support them.

Now obviously this deserves the big flashing-green SATIRE warning once deployed by Monty Python, though despite that it’s been made to bear rather a lot of weight about the accommodation of barbarian warriors by Roman aristocrats.3 Taking it briefly at its face value, however, what would Sidonius think of us? The barbarians have won! We may not put butter on our hair (except maybe cocoa butter) but some of us do wear our hair long and, damn, do we cook with onions. In fact some of us even care where the onions come from: Spanish, French, English, all different… Again, not at breakfast maybe (though: hash browns? omelettes? don’t tell me you think an omelette is better without finely-chopped red onion in it) but pretty thoroughly otherwise. And as for garlic, there might have been a hold-out in England at least until the eighties but I’m not sure how many people you could still find considering it typically French now. I mean, there is (or was; its website domain has gone…) a restaurant in London dedicated to the noble alium, which horrifies as many people as it delights but which I’m pretty sure would have about killed Sidonius. Meanwhile, if you look around for the kind of things that Sidonius might have considered haute cuisine, it’s not the Romans who won, really, is it? The barbarians are us! What he would have made of Burger King can only be imagined, except to say that he would probably find a tiny relief that it was only a king…

Anyway. I’ve had fun with that as a teaching point, especially since it then leads into the whole question about how seriously it’s meant to be taken given the set-up, but more difficult, sometimes, is trying to find an analogy for barbarian identity if you want to push people away from an idea of tribalism based on genealogical descent. This is of course tricky given how much weight the barbarians themselves, or at least their leaders, could place on biological descent, even if it was often plainly fictive.4 The common analogy with football teams and their supporters doesn’t quite get you over this hump. But on the other hand, where in this day and age are you going to find a group of people with a distinctive and almost uniform appearance in terms of hair and costume, a quasi-militaristic presentation with elements of existing political iconography in it, and even aims of world conquest, who also claim to be kin to each other even though everyone knows it’s not true?

Logo of the band the Ramones, based on the United States Great Seal

(Wikipedia, whence I got this, has an extensive free-use justification for borrowing it that I think can be justified here also, but the Wikipedia article as it now stands, linked through, is also good on the iconography here and its source.)

SPOILER: Jonny, Joey, Tommy and Dee Dee were not actually related

Cover of Ramones' album Rocket to Russia

Cover of Ramones’ album Rocket to Russia, used on Wikipedia with a similar fair use justification, linked through. Here I’m after the militarism and what I think of as the ‘standard’ uniform.

OH YEAH. Though, of course, you’d then need the distinctive material culture to be adopted by people who weren’t, and couldn’t even have been, part of the original movement…

Child named Daisy wearing Ramones t-shirt

You’ve seen this. Not this particular child, probably, but you’ve seen it, and on people who get to choose their own clothes too.

Brilliant. Now, how do we incorporate this into a pedagogical context?

… I think we’re done here.5 I’d like to dedicate this post to the senior academic who told me off for requesting the Ramones at the Leeds dance and to all the people who danced anyway…


1. The scholarly writings that set this partly off were Catherine Hills, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” and Howard Williams, “Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology”, both in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 16-26 and 27-41 respectively and previously Hills, Origins of the English, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology (London 2003).

2. Sidonius Apollinaris, Carmen 12, ed. and transl. W. B. Anderson in Sidonius, Poems and Letters, ed. and transl. Anderson, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge MA 1936), 2 vols, I, pp. 212-213; a newer text of the Latin online here.

3. Compare Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans, A. D. 418-584: the techniques of accommodation (Princeton 1980), and specifically the pp. 3-39 repr. as “The Barbarians in Late Antiquity and how they were Accommodated in the West” in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 25-44, with Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: a new history (London 2005), esp. pp. 192-202 where the same Sidonius poem comes out, taken more or less straight, and Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. 417-454, using Sidonius p. 434. It will not be news to anyone who reads this regularly that I find Guy’s use of this and other evidence on this question most persuasive; he also has a more sustained and nuanced reading of the poem in his “Funny Foreigners: laughing with the barbarians in late antiquity” in idem (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 89-113 at pp. 93-96, which I very much recommend. I owe my copy of that book to the kindness of Professor Matthew Innes.

4. Venerable but classic treatments of this theme are Ian N. Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and Consent” and David N. Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists” in Peter Sawyer and Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 6-29 & 72-104 respectively, the latter reprinted in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Variorum Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), IV.

5. Though if the fact that Joey professed here not to care about history bothers you, you might like to be reminded that one of his biggest fans sees the point

Leeds 2011 report two at last

Sorry! Publication deadlines, as you saw, then admissions interviews (about which I have seriously mixed feelings and may eventually write), then the wedding of a good friend and erstwhile medievalist, at which apart from, y’know, attending the marriage (hic præsens et testis fui!), I learnt a lot about Cassiodorus that will come in useful next term. And then, for various reasons, I’ve wanted to take a good deal of care with this post. But now here it is, my mandated Leeds report, part the two, covering the events of the 12th July 2011.

508. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, III – Romans and barbarians

Since, as recounted two posts ago, I’d realised on turning up in this strand that not only did it have a set of titles long enough to be a monograph series by some German academy, but also that it was where the excitement was likely to be for its duration, I was back in the Mortain Link Room at nine in the morning to see more. That went as follows:

  • Alex Woolf, “From Civitas to Kingdom? Romanitas in the British provinces and beyond”.
  • Alex here raised with his customary sharpness of perception some important questions, not the least of which is what period were the “sub-Roman” British interested in imitating? The Roman buildings of Roman Britain were largely pre-third-century, for example. Does that mean that if someone was continuing to live like a fifth-century Romano-British noble, we would see him in his material leavings as British not Roman? Was public building and sculpture really the mark of Romanitas for these people, as it has been for some modern scholars? (Was it instead stone monumental inscriptions, basically only preserved from outwith the area of Roman government?) Alex also made the excellent point that the Old English wealh, usually translated as `foreigner’, was however not used of foreigners like the Vikings, the Gaels, Syrians, and so on, and that we might therefore do well to think of it as being linguistic, and applying to Romance-speakers only. How far Romance actually describes the language of lowland post-Roman Britain would be one of those questions where fewer people than usual would follow Alex’s arguments, I suspect, but the difference still wants an explanation.1 Lots to think about here.

  • James Fraser, “Thoughts on the Roman and Native Discoveries of Pictishness”
  • The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

    This paper came very close to my areas of British interest, as you will understand when I say that James started by critiquing the idea that the Picts were a single people for whom a material culture identity might be detected. In this sense, as he observed, the classic volume The Problem of the Picts has itself become the problem.2 Thereafter the paper became more of a historiographical survey of whom it is that the Picts’ identity has mattered to and how, but there were still some similarly live points, such as the observation that the word Brittones and its derivatives, originally Latin, appears to have been borrowed into the insular vernaculars only after a distinction had arisen between Britones and Picti; James can be found on record saying that probably the only difference between these groups was being inside or outside the frontier of the Roman Empire, which makes for linguistic difficulties as we’ve lately been seeing, but whether or not you buy that, he here has something that appears to need an explanation.3 James finally suggested that Pictishness was really a late construct used by state-building kings to meld a nation of disparate groups of peoples only lately differentiated from a generalised British identity, into a political unity opposed to English or Brittonic or indeed maybe Gaelic, stressing `barbarian’ cultural practices that were identifiable as such in Roman terms, like tattooing, like inscribing stones but not with Latin, and like deriving one’s origins from the Scythians, a reference that only makes sense in a Roman cultural complex.

    I found all this pretty powerful, as you might expect from things I’ve said in the past, and asked in questions whom he thought the agents of this new cultural formation might be; he blamed the Church, which I think makes some kind of sense if we can see the Church as a tool of kings in this area. Before that however the session had been completed by…

  • Fraser Hunter, “Breaking Down the Wall: Rome and North Britain in the late Roman period”
  • This was perhaps the least provocative paper of the three but that was not least because it was by far the best-evidenced, and left much less room for debate: Hunter showed simply that Roman luxury goods got beyond the wall into the lowland zone, and that after these goods stopped coming local cultural innovation attempted to make up the gap, which we kind of know, but that inside the walls a similar transition is happening from Roman soldier’s goods, money and gear to stuff that we would recognise as warband material. Rome, while it was active in the North of Britain, created haves and have-nots, but after it went only some of these people’s centres could keep some kind of supremacy going by continuing to import Romanitas. Thus, Dumbarton Rock and Edinburgh kept going, Birdoswald and others failed, and so the new political landscape was formed.

I don’t mind telling you that after this session was over my head was so full of thoughts that I obtained coffee, or at least the best available facsimile, and tried talking to Alex but had to excuse myself because I needed to try and write something down before everything I was thinking escaped; I couldn’t speak even to Alex in case it overwrote what I was struggling to articulate. After twenty-five minutes I had something like the plan of a paper, restating with extra nuance my thoughts about the regionality of the Pictish kingdom, and was able to put it away confident that some day I could write it (as indeed I subsequently have, though much of that first rush has then turned out to be unsustainable). That was the kind of session this had been for me, the kind that could not be fully contained in my head for the explosion of possibilities. “And I’m not even lying.”

608. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman world and its neighbours in late Antiquity, IV – new narratives in Hispania

Of course I don’t really work on Scotland any more, and if I ever finish that aforesaid paper it will likely be my goodbye to the research area. How convenient for me, then, that Professor Halsall’s excellent contributors also included a number of people interested in the Iberian peninsula!4? They were:

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Fragmentation and Thin Polities: dynamics of the post-Roman Duero plateau”
  • The Duero plateau had been an integrated part of Roman Hispania, not rich but with many villas, but the events of the fifth century turned it into a frontier zone between the Sueves and Visigoths, neither of whom really had much governmental presence there, and as such seems to have localised its identity, with seniores loci mentioned by John of Biclaro and perhaps local coinage being issued. Hillforts grew up, though none have yet been dug so the association is kind of hypothetical. The Visigothic kingdom, when it re-established itself here, seems to have done so not least by giving the local élites rights to tax or withdrawing them, but the lack of towns meant that it was never an integrated part of Toledo’s enterprise. This does not however mean, argued Professor Martín, that it was not part of the state, and he argued that we should recognise this as a kind of `soft hegemony’ that might let us think usefully about how the successor states worked in their own terms, with the kings getting the status that kept them in power and the regions getting the autonomy that stopped them from wanting away from kings. We’ve seen something like this idea expressed here before, I think, so I was right down with this.

  • Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo and Alfonso Vigil-Escalera, “The Elephant in the Room: new approaches to early medieval cemeteries in Spain”
  • Pretty much everything I know about burial in Visigothic Spain I read either in Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations or at Historian on the Edge, so I was keen to hear more from two names I have on several reading lists but have never quite got round to reading.5 The two of them, represented by Dr Vigil-Escalera alone, argued that categories like `Roman’ and `barbarian’ won’t cover this kind of evidence, which has urban `barbarians’, rustic `Romans’ and all kinds of other cross-category burials to accommodate, and that the variation could be explained without recourse to foreign populations, even if those were there; the burial evidence in their eyes neither proves nor disproves immigration. The archaeology instead shows a restlessness that is to be expected from a peninsula in political and economic turmoil. Instead of the stereotypes, they detect in the burial evidence a militarised élite interred in lead coffins, a lower grade of burial with few or no grave goods, and nothing visible beneath. Where there are cemeteries that associate with a settlement, 60-95% of graves are furnished, the figure being lower the later the cemetery runs; by the eighth century (but not till then!) grave furnishing had completely stopped. Beyond these generalisations, however, variation in this mortuary landscape was at the community level, not the level of whole `peoples’, and certainly can’t be broken down as `Roman’ vs. `Germanic’. Therefore, they asked, why blame barbarians?

  • Guy Halsall, “Why Do We Need the Barbarians?”
  • In answer to that question came the last paper of the strand by Professor Halsall himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly for those who’ve heard him speak or read him on the Internet, this was the one that really started the war. [Edit: and, indeed, some changes have been made to these paragraphs by request of one of those involved.] The consequences, if not of this actual speech, at least of its subsequent display on the Internet, have been various, unpleasant and generally regrettable, and I don’t want any of them myself. However, I think that what Professor Halsall was doing, which was to demand attention to the way that terms like `barbarians’ and `immigrants’ have been and are now deployed in political discourse, in short, to think who might be listening when we deploy these terms and for what, is something that it’s necessary to discuss. There may be other ways to say what he was saying, though they might be less effective. After all, an old colleague of mine sometimes gloomily observed of his scholarly opponents, “Y’know, you can’t change these guys’ minds, you can only wait until they die,” and obviously that’s not going to do much for public feeling and policy right now, which is where the fight is needed.

    UK Prime Minister David Cameron expounding his party's `Big Society` ideology

    Dangerously empty bloviation

    But the issues must not be dropped! Since 2006 I have been on the web proclaiming somewhat casually that when history is used it is almost always misused; glib and untheorised though that was when I wrote it, there is a point there, and it behoves us to keep an eye on what our work may be used for. Some people are more conscious of this than others, as the recent furore over the way that the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK appears to have picked up and run with the Conservative party’s campaign slogan in the last UK national elections shows; but this consciousness is usually with the misusers, and we could do with the same awareness from people who aren’t deliberately selling themselves for political funding (although it should be noted that the AHRC have claimed that they weren’t, without responding in any way to pressure to actually alter their agenda). How then do we fight the misuse of history by those with political agendas? Professor Halsall argued in questions that we have to take the fight to popular sources of information, to publish opinion columns, to get on the Internet, to colonise Wikipedia and not to assume that people can’t handle our sophistication. These seem like worthwhile, if taxing, endeavours that would bring us benefit whatever our politics. If the humanities were any good at coordinating our defence this would already have been encouraged in every faculty across the land, as PR for the industry of academia itself, dammit; instead they have successfully set us against each other and this is the result. Party politics, whether left-wing (do we still have one of those?), centrist or comfortable Conservative’s, really don’t signify here: there is no UK political party interested in funding the humanities. But you’ve read me on this before and you’ll read me on it again, so no more here.

The whole strand had been extremely provocative, as you can tell, and events subsequently revealed that it had perhaps been too much so, but I also think that we need to awaken some kind of social awareness about the uses, misuses, impact and importance of history. Everyone in the field must surely agree that that importance currently needs all the acknowledging, emphasising and directing that it can get. The furore over this presentation has unfortunately hidden these issues, which deserved to continue under discussion and not to become so personal as to be swamped in antagonism and threats. I’ll have more to say about this here—probably not very insightful but one should not stay silent—but for the meantime I can only advise you to keep a close eye on Historian on the Edge, for reflection on the social and moral imperatives of our work, whether you agree with him or not. We’d all like to think our work was socially and morally important, I’m sure, so it seems natural to consider how that might work out, doesn’t it?

717. Between Palatium and Civitas: political and symbolic spaces throughout the Middle Ages

Anyway. That was the final session in Professor Halsall’s strand, and things calmed down somewhat after lunch. Since time is short and the backlog long I’m therefore going to tackle the rest of the day in briefer form. I crossed the campus now to Weetwood Hall and there heard these people speak:

  • Martin Gravel, “Built on Expectation and Remembrance: the visitation of kings as the symbolic recognition of palaces in Carolingian West Francia”
  • Aurélien le Coq, “Contestation, Networks, and Places of Power in Grenoble during the Gregorian Reform: Guigues of Albon’s trajectory”
  • Alexandra Beauchamp, “Royal Court and Capitals of the Crown of Aragon in the XIVth century”
  • Originally scheduled for this session had been Josianne Barbier, doyenne of the Frankish fisc, and given how much her work featured in my reading for that dead-stick Kalamazoo paper of a couple of years back, I’d been rather hoping to meet her. Alas it was not to be, but these papers were also interesting, for especially Martin’s, which wanted to look closer at what kings actually do with their palaces beyond turn up, issue charters (not always them of course) and leave. With a few documents of Charles the Bald and Louis the Stammerer he was able to do this, showing that certain palaces had certain functions and that they weren’t all equivalent. Obvious, perhaps, conceptually, but hard to prove! Martin did so. We subsequently proved to have an almost-inconvenient overlap of interests with regard to the later Carolingians and I’m looking forward to more of his work. Le Coq, meanwhile, I would like to give due honour for using the term “ecclesiamento” to describe the way that Grenoble came to be grouped around the bishop’s properties and interests in his period of study, and Beauchamp’s careful attempt to try and say something about how large the Aragonese court actually was, on a day-to-day basis, from an unpromising source base, was a near-perfect example of how to present a few key interesting things from what was clearly a much larger piece of work.

805. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Different Regions of Europe

I try and go to as much of the relevant archaeological stuff at Leeds as possible, because there’s never very much and I want to encourage it, but also because it’s usually very interesting and full of information I wouldn’t otherwise encounter. This time I was also hoping to see and meet Marco Valenti, who is a name that crops up all over what had then been my recent reading, but in this I was disappointed. What we got was:

  • Neil Christie, “Burhs and Defence: assessing the military status of later Saxon burhs
  • Marco Valenti, “Early Medieval Fortified Settlements in Italy from the 6th to the 10th Centuries”
  • Hajnalka Herold, “Fortified Settlements of the 9th and 10th Centuries in Central Europe”
  • You will be observing that Valenti appears still to have been there, but in fact, his paper was read by Professor Christie, a compromise that was certainly better than no paper but didn’t enable the kind of debate it would have been good to have. In short, Christie himself gave the audience a quick introduction to the fortification programme rolled out by the kings of Wessex in their fight back against the Vikings, and asked how much actual use the fortifications, many of which have come to be towns now and may always have been meant to, were. Christie preferred to see them more as exercises in literally building community, while I might prefer to see them as exercises in power demonstration, like Offa’s Dyke; certainly, Asser seems to show us that the relevant communities didn’t necessarily feel it.6 The Valenti paper, next, concentrated on castles in Tuscany, for a long time supposedly part of a major set of social changes just before or in the eleventh century that we know well round here, but by the kind of survey Valenti has been able to demonstrably a much longer-term phenomenon, starting in the ninth century if not before. There has of course been very little digging of such sites but what has been dug has forced this kind of re-evaluation too (as previously reported here indeed). Lastly Hajnalka, whose work I’d met at Kalamazoo the previous year, reintroduced me and introduced everyone else to her extremely interesting élite settlement at Gars Thunau in Austria, which has in its history a ninth-century building programme that seems to be chronologically, but not otherwise, connected to a sea-change in the development of such sites over a wider area, all of which nonetheless show no archaeological connections with each other. There’s something big here which has yet to be identified, clearly; Dawn Hadley asked what and Hajnalka said that the presence of the Church needs to be looked at, but that it will only explain some sites. Nonetheless, paradigms like Martin Carver‘s of a reaction in stone to such new power groups might well help here.7

Now, after this was the blogger meet-up, which was quite odd in the way it worked out. I was late, I forget why but probably not for any good reason, and the Naked Philologist and Magistra were left to coordinate the initial stages without me even though neither knew each other. By the time I arrived, it was busy but not with people I knew, which was good but unexpected. I can now remember only two of these people, Livejournallers rather than deliberate academic bloggers both, so I won’t name them in case they don’t want their personal lives linked to, but it was a pleasure to meet them and others, and I seem to recall that the gathering went on for a long time. I know that by the time I got to the St Andrews reception they’d run out of wine, but I also remember that this had somehow happened far faster than they’d anticipated so it may still have been quite early. In any case, company remained good and chatter plentiful, as afterwards seemed to have been so for a great deal of the conference, and it had been a stirring day.


1. The classic discussion of the term `wealh‘ is M. Faull, “The semantic development of Old English wealh” in Leeds Studies in English Vol. 8 (Leeds 1975), pp. 20-37; Alex’s take on such matters can currently mostly be found in his “Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England” in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 115-129, online here, last modified 18th October 2007 as of 10th December 2011, though for the linguistics he largely rests here on Peter Schrijver, “What Britons Spoke Around 400”, ibid. pp. 165-171.

2. Frederick T. Wainwright (ed.), The Problem of the Picts (Edinburgh 1955).

3. James Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 785, New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2007), pp. 44-49.

4. I probably don’t need to explain the range of circumlocutions I use here to avoid the word `Spain’, or indeed that the paper titles do, but suffice to say that if this seems clumsy to you, the modern country’s name really doesn’t cover what we’re trying to include here.

5. G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 2007), pp. 296-300 & 338-346, but I should add at least J. A. Quirós Castillo and A. Vigil-Escalera Guirado, “Networks of peasant villages between Toledo and Velegia Alabense, North-western Spain (V-X centuries)” in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 33 (Firenze 2006), pp. 79-130 and now Quirós, “Early medieval landscapes in north-west Spain: local powers and communities, fifth-tenth centuries” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 285-311.

6. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), cap. 91:

For by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient and by despising popular stupidity and stubbornness in every way, he carefully and cleverly exploited and converted his bishops and ealdormen and nobles, and his thegns most dear to him, and reeves as well… to his own will and to the general advantage of the whole realm. But if, during the course of these royal admonitions, the commands were not fulfilled because of the people’s laziness, or else (having been begun too late in a time of necessity) were not finished in time to be of use to those working on them (I am speaking here of fortifications commanded by the king which have not yet [c. 883] been begun, or else, having been begun late in the day, have not yet been brought to completion) and enemy forces burst in by land or by sea (or, as frequently happens, by both!) then those who had opposed the royal commands were humiliated in meaningless repentance by being reduced to virtual extinction.

This passage doesn’t make me like Asser or Alfred any better, actually.

7. As in for example M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings (London 1998), esp. pp. 52-93.

Leeds 2011 report 1, with bonus apology

I have to start by saying sorry for the long silence here. It’s no shortage of stuff to say, but shortage of time to write. The end of term has been more punishing than it should be, as we gear up for admissions interviews next week as well as trying to get reports done and send everyone off with revision instructions. I drafted this with only one essay left to mark this term and one tutorial to give on it, these now done with great relief and now there’s nothing but hect for a few days and then wondering why nothing is organised for the holiday. (Actually something is, but not all the way.) And as you may have gathered, there’s a paper I’m supposed to have written by now and just had to beg an extension on, albeit from myself and collaborators. Obviously things could be worse; but squeezing in those visits to the library to collect the data I need has resulted in a great many small-hours bedtimes and the pressing need, every time I get as far as the blog editor window, to admit that there just isn’t time today. And this took several goes, too, but it’s done. I am still reporting on Leeds, a mere four months ago, and dammit, I may be briefer than usual but I will do it. So herewith the first day.

The Stables pub, Weetwood Hall, University of Leeds

The Stables pub, location of the occasional pint during the Congress

Actually I think I ought to start with the previous evening, when I arrived back from Lastingham and very shortly afterwards actually met she who is the Naked Philologist, who was more clothed and less immediately philological than advertised but still a splendid person and one whom it has been great to get to know then and subsequently. She was entirely surrounded by fellow female research students, and when I broke away from this gathering, to go find food or something, I got accused by a senior male colleague at the next table of departing “my harem”. My harem? My harem? Damn heteronormativity everywhere. Anyway; not very academic but it got the drinking started in good order and the academia followed next day. As to that, I skipped on the keynote lecture, which I’d already heard a version of one half of when Robin Fleming gave it at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and in the other half of which I wasn’t for some reason very interested (not sure why, as Sam Cohn is always interesting), but if you are, Magistra was there and wrote a blog post about it. Thus, the day started with this.

108. Small Worlds, Wide Horizons: local powers in the early Middle Ages

If there was a theme to this Leeds for me, other than always being among friends new and old, which I was and which was great, it was “sessions that felt like part of the Texts and Identities strand but weren’t”. Instead, this session was the extension, I think, of a conversation between Carine van Rhijn, Wendy Davies and myself at Leeds in 2009 about probably actually having the material to say something about local priests and their role in organising their communities in our respective areas. This was not that work, but it was in the same vein, and the people who were participating had all been in Texts and Identities at some point I think, though two also in my charters sessions of yore, so obviously I had to be there. The running order was:

  • Steffen Patzold, “Priests and Local Power Brokers, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Bernhard Zeller, “Of the Lives of Centenarii and Related Local Powers in Early Medieval Alemannia, 8th-9th Centuries”
  • Wendy Davies, “How Local was the Power of the Saio in Northern Iberia around 1000?”

This was all really interesting regional comparisons. Steffen had several pieces of evidence that appeared to show Bavarian and Italian cases of local communities effectively appointing their priests, and used this to vary the picture of the sorts of priests we could have found in Carolingian localities, appointed by people, princes or several kinds of power in between. Bernhard was looking at a layer of local officials in the St Gallen charters he knows so well who have titles like “centenarius”, “vicarius” and “centurius”, which as you’ll understand from last post interested me considerably. The last he only sees around Zürich, and they seem to be quite junior, whereas vicars were more serious contenders than anything less than the counts; Bernhard figured that these guys’ small range probably suggested they belonged to localities rather than being put there by the counts. This is not much like what I see but then where I see any of these terms but vicarius it’s where there aren’t really counts, and when they’re about to be the last ones using the word, so this may give me some idea of what an early Carolingian local administration looks like before you take its lid off and bake it for a century or so. Wendy, meanwhile, who as usual explicitly excepted Catalonia from her remarks, was looking at the closest early medieval Spain had to policemen, though a more accurate simile might be court bailiffs; she found saiones working for all sorts of judicial officials, from kings downwards, far from the Gothic origins of the title as armed followers, and all over the north of Spain, confined to areas of no more than 40km2, or at least, not appearing outside those areas using their title. This gave me a lot of context for my own limited observations about saiones in Vallfogona.1 All of this was right up my street, down my alley and in my grills, as it were, so I thought I’d started well.

221. Gift-Giving: gift-giving and objects

I then followed a sense of obligation; I used to work with Rory Naismith, and have somehow never managed to catch one of his papers at Leeds, so now that he was on alongside Stuart Airlie I wasn’t going to miss it. Here, however, Magistra has beaten me to the blogging (not hard) so I shall save some catch-up time by referring you to her post again. The running order, though, was:

  • Irene Barbiera, “Offering Brooches to the Dead: the changing gendered value of a gift between Antiquity and the early Middle Ages”
  • Rory Naismith, “Making the World Go Round? Coinage and Gift in Early Medieval England and Francia (c. 675-900)”
  • Stuart Airlie, “The Star Cloak of Henry II”

The only thing I’ll add to what Magistra says is that I was pleased to see Rory finding a way to respectfully step round Philip Grierson’s venerable article, “Commerce in the Dark Ages”, that I love so much, without losing its essential point, which was that coins are not enough to prove trading links because they can travel in other ways too.2 Now, as Rory pointed out, we have incredible amounts more finds evidence than Grierson did in 1959, so we have to give more space to trade than he did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right about the alternatives. Rory then went on to note various coinages and references to coinage that make more sense viewed as gifts than as currency. With the other two papers I think I have nothing to say that Magistra didn’t already so I’ll move on.

308. Beyond the Invasion Narrative: the Roman World and its Neighbours in late Antiquity, II – Changing Minds?

This strand looked, from the outside, like another Texts and Identities strand under new colours, though somehow including Guy Halsall, but a closer look revealed that something more challenging was going on; Guy had organised a strand with some real heavy-hitters on to ask serious and sometimes dangerous questions about how we as historians should deal with the supposed barbarian invasions that have for so long been supposed to bring about the end of the Roman Empire in the West, given the loads of work there has been suggesting that this is too simple, or even outright wrong. So either way it was a must-see, and in the first one I made it to I saw this.

  • Walter Pohl, “Ethnicity and its Discontents”
  • This paper was substantially a pained but wry self-defence against what Professor Pohl felt was misrepresentation of his work by Walter Goffart in a recent publication, and misunderstanding of it in exactly the opposite direction by Marco Valenti; he therefore disclaimed belief in stable ethnic groups, the shared common cores of élite traditions proposed by Reinhard Wenskus, the culturally-constructed imaginary communities that extreme dissolutionists hold to (which Professor Pohl would accept if it were allowed that they can be actively created by people), and groups with no self-identification. Instead he argued for groups of persons that felt and acted with common interests, however recently-created, entry to which was to an extent governed by an in-group and recognised by out-groups, as a necessary basis for a self-identification. I understand how this concept is misunderstood; it kinds of slips from one’s hands when you try to press it to explain historical events, but that isn’t, I think, what Professor Pohl holds it for; he holds it as a working account of ethnicity. That is quite an important thing to have, if we can get one…

  • Tommaso Leso, “Shifting Identities and Marriage in Ostrogothic Italy”
  • This drew out the various categories of marriage choice for the women of the Ostrogothic royal family and went through them in detail. This was one of those ones where if you want to know about it, you want to know more than I can tell you, but if it matters and you can’t get in touch with Signor Leso I’m happy to type out my notes in an e-mail.

  • Roland Steinacher, “Response”
  • In the absence of one of the originally-planned papers, Herr Steinacher gave a response, and observed that political correctness makes the necessary argument difficult to have here; these things still really matter to people, and some writers are selling to those people without due care for the facts or opinions of their peers. He named names but I won’t, not here; he was far from the last to do so in these sessions, and I’ll say more about that in the second day’s report.

It’s hard for me to take a position in these debates that are about both the field and the people in it, especially on the open Internet, but you may deduce something if you choose from the fact that now I knew where the action was I stayed in these sessions till they ran out. More on this, therefore, as soon as I can. Presumably I did something in the evening; I remember that whatever it was kept me away from the Early Medieval Europe reception until all their wine had run out, so it must have been good, and probably involved good people and average alcohol. If you were one of the people, I’m sorry four months have blurred you out of my memory of the day but trust me, I remember you out of context…


1. J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London 2010), pp. 42-43.

2. P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-40, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Collected Studies 96 (Aldershot 1979), II.

3. Here my notes suggest he named Guy, but I don’t think this can be right!