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Tuesday, 6 April 2021

History: The True Story Uncovered (Part 2)

 [In this second part of the chapter I develop the argument that history has the same features as language in general. It is incapable of being pinned down to a single factual original simply because we retell history in language. The way history is written - even at the most basic level - is mired in linguistic and other choices that have nothing to do with fact. Again, that is just how history is and the alternative is practically inconceivable anyway. 'Facts' and 'events' in history also have the same features as other units of language aimed at conveying information; they all have their signifieds, and are all capable of infinite repetition so that, again, there is no fixed originary meaning. In conclusion I repeat that none of this renders history detached from the importance of empirical accuracy, and is no licence to make things up or to deny that things happen. It is simply the way that history is, but we need to emrace the possibilities that that presents - which is what the second half of Why History Doesn't Matter is about.

The same caveats apply as for part one and, for the same reasons, the notes start at 'iv.'..]

Historical narrative is “structured like a language”

Words matter. It is of crucial importance, if we are to explore how History can create a role for itself separate from simple chronicling and antiquarianism, to develop the point about the literary or rather linguistic nature not just of historical writing but of historical narrative itself. Even the dullest chronicle is trapped in a linguistic net that makes it much more than a simple description. The vocabulary we use to describe past events never bears a simple or direct to the historical object being discussed. Let us take as an example a seemingly uncontroversial description of a well-known event: The Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815). To name it the Battle of Waterloo is already a decision to accept the name given to the encounter by the victors, rather than the (now much less common) French name of La Belle Alliance. To call it “a British victory” (let alone an English victory!) is to make several more decisions. First, one has ascribed the victory to the British, rather than “the Allies”; although the army might have been commanded by the Duke of Wellington, his Dutch and German allies made up 60% of the army.[iv] Even to label the battle an allied victory would be controversial to those who see the intervention of the Prussians as the decisive element. That, since 1815, convention in anglophone history has passed from referring to the battle as an English victory, through ascribing the success to the British, to acknowledging that the battle was won by allies drawn from numerous nations – leaving aside those who wish to call it a Prussian, or even “the German”,[v] victory – is proof enough of the baggage that even seemingly straightforward descriptions can carry. More importantly, though, all those options still use the word “victory”, implicitly therefore categorising the event from the perspective of the winners, be they British, allied or Prussian. It is a meaningful difference from the choice to describe the engagement as a French defeat. None of these various permutations of vocabulary – and we have left aside more obviously contentious language, such as describing it as a triumph or a catastrophe[vi] – is entirely neutral. Apart from the description of the victory as “English”, each can be argued to work perfectly well as a description of the events of 18 June 1815. On the other hand, those events themselves impose no specific vocabulary on the historian. Even a phrase as banal as “on 18 June 1815 the Allied army won the Battle of Waterloo” is thus already tangled up in a network of linguistic choices that take it away from bearing an unmediated relationship to the object described. To escape the latter, one would have to describe the day in something like the following manner:
On the date identified in conventional calendars as 18 June 1815, several hours of heavy fighting took place around various farms and hamlets to the south of Brussels, at the end of which the army comprising troops from Britain, the southern and northern Netherlands, Prussia and various other German states moved forward towards the south and the army largely but not entirely composed of French soldiers fighting for Napoleon Bonaparte moved back away from them and towards Paris after losing more men killed and wounded.
No one can seriously envisage any kind of history of the Napoleonic Wars being written in that kind of laborious prose! To the purveyor and consumer of writing that chronicles history’s many interesting tales, this sort of issue is of no more than stylistic importance[vii] or interest at best, and rightly so. However, minor though it may seem, this point lies at the heart of what I will suggest are the potential reasons why historical research could matter. The choices that I described above are in some ways all the more important for being barely conscious ones relating to a comparatively banal piece of labelling. Even they have political or other connotations; the decisions are those of the writer; they are not empirically imposed by the evidence itself. As we move further into the nature of historical writing, the results of such decisions become more significant still.

Here we must consider some philosophy, which will be expanded, and its implications developed, later. This might look like a detour from the subject of this chapter but it will be vital for my argument and it needs to be introduced here for reasons which will become apparent. In elementary linguistic theory, the letters D-O-G are obviously enough not actually, in and of themselves, a dog; what linguists call the sign (e.g. the word “dog”) is a fusion of the signifier (in our example, the letters D-O-G) and the signified (here the concept of a barking, tail-wagging quadruped). That speakers of a language agree on that sign is something that has developed over centuries and which continues to evolve. That raises the absolutely crucial point that to carry meaning the sign must be “iterable” (that is to say repeatable in any situation involving speakers of a language and the idea of a dog). This applies to any system of communication, even if devised as a private language between two siblings and no one else. If I tell you that I saw a mnyargle going past the window, you won’t have the faintest idea what I am on about, because I just made the word up. If I explain that a mnyargle is a furry, tail-wagging, barking quadruped, however, you will understand. Now that you understand, though, I can go on talking about mnyargles to my heart’s content, albeit at the expense of you thinking that I have lost my mind. More importantly, though, you can pass this book to someone else, who can read this passage and thereby also know what a mnyargle is, or you can leave the book on the bus, it can be picked up by someone else and they too can understand the meaning of mnyargle, even though neither of us is present. Someone can find a copy of this book decades after my death and yours, discover what the word means and use it correctly. This issue does not only, as was once generally assumed, apply only to writing but to speech too (substitute “recording” for “book” in the example above and the point remains the same). Indeed, all signifying systems, whether spoken and written or not, share these same features. If I see a dog I understand what it is because of an iterable concept or category of what a dog is.

Because of all that, there is no point where a particular word or term relates to a specific object in a pure, unadulterated form. Even in a hypothetical situation where I live alone on an island and have never spoken to anyone else (how that is possible need not concern us; it’s like Tarzan), the first time I see a dog, and understand it as member of the category “dog” (rather than as “friendly animal” or “threatening animal” or “Mr Woofy”[viii]), logically that category must already be in my mind and does not exclusively refer to that specific beast in that particular encounter. Logically (if not temporally) the concept precedes its first use. This is because all words convey their meaning by virtue of their difference from all the other words or categories in the language. So, it is not simply the case that D-O-G = furry, barking, tail-wagging quadruped, but also that D-O-G ≠ Cat (or pig, or iguana, or hat, or…). The preceding discussion, and especially the points about the radical separability of signifying systems and their particular users, summarises, as some readers will have noticed, the ideas of the still unjustly-maligned and calumniated French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Invoking Derrida’s name can act as something of a shibboleth, which is why I have held off from mentioning it until after I have described the key points of his theory.

Returning to the latter, in sum the meaning of a word is perpetually deferred – you can never get back to its pure, originary meaning – and stuck in equally endless chains of difference.[ix] For this reason, Derrida coined the word différance[x] to combine these features and describe this essential feature of language. Again, the point applies to every sign in every signifying system. They all function, in Derrida’s terms, “textually”, in that they share the essential features of text, with meaning conveyed by spacing, juxtaposition, différance and so on. Thus, when Derrida said that there is nothing outside text this was what he meant; you can never get outside différance; you can never get access to some sort of “beyond-text” (hors-texte) where meaning is pure and absolute.[xi] This in some ways is acknowledged in the famous beginning of Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the word [Gk logos; Latin uerbum]. And the word was God and the word was with God.”[xii] The point where meaning is absolute and outside différance can only be the divine. Outside the sphere of the theological, though, there is always the potential for slippage. In this fact lie the linguistic resources for irony, sarcasm and pun. After all, the word ‘d-o-g’, with which I began can also be a verb, but let us leave that there. I would not want dogged discussion of dogs to dog our steps through the rest of this chapter.

More importantly still, there are always points where writers make jumps, in their choice of words or concepts, that are not governed, empirically, by the nature of the thing they are discussing. In the Waterloo example above, these would be in the decision to refer to the engagement as a victory or a defeat. Where we can identify those points, which Derrida called “aporias”, we can open up points of decision that allow us to look at the writer’s assumptions and at alternative meanings or readings. Again, this is not an issue that is important to the consumer of public chronicling or antiquarianism, and that is fine. I will gradually present an argument, however, about why it is essential to making history matter.

For now, though, I would stress that this throws the problems with the idea that there are “true stories” that students can be taught into yet starker relief. The sorts of problems I have just briefly outlined saturate any narration, not only in the choice of words but also in the choice of content. The points that Derrida made about “text” can be seen to apply equally well to events. After all, within a historical narrative it is not only the case that “the Battle of Marston Moor” = “the events that took place on 2 July 1644 between the villages of Tockwith and Long Marston, north of York”, but also that “the Battle of Marston Moor” ≠ “the Battle of Naseby” (or “the battle of Edgehill”, or “the Battle of Lostwithiel”, etc.). The “does not equal” sign in the previous sentence encompasses the relative chronology, the differing preceding campaigns, subsequent consequences and military contexts, different tactical outcomes and so on. All those differences help constitute the things that identify Marston Moor and thus, within historical narration, make up the “signified” of the “signifier” “Battle of Marston Moor”. Even the notion of “the battle of X” is iterable. After all, staying within the mid-seventeenth century, there were two “Battles of Breitenfeld”, two “Battles of Nördlingen” and, returning to England, two “Battles of Newbury”. The point is perhaps driven home by the fact that there were also two “Battles of Lützen”: one in 1632 during the Thirty Years’ War and one in 1813 during the Napoleonic Wars. Unlike the battles listed earlier, which all took place during the same war and thus at least get numbered by historians for convenience, these are both simply called “the” Battle of Lützen. If I were to tell you that one of my ancestors was killed at the battle of Lützen, you might go away impressed that I could trace my ancestry back to the 1630s, when I was only talking about 1813. Within a narrative, then, events take on a function similar to those of words within a sentence or passage. They are chosen and placed to convey meaning according to positioning and juxtaposition with other events. We have seen this in the example of the “Northumbrian feud” and the sacked diarist discussed earlier, as well as in the events chosen for depiction in the films about the Zulu War. Just as aporias are encountered in authors’ choice of words, they exist equally in the choices of the events that make up a narrative. Those structural or functional similarities also permit the same kinds of slippage or miscommunication, so that a story can be taken quite a different way from that intended, as was seen earlier.

As well as the implicit spaces in historical language between words (or signs) and meaning, and between what is said overtly and what could just as easily have been said, there are other gaps that can be opened. These are the ones closed in the processes of selection and narrative. As was shown in the example of the “Northumbrian Feud” events are linked by juxtaposition. Placing one episode directly after another, a causal link is suggested even without necessarily using overt vocabulary like “as a result”, “consequently” or “therefore”. The time between the events, and everything that happened during that time, are closed up or covered over in such juxtaposition. The Durham Anonymous closed up spaces of about ten, at least seven and thirty-six years by placing one after another the events that he wished to link in a chain of cause and effect. This juxtaposition and the closing up of time that it involves are vital in giving events their precise significance and signification. When Cy Endfield opened Zulu with shots of the devastation of the British army’s camp at iSandlwana, replete with dead redcoats, he was building a particular story. Endfield and John Prebble, who co-authored the screenplay, also – shamefully – made out that the Zulus launched their attack on the British while pretending to discuss peace (the diametrical opposite of the events of late 1878 and early 1879). So, having swept aside the main British army in their attack, the Zulus were storming on towards Rorke’s Drift, where only 100 British soldiers stood in their way. Keep watching to see what happened… Fifteen years later, in Zulu Dawn, Hickox worked from a screen-play by Endfield, who perhaps wanted to make up for the distortions of his earlier film. The prequel opens the temporal space closed by Zulu, to recount how the British troops at iSandlwana came to find themselves being slaughtered and their camp destroyed. Telling a story of British imperial and aristocratic arrogance, the immediate background to Rorke’s Drift, and thus the battle itself, take on quite another appearance. Watch Zulu directly after watching Zulu Dawn and you are likely to “read” it rather differently from the way intended by its writer and director. Again, it must be said that this does not only apply to screenplays or fiction. ‘[T]he narrative of the barbarian invasion and settlements can be said to have begun’ in 376, says Ian Wood.[xiii] Indeed it can, but for not any particularly decisive reason. Historians all have to choose starting- and end-points for their work, almost always out of convenience. Without wanting to embroil the reader in a technical discussion of late Roman History, the narrative of the barbarian migrations could as easily start in any number of dates other than 376. People (including me)[xiv] have tended to start in 376 for several reasons including simple historiographical custom. One reason for that traditional starting date, however, is the assumption that the Goths who sacked in Rome in 410 and went on to settle in the south-east of what is now France in 418/19 were the same people who had crossed into the Roman Empire in 376 and defeated the Eastern Roman army at the battle of Adrianople (378). It is assumed that they remained an effectively unsubdued “people” within the Empire, who eventually rebelled again under Alaric in the 390s and the rest, as they say, “is history”. But the traditional narrative, like the story of the Northumbrian Feud, closes up time, in this case a decade or so between the end (in 382) of the Gothic crisis that erupted in 376 and the outbreak of the Gothic rebellion under Alaric in the mid-390s. If that closed space is recognised and opened it is possible to argue that the resolution of that crisis, in fact marked the end of any meaningful story of the Goths who crossed the Danube in 376 as a distinct group of people.[xv] On the other hand, opening the space closed by starting the narrative in 376 can, in the same way that Zulu Dawn does for Zulu, find a prequel that casts the later story in quite a different light. In this case we could see the origins of the Gothic crisis not in the appearance out of the blue of the Huns, a historical deus ex machina, but in the destabilising of the region north of the Danube by Emperor Valens’ Gothic War of 367-9.[xvi] We could even take the story right back to a treaty between the Goths and Emperor Constantine I in 332.[xvii] In some ways one critical task of the historian is to create innumerable ‘prequels’ to other historical narratives.#


In this chapter, I have attempted to illustrate the relationship between time, experience, record and the creation of history and to suggest the literary and, especially, linguistic features that saturate the latter. Any meaning that events have depends upon their place in a retrospectively constructed narrative. It depends on their juxtaposition with the other events selected within the narrative and upon the type of narrative that is told. All that depends entirely upon the contingent attitude of the historian/narrator/rememberer. None of that affects the relative historicity or the facticity of the events recorded in the sources. Let’s be clear: what I have said is not a license to deny that things occurred. The past, as the unity of all time, thought and action up until this very moment, here, now, happened and cannot be changed. But, as I have shown, it is absolutely meaningless in and of itself. It only takes on meaning through the way its contents are selected and arranged in the present. That history is something that can be and is changed. Regularly. To uncover the true story of history is to discover that no single “true story” ever happened and that none of history’s myriad stories is, in itself, “true”. And any account that demands to be accepted as the true story or the national narrative is almost certainly myth.


[iv] See above, p.000 and p.000, n.000

[v] Peter Hofschröer, Waterloo: The German Victory

[vi] Note that at the start of this chapter I deliberately described iSandlwana as a “disastrous British defeat” rather than as a “triumphal Zulu victory”. The latter would have made no sense given the point of the story that I wanted to tell.

[vii] As for instance in the way I have used “battle”, “encounter” and “engagement” as descriptions of Waterloo to avoid repetition of the same word.

[viii] Jacques Derrida argued, correctly, that even personal names are ultimately subject to the movements of différance. Derrida, De la grammatologie

[ix] The best analogy is that dictionary definitions only really point you at other definitions and so on, ad infinitum.

[x] Pronounced exactly the same as différence. The fact that the difference between the two words is only detectable in the written form but nevertheless conveyable in speech is deliberate, to underscore Derrida’s point about the fundamental equivalences of writing and spoken language.

[xi] Derrida De la grammatologie p.227 (Of Grammatology p.158): Il n’y a pas de hors-texte (there is no “beyond- (outer-, or outside-) text”. Typically, rather than make any attempt to engage with this point, Derrida’s “analytic” detractors have generally just retreated into their usual lazy, ill-informed traduction and mockery. If there’s nothing outside text how can you be hit by a bus? S. Blackburn, Truth. A guide for the Perplexed (London, 2004), p.170. Ho ho. The response of course is that if the bus exists outside a network of meaning and différance, how would you know to get out of the way? Blackburn, another of the self-appointed policemen of analytical rigour, had never actually read Derrida, much less tried to understand his point. If he had, he would have known that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” did (and does) not mean “there is nothing outside the text” as he claims.

[xii] John 1.1

[xiii] I.N. Wood, ‘The barbarian invasions and first settlements’, in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol.13: The Late Empire, A.D. 337-425 ed. Cameron, A.M., & Garnsey, P., (Cambridge, 1998), pp.516-37, at p.517.

[xiv] G. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge, 2007),

[xv] Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 180-185.

[xvi] Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 170-75

[xvii] As, e.g., P. Heather, Goths and Romans, 332-489 (Oxford, 1991).

History: The True Story Uncovered (Part 1)

 [As some of you know, I have for the last decade been trying to put together my ideas on a philosophy of history that attempts to do two things: first returning academic history to a place (if it ever had one) where it is taken seriously as an intellectual discipline rather than a bourgeois pastime or a service industry for popular entertainment; and second where it has a coherent ethical/political framework for those who, like me, think that the writing of history is inescapably political and that the politics of history should be emancipatory. The first part of this book (Why History Doesn't Matter) essays a deconstruction of the current practice of history by setting what seem to be uncontroversial ideas about the practice of history against the most frequent statements about its purpose and value, and finding them contradictory and incoherent.

This is the current draft of the projected chapter 1 ('The True Story Uncovered') of that book, which I want to share because discussions of the teaching of history (especially with regard to the British Empire) have come round again. I am fairly sure I have posted at least some of it before but if nothing else, this is an updated version. Here I have split it into two parts for ease of reading. In this first part, I set out why history is inescapably - always - about the writing of stories. I set out how histories are always shaped by various choices about where and when to start and end and about how they can always be read in any number of different ways, regardless of the writer's intention. They can't be pinned down. Then I use a medieval story to show how, as a narrative rather than an atomised collection of facts, history (as opposed to 'the past) never happens - that narratives are not in themselves facts. They are conected by imaginative, narrative, argumentative links which can be more or less plausible but are never empirical. None of this means that facts aren't important. Nor does any of this render history impossible; it is just how history is Indeed it is History's very condition of possibility. Think about it, if all this weren't the case, if explanations and narratives could be proved, the whole historical project would be finite. Finally in this part I try to demonstrate how the past cannot even be conceived of effectively without turning it into a story.

Note that this is still a draft and that the footnotes are neither complete nor consistent. Note also that for reasons to do with cutting, pasting and rearranging this text from it's original word document, the notes start again from i in the last section.] 

But let us be wise enough to learn the true history so that we can recognise a myth when we see one.
- Dee Brown[i]
In a newspaper piece setting out his vision of how history should be taught in British schools, Simon Schama enjoined educators to “[t]ell a classroom of 12-year-olds the story of the British (for they took place across our [sic] nations) civil wars of the 17th century…”[ii] It is difficult to disagree with many of the points Schama makes along the way but overall his argument is profoundly incoherent. My response to Schama’s injunction that we tell a classroom of 12-year-olds “the story of the British civil wars” is simple enough: which story? Let me explain.

Zulus and Redcoats

When I was young, my family habitually spent Christmas with my paternal grandparents in Blackpool. One Christmas I forewent a last-minute shopping trip into town to watch the TV première of the film Zulu Dawn about the disastrous British defeat at the battle of iSandlwana (1879).[iii] When my family got back later, my father, aware of the movie’s subject-matter, asked drily if it had “had a happy ending”: we laughed. A few years later, I read an article in a wargaming magazine which described Zulu Dawn as “very good historically” but “less satisfying [than the 1964 classic Zulu] as a piece of cinema”.[iv] I imagine, of course, that it has a happier ending and is less unsatisfying as a movie if you don’t view the story from the British side. Indeed, I once read a reminiscence by someone who had seen Zulu in a Jamaican cinema, where the audience greeted each shooting or skewering of a redcoat with rapturous cheers. [n.b. I cannot for the life of me track down this story, but I haven't made it up. I have discussed it in correspondence with Ian Knight who also remembered reading it but could not identify it either. If anyone can help, please get in touch.]

Among aficionados at least, it is well-known that Zulu barely comes within waving distance of being an accurate portrayal of the battle of Rorke’s Drift and that even Zulu Dawn makes some inexplicable departures from fact.[v] To an extent of course, this is understandable in the process of rendering a historical event into an entertaining cinematic experience lasting a couple of hours. Zulu Dawn – one can legitimately argue – has little choice but to telescope the events between Chelmsford’s crossing of the Mzinyathi/Buffalo River and the battle itself, fusing discrete episodes into single actions. Nonetheless, even if both movies stuck rigidly to historically-attestable fact or academically defensible interpretations thereof,[vi] several points would remain unchanged and would apply just as well to historians.

Some things, naturally, differ profoundly between composing the screenplay for a “historical” drama and writing actual history. Historians get things wrong for all sorts of reasons. Mistakes are made in the reading of sources whether through carelessness, a lack of scholarly sophistication or simple human error. Sometimes historians get things wrong for reasons beyond their control: new evidence is discovered that renders earlier accounts obsolete;[vii] new scholarship reveals that what had hitherto been regarded as solid evidence is anything but reliable. But one of the very few things that all historians would agree on would be that writers who knowingly distorted the empirical picture given in the surviving evidence would be committing gross professional malpractice. Nonetheless, important similarities with screenplay-writing remain. One is the element of selection to which we will return; even if it wanted to, no history (or film) can tell everything, even if it is aware of everything (which inevitably it is not).[viii] All historians decide which events are important to the story they want to tell. Most importantly they decide the beginning- and end-points of the story. That itself shapes a “narrative arc” and the flavour or form of the story told. To return to our cinematic examples, the choice to start Zulu Dawn in the discussions immediately preceding the invasion of Zululand and to end with Chelmsford’s return to the wreckage of his camp governs the tone of the narrative, of hubris and tragedy. On the other hand, Zulu’s opening with the aftermath of iSandlwana and closure with the relief of the post at Rorke’s Drift frames a story of heroism and triumph over the odds. The same points apply to historical writing. A history that starts with the rise to power of Napoleon and ends with Waterloo, for example, tells one type of story. One that begins with Waterloo and ends with the accession to power of Napoleon III tells quite another. The “facts”, in and of themselves, whether disputed or not, determine neither the content nor the shape of history.

Historical narrative is also much more than a string of events placed in chronological order. Schama thought schoolteachers should tell their classes the story of the seventeenth-century British Civil Wars, but he knows that the story is not composed simply of a sequence of events of indisputable facticity. In the same article, he further instructs schoolteachers to “reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom”. Once you recognise that history is about storytelling, arguments about the value of knowing historical facts begin to empty out their content. Schama wants children to learn “the history of how we [sic] came to execute our [sic] king”. Leaving aside the use of the first person plural,[ix] several important points arise. First, history lies in the “how people came to execute their king”. That “how they came to” cannot be not encompassed in any selection and sequence of events but in the story that the events are chosen to support. Some historians might see that story as reaching right back into the reign of Elizabeth I and composed of a serious of constitutional steps (or mis-steps) leading inevitably to crisis; others might see the story as having a much shorter arc and as being characterised by the failure by various parliamentarians, even Cromwell, to get an obdurate Charles to accept any number of compromises that would have kept his bum on his throne and his head on his shoulders after the end of the First Civil War. What sort of end-point does Charles’ execution represent? Was it a dramatic constitutional (as well as personal) moment, altering the nature of monarchy, or had monarchy already been irrevocably changed with the Elizabethan settlement? In other words, were the parliamentarians, in killing Charles, doing any more than – metaphorically – beheading a corpse?[x] There is still more to it than that. Do children learn of Charles I’s beheading as some sort of whiggish[xi] step on the road to modern constitutional monarchy and representative parliamentary democracy, or as the martyrdom of “Saint Charles”? Are Cromwell, Ireton and the rest champions of democracy or regicides, king-killers? Does 1649 represent triumph or tragedy? All of these stories are equally possible; none of them is empirically wrong. Which one does Schama want “all schoolchildren” to learn? Arguments like Schama’s[xii] that all schoolchildren must learn certain things about “our” history and that the story of the British Civil Wars would be one of them, clearly imply that someone, somewhere, must decide which story they learn, from all the permutations just mentioned. I do not think that that would serve children well and it certainly restricts history to a form of fact-learning, no matter how lively the story is that you put those facts into.

One might suggest getting schoolchildren to discuss whether the events of January 1649 were the inevitable outcome of eighty years of political events or a historical accident, contingent on the personalities of 1646-48, which no one had really wanted to bring about. You could ask them whether they thought it was a triumph in the rise of parliament or a tragedy of the demise of kingship.[xiii] I would suggest that both of those would be educationally more valuable than telling them a predetermined story that everyone learnt. However, if you accept that those activities, interpretations and debates are, educationally, the bit that matters, that undermines the argument about having to know certain stories. The choice of which story to use becomes incidental.[xiv] The educational value of that sort of unpicking of narrative could equally well be served by a study of the Ming dynasty or indeed the downfall of the Zulu kingdom.

One vital lesson to emerge from the very brief discussion of cinematic history with which I began is that the producer of history (whether the latter be on celluloid or in scholarly monograph) has no control over how it is received. The story arc of Zulu Dawn may have been conceived as the tale of how Victorian imperial hubris and injustice led to a disaster and the slaughter of over 1,000 men, a rather clunky but well-intentioned critique of imperialism and the British class system, but it might as easily be consumed as the story of how the arrogant white man picked a fight with the Zulu and how the whole might of the British Empire was humbled by brave African warriors as a result: a happy ending indeed. Then again, even this might be too simplistic. King Cetshwayo and many other Zulus regarded the battle and the heavy losses as anything but a triumph. Zulu was intended to tell the tale of how brave, heroic British soldiers fought off 4,000 Zulus.[xv] The plot clearly aims to create a sort of “will they be able to hold out?” tension, especially as casualties mount and the Zulus take the hospital, the British being gradually forced back.[xvi] Yet the Jamaican audience cheered when the Zulus speared a soldier, seemingly urging the warriors to press on heroically and finish the job in the teeth of the white man’s murderous modern rifle-fire. Ian Knight, furthermore, estimates that perhaps as many as one in three of the Zulus who attacked the British post became casualties, and most of those were killed. It’s worth noting that these were for the most part not young men but they pressed their attacks for four hours.[xvii] That would make for a quite different narrative (or reading) of bravery and determination without any of the “facts” changing at all. Tell the story of how the English executed their king in 1649 as a triumphal step on the road to modern democracy and students may still consume it as the tragic downfall of Renaissance monarchy. The facts of the matter remain the same, be they the events of recorded history or the actions depicted on the screen, but the stories and their reading take on lives of their own. History is about the writing and reading of stories and, as we have seen, stories or narratives are compositions, not “facts”.

It is important to stress this because some historians have been wont to dismiss the idea that history is a “literary fiction” on the basis that the historian is chained to the immovable rocks of things that did or did not happen – or at least which are (or are not) recorded as happening in our surviving evidence. The recorded events are indeed immovable rocks for the historian but the argument that this renders historical writing other than a literary creation is flimsy. History flows lightly over and around the rocks that it chooses and it takes its shape from the spaces in between. This by no means reduces history’s power to do what it does (or has always done); it is simply enough how history is. If we want to restore to the historical discipline some power to matter intellectually, we need to recognise that and embrace its possibilities.

Thurbrand and Uhtred: History never happened

The implication of what I have been saying is that, if you conceive of it as stories, as more than simple collections of fact, then “history” never happened. To explain, I will employ a tale written in twelfth-century northern England.[xviii] It goes like this: Once upon a time there was a powerful and energetic earl called Uhtred who saved Durham from the Scots. Uhtred was married three times. His second marriage was to the daughter of one Styr Ulfsson and was contracted on condition that Uhtred would kill Styr’s enemy, Thurbrand. Alas, when Uhtred came to swear allegiance to King Cnut, his new ruler (and old enemy), in around 1018-20, Thurbrand and the king’s soldiers ambushed him and forty other chief men and killed them all. Uhtred’s brother Eadwulf succeeded him in the earldom but when he died Ealdred, Uhtred’s son by his first wife, became earl and killed Thurbrand. Thurbrand’s son, Carl, then campaigned against Ealdred until the two were prevailed upon to become sworn brothers and go on pilgrimage together to Rome. Unfortunately, the ship upon which they were to sail was delayed by bad weather so whilst they waited, Carl entertained Ealdred at his home in Holderness in the Yorkshire East Riding. One day, whilst showing Ealdred around his estate Carl killed Ealdred in (to quote the source)
a wood called Risewood and still today the place of his murder is marked by a small stone cross. Sometime later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, who was the son of his daughter, sent a large band of young men and avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter. For when the sons of Carl were feasting together at their elder brother’s house at Settrington, not far from York, the men who had been sent caught them unawares and savagely killed them together, except for Cnut whose life they spared because of his innate goodness. Sumerled, who was not there, survives to this day. Having massacred the sons and grandsons of Carl, they returned home bringing with them much booty of various kinds.
This is a fascinating story for many reasons; what makes it relevant to my argument is how historians have read it as the tale of a “feud”: a vendetta with each murder justified by the last and justifying the next.[xix] But let us look at this story more closely. It illustrates beautifully the fact that history is only constructed after the event. It is written as a story; English is perhaps the only western European language where the word for “history” is not also the usual word for “a story”.[xx] The account also confirms that, as suggested earlier, how we choose to tell that story is crucial. This point is often associated with the “post-modern” turn in historiography[xxi] but it has actually been made since the very earliest days of what we might think of as modern history-writing.[xxii] People like the author of this story (known to scholars as “the Durham Anonymous”) select episodes from the past and link them together to make a single strand of narrative. In this case, it was the story of a feud. But did it really happen like that or were the events simply written up in that way?

As related by the anonymous author, the story of the Northumbrian “feud” sounds unproblematic, united by a straightforward thread of cause and effect unfolding through time. In fact, though, long gaps separated the acts of violence and cut that thread. It took ten years for any violence to erupt as a result of Styr’s alleged injunction to Uhtred to kill Thurbrand. Styr’s daughter had died and Uhtred had remarried in the interim, surely freeing him from Styr’s demand. Furthermore, it was actually Thurbrand who did the only recorded attacking. A further seven years or more must have elapsed before Ealdred exacted his revenge on Thurbrand. The episode after that is interesting. Thurbrand’s son Carl is not described as trying to find an occasion to carry out his vengeance killing. Instead, he and Ealdred tried to do away with each other. This period was another long one. Carl’s killing of Ealdred dates to 1038, twenty-three years after his father had killed Ealdred’s father (the first event in the “feud”), and at least ten after Thurbrand’s murder (the second event). The anonymous narrator proceeds from Ealdred’s death to say simply that “sometime later, the grandson of Earl Ealdred, Earl Waltheof, … avenged the killing of his grandfather with the utmost slaughter.” Sometime later … In fact, the Settrington massacre, the fourth and final episode of the Northumbrian “feud”, took place in 1073/4, thirty-six years after Ealdred’s murder. Carl killed Ealdred four years before Waltheof was even born. A lot of selection is going on here, from a background of violence and killing, in order to create this long, unilinear saga of murder and revenge.[xxiii] Like all historians, the “Durham Anonymous” chose which story to tell and how to tell it. The history of eleventh-century Northumbria has thus come to be that of the “feud” between the families of Uhtred and Thurbrand. However, the events were not experienced like that that as they occurred, as the complex mass of events unfolded. The hi/story of the Northumbrian feud was made after the event. There’s no reason to doubt that the different events described happened; the “story”, however, never did.

Selection and narrative composition are inevitable; they are not things that “bad historians” do. The past includes everything that happened between the Big Bang and a second ago: innumerable doings, sayings, thoughts. The past is incapable even of being comprehended as such, except in the most abstract temporal sense of “stuff that has happened”. Before it can properly be envisaged, it must be converted into a narrative, a hi/story. I will return to this. In an important sense, therefore, history comes before the past! To be comprehended, the past must be given a plot with a beginning, a middle and an end (even if that end is not really an end but simply the present – a deferred ending).

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away

A simple thought experiment illustrates this further. At any given time, we can conceive of yesterday in general abstract terms as “the day before today” but before we can have any real grasp of it, for example in writing up a diary, we have to decide upon what things happened that give shape to that general concept, in other words the things that turn it into a narrative. It may be that one simply selects the main structuring events of the day: got up; had breakfast; went to work; came home; watched TV; went to bed. It might be that, as here, these things have no especially marked “plot” to them; they are just the things that happened: a sort of bare chronicle.[i] But even here the meaning of the events takes shape not just from their naming (“breakfast”, “work”) but from their sequence and juxtaposition. That record gives shape and meaning to the abstract twenty-four hours of “yesterday” and turns it into the narrative of an ordinary day. There has still been selection. This is hardly a record, even a chronicle, of the whole day. A selection of what, at the time, we thought mattered has been made. All the conversations at work and at home, the details of the trip to and from work, what was on the telly, what was eaten for breakfast (and lunch and dinner have even been omitted) and many other things have been left out.

Now suppose that, having written our diary for the previous day, we have breakfast, go to work and are summoned to see the boss. We are then told that we’re to be made redundant. Now yesterday goes from being a dull day, its hours frittered and wasted in an off-hand way, to being “my last day in the job”. From being just another day those twenty-four little hours now acquire an added, perhaps even a certain tragic, quality. The diary could be amended accordingly. Certainly, how our diarist saw that day would change importantly.

Let us continue the experiment. Suppose that the person who asked you the time at the bus stop yesterday, and with whom you had a brief exchange of pleasantries, began to be a regular at the bus stop, someone you got to know, and who in time became your husband/wife/partner. Something that didn’t even seem worth recording on the day it happened and possibly for some time afterwards becomes a major shaping event of your life. The dull day has become the day you met your partner, possibly one of the most important days of your life – one would like to think so. Yet, when that event happened, at the time that that “history” was made, you didn’t even notice it. Only later did it become part of a history that made you who you are. Any number of variations on this basic scenario are possible, turning a bland unit of time into a key structuring element of the history of a life. The occurrences that matter have been chosen and placed in order (sometimes, of course, they are moved out of chronological sequence, whether deliberately or otherwise[ii]).

Note, though, that – underlining the point made earlier – the events, the elements themselves, do not change; only how one characterises them, how one selects them and positions them within the narrative, and how one casts that narrative. Events rarely carry an inherent meaning – those that do are often the really traumatic ones. If we return to the diarist, losing her job that day may have been the beginning of a long period of unemployment and of being treated, in spite of one’s best efforts, as an idle scrounger by tabloid editors, journalists and their readers and by populist Conservative (and Labour) governments. Every moment of that conversation with the boss, every vain attempt to keep the job, to talk the boss out of her decision might become etched on the memory; the last day at work becomes a poignant twenty-four hours. Alternatively, though, the diarist might have gone home and applied for another job, been successful, risen to the top of the company, met her partner and lived a very happy period of her life. In that case, one doubts that any especial elements of the redundancy conversation are remembered and the event itself becomes something of a happy moment of transition to something better. And didn’t I show her in the end? That “last day at work” remains just as it was remembered at the start of the following day, as a boring, barely-remembered twenty-four hours. But in all the different scenarios just set out it happened just the same, in just the same way.

In the tale of Thurbrand and Uhtred, the “Northumbrian feud”, the same procedures were followed. A selection was made (whether by the anonymous writer or his informants) from a vast number of different events and this was then arranged in a sequence to form the story of a feud, culminating in the tale of how Earl Waltheof avenged his grandfather. Had the author or his sources been more inclined to support Carl’s family, one imagines that it would have been constructed in a very different way, probably from a different selection of past happenings.[iii] This compels us to think more closely about storytelling and especially about its linguistic and literary aspects.



[i] D. Brown, The American West (London 2004), p.26.

[ii] Simon Schama, ‘My Vision for History in Schools’. The Guardian, 9 November 2010 (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/nov/09/future-history-schools accessed 8 July, 2017). Schama was educated at a public school (Habadashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School) and Cambridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Schama#Early_life_and_education.  Schama is an exceptional historian by anyone’s definition but it takes that particular (and peculiarly British; as discussed below, p.000-n.000) kind of socio-cultural capital to take to the national newspapers to instruct teachers how to do their jobs, without having held any kind of educational post in the UK since 1980.

[iii] Dir.  D. Hickox (1979).  The movie culminates in a slaughter of Britain’s favourite character and TV actors (including – as well as token Hollywood star Burt Lancaster – Christopher Cazenove, Phil Daniels, Denholm Elliot, Bob Hoskins, Peter Vaughan, Simon Ward “and many more”) on a scale unsurpassed before the Great Celebrity Mortality of 2016.  In other cinematic trivia, Zulu Dawn may have occasioned the first use of the term “prequel”, a film telling the back-story to an earlier movie (in this case Zulu, dir C. Endfield, 1964), though another 1979 move, the banal and unnecessary Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (dir. R. Lester), also has a claim to that title.  I’ll have more to say about prequels. 

[iv] I. Knight, ‘The Zulu Wars Part 3: 1879’, Miniature Wargames 18 (November 1984), pp.39-43, at p.43.  Knight went on to be the pre-eminent authority on the Anglo-Zulu War (see p.000, n.000, above).  Knight’s cinematic judgment was certainly not based on pro-British/Imperial sympathies.

[v] Zulu Dawn made focused its story on Lt the Hon Standish Vereker, whom it depicts escaping the battle and, with his (presumably) dying shot, killing the Zulu making off with the captured British flag.  Vereker played a minor and little-documented role in the battle before being killed in the camp, shortly after having gallantly given a horse to an African soldier to escape on.  Ironically, and somewhat cruelly to Vereker’s memory, this episode is obviously not depicted.  “Boy” Pullen, played as a callow and nervous recruit by then twenty-year-old Phil Daniels was based on Quartermaster James Pullen.  Pullen, though, enlisted in 1851 and thus, at iSandlwana, must have been well over twenty years older than Daniels’ character.  Conversely, Zulu featured thirty-nine-year-old Nigel Green (a commanding 1.85m [6ft, 1”] tall) as a phlegmatic Colour Sergeant-Major Frank Bourne, who was actually only twenty-four at the time of Rorke’s Drift, only 1.6m (5ft, 4”) tall and nicknamed “the kid”!  The decision by Zulu’s script-writers to portray the upright teetotaller Private Alfred Henry Hook VC as a dissolute, malingering drunk raises rather different ethical questions, even if it did provide James Booth with his career-defining role. Knight, Zulu Rising.

[vi]  And, in so doing, doubtless condemned themselves to never getting beyond a screen-play.  Rigorously historically-accurate portrayals of battles rarely make great cinema.  See, e.g., Gettysburg (dir. R.F. Maxwell, 1993), which, while sometimes visually spectacular, doubtless represents four hours (244 minutes) irretrievably lost from the lives of viewers not interested in Civil War minutiae or typologies of mid-19th-century facial hair.  I loved it.

[vii] This is especially true in periods like late antiquity and the Early Middle Ages which are heavily reliant upon archaeology for much of the “big picture”.  This is not because of the “dramatic discoveries” beloved of the media but because the gradual assembly of information from excavations permits, in kaleidoscopic fashion, quite different pictures to emerge.

[viii] The point is nicely made satirically by The Onion’s review of Captain America: Civil War (https://www.theonion.com/the-onion-reviews-captain-america-civil-war-1819595940 accessed 17 November 2017) which notes that while some characters are known to viewers from earlier films, the directors had failed to make the other 2,500 films necessary to explain the back-stories and motivations of all the other people who appear in the movie, thus (allegedly) rendering the latter entirely confusing.

[ix] See below, ch.2

[x] To adapt Jacques Rancière’s account of Furet’s view of the significance of Louis XVI’s execution. J. Rancière, The Names of History, trans. H. Melehy (Minneapolis, 1994), p.39. On Rancière and history, see O. Davis, Jacques Ranciere (Cambridge, 2010), pp.36-73

[xi] Explain Whig history

[xii] Above, pp.000-000.

[xiii] I have no idea whether or to what extent this would be feasible; I’m not a schoolteacher.

[xiv] It seems to me that most arguments for the value of “cultural literacy” have in any case been undermined by the existence of Google.com and 4G wifi technology

[xv] Probably nearer 3,000 for what it’s worth; it still left the defenders facing odds of nearly 30:1.

[xvi] One episode in the film that, broadly, conforms to the accounts of what happened.

[xvii] Three Zulu amabutho (loosely, regiments) at Rorke’s Drift – the uThulwana, the nDloko, and the iNdlondlo – were formed of men born between c.1830 and c.1835, so in their mid- to late forties.  The other imbutho, the iNdluyengwe were comparative youngsters in their early thirties. I. Knight, The Anatomy of the Zulu Army from Shaka to Cetshwayo 1818-1879 (London, 1995), pp.265-7.  Before launching their attacks, these men had walked and (mostly) run 18km and crossed a flooded river, on an empty stomach. Knight, Zulu Rising, p.594.

[xviii] The story comes from an anonymous source called the De Obsessio Dunelmi – Concerning the Siege of Durham (a misleading title as the siege of Durham hardly features in this short but interesting tract). Refs

[xix] See further, below, ch.5.

[xx] Compare Geschichte, histoire, storia, historía, história, etc.

[xxi] See above, p.000, n.000.

[xxii] References

[xxiii] See, further, below, pp.000-000

[i] See above, p.000,

[ii] Modern scholars don’t do this, intentionally at least, but it happens regularly, alongside the confusion and conflation of events, in the sources upon which they base their analyses and it is frequently impossible to know if or when this has happened. In Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages this is a particular problem even at the level of high politics, but it is hardly confined to periods where documentary evidence is comparatively restricted. Exactly the same issues occur when looking at accounts of modern events. To return to the Zulu War example with which I started, the point is more than adequately illustrated throughout Knight’s examination of the surviving accounts of iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift: Knight, Zulu Rising.

[iii] See chapter 5, below

Friday, 12 March 2021

The Theory of the State

[As anyone who has followed this blog since its inception (has anyone?) will know, I have long been interested in the issue of the post-imperial state in the West, and indeed whether or not the polities that existed in c.650 can be considered to be states. Having wrestled with this issue for a decade, I have finally come up with a discussion and definition with which, provisionally at least, I am pretty happy and which I can use to gove focus to the chapters (some of which I have written) on administration, taxation, military service, the law and so on. So far it is under-referenced and the text itself doubtless needs revision and more depth and detail - it is very much a first draft, even if - I hope - a first draftof the final version, but I hope it might be of interest and possibly provide a basis of discussion. My plan is that Part 2 of the book (The End of Western Antiquity: The Transformationsof the Year 600) will pick up on some of these points to reconsider a more idealist explanation, that will stress the elements of the performative, and subjectification more heavily, and so revise the materialist explanation provisonally set out at the end of part 1.]

The first part of this book concerns the changing relationships between those who held political power at the centre – kings and their senior palatine officials – and people in the myriad local and regional communities, often nested within each other, that made up post-imperial western polities. This is a dynamic relationship that must be looked at from the perspective, or perhaps cluster of perspectives, of both core and periphery. On the one hand a polity needs to be able to make its writ run throughout its territory, at least to some extent, if it is to have any claim to a real existence as something more than a convenient geographical description. On the other hand, the local communities cannot be held in place within a polity by force alone. The consent of those communities to their incorporation in the state is at least as important. The relationships between central and local society can be seen as a tension between the ‘top-down’ – the government’s ability to, in Jan Glete’s words, ‘penetrate local society from above’ – and the ‘bottom-up’ – the desire, or even need, of local communities to be incorporated in the polity.[1] We will see that fairly profound changes in these relationships occurred in western Europe between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

The existence, or otherwise, of states in the early medieval West was much debated around the turn of the second millennium. That debate now seems generally to have subsided, having resulted in its seeming settlement in favour of the proposition: there were states in the west. This book argues against this consensus. The idea that early medieval polities can be classed as states seems to result from some rather muddled thinking and unhelpful basic assumptions, and frequently contradicts the definitions of a state offered, where they have been proposed. It seems reasonable to suspect that a principal reason for the popularity of the notion that early medieval Europe was a region of states is to be sought in justifiable opposition to the persistent idea that the early middle ages were a period of backwardness, lawlessness and anarchy: the Dark Ages. On the contrary, runs the argument, early medieval kingdoms were often complex and cohesive political units. There will be no dissent from that proposition here. However, political complexity and cohesion are neither the exclusive preserve nor the sufficient definition of a state.

As we will see, it is easy to overemphasise the role of coercion and force in the creation of a state. Indeed, a government’s reliance upon coercion and military action to prevent the break-up of its territorial jurisdiction is usually held to be symptomatic of its failure. As Cicero had said, many centuries earlier, ‘nor is there any military power so great that it can last for long under the weight of fear’.[2] However, more recent scholarship has in some regards gone to the other extreme and laid too heavy an emphasis upon the ‘bottom-up’ aspect mentioned: the willingness of local elites and others to ‘buy into’ incorporation within a realm. As mentioned, such consensus is essential and as Braddick has argued in a discussion of the early modern English state, emphasis on the ‘top-down’, on state institutions, on coercion and imposition masks much of the historical reality or lived experience of states.[3] The success of early medieval regimes in ensuring that local holders of power bought into their legitimacy surely produced politically coherent kingdoms or polities (to use more descriptively neutral terminology) but – as mentioned – a politically coherent polity is not necessarily a state. Nor is the eternal retreat of the term down the political chain of command – to lordships[4] – a solution; logically we could retreat yet further, ultimately to Germanic Hausherrschaft or Roman patria potestas.

Defining and debating the State

Obviously, this discussion hangs on the issue of what one means by the term ‘state’. Why does it matter if a late antique polity was or was not a state? After all, the concept of the state, in a recognisably modern sense, did not exist in late antiquity. This is not in itself a strong argument; after all most of our modern analytical concepts – gender being the most obvious example – would be alien to systems of thought in the period under discussion, without them thus being rendered analytically worthless. The question nevertheless remains as to whether the concept of the state has similar analytical value. My contention is that, if rigorously defined, the term does allow us to distinguish some polities of a particular type – of a certain governmental complexity – from others. This in turn helps in thinking about change over time. Use of the term ‘the state’ has semantic baggage, which cannot be avoided. Whether one likes it or not, the term is haunted by the concepts encapsulated in its usual definition, and this makes it difficult to use in situations where the images it conjures are incongruous. The term ‘state’ also implies the concept of ‘not-a-state’. This is a problem for those who have wanted early medieval kingdoms to be classified as states for in most cases it is difficult to imagine what sort of polity would not count as a state if western European realms after 600 do generally qualify as such.

My concern is not to create a typology of different types of political organisation, or sub-types of generally-used terms. Past discussions have created such sub-categories as stages in political development – tribe, chiefdom, state – through which societies have moved. Others have proposed essentially teleological sub-categories such as ‘proto-state’ or ‘early state’. I wish simply to delineate a broad category of ‘the state’, into which states of all types might be grouped, in distinction from an equally broad, if not broader, set of polities that are not states. I will then use the category as a means of describing what, in my understanding, happened to western European government between c.550 and c.650. It should not be imagined that I invest the term with ethical or moral significance.

Such an agenda brings us to the problem of definition. Within the voluminous scholarly literature on the nature of the state, most definitions converge on a number of issues. Michael Mann defined a state thus:

The state is a differentiated set of institutions and personnel embodying centrality, in the sense that political relations radiate outwards to cover a territorially demarcated area, over which it claims a monopoly of binding and permanent rule-making, backed up by physical violence.[5]

Mann also argued that a state had to control all four of his sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political. He also, interestingly, completely skipped over the period that concerns this volume. Nevertheless, he does say that some post-imperial states existed but that they were small and short-lived.[6]

By comparison, at the heart of John Haldon’s definition, taken from a work written at least in part explicitly to counter Mann’s modified Weberianism from a Marxist perspective, is:

[A state is] ‘a set of institutions and personnel concentrated spatially at a single point and exerting authority over a territorially distinct area.[7]

To take a third definition, Chris Wickham’s definition of the state turns on five things: [8]

1.      The centralization of legitimate enforceable authority (justice and the army)

2.      The specialisation of governmental roles with an official hierarchy which outlasted the people who held official position at any one time;

3.      The concept of public power …;

4.      Independent and stable resources for rulers;

5.      A class-based system of surplus-extraction and stratification

This definition tallies reasonably well with those of other thinkers, including those who work on the middle ages, such as Susan Reynolds. It is broad enough to encompass a range of state forms, but also strict enough to rule out other forms of complex political organisation. Yet, if the definitions given by Mann, Haldon and Wickham are uncontroversial, they apply badly to western Europe after c.600, as will be seen in the succeeding chapters.

However, rather than employ a single definition based on a series of attributes, in a ‘check-box’ fashion, I will use some of the issues around which discussions of the state tend to converge as what one might call ‘discursive spaces’. Partly this is to avoid the problems involved in all ‘criterion-bundle’ types of definition, of whether all or, if not, how many of the criteria need to be satisfied for a polity to qualify as a state, or of whether all are of equal weight, and so on. It evades a potentially Manichaean dualism between states and non-states. Partly, too, this is because these areas of discourse were, insofar as I can determine, spaces of the political in late antiquity as in other periods and did not stop being such when a polity reached a particular level of governmental complexity. In other words, the state is always in tension. They do not define a state but they are the conditions of its possibility. The state is – to some extent at least – in perpetual renegotiation and constituted by that renegotiation. A polity might be counted as a state as and when the various areas of discourse tend towards acceptance of, or acquiescence in, government and administration of a particular sort.

Subjectification: circuits of the political

This feature will be dealt with in more depth in the second half of the present book but it needs some preliminary introductory discussion here. Most crucial in defining the existence of the state is the way in which, the regularity with which, and how far down into society, people are called into being – or interpellated – as subjects of a particular government. What interpellation means is the process by which a person is identified as occupying, and compelled to take up or speak from, a particular subject position, in our case as a member of a polity. Such interpellations are inevitably political, whether the person in question is summoned before a court, called upon to pay imposts to, or to perform services for, the state or required to enact the state’s justice, collect dues, or organise requisitions of goods or labour. When communities assemble – or are assembled – in the course of a polity’s governance, their members are interpellated into a specific political position. In all such situations, we are confronted with the negotiation of the relationships between the polity’s citizens (constituted as such) or between the government and officers of the polity and those citizens.[9]

The different ways in which these subject positions are created, called forth, or interact can be called circuits of the political: they are the conduits through which political power flows. They are the means by which communication and negotiation take place; they are the arenas within which political acts take place. They can run ‘vertically’ down from the central government, via its officers to the ordinary citizens in its different regions or localities, or they may operate in a more ‘horizontal’ fashion within the communities of various types and levels within a polity. A rural community within which taxes or other dues are paid and perhaps organised – which might, indeed, be defined by its fiscal obligations – could form such a circuit. The wealthier land-owners or aristocracy of a region might form another, as might the community of state officers. Other circuits might be configured slightly differently, such as between the local representatives of the government and the people they govern (envisaged here as all being part of a particular political community), or between wealthy patrons and their clients, or between a polity’s officers and the aristocracy of an area. The key issue is the way in which their position as the member of a polity determines the subject position taken by the individuals involved in these circuits. One might suggest that such circuits are most extensive and are activated most frequently in polities that we might categorise unproblematically as states. We might, furthermore, propose that in those circumstances, while the legitimacy of state power is constantly negotiated, it is generally accepted.

Office-holding and local government

Though often seen as less important than the control of force or legitimate violence, the issue of the role of office-holding in the establishment of legitimate local authority is possibly more central to the definition of statehood. On what basis is legitimate power exerted in the localities? In some ways the basis of the authority is more important here than its effectiveness. It is really in this area of local government that the intersection of different circuits of power is located. It would not be controversial to argue that, in a state, legitimate authority belongs to the office and not to its holder, and that the deployment of the power invested in such an office for an official’s personal ends is frequently decried as an abuse. In practice, this might be tolerated to a certain degree; indeed the opportunity to benefit personally from office-holding is frequently what draws people to seek such positions in the first place and can thus be the glue that holds a state together. Nonetheless, the more important point is that when this behaviour appears in political discourse, the rhetorical vocabulary employed is that of malpractice and corruption. It is in this area of the political that the importance of the existence of a public sphere, separate from the private,[10] is made manifest. In this context, the tenure of these positions and the systems whereby appointments to posts are made are of crucial significance. Ideally, tenure of office and the personnel involved should be determined by the state. Where an officer cannot in practice be removed from a position or where the central government in effect has no say over who is appointed to specific posts in its administration, the extent to which that polity can be considered as a state would seem to be limited. In those situations the ability of the government, not simply to have its writ run into the localities but also to involve the inhabitants in political discourse, would be seriously curtailed. To use electronic circuitry as a metaphor, important resistors have been placed in certain points of the political wiring. The flow of political power into certain parts of the circuitry is controlled or even terminated at the level of the administration.

Force and violence

Many discussions of the state, like Mann’s and Wickham’s, rest in part upon the Weberian notion of a monopoly of legitimate violence and the capability of backing up its jurisdiction with force. A polity within which the central government did not ultimately have the sole power to determine which acts of violence were legitimate and which were not, or which lacked the capacity to punish actions which fell into the latter category, would have difficulty qualifying as a state by anyone’s definition. It would also seem perverse to regard as a state a political unit which had no legitimate access to an armed force with which to pursue its goals in foreign policy or combat rebellion at home.

Nevertheless, too much weight has been laid on these issues. The imposition of governmental writ can only ever be a small part of the definition of a state. After all, a government whose presence is felt in the localities primarily through the mechanisms of punishment or repression would today be classed as ‘failing’. Certainly, it would seem to be losing the consent vital to its cohesion. At the same time, though, the presence of such coercive force does not in and of itself guarantee the ability to use it. If an army stands aside in the face of a political coup, or sides with the rebels, we may witness the failure of a regime – even of a type of regime – but not necessarily the end of a state, unless the institutions that govern the existence of the army collapse with it. The latter point has been central to numerous analyses, such as Althusser’s,[11] and is one reason for my rejection of definitions based upon the possession of particular attributes in favour of a discursive definition. Taken together, these two points highlight the importance of the acceptance of the government’s legitimacy by its constituent communities, and thus of the discursive approach to the definition of a state. Nonetheless the potential for the use of such force is surely a vital area in distinguishing polities that might be classified as states from those which might not. Even where the subjects of a realm restrain themselves from certain actions out of fear of the retribution that the state might (though rarely, if ever, does) visit on them, that self-governance cannot long exist where the possibility of such punitive action is absent. Consequently, military service and the raising of armies will be the subject of one of the following chapters.

Perhaps more importantly than those of legitimate force and coercion, however, the issues that surround the raising of an army are very significant in making the existence of the state felt in the localities. This is so whether we are talking about the levying of manpower by way of conscription, or in the exaction of military service from those who are held liable to perform it, or in the extraction of surplus to provision or equip armed forces. In all of those areas we can see the involvement of the officers of the state in local communities, making demands upon their manpower and produce. Whether such processes ran smoothly or not – and perhaps at least as much in the latter case than the former – they were the focus not simply for the exercise of power by the state’s officials but for the renegotiation of that power. They could be an opportunity for officials to exploit their power through ‘bribery and corruption’ but could equally be occasions when they could act as spokesmen or intermediaries for the people placed under their jurisdiction and thus extend their patronage and personal prestige in other ways. In all such situations and especially when local contingents assembled or when supplies were gathered at a particular point, the state made itself felt in the lives of its constituents. Such processes are essential to the flow of power through the ‘circuits of the political’ discussed earlier.

Taxation and justice

The same points can be made at least as strongly in relationship to the levying of taxation in its various forms.  The precise nature of the revenue of the state, whether from taxation or from other, more directly controlled fiscal resources, seems to me to be less important than the fact that a concept exists of the state having its own revenues, separate from the private resources of those that hold power in its name. Where systems of imposts exist, however, it might be argued that their importance to the definition of a state consists less in the value or quantity of resources raised than in the process of their levying. As we shall see in chapter 5, a case can be made that in many ways the systems of taxation that persisted after the disintegration of the Western Empire were valued precisely as mechanisms for maintaining the circuits that connected the centres of power with local communities and that this might have been important than their role in the collection of revenue. As will be argued, the raising of taxes opened channels of communication between government and the governed. It presented opportunities for the renegotiation of obligations and privileges, for the demonstration of the ability to intercede with a kingdom’s officers on behalf of a community, or for the manifestation of political grievance, as well as for the simple operation of legitimate authority. Frequently, as with the summoning of those liable to military service, in the collection of fiscal imposts royal government was performative; state power existed in the process of exaction rather than in the sums produced.

Perhaps more than anything, though, the operation of the law and justice are crucial points in the working of the state as envisaged here and illustrate the importance of the performative[12] aspect of state power which I am stressing. The assembly of the law-court is a classic instance of interpellation. Everyone there occupies a particular subject position: judge, plaintiff, defendant, third parties, witnesses, or oath-helpers: even the people who have come merely to watch. Ultimately those subject positions are defined with reference to the law, manifest in the person of the judge, and the sources of the judge’s legitimacy: the power vested – clothed in the person of – the presiding figure. These are the moments of the formal activation of particular legally-recognised identities and of all sorts of social relationships – not least kindred relations – that might otherwise remain dormant. The lawcourts and the administration of justice are, then, possibly the best laboratory within which to study the operation of our ‘circuits of the political’ and the extent to which public, state power reaches into local communities.

Knowledge and state power

The issue of knowledge might at first sight seem like a strange category with which to think about pre-modern state power. The flows of knowledge and information are, however, a crucial element within, to continue my electrical metaphor, the currents of power that run in both directions around the circuits of the political. State governments are, however, very often concerned with the collection of information about persons and communities within their bounds and this can be seen in antique and medieval contexts, around the globe, as well as in more recent periods. Under the heading of knowledge, however, I want to include more than simply the collection of census data or similar. What sorts of knowledge – if any – does a government require of its officers, and how, if at all, does this a direct bearing on government? It also matters to consider the uses to which such knowledge is put. In this regard I cast the net fairly wide: food-provision during famine; water-supply; emergency relief; feeding the poor; caring for the needy; the provision of entertainments; and so on.[13] The other key aspect of this, clearly correlated with the others, is that of what we might think of as publicity, openness, and access, on the one hand, and secrecy on the other. What are the limits to the government’s knowledge of its people, or the people’s of its government? This has become one of the key aspects of the state in the contemporary world;[14] does it help us think about pre-modern state governments?

The Agenda of Part 1

The first part of this book explores the issue of whether the polities that existed during our period can be considered as states and the extent to which change over time, as well as variety across space, can be detected in this sphere. It does this first of all by considering the ways in which the circuits of the political can be detected in the areas discussed: administration, taxation and the fisc, military service and the law.  After a discussion of the arenas within which political events might take place the attention moves to consider other circuits of the political by considering the arenas within which social exchange took place and a wide range of social relationships and practices. The focus then moves to religion and the circuits of power that ran through the church. In the end an image ill be presented of an important period of change in which, to continue our metaphor, the wiring of western European polities was crucially altered so that the flows of power that had connected some areas with the central government were now crucially interrupted or even broken altogether. Finally provisional explanation will be offered in terms of. competition for the material resources upon which local and regional power depended.

[1] J. Glete, ref.

[2] On Duties, 2.26.

[3] M.J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, 1550-1700 (Cambridge, 2000). My great thanks to my former student Laura Salvage who drew my attention to this, in the course of an undergraduate essay that was a far more hard-hitting critique of my ideas on the state (as they were at that point) than anything I had received from established scholars!

[4] Reference

[5] M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol.1, p.37.

[6] Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol.1, p.390.

[7] J. Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production, pp.32-33

[8] C.J. Wickham, The Framing the Early Middle Ages

[9] I use citizen here in a loose sense to mean all subjects of the state.

[10] As in Wickham’s definition.

[11] L. Althusser, On Ideology 

[12] Explain performativity. Ref Loxley.

[13] This aspect of my project is influenced by James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, and also G.R. Trumbull IV, An Empire of Facts.

[14] In this regard I have been strongly influenced by C. Barbour’s Derrida’s Secret: Perjury, Testimony, Oath.