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Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation: New Narratives of the fifth-century crisis (in which I decide to dabble in Art History...)

This is the text of the paper I presented last summer at the International Medieval Congress.  I have been asked before whether I was going to post it here and at the time, when the blog was strictly linked to my 'Year 600' project I said no.  But as I have renamed the blog andcut that strict and direct link, there seems no reason not to post it now.  I will add the accompanying figures as and when I have time.  As it is I am not entirely happy with this, because in discussion afterwards I was convinced that rather than leaving the discussion with the issue of trauma I should have developed the idea of playfulness and visual riddling or humour as a means of coping with the stress of the period.  This is a suggestion I like and I would want to make more use of it.  Anyway, see what you think.  As I'm always having a go at historians and (especially) archaeologists, I didn't see why art historians ought to get off so lightly!


One might say, with a certain irony, that the study of the end of the Roman Empire from a Lacanian perspective is only in its infancy; indeed one could probably say that it has not yet reached the Mirror Stage. Yet this perspective has much to offer, not simply in understanding people’s actions and responses in the fifth century but also in understanding why people cling wilfully to outmoded narratives and explanations. My approach in this paper was initially inspired by a chapter of Alain Badiou’s 2005 book The Century, dealing with the politics of twentieth-century avant-garde art, and then by Slavoj Žižek’s brilliant early work, The Sublime Object of Ideology.

This is a first go at trying out a different way of looking at the major new decorative style around the North Sea, Salin’s Style I, the principal features of which are the dissolution and ambiguity of the image, to argue that its popularity is to be understood in the context of the Roman Empire’s dramatic, traumatic fifth-century political demise – an end of civilisation, one might indeed say. These traumas can quite easily be understood as an encounter with the Real, the un- (or pre-) symbolised, in the sense that Žižek uses Lacan’s concept, and the fragmentation and disintegration of the image, especially the figure, in decorative art can be understood as a product of the collapse of a long-established symbolic order.

There has been continual, thorough and splendid structural and formal analysis of Style I. Günther Haseloff’s monumental study of Germanic Animal Art appeared in 1981 and my colleague, Tania Dickinson – to list but one authority – has produced exemplary, rigorous stylistic analyses, particularly of its use on Anglo-Saxon Saucer brooches. I am in no position to add anything to any of this and am not going to try. Quite the opposite: everything I am going to say is entirely based upon it.

Less satisfactory than the descriptive analyses, to my mind, are the explanations of Style I’s popularity across north-western Europe: explanations of how, in one of Tania’s own phrases, ‘animal art gained its place in early medieval affections’. Analyses are in my view, constricted within an unsatisfactory and problematic conceptual matrix, one principal axis of which is the cultural description of this art as ‘Germanic’. The idea that all barbarian speakers of a Germanic language can be treated as culturally interchangeable can no longer sustain any analytical weight whatsoever. Even former Germanists like Jörg Jarnut have argued forcefully that the term should be abandoned, except when discussing language groups. Even were ‘Germanic’ a meaningful analytical term, its explanatory weaknesses become very evident when phrases are encountered which state that Style I’s appearance:

‘is marked by the sudden disappearance of all sea creatures, which up till then dominated Scandinavian ornament and represents the beginning of the Germanic interpretation of the animal world’ (Haseloff 1974: 12)

This begs two crucial questions: ‘why then?’; ‘why like that’? Why does ‘Germanic’ only begin to have analytical value then, when Germanic-speakers had dominated the region for centuries? And why does this art, after centuries within which the metalworkers of Germania Magna proved more than capable of reproducing Roman models or otherwise producing coherent naturalistic figures, take this particular form? Appeal to pan-Germanic cultural ethos gets us absolutely nowhere in response to either question.

The other analytical axis is religious: Style I iconography is read in line with a view of pagan, Nordic religion, based principally on twelfth- and thirteenth-century written sources, and upon anthropologically-derived ideas of shamanism and tribal ritual of uncertain application. The perils of an approach that understands iconography, in any detail at all, in the light of sources written nearly a thousand years later are insurmountable and should hardly require setting out. In any case, even if we ignore them, the religious axis takes us nowhere – in answer to the questions of why then and why like that – just as fast as the Germanic axis. These axes of analysis are sustained by ideas of ethnicity, migration and of a rigid divide between Christianity and paganism which are inadequate to the task.

There is no time to detail the other theoretical problems with current approaches. The main point is that, to anyone about to dismiss an approach drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis in the usual way, i.e. for being ‘anachronistic’, I say this: while it may be based upon a possibly problematic claim to being diachronic, it is actually – demonstrably – less anachronistic than the approaches currently employed. More to the point, perhaps, I am going to analyse the Style for what it did to established artistic traditions, whose symbolic content can be suggested less problematically. In this sense it is rigidly contextualised. Further, I am not going to analyse it in terms of iconography or function – religious, social, ethnic or whatever – but in terms of its aesthetic: why did late fifth and sixth-century people like this style, as they clearly did. What drew them to it? What appealed to them about it?


The key point in explaining Style I and its popularity is the date of its appearance, around 475, in other words at the precise time of the western Empire’s disintegration. This is an issue that I have touched upon before. I cannot see this chronological conjunction as being a mere coincidence. In the past I have dwelt on the non-Roman import of Style I – its breaks with Roman decorative tradition, its southern Scandinavian origins. That a style with such symbolic content should appear at the time of the Empire’s political demise must be significant, although the point is hardly ever raised. Nevertheless, this does not go the whole way towards explaining Style I’s precise nature or its popularity: its profound symbolic significance.

There are two or three important points that must be set out as background to this change. One is the inextricable inter-linkage of the Empire and barbaricum. One cannot see a simple opposition or binary line between the two. Changes in the Empire had deep effects on barbarian society and politics.

In particular, the North Sea was a cultural province, with movement around and across it throughout the late Roman period, and the overwhelming balance of cultural influences was from the Empire to barbaricum: pottery, metalwork, cultural forms (inhumation), maybe even what have long been thought to have been ‘Germanic’ architectural forms (the Grubenhäuser), and artistic style. The last has a long history. Throughout the Roman Iron Age, Roman brooches were imported into Germania Magna and copied. Roman style had such a profound influence on northern barbarian art up to and throughout the fifth century that, in explaining it, it is quite unnecessary to invoke, as Haseloff did, the kidnapping to northern Germany of entire workshops of Roman artisans.

My final background point is the catastrophic crisis that the withdrawal of effective imperial governmental presence caused in the north-western provinces and in North Sea barbaricum in the fifth century: manifest in diverse areas by pretty much analogous responses and material cultural forms.

Any attempt to comprehend fifth-century animal art must be set against this backdrop. To understand it further we need to back-track into the art and mentalité of the Late Empire. The centre-point of the Roman thought-world was the idea of the civic Roman male, which embodied a set of ideas: freedom, the law, reason, moderation. The civic Roman male was, in Lacanian terms, the point-de-capiton, the quilting point, of the whole signifying system: the master signifier which provided all the others with their precise meaning. Concepts such as womanhood, barbarism, the animal, freedom and so on, all acquired their meaning by reference to this. The point de capiton fixes other potentially shifting signifiers and oppositions. Even the martial model of Roman masculinity is essentially defined by this, illustrating how the Lacanian model provides several conceptual advantages over my previous thinking about this problem.

The civic masculine ideal lay at the heart of all Roman imperial politics, whether at the local or the Empire-wide scale. Its performance was required for participation. The signifier was also – and this is key – shaped by the Emperor and those who held power at court, at the imperial core. They defined who was, and who was not, really a Roman male.

So the depiction of the human figure in late imperial art is not – it cannot be – a simple representation of a bipedal hominid. It carries enormous signifying weight, the burden of which might be visible in the changes to figurative art in the late imperial period.

We can see some of this in the decoration of official imperial metalwork, the lineal ancestor of Style I as has long been known. This followed very strict rules. The centre of the design is always made up of geometric or otherwise plant-based designs, very regularly set out. Around the edges – always – are the animals, depicted naturalistically in spite of the fact that they are pretty much always mythical hybrids. All is as it should be. One does not have to think very hard to see this opposition between centre and periphery as equating, not least in its layout, with other oppositions: the regular and the disordered; the natural and the unnatural; the civilised and the uncivilised; the human and the mythical or divine; the cultivated and the wild; and so on: in short, perhaps, the Empire and barbaricum. The crucial dimensions of this decorative art, visible on artefacts of many types in the imperial north-west, are, in my view, its regularity, its unambiguity and its timelessness. By the last term, I mean that the overall picture can be seen and understood at a glance and, regardless of when it is viewed, it is always the same; it requires no contingent, active participation on the part of the viewer. It has no active present; what I mean by this will really become clearer in considering its opposites, later on.


Artistic style is one of many areas in which the actual fifth-century evidence tells a rather different story from that adopted in modern migrationist, Germanist, narratives. What is clear for most of the century is not the gradual spread of influences from Germania Magna into the provinces, but the continuing, grip in which the rules of imperial style held decorative expression. If we restrict ourselves to the north-west of Europe, within and without the dissolving political frontiers, fifth-century decoration continued, on the whole, to play within the imperial ornamental guidelines. Chip-carved styles generally perpetuate the rules of composition. Quoit Brooch Style has long been known to do this. What is known as ‘Saxon Relief Style’, similarly, is pretty much entirely bound by these rules. Peter Inker has argued that this shows a vigorous Germanic reworking of Roman models. I find difficulty knowing exactly what this means, analytically, and in any case I can’t see any vigorous reworking myself. But he’s doubtless correct that one doesn’t need Roman craftsmen to produce Roman-inspired art. To my mind it is rather the compliant nature of this style which goes a long way towards explaining why it was widely adopted around the North Sea in this period, possibly as a conscious political expression in opposition to other clearly Romanised decorative styles, like Quoit Brooch Style: a point which must bear importantly on discussions of art and identity in fifth-century Britain. There’s nothing about Saxon Relief Style that would be shocking to a provincial Roman concerned about claims to legitimacy, which might have made it entirely appropriate in the context of Romano-Saxon polities emerging in a fifth-century British context. This, I should stress, is a slight but significant modification of my previous views on this topic.

Whatever its stylistic genealogy, though, none of that could be said about Style I. Style I can be positively shocking compared with its parents, particularly in the forms it takes around the North Sea. First, the animals take over the centre of the field. This isn’t general though; especially outside the North Sea region there are Style I objects that stick within the old rules of composition. Second, the animals’ nature changes; the shift from aquatic or semi-aquatic beasts, to quadrupeds, has long been appreciated but what interests me is the equally well-known incoherence of the Style I beast, fragmented into different components, ultimately to appear in what Haseloff memorably called Tiersalat: animal salad. The animals’ bodies lose their edges, being reduced to a series of parallel contour lines, sometimes to a single line. All of this is compounded by the ambiguity of Style I animals, which can terminate in a beast’s head looked at one way, or a human head viewed another way, sometimes with knock-on effects for how you read the body of the animal in question. But, obviously, as with all such things, they can only be one thing at a time. The figure, in its coherence or in its interpretative clarity, has gone.

This and the disentangling of the bodies, which all too often simply disappear, or can be interpreted more than one way, but never simultaneously, make this very much – in contradistinction to imperial art – an art of the present. Its reading is active, and possibly different each time. It is quite the opposite of imperial metalwork, the symbolic background against which it must be read. It lacks resolution; it is an ‘art of beginnings’ and indeed shares many of what Badiou identified as features of the avant-garde.

So, for the last quarter of my paper, I want to suggest why this style should have proved so aesthetically pleasing and popular at the end of the fifth century and the start of the sixth. For one thing it has significant metaphorical value. Most British archaeologists these days, when they talk about metaphor, actually mean synecdoche.  Peter Inker, for example, says that, when Saxon Relief style was based upon Roman badges and shield designs, it was a metaphor for Roman-based status.  That’s synecdoche, not metaphor. The take-over of the centre of the field by the periphery can be read as metaphor. If my analysis of the symbolic associations of imperial metalwork is not pure fancy, one might see it as metaphor for the control of the political centre by the peoples once regarded as peripheral animals. Or, as I would prefer, it is more a metaphorical representation of the absence of the old imperial centre.

A useful way of understanding the process at work is provided by two quotes from Judith Butler:

‘One might speculate: the act of symbolization breaks apart when it finds that it cannot maintain the unity that it produces when the social forces it seeks to quell and unify break through the domesticating veneer of the name.’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality, p.27)

‘When people see the schema used to justify domination the dialectic collapses’ (ibid., p.28).

The master narrative of the fifth century is that of the collapse of an age-old signifying system, as the political centre that served to maintain and regulate it lost its hegemony – both in the usual and in the Gramscian sense of the term. The point de capiton – the old master-signifier – the Roman civic masculine ideal, which had symbolised the social structure and concealed internal divisions within a set of binary polarities based around it, became unfixed. This is a fine historical example of what Butler is talking about. Once that happened all the other signifiers and oppositions began to float free again.

In the north-west of the Empire and in some parts of the North Sea Barbaricum beyond, that did indeed spell a traumatic collapse of social and economic structures: an end of civilisation. In this context it is, it seems to me, hardly surprising that the human figure ceases to be depicted in anything other than (at best) stylised and (usually) ambiguous form or that even the animals show these characteristics.

As the fifth century wore on, but especially from its last third or quarter, the West – the North-West in particular – was entering a new world, one without any of the old symbolic fixed points. Everything was up for grabs. Social structure was unstable, authority at local levels as well as those of the new kingdoms could be created, lost and won bewilderingly easily, quickly and unexpectedly. Social relations were renegotiated, often dramatically, in ways that could not have been envisaged a hundred years previously. Even areas like Denmark, which remained fairly stable through the fifth century, nevertheless felt keenly the demise of the great imperial power at the centre of the European political world, which had served to keep everything in its place.

This was a world of permanent beginnings. Great kingdoms rose, and fell, within a couple of generations. Local power seems to have changed hands equally swiftly as a result. It was a world in permanent encounter with the Real: that which could not be symbolised, indeed it was something pre-symbolic. How to symbolise, even retrospectively, events with no precedent? Maybe it is actually no surprise that it took fifty years for people to start creating a new narrative, of the End of the Roman Empire.

The first time I showed students how to identify Style I animals, one of them actually did ask me if I had been smoking anything before class. It is an entirely valid response to Style I; this, if ever there was, is an art of the ‘what the hell is going on?’ It would take more than 3000 words to really develop this argument but what I hope to have suggested this morning is that, set against the narrative of the fifth century, placed in this context, Style I reveals a true contemporary resonance and aesthetic; in short, as the avant-garde of the late fifth and early sixth century, Style I is unambiguous: it makes perfect sense.

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